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.
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.
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.
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