Monday, November 28, 2011

Echoes of a New York revolt

Ignoring the public's grievances can wear down the government
Published in the Times Union Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Hilltowns of western Albany County — Berne, Knox, Rensselaerville, Westerlo — usually are models of snow-covered fields, picturesque woods and charming rural life this time of year. But in December 1839, they were invaded twice — once by a sheriff's posse, once by the state militia — to suppress an armed rebellion of tenant farmers who were staging a rent strike and trying to pressure their landlord, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, to sell them the farms they worked.

The anti-rent movement embroiled New York's political life for decades. Its historical insights about government failure to confront problems head on are relevant today.

The Van Rensselaers were one of several landed families, or "patroons," who held permanent title to thousands of acres in eastern New York through Dutch and English colonial land grants. Tenant resentment built up over many years. Tenants felt they paid too high rent and challenged the validity of the archaic colonial titles.

Stephen Van Rensselaer, who inherited lands that included much of Albany County when his father died in 1839, disavowed his father's policy of leniency for late or partial rent payments and demanded that the rent be paid in full. The farmers' pent-up anger exploded.

Soon, nearly 10,000 tenants in Albany, Rensselaer and other eastern counties began protesting and withholding rent. Farmers organized in secret and took to wearing disguises made of calico cloth. Calling themselves "Indians," they chanted "Down With the Rent!" at mass rallies and threatened the landlords' agents.

In the fall of 1839, they chased deputy sheriffs sent to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent out of the Hilltowns.

That December, the Albany County sheriff assembled a posse that included some of Albany's most prominent citizens, former Gov. William Marcy, and John Van Buren, son of President Martin Van Buren. An armed, jeering mob of more than a thousand farmers turned them back near Reidsville.
The alarmed Albany authorities appealed to Gov. William Seward. He dispatched the state militia and called for the farmers to disperse, but he also promised a study of the manorial system. Armed resistance melted away as the militia advanced into the hills.

But Seward's study committee dithered and the troubles resumed. An Albany County deputy was set upon by a mob of "Indians" near Rensselaerville in September 1841 and forced to hide in the woods for two days. In August 1845, a Delaware County deputy was killed. The violence tarnished the anti-rent cause and led to a number of arrests and stepped-up campaigns against the "Indians" by local authorities and the state militia.

The anti-renters escalated their appeals to the state. They argued that the manor system was a drag on New York's agricultural economy, endorsed political candidates who supported their cause and organized their own political party. But state government equivocated. The two major parties, Whigs and Democrats, postured for the tenants' votes but neither crusaded to end the patroon system. Seward soon lost interest.

His successor, Gov. William Bouck, met with a thousand angry tenants in West Sand Lake in August 1844 and offered to mediate. But the farmers mistrusted him and the landlords thought he was too soft on the lawless anti-renters.

Gov. Silas Wright (1845-1846) declared Delaware County in a state of insurrection after the murder of the deputy sheriff there, but also pardoned some of the convicted anti-renters. Gov. John Young (1847-1848) pardoned remaining imprisoned leaders but did not attack the manorial status quo.
The state Legislature voted to tax the landlords' manor income and restrict evictions for non-payment. But they banned armed, disguised people from public highways and authorized the governor to aid sheriffs overwhelmed by anti-rent forces. Proposals to end the patroon system were debated but never passed.

Court decisions shielded the landlords against initiatives to invalidate their titles or use state eminent domain authority to seize their land. An 1846 state constitutional convention added an amendment to restrict future — but not existing — long-term land leases.
The issue gradually died down, mostly through quiet compromises where resentful tenants bought their farms from weary landlords. But remnants of organized resistance continued to the late 1880s.

The lessons of the anti-rent movement resonate today.

History shows that government often procrastinates or chips away at contentious issues rather than addressing them head on. Cynical politicians hope the issue will fade or voters will blame their opponents for inaction.

But kicking the can down the road usually ill serves the public interest. People who feel they are denied justice over a long period of time may become confrontational and even resort to violence.
The issue may finally be resolved but it may take decades of agitation and dispute, and exact a heavy toll.
Today, the federal government is deadlocked over taxation, spending and other issues. The two major political parties undermine and discredit each other. Drift and uncertainty substitute for policy.
People take to the streets in the Occupy movement to demand government action. Police arrest unruly demonstrators. Reformers call for higher taxes on the rich.

Similar issues were simmering as the county and state armed forces made their way warily into the snowy Hilltowns 172 years ago.

Bruce W. Dearstyne, Ph.D., of Guilderland, is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. He previously was a professor at Maryland and a program director at the New York State Archives.

Read more:

Altamont Enterprise Oct 19 1934

1933 History of Reidsville

Little Village in Helderberg Hills Once Boasted Two Churches, Two Hotels, Several Stores; Abandoned Church Now Monument to Town That Slipped Away

Editor's Note — The following article, written by Inez Shook, appeared in the Sunday Knickerbocker Press, Sept. 16, 1934.

Dust lies like a grey shroud over the interior of a little old church high in the Helderberg hills. It spreads over the huge Bible open on the rough, low pulpit; over the organ with its muted echoes of music that once swelled an accompaniment to the chorus of young voices from choir seats on each side the raised platform; over the twin stoves at the rear of the room, and the sedate rows of square, low-backed pews.
This abandoned church is a monument to a town that died. A town that grew from hamlet to a thriving center of mountain industry, then slipped back to its humble beginnings as time and progress stole its reason for existence. Now, only this crumbling building and vine-tangled quarries in the hills outside remain as testimony to the days when Reidsville was a thriving community of several hundred souls, and could boast two churches, two hotels and several stores.
Augustus H. Salisbury knows the story of Reidsville. Mr. Salisbury lives in a neat grey house on the narrow unpaved road that runs through Reidsville, and can look out his windows at the vacant lots where business places once nourished. He knew as familiar sounds the voices of men making merry in the hotel across the way after a day of toil or during the long winter lay-off. Many times he has watched, the four-horse stage from Albany swing to a whip-cracking halt before William Stoneburner's Inn.
Augustus Salisbury, too, is the man who can tell you about the blue stone Quarries that once kept Reidsville "on the map". He went to work there as a youth of 20, and has watched the in dustry dwindle, from its onetime high peak. And it was he who made the last stand with the quarry industry, to which he was forced to hang up the "out of business" sign a year ago. "Cement did it," Mr, Salisbury observed. Reidsville had the finest blue stone quarries in this section of the Helderbergs, and was the center of the business for over 50 years.
"The men who worked in the quarries around town and in the old Grippie quarry near South Berne all used to live in Reidsville. We had two churches, the Methodist and the Christian - full every Sunday, too- two hotels, several stores and a street lined with houses. "We shipped blue stone from Voorheesville as far away as Philadelphia. Albany, however, was our best market. We also shipped some stone for use as rough boxes.
"But all that ended about 15 years ago. The quarries were kept open until June, 1933, but business was dead."
A. H. Salisbury went to work in the Reidsville quarries nearly 40 years ago. He learned how to blast away top rock, to find the natural seams of blue stone about 10 feet below. Then came the "driving up" with wedges and rolling out of the slabs. "Tracing up" was next, when holes were bored at intervals and the stones cut into required sizes.
This was "quarry cut" stone. Sometimes there would be an order for rock chiseled into smooth edges. Horses crept down over the steep, winding roads into the valley below with their wagon loads of cut stone. It was a 12-hour haul to Albany, and a teamster had many a spare moment for philosophic musing on the journey.
In the early days, the cut rock was loaded into the waiting wagons by hand. Later, derricks were used. Aaron Hotaling and William Brate were the first operators of the 75-year old quarries, as Mr. Salisbury recalls. They were followed by other holders, including John Flagler and the Albany County Blue Stone Company for which Mr. Salisbury worked as a foreman for 21 years. When this company gave up the quarries, Mr. Salisbury took them over. By this time, however, blue stone window sills, curbing and sidewalks were becoming outmoded. Cement and artificial stone usurped its place. For a while, Mr. Salisbury sent truckloads of stone to Saugerties for shipment to New York. He Also kept wheels running over the routes to Bennington, Vt, and Massachusetts towns. Then there was the coping for the Schuyler Mansion and Fort Crailo which he supplied. Blue stone has an antique appearance and is popular in the reconstruction of old stone buildings, he explained.
About six years ago, the Lane Construction Company resurfaced 10 miles of the Rensselaerville road and 10 of the Thacher Park-New Salem highway with rock from the Reidsville quarry. Last year, there was an order for blue stone as backing for the new Trinity Methodist Church of Albany. And from Stockbridge, Mass., came a few orders for blue stone to be used in "crazy walks."
But the groans of laboring derricks died from the quarries, and loaded trucks rumbled less and less on the roads to the valley cities. Quarries that had run from April to November every year closed in the middle of the summer.
In June, 1933, the last wagon load of stone trundled out of the village. Mr. Salisbury turned his eyes toward other fields of endeavor. Cement the material that ruined Reidsville and his own business furnished one job. He constructed over 30 of the cooking fireplaces set up last summer in Thacher Park. And he has found many other places to use the skill developed in the quarry town. But rotting wagon tongues lie half buried in the stagnant pools that fill the abandoned quarries. Reidsville, which offered Frederick W. Conger and William Brate as candidates for sheriff of Albany County, has shrunk into a roadside hamlet once more. Many homes have burned or been torn down to leave gaping vacancies along the road. The hotels and other business places have disappeared. Stone cutters have died or moved away from the village they made. Besides August Salisbury, there are only Adam and Charles Otto to recall working days in the quarries. Coat hooks in the entry of the Christian Church erected in 1821 hang empty, and Wilkins and David Crawford, former trustees, look wistfully upon its crumbling walls and sagging pews.
Belongs to the Past
Services are still conducted in the Methodist Church on the hill. There is a tiny schoolhouse, and there are a few homes to send pupils there. But these houses belong to a new type of Resident: Newcomers who never knew that thriving community which sent wagon-loads of stone down to valley railroads running to great cities of the East.
Reidsville belongs to the past. A surely as the Reidsville Rural Cemetery on the hill sheltering 15 soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic and that young Clifton Flagler, nephew of A. H. Salisbury, who died on World War battlefield in the 55th Regiment of the United States Marines. That cemetery across which Nathaniel Newberry flung a jest that brought a grim return.
Newberry helped build the cemetery. When it was finished he shook with deep laughter and cried:"Bring 'em on now. Your cemetery is ready for business."
It was Nathaniel Newberry who rested in the first grave.

Recent Additions

Reidsville Quarry owned and operated by the Brate and Flagler Families
At the turn of the century, the Reidsville Quarry was a bustling site employing between 100 – 150 men who worked to produce bluestone that was used as sidewalks in the City of Albany. Constant streams of horses with wagons carried the flagging stones to Albany and more recently just to the Village of Voorheesville after railroad tracks were built there. Paul Giebitz owns this area now, and his company, Heldeberg Bluestone, is still busy cutting and drilling bluestone in its Mt. Grippy quarry. An article written by Shiela Stempel, “Heldeberg Bluestone paves the way through historic years,” may be found in the September 23, 1975 issue of The Helderberg Sun.

Monday, November 14, 2011

From Helen Lounsbury: BKW is in the process of trying to establish an ed relationship with Dudley Observatory. We recently met with folks from Dudley. I think a large attendance at the Star party they sponsor would be helpful. Pat and i went to the last one--it was excellent.  Please do what you can to promote this worthwhile event.