Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

This souvenir album is published as part of the
St. Johnsville Bicentennial Celebration
Published by St. Johnsville Village/Town Bicentennial Committee, Inc.

A Look Into The Past by Wayne Lenig

<Residence of Moses Quinby, who died May 26, 1975.(Note: I think this must be a typo and should read 1875. . If Mr. Quinby lived here and died at age 65, and the house was demolished in 1898, this doesn't make sense.) He was the Pioneer American Beekeeper, and his home was located one -half mile east of St. Johnsville, between the former home of Col. Jacob Klock and tollgate No. 5, where Arthur Smith now lives (1940).

Mr. Quinby is buried in West St. Johnsville Cemetery. In this picture, taken June 1893, are, left to right, Homer Nellis, Milo Nellis and their Aunt, Kate Nellis, the last occupants of the house which was demolished in 1898. Milo Nellis died Sept. 1968 at age 91.

Two hundred years ago there was no village of Saint Johnsville. In fact, even in their wildest dreams our pioneer residents could not have imagined that such a large commercial center would ever develop in the Mohawk Valley. The nearest settlement which could have been compared with our present village was Schenectady, and that town had fewer merchants than we have in Saint Johnsville today. Johnstown was the largest village in the county, and the only one with regularly laid out streets and blocks, and yet in 1776 there were only two merchants there. Fonda, Canajoharie, Fort Plain and Little Falls were small farming communities. Each had populations comparable to present day Mindenville, with a store, a tavern, or a combination of both. Amsterdam and Gloversville had not even been thought of, and the city of Utica was covered with a primeval forest.

There would be no Erie Canal for another half-century, railroads were not yet invented, and what our pioneers called highways were actually little more than ruts worn across the river flats by the continuous friction of wagon wheels. A trip to Schenectady by horseback required an overnight stay before returning, and large articles could only be transported by flat-bottomed river boats at the speed of twenty-five miles per day. The entire state west of Schenectady was considered only one county, and the population of this vast territory equaled only about five times the number of people living in Saint Johnsville today.

Early Settlement

Old Covered Bridge at East Creek, now passed into history.>

If it were possible to jump into a time machine and be transported to the site of Saint Johnsville two hundred years ago, few of us would believe that we were on the same spot. The main highway ran closer to the river, along the bed of the Penn-Central Railway today. It would be a tremendous shock to discover that not a single building in the village today had even been built yet. The broad open flats would be checker-boarded by fields of golden wheat and green peas with an occasional patch of grass for three or four cows or sheep. Large scale dairying was not practiced in the valley then, and factories were practically unknown, even in Europe.

In the 18th century our valley was famous throughout the colonies for wheat production as the Midwest is today, and virtually all of the residents were farmers. Kringsbush road or Averill Street continued down over the hill at an angle, intersected the main highway and ended abruptly at a ford in the river near the present bridge. The only other "street" was a rude trail which followed the old course of Zimmerman's Creek up present-day South Division and Church Streets. On the bank of the creek, near the old deserted mill dam on Church Street, stood the wooden home and mill of Jacob J. Timmerman. If we could ask one of the twenty or thirty people who lived within the present bounds of our village what they called their little settlement, they would probably reply, "Timmerman's."

< Bridge Street Looking South from Main. Right to left: Delas Vedder's Store, Bakery, the third store was torn down. There is now a brick building where the Odd Fellows had their home, Lenz's Store, Lenz's home, (white porch) Vedder's, ho later gave the house and land for the Masonic Temple.

Jacob Timmerman or Zimmerman came to America in 1710. He and his wife crossed the Atlantic with a shipload of European immigrants who have come to be known as Palatine Germans. Actually many of these people were French, Swiss, and Bavarians who flocked to the Rhine valley only as a point of debarkation from Europe. In fact, the Timmerman family was Swiss, not German, as is so often supposed.

The traditional story is that the "Palatines" left their homes in Europe because of the religious persecution and Catholic tyranny imposed by the conquering armies of France. However, recent scholarship has exposed the fact that many of the emigrants were either professed or secret Roman Catholics themselves. A better explanation of this early mass exodus from Europe is provided by an examination of social conditions on the continent. Europe was war torn and overcrowded in the late 17th century. If you were fortunate enough to be born free, and if your family had a small plot of land, you could expect little more for the rest of your life. In fact, is you were not a first born son, you might not even be able to acquire land, for middle and lower class land holdings tended to be very small plots, and it was the custom to pass ownership to the first born son. On the other hand, land was inexpensive and available in America; a poor man could achieve success with a little hard work. It was the beginning of the American dream, and thousands of Europeans made that dream a reality.

Along with the Timmermans came the Bellinger, Failing, Klock, and Nellis families. Since all of these pioneers purchased large tracts of land at or near the site of Saint Johnsville between 1725 and 1730, they deserve credit as the founders of our village.

Alters Mill 1889. This mill, located on North Division Street, was Mr. Reaney and Mr. Taylor's first mill.>

While we know the names and occupations of our earliest pioneers from written records, few documents have survived to fill in the details of the first fifty years of settlement. The stone home of Johannes Klock is still standing east of our village, as is the extensively modified wooden home of Christian Nellis and portions of what may have been Jacob Timmerman's house before it was restyled as the Reformed Church parsonage in 1817. These buildings provide some clues concerning the daily life of our first settlers, and the life style which they suggest is much different than may of us have been led to believe. Our earliest pioneers were apparently not huddled in one room log cabins with dirt floors; they lived comfortably in stone or wooden framed houses which were of moderate size, even by today's standards. All of the surviving examples had at least a parlor and dining room on the first floor and half story sleeping quarters upstairs. These early homes had full basements, often divided by stone walls into more than one room, and usually containing a large fireplace for kitchen duties. The Klock house even boasted running water in the form of a spring which opened in the basement. Nor were in interiors crude and unfinished. The Nellis house, for example, was finished with beautifully molded wood paneling, which would have been the height of style--even in London!

Corner of Center and West Main Streets. Left to Right: Handy's Drug Store, Ice Cream Parlor. Irvin Handy is the heavy man with the white shirt 4th from the right.

Neither is there any sign of the rough ax-hewn beams which our legends tell us were common in frontier homes. All of the exposed beams in the Nellis house and the old parsonage were carefully smoothed with an adze or plane and painted in lively reds and blues which matched all of the other woodwork and contrasted with the stark whitewashed plaster walls. Glass windows were in common use, but not as large as is the fashion today. The first settlers in our village lived in the style of relative ease and comfort for their day, especially when compared to conditions in Europe. Raw materials such as wood and stone were more plentiful here, and the blueprints which were needed to construct their homes our ancestors carried in their heads. The result was that these early residences were carbon copies of middle class homes in central and western Europe. This was the lifestyle which our pioneers aspired to, but were prevented from attaining in their homelands in Europe.


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