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Ancestral Homes

Posted by Linda Roorda , 08 August 2013 · 210 views

I realize my ancestral heritage is not of Spencer, nor of Tioga County, but the homes established under the old ways have been much the same for those who settled any part of the “western frontier.”

While researching my maternal ancestry, I became friends with Bob and Andrea Oliver living on the property of my ancestor, Jesse McNeill, just east of Carlisle, NY. She shared her limited research of the property and family with me. After sharing my extensive family research with her, she gifted me with a rare copy of Jared vanWagenen’s book, “Days of My Years.” That led to reading his earlier book, “The Golden Age of Homespun,” which describes typical farm life for our forefathers. Published by Cornell University Press in 1953 at Jared’s alma mater, it can be obtained through your local library via interlibrary loan.

A fellow McNeill descendant from a different line than mine, Jared vanWagenen, Jr. was instrumental in helping establish The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Long before I knew of Jared, or met his descendant, Martha, on their family estate in Lawyersville, NY, I’d been fascinated with the old way of life after a sixth-grade class trip to Old Museum Village in Monroe, NY from Clifton, NJ. My dream job would be that of interpreter at a living history museum. Offered the chance to volunteer at Newark Valley’s Bement-Billings Farmstead (http://www.vabeaver....farmstead.shtml ), I decided there just isn’t time enough to slip this into my busy schedule, but perhaps some day.

I’ve also often wished the ca. 1835 Greek Revival house, which stood where our house was built, could have been salvaged; but, it was rotted and destroyed beyond reasonable repair and expense. I loved the layout of the rooms, the front parlor with sliding pocket doors, the curved staircase with steps that actually did not squeak like ours do, but with upstairs rooms in which my 6’7” husband could not stand up. It also had what appeared to be upstairs rear servants’ quarters, separated by an original door with an ancient latch, and stairs that led down to the back way into the kitchen.

I also became friends with Jacqueline and Norman Turnquist who own the brick house on John C. McNeill’s property in Carlisle, NY. This colonial style brick house was built in 1835 by his son, John, with bricks made from clay on the property (per vanWagenen). I also read an 1840 newspaper ad on microfilm where John is selling excess brick. The Turnquists have lovingly restored the house. The original weaving loom has been repaired, which Jackie has skillfully put to use; her description will be featured in a future article on weaving. Original handhewn beams are clearly visible in the attic with square nails attaching a large yarn spool to the beams. Census records attest to the fact that the McNeill family wove a good deal of wool and linen yardage. Jackie also has the great wheel used to spin wool. (I have my maternal McNeill grandmother’s flax wheel.) In gazing out to the open fields and woods, the glass window panes stand out as obviously original with visible imperfections. The original kitchen fireplace still works with a separate and rare original oven built into the wall next to it. The large hickory trees framing the front entrance are much younger in a photo from the 1890s. We will return to this house in a future article where Jackie will share her thoughts on the antique house and weaving on the original loom.

In “The Golden Age of Homespun,” vanWagenen set down for future generations what life was like before the industrial revolution. In the preface, he recalls that “…each farm community constituted an almost self-contained, self-supported, industrial, and economic unit. Time was when in every farmhouse was heard the whir of the spindle and the thack of the loom and when every farm family was fed, clothed, shod, sheltered, and warmed almost wholly from the products gathered from within its own fence line.” How different from our way of life in the 21st century!

VanWagenen also writes that, by the American Revolution, New England was agriculturally over crowded. Soon after peace settled in, the Yankee was on the move across the Hudson River into New York, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. He reminds us, however, that for more than two centuries, the pioneer had painstakingly struggled through the eastern wilderness with incredible labor, albeit at a slow pace. By 1830, the Erie Canal had been open for five years while steamboats plied the waters of the Great Lakes and some of the western rivers. By 1847, Chicago became a railroad terminal. With treeless prairies before them, the pioneers conquered the grassland with incredible speed. In 1846, three years before the California gold rush, the ox-drawn wagons followed the Oregon Trail through the mountain passes to the Pacific Ocean. And, between 1880-1890, Kansas alone added a million inhabitants.

In researching my extended relatives as they moved westward, I noted they often took town names with them from back home in much the way many northeastern town names mirror those left behind by immigrants from England, Scotland, Ireland and Europe. In fact, several years ago, as we drove to west to visit our daughter who was earning her master’s degree at South Dakota State University in Brookings, I was amazed at the number of towns along the way with the same names as those back in New York. They seemed so out of place away from New York’s finger lakes region! Presumably, this was one way pioneers could retain familiar reminders of home and family they had left behind on their trek westward. And, an easy trek it was not.

In two weeks: Settling Spencer.

October 2014

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