History of the Town of Rochester

 

The Town of Rochester has one of the highest concentrations of inhabited 18th Century homes in the country.

 

New Feature -- Inventory of State and National Registered Properties in Rochester.  (pdf format)

New Feature -- Reconnaissance Report on Historic Properties in Rochester (pdf format)

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Brief History of Rochester

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Brief History of Ulster County

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Geography of the Town of Rochester

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Pre-European Settlement

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The Settlement Period (1663-1703)

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The Agrarian Community (1703-1827)

bulletThe Canal Era & Commercial Expansion (1828-1902)
bulletThe Railroad Era and Tourism (1902-1940)
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A Whimsical History of Rochester

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Friends of Historic Rochester and other important historical resources

 

Rochester

The Town of Rochester was incorporated on January 25, 1703 and organized as a town on March 7, 1788.  It is comprised of a number of hamlets, many of which were formerly associated with a one-room school district. Many also had post offices or a general store. The two largest principal communities still in existence today are Accord and Alligerville. Kerhonkson originated as an outgrowth from a hamlet in an adjacent township.

The original hamlets were: Accord, Alligerville, Cherrytown, The Clove, Fantine Kill, Granite, Kerhonkson, Kyserike, Liebhardt, Mettacahonts, Mill Hook, Mombaccus, Palentown, Pataukunk, Pine Bush, Potterville, Rochester Center, St. Josen, Tabasco, Whitfield, and Yeagerville.

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Ulster County, NY Information from the "Historical & Statistical Gazetteer of New York State" by J.H. French

Ulster County, NY was officially formed on November 1, 1683. Its charter included the towns of Kingston, Hurley, Marbletown, Foxhall, New Paltz, "and all villages, neighborhoods, and Christian habitations on the west side of the Hudson’s River." The Catskill Mountains occupy the north-west part of Ulster County and the Shawangunk Mountains extend north-east from the south-west corner of the county.

Ulster County’s name came from the Duke of York’s Irish title. The area was originally settled by the Dutch who established a trading post upon the present site of the town of Rondout in 1614. This settlement was abandoned after troubles with the Esopus Indians. A new settlement was formed between 1630 and 1640. This settlement was also attached in 1655 and was temporarily abandoned. The Dutch and the Esopus Indians entered into a treaty in 1660, but the Indians attached in 1663, leading to a war which drove the Indians out of the area. In the process of driving the Indians out, the Wallkill Valley was discovered and was soon occupied by a colony of French Huguenots.

In 1664, the Duke of York, James II, took over the Dutch Colonies and renamed them New York. The Dutch colony of Wiltwyck (formerly known as Esopus) was renamed Kingston. With the exception of Foxhall, Thomas Chamber’s manorial grant, the English made township grants of Kingston, New Paltz, Marbletown, Rochester, Hurley, Shawangunk and Marlborough.

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Geography of the Town of Rochester

Harry Hansen, 1993

Rochester Township is located near the geographic center of Ulster County, New York, an area loosely defined as the mid-Hudson valley. Primarily a rectangle, the town of slightly less than 48,000 acres lies perpendicular to the north-east flowing Rondout Creek. The Rondout basin runs across the town’s eastern half to the Hudson River at Kingston, the county seat, which is about twelve miles away. The parallel mountain ranges of the Shawangunks (pronounced Shawn’gums] on the east and the Catskills on the west bracket and defined the more actively settled Rondout Valley.

The township is bordered by six other Ulster County towns. Along the entire southwest is Wawarsing, which was created from the southern half of the original Rochester. Along the northwest is Denning. The northeast line is formed with Olive to the north and Marbletown to the south. The southeast line, which more or less follows the Shawangunk ridge, is made by New Paltz to the north and Gardiner to the south.

Significant portions of the township are protected through a network of private and public stewardship. At the western end of the town is the 272,000 acre Catskill Forest Preserve which lies within the more expansive, but less restrictive 705,500 acre Catskill Park encompassing four counties. To the east lies the private 5,600 Mohonk Preserve and the adjoining 11,600 acre Minnewaska State Park. Together they encompass a majority of the Shawangunk ridge, both in Rochester and in adjoining townships.

The geologic character of the Rondout Valley and must of New England stems from an ancient Lower Devonian period sea over the area called the Appalachian basin. This shallow inland sea of about 400 million years ago was responsible for the sedimentary shale, limestone, and sandstone that comprise the foundation of the region. A later series of upliftings of the sea floor led to the draining of this basin and to the development of the Allegheny Plateau at an elevation of from 5,000 to 6,000 feet above today’s sea level. This formation has now been dramatically cut back by erosion to shape the familiar river basins and Catskill Mountains, which now average only about 3,000 feet.

The foothills of the Catskills spread across the western end of Rochester township, rising from the Rondout Valley. The highest elevation is found in the northeast corner above Palentown, at about 2,600 feet. The typical peaks in the town are nearer to 1,000 to 1,500 feet, with numerous ever-flowing streams running down into the Rondout. Here are also found sandstone deposits, commercially known as bluestone. This stone was successfully quarried in the past and became an economically important natural resource in the 19th century. Further below, in the northeast end of the town where the terrain drops into the lowlands, there are a number of soft cavernous limestone ridges with outcroppings that parallel the valley. These ridges were quarried during the 18th and 19th centuries as building stone and as a source for agricultural and building lime. Later in the 19th century the limestone was found to contain sufficient clays, with the appropriate silicates, to have been highly regarded as a source of natural hydraulic cement.

There are five primary stream systems in the township with secondary named tributaries that drain from the west. The Vernoy Kill is the southern-most; it drains south through Wawarsing from the northwest corner of the town. Next is the Mombaccus system, with the Mill Brook, Rochester Creek, and Sapbush Creek tributaries. The Mombaccus Creed, the largest stream in Rochester to feed the Rondout, empties into it just north of Accord. It is fed by the Mill Brook system with its Fly Brook and Mettacahonts Creek tributaries. Next is the North peters Kill which drains Lyonsville Pond in neighboring Marbletown. Lastly there is Kripplebush Creek which makes a brief loop through the township, flowing from Marbletown and back again. Near the point where this stream leaves Rochester, it passes through an approximately half-mile long limestone cave that is mostly under Marbletown. An entrance hole is located on the upstream Rochester end of the passage, known locally as Pompey’s Cave.

To the east lie the Northern Shawangunks. Here elevations along the craggy ridge tend to vary between 1,200 and 2,000 feet. These low mountains are of a completely different nature than the Catskills, having been formed some 30 to 40 million years earlier during the Upper Silurian period of mountain building episodes. The range found today is the western half of a large titled tectonic fold of quartz conglomerate (sometimes referred to as Shawangunk grit) rising from beneath the Rondout and extending southeast, leaving large angled slabs that slope with the mountainside. The now missing eastern half in the adjoining townships was lost to glaciation and erosion, creating spectacular cliffs and overhangs.

The Shawangunks are unique as a geologic feature and as a habitat. The uplifted white conglomerate forms a distinctive pale cap to the range that is easily recognizable from a distance. Conglomerate is a type of rock made up of fragments, in this case round quartz pebbles, that are held together by a cementitious binder. This composition results in a highly durable non-porous stone that is resistant to erosion and abrasion. The resistant nature of the stone rendered it as an important source of millstones during the 19th century. In fact, evidence of glacial polishing and scratching still may be seen despite almost 8,000 years of exposure to the elements since the last glacial episode. Because of this very durable caprock, the mountain possesses many unusual environments such as Pitch Pine Barrens, a Dwarf Pine Barrens, and many cave habitats with alpine characteristics. Additionally, there are mountain wetlands with swamps, bogs, and lakes.

One of the most striking features of these mountains is the series of five ‘sky lakes" found near the ridge. The lakes, Maratanza, Mud Pond, Awosting, Minnewaska, and Mohonk all possess extremely clear water, mostly as a result of low nutrient levels and extremely limited runoff basins. Of these, only Minnewaska is completely within the town limits. Mohonk Lake straddles the town line, with the eastern third being in Marbletown along with the Mohonk hotel complex. A series of perennial streams drain northward into the Rondout. The four principal ones all pass through Rochester. Starting from the south, they are the Stony Kill, Sanders Kill, Peters Kill (from Lake Awosting) and Coxing Kill.

Between the two mountain ranges is the relatively flat Rondout Basin. The valley rests at about 250 feet above sea level and forms a broad fertile alluvial basin in which are found some of the highest quality soils in New York State, comprised of number of silt-loam varieties. These highly productive flats, once subject to periodic flooding, were the primary impetus to the initial settlement of Rochester. The creation of the Rondout Reservoir, the 1930s completion of the Merriman Dam in Wawarsing, and later streambed modifications by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has now tempered the Rondout’s flow to mitigate this cycle.

The extended valley has always been recognized as an easily accessible corridor. In addition to the Rondout’s gentle flow to the Hudson at Kingston, there is an equal southwestward continuation of the valley along the Beaver Kill in Sullivan County which flows south to the Delaware River at Port Jervis. This mildly sloping terrain with few significant elevation changes has been used advantageously (initially pre-dating European settlement) for foot, wagon, barge, rail and automotive transportation.

Pre-European Settlement

The lands of the Rondout Valley area were occupied by the Delaware Indians or Lenni-Lenape upon the arrival of the Europeans. More often, they were referred to as the "Esopus Indians" or Delawares in English and the Algonquins, which was their French name. Numerous groups lived in what is now Ulster County, all being Munsee, a principal sub-group of the Delawares. They were not, however, the first to settle the area.

 

Three basic Indian habitations have been described in the Hudson-Delaware area. The first were the Paleo-Indians of whom little is known and are periodically identified by scattered discoveries of their characteristic clovis projectile points. They are believed to have subsisted on wild plants and large, now extinct game when they arrived as the glaciers began their final retreat; they remained until about 6000 BC. Subsequent habitation during the Archaic period (6000 to 1500 BC) was characterized by a semi-nomadic culture more dependent on small game with "no knowledge of agriculture and (which) made no pottery. They did some of their cooking by the hot stone method…" In hunting they adapted a spear-throwing device. The Munsees, whom the Europeans encountered, were a woodland oriented group who had learned to domesticate plants, make limited pottery, and develop an array of specialized tools.

The Munsees were a semi-permanent culture that established villages and trade with neighboring groups. They were on of three divisions of the Delawares and used a wolf todem as their symbol. Five basic groups (or tribes) of Munsee were described in the region of Ulster County during the seventeenth century. Of these, there were two in the Rondout Valley area, the Warranawonkongs, the principal band, and the Warwarsinks. These names were recognized by the European settlers in association with the geographic area where a particular band lived.

Early descriptions of their communities described palisaded "forts" or villages with wigwams (a New England terminology) inside. Villages or forts were often sited near a stream with open area for cultivation around it. When the land was depleted, after ten or so years, the village would be relocated to an appropriate and usually nearby site. To provide for agricultural space the Indians would clear the surrounding area by burning. In the freshly opened areas, the Indians planted a combination of corn in the hills with beans added several weeks later. In this manner they allowed the corn to act as support stakes for the beans. Plots are described as being of various sizes, with one larger area of up to two hundred acres at a principal settlement near Kerhonkson.

This last cited settlement is commonly called the "old fort" in historical accounts. Fried, in a well constructed argument, has located this settlement on the Warwarsing-Kerhonkson town line just north of Kerhonkson in the area of Pataukunk, possibly just in the town of Rochester. This village is well described because it is the site to which the Indians retreated after the June 7, 1663 burning of Hurley and Wildwyck, now referred to as the Esopus Massacre. The fort was said to have been surrounded by three rings of palisades set in a quadrangle: to the north and south were gates. Within the compound there were ten dwellings or wigwams. The site was at the foot of a hill and near a creek which washed near one corner of the fortification; below it a flat tableland was spread out with plantings. Directly around the fort were over one hundred storage pits of corn and beans. In retaliation for the Esopus Massacre, the recently abandoned fort, surrounding fields, and grain storage were all destroyed over the two day period of July 29 and 30, 1663 by a militia of over two hundred men led by Martin Cregier.

The Settlement Period (1663-1703)

The first known written description of the Rochester area comes through the journals of Capitan-Lieutenant Cregier. Cregier, as the burgomaster of New Amsterdam, was placed in charge of the Esopus militia shortly after the massacre. During his six month tenure in this position he kept a daily log. Two translations of this important journal are available. Of particular interest is his description of the march in to the then unknown territory of Rochester and Warwarsing townships. His written notes, as well as the first hand experience and verbal accounts of the men who accompanied him on the July 1663 expedition, must certainly have sparked later interest in the region. The group took two days to travel to the site of the old fort near Kerhonkson. They remained there a few days to raze the settlment and then returned home to Wildwyck in one days march. In that brief time, many men must have had an opportunity to assess the potential of that new land.

The first settlement of Rochester is a speculative matter. By the time the Rochester land patent was granted on June 25, 1703 (forty years after Cregier's march) there was already a solid contingent of established residents, numbering 334. The issuing of a township patent and name was perhaps viewed as a matter of governing convenience, since both Marbletown and Rochester were well inhabited upon their establishment as townships. This act allowed for closer regulation and administration on a local level and recognition of a single name. The patent specifcially says "… the said town of Mumbakkus from henceforth [shall be] called an known by the name of Rochester in the County of Ulster, and not otherwise.

 

Prior to the township patent, a number of individual patents were granted by the Kingston trustees and the Governor. The earliest significant one is the 400 acre Anna Beck patent of November 19, 1685. The patent confirmed her husband's purchase in the preceding year of land in southern Warwarsing from the Indians. While not in today's Rochester, this grant is an important illustration of the movement south from Kingston (Wildwyck) and the new villages of Hurley and Marbletown that had been laid out in 1669 and 1670. Settlement in Rochester before this is unlikely, since there was initial reluctance to leave Kingston for the closer outposts of Marbletown and Hurley after the Indian troubles. However, with the defeat of the Esopus Indians, the easing of social tensions between the Dutch and English, and the disbanding of the English militia in 1669, the Kingston community had already begun to look outward. The New Paltz patent was granted on September 29, 1667 and numerous other grants were also being approved, mostly in Hurley.

During this early period in Rochester, there were only a small number of land grants given out. The Kingston trustees (as the closest governing body) issued some: March 25, 1680 to Ariaen Gerritse Fleet, 46 acres; March 24, 1685, to Leonard Beckwith, 290 acres; and May 14, 1694 to Tjerck Claesen Dewitt, 290 acres. Other land titles are found in Albany and also demonstrate an interest in this area. Most of the titles from this later group date from the mid-1680s, and deal with sizeable tracts of land around the Mubaccus Kill, ranging in size from 160 acres to 386 acres. It is not known if these particular early lands were immediately settled, but others soon were.

Captain Joachim Schoonmaker, one of the three original trustees, is often singled out as having led the first settlers to the present day Rochester. This is thought to have occurred around the time of the Anne Beck patent. Early meetings of the town trustees, which included Schoonmaker, Moses De Puy, Col. Henry Beekman and assistants Cornelius Switts and Eeunis Oosterhoudt (all aparently being residents except Beekman), were devoted in part to parceling out land in the new township. The records of 1703 partly reveal the extent of the settlement that preceded political recognition. To define the new parcels, existing lands and their owner were often cited along with a prominent water course as the only landmarks. While these do not provide an exact description of the land they do offer a glimpse of its inhabitants. The population records would indicate a number of families, possible forty or fifty, spread out through Wawarsing and Rochester. In addition to the presence of numerous established plots of land, there is also mention of both a saw mill and a corne-mill (sic) located on the Mumbaccus Kill (most likely today's Mill Hook area). The establishment of the mills, whose purpose would be to service a community, more than anything else demonstrates the firm establishment of a settlement in Rochester.

The first homes and buildings were apparently simple wood structures. However, no examples of these earliest structures are known to survive. Some early descriptions of their construction are available, and were related as being of plank construction sunk into the ground. However, they most likely were considered temporary, or semi-permanent residences until more substantial buildings could be build. The description of the first Hurley settlement burning completely to the ground in 1663 suggests that the earliest homes there and elsewhere were predominantly timber and that few stone dwellings had as yet been built. Today the stone house stands as the symbol of the earliest habitation in Ulster County and Rochester.

The Agrarian Community (1703-1827)

The eighteenth century settlement was typified by the development of a highly successful commercial agrarian community. The legal formation of the town in 1703 establishes a point in time when Rochester changed from a settlement to a recognized community. Area farmers became prosperous exporters of agricultural produce by working the rich Rondout Valley basin. To support this thriving group, small mills of all varieties sprung up on the nearby streams. Their primary link to the home settlement of Kingston and their export link to the Hudson was most often referred to as the Kings road or Highway. this crucial artery followed the easy terrain of the Rondout and passed through the other farming hamlets of Stone Ridge, Marbletown, and Hurley on its way north to the river port.

The early descriptions of this improved route refer to it as the Old Mine Road. This name derives from the earliest explorations into the interior in search of precious metals that were never found. Its location, however, is said to derive from an earlier Indian path leading out of the Minnisink region of the Delaware River Valley, into the Kingston area, and then along the Hudson to Canada. It is possible, although undocumented, that this may be the rout that Cregier followed in 1663.

The church was a major factor in the social organization of the early community and the Dutch Reformed Church was the only organized religion available during the early development of the area. Early church records indicate an active population in Rochester and a strong church organization. Typically, a church was first organized as a congregation, the edifice would then follow after funds and/or a minister had been secured. The earliest records pertaining to Rochester are a 1741 pledge list for a Domine (minister), a 1743 contribution for Domine Manicus (of the Kingston church) from the Rochester Church, and a 1767 subscription list for a Rochester parsonage. This last entry closely follows the 1766 appointment of Dirick Romeyn as pastor to the Rochester, Marbletown and Wawarsing churches. The series of Dutch Reformed Churches to serve the Rochester community were all build on the location of the successor: the Rochester Reformed Church on Route 209 in Accord. They began with a log church which was replaced with a stone building erected ca. 1783 and which stood until 1818 when it too was replaced.

The predominate residential architecture of the agrarian era was the one-story stone house. While a few houses can be documented to a given year with datestones, most cannot and style provides a period to which they may be attributed. It is evident that stone construction was popular throughout the agrarian era. This may have derived from familiarity with this technique or from a concern for safety. Indian problems were still common and were a major concern as late as the Revolutionary War. While most of these problems were in southern Rochester (now Wawarsing), they were still close by, and so would have provided good reason to continue using masonry construction.

The 1798 New York State assessment of homes valued over $100 provides some important insight into the local building traditions. While the tax roll for Rochester is not known to survive, Marbletown's does. These two communities are very similar in their rural agricultural nature and were at comparable periods of development. Because of these similarities it is possible to draw general conclusions about Rochester's architectural history from the Marbletown data. Of 174 Marbletown houses accounted for in the list, over 68% were of stone. Nineteen percent were frame, five percent were log and the remaining eight percent were a combination of materials.

The earliest form of stone dwelling is the one-room single story house. A good example of this style is the rear wing of the Dirk Westbrook house on Canyon Lake Road. This house is attributed to be one of the earliest Rochester homes still standing and possibly dates from the end of the seventeenth century. These small homes were one to one and a half stories high and nearly square in plan. A projecting beehive Dutch oven, as seen on the rear (north) hearth wall of the Westbrook house, was a standard feature of many homes that is now often absent. Overhead, the second floor garret typically served as a storage and or sleeping loft. These small masonry structures are now often hidden, or are seen as being appendages behind later and larger stone homes.

Two basic adaptations to the early one room stone house are identifiable. The first is the linear extension of the single room plan along the axis of the roof ridge at the same scale. Two examples of this style are the Lodebeck Hornbeck house on Route 209 and the van Wagenen house on Lucas Avenue. A second, and later version, is the expansion with a larger multi-room plan of from one and one-half to two stores along the frong. These are usually perpendicular to the original structure, as seen at the Westbrook house, but may also be linear as seen at the Krum house on Boodle Hole Road. Each of these types are well represented in Rochester. In all, there were between seventy and eight-six stone houses in Rochester, of which fifty-eight survive today. Of these, threee have actually been torn down and rebuilt.

Stone construction continued strongly into the early nineteenth century in Rochester. Once popular throughout the Hudson Valley during the eighteenth century, it endured almost exclusively in Ulster Count. As late as 1798, stone was still the material of choice for home construction in neighboring Marbletown. Of sixty-five houses listed as new or not yet finished, forty-one were of stone. In fact, a new form was appearing at this time. The two story stone house form was beginning to spread into the rural landscape. the 1798 tax list of Marbletown lists five such houses, four of which were recorded as new. In Rochester, the Jacob Hornbeck house, on Boice Mill Road is a good example of this trend. A more unusual form of this is the extensively rebuild 1805 two-story gambrel roofed Philip Bevier house on Route 209. The gambrel, although popular throughout the Hudson Valley, was seldom used in Ulster County or Rochester. With the coming of the nineteenth century the building tradition was beginning to change.

No eighteenth century homes of frame construction have been documented in Rochester. Although frame construction was the norm for outbuildings, it was typically used far less for residential structures. The 1798 Assessment for Marbletown only records thirty-three frame homes equaling nineteen percent of the housing stock valued over $100. Of those, over half were new or not yet completed. It is not unreasonable to project a similar division of homes in Rochester. Using the totals available from Marbletown, one would expect between fifteen and twenty frame houses to have existed at the time, of which half might be expected to have survived. One home that may reflect this era is the fram house on the east side of Route 209 just north of the town line at Kerhonkson.

Frame construction was considerably less expensive and faster to build than the traditional stone house. Frame also allowed more variation in form and style, although the early homes tended to continue in the established style. The Enderly house in Kyserike on Lucas turnpike is one such example. This house which dates prior to the canal era illustrates the transition to frame construction. Wall and floor construction follow the earlier patterns by using beams instead of joists between floors and including a hearth fireplace. Later adaptations (after the canal) would drop these features.

 

Log homes were also built during the eighteenth century, despite the fact that none of these are known to survive today. This type of house would most likely have been found scattered throughout the less settled or developed areas. Additionally, the log homes were of the lowest valuations, none much more than the $100 cut off. This would indicate that more log homes of lesser value could be found as well. Because they were less secure than the stone houses, it is also likely that they were more of a temporary nature, especially during the eighteenth century. The discovery of a log structure in neighboring Marbletown that until recently had been clad in clapboard suggests that examples do exist in Rochester and await discovery themselves.

Farming was the principal trade of this period in Rochester, and the barn was the principal farm structure. Two basic types were constructed: the Dutch variety and the English. the Dutch model is most easily recognized on the outside by having the barn doors centered on the gable end. Within there is a standardized H frame that is made up of three massive hewn beams and that defines the central alley. Animals were kept off to the two sides under the long extending roof. By contrast, the English styles moves the main entry around to the center of the side wall. In both cases there is a large central threshing door that takes up the entire bay. Regardless of the style, the barn was often removed from the house and often found on the opposite side of the road in earlier configurations. This separation offers one principal benefit in that it isolates the structure from the house in the event of a barn fire, which was not uncommon. Today, few barns of this era survive. Those that do were often annexed onto larger and newer barns out of necessity.

The granary was also a principal outbuilding that could be found on each farm at one point. Today, few of these structures remain. The predominant feature of these buildings is the slatted side wall to provide ventilation. One of the earliest examples in Rochester is found on the Lodewyck Hornbeck farm opposite Queens Highway on Route 209 north of Kerhonkson. Later examples evolved the drive through process whereby a wagon could be pulled down the center of the structure for loading or unloading.

The Canal Era & Commercial Expansion (1828-1902)

In 1828 the Delaware and Hudson (D&H) Canal began service from Honesdale, Pennsylvania to Kingston (actually Eddyville, NY), where it connected to the Hudson River. The privately financed D&H Canal was the major engineering feat in its day and was the third major canal to have been completed in the United States. It was only preceded by the publicly built Erie and Schuylkill Canals, each of which was opened only three years earlier in 1825. The principal purpose for creating the waterway was to transport coal bound for the New York City market. However, numerous secondary freight markets also developed along the canal and they spawned an era of tremendous industrial growth throughout Ulster County and elsewhere along the route. Commercial and population centers arose along its course, typically around the locks where boats were forced to stop.

The construction of the canal began in the summer of 1825. When finished three years later, the hand dug channel had 110 locks and was 108 miles long with a stream of water four feet deep and thirty feet wide. This was sufficient to handle 20-ton barges, but these soon proved inadequate. Three successive enlargements of the canal, beginning in the winter of 1842-43 and ending in 1852 were undertaken to operate larger and more efficient boats of at first 40 tons, then 50 and finally 130 tons. The final configuration saw the bed enlarged to handle six feet of water and involved a major reconstruction of the banks with new dry stone walls, enlargement of the locks and the incorporation of four new suspension aqueducts designed by Roebling. The ten-plus years of reconstruction provided considerable work in the towns along the way, both to laborers working on the canal bed and to boat builders supplying the new and larger barges.

Wawarsing township, formerly the southern half of Rochester, set out on its own in 1806 and soon matured into the nineteenth century industrial center of southern Ulster County. The villages there of Ellenville and Napanoch developed into strong commercial centers noted for their glass and ironworks respectively. Rochester, in spite of industrial development around it, continued in its ways as a farming and small mill community. Overall, there was little centralized community development in the township. Rochester’s flat terrain along the Rondout meant that only three locks were needed to pass along the township. In addition the siting of the canal between the Shawangunk Mountains and the Rondout Creek severely limited access throughout the township. Consequently, the growth of communities along the towpath was limited in comparison to the other townships and only two modest communities developed. Rochester held only two covered bridges across the Rondout, neither of which was a principal road, and fostered a small community. One was Alligerville at Lock 21 and another at Port Jackson, now Accord, just to the south of Lock 23. In addition Lock 24, just south of the town line, fostered the hamlet of Kerhonkson in Wawarsing; the northward expansion of this village extended into Rochester, however, and contributed to the township’s growth.

Rochester’s population over the initial construction period of the late 1820s and the later years was significantly out-paced by the areas around it. From 1825 to 1830 the township grew at the modest annual rate of 1.7% to 2,420. Meanwhile, Ulster County as a whole was growing at almost three times that rate, at 4.6% annually and Warwarsing, the former weak sister, was expending at 7.9% per year and for the first time overtook Rochester in population. This trend continued throughout the nineteenth century. By 1875 the population of Rochester had only grown to 3,927 at an average growth of 1.5% per year, while the county was growing at 3.5% annually. By and large, Rochester and the County were not seeing an influx of new people. The 1875 census reports that Ulster County had the third highest percentage in the state of county-born indigenous people at 71.65%. Rochester’s population, however, had a considerably more indigenous nature, with 95% of the inhabitants having been born in Ulster County. This is even more pronounced than the 88.7% indigenous population found in 1855.

Rochester’s slow growth rate and predominant indigenous population indirectly documents the township’s ability to progress from the agrarian base and the small cottage industries that were common there. In fact, Rochester lost is post office name designation, which was officially changed to Accord on July 13, 1826. Although not documented, it is assumed that when the fast growing City of Rochester, on the Eire Canal changed its name in 1822 from Rochesterville, it began a campaign for the eastern New York township’s name and won four years later. Industrial statistics that were sporadically collected during the nineteen century also record a low level of industrial activity. The following table enumerates the businesses found in Rochester in 1855 with the number of employees. The paper mill is not indicated, however, and is conspicuous in its absence.

1855 Businesses in Rochester

                                        Business     Number Employees

Grist Mills                         4                 4

Coach & Wagon Shops    4                 11

Boat Builders                    1                 18

Blacksmith Shops             4                 10

Charcoal Makers             1                  5

Cooper Shops                 3                  6

Saw Mills                         8                 18

Millstone Makers             2                 6

Carding Mills                   1                 3

Rochester never developed any true industrial centers with a supporting population. None of the town’s streams of supplying either the fall or the volume of water necessary for a large mill community. Instead, mills and industries were scattered about the township and followed the earlier eighteenth century traditionally patter of reliance upon the land. Saw mills, hoop shops and gristmills sprang up on the small streams from the mountains. Often, operation of a mill was contingent upon an adequate water supply and thus they could not run so regularly as to provide a stable livelihood. Work in a Rochester mill was therefore not a full-time occupation and was typically supplemented by farming. Today, none of the water-powered mills in the township remain. Evidence of other part-time endeavors is visible however. Of these, lime kilns and hoop shops are seen most often.

A number of limekilns in various states of repair survive from the nineteenth century. To date, seven verified kilns and six reputed ones have been identified in Rochester. The chief product of these structures was agricultural lime. This contrasted sharply with lime production in High Falls, Rosendale and Kingston where water lime (hydraulic cement) was the chief product. Despite identical rock formations, the limestone in Rochester was not situated near enough to the canal to be easily shipped or near enough to water power to fun the stone crushing mills. As a while, Ulster County used 48,676 bushels of agricultural lime in 1855, more than three times the quantity applied in any other county. Interestingly, none of these agricultural lime kilns are reflected in the 1855 census, indicating their small non-industrial nature; the quantities used, however, do reflect the availability of the raw material and lower cost of production associated with the small operations.

Mill Hook is the only area of the town that ever approached an industrial center status. It began as having been the earliest recorded mill seat in the township, but never developed into the traditional mill town, as the waterpower was too sporadic. At its peak it boasted three simultaneously operating mills of various natures concentrated at the confluence of the Mumbaccus and the Rochester Creeks. Nineteenth-century maps indicate a sawmill, a gristmill, a fulling mill and a paper mill as having been located there at different times. Of these, the paper fill first established in 1854 by Andrew S. Schoonmaker was the most successful and important. Schoonmaker eventually sold out and moved his business interests south in 1883 where he founded the larger and more successful Rondout Paper Mill of Napanoch, which continued to operate into the 1950s. The Mill Hook paper mill, under the new name Davis & Young, only ran until the end of the nineteenth century, producing a single product of brown paper from rye straw. Rye was one of the four principal grain crops in Rochester at that time and thus the straw would have been a plentiful and cheap raw material.

Secondary occupations of making barrel hoops had become an important business to many in Rochester, especially in support of the cement works in Rosendale and Kingston. These products could be shipped out on the canal to cement mills. Millstones wee also shipped out on the canal from Accord and were known generically as Esopus Stones. The name was derived from the Esopus Millstone Company of Kingston, which marketed the stones around 1875. These were highly regarded stones that were widely distributed, with one having been documented at Phillipsburg Manor in Westchester County.

Agriculture continued to be the dominant economic force throughout the nineteenth century. The 1845 census reported that fully 68% percent of the people were farmers. And while records indicate that industrial pursuits such as sawmills and gristmills declined in number from 1835 to 1865, they also show that the number of acres improved for farmland increased by 44% to 20,645 acres. By 1875 there were 20,645 acres of improved farmland in the township of which 5,658 were being plowed. With the opening up of the mid-west via the Erie Canal, wheat was no longer a dominant crop in the Hudson Valley. Crop production shifted and was now divided fairly evenly between Indian corn (1,385 acres), oats (1,471 acres), buckwheat (1,161 acres) and rye (1,364 acres). However, dairy farming continued as a strong endeavor, with butter as the principal product; in 1874, production came to 105,724 pounds from 1,213 milk cows. Other major farm products that year included 211,615 pounds of pork and 28,842 bushels of apples for fruit.

An analysis of the agricultural statistics of 1875 also shows that by the latter half of the nineteenth century a general consolidation of the farms was occurring both in the county and the township. The smaller family farms were disappearing, and larger, more efficient farms were taking their place. In Ulster County, the most significant increases were taking place in the number of farms over 100 acres in size; the decreases were in the number of smaller farms between 20 and 100 acres. Of 486 farms counted in Rochester that year, the distribution was: one farm over 1,000 acres; one of 500 to 999 acres; 139 from 100 to 500 acres, 126 of 50 to 99 acres; 95 of 20 to 49 acres; and 124 under 20 acres. The consolidation of farms also reflected a consolidation of wealth, as seen by the new and more prominent homes being built.

The arrival of the canal in the Rondout Valley coincided with the introduction of the Greek Revival style and a proliferation of frame homes. With the general acceptance of wood frame construction, the era of stone construction slowly came to an end. By 1855, when dwelling materials were next recorded in the census, there were 617 homes in Rochester, of which 422 (68%) were frame and only 86 (14%) were stone. In a little less than 60 years, the ratio of frame to stone houses (2:1) had completely reversed itself. Masonry construction had almost been completely abandoned in the township. The exceptions to this is the fashionable brick Harden home in Alligerville, built in the early canal days between 1830 and 1850. The brick, in all probability, came from the Hudson River brickyards on the canal. Those who lived in the early stone houses and who had the money remodeled and improved their homes during this period.

The nineteenth century was a prosperous time for Rochester as evidenced by the consolidation of farms, the building of fine new homes and the expansion of existing ones. Many of the previously build one and one half story stone houses were modified during this period by raising the roof to either add a full or almost full second story. These houses are easily recognizable by their raised room, with four to six foot high clapboard or shingle walls above the stonework.

Early public education is symbolized by the one-room schoolhouse. By the late 1790s, six schoolhouses appear to have been scattered throughout the township in the larger settlements, of these; none are known to remain. During the 1950s and thereafter, the earlier schools were replaced and additional ones were added to serve the smaller communities. In all, sixteen exist today, although a number have been severely altered. The most intact of these is the recently restored Palentown school (ca. 1870) of district 10 in the northwest corner of the township.

Rochester has a long religious history extending back to the early settlement period. The Dutch Reformed Church which was the dominant religion in the eighteenth century continued as the primary church of the nineteenth century. However, by 1855 it had been augmented by the Methodist Episcopal faith. Since Rochester was experiencing little immigration into its borders and was largely an indigenous population, there was little pressure for the integration of new religious denominations. Instead, Rochester developed a series of satellite churches during the late 1850s and 60s that grew out of the central congregations in Accord, Port Jackson and the Clove. The Reformed Church was augmented by facilities in Alligerville (1858-59), Cherrytown (1857) and Mettacahonts. The Methodist Church paralleled the growth of the Reformed Church and developed affiliates in Alligervlle (1857) and Cherrytown (1857).

Despite the presence of the D&H Canal, the Kingston Nevisink Turnpike (Route 209) was still an important transportation route. Canal travel was reliable for heavy materials but was never truly accepted for passenger travel. Canal travel was often uncomfortable and usually too slow for the post office or travelers who wishes to arrive at their destination quickly. To fill this need, horse-drawn stages plied the main road daily, except Sunday, in 1849 between Ellenville and Kingston, with scheduled stops at Accord and Kyserike. The trip took about six hours. Accord was one of the scheduled stops along this route and thus developed a small hotel business along the main road. Similarly, post offices were also located along the principal route. The Mendelson Hotel, which also served as the post office for time in the 1870s, is located across from the school on the main road and is a surviving example of both of these uses.

 

The Railroad Era and Tourism (1902-1940)

In 1902 the Ontario and Western (O&W) Railroad extended service from the Ellenville terminus to Kingston through Rochester. Trains had first come to Ellenville in 1871 and with them a small but thriving tourist industry had begun to develop. With the expanded service through the Rondout Valley the tourist trade flourished and would be an important economic factor in the Rondout Valley. The new line, officially called the Delaware Valley and Kingston Railway Company, roughly followed the course of the old canal bed and now provided direct access from New York City via Hoboken.

By the 1880s, the end of the canal era was apparent. Railroads had begun to take much of the coal traffic; they were cheaper and more reliable since they were not closed by winter weather and could operate year round. Finally the last load of coal left Honedale on November 5, 1898. The Canal company struggled to continue operations but continued for only two years until 1901 when it was again reduced to High Falls, and thus eliminating the Rochester section. Meanwhile, the railway was making plans for a new line which would follow the route of the old canal.

To facilitate the building of the railroad, the O&W purchased the D&H canal right of way from Summitville, NY through Accord where the run was straight and flat. Many of the canal’s features through this section were dismantled and used to build the O&W’s infrastructure. New bridge abutments were build from the lock’s cut stone and mile markers were adapted from the snubbing posts and set track-side; many of these markers, however, have been removed and are now found far from their former locations. In the flat area of southern Rochester where there were no locks, the old canal bed was filled in so that the tracks could be laid on top of the right of way. This action continued north to Accord, where the rail lines then parted from the canal and crossed to the west bank of the Rondout.

With the introduction of the railroad a new focus on tourism developed in the hamlets along its way. However, even before the advent of the railway, tourism had started, after the Civil War, to be an influencing factor in the Hudson Valley and in the town of Rochester. Summer escapes to the mountains had become a popular excursion, especially from New York City. Steamers and rail lines along the Hudson delivered guests into the mountains and in the process were making resorts more accessible to the common man. The most famous of all these was the Catskill House overlooking the Hudson River further north near Saugerties. The resorts offered breathtaking scenery and cool mountain air to help people escape the hot confines of the city. The resort areas offered a mix of boarding houses and grand hotels that catered to a broad range of society, especially to the middle class. As the numbers of these establishments grew, the railroads began to publish illustrated brochures touting the inns and the landscape to encourage passenger traffic.

The Shawangunks, although not as well known as the Catskills, also offered a number of resort options early on in the era. The first local resort hotel was Lake Mohonk Mountain House, which was opened by the Smiley brothers in 1870 on Lake Mohonk in the town of Marbletown. Nine years later, in 1879, Alfred Smiley moved south down the mountain ridge into Rochester and opened Cliff House high on the bluffs overlooking lake Minnewaska. His brother, Albert K. Smiley, remained at the northern site as the proprietor of Mohonk. As Quakers, the Smileys offered temperance hotels where one could contemplate nature in a wholesome environment. They soon laced the mountaintops between their two hotels with over one hundred miles of gravel-paved carriage roads and rustic shelters at strategic locations to view the valleys below. The beautiful lakeside locations of their hotels soon attracted many guests and numerous expansions quickly followed. A second Minnewaska inn, Wildmere, was opened in 1887 to accommodate the heavy trade. At first, the hotels were seasonal and operated from late May until late October. By 1925, the pair of Lake Minnewaska Mountain Houses could accommodate about 550 guests and Mohonk could handle another 450. The activity on the mountain created a great demand for workers. The hotels became an important economic contributor to the valleys below in Marbletown, Rochester and New Plats. The residents of Alligerville and the Clove Valley in Rochester who commuted up the mountain prospered with the resorts as their lives became heavily intertwined with tourism.

 

In 1955, the Minnewaska Hotel properties were sold to Kenneth B. Phillips, a former manager with the Smileys. Phillips immediately began improvements by adding a nine-hole golf course in 1955 and a small downhill ski area called "Ski Minni" in 1957. After struggling for a number of years and selling large parcels of land to the Palisades Park Commission (for the Minnewaska State Park), Phillips filed for bankruptcy around 1977. Today, all traces of the Minnewaska Hotel complex buildings are gone; Cliff House, which had never been winterized, closed its doors for good at the end of the 1974 summer season and burned to the ground on New Years Day, 1978; Wildmere remained open a few years longer until November 4, 1979 and stood vacant until it too burned to the ground on June 12, 1986; Ski Minni lodge, the last remaining Minnewaska complex, was lost to a fire as well on April 13, 1981, and finally ended the resort era at Minnewaska. Plans had been circulated to create a new hotel complex on the lake, but they were never realized. Instead, the lake and surrounding mountain were acquired by New York State in the early 1980s and incorporated into the existing Minnewaska State Park around Lake Awosting to the south, thus reassembling the Minnewaska property to its former size.

Access to the Mohonk and Minnewaska hotels came primarily through the New Paltz station of the Wallkill Valley Railway. However, some early connections were also made through the Rosendale station on the same line and the Ellenville station of the O&W. The secondary tier of inns which developed out of the boarding houses grew from the increasing tourist trade at these stations. Accord, which is about mid-way between these stations, contained two listings in the O&W booklet of inns. One, operated by Charles Terwilliger, was a farmhouse on the Rondout that took in ten guests and the other, which held 25 guests was run by J.C. Dumont. When the railroad finally came through with stations in Accord and Kyserike, the fledgling industry took off.

Tourism became the primary industry in the early twentieth century. Numerous boarding houses, bungalow colonies, and camps sprang up throughout the township. Typically, guests would stay for prolonged visits lasting from one month to the entire summer. The family would rent a room or cottage while the husband would remain in the city and commute up on weekends. If space was tight, the husband might stay in a private home that took in guests. Later, as the car became a more commonplace possession and roads were improved, people began to look towards buying a summer home rather than taking rooms.

The boarding houses evolved from private homes that took in a limited number of guests into larger structures that were build solely to accommodate guests. Trowbridge Farm in Kyserike is a good example of this type. The large, now abandoned boarding house on Lucas Turnpike began as a residence and grew into a well-established small hotel. The White House I Granite is an example of the boarding house as they later developed. This three story stucco building, which has recently been converted into apartments, was built as a boarding house in the 1910s: it, like many others fell idle after the tourist trade fell off following World War II. One of the few boarding houses that did survive this post-war transition is the Granite Hotel in Granite which began taking in guests under the name of Orchid House. While this original building is still intact within the hotel, it is now hidden by numerous modern additions.

Bungalow colonies were also a popular summer retreat for tourists. They were inexpensively built and also inexpensive to stay at, while providing an individual unit in which to lodge. While a good number of these were built, few survive today that still remain in active use.

 

A third level of the tourist economy was the guest house. With the large influx of tourists, many farmhouses divided the upstairs loft areas of their homes into small guest rooms. Typically, these houses could set up and furnish from two to four rooms which were often partitioned with beaded wainscot brought in on the railroad. The "Brick House" on Route 209 is one example of this activity where the third floor was improved for the family so that the better second floor rooms could be rented to guests. Another example is found across the road at the Lodebeck Hornbeck house. Here guest space was added by adding large shed and roofed dormers. This expansion is in marked contrast to the nineteenth century solution of raising the roof to create a full second story, and may be attributed to improvements in roofing materials which allowed for flatter roofs.

The tourism that grew in the early twentieth century generated a new prosperity in the Rochester Community. New homes and businesses were built on the impetus of this new economic factor. Additionally, second homes were also being built for the first time. Tourists, who had come to like the area, began to buy existing homes and have new ones built in the contemporary fashion. As a result, there was a general surge in new housing stock but little increase in population.

The Craftsman and Bungalow Styles were the styles of choice during this period. Dimensional lumber of standard sizes and two-by-four construction made these houses extremely economical to build. Plans for these houses were also easily available through catalogues or by magazine advertisement. Concentrations of these craftsman style houses around Accord and Pine Bush are typical. More refined versions, such as the two-story colonial revival house at Cross Lumber in Kyserike, or the Louis Fredd house on Pautaukunk Road were also available.

The influx of new people and fresh ideas at the turn of the century growth a new set of social and civic organizations into the community. One of the more remarkable additions was the introduction of a Jewish population. Until this time, the Dutch Reformed Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church had dominated the religious life of the new community. The introduction of tourists (who, by and large, were the first large infusion of new blood into the community since the settlement period) brought for the first time a new set of religious values into the area. Although no population statistics are available, the synagogues found in Granite and Accord demonstrate a fairly modest new Jewish population that had discovered the area and intended to continue returning.

The automobile also has had a pronounced effect upon the township. The most significant of which was the improvement of the local roads. The most lasting change has been the removal of the covered bridges which once were prevalent in the township. These were replaced and supplemented by steel truss bridges, steel beam bridges and concrete beam and deck bridges. Today, many of these same bridges have been replaced as well. Gas stations and garages were also built as the car became more accepted. Howard Anderson’s garage on Route 209, William Anderson’s Ford Dealership (later a roller rink) building in Accord, and Van Demark’s garage on Route 209 are some examples of these activities.

The railroad also had an effect on the agricultural community in Rochester. The most important aspect of this was the opening of creameries to receive, pasteurize and ship mile at the Kyserike, Accord and Kerhonkson stations. The Kyserike creamery was built soon after the railroad opened and was one of the first plants of its type in the valley. The plant was built by the railroad and operated the Rondout Valley Dairy Cooperative. The introduction of this plant made a profound impact upon the area farms: for the first time it was practical to produce milk for consumption. Prior to this, butter had been the chief dairy product of the farms. Now milk could be collected at the creamery and transported by rail, while still fresh, to the New York City market. Later, in 1926, after shipping disagreements with the railroad a second Kyserike dairy (now gone) was opened by the Cooperative group which came to be known as the Shawangunk Cooperative Dairy. A third dairy in Accord was operated by the Dairyman’s League to serve that market.

With the new expanded milk market, the dairy herds were enlarged and new barns began to appear on the landscape to accommodate them. One common version was the tall gambrel roofed barn with the pointed hay hood at the gable ends. This configuration allowed the cattle to be housed on the ground floor with hay storage above: the lower pitch of the gambrel was close to vertical and provided more storage space. Additionally, silos were becoming more prevalent. Silos were used primarily to hold corn ensilage (also called silage): feeding ensilage allowed farmers for the first time to product milk year round since the cows no longer went dry in the winter. The storage of the silage thus enabled farmers to generate income during the normally slow winter months. The first popular silo form was the vertical stave silo which was developed around 1894. The wood stave silo was held together by horizontal iron hoops, or bands, and was capped by either a conical or a peaked room. Although very popular and common, few survive today, since most either deteriorated or were replaced by more modern masonry or steel structures.

Accord, as one of the two station stops in Rochester, soon developed as the center of business and civic activity in the township. Until this time, Alligerville was equally as settled and perhaps a larger community. Accord, as an official name and community, gained prominence by its designation by the O&W as the named station stop. This act by the railroad finished Port Jackson as a community name. However, this process had really begun with the end of the canal. The largest business to develop in Accord was Anderson’s feed mill. The mill developed and prospered as a secondary outgrowth of the expanding agricultural market in the township and soon became a prominent supplier of mixed feed to the area dairy farms. The grains and other products sold there were brought in on the railroad, reducing the need to grow a broad range of crops and instead focusing on individual products. Other businesses and civic organizations followed. Some that developed were a Grange meeting room on a third floor of Anderson’s feed mill; the France Weisman store: and the Turner & Cohen store.

 

 

 

From "Town of Rochester, Ulster County, New York, Historic Resources Reconnaissance Survey, 1993" prepared for Town of Rochester Historic Preservation Commission by Kyserike Restorations, Inc., Stone Ridge, NY, text by Harry Hansen. (Footnotes omitted)

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TOWN OF ROCHESTER: 1703 - 1953: A Whimsical History of our Town by George Sumner Albee. 

In 1703, two and a half centuries ago… They came from Holland, from England and from France, and they crossed a savage, icy ocean beneath patched sails in wooden ships smaller than man of today’s passenger ships of the air. The mere crossing took courage, and what followed took more, for the young men from the old country were bound to create homesteads for their families in a tangled and threatening Wilderness.

Those whose hopes centered on the area we now call New York State transferred themselves and their wives into small sailboats and tacked with the winds up the Hudson, peering down into water so clear they could see the bottom in twenty feet. The ride up the Hudson from New York City, with the great green Palisades mirrored in the quiet water, came to an end at Albany or at Wiltwyck. Those were the three large towns: New York, Albany and Wiltwyck, which after a while changed its name to Kingstone and then to Kingston. Kingston was a sizeable place, almost a city, with a hundred houses and a rounduit, or fort, boasting six heavy guns.

From Kingston the newcomers spread onto the land. I use the word "spread," but really they could not spread very much, for land rich enough to farm was to be found only in the valleys, not on the hill ridges, and it was up the valleys that wagons and ox-carts had to roll if they wanted to roll at all. So men and women who bore the names of Schoonmaker, and DePuy, Osterhoudt and Quick, Hoornbeck and Dekker made their plodding way into the valley of the Rondoubt to claim whatever land they thought would best reward their hard work.

Now it goes without saying that a township must have some people in it before it can become a township. This being the case, it is not surprising that Tom Quick, the first settler in what we call Rochester, arrived here before 1703. The land papers at Albany record: "September 4, 1676, Thomas Quick at ye Mobaccus and ye Ron Doubt River."

Tom Quick and the other settlers in Rochester put up log cabins for shelter. Later, as men prospered, they build frame houses. A frame house was a fairly expensive proposition. If it was of decent size it cost all of forty dollars, in addition to which you had to furnish the hand-forged nails, fee the carpenter for eight weeks and cheer him up with an occasional nip of schnapps or, as some people called it, brandywine. With brandywine at a dollar a gallon, this could run into money. I wonder whether the carpenter, for his $40, was also expected to supply he lumber. If he was, he was certainly not overpaid, for lumber in those days was rip-sawed by two men using a long hand saw and a trestle, with one poor devil down underneath the trestle collecting the sawdust in his hair and eyes.

It took a rich man to build a stone house. Not that stone was scarce! There was Heaven’s plenty of stone, left everywhere on top of the ground and everywhere on its surface by the glaciers. (There was little to be found on the floor of the valley, curiously enough, but anybody who wanted it had only to send a wagon up into the hills.) but stone walls were a long time in going up, which meant a heavy outlay for labor, unless a man owned slaves, and there

was a technical difficulty as well in the fact that clay had to be used for mortar. Still, stone houses were built, with walls thick enough to keep them from toppling despite the lack of mortar, small windows and a cellar kitchen partially underground. Huge beams, cut square out of whole oak or chestnut trees, held up floors of broad pine planking. At the gable ends of the house usually there were two broad stone chimneys with wide fireplaces, one of them opening into a Dutch oven with a back that stuck out through the wall into the open air, like a wen. The whole family slept in the attic, as a rule, under a room with a steep pitch to help the snow slide off in winter. And they did have snow in those days!

Thirty or forty of these ancient stone houses are standing today in Rochester. Most of them are in splendid condition – better condition than many houses built ten years ago. Some are still lived in by descendants of the builders. They are among the very oldest houses in the United States, and among the most beautiful houses to be found anywhere in the world. The cottages of the Cotswolds, in England, build of honey-colored stone, and the farm-houses to the south of Limoges in France, made of yellow ochre cobbles bound together with peach-colored mortar, are no more graceful, no more colorful, no handsomer, no friendlier than these marvelous bluestone houses of Rochester Township. They offer the visitor a chance to see something he can find nowhere else on the American continent.

The old frame houses, even those built quite late, are nearly all gone. Today nothing is left of them but a few piles of moldering wood-dust, a few old pickle jars and whiskey bottles turned to a soft amethyst color by sunshine and weather. Once the roof of a wooden house tumbles in, you see, the rest of the house soon tumbles after it. But Rochester’s stone houses, with the fragrant pine smoke misting their broad chimney tops, stand today just as they did when their owners spoke only Dutch.

Then there is the Dutch Reformed Church a few hundred yards below Accord on Highway 209. This little church is no match architecturally for the church in Hurled, outside of Kingston. It is quaint rather than handsome; as gawky as a country boy at his first dance. But sermons were preached in a long cabin near this site as early as 1700, and services have continued ever since. One church building erected here in the early days was enclosed in a stone fortress to safeguard it against Indian raids. For or five others have been destroyed by fire or lightening. If the present-day building looks a bit battered to you, that is no wonder, for it is a triumph of faith over time and tribulation.

By 1703 there were 334 men, women and children here. New York had been British instead of Dutch for nearly 30 years and the British crown in answer to a petition granted Rochester formal recognition "to have the said town of Mombaccus from hence forth called and known by the town of Rochester in the county of Ulster, and not otherwise." Thus a good Indian name was traded for a more elegant English one. Why it had to be Rochester the Lord only knows, for the Earl of Rochester, poisoned in the Tower of London in 1613, had been prominent only as a go-between in his friends’ love affairs. But Rochester it was – complete with a public green and a set of wooden stocks in which drunks and similar miscreants could sit with their heads poking through a hole and repent their evil ways.

Men farmed the rich alluvial soil of the flats. They farmed, with less wisdom, the steep hillsides, using teams of black-nosed, cream-colored oxen. A living was hard to make. Slowly, because people had to try anything that looked at all promising, a few primitive industries appeared: tanning, which made use of the hemlock bark, the manufacture of millstones from a peculiar stone called Esopus grit, and lumbering. (The millstones are still used by cosmetic manufacturers to grind rouge, but they are disappearing because there are no men left who remember how to make them.) Like farming, lumbering gouged great holes out of the forest, reducing the cover for the game on which the Indians lived, so naturally the Indians did not like it. There was trouble with them year after year; here a house burned, there a family massacred and scalped. Sam’s Point, in the Shawangunks, bears its name because a hunter and scout named Sam Gonsalus got himself chased up it by an Indian and had to jump off into empty space to get away. The drop was a hundred feet a least, but the soft hemlocks below saved Sam’s life.

Although Rochester recruited men for the Revolution and sent them off to join General Washington with arms and uniforms, in 1778 the town itself had to ask Governor Clinton to protect it from Indians, saying: "The enemy seem determined to destroy the Grain and Cattle. This must (your Excellency well knows) soon reduce the publick as well as individuals to scarcity." When the Revolutionary War was at last won, Rochester citizens were happy indeed, and with their neighbors they rejoiced.

Rochester began the new century, the 19th, with a population of 1800 souls. Farming, tanning and lumbering went on. Ulster County had been known as the granary of the Revolution; an unbelievable amount of wheat and Indian corn was grown on the steep hillsides you can see if you lift your eyes from this page. There were 128 handlooms in the township turning out woolens as piecework. The hill families sold huckleberries in summer and barrel hoops in winter. Limestone was mined, and a certain amount of metal. (There is gold in the Blue Hills, the Shawangunks. That is fact. According to legend there is also silver; a rich silver vein over which, every few years, a star of white light rises slowly into the sky.) And of course Rochester men worked in adjoining townships as well, cutting bluestone in the Marbletown quarries, sweating in the glassworks and iron foundry at Wawarsing butting cordwood and burning charcoal deep in the forest.

Some of them went a good deal farther away. In the spring, when to the west the great Delaware River rose in freshet, thousands of tall pines felled during the winter were roped together in huge rafts. The rafts were fitted with long, strong steering oars an sent racing down the roaring, bouncing river to Trenton and Easton and Philadelphia. Handling them called for muscle, a complete knowledge of the Delaware’s murderous eddies and shoals, and tremendous skill, especially when it came to guiding the careening rafts through the archways under bridges. Some of the very best rivermen, who could hold a jug of corn liquor with one arm and shoot a bridge with the other, came from Rochester. They were paid five or ten dollars for piloting a raft all of the way to Philadelphia – out of which they had to pay their railroad fare back home. Of course, they had the adventure and the fun of it. There was a jug on every raft, and at night there was singing and dancing and much enjoyable fist-fighting in the dim little hotels along the riverbank.

But the biggest thing in the Rondout, the valley’s special claim to fame, was the D&H Canal, connecting the Delaware River with the great Hudson. A hundred and eight miles long, 30-odd feet wide at the water line and six feet deep, there was nothing like the D&H anywhere else in the United States for a long, long while. From the day it opened in 1828 it carried a heavy traffic of barges laden with Pennsylvania coal (Accord is only 50 miles from the Pennsylvania border) and New York State hides, farm produce, blue stone and bricks. The other two cargoes were cement, which was discovered near here and is still made at Rosendale, and locally distilled whiskey. A good many Rochester men made their living on the Canawl, as they called it.

Although not many people know it, there was a railroad along-side the D&H. It was planned to join the two rivers by rail as well as by a ribbon of water. But the four locomotives bought for the line in England, the Stourbridge Lion, the America, the Delaware, and the Hudson weighed eight tons apiece and crushed the hemlock rails despite the fact that they were plated with iron straps half an inch thick. At the same time, they crusted the hopes of the investors. The railroad, a failure, had to be abandoned. Nevertheless the three mile run made over its wooden rails by the Stourbridge Lion on August 8th, 1829 was the first time a railroad engine ever puffed smoke on the American continent.

Today the D&H is a ditch that grows a fine crop of weeds, the creamy oxen and the huge pie-footed horses in their jiggling harnesses are gone and our hillsides, which ought never have been farmed in the first place, are covered once more with a thick knitted afghan of trees.

Our crops in 1953, the 250th anniversary of Rochester, are eggs, milk and vacationers.

But the Shawangunks, the Blue Hills of the Indians, are as blue today as ever they were, and still somehow never the same color five minutes running; so serene are they, so fatherly, that some of us cannot bear to leave them even to drive into Kingston twenty miles away. With a billion trees pouring out oxygen, our air is the purest, coolest stuff you can find to breathe anywhere east of the Rockies. Our tree-roofed shale roads may be bumpy here and there, but they are still the greenest, prettiest lanes in the country. Walk them quietly, without a cigarette in your mouth – because animals can smell tobacco for miles, and the woods are no place for cigarettes anyhow – and you will glimpse grouse and pheasants, rabbits and skunks, foxes, opossums, raccoons and deer. You will see indigo buntings flying side by side with goldfinches as yellow as lemons. You will hear the two long, sad notes of the cuckoo, sounding like notes on a silver flute, predicting rain if they sound from a hilltop, predicting fair weather when they sound from a valley.

We think this is the loveliest place in the world to live. Have you visited the Clove? You must. Have you seen the view from the goat farm, up the steep road beside the Whitfield school? Have you hunted for the wild azaleas that look like pink butterflies…? The loveliest place in the world! And we appreciate it the more because our grandfathers and great-grandfathers knew and loved it before us. They must have loved it a great deal, or they would not have done the things they did. Look at those fences that are mounds of gray fieldstone five feet tall and ten feet thick! Every one of those stones was picked out of a field by a farmer and carried to the fence line in a leather apron by his wife or his youngsters.

We wear funny caps. We say "Ay-yawp" when we mean maybe and "yes-yes" when we mean sure. We are individuals, here, at a time when there are few individuals left.

A few years ago there was an old coot this side of Kerhonkson bragged that he could live on a dollar a year, and I guest he managed it. Many of our farmers still plant according to the phases of the moon, and you can’t talk them out of it; it does not good to tell them they are crazy because they think you are crazy. We have one well-to-do merchant who is protecting his future, on earth if not hereafter, with a barrel of silver half-dollars which he keeps buried behind his store. Far back in a glen we have two ancient brothers, famous stone masons, who refuse to work because somebody gave them a beehive. Just let a summer come along with lots of wildflowers, they think, and the bees will support them in luxury. Deep in the woods, a few winters ago, one family lived in a cabin with a hundred foot pine tree lolling out of the window. They shoved it into the fireplace a foot at a time. Saved chopping.

It’s just a question, you see, of how good your eyes and ears are. Your stay in Rochester can be as fruitful, as enjoyable, as instructive, as rewarding as you yourself are capable of making it. We’re sure you’ll like it; and we hope you’ll like us too!

George Albee lived for many years on Mill Hill Road. He was a nationally known writer whose stories, often set in the town of Rochester, were published in the Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines of the 1950s.

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Friends of Historic Rochester and other important historical resources

D&H Canal Historical Society Museum, Mohonk Road, High Falls, NY 12440. 914-687-9311

Friends of Historic Rochester publishes a quarterly historic newspaper called The Accordian and organizes events in order to encourage awareness of the town's history.  Friends maintains a library in the Rochester Reformed Church that contains genealogies, old scrap books and other memorabilia relating to the town.  Friends of Historic Rochester, PO Box 229, Accord, NY 12404.

Hudson River Maritime Museum,  Dedicated to the history of the Hudson River. One Rondout Landing,  Kingston, NY 12401, 914-338-007.  This website contains interesting links to regional historical resources.

Hugenot Street, New Paltz, one of the oldest streets in America with houses constructed from 1692 to 1890., 255-1660

Huguenot Historical Society's on-line archives 

Kripplebush Schoolhouse Museum, PO Box 91, Stone Ridge, NY 12484

Fred J. Johnston Museum of 18th and early 19th century furnishings and decorative arts.  63 Main St., Kingston, 339-0720

Snyder Estate/Century House features tours of the Widow Jane cement mine, kilns, canal slip., Rte. 213, Rosendale, 658-9900

Ulster County Historical Society Museum is located on Rte. 209 just north of Stone Ridge.  914-338-5614. (Open June - Sept.)

Ulster County History Link

On-Line Encyclopedia on New York State  

Local Historians and Genealogical Links

 

 

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