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Hillsdale, New York
Local culture | Local living | Soft news
3 August 2021 12:10AM
Lauren Letellier

In 2017 the Hillsdale Historians wrote about Hudson River School artist John Bunyan Bristol (1826-1909) and we included an image of his Hillsdale birthplace. The 1900 postcard shows a rundown farmhouse on Old Town Road, boarded up and covered with vines. It is a sad image of disuse and disrepair and made us wonder, why put a dwelling in such bad shape on a postcard? 

It’s 2021 and today we’re writing about that same house, but for an entirely different reason. In the process of renovating the building the owners made a startling discovery: the house turns out to be a Dutch structure dating to 1760.  To the best of our knowledge, it is the oldest house in Hillsdale.

Historic Preservationist Michael Rebic of Austerlitz was certain of it the moment he crossed the threshold. “The owner asked me to take a look at a deteriorating building on the property. We assumed it was a 19th century tenant building. It was in really bad shape — there was even a tree growing through the front porch! We walked carefully across the rotting porch floorboards, opened the door, and I immediately said, ‘This is a Dutch house.’ Structurally, it had the bones of a Dutch house. You can’t change the bones. Where I live, in Austerlitz, most of the settlers were English, but it was clear to me the house was not built by an English carpenter. As a historic preservationist, I knew right away it was one of the rare Dutch houses in eastern Columbia County.”

Dutch colonists started buying land as early as 1649 along the eastern bank of the Hudson River, where the soil was fertile and river access provided an avenue for commerce with New York City, but they found the hilly terrain and rocky soil of Columbia County’s eastern edge much less attractive. 

We can’t be sure that the little house was built by a Dutch craftsman, but we can be sure that it follows Dutch building styles. Hillsdale was a transitional area in the mid-18th century, a jumble of national origins and cultures. English Yankees from Connecticut and Massachusetts, priced out of farmland in those colonies, crossed the Berkshire Mountains to settle in the untamed hill towns straddling the MA/NY border and brought with them English building styles.  

In 1710, German refugees from the economically and politically unstable Palatine area arrived in southern Columbia County indentured to work at Livingston Manor “camps” manufacturing naval stores (e.g., pitch, resin, and turpentine) for the British Navy. The project failed almost immediately, and the camps were broken up. The Palatines spread throughout the Hudson and Mohawk River Valleys. Some of them became tenant farmers, leasing land from the Van Rensselaers and Livingstons and building homes in the Dutch manner, although on a more modest scale.  

The house’s deed history can be traced back only as far as 1822, when Andrew A. and Elizabeth Sharts sold their farm to David Wheeler, a miller, of Amenia. The Sharts descended from Palatine families arriving in East Camp (today’s Germantown) in 1710. They were part of an enclave of Palatine families, many of them with the Sharts surname, that settled in Hillsdale by the mid-1700s.  (Source: Neil Larson, Hudson Mohawk Vernacular Architecture) Whippoorwill Road was previously named  Sharts Street, and it appears as such on maps as recent as 1958.

Rebic’s ability to identify the house as Dutch was helped by the house’s interior renovation, which had stripped all 20th century alterations down to its wall framing. “If you look at the structural beams, they are about four feet apart,” he said. “In an English house, all the structural columns would have been on the corners. In the Netherlands, because the ground was so boggy, they had to distribute the weight of the house evenly or the house could sink. And even though this area doesn’t have the same boggy ground, those building techniques persisted in the New World with the Dutch builders.” 

In 2019 architectural historian Neil Larson, whose firm Larson Fisher had conducted the Historic Resource Survey and National Register nomination for Hillsdale Hamlet, visited Hillsdale to consult with the owners. Larson’s analysis determined the house was constructed using a post-and-beam system associated with the Dutch building tradition of H-bent frames, a style derived from the northern European medieval building tradition. The house had a two-room plan with a central dividing partition. Each room had its own door from the outside, but one had been covered up. Why, we wondered, would a house need two front doors?  

Rebic explained: “The Dutch had a linear way of building homes, with rooms connected end-to-end, a function of their traditional post-and-beam construction. English settlers would build a house stacked around a central chimney, adding onto it but keeping a single, primary entrance door. The Dutch always put in a second door, either to demarcate the utility of the rooms – one side as the parlor for public use, the other side as living space for the family and servants — or sometimes for mercantile reasons, for example, renting out a room.” 

The house originally had two jambless fireplaces on its gable ends.  Jambless fireplaces are a defining characteristic of Dutch homes, and the Dutch held onto this building tradition through the first half of the 18th century, even after it became obvious that the English-style fireplace was more efficient. 

The ceiling beams on the first floor would have been planed smooth and left exposed to be admired, like furniture. Later they were hacked to increase headroom and be leveled for the addition of lath-and-plaster ceilings. A renovation that included adding upper story windows on the front and rear walls coincided with the early 19th century period when the Bristol family lived in the house. You can read Larson’s complete analysis here.

The original house would not have had eyebrow windows at the garret level, as it was used for grain storage and sleeping quarters for servants, slaves, or children. At some point in the 19th century the owner replaced the roof with one with a much shallower pitch. Jack Sobon, an architect and builder specializing in timber frame buildings, uncovered an original mortise in the collar beam that indicated the original pitch. (His drawing is below). The owners restored the roof to the original pitch during the renovation of the second floor.

Determinative proof of the house’s age came from a dendrochronology test conducted at the Columbia Lamont Doherty tree ring laboratory. Dendrochronology is a fancy word for a technique we all learned in grade school — dating the age of tree stumps by counting the annual growth rings. In this case, core samples taken from the house’s pitch pine and oak beams made it possible to essentially do the same thing — count the tree rings. The lab dates the house to 1760.

“The most extraordinary thing is that a house was found that no one knew anything about, and it turned out to be an early Dutch house,” said Rebic. 

There are undoubtedly other Dutch/Palatine houses in Hillsdale, covered up with the accretion of 19th and 20th century alterations.  If your ancestors arrived in Columbia County with the Palatines and you live in an old house, you may be residing in a slice of 18th century history. You can search this site for Palatine names.

Sources:

Dutch Vernacular Architecture in North America 1640-1830 (The Society for the Preservation of Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture, 2005)

Dutch Colonial Homes in America  (Rizzoli, 2002)

http://www.hmvarch.org

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© 2021 Chris Atkins and Lauren Letellier

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