Hilltown boosters and history buffs meet to discuss past happenings and future events

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

History in hand: Roland Tozer, left, president of the Westerlo Historical Society, Garrett Platel, center, of the Rensselaerville Historical Society, and Ethan Willsie, right, who grows hops in the area and hopes to contribute to local historical events, all look at an artifact from the Berne Museum.

BERNE — At a Saturday morning meeting in the Berne Town Hall, underneath the town’s museum, a group of historians, librarians, museum curators, and others interested in local history met to discuss planning events to promote local history and tourism.

This is the second summit of members from historical societies, museums, and libraries stretching from Middleburgh to Duanesburg to New Scotland. Helderberg Hilltowns Association President Zenie Gladieux said at the meeting that the intention was to plan events centered around the area’s industrial history — Berne’s ax-making and Knox’s pillbox-production, for example — for 2017, and the events celebrating the area-involvement in the Anti-Rent Wars for 2018.

The brewing of an idea

As the meeting progressed, the subject turned from area industry to a more specific industry, the production of alcohol and its role in the Prohibition Era and local farming. Susan Fancher, of the Westerlo Historical Society, said she was fascinated by the area’s role in Prohibition, and made note of a story a resident told her of finding a still for fruit liquor in her grandmother’s house.

“That would definitely be a draw for people,” said her husband, Dennis Fancher, the Westerlo Town Historian, who noted that hops used for making beer had been grown more widely in the area before being wiped out by a blight.

Ethan Willsie said he and Garrett Platel, of the Rensselaerville Historical Society, have been growing hops for the past five years in the hopes of creating a cidery. Berne and Knox historian Kathleen Putzig also noted that Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland grows its own hops and produces cider and beer. It was noted that there are around five distilleries in Rensselaerville.

“I’m seeing one helluva lot of fun here,” said Gladieux. She brought forth the idea of a beer-tasting at an event.

Susan Fancher later wondered how to draw more people to local events.

“Offer free beer,” responded Knox Historical Society member Bill Donato.

Mary Jane Araldi, curator of the Westerlo Town Museum, suggested Columbus Day Weekend for the event. Berne Councilwoman Dawn Jordan suggested “Historic Weekend in the Hilltowns” as a tagline.

“It certainly would be a draw to the public,” said Putzig, of serving and discussing alcohol production.

“Have we talked ourselves into something?” asked Gladieux.



The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
Vignette from the past: Roland Tozer, president of the Westerlo Historical Society, observes a school desk — complete with a school bell and a dressed up “school marm” — in the Berne Museum, located above the town hall in what used to be an old hotel.


History and education

Members also discussed the various programs that educate children on local history. At Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central School District, students participate in a program called “Suitcases of History,” in which they observe historic objects, and also read letters from a former resident, Michael Barkley, said Gladieux.

She added that, at Middleburgh Junior/Senior High School, students take a half-year course where they work with the local historical society.

Putzig mentioned she’d like to have students learn about local industry — both past and present — such as Hannay Hose Reels in Westerlo.


The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
Making magic: Sandra Stempel, of the Berne Historical Society, holds up a glass plate used to project an image in a “magic lantern” at the Berne Museum. Stempel-Kisselback said the historical society wants to have the museum open to the public one Sunday a month, but that it is difficult with members either aging or too busy to give a tour.


Calico and tin horns

The roundtable also discussed plans for celebrating the local involvement in the Anti-Rent Wars come 2018.

The Anti-Rent Wars, or the Helderberg Wars, occurred in the 1800s when farmers living on a land owned by a patroon refused to pay rent. Organizing first in the town of Berne, they wore disguises made out of calico and blew tinhorns to alert fellow anti-renters.

At the summit, members went over ideas such as performances by the Hilltown Players, hiring music groups, and venue options to commemorate the past events.

“It shaped the country,” said Dawn Jordan, noting that the Anti-Renters political views led to the creation of significant political parties.

Garrett Platel, of the Rensselaerville Historical Society, noted a Thomas Cole painting, “River in the Catskills,” in which a man stands near a suspicious pile of calico cloth and a sheepskin mask.

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