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Reminiscences of an Octogenarian
Some Recollections Penned by an Old Settler
Facts and Incidents in the Primitive History of the City.
(Source: Watertown Re-Union Newspaper, May 7, 1884, page 8)
Watertown, April 30:
Enclosed find reminiscences of events in the early history of Watertown, as furnished me by a lifelong friend, CYRUS T. HUNTINGTON, now a resident of Black River, and an octogenarian. From his youth he has been a close observer, an original think, and always posted in passing events and the current literature of the age; in religion a Methodist, in politics a democrat. Of his father's family but two members remain, MRS. JOSEPH KIMBALL of Watertown, and himself. It may be proper to say that I have read the "recollections" furnished you to Mrs. Kimball, who corroborates the statements made by her brother so far as her memory enables her to do so. Please give them a place in the Re-Union, and oblige,
A. P. SIGOURNEY
Black River, Feb. 12, 1883,
Agreeably to your wish, I have concluded to write out a few of my early recollections of the first settlement of your neighborhood and town. First, I will say, that I was born in the state of New Hampshire, and county of Cheshire. Now at this writing, I don't know of a person living that was in the town of Watertown before I was. My father, WM. HUNTINGTON, came in the summer of 1803 into Watertown, and took a contract for 200 acres of land joining your present farm, on the west, which then belonged to a man by the name of SAMUEL MACK (I will speak more of Mack in another place.) The land that my father took up was taken in 1802 by two brothers by the name of HEALY. One of them cleared the timber from about two acres, where Mr. D. D. TAYLOR'S house now stands, and put up the body of a log house, on the north side of the road. The other Healy felled the timber on a small piece and put up the body of a log house where your schoolhouse now stands. They became sick of the country, gave up their contract and left for home. Father entered into an agreement with JONAH WOODRUFF, who lived a few rods east of your house, to stay with him until he could get his log house ready to live in, and returned home Monday, December 19, 1803.
LEFT OUR HOME in New Hampshire with two teams. Father hired a team to fetch a load of goods and arrived at Mr. Woodruff's in Watertown, on the 6th day of January, 1804. We came slow, the snow being deep all the way, and weather stormy. The snow was two feet deep when we arrived here. To show you how people could get along in those days, I will say, Mr. Woodruff's house was of logs, 18 by 22 ft. with a low chamber. There were ten in Woodruff's family, and 10 in ours, making 20 in all, in a small house, and we were all comfortable and happy. The first thing to be done was to fit up our house. There was 2 feet of snow to be disposed of. For a roof, we felled hollow bass trees, cut them off the right length, split them in two, laying them on, two with the bark down, and one with the bark up, covering the joint of the first two until the roof was completed; dug stone, and built what was called a Dutch fireplace and oven, with a stick chimney; that is, by splitting out timber small, laying them up cob-house fashion, then plastering it with clay mortar to prevent fire. All the cracks between the logs were filled with the same. We cut a pine tree, drew it to Burrville, had it converted into boards for floors, & c., and in six days the house was completed. The seventh we moved into it; in it we lived five and a half years, and we, as a family, have often spoken of those years as the happiest of our lives.
WATERTOWN THEN. Your school district was organized in the spring of 1806 (and I can tell the names and location of every inhabitant at that time) but it would be of no particular interest. The first school was taught, in our barn; father had built a new frame barn the summer before, about the only frame building in the district. Some of the time the school was in the stable where the cows stood the winter before. On the 16th of June of that year, there was a total eclipse of the sun, beginning about 10 a.m. and continuing three hours, lacking, I think, nine minutes. When it became too dark for us to study, we, the school of about a dozen scholars, were allowed to go out in the barnyard; while we were out, the hens went in and roosted on the stanchions in our school room; I remember the rooster crowed when he flew on the roost. The morning was beautiful and clear. Before eleven stars appeared; Venus shone beautifully in the southwest.
In the fall of 1807, the district built a log schoolhouse at the forks of the roads, west of your house. The school was taught there two winters and one summer; the house then took fire and burned down. In the summer of 1810 the schoolhouse was built on the present site at the creek.
When we came into the town, SIMEON, JONAH WOODRUFF'S oldest son, was married and lived up the road, a little east of his father's. They had two children, a boy and girl, the girl the oldest. FELIX was the first white person born in the town; and died west. OTIS, JOSHUA TOWN's oldest son, was the second; he died in LeRay a few years since. The first white child born on Low's purchase was the son of AARON BACON (the late Deacon Bacon of the First church). He was born in Rutland. Being the first, they gave him the name of Low; he lived about five years and was instantly killed by a falling tree. I will give you one more of my EARLY RECOLLECTIONS, and then I think I will close on this line. I saw on the flat west of your house, on the Mills farm, eighteen sheep and lambs brought together that were killed by wolves the night before. At that time deer, bears, wolves and foxes were plenty, with occasionally a panther.
In the winter of 1805, my father was appointed magistrate by Gov. George Clinton. In the month of April of that year the town of Watertown was organized. The first town meeting was held at our house. At this time Burrville and Watertown were rival villages; the populations were about equal. Burrville claimed to be the first, or leading village, because the first saw and grist mills were put in operation there by Mr. Burr. The people of Burrville called the two villages upper and lower Watertown. Neither of the villages was willing to go to the other to hold the first town meeting. Finally they ageed to meet half way; our house being equi-distant was the cause of its being held there. The meeting was called to order, father was called to the chair, and THOMAS CONVERSE of Burrville, was chosen secretary. That brought the meeting into working order. They then proceeded to elect a board of town offices and did it by acclamation. Father was elected highway commissioner, an office he held a number of years...(unreadable) ...my mother furnished a dinner of baked pork and beans, with a pot of Indian pudding baked.
BEEBEE'S ISLAND. JONATHAN COWAN put the first saw and gristmill in operation, in the lower village. He bought a piece of land, including what is now called Beebee's Island, running south, and taking in a part of the Public Square. He built the first dam across Black River. He employed SAMUEL MACK (spoken of above) to take charge of the work. He built his dame from the south shore across to the island, thinking it would give head enough to operate his mills, but it only raised the water about four feet, and turned the water around the island. He then built another dam from the head of the island to the north shore. It was a dangerous job, the water being high, and Mack was the only man that could be found at that time that would have dared to undertake it.
Mr. MACK built the first bridge across Black River, at the place where the lower covered bridge now is. Perhaps you would be interested to know how it was built. He fell large pine trees, hewed and counter-hewed them down to sixteen inches square for stringers, and as long as he could get that size, which would run from 50 to 70 feet. He then built his temporary work to lay the bridge on. He then laid on those timbers sixteen feet apart with one end resting on the abutment, then continued to lay on others until they reached the opposite shore. Then he laid the needle beams on the first timbers, 12 inches square, letting them into the stringers six inches. This done, he next laid on long timbers over the first, breaking joints, letting down on the needle beams until the long timbers met. He then laid two more timbers on each side as before, making each 49 inches high. He fastened the whole together with heavy clamps. The sides, or perpendicular pieces, were ten feet long. With heavy girts framed throughout, one girt under the other over the cords, he made wedges of four inch hardwood scantling and drove four to each clamp, under the girt, on the top, by striking the wedges with a sledge, once through, then repeating from first to last, would fetch the cords together very close. I think the clamps were about ten feet apart. There was a permanent trustle under the centre, and timber enough in the bridge to build three lattice bridges. When it was built it was thought to be a wonderful piece of mechanism. It stood quite a number of years.
There has been no change in Mill Street since Mr. COWAN built his grist mill. The mill stood where the "Union" now stands. It was a small building with one run of stone. In going to the mill, we went down a sharp rocky pitch, say ten feet fall, turned to the left, to come in front of the mill. The miller would take the grist, carry it up a flight of stairs to the hopper. Eighty years ago all the grist mills were built so that the flour could fall from the stones to the bolt. Elevators were then unknown. In the spring of 1805, Mr. Cowan took away the rail fence that enclosed his garden and replaced it with a rough board fence, beginning on the west side of Mill Street about where the railroad crosses, running south to the corner, then west as far as Hall's and Doolittle's block now is. At that time, there was on the east side of the street a log fence, beginning at the southwest corner of the Baptist Church. From there to the river, it was an original forest, where both of the depots now are. At that time, 1805, the Public Square was like any piece of new land; the sumps stood as trees left them. In 1812 there stood on the brow of the hill nearly opposite MERRITT ANDREWS' store, and original beach tree from 15 to 18 inches in diameter. JAMES PARKER, SR., of Watertown manufactured the millstones for Mr. Burr and Cowan's mills and cut them out of granite boulders that were found on the surface of the ground, now supposed to have been brought here by glacial force. At that time if I asked anyone how those rocks came here, if I received any definite answer, it would be, "O, they grew here." In the spring of 1805, Mr. Parker cut out of one of those boulders, that lay in the road about thirty rods west of our house, a run of stone; I think they went into a mill at what is now Carthage; it was then called BETISES' mill. There was but few of the many boulders that would answer for mill stone; it must be a kind containing a large portion of quartz. Some years after this, Mr. Parker found a quarry of granite, in St. Lawrence County, from which he made millstones. At that time the Burrstone was unknown in this country.
During that time that Mr. Parker was cutting the mill stones, near our house, he boarded with us. I recollect his telling of making the first wash tub that was made in the town. There was no cooper, and he could get no half barrel that would hold water, and he resolved to try to make one with his own hands; accordingly, he sawed from a hollow pine log a block long enough for a tub; he then struck the circles on the ends for the out and inside of the tub; he then took his tapping gouge and split out and smoothed out the inside; then with his ax and shave he smoothed the outside. The he cut the crose and fitted the bottom. To get the bottom into the crose, he took the ax and split one side open, spread it, put in the bottom, put on the hoops and had a tight tub with two joints. He said his wife was the using it, and thought more of it than she did of any tub in her life before.
Now, Friend Sigourney, the days of log houses, basswood sap troughs to rock babies in, tow shirts and pants for men's wear, granite mill stones and wooden plows, have gone by. All of this I have seen in your own town and neighborhood, but a new era has dawned upon us. I am persuaded that the people of those days were as happy as those that have come after them are now. It is but a few years since I saw in print the boast of one of our eminent men that he was rocked in a basswood sap trough. I will give you a few further recollections of seasons and weather, and then I am done. The earliest spring I ever saw ws the spring of 1804. On the 28th day of March we ate boiled greens for dinner. At that time the leeks were up all through the woods, about eight inches high, and the maple leaves were as large as a dollar, and there was no frost after that, during that spring, to injure anything.
The latest spring or the most backward I ever saw was the spring of 1816. The 6th day of June it snowed at intervals all day, and rained a fine cold rain or mist when it was not snow. The snow melted about as fast as it fell. On the Rutland, or Weaver Hill as it was then called, the snow as to inches deep at night. ABEL P. LEWIS, of Black River, has told me that it was four inches deep in the north part of Champion where he lived at that time...(unreadable) on the 28th of March, 1804; it killed all the leaves on the trees. On the morning of the 7th I helped to skin three of our sheep that chilled and froze to death the night before. In the morning their legs were frozen stiff and hard above their knees and gambrels. They had been sheared; the rain and snow the day before killed them. Two men froze to death the same night on Green Mountain. They were crossing over on foot, were overtaken by a snow tempest and were both found dead. The greatest fall of snow I ever saw in the month of April, fell the 1st of April 1807. It fell in 24 hours 3 feet deep. The clearings were then small, the tree stumps were all standing; the snow covered the most of them. There was no wind, and the snow fell damp and lay as deep on the stumps as it was on the ground. It was a beautiful sight to look at. The stumps had all disappeared and snow columns stood all over the fields where the stumps were. Immediately after the snow a warm rain set in and took the snow all off. The snow and rain together caused the great freshet of Black River in 1807. It was long spoken of by those that saw it, of whom but few are left. That freshet has never been equaled by any, unless it was when the state reservoir gave way. At that time there was a man drowned a little above Whittlesey Point, while endeavoring to secure a long pine tree or spar. At that time a lady was riding around on River Street; the surf came up and came nigh taking her with her horse into the river. The pleasantest fall I ever saw was the fall of 1829. Up to November, 12th the weather had been warm, growing; the pastures were green. On the morning of the 12th at the first dawn it began to snow and continued until 4 p.m. fast; it fell 15 inches deep. It then became clear. It froze in the night; in the morning the sun rose clear and warm, the snow melted fast and continued to lessen night and day; in three days the snow was gone. From that time, November out, all of December and about half of January, was as pleasant weather as I ever saw. The most of the time it was smoky: what used to be called Indian Summer weather. There was no time during the time above mentioned that the ground was frozen enough to prevent plowing green sod. I recollect reading in the paper that the boys at the Lowville Academy brought in live grasshoppers in January.
I have seen it snow in eleven months of the year, July excepted. The most severe hailstorm I ever saw was in the forenoon of July 5th, 1831. It left marks of the hail on the buildings that were visible for years. The coldest time I ever realized in May began the 14th, 1834. At noon it began snow; it rained in the forenoon and at sunset it became clear; the snow as four inches deep. The early apple and plum trees were in blossom; maple leaves were nearly half grown; it froze hard in the night; the morning of the 15th wore a gloomy aspect; the maples leaves would crumble at a touch, and it was fair winter weather in point of cold. In the morning there was hanging to my mill trough an icicle 4 1/2 feet long and three inches in diameter at the large end. ISRAEL LEWIS had a tub under the eaves of his house that held seven barrels and it was full of water; it froze over one inch thick of clear blue ice; it killed all the leaves on the trees. JUDGE KEYES was buried that day. After this freeze the weather became warm; crops were excellent in particular, corn. The winter following was the hardest I ever saw. On the 22d of November the peppers and cucumbers were green in my garden. At 4 p.m. it began to snow; at nine in the evening the snow was eight inches deep. That night there was a fire on the corner of Washington and Stone Streets and a number of stores were burned. The 27th the snow was three feet deep; it had thawed on the roofs of buildings up to this time, when it became too cold to thaw, unless it was by internal heat. From that time there was no dropping form the eaves of barns for forty-two days, commencing Saturday the 8th of January. At this time the snow in the woods was called four feet deep. Saturday night the wind got into the south and blew from that quarter fresh until nine Sunday morning; then it began to rain and continued about fifteen minutes, which caused the eaves to drip; then it turned to snow, and continued to snow and blow for fourteen days longer, making, in all, fifty-six days without a thaw; after this we had a moderate thaw. When it was warm enough to snow the time was improved, but it was never too cold to blow and drift the snow; the temperature was extremely low all winter, and the snow as deep the first of April. The winter of 1780 was noted for being all over the eastern and middle states, as far south as Carolina. That winter Washington's army wintered at Valley Forge, Penn. My father was there. His term of enlistment expired the first of April, and he received his discharge and returned home to Connecticut, and crossed the Connecticut River on the ice the fifth of April, a thing that had never been known before in the history of Connecticut. I asked how that winter compared with the winter of 1831, and his reply was that, from his memory, there was but little, if any difference.
The great display of red northern lights (the greatest I ever saw) that occurred in the month of December, 1835, and the red appearance of the heavens that occurred in the morning of September 5th, 1881, I looked upon with profound admiration in both cases. There were some among us that were frightened and thought the last day had come.
There were some points connected with the last mentioned light that I have never seen any notice of. The night of the fourth of September was the warmest I ever saw; my thermometer stood at 84 degrees at midnight. At 9 in the evening there was not a cloud in sight. The stars shone brightly. At 11 a dark vapor spread over the heavens; at 12 it was total darkness, and it was quite dark at 5 in the morning. At this time the heavens were the brightest red, which made it partly light; at 7 the orange had mixed with the red, and the heavens were a reddish yellow. It was nearly 8 before it could be seen where the sun was, and all the timer there were no clouds.
The most fearful thunderstorm I ever witnessed occurred on the first day of August, 1820. At daybreak in the morning, it was thundering in the west; it came up slow; at six it was overhead. In not more than twenty minutes the lightning struck thirteen trees within one mile of where I was, and two of them within thirty rods. I think there were as many balls of lightning struck the ground. It struck in the meadow near where I was, and tore up the sod; another one struck in the river but a few rods from me. The thunder was more like the discharge of artillery than anything else. The flash and report were together...(unreadable) forward to page 2:
He stood in the door looking at the tree. When the lightning struck it, it tore the tree all in pieces; it did not leave a sliver more than ten feet high, and threw it in every direction. Mr. Whitney told me that he saw the tree all in the air before a piece reached the ground. I was there a few days after and examined it and I calculated that the tree was scattered over a good acre of ground.
The first white person that was killed by lightning, in Watertown, was an old lady by the name of WAIT, in the summer of 1805. They lived in a small log house north of THOMAS BUTTERFIELD's in your school district.
I will give you a few more recollections of the early workings of your school district. The first term, as I said before, was held in our barn, in the summer of 1806; it was taught by PERSIS DUNTON, sister of EBENEZER DUNTON. There was no school in the winter of 1806-07 as there was no place to be found for it. The summer term of 1807 was held in our barn, taught by Miss Dunton. The winter term of 1807-08 was held in a log house that stood up the road, near the foot of the hill, west of DAVID MILLS' house. The house was built by a man by the name of SAXTON. The school was taught by a Mr. STOWELL. The summer term of 1808 was taught in the same house by MELINDA LEET, a relative of the Mills'. In the fall of 1808, the schoolhouse was built at the forks of the road, west of your house. The winter term of 1808 and 9 was taught here by a man by the name of PALMER. The summer term of 1809, was taught in the same house by RHODA WOODRUFF, who became the wife of THOMAS TUTTLE. That schoolhouse was the first that I attended school in; that had glass windows, all before, and two after; if they had any windows, the glass was made of greased newspapers. In the fall of 1809 the house took fire and burned down. The winter term of 1809-10 was taught in our old log house, by RALPH FRENCH, we having moved to our new house across the road. The summer term of 1810 was taught in a shanty in the road directly in front of where your barn now stands, by a young lady by the name of TUTTLE. In the summer of 1810, your present schoolhouse was built. The winter term of 1810-11 was taught by JOHN FRENCH; the summer term was taught by MARIETTA BURR, who became the wife of DEXTER HUNGERFORD.
In the spring of 1806 (I think), JOHN and HENRY GOTHAM came up from New Hampshire; they were from the same town we were. They cleared land that summer. Late in the fall they came to our house on Saturday. The next day they laid down on the ground in front of our house, feeling rather down-hearted, when John sprang up, and said: Henry, we will go to settling the roads." The next day they started for home on foot having come that way. In the spring f 1808 they returned. On their way they called at the land office at Lowville. They took a contract of the SAXTON place in company and began farming. MILLS' house as on the north side of the road, near the creek. Henry built a log house on the south side of the road about half way between the two. John and Henry worked in company about three years. As there was not snap enough about Henry to suit John they dissolved. In the Saxton house, John's first two children were born.
In my account of the starting of the mills at Upper and Lower Watertown, I did not give dates; I can give them from tradition. The mill at the upper town was commenced by HART MASSEY. In the spring of 1801 DAVID BURR came along, and bought out Massey, Mr. Burr being a practical miller, he got the saw and grist mill running in the fall of 1801. JONATHAN COWAN commenced his mills at the lower town in the spring of 1802 and got them running in the fall. COWAN being a millwright, he hired a man by the name of DODGE to tend the grist mill.
...I have dated it just seventy-nine years after I first set foot in Watertown, and my memory is distinct back of January 6, 1804. If you wish to know anything of our ancestry, MRS. KIMBALL has a manuscript that gives the whole.
CYRUS T. HUNTINGTON.
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