The History of Butternuts

The Old Butternut Road

Migrating aboriginal people at the end of the last ice age discovered a natural wonder that would become known as the Butternut Valley. They found abundant natural resources, good water, flint and rock for tools, arrowheads and other weapons, many edible wild plants, grasses, fruits and nuts, and one nut in particular – the prized Juglans cinerea – better known as the Butternut. Soon word of a very special place spread throughout the northeast … “the land where the Butternut grows.”

The route to the Butternut valley, thousands of years old and commonly referred to as “the Old Butternut Road,”1 was already well known when Dutch traders found it in 1614.2 The road to and through the Butternut Valley, always a destination, was described as being a foot wide and a foot deep. Numerous archeologically sensitive sites along the Butternuts Creek attest to that migration and habitation.

The Wild West

Development of the lower Butternut Valley began with the signing of the Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1768 creating a western frontier. All newly available New York land was sold within two years. The lower Butternut Valley includes lands purchased as follows, from west to east: Twenty thousand acres by Clotworthy Upton, 82,030 by Staats Long Morris, his wife Catherine, Duchess of Gordon, and Col. John Butler, and the 69,000 acre Otego tract. These investors were obligated to establish farming communities within three to seven years.4 Land holders of the Butternut Valley used many means of attracting well prepared colonial settlers to the peaceful valley from areas of eastern NY and from New England5 where political unrest was stirring. Leaving well-established communities and cultures, they packed up their architectural and agricultural backgrounds along with their tools, clothing, ideas of education, etiquette, entertainment, religious practice, and fashion and settled into an area alive with natural resources.

Butler and the Morris’s divided their purchase with the Morris’s taking 32,030 acres from the southern part of the tract. After a trip upstate in 1769 to see their purchase, and “…to superintend the settlement of the (tract). Several persons obtained farms from….[the Morris’s], and the settlements which sprang up on the Butternut Creek were long know as the “Old English District’ “6 Catherine Morris chose, and they set aside, an eight patent lot tract (1,600 acres) for their own estate and home.7 On these new farms, raising sheep and the making of cheese, butter, cloth, leather and leather products led a growing economy. Development of the area proceeded rapidly.

Revolution

Throughout most of the 18th century seasonal aboriginal occupation of the valley peacefully overlapped that of western European settlement with Revolutionary War events briefly interrupting the process. Caught in the middle of squabbles between Tory guerrilla fighters and Revolutionary guerrilla fighters, some politically neutral farm families, were driven away. Those in the backwoods and on the hilltops fared better. As soon as they felt it safe to do so, many returned to restart their farms.

As the Revolutionary war ended, more families came to the Butternut and Unadilla River valleys from all corners of the eastern U.S. as well as from France and England. Women in these families were accustomed to living under fairly civilized conditions8 and were not prepared to put up with anything less for any length of time. These early communities, identical to those left behind in New England, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Great Britain, were in the mainstream of contemporary American life.

Post Revolutionary War Growth

A flourishing, integrated economy was rapidly established. Agricultural products and goods manufactured from local resources were produced in quantities to satisfy local needs and export to Mohawk and Hudson Valley markets. Desired items that could not be grown or manufactured locally, arrived regularly.10 Additional families poured in and took up the challenges of new lands and new communities. A small industrial hamlet quickly formed along the Butternut Creek near the center of the township. The location had abundant waterpower for saw, grist, fulling and other mills, and clay to supply a brick kiln. Products from every corner of Butternuts flowed through the hamlet to markets in the east.

After food and shelter, one of the immediate concerns of all these families was the continuity of their children’s education, which had been disrupted during the war and schools officially made their appearance in 1795. County government was established in 1791 and the township of Butternuts was created in 1796. By 1800, expansion of the region was well under way. Families continued to arrive many bringing technological skills critically important for successful growth. Near the center of the township, the industrial hamlet, Gilbert’s Ville, grew and spread along the banks of the Butternut creek. Farms in every corner of the town supplied the raw materials. Routes to major markets, north and east, assured timely delivery of products from Butternuts. In short order, the emerging industrial hamlet boasted an Inn for travelers, a school, a store with a postmaster, a shoemaker/harness maker and a doctor. Locally manufactured stoves made fireplaces obsolete. Churches and businesses also drew farmers from outlying areas.

Squeezed by farms east and south and by hills on the north, Gilbert’s Ville could only expand in a narrow corridor to the west. Additional craftsmen, tradesmen, lawyer, dentist, industries and stores arrived to serve the needs of the thriving township. A stage stop connecting to the Catskill Turnpike assured the expansion of hamlet into village

The architectural appearance of the growing township echoed European traditions of construction with modest stone structures, slab-side cottages, and New England influenced frame houses. On their new farms, New Englanders built saltbox and Federal style houses. Every building material from shingles to shutters was available nearby. Slab-side structures were soon replaced with more substantial dwellings while others were incorporated into grander structures, or became woodsheds, chicken coops or other outbuildings. The names of Benjamin Tanner and Ard Rockwell are linked with the construction of a number of these earliest fine structures 11. As the population grew and the economy flourished, more sophisticated structures appeared in all corners of the town, each with the modern advantages of its day.

The Hamlets

Major

At the four bordering corners of the town of Butternuts, other hamlets12 began to emerge. In these “border” hamlet areas, students in the district schools were commonly drawn from both townships. In the north east corner “Maple Grove” (Morris) expanded to include mills, a church, school, cheese factory, a store, Post Office, (1836-1906), blacksmiths, and doctor. In the south east corner, “Unadilla Center” (Unadilla) thrived with blacksmiths, stone quarry, school, store, Post Office (1833-1893) cooper shop, cemetery and church. By the 1950’s these two little communities had almost disappeared.

In the south west corner of Butternuts, Mount Upton (Guilford) slowly evolved but on the Chenango County side of the Unadilla River further south than where it is today. Found
there were various craftsmen, a store, Post Office (1815), doctor, lawyer, blacksmith, and millers. The construction of the Borden milk processing plant in 1895 brought work to that location for many years The pre-Rev. hamlet of South New Berlin [New Berlin] developed at the northwest corner of the town of Butternuts on the Otsego County side of the Unadilla River, later expanding to occupy both sides of the river. A Post Office was opened in a store13 in S.N.B. in 1822. Students who lived along the river shared school districts – the early “merged” districts referred to earlier. A boost to the economies of Mount Upton, So. New Berlin and surrounding country sides was felt for a time due to their location on the erratic Unadilla Valley Railroad (1879 -1957). However, they never achieved the status of villages. The widening of NYS Route 8 in the late-1960’s and the loss of rows of trees destroyed the park-like landscape along road’s right of way through both communities.

Minor

Within the township, several hamlets evolved. Each had a school but no post office or church. They primarily contained laborer’s houses scattered around a school, usually a cheese factory [seasonal] and often a craftsman or two, blacksmith, cooper, shoemaker, etc. They had informal names like Rootville, Kinne Ridge, West Hill, Danielson Settlement, Puckerhuddle, Upton Park. Upton Park had, at various times, an inn, a toll house, a store, a dance hall, saw, grist and cider mills; Danielson Settlement had a sawmill, a fulling mill, blacksmith and cooper. Over the years most of these little communities vanished.

The residents of all the hamlets came to the village of Gilbertsville for goods and services not available near by especially the Slaughter House, Grist Mill, Tanneries, banking and newspaper. The Gilbertsville Academy and Collegiate Institute was the center for public programs including concerts, plays, and an annual lecture series. Popular events at the GA&CI included Temperance and Abolition meetings and musical competitions.

Cultural Appetite ‐ From Paris To Butternuts

The vigorous agricultural and manufacturing economy financed a community wide appetite for cultural pursuits, private as well as public. A Charter for a Masonic Lodge at Butternuts was issued in 1808.14 15 The entire town considered reading for pleasure a necessity. Music, both playing and singing, were important activities. Stringed instruments were common as were band instruments supporting frequent concerts and parades. Pianos and pump organs graced parlors throughout the town. Fiddler’s Green, a lively spot in front of the stone school house, was a popular place for children’s gatherings, political debates, horseshoe pitching, and Brass Band practices.

By the 1830’s Gilbert’s Ville, now a village, contained four churches and the Academy, a womens’ private seminary, stores, a tannery, a slaughterhouse, a tailor, several blacksmiths and doctors, a couple of lawyers and a dentist. This beehive of commercial activity gave birth to a radical new marketing idea – a major distribution system to distribute pharmaceutical products (Mead family) and general store merchandise (Luce/Bentley family) throughout New York and Connecticut. The booming economy drove a spirited architectural competition among village entrepreneurs.

Gilbertsville Academy
Gilbertsville Academy & Collegiate Institute

Education was a subject of wide interest. Twenty-three school districts existed in Butternuts by 1813, four of those were merged districts spanning the Unadilla River. In addition to the 8th grade education assured by NY State, Butternuts embraced advanced education. A private co-ed academy for secondary education, the Gilbertsville Academy & Collegiate Institute was established (c. 1815), attracting students from all over the northeast and foreign countries. Later a popular state sponsored teacher training program increased the enrollment even more. The training of teachers, after agricultural products, became the second most important product and export of the lower Butternut Valley.


1823 Map of Butternuts

During this time, the Town of Butternuts included all of what is now the Town of Morris and parts of the towns of Pittsfield, New Lisbon, Laurens, Otego, Huntsville and Unadilla. Within the county – in population and income – the township of Butternuts was second only to the town of Otsego (Cooperstown/Fly Creek, etc.). In 1849 for the sake of easier governing, Butternuts was split in half, the part on the north being called the Town of Morris. The dividing line also split the manufacturing capabilities of the two municipalities fairly evenly.

Civil War

Through these years, life in the Butternut Valley moved on peacefully. The well-read community was perfectly aware of the simmering conflict and the sentiments, activities and opinions of the outside world. Abolition and Temperance were subjects of wide Civil War Recruitment Poster interest from earliest days. Underground railroad activity through Butternuts was reported to have been quietly coordinated by church groups.

Whenational events turned the nation to war, there was no consensus in Butternuts as to
its merit. As in much of the rest of the nation, the war divided many families and created great stress in the community. At least 254 Butternuts men of all ages are known to have participated, more than 10% of the population of the town. On the 9th of August, 1861 he entire Butternuts’ Brass Band enlisted in the 51st N.Y. Regiment. Butternuts was represented in most of the major battles during the course of the conflict. The after effects reverberated through Butternuts well into the 20th century.

Industrial Evolution & Agricultural Change

The demands of the industrial revolution on the natural environment began to change the economy of the area. Extended periods of drought impacted all the mills. Clear-cutting was a common practice and by 1865 most trees in the township were found only on hills too steep to be cut. Depleted forests led to Tannery closings and reduced the need for animal skins produced on local farms. With the formerly reliable local supply of leather now gone, numerous local craftsmen went out of business.16

While industry declined, the agricultural economy continued to prosper by exporting agricultural products to eastern markets. A great deal of construction took place during this time with larger and more elaborate houses and more spacious barns appearing all through the township as well as in the village evoking regularly lengthy comments in the local newspaper.

At the time of the Civil War, women’s work included butter and cheese making. Products were delivered to a local merchant who either sold them or packaged them for shipment to larger markets. The Civil War’s need for improved roads also made moving farm products, including milk, much easier. That ability encouraged the idea of cooperative neighborhood butter and cheese production. As a result, a few men made all the butter and cheese for neighboring dairies. Women embraced the idea of having the cheese and butter chores removed from their list of responsibilities. Participating dairy families delivered their milk to the neighborhood cheese factory and awaited payment for the products. Distribution of the products was coordinated for all the Cheese Factories by one or two individuals. Evolution and technological changes led to other advances in milk coops, condensaries, creameries, bottling plants, and agricultural co-ops, continuing to this day.

Post Civil War

In the late-1860s speculators proposed building a railroad through the Butternut Valley promising faster, cheaper shipping and robust economic growth. Opponents countered that a railroad would destroy prime farm land, pollute the air and that the economic benefits would go only to financiers and speculators. The proposition eventually died.

The town and village continued to prosper in spite of a number of devastating fires in the 1860’s and 70’s. Destroyed barns and neighborhoods were immediately replaced with modern, attractive homes and businesses. Fashionable new farm houses and spacious new barns with every convenience were built while older homes were embellished with roomy additions and porches.

The novel idea of architects designing new places in town and village was introduced in 1867/68 when Brookside Cemetery was conceived. The idea took hold and a number of architects were soon called upon to design replacements for fire destroyed structures, the first being the brick Baptist church in 1875. This was followed by Tianderah, the Library, the Gilbert Block, Major’s Inn, Village Farms Creamery & Cheese Factory, main house and stables, stone arch bridge, parks, additions and alteration to number of village homes and churches.


Bank Building

In 1868 merchant John Russell Brewer organized a bank to serve the town’s vibrant commercial activity.17 In 1876, the telegraph revolutionized communication with the outside world and 16-year-old editor and publisher William Dietz established a weekly newspaper, The Otsego Journal18 which chronicled daily life in the township. Other improvements including inside plumbing, coal burning stoves, bicycles, and oil street lights soon followed.

While these improvements were under way, westward opportunities were drawing away residents, especially young people. Many maintained strong attachments to Butternuts and made frequent summer trips back to the valley to visit family and friends. Small seasonal hotels, boarding houses, shops and gardens profited for a time. Popular entertainments included ice cream socials, evening concerts, lawn tennis and baseball games, drives around the countryside, lots of fresh air, and recreation on the Butternut Creek.

One of these extended families members was Joseph T. Gilbert III. He was the summer resident who encouraged his friends and family to help rescue the center of the village from the disaster created by the 1890s fires and laid the foundation for it to become the lovely historic district we know today. In addition, in order to assure a reliable source of water for his summer home where he entertained large numbers of family and friends, he donated property and contributed money to help build the Gilbertsville Reservoir and Waterworks.

Panic & Limited Recovery

Gradually, an aging and shrinking local population along with a stagnant national economy, began to take its toll. The bursting of a national real estate bubble was followed
in 1893 by a devastating national financial panic. Employment evaporated and many lost their homes and farms. Dairy farmers organized their neighborhood cheese factories into dairy cooperatives to support milk prices, a constant struggle. During this period, there was no money for new homes or expensive alterations of existing homes; a new coat of paint or a patch for a leaky roof was about all that was affordable.

The preservation of the area’s 18th and 19th century architectural heritage was the result of the coincidences of a stagnant economy, benign neglect and two talented sons of Butternuts’ builders. Will and Sam Woodlands had the same tools and the same attitude towards architectural craftsmanship as their grandfather and father. Working into the 1960’s, until their late eighties and early nineties, they helped retain the special ambiance of the town and village.

When N.Y. State Route 51 was paved, travel through the town and village become more comfortable and much cleaner. Electricity came to the village in 1923. A popular baseball diamond with covered bleachers, changing and rest rooms, was built for the town on Brewer’s Flat by the Village Improvement Society. Construction of the Gilbertsville Central School, next to the ball field in 1934, was the only major project in the town at the time. The spacious new campus became a year round hub of township activity.

Post WWII Industrialization

The township weathered two wars with another Depression sandwiched in the middle. Each event took more young people from the township. The community demonstrated extreme bravery in the face of desperate times. Residents made a tremendous effort to reduce the stress by indulging in simple pleasures – berry picking, ice skating, barn dances, parades and community picnics were a few. Everyone who stayed worked. Reduce, re-use, re-cycle was the way of life.

The evolution of agricultural and manufacturing processes almost completely eliminated the need for most town and village businesses and services. The local school district became the most important employer in the town. Lack of employment forced residents to seek work in surrounding communities. Some found jobs requiring long distance commutes to enable them to continue to live in Butternuts. That commute contributed to the practice of shopping in outlying districts further crippling the local economy.

Those Threats: Dams & Others

Beginning about 1912, a very real physical threat to the area emerged. Humming along in the background and growing louder through the years, was an Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to flood some of the town’s best farm land and completely obliterate the village. The situation became dire when, in 1948, Congress – after 40 years of recurring threats – authorized funding for the project. Residents of the vulnerable parts of central New York wholeheartedly banded together to initiate wide ranging protests. Over the next 25 years, the threat hovered.

During this 25 year period an additional threat to the town and the village emerged in the form of a plan to widen and improve the length of New York State Route 51. This plan was to straighten the curves and flatten the rises cutting up farms and moving or destroying houses, barns, bridges and cemeteries. In the village of Gilbertsville along Route 51 structures would be removed. Five years of intense protest activities resulted in a modified plan. The success of this protest reenergized the ongoing resistance against the proposed dams project.

The weapon of choice in the “Battle for Butternuts” was to pursue deauthorization of the entire Upper Susquehanna Rivershed Dam Project. That action would eliminate two dams along the Unadilla River – one threatening So. New Berlin, the other Mt. Upton – and one on the Butternut Creek at Cope’s Corners. Cancellation of the project would save hundreds of acres of valuable farm land. To further aid in the entire effort, the village of Gilbertsville was to pursue National Register recognition as an historic site. That recognition would help protect both the village and the township. Volunteers from the three communities joined together in dozens of types of protest activities, one group to produce the National Register Historic Site nomination. Recognition was awarded in May of 1982, the first of an entire village in New York State.

The Historic Site recognition not only recognized the entire village of Gilbertsville but called attention to the natural beauty of the township and the singular beauty of the architectural heritage. These special attributes, along with a unique cultural presence, have made the area a destination for visitors from many states and foreign countries. Threats to local control of schools have been an ongoing issue. In spite of protest and dissension within both communities, Gilbertsville Central School merged with Mount Upton Central School. Today, the old school buildings, once the hearts of both the towns, sit empty and deteriorating. At the time of the move into the new building in 1994, there were 675 students. In Sept of 2011, there were 451 students. As the student population continues to shrink, regional high schools and personalized online courses are being proposed to replace the current educational models. These shifts are changing education as we know it.

For a time, manufacturing in communities surrounding Butternuts provided employment for people leaving farms although later economic and social changes led to a loss of these jobs. Development related to farm breakups led the Town of Butternuts to affirm community values and intentions for the future with its 1991 master plan.

The Hundred Year Storm

At midnight on June 27th, 2006, village residents were startled from their beds when the
fire siren went off warning of a flood. A “hundred year storm” dropped twenty inches of
rain on fourteen counties in central New York in three days. In Gilbertsville, the result
was millions of dollars of damage along the Dunderberg brook from the village reservoir
to the Butternut Creek. The Village learned the value of its status as a National Register
Historic Site
as that brought special help from FEMA and New York State emergency
management people two days later to consult on and plan restoration of the damaged
property which at the time of this writing is still under way.

All The Best of Old & New

Scenic hills and valleys lead to the tiny storybook village of Gilbertsville where history,
architecture, culture, arts and community meet. Central to the cultural identity of
Butternuts, Gilbertsville is a National Register Historic Site with a distinct European
flavor and a quirky New England character.

Residents of Butternuts work hard to protect and preserve the best of the past while
building in the best of the new. The Major’s Inn, an imposing neo-Tudor stone structure,
attracts thousands to the village each year for cultural events, weddings, gatherings and
celebrations. The Major’s Inn Foundation, a volunteer run community organization, has made steady progress in rescuing, restoring and making the Inn self-supporting. The Foundation’s 30th anniversary in 2010 was celebrated with a Historic Stewardship award from OTSEGO 2000 for their outstanding job of restoration of the building.

A little further down Marion Avenue, the main route through the village, is the 1835
Empire House restaurant and inn. Rescued in 2007 after five years of sitting vacant, the
Empire is gaining on its restoration efforts. A menu specializing in Mediterranean cuisine
and the renovation of rooms for overnight guests brings guests from all over the area. The first reservations for these rooms were from Gilbertsville Central School graduatesvisiting to attend their class reunions.

Centennial Park, a new destination, was created when the village set aside land for a park near the old ball field. A roofed pavilion and playground equipment makes it a popular site for parties, family reunions and picnics. These improvements create a snapshot of the community’s dedication to preserving its legacy. As Robert W. Gilbert wrote in the Otsego Journal in 1887, Gilbertsville is “…Not a place of trade but one of firesides, not a place to grow rich in but a place to live in.”
©Leigh C.Eckmair, Registered Historian,
Town of Butternuts & Village of Gilbertsville