By Paula Sirc
Located in the geographic center of Ulster County, the Town of Rochester contains the largest number of continuously inhabited old stone houses in New York, several of them dating to the seventeenth century. Sixty-three stone and/or brick houses, built prior to 1850, have been identified within the town's borders. In addition to the impressive array of extant stone and brick houses, the town retains a number of old farms, barns, schoolhouses, churches, bridges, and cemeteries.
As the Netherlands controlled the Hudson River Valley in the early seventeenth century, Dutch architectural influence is strongly evident in the Town of Rochester's historic homes. Many of these houses were originally rectangular in shape, with small, batten-shuttered windows, and a centrally located chimney made of local brick.
The area's first homes and buildings, built in the late seventeenth century, were simple wood structures, and survive only in architectural renderings and early written descriptions of their construction. It is believed that these structures were considered semi-permanent residences until more substantial buildings could be built. As such, the stone house stands as a symbol of early Ulster County habitation, and, by the late 1700s, were spreading into the rural landscapes. According to a 2008 reconnaissance survey, neighboring Marbletown registered five such houses on their 1798 tax list.
A detailed reconnaissance survey of the Rochester's historic properties is available online and through the town hall; however, a leisurely cruise through the town reveals many of these structures, as well. Please bear in mind, however, that the stone homes and many of the plank buildings are private residences and must be respected as such. Several local towns offer visitors a chance to see these houses up-close: Hurley, in the town of Marbletown, hosts an annual Stone House Day, where owners open their homes to public viewing; and Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz features events and tours of their seventeenth century stone houses.
One of Rochester's examples of an early stone house is the Jacob Hoornbeck house, built circa 1750, on Boice Mill Road in Kerhonkson. Other eighteenth century houses in the town include: the Isaac Hasbrouck house, also circa 1750, which is located on Old Kings Hwy; the John Schoonmaker home, built in 1787 and occupied by members of the Schoonmaker family for more than 200 years, which sits on Garden Road; and the John Beatty house, circa 1730, situated on Clove Valley Rd.
The earliest form of stone dwelling is a one-room single story house, an example of which is preserved in the rear wing of the Dirck Westbrook House, located on Old Whitfield Road in Accord. Sitting amidst a grove of locust trees, planted purposely as lightning rods, the stone house was built for the Westbrook family, one of the town's earliest settlers. The house, built in 1690, was renovated in the early 1800s, keeping the original structure, the rear wing, as a dining room.
A mostly agrarian community, the town began to thrive in the eighteenth century, when farmers working the rich Rondout Valley basin became prosperous exporters of agricultural goods. To support the flourishing farmers, small mills soon populated nearby streams. Transportation along the main road, Kings Highway, comprising much of present day Route 209, followed the easy terrain of the Rondout Valley, and provided quick access to Kingston twelve miles to the north and its export link to the Hudson River.
As farming was the principal occupation in the town, barn structures were abundant in the town's formative years. Two basic types of barn were built: the Dutch model, featuring doors centered on the gable end, and the English style, with its side main entrance. In general, the barns were built a small distance from the house in an effort to protect the home from the all-too-common barn fire. Few barns of this era survive, but an example can be found in the Middagh barn on Mill Hook Road and the Krom barn on Whitfield Road. Both of the structures have been added onto over time.
By the late 1790s, six one-room schoolhouses were in use throughout the town, although, like the early barns, none of the buildings remain today. During the 1850s, the number of schoolhouses established increased to 16; though all 16 survive today, the most intact is the recently restored Palentown School in the northwest corner of the township.
The Delaware and Hudson (D&H) Canal began service from Honesdale, Pennsylvania, to Kingston in 1828; the communities along its route, including the villages of Ellenville and Napanoch and the hamlets of Alligerville and Port Jackson (now Accord), prospered anew. Remnants of the canal, including old locks, earthworks, and bridge abutments, stand as testament to that era of the town's history. Indeed, on Main Street in Accord, many of the buildings lining the street are the original wood-frame structures built in the town's heyday in the early 1800s, when the canal created something of a boom around Lock 23 on Tow Path Road and around Lock 21 further up the tow path in Alligerville.
By the 1880s, the canal era was slowly being replaced by railroads. When the D&H Canal folded, the Ontario and Western (O&W) Railroad extended service from the Ellenville terminus to Kingston, through the Town of Rochester. The new line roughly followed the course of the old canal bed and brought with it a tourist trade that once again would provide an economic boom to the town. Vestiges of this important era can be found in such buildings as the O&W Depot in Accord and in the still-thriving Mohonk Mountain House, the area's first resort hotel, located on Lake Mohonk in Marbletown.
For more information about Historic Rochester, visit the Friends of Historic Rochester's town museum, located on Main Street in Accord, or call 845 626-7104.
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