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Scratching Out a Living

From Stephentown Genealogy

Written by Tina Ordone

From all I know of Stephentown, the major occupation was always farming. In transcribing the census reports, a majority of the citizens were either “farmers” or “farm laborers.” There were many large farms in Stephentown, like the Carey Briggs farm, built in 1830, Benjamin Hayes farm, as well as John Haynes Carpenter, later his son Alton J., Harvey Merritt, Bill Gardner’s farm on East Road was originally the Ed Douglas farm, Ira Whitman. The Pease Farm was part of a great farm from Stephen Van Rensselaer to the Holcomb home on West Street. Squire Newton Goold ran another large farm, Chauncey Bateman owned Elmhurst Farm on the west side of Route 22, south of Route 43. The Gardner’s farm house, built before the Revolutionary War was located on Rte. 22. In later days, the Senter had a farm in Stephentown Center. Freling Smith also had a farm. Many of these farms provided jobs for those citizens who didn’t own their own farms, including my great-grandfather, Charles Moon. Charles moved from farm to farm, wherever the work was. In his life, he lived in Stephentown, Berlin, and Grafton, scratching out a living for his large family.

As found in an article in the Stephentown Historical Society’s Bicentennial Album 1784-1984, there were other ways to make a living: “Besides tillers of the soil, Stephentown had a number of merchants, shipbuilders, and businessmen. An important trade was carried on in lumber, grain and furs. Products were sent to Albany in exchange for textiles and china.

Skiffs were built in Stephentown City, where the Hager Farm is today. Abundant water power made it possible to build grist and sawmills. The town also had a brush factory, a wadding and satinet mill, flannel factories, a carding mill, a woolen mill, foundries, slaughterhouses and blacksmith shops. Several charcoal makers existed as late as the 1900’s. Horse-drawn wagons carrying charcoal and bundles of wooden chips were common sights on the road to Troy. After the Revolution, the area became an important dairy district. Milk and cheese were made locally. The farms continued for many years until the pressures of land costs and equipment prices forced many farmers to give up farming and turn to other sources of income. Blueberries were abundant in the early Twentieth Century. Some people picked them and took them to the local stores; other people took berries by wagon to Troy, Albany or Pittsfield.”

George Holcomb wrote often of his cheese making enterprise, as well as making and selling apple cider and cakes, which he would sell at various revivals.

TAVERNS, INNS AND HOTELS

Aside from the various stores that populated early Stephentown, taverns, inns and hotels found their places in town as well. In the Bicentennial Album we learn: “One of the earliest taverns was run by Rowland Hall in North Stephentown. Later proprietors of this inn were Lawrence Van Valkenburg and Erastus Brown. Ichabod Croffit, Jonathan Niles and Abner Bull were owners of other early taverns located in Stephentown Village. Simon Cranston took over Abner Bull’s hotel in the village and kept it for 5 years. William Robinson bought it later. In 1871, Milo Daniels built the Vanderbilt House and was its innkeeper for about 9 years. Peter Couchot also ran the Stephentown Hotel nearby for 2 years (1880). He sold it to John F. Cassidy and later it was sold to the Morin brothers. It remains that that family today (1984). In the western part of town, Richard Spencer had an early inn. Somewhat later an inn was established here by Daniel Allen. Caleb Carr was an innkeeper in Stephentown Center. He had been a Bridgdier General in the Was of 1812. In addition to this inn, there were others run by Charles Hastings, Calvin Coty and Joel Latham. (Stephentown Center was called Little Mechanicville and sometimes Latham after Joel Latham.) Benjamin Carpenter kept a hotel in the eastern part of town around 1820. Nancy Griggs, widow of Dr. Joshua Griggs, had an inn at the Flats. Records show a second hotel in this area operated first by Hiram Brown and later by Curtis Woodward. As early as 1788, all inns had to be licensed by the state. Rules for the innkeepers were that they were not to keep a disorderly house or suffer any cock fights, gaming or playing of cards or dice. Homemade wines could be served by the innkeeper. Hard liquor needed a special license, and each inn had to have at least two beds for guests. In 1984, there was only one inn in Stephentown, the Millhof Lodge on Route 43 east.”

HIGHWAYS AND ROADS

George Holcomb often wrote of his service on the county roads. I remember hearing my mother tell me that my grandfather, Nelson Sweener, worked on the county roads. It appears that it was mandatory service. Each man of the town owed work days to the town. Each man, wagon, and horse counted as a day’s work so if a man took a horse and wagon for a day on the highway, he had worked off 3 days owed to the town. "Never has there been a greater change than in travel. In colonial times travel by land was in the old-fashioned stagecoach, on horseback and on foot. The roads were often impassable. Many towns were completely without roads. The only connections were by Indian trails. Long journeys were made afoot, and some crossings were done on scout's backs in swampy areas. A favorite way to travel was on horseback (if you owned one). A farmer would go to church astride a horse with his wife behind him and the children walking alongside. The young usually carried their going-to-church shoes and put them on just before entering their place of worship or meeting house. Grain and farm products were transported on pack horses winding their way through the lonely forests along Indian trails. Coaches and carriages were few until the late 18th Century. Not until 1766 was there a rig line of coaches in the larger cities. A state journey from one part of the country to another was the most uncomfortable ride imaginable. The roads were rough with tree stumps and boulders, furrows with ruts and quagmires. If a coach struck fast in a mire as it often did, the passengers would alight and help life and push it out. When they arrived at the rivers, there were no bridges. The crossings were made at the risk of all, on crude rafts made of timber or a number of canoes lashed together. The great highways of those days were only the ones nature furnished. Without these, people in different colonies would have been isolated and wouldhave hardly known of the existence of one another. Few ever traveled far from home. The majority of the common people lived and died in the neighborhood where they had settled and their children were born. Except for a few plank roads and turnpikes, road building was a neighborhood affair with little aid from the town. Toad tax was paid by doing road labor 3 to 6 days a year. the first roads were simple bridle paths widened to take wagons. Quoting from the Proceedings of the Common Council of Albany, May 6, 1770, "Be it resolved that the board will give 20 pounds to the inhabitants of Stephentown or such of them as will undertake to make a good and sufficient road and bridge from the ourse of Levi Pease to the house of Andries Nichols." The 1800's saw many imporvements in roads and bridges. In the early 1800's the Eastern Union Turnpike was constructed from Hancock, Massachusetts to Albany, New York with toll gates near the Hancock-Stephentown line. There was another toll gate in Sand Lake near the junction of today's Routes 66 and 43. The toll rate in 1819 was 12 1/2 cents for horse, wagon and three passengers. The Western Union Turnpike passed through the town from Hancock, Mass. to Schodack Landing (now Route 20). There was a toll gate on this road also. Changing times brought improved communications to our area, and in the 1920's through roads were paved. Equipment for road maintenance was bought as early as january 3, 1914, when the Town Supervisor authorized the Road Superintendent to charge the town for the purchase of two dump boxes to go on lumber wagons. Eventually in 1926, in order to receive the town's share of county aid money, the Town board appointed a committee to consider the matter of purchasing suitable machinery to work County Aid highways. In 1930 the town purchased a stone crusher from the Good Road machine Company for $110 and a Myers snowplow at the cost of $130 to be used on the town's Chevrolet truck. From then on regular expenditures were made to improve the town equipment. the last entry that could be found relative to the town hiring a team and driver was in January 1932 with wages of $6 for an 8 hour day. The two major routes through town are Routes 22 and 43."

SAW MILLS

Saw mills were abundant. There was the Fisk Sawmill, Hayes and Sweener, as well as Snell, which was operating around 1880, Senter’s and the Garfield Mill, among many others. There was also the Atwater Lumber Mill. These mills employed many men, but as with farming, the work was back breaking.

There was the Old Feed Mill, which was operated by Irving R. Coleman, father of Horatio (Race) D. Coleman.

CHARCOAL MAKING

Making charcoal was another enterprise. I know that my uncle told me that his grandfather Paschal Sweener made charcoal, as well as operated a saw mill on Black River. Several years ago, Uncle Pete took my husband and I to the spot on Black River where that old saw mill stood well over 100 years ago. "From the early days of Stephentown until after the Civil War, an important industry was charcoal making. Trees abounded, and there was often the need to clear land for pasture or cultivation. The making of charcoal and potash became profitable ways of clearing land with little investment but time and hard work. Cordwood, usually hardwood cut during the winter, was carefully stacked in the "pit", a cleared, level circle up to 40 feet in diameter. A "chimney" was built into the center of the mound of cordwood and filled with kindling and wood chips. the mound of wood was then covered with leaves and earth or "dust" from the previously used pit. The charcoal maker, or collier, fired the pit by placing burning ash in the chimney and re-covering it. The collier opened vents in the dust and leaves of the pit about halfway up the mound to control the charrinng process. Colliers watched their pits closely, checking them frequently to measure the progress of the pit, to ensure that the pit was getting just the right amount of air in the right location for proper charring, and to ensure that the pit didn't burn through to the surface. Too much air would burn everything inside the pit. Too little would suffocate the smoldering action. Watching the smoke and measuring the progress of the charring through the chimney, the collier closed the initial vents and opened others lower on the mound as the coaling process continued. Puffs of blue smoke issuing from the vents indicated a satisfactory coaling process. No smoke meant that the process was complete. This took 10 to 14 days, and then the collier began the tedious process of removing the charcoal in small amounts, extinguishing any fire in the charcoal, and separating the charcoal from the waste with a coal rake. Teamsters or families loaded the charcoal into wagons for transport and sale in the Troy or Pittsfield area at 5 to 10 cents per bushel. Some city families used charcoal for cooking and heating, but forges, glass and iron foundries, and blast furnaces consumed most of it. A weather eye was essential to successful charcoal making, and patience was essential in its transport. Anxious to get an early start next morning, more than one teamster loaded his wagon the night before, only to awaken next morning to a pile of ashes becasue the charcoal contained a spark that ignited the charcoal and the wagon during the night. (Today only two men still make charcoal locally.)"

DAIRY FARMING

There was a creamery owned by Sheffield Farms and the residents delivered their milk there for processing. Calvin Carr of Moore Hill Road delivered his milk from his farm to the creamery. "A County Agricultural Society was first proposed in 1818, and officers were first elected July 14, 1819. Henry Platt of Stephentown was elected to the Board of Managers. The Society sponsored its first annual fair in October 1819, followed by animal fairs, plowing matches and exhibits of oxen, cows, sheep, and swine around the county. The Society sold its grounds and buildings in North Troy in 1874. Dairy farming has been an important industry in Stephentown for many years. The Creamery, where the farmers took their milk, was started in 1910 and was run by Roy Rose. The present building was built about 1914 and was operated by Sheffield Farms. By 1937 there were 103 local farmers selling milk through the Creamery. (Today there are only about eight farmers operating, selling milk to out-of-town dairies.) They were represented by a local branch of the Eastern Milk Producers Association. Arthur Pease (Andy's father) was the District Representative at Syracuse. LeRoy Cummings was the President and Albert Silvernail was the Secretary. Almost 25,000 pounds of milk was shipped out daily by trains and later by trucks. Farmers were paid $1.25 per cwt in the summer and $2.50 per cwt in the winter. This was equal to five cents a quart or less. In the mid-1930's, milk prices were dropped and a milk strike began in the north and spread to Stephentown. Local farmers dumped cans of milk on the roads. State troopers were called to protect the Creamery. The Creamery was forced to close for a couple of days during the strike. No one was physically injured during this melee. The presence of a large contingent of troopers gave the town a little added excitement. Shortly after this, prices rose to acceptable levels again. Fortunately the demands were met and prices reached $7.50 to $10.00 cwt according to the market. Once again, during 1939, prices dropped to the early low levels. The Creamery closed its doors in 1950. The building stood idle until Mr. and Mrs. Robert Forman bought it and converted in into an antique shop." An interesting note, written by Howard Chittenden, reads: " Use to ship mile by train in cans and we had to ice it. Then cans came back. Next day, we had to wash out by hand. The trucks carried the milk, C.E. Trucking Co. We had a holding tank, held 310 can milk. They they remodeled the Creamery, put in can washer. We had to __ for the ice from the ice house and pull it up by trailer. It took quite a few tons to cool the milk 36 degrees-35 degrees-34 degrees. We had our own boiler by coal. We had 4 steam pumps and also 3 electric. Employed three men: Raymond Carpenter, manager; Howard Chittenden; and Orson Holt. My earnings (Howard Chittenden) for year 1937 - $748.71. For year 1938 - $1059.54. The Creamery was running around 1900. Roy Rose was manager. Also 2 more were managers before him, George Manns and Hoffenberry." Chittenden started working for Creamery on April 18, 1937.

ICE HARVESTING

The biggest hazard of the 19th Century was all sorts of insects, flies and mice contaminating the food. Food that was cooked could not be refrigerated but storage was required. Canning and smoking became a must. Storage of smoked foods was a problem. A storage unit was built. It was a cabinet with shelves and door adapted to store food, and made out of new wood built specifically for storage. Sometimes an old piece of furniture, lined with tin or screening, was used to keep small rodents out and let in air for circulation. This was usually kept in a cool porch or in the cellar. Some foods were stored for a short time only. The Shakers made an unusual food safe. This was a pine piece and painted, doors were covered with screening and had small brass knobs on it. Then came the icebox days. Ice was harvested from local ponds and sold from a horse-drawn wagon. Ice houses had to be built to store the ice pieces in order to last from one winter to another. Ice tongs were used to carry these chunks of ice and also buckets were used for the chopped ice. Eventually crushed ice was made by hand using a "shaver" tool that looked like a shovel with a sharply serrated edge. Today there are grinding machines to do the job. Ice was cut from shallow frozen ponds, moving it by conveyor machines into the ice houses which were insulated with sawdust. It also was carried by horse-drawn sleds to the ice houses. It is said that this ice tasted better and lasted longer than what you make in your freezer today."


    • Frederick Launt delivered kerosene from Stephentown Center over the mountain to Lebanon Springs.
    • Allan Southard of Stephentown had a route to Pittsfield, along which he delivered wood in his horse drawn wagon about 1916.
    • Perry Rathbun owned the The Jewel Tea Company in Stephentown Center. From what I remember from my childhood, a man would take housewares from house to house.
    • In later years, Frank Segar had a blacksmith shop.
    • Edwin Lawless and Clarence Carpenter sold the Home Comfort Range from the back of a horse drawn wagon and George Gilbert used his wagon to sell his wares in Garfield.

POSTMASTERS

Over the many years, various citizens have assumed the job of postmaster for the town. There were many different post offices, some located in stores, such as Hoag’s Store and Post Office and the post office located in Charles Vary’s store. Giles Store and Post Office stood near the Harvey Merritt farm.

“The mail was carried by postriders who traveled the main roads as far as they were constructed. To reach the settlements, they rode through the woods along the trails and paths. The postrider would leave the city, not a regular intervals, but only when he had enough mail to pay the expenses of the trip. The remote areas were lucky if they received mail once a month. The postriders delivered mail within ten days during the winter months and it took them only eight days in the summer months.

The first Colonial Post Office Act was passed in parliament in 1710. Benjamin Franklin was appointed Postmaster General in 1753 and served in this capacity for 20 years. He soon made the service profitable. The amount of mail delivered in the whole country in one years then was less than is now delivered in New York City in one day!!

Newspapters were not delivered by mail, only by private arrangements, as the papers were small and ill-printed and contained very little of what we could call news. The chief contents were bits of poetry, ads for runaway slaves and servants, arrival of cargo from foreign countries, some news from Europe and essays on politics and religion.

The first newspaper published in America was the Boston News Letter in 1704. By the time of the Revolution, there were at least 37 newspapers printed in the United States. The first daily news was not printed until 1784.

Chronology of Stephentown Area Post Offices

Stephentown – Commissioned February 2, 1815. First Postmaster Nathan Howard.

North Stephentown – May 18, 1826 to September 15, 1828. First Postmaster Lawrence Van Valkenburgh.

South Stephentown – April 3, 1828 to March 7, 1870. First Postmaster Claudius Moffitt.

West Stephentown – January 9, 1829 to January 26, 1832. Reestablished September 16, 1841 to October 31, 1907. First Postmaster Robert Tifft II. Reestablished January 26, 1909 to December 31, 1953.

North Stephentown Depot – May 24, 1872 to November 8, 1872. Only Postmaster Elisha Viele.

Stephentown Centre – October 1, 1877. First Postmaster Ezra B. Chase. Name Changed to Stephentown Center May 28, 1892. discontinued August 29, August 29, 1980.

Garfield – June 25, 1880 to June 12, 1889. Reestablished at new site November 4, 1915 to August 31, 1933. First Postmaster Charles H. Vary.

Wyomanock – Janaury 28, 1895 to January 31, 1934. First Postmaster Frank Snell.

Today, you can drive through Stephentown and see Gardner’s Restaurant, a Cumberland Farms store, a pizza parlor and of course Sykes Store. In August, 2003, my husband and I stopped in on a little book shop in Stephentown Center, just down the hill from where I spent a lot of time visiting my grandparents when I was a child. Quite an enterprise, with books teeming from shelves everywhere. It didn’t seem like there were any two books alike and they all looked liked they had been read and loved by someone else along the way. No fancy Barnes and Noble here, just the way it should be.

I was once asked by a “city cousin” if there was anyone in our family that was something other than a farmer. I kind of bristled at the question because, though my parents weren’t farmers, my mother’s family was filled with farmers and there never was a better group of people set upon this earth. They were humble, God loving people, who didn’t know they were poor, because they lived much like everyone around them. In our crazy world today, we should remember our ancestors and how they had to – scratch out a living.