EXTRACTS FROM ONE OF JUDGE EARL'S BEST PAPERS
Ilion Citizen, Thursday, June 6, 1907.
Herkimer and Its People During the First Thirty Years of the Past Century
--- Only One Church Then but Several Taverns, Distilleries, Asheries and Tanneries.
We publish to-day liberal extracts from a paper read before the Herkimer County Historical Society June 3, 1896, by the late Hon. Robert Earl and which is particularly appropriate this centennial year.
I propose to give some glimpses and reminiscences of Herkimer and its people during the first thirty years of this century. Some of the things I write are within my own knowledge and others I have learned from Colonel Suiter, and from William Smith, and other old citizens who have passed away.
The people living here had a village organization and government under a legislative act, as early as 1807, one of the earliest in the state west of Schenectady. The stony ground, mainly above the railroad and south of German street, were usually called by the residents here the "Stone Ridge"; and the three parallel streets, Main, Prospect and Washington, with the intersecting cross streets, north of the railroad, then existed, and upon these streets early in the century, there were but a few hundred inhabitants. As late as 1830 there were not more than five hundred. There were no sidewalks, the first sidewalk having been built upon portions of Main street in 1832, and the buildings were small and of simple construction. The buildings in the village and particularly in the country, generally, were not finished, lathed or plastered above the first story and there were generally no locks on the outside doors. The most considerable private residences were as follows: The house now owned by Dr. Burgess on Main street, the one on Main street owned by Mrs. Lawton, where she was born and during the eighty-three years of her life always lived; the Simeon Ford house on Washington street, just south of the lane crossing the hydraulic to what is now called Brooklyn, and the Weber house occupied by Dr. Pryne.
There was but one church, and that was where the Reformed church now is, and the Court House, which included the jail, was where the present Court House is located, and that burned down in 1834 and the same fire communicated to the church and also destroyed that.
There was but one school house on the Stone Ridge, and that a very poor and cheap one, located on Washington street on the lot now owned by LaFayette J. Folts. There was another school house in a separate district situated nearly opposite the brick house of Jacob J. Bellinger on German street.
There were several stores - one where Dr. Suiter's house now is, which was kept by Mr. Fairwell, who afterwards moved to Utica and then to Chicago where his sons have been among the prominent business men, one of them having been a United States Senator. Here was a block of three wooden stores where the Fox block now is, one where the National Bank now is there was a store and a jewelry shop. At the beginning of the century and for a long time before, Jacob P. Weber, called King Weber, had a store on German street, just east of the lot then owned by Dr. William Retry and later by Mr. Samuel Earl. At this store he dealt in peltries with the Indians and white hunters and trappers and amassed a large fortune, larger than that of any other person in the State west of Schenectady, which in his death passed to his daughters, Mrs. Frederick Doxtater, Mrs. F. P. Bellinger and Mrs. C. C. Bellinger.
There were more taverns in the town of Herkimer then than now. There was one at the Farrington farm near the Ilion depot called the Uphan tavern, somewhat noted for its sign, on one side of which was painted in oils a well dressed gentleman, riding a fine horse, with the legend, "Going to Law," and on the other side a shabbily dressed forlorn looking man and a poor woe-begone looking horse, with the legend, "Returning from Law;" and also at the following places: On the hill west of the Horrocks factory, in a building recently burned down; where the present cheese factory is; just east of the residence of Dr. Pryne; on Main street where Dr. Suiter's house is in a building which was before a store; where the Mansion House now is; on the corner of Main and Mary streets where Mrs. Monroe now lives; where the Waverly House now is; where the Stimsons now live; where the Nelson House and also where the Edick House now are; up the creek where John Farmer, and afterwards his son Harry and still later Mr. Fenner lived; where Mr. James Bellinger lives; near the Tower farm on the turnpike, and still further down where Darius Small now lives, and just east of that, one called the Ethridge tavern. Their profits were small and outside of the village they were generally connected with farms and were only incidental to farming. The charges were generally small, a sixpence for a meal and the same for lodging and one shilling for the stabling of a team over night with hay. Whiskey, which was the principal liquor sold, was not more than fifteen cents per gallon, and hence could be dispensed cheap with a profit, and it was freely indulged in. All the travel was by land, except a small amount upon the Erie [c]anal after it was opened, and it was large. The stages which then carried all the passengers to and from the west, passed over the turnpike on the north side of the Mohawk river, and through this village, bringing much custom to the taverns along the route. The stages were drawn by four horses and they all changed horses at some tavern in this village. As a stage came into the village from the east or the west, the driver would blow his horn, and by the time he reached the tavern the fresh horses would be ready to hitch on.
There were several whiskey distilleries in the town: one where the Marks's residence now is; one on the southeast corner of Prospect and German streets; one near Kast's Bridge; another on the West Canada creek just north of the toll-gate; and a cider brandy distillery up the creek at the Farmer place. There was an ashery for the manufacture of potash where James Fagan now lives, and south of that there was a tannery; there was also an ashery on Washington street where Mr. McNeal lives.
There was a number of blacksmiths, who not only did all the work done by men of that craft in the region, but they also made all the carpenters' tools and all farming implements, such as plows, hoes, shovels, scythes, axes, etc.
The shoemakers made and mended all the shoes, and no shoes were ever brought here, as now, for sale. Farmers would have their hides tanned, and shoemakers would go around, and working by the day or month, would once a year shoe the whole family -- the famer furnishing the work bench which many of them kept on hand for that purpose.
Tailors made all the clothes, as there was no ready-made clothing, and they too, would annually go around from house to house and make the clothes for the whole family out of cloth made from the wool spun and dyed and dressed at the fulling mills, a number of which were located in the town. These itinerant would work for $13 a month.
There was a manufactory of cowbells where the jail now is, and Colonel Suiter, when a boy, worked in the factory at a shilling per day. These bells were made for use in this State, upon cows which were permitted to roam for food in the forests, particularly in the early spring. But they were sold mainly for use in the southern states.
This village was the home of several prominent lawyers, among them, Gaylord Griswold, a brilliant lawyer in the early part of this century, who became a Federalist member of Congress, elected in 1802, and died, comparatively young, in 1809. Aaron Hackley, who was elected a member of Congress in 1818 and voted for the Missouri Compromise line in 1821; Simeon Ford, Loren Ford, James B. Hunt, Charles Gray, Michael Hoffman, and Flavius J. Littlejohn, which subsequently became Governor of Michigan. These men gave our bar a high standing and adorned many public stations.
The Herkimer American published by [Eward] P. Seymour, was, during the later years of the period with which I am now dealing, the only newspaper.
The doctors were Doolittle, Farrell, Abrahams, and Tomlin, and they usually visited their out-of-town patients on horseback, and their compensation for a visit was not more than fifty cents, and to my personal knowledge, they pulled teeth for one shilling each.
Farm hands received $8 per month by the year and about $13 per month for the spring, summer and fall work, and they usually worked from daylight to dark; and female help received from 50 to 75 cents per week.
Farmers and their families were generally clothed in home-made cloth, both woolen and linen. The women generally [hetcheled] and spun the flax and wove it into cloth for underwear and sheets and pillow cases, and they also worked in the fields upon the farm cultivating crops and gathering in the harvest.
A large share of farm work was done by what were called "bees." There were bees for paring apples, spinning, plowing, drawing out manure, chopping and logging, husking corn and, sometimes for making hay. Hilarity, good fellowship and sometimes pugnacity among the men at these bees were stimulated by the free use of whiskey which was never absent. Indeed, few farmers in those days did farm work without dealing out whiskey to their help, to keep them warm when it was cold and cool when it was hot. Large farmers, frequently at the commencing of haying and harvesting, purchased whiskey by the barrel for use upon their farms. Whiskey was also freely dispensed at funerals, christenings, sheep-shearing, sheep washing, and on all occasions of festivities, and yet, the evils of intemperance were not greater then than now.
The farmers in those days were frugal, industrious, generally out of debt and independent; most of them never gave or held a note. In the winter the leading farmers were engaged in carrying their produce to Albany for sale there, and they would generally carry back loads of merchandise for merchants. They were generally a hearty, rollicking lot of men, social, free from harassing cares, honest, pions with few wants and simple habits; and I believe that on the whole they were happier than the farmer of this day. They nearly all belonged to [Dominic] Spinners Dutch Church, and if they did not in all respects exemplify the precepts of the Christian religion in their daily lives, they lived well up to the highest standing of their day. They were taught the Heidelberg Catechism and when sufficiently instructed, were taken into the church on the profession of their faith. They usually attended church in the forenoon on Sunday and a large share of them slept through the service; and in the afternoon following the customs of their German ancestors, which were sanctioned by their [dominie,] they visited, and sometimes engaged in other harmless amusements.
In the long winters the dances called "Dutch F[u]ddles" were a great feature among the farmers, serving in the inclement season to cultivate a cheerful spirit and mollify the asperity of nature. They were given in private houses, and one fiddler, usually standing upon a chair, furnished the music. He would call off the dances, and the women, dressed in home-made stuff and calico, silks being very rare, and the men, clothed in homespun, with coarse boots and sometimes without anything on their feet but stockings, kept time to the music and whirled in the giddy dance, in a manner that would astonish the trained and genteel dancers of these modern days.
There were no friction matches and coals were kept alive over night for the fire the next day, and when there were no live coals, fire was started with a spark from a steel and flint and in some other rude way.
Among the Germans, or Dutch, as they were called, much was made of the few holidays they had. Christmas, the main holiday, was celebrated for several days, continuing until New Years, and Easter and Pinckster, which in the church calendar is [Whit] Sunday were kept with much zest. Easter and the colored eggs were always associated in the youthful minds. The 4th of July was a great day, ushered in with the boom of cannon and celebrated with parades in which Revolutionary soldiers bore a conspicuous part, and with speeches and fire-works and other demonstration of genuine patriotic zeal and devotion.
During all these years military organizations were numerous, and all men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five were required to belong to some of them, and to train as it was called. Military titles were much coveted and even a corporal was not to be [despised.] General trainings, when a whole regiment of several regiments were brought together for a parade, were great events. There was a general turn out of the people and the occassion was a real holiday. Cider and other beverages and Yankee notions were sold, and ginger bread was there to gladden the hearts of the youngsters who had a few pennies to invest. There were artillery[___], light infantry, cavalry and militia companies, and they kept up the military spirit engendered in the Revolutionary was and the later war of 1812.
The inhabitants of this town were mostly the descendents of the Palatines and later German emigrants. German, Mohawk Dutch as it was called, was generally talked and understood. That language was heard more than any other in the pulpit, in the streets, taverns, stores and upon election and town meeting days. These people were pain, simple, honest and unlearned. They were superstitious, generally believed in witches and in ghosts; and many were the stories of ghosts and witches I heard in my boyhood, which almost made my hair stand on end and filled the dark night with terror and my brain with troubled dreams. Within the village a man by the name of Henry Helmer, who lived where Mr. J. G. Bellinger now lives, had some hogs that were diseased in some way and concluded that they might be bewitched. He consulted a professed witch doctor by the name of Raitus Bridenbecker, who lived in Schuyler, and he was advised to burn the hogs, and that the first man who came when they began to squeal would be the witch. Helmer confined the hogs and piled brush upon them and set fire to the brush, and a man by the name of Jacob Moon, a quaint character, was the first to appear when the hogs began to squeal, and so he was believed to be the witch. The hogs were roasted and Helmer was thereafter called the "Sibrorer," the Dutch name for hog roaster and his son, a comrade of mine, was called the "Young Sibrorer."
There were no buggies or cutters and at most two or three carriages in the whole town, one of which was still owned by William Smith at his death and passed to his legatees under his will; and there was not a piano or a house organ of any kind in the town and no cushioned and upholstered furniture.
There were but a few Yankees here at the beginning of this century. The Dutch feared them, believing them to be too smart for Dutch simplicity. The trick of the "Yankee pass" from which Judge Staring suffered, handed down by tradition which is related in Benton's History of Herkimer County, engendered suspicion of Yankee cunning and craft.
During this time there were never more than two Roman Catholics residing here, one of whom was a lawyer by the name of Lapham and the other a farmer by the name of O'Rourke, until about the time of the construction of the hydraulic canal and the railroad, when many Irish were brought here to work upon these structures, who came with such a reputation for pugnacity that they caused us youngsters to give them a wide berth when we met them.
There were no Low Dutch here except Peter DeGraff, who came here from Schenectady, and was a tailor by trade and kept the toll gate at the West Canada creek bridge, whose youngest son Henry, is now among the wealthy men of the city of New York and is president of the Bowery National Bank.
It is a curious circumstance that the settlers upon the Mohawk river were divided as between the Low Dutch and the German High Dutch, as they were divided upon the River Rhine. There the High Dutch lived upon the upper Rhine and the Low Dutch upon the lower Rhine. Here the Low Dutch settled upon the Mohawk below Canajoharie and the High Dutch above that point, and hence below we find the name of Amsterdam, a Dutch name, and above Palatine, Minden, Danube, Manheim Frankfort all German names from the upper Rhine.
At the beginning of this century there were but few books here except those of religious nature. But the need for more books soon began to be felt, and the "Herkimer Library" was incorporated in 1809 under the general act of the legislature of 1796 authorizing the incorporation of libraries. The incorporation was affected at a meeting called for February 15, at the house of Theophilus Morgan, now the Mansion House, over which Matthew Myers was chosen to preside, and the following seven trustees of the library were elected: Walter Fish, Simeon Ford, Philo M. Hackley, Asa Munger, Daniel Morse, Asa Gifford and William Lappan. The law of 1796 required at least twenty members to organize such a library and a cash capital of at least 40 pounds. The members owned shares which were assignable and annual payments from members could be required by the by-laws. Matthew Myers was a son of General Michael Myers, and he was a graduate of Union College, in the class of 1809. The trustees were all prominent men here. Walter Fish was one of the judges of the county, and he was the father of the late Henry Fish of Utica. Simeon Ford was the leading lawyer of the county Philo Hackley was a merchant; Asa Munger was a jeweler; Daniel Morse was a harness maker; Asa Gifford was a carpenter and William, Lappan was a lawyer. We know nothing about this library except its formal organization. It did not come down to the time of any person now living, even by tradition. It must have soon died out for the want of support. It is a marked illustration of the power of time to obliterate all traces of the living that there are no descendents, now in the county, of any of the men connected with the organization of that library.
Herkimer was in the early years of the century, as now, the center of considerable political influence. It was neat the geographical center of the sate, and before railroad tracks was more accessible from all parts of the state than ant other important point. Here the Democratic State Conventions wee held which nominated Martin Van Buren for Governor in 1828. Enos T. Throop for Governor in 1830, and William, E. Marcy for Governor in 1832; and here a young men's Democratic State convention was held I 1832 to promote the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency. The influence of Michael Hoffman was then, and for many years afterwards influential in the councils of the Democratic party.
Note: letters/words in [ ] were difficult to read and may have been read incorrectly due to quality of the newsprint copy.
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