Saturday, October 8, 2016

Wevertown Farm Is A Microcosm of Adirondack History

kenwell farmTravelling on NYS Rt 28 just north of Wevertown, you may have taken little notice of the old abandoned farm on your right. If you did, you’ll probably gave it little thought; it is, after all, just a few run down barns and pasture overgrown with weeds and “poverty grass”. Yet this farm is a microcosm of Adirondack History.

Andrus Wever and his family were the first to open up the forest and to settle and farm on this site. Andrus was a Revolutionary War veteran who had served with the 6th Albany County Militia. At that time, Albany County included most all of Northern New York, the present state of Vermont and theoretically extended west all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The 6th was called up when General Burgoyne’s Army invaded from the north and Andrus likely saw combat at the battle of Saratoga in 1777. The 6th Albany County Militia was also part of the pursuit party that chased Sir John Johnson and his Royal New Yorkers back north after Johnson’s raid of Johnstown in 1780. It’s unclear if Andrus was a member of that pursuing party, but it’s intriguing to speculate he first came through the wilderness of what is today Wevertown during that pursuit. Andrus’ father, William, was also a patriot and apparently served in the American Revolution on Long Island. He was captured and died of small pox on a British prison ship in Boston Harbor.

Andrus Wever at age 37 brought his family here from Fort Ann, Washington County, NY in 1795. Historical records seem to indicate his wife’s name was Lois. The couple had two children at the time: son Justus (10) and daughter Elizabeth (2). Andrus (also known as “Andrew”) likely brought his family here in search a better life for themselves and their children, the classic American story. They were also likely encouraged to do so by John Thurman, a merchant from New York City, who dreamed of developing his thousands of acres of Adirondack wilderness into settlements of farms and light industry. The journey was probably a hard one; what roads there were back then were little more than rough Indian trails winding through the deep wilderness.

kenwell farmClearing the forest to grow crops was a back-breaking task; the sound of an axe chopping down the trees to clear the area for planting no doubt echoed from dawn to dusk. Stacks of tree limbs and brush were burned and the ash was likely recovered for the manufacture of potash. It took an acre of trees to make a ton of “pot ash” and at $25 a ton, potash became one of first cash crops available to settlers. A modest log cabin likely stood amidst those fields. The water they needed was fetched daily from the small but reliable Johnson Brook nearby. In 1807 Andrus Wever was elected a “fence viewer” whose responsibilities including settling boundary disputes and assessing damages caused by poorly maintained fences that allowed animals to stray.

The Wevers didn’t stay long; records indicate that by 1811 they had already left for Western New York. Stony soils and a short growing season likely discouraged them as it did many of the area’s first settlers. The Wevers moved on to VanBuren in Onondaga County. Andrus died there in 1836 and is buried in Warners Village Cemetery, New York along with his wife Lois, who died in 1811. Their children are also buried there. Adirondack records usually show the name spelled “Wever”, but on their headstones it is spelled “Weaver”. Although only here for a short time, “Wevertown” is named in their honor.

Ownership of the farm changed hands a few times going first to Robert Gilchrist, a relative of John Thurman’s and perhaps transferred as a result of Wever not paying off his land contract to Thurman before he left. In 1840 the farm was sold to Ebenezer Rollins on 42 acres for $200. And then to William Robleee in 1853 for $520. Calvin Roblee bought it in 1860 for $700 and then it was sold with a $530 mortgage with Susan Roblee to Nathan T. Eldridge on April 1, 1861.

2Twenty-five-year-old “Nate” Eldridge, described as 5’9” with brown eyes and brown hair, married Martha Balcomb of Hague the following year and before long a baby was on the way. But these were tumultuous times. The same month Nate bought the farm in 1861 the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter and war fever had broken out across the land. Within weeks of the attack on Fort Sumter Nate’s younger brother Jabey signed on with the 22nd New York Volunteer Infantry and before the year was out Nate’s older brother Norman would enlist with the 93rd New York Volunteer Infantry. In late 1862 Jabey returned home after being wounded at the battle of Fredricksburg. Norman, now a lieutenant in the 93 rd, returned home on furlough in late ’63, possibly to recruit more men for the regiment. Jabey had recovered enough from his war wound to re-enlist and Nate signed up too. The three brothers headed off to war together. Jabey and Norman would be killed just months later on the same day at the battle of the Wilderness. Three months later Nate would be captured at the battle of Deep Bottom outside of Richmond and sent to a Confederate Prisoner of War camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. Nate returned home after the war. When his wife Martha died he married widow Clara Spoor Kenwell in 1885.

kenwell farmNate died November 5, 1909. Clara’s son from her first marriage, Charles Spoor Kenwell, bought out his stepbrother’s share of their father’s inheritance and took over the farm. Charles had been born in a farmhouse on “Elm Hill” about two miles southwest of Wevertown, originally the area of John Thurman’s wilderness residence a hundred years before. After graduating from business college in 1890 Charles worked for Amor, Swift and Dolber meat packing. He married in 1912 and in 1913 returned to Johnsburg and took up farming.

The Kenwell Farm always had a high water table and that presented some farming challenges. The Warren County Farm Bureau News noted that “Charles Kenwell has plans all made for a ditch in his meadow that will make several acres dry enough for crops that are now so wet that the hay must be carried off to dry. This ditch will be blasted out with dynamite after haying. It will be about 600 feet long. It is estimated that two men can do it in about two hours time. The cost may be about the same as for hand labor, but the ditch will be dug, and Mr. Kenwell will have first grade timothy hay instead of wild swamp grass. If you want to see the dirt fly, come and help. The Farm Bureau manager will be there with rubber boots on.”

Electrification came slow to these mountain farms and for many years the hard tasks of farming were done by hand or with the help of a team of horses or oxen. Gas or oil lamps provided light in the house after sundown. Charles erected a small building along the creek by the road and installed a small hydroelectric system. It wasn’t much but it worked. The barns might well have been electrified before the house was.

Like many other Adirondack farmers, Charles needed additional work to keep his farm going. He worked as a fire spotter at the fire tower on Crane Mountain. It was an era of big fires in the Adirondacks. In 1908 a fire started along the Delaware & Hudson Railroad tracks in Stony Creek. By the next day it spread into a fire 18 miles long and 10 miles wide, eating its way from the Hudson River at Thurman westward into the interior. A force of 200 men dug a five mile long trench forcing the blaze northward. It swept over Crane Mountain and burned north almost reaching Peaked Mountain and threatening the garnet mines near Thirteenth Lake. By the time it was controlled it had burned over 200,000 acres in northern Warren County. Although it never touched Kenwell’s Farm there was, no doubt, much concern. The next year the state of New York built a wooden log fire tower on Crane Mountain and that was replaced in 1919 with a 45 foot steel tower. Twenty fires were reported from the Crane Fire Tower in 1912, twenty-seven in 1913 and a record fifty-one in 1933. Aircraft was later used for fire detection and in 1987 the fire tower was removed because, as a man-made structure, it was felt that it was “not in keeping with a wilderness area”.

kenwell farmCharles also became involved in politics and, in time, became known as “Mr. Republican”. In Echoes in These Mountains (2008) I had noted that according to his daughter Margaret, Charles knew both President McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt personally, but looking at dates I am beginning to think that this is unlikely as McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Charles was elected Justice of the Peace in 1915 and elected Town of Johnsburg Supervisor in 1922. In 1934 he was elected Chairman of the Warren County Board of Supervisors. Charles was re-elected Town Supervisor every two years until he retired from that position in 1957 at age 78. He died in 1960.

Charles’ wife Elizabeth died in 1912 and in 1916 he had married Rose Jenks of Schroon Lake. Mrs. Ira “Ted” (Margaret Kenwell) Morehouse inherited the farm from her stepmother Rose Kenwell on Rose’s death in 1972.

The farm has passed hands a few times since and was purchased by Rudd VanVoorhis of T.C. Murphy Lumber in 1993. In 1994 the old dilapidated farmhouse was razed and the land re-cleared with a brush hog. One barn was disassembled, but two were left standing.

Driving past the property today few would suspect the rich history here. But wandering through the old barns one cannot help but wonder what stories these old barns could tell if they could talk.

The Kenwell Farm is located on the east side of NYS Rt 28 about 7/10 of a mile north of the intersection of NYS Rtes 8 & 28 in Wevertown and is private property.

Photos of Kenwell Farm courtesy Glenn Pearsall.


Glenn Pearsall

Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008), When Men and Mountains Meet (2013), and the Adirondack novel, Leaves Torn Asunder (2016).
In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park.

When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.




12 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Glenn,

    Very interesting article. Thanks!!

  2. Dick Carlson says:

    Thanks Glenn – great piece – I pass by it every day!

  3. Running George says:

    Although the article speculated that the Wever farm was a failure and that this was the reason they moved to Onondaga. I believe there is another reason.
    In 1795 Wever was 37 years old when he settled in the Adirondacks. It was 16 years later tht he and his family moved. It may not have been “failure” as much as being 53 that was the impetus to move. Given the arduous nature of the work it may have become simply too hard and they were looking for a physically easier life.

    • Boreas says:

      I noticed that too. I was thinking – at age 37 would I have moved to a patch of what I assume was rocky forest with the intention of clearing it and farming it? It shows what people in that era were made of.

  4. Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Thanks for the interesting comments! One can only surmise why the Wevers left the Adirondacks by 1811 (his wife is buried in a cemetery in VanBuren, NY in the Fingers Lakes Region so we know they had left by then). What we do know is that they were not alone. Soon after the American Revolution there were many attempts to develop and farm the Adirondack wilderness; many of them failed due to the stony and poor soils and the harsh climate. By 1810-1820 there was a significant exodus of families into western NY and Ohio, accelerated with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825.

    • Boreas says:

      Glenn,

      I suppose it seems obvious today, but back then virtually nothing was known about the Adirondacks. This was pre – Erie Canal, so perhaps cheap land being close to Lake Champlain (for transporting goods) was quite an attraction. They probably figured ‘how cold and stony could it be??’.

      • Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

        It is amazing the projects and plans for the Adirondacks 1790-1820. I cover some of them in my 2013 book “When Men and Mountains Meet” available at many adrondack booksellers and on Amazon.com (shameless plug)

  5. Tom Stuart says:

    Thanks again Glenn for your research on the old Adirondack History. Love to read your articles.

  6. Concernedadker says:

    Too bad that huge business sign illegally sits in front of it. The APA should order that sign be removed.

  7. Charlie S says:

    Interesting history. I’ve been passing these barns for damn near half a hundred years. I knew they were owned by Murphy Lumber but that was the extent of my knowledge of them. Do you know the date on these existing barns Glenn? I’ve noticed as I pass by that there is a stone foundation in at least one section of these barns so assumed they were from the late 1800’s.

    • Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

      Charlie, I don’t know date of the barns. Have asked around and most guesses are 1880s. If you look at the historic picture in the article only one of the three barns (two of which are remaining ) are shown so the barns were likely built at different times.

  8. Charlie S says:

    Thank you Glenn.

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