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 Hurley, 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 who 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!

Not to be confused with his 19th-Century namesake, George Sumner 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. Albee's short novel The Three Young Kings retells the Christmas story of the three wise men. His subtly satiric allegory of American business, The Top, was selected by Groff Conklin for his celebrated anthology 13 Great Stories of Science Fiction.

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