A Short History of
the Beaverkill Valley

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Please note: These notes have been condensed from a “Special Commemorative Edition of THE PIONEER, Dedicated to the Opening of the New Livingston Manor Central School ” on May 19, 1939 .

Please note that the following text, written in 1939, contains language which today can seem inappropriate.


White men first found their way into the lands of this district shortly after the American Revolution. Prior to their coming the red man was Lord of this savage paradise. The warm sheltered river banks provided excellent campsites and tillable soil where the squaws might grow maize and other cereals. Unconscious of his woodland wealth, he roamed through dense black forests of beech, birch, maple, hemlock, fir and ash, which were to become the raw materials for the white man's industry.

Both the Lenni-Lenape Algonquin and the Iroquois, the former being the majority, shared the land. The Tuscaroras, originally from the Carolinas were also present and from this group came a man named Tunis , a most colorful figure of Indian days.

Tunis grew up in the house of John Osterhout, an Indian scout and guide from Pepacton. Raised a Christian, he was named after Osterhout's grandfather, an early Dutch settler of the area. He fell in love with Ruth Yaple, a neighbor, but her family's prejudice prevented their marriage. Heartbroken, he took to the forest and lived the life of a hermit, but years later the White man who first rejected him would have cause to be grateful.

On one occasion, Indians captured John Osterhout and Silas Bowker, scouts employed by the Hudson Trading Company hired to report on the movements of the Indians on the East Branch of the Delaware , as they crossed the Willowemoc. While Bowker and Osterhout were crossing the Willowemoc, they were captured, spread-eagled and flayed. Their captors intended to torture them to death on the following day. Tunis cut them loose allowing for their escape. This act made possible the safe passage of valuable merchandise via the old Indian trail, which later became the Hunter Road .

Settlers from Ulster County and the East used Indian trails to find their way to Delaware and Sullivan Counties . The Hunter trail, called the Sun trail by the Indians since it went from east to west, connected the Esopus tribe with their stores of maize and beans at Warwarsing. It was on this trail where Captain Graham and his men were massacred in the battle of Chestnut Woods. Other important trails leading to settled areas were the Cross Mountain trail in Turnwood to the north, the Mary Smith trail to the west, and the Berry Brook trail running north to Pepacton.

Another important trail came from Lackawak, crossed the Neversink and ran to the headwaters of the Beaverkill following it to its confluence with the Delaware . It was over this trail that Jehiel Stewart, the first white settler came shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War.

According to legend the white men were first told of the good flat lands along the rivers in Rockland by scouts who returned to Connecticut from here in 1776. No white men excepting trappers had attempted to pioneer in this area for a number of years because of the troublesome savages who camped here. When Jehiel Stewart came in 1789 he was the first to surmount the other obstacle to settlement – that of natural barriers. An expert woodcutter, Stewart with his single bit ax, his most valued tool, cut his way through miles of forest and crossed the Beaverkill 25 times. His first house was a temporary shelter of bark and poles but Stewart was soon the owner of the first house and mill and the proprietor of the first inn in the town of Rockland .

Born of sturdy Dutch, Irish, or English parents, these settlers were experienced pioneers. Money meaning little to them and needing only gunpowder, salt and tools with which to work, they brought no industry other than their farming skills as they then existed. Fathers provided the food through farming and hunting and mothers spun and wove to create clothes for the family. Susquehanna Indians provided the white flint variety of seed corn, a crop still raised in this county. Early settlers had to carry their grain a grueling 45 miles each way to Warwarsing, sometimes on their backs.

All of [the 1939] Livingston Manor Central School District [Hardenburgh Turnwood, Beech Hill, Yorktown, Lew Beach, Shin Creek, Beaverkill, Little Ireland, Hazel, Shandelee, Parkston, Old Morsston, Grooville, DeBruce and Willowemoc] lies within the Hardenburgh Patent, an immense tract of some 2 million acres originally granted to Johannes Hardenburgh and associates by Queen Anne in 1708. Ownership of this land, for the most part, remained in the hands of the original patentees but one new owner, Robert Livingston, soon came to acquire title to almost half of the entire patent leaving Hardenburgh with less than 25%. One stipulation of Queen Anne's grant was that the original patentees were required to compensate the Indians for their territory. Hardenburgh himself made his purchase from Nanisimos but others were prone to exploit their ignorance of such matters sometimes causing violent disputes. The Indians, knowing little about surveying would measure a territory by the distance a man could travel in two days. Unscrupulous patentees would then hire the swiftest runners; sometimes several in the manner of a relay in order to cover the most land within the allotted time.

Landlords encouraged settlement and offered to sell or lease land at what first appeared to be favorable terms. The Livingstons sold a good deal of their land outright at 75 cents per acre and offered such terms as indicated in this advertisement of 1808 as published in the Ulster Plebian: “to be leased for three lives on the following terms, viz: Three years next after date of the lease, free – The fourth year at the rate of five bushels of wheat per hundred acres – Fifth year ten bushels per hundred acres – after which and during the continuance of the lease, fifteen bushels per hundred acres.” These terms seemed favorable to the pioneer who did not reflect that $5.25 per year would pay the interest on 100 acres, whereas after the fifth year the value of wheat would amount to at least $20.00.

Other leases were much more onerous. The rents were low or non-existent for the first several years of the lease, after which time they usually increased heavily. In some instances, tenants were to lease the land forever, never to acquire title of property. They were obliged to pay an annual rent of wheat or some other commodity – sometimes “two fat fowls.” They were not allowed to erect mills on the land nor could they transfer the lease without permission of the landlord. The mineral rights of the property were reserved for the lord.

Around 1839 tenants throughout New York State became aroused at the prospect of remaining tenant farmers forever with no hope of ever becoming landowners. From Van Rensselaer County this discontent spread in an ever widening circle and the movement known as the Anti-Rent War was under way. The movement had two factions: one that saw perpetual rent as illegal and the other that reasoned that the king who gave grant and title to the land no longer ruled this country. In our school district the Union Church at Brown Settlement was one meeting place for the antirenters.

At first, peaceful measures were favored by the anti-renters who pressed their cause with vigor making strong demands for an opportunity to purchase their lands. Organized bands of tenant farmers went to the aid of their neighbors when the sheriff came to dispossess them. Dressed in grotesque masks and calico clothing, they were known as the Sheepskin Indians. These “Indians” would confront the sheriff who was ordered to destroy his papers and leave. If he refused, he was tarred and feathered. On one occasion a posse moving in on the vicinity of Shin Creek found that the anti-renters had cut the sleepers on the bridge over Shin Creek at Lew Beach .

A crisis erupted in 1845 when the Governor declared Delaware County to be in a state of insurrection. A sheriff's posse came to dispossess the property of Moses Earle of Andes whereupon several hundred Sheepskin Indians had gathered to prevent the sale. After forcing their way onto Earle's property, an under-sheriff was shot and later died of his wounds. Two men were sentenced to be hanged and many others to be imprisoned but were later given clemency by the Governor, Warren Scudder. The acting Indian “chief” was later arrested but never brought to trial. Subsequently, the New York State constitution was amended making perpetual rent illegal, and opening the way for tenants to eventually acquire title to their lands.

Early settlement in the Beaverkill valley began at Hardenburgh, Turnwood and Shin Creek. Hardenburgh derived its name from the original patentee, Johannes Hardenburgh. A small hand-turning mill situated near the covered bridge gave Turnwood its name. Shin Creek was later called Lew Beach to avoid confusing it with another community of the same name farther up the creek. Lewis K. Beach resided at Cornwall and was Congressman of the district of which this region was a part during President Cleveland's administration.

It is interesting to know the derivation of the names of some of the other early settlements. Beaverkill, both the river and the village, are so called because of the abundance of beaver found there. DeBruce is named after Elias Desbrosses, who also gave his name to a New York City street . Medad T. Morss purchased a large tannery south of Livingston Manor, which had been built by William Bradley of Parksville. The community around this tannery came to be known as Morsston. Purvis was an early name for what is now a part of Livingston Manor and was named after a caretaker of Dr. Livingston's estate. Willowemoc is named after a tribal group of the Lenni-Lenape Indians of that area. Emmonsville, named for a Mr. Emmons who established an early acid factory there, was later changed to Grooville after a Judge Groo, a landowner.

Lumbering in the 19th century was a major industry of the district and sawmills were plentiful. Millions of feet of sawed timbers were rafted down the Willowemoc to the East Branch then lashed together to make a full-sized raft. When the railroad came to Livingston Manor in 1872, rafting declined and then finally ceased in 1888.

Sawmills were operated on the Little Beaverkill by George Young, Dan Ross, Lewis Hardenburgh and Joseph Bloomer. Medad Morss owned a steam sawmill at Morsston and another on the Cattail in Callicoon. The Decker Bros. and William Pfleuger had mills on the Willowemoc, John Unkenholz on the Cattail, William Purvis in Jacktown, Joseph Mott at Frog's Hole, Peter Millspaugh at Parkston, Woolsey at Parkston and Joseph Kinch at the outlet of Lake Juanita . The Sprague mill was below Lew Beach and above the village was the Wamsley mill. On the Murdock was a mill operated by Henry Barnhart. Upstream mills sent much of their timber overland to the East Branch and rafted from this point.

Early on, only soft woods such as hemlock, pine, fir, spruce and basswood were harvested followed later by lesser amounts of hardwoods. A man named Barr lumbered more than a million feet of fir from the swamp above Willowemoc where most went into the making of masts and spars for the queenly clipper ships of the day.

As roads and transportation facilities improved, business began to boom attracting many new settlers to the area. The Delhi and Esopus Turnpike, built in the early 1800s provided an outlet to the north. From Turnwood the Cross Mountain Road connected settlers to it with easy connections to Delhi to the west or Kingston to the east. Lumber for the construction of the DuBois store in the Manor came via this way in 1872.

The roads were rough and narrow and most traveled by horseback or on foot, as wagons had no springs or spring seats; an exception being the stagecoach, which was far more comfortable. Axes were a must to clear a tree that may have fallen and earlier settlers were expected to extend hospitality to travelers by offering meals and refreshment in the manner of pioneer tradition. After dinner, travelers related tales they had brought with them contributing to the pioneer's education.

The Delaware and Hudson Canal opened in 1828 and by following the Hunter Road and later the Pole Road , lumbering, tanning, and other industries of the area could reach it and make broad trading contracts to the east and the south. The Newburgh and Cochecton Turnpike, built around 1800, brought another avenue for travel and commerce and returning rivermen often walked this road on their way back to Sullivan County . After selling their rafts of timber in Trenton or Philadelphia , they made their way up the Hudson to Newburgh and west over the Turnpike.

Covered bridges also provided safe passage over streams during the last century. Fashioned from hand-hewn timber and fastened with stout wooden pegs, they have stood the test of time. A romantic symbol of the past, they are fast disappearing.

Farmers who were dependent upon them for outlets, each being responsible for a portion, at one time maintained local roads. Many were built by private enterprise such as the Pole Road , built by Stoddard Hammond in 1856 to link his DeBruce tannery with the toll road at Claryville. It was constructed of logs laid side by side with their tops hewn flat. The logs, now encased in rich green moss are still visible in many places and are in a good state of preservation.

The statistics below indicate the urgent needs of tanners to have well maintained roads to bring their products to market and bring in raw hides. The table shows the number of sides of leather tanned in Greene, Sullivan and Delaware Counties in several decades of sample years:

  • 1827…………………..265,000 sides
  • 1837…………………..665,000 sides
  • 1847………………...1,168,000 sides
  • 1857………………...3,248,000 sides
  • 1867………………...4,420,000 sides

Stoddard Hammond, in partnership with James Benedict, built one of the largest tanneries in the country at DeBruce when that region was still wilderness. It cost $70,000 to build, employed 100 men and had a capacity of 60,000 sides per year, all imported from Argentina . Three main outlets extended from DeBruce: east on the Pole Road to Claryville, south over the hill to Parksville and later north to Roscoe and down the Gulf Road to the Erie Railroad at Callicoon. Benedict later withdrew and the company subsequently became known as Hammond and Son. Hammond also owned an acid factory at DeBruce and his son later built one at Willowemoc. Both Stoddard Hammond and Medad T. Morss, both having achieved great wealth, later suffered severe financial reverses and died poor men.

The thousands of acres of hemlock of which only the bark, offering a rich source of tannic acid, was used drew the tanning industry to this area. John N. Bailey, now of Gaines , Pa. , describes for us the tanning process, as he knew it before leaving DeBruce in 1881:

Tanning bark was first ground in a mill something like a huge coffee grinder. It was then mixed with boiling water and left to steep for a week. After this time, the liquor was ready to be piped to the tanning vats as needed.

Hides, some weighing up to 125 pounds, were first put in vats for about one week and thereafter taken out, pounded until soft and split down the middle to make sides. The sides were then taken to the sweat pits and left for between five and eight days, depending on the heat. Workmen rubbed a thumb over them to see how easily the hair separated to determine when they were ready. The odor of the sweat pits was horrific and made the eyes smart badly. Sides were again pounded and scraping tools were used to remove any remaining hair.

The sides were then treated to plump them up and open the pores so the leather could take the tan. They were put in a weak liquor solution and bark was placed between them as they sank in order to prevent them from getting too close together. After three weeks the sides were turned over and the solution strengthened. After three more weeks the hides were placed in a stronger solution for three more months.

At the end of this period the hides were placed in a loft to dry. When dry, they were scrubbed, treated with fish oil and hung again for a short period. Afterwards, they were taken down for the last time, treated with tanner's oil and rolled before being readied for the market. It is said that the task of applying the fish oil was the worst job in the whole process and no tanner ever garnered the reputation of smelling like a Thanksgiving dinner.

Another area tannery built by Henry Ellsworth of Beaverkill was established before the one in DeBruce. His teams traveled to Callicoon after the railroad was established in 1851 by way of the Swamp Ridge road and later via a road built lower in the valley that became known as Gulf Road . The Callicoon Depot & Rockland Turnpike Road Company sold shares of stock to raise funds for improving the road to benefit the entire area and Callicoon Center profited as a stopover place where crews could stable their horses and refresh themselves.

Back then Roscoe, Livingston Manor and Parksville had much in common as they were isolated from the rest of the county before the coming of the Ontario & Western Railroad. The Masonic Lodge at Callicoon Center in 1861 served as a social center and organizing force for the area. Members included Wm. H. Dekay of Parksville and J.D.W.M.Decker of Deckerstown and many others from Livingston Manor, Lew Beach , Roscoe and other neighboring villages where they shared the fraternal and social advantages offered. Attending meetings meant at least a one-night stay in town.

Many early settlers of Parksville, such as the Spragues, the Sherwoods, and the Stewarts, came out of the town of Rockland . This community was at one time a part of Rockland Township but was annexed to Liberty Township because no roads connected it with the rest of Rockland . Later, traffic from DeBruce, Brown Settlement and Willowemoc passed through and Rockland became a more important trade area than Liberty . Wm. G. Johnston, a prominent Livingston Manor businessman, remembers the day when the railroad came to town welcomed by a brass band led parade.

After 1845 settlers of German and Irish extraction came to the area; Germans escaping the revolution of 1848 and Irish following the potato blight of 1845. They went in large numbers to the tanning industry and saved money by which to purchase land. Their women and children worked the farms and as their incomes from the tanneries decreased due to a decline in the industry, their working farms provided for self-sustainment.

From the earliest days, residents of the area took the fullest advantage of its fine hunting and fishing. Originally only brook trout inhabited the rivers, which were fished by fishermen who followed the sport of Isaac Walton the world over and all agreed that no one could lay claim to knowing much about trout fishing who had not heard of the Willowemoc and Beaverkill streams.

Beecher Lake is named after James Beecher, brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It is interesting to note that all eight of the Beecher brothers were clergymen. While at the Lake , James used to preach in the Hardenburgh schoolhouse where once he lost track of the days and surprised the neighbors by showing up on Monday to preach his weekly Sabbath sermon.

The most plentiful game of the area was once the passenger pigeon, a species now extinct; the last survivor dying at the Cincinnati Zoo during the summer of 1914. Audubon once described a flock estimated at over a billion birds that could consume more than eight and a half million bushels of food each day. It was a beautifully colored bird and its movements depended upon seeking plentiful food sources and in this area they were attracted by the abundance of beechnuts. They flew in such dense flocks – some up to 150 miles long darkening the skies as they passed overhead – and could occupy a single tree with more than 100 nests.

The mountains in back of DeBruce, up along Shin Creek, and the region that runs from Turnwood to Hardenburgh were favorite nesting grounds of the passenger pigeon in our area. Mrs. Ada Sprague has given us the following story of her recollection of these birds:

“When I was about thirteen (I am now seventy-nine) in about 1873, there came a great flock of pigeons to my father's farm (James Clayton) located on upper Shin Creek. They built nests looking like but somewhat larger than that of a robin. They were so numerous that when you approached their nests they would fly at you making a terrible noise and blacken the sky.

“In the middle of the summer, six men came to my father's log house to get board and lodging with intentions to catch pigeons. They built huge nets and baited them with buckwheat to attract them. At first, the pigeons were wary and did not come. The men then caught a few of them, sewed their eyelids closed and placed them on a high pole. When the flock would circle above, the pigeons would be jarred off the pole and fly into the net attracting many others who would then be trapped by another net thrown over them. They were then killed by crushing their heads, dressed and put in barrels for shipment to New York restaurants. Some hunters took only the breasts for shipment.

“The pigeons whose eyelids were sewed shut were called ‘stool pigeons.' At night, the stitches were removed so they could see in order to eat. Roads were cut into the mountains to carry the immense loads of birds, some of which were delivered live to shooting clubs. Not content merely with the adult birds, some hunters even climbed the trees to take the young squabs from their nests.”

The complete disappearance of a bird once so plentiful is almost unexplainable as it was sudden and no one has the least idea of where they went. It is proof of the fact that biological bankruptcy always follows any attempt to commercialize wild life.

Early industry developed around abundant forest resources. At first products were small and made in the home during the winter when farm work slowed down. Items such as shingles, scoops, trays, hoops and brooms were produced one at a time and were money products during this time. Scoops were carved by hand from cherry or maple in varied sizes and widely used in grocery stores for bulk goods and grain and later became the safest type of shovel for use in powder mills. Frank Conklin of Willowemoc still makes these scoops and has made six a day for over fifty years.

The best shingles were shaved from hemlock and were superior and more durable than the sawed cedar shingles used today. Simeon Simpson, known as “Simmie,” of Willowemoc is one of the few craftsmen who still engages in this art.

Before the use of metal, farmers made barrel hoops using birch measuring about 2 to 2 ½ inches thick and as long as possible and split lengthwise to yield 3 or 4-foot lengths of hoop strips. They were paid 2 or 3 dollars per thousand and a man usually could make about one thousand per day.

Women contributed to the family income by knitting fringe mittens of wool obtained from the sheep on their farms. In former days, these mittens were much prized by teamsters and found particular favor among farmers who were engaged in cutting ice. Nowadays they still enjoy a large market and are sold in many New York department stores and sporting goods shops to hunters and skiers for three or more dollars.

Trays were produced at Willowemoc and a mill above Shin Creek was so noted for their turning of trays and wooden bowls that it became known as, and today is still called, Tray Valley . Another mill known as Koons' Mill at Grooville turned out table legs.

In Livingston Manor John Fanton Sherwood began his mill in 1868 and with a second hand turner from Big Indian, he started making table legs out of maple. He soon had 22 hand turners and expanded to other articles such as Indian clubs, dumbbells and baseball bats. Until 1900 all Spaulding baseball bats were made in this factory. About 1905 the factory was moved to the building formerly occupied by the Merkland Furniture Company and continued turning out sporting goods and ten pins until it was destroyed by fire in 1916.

During the War they were awarded a sub-contract from the government to produce iron bound cap blocks used in Navy yard pile driving and when the war ended, returned to the production of first grade ten pins of rock maple turning out over five thousand per day.

Around 1875 Stoddard Hammond established an acid factory in Livingston Manor, which is today [1939] operated by the Treyz family. This factory utilizes only hardwoods; beech, birch, maple and some black cherry. Major products of the acid factory are: charcoal used in producing steel and wood acetate used to manufacture acetic acid and an important ingredient in high explosives; and alcohol which is used as an anti-freeze. A creosote plant operated on the flats above the Manor treats railroad ties and telephone poles with the preservative.

In 1903 Congressman C.B. Ward attempted to raise angora at DeBruce. Many of the 2,600 goats shipped by rail from New Mexico died supposedly from eating poisonous laurel on their range and the attempt failed within three years. Mr. Ward contends that he did not have enough land and that a smaller number would have thrived.

A bluestone quarry situated on lower Shandelee Hill was operated on the farm of Monroe H. Wright. Many of New York 's sidewalks came from the quarries of Sullivan County .

A large fish hatchery on the Robert Ward estate at DeBruce continues producing stockfish by the thousands each year.

Stories of rich deposits of gold, lead and coal caused many to attempt to search the area but mostly to no avail. The searchers even dug a tunnel in vain to a depth of about 60 feet into a hill near the falls at Willowemoc.

During the warm months large shipments of ferns, moss, princess pine and evergreen boughs are shipped to New York florists and each winter truckloads of Christmas trees leave the area to provide homes in the cities with the Yuletide symbol.

A large hotel industry developed in the area catering at first to only summer guests who were brought by carriage from the Erie station in Callicoon. Nathan Murdock, brother of James, a lumberman on the Beaverkill operated a tavern on land now owned by Jack Moris and the Barker family. Drovers from the west with large herds of cattle or sheep often stopped here. Many homes now provide accommodations for sportsmen during the hunting and fishing seasons.

The area also hosts many summer camps accommodating up to 3000 boys and girls including the Orange-Sullivan Boy Scout Camps at Hunter Lake , Camp Townsend , and Spruce Ridge Camp. Other camps include St. John's , Our Lady of Lourdes, Camp Raleigh and Acacia in the Grooville area, Camp Nimrod at Morsston and Camp Winnipeg at Amber Lake .

The State is now [1939] aiding the conservation and development of our resources. Conservation is the keynote of modern living – here as in the rest of the world – to us this means conservation of all that makes our land beautiful; the woods, the streams, fish, and game, so that for all who come here life may hold the charm and solace it held for James Beecher, the minister from Beecher Lake, when life moved so gently that he did not notice each day's passing and mistook a Monday for a Sunday.


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