Anti-Rent Wars remembered in art, literature, and drama

Candace Christiansen

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Candace Christiansen speaks to students about her book “Calico and Tin Horns” at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Elementary School on Monday.

BERNE — Candace Christiansen thumbed through pages of illustrations documenting the drama of the Anti-Rent Wars while speaking to fourth-graders at Berne-Knox-Westerlo Elementary School on Monday. The oil paintings show farmers clad in calico suits and masks revolting against the sheriff, and a small girl saving the day by blowing a tin horn.

While, in reality, the Anti-Rent Wars did not culminate with a young girl’s act of bravery, Christiansen wants her book, “Calico and Tin Horns,” to bring these past events to the attention of young people.

The work of a playwright over 40 years ago that led to two productions also stemmed from the joy of having children learn about the Anti-Rent Wars. Richard Weeks wrote two versions of “When the Bough Breaks,” one in 1974 and the other in 1975, with his wife, Corinne, producing.

Christiansen was the first of several speakers hosted by the Helderberg Hilltowns Association. The Weekses’ play may also become part of the celebration.

Other speakers include Jill Witbeck Knapp, author of “A Time for Redemption,” about her great-great-grandfather William Witbeck’s trial for the murder of Rensselaer County Deputy Sheriff Willard Griggs, and Bruce Dearstyne, former program director of the New York State Archives and professor of state history, author of “The Spirit of New York – Defining Events in the Empire State’s History.”

Christiansen’s book will also be displayed in Berne Town Park through a “book walk,” where laminated pages of “Calico and Tin Horns” are displayed on posts along a path in the park.

Dawn Jordan, secretary for the Helderberg Hilltowns Association, said that the group has been looking to work with Old Songs out of Voorheesville to play Anti-Rent songs.

More awareness is the association’s key goal, says its president, Zenie Gladieux, noting there is no chronological reason for the string of events.

“Nobody was talking about it,” she explained. “And it’s a big deal, particularly in this area.”

The definitive book on the uprising, “Tin Horns and Calico: A Decisive Episode in the Emergence of Democracy,” was written in 1945 by Henry Christman. He had grown up on a farm abutting the Helderbergs, which is now a preserve. His father, Will Christman, was a farmer and poet and his brother, Lansing Christman, also a poet and a pioneer in television news, was a one-time editor of The Altamont Enterprise.

Henry Christman’s work covers such a significant part of Hilltown history that it’s even sourced in town documents like Knox’s comprehensive plan.

The Dutch used a semi-feudal system in settling the lands around Albany, Christman’s book explains. Farmers were bound to their landlords, the patroons, by a lease written by Alexander Hamilton, which served for decades.

But, after the American Revolution, the task of paying rents didn’t sit well with descendants of those revolutionary soldiers who had inherited rights to farm the Helderberg lands from their fathers. The Hamiltonian idea of a privileged upper class had fallen out of fashion.

The Anti-Rent Wars began in the 1840s in 11 different counties in the Capital Region, when farmers refused to pay the rent they owed on their farms. One of the first meetings of farmers who no longer wanted to pay to farm the land they lived on occurred in Berne.

Years of skirmishes between farmers and the sheriff’s deputies enforcing the rent contracts along with legal skirmishes and political battles eventually led, in 1862, to the passage of the federal Homestead Act, which opened western lands to settlers and led to the birth of the Republican Party.

Family roots

Jordan, who is also a Berne town councilwoman, can directly trace her connection to the Anti-Rent Wars. Her great-great-grandfather Isaac Brate received one of the first summons from Walter Church, who had bought up all the leases in the Hilltowns.

“If you look at the history, there were a few attempts to try to change the system early on … ,” said Jordan. “It really got started in 1839 … ,” when Stephen Van Rensselaer III died — he was known as the “Good Patroon,” and had been lax in collecting rents. His sons set about collecting the back rents from the farmers to pay off his debts.

Jordan owns property at the end of Cass Hill Road where an old hotel owned by her ancestor once stood. It was the spot from which the Anti-Renters sent away the first sheriff who came up to issue summons to pay rent. Jordan even found one of the summonses issued to Brate and a release from the deed by Walter Church. Church, a speculator who bought land from the Van Rensselaers, also began demanding rent.

In 2011, when the county legislature divided the Hilltowns into two districts, Jordan and other Hilltown residents protested. Jordan went to the legislative chambers in Albany, bringing with her artifacts of the Anti-Rent Wars to signify the unity of the Hilltowns: the original papers of her ancestor and a tin horn that she bought at an antiques shop.

She presented the tin horn to two sheriff’s deputies who were there to show them that it wasn’t a weapon. They were shocked, she said, to discover how sheriff’s deputies were used to terrorize the Anti-Renters.

“People maybe don’t know the history, but it is very interesting,” explained Jordan.

A writer and an artist

Christiansen published “Calico and Tin Horns” in 1992, with illustrations by her late husband, Thomas Locker, an artist who was well-known for his landscape paintings and influence of the Hudson Valley.

Christiansen was married to Locker for 25 years. Locker, who died in 2012, wrote and illustrated many children’s books. He asked Christiansen when they first were together if she would be interested in writing children’s books, she said.

“And I said I’d try it,” she said.

Christiansen wanted to empower women and girls. She said she wanted to write about “a little girl who felt she couldn’t do something wonderful, and she saved her family farm.”

Christiansen also recalled her talks, when she lived in the area, with the late Westerlo historian and librarian “Junior” Bishop and what he had told her about the Hilltowns and the Anti-Rent Wars, and she decided she wanted to cover that period in history.

Christiansen, 71, now teaches both chemistry and basket-weaving at the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School in Ghent, in Columbia County, where she has worked for the last 33 years. She lives in nearby Harlemville.

She studied chemistry at both The College of Saint Rose and Cornell University. She grew up in Albany but moved to Westerlo when she was a young woman, raising both her children and a herd of sheep there. She learned to weave from Maryanne Ronconi, a Berne resident. Later in life, both her chemistry and weaving expertise would serve her well as a teacher.

“I loved being a shepherdess and I loved being a farmer,” she said, of her life in Westerlo.

Later in her life, she moved to Columbia County and also lived on Hunter Mountain for five years with her husband.

So that Locker could paint the breathtaking vistas and rolling hills of the Helderbergs in “Calico and Tin Horns,” Locker and Christiansen took many trips to various sites in the Hilltowns.

“We traveled all over. We did some research about areas that participated,” she said. The research included visiting area libraries and reviewing the history recounted in Christman’s “Tin Horns and Calico.”

What stood out to Christiansen was the lack of knowledge on such a significant event. “... Beyond the Hilltowns, almost anyone doesn’t know about it even though it’s an important part of New York history,” she said.

She hopes that children learn about the Anti-Rent Wars through her book, and she hopes they also embrace literature and Locker’s art.

“His artwork is so powerful,” she said.

She also hopes that children will feel as if anyone, even a young girl, can do anything anywhere.

“She can even save the family farm,” Christiansen said.

A playwright and teacher involve kids in telling the tale

Gladieux hopes that a play about the Anti-Rent Wars performed 40 years ago will come to life again. She has been in contact with Corinne Weeks, whose late husband, Richard Weeks, wrote the play in the 1970s, including a version performed on Berne’s “Heritage Day,” said Jordan. The Hilltowns Association is looking to have the show performed at some point.

“There’s no rush,” Jordan said.

Writing the script combined the history used in storytelling with letting the original actors — children in a theater workshop — be a dynamic part of the process. Corinne and Richard Weeks both believed, when teaching children about theater at Heldeberg Workshop, that the children should be involved in all aspects of the play.

For Mrs. Weeks, now a retired elementary-school teacher, that involved letting a shy child who wanted to play a clam on stage create his own costume from hula hoops and garbage bags. He eventually opened up enough to say a line of dialogue: “I’m a clam and I’m very quiet.”

For Mr. Weeks, who worked with older children in middle school and high school, it was involving them in the process of creating a play about the Anti-Rent Wars, acting out whatever “felt like the part” to them as he wrote the script, his wife said.

The Weekses began volunteering at the Heldeberg Workshop in the early 1960s; they both believed in letting children explore all aspects of theater.

“You’re there as the catalyst,” explained Mrs. Weeks, who lives in Voorheesville and taught for decades at both Voorheesville and Westerlo schools.

One example of a Heldeberg Workshop theater production was “Alice in Wonderland,” performed outside, with the audience moving from one place to another rather than the set being changed.

Mr. Weeks taught social studies at the Burnt Hills school district and, while teaching the history of the Anti-Rent Wars, thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to act this out?” his wife recalled.

So Mr. Weeks began a journey of research and writing two of three acts of a play, as well as pursuing a venue for that production, before bone cancer and his untimely death stopped him.

While thoughts of reviving the show have been mentioned by the Helderberg Hilltowns Association, the process of revising and copyright issues keep it from moving forward.

Mrs. Weeks still has copies of her husband’s script, which she helped research and later produced. News clips and images of Mr. Weeks with Christman, who helped with the research, line a poster board, as well as photos of the production itself.

Christman, who had worked with the Weekses on their research for the production, had pushed to have the third act written, said Mrs. Weeks. She said he even went as far as suggesting that a film be made of it.

Now, Mrs. Weeks says she would at least like to see the children’s production brought back, though she is hesitant to become involved in her late husband’s passion project.

The play is called “When the Bough Breaks,” with both a literal — one of the children loses her doll in a tree — and metaphorical meaning.

“I had that doll for years,” said Mrs. Weeks of the prop used in the play. “It was a rag doll made for my daughter.”

The title is now of some copyright concern because it is also the title of another play. The traditional Anti-Rent song used could also be of some copyright concern, she said.

Christman included dozens of the historic Anti-Rent lyrics in his book; some of them were then popularized by Pete Seeger.

The Weekses original show uses two groups of children to indicate a social divide.

“He devised it for the city kids to come out to the Helderbergs in the carriage,” explained Mrs. Weeks, who said that the children then get lost and find the children of Isaac Hungerford, one of the Anti-Renters.

The initial script, produced for the children at the Heldeberg Workshop program to perform in 1974, weaves both historic documents and events into the children’s retelling of it: Farm children playing together reenact the tar-and-feathering of Bill Snyder, the deputy sheriff of Albany County at the time who had come to collect the rent from the farmers.

An introductory scene shows children talking about the birth of Stephen Van Rensselaer, who would enforce collecting rents after his father’s death, and quote the compact that gave the farmers rights to the land.

The following year, a second act was written to feature adult actors. While the previous show ended with children singing an Anti-Rent song of the times, “The Helderberg War Song,” the next show began with it:

“Hark in the mountains I hear a great roar/ Those Helderberg farmers are at it once more.”

The show ends with the farmers about to fight Snyder. A third act would have seen a resolution to the Anti-Rent Wars, but this never came to fruition, said Mrs. Weeks.

The 1974 production with the children had been held outside in the back of Clayton A. Bouton High School.

“It was the perfect setting,” said Mrs. Weeks. “It looked like a farmhouse.”

This was emphasized when a local farmer loaned chickens for the set. She said that this worked out well until they began to roost in the trees.

Mr. Weeks had also wanted to create a new venue for the production — an outdoor amphitheater at Heldeberg Workshop, even getting grant funding to bring in Edward Knowles, who designed outdoor venues like the Wolf Trap in Virginia and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, to review the space for its potential. Unfortunately, his desire for an outdoor stage was not fulfilled in his lifetime, but was later built at Heldeberg Workshop.

The following year, the 1975 production was also held outside, this time at the amphitheater in Five Rivers. Community members ranging from those involved in theater to a town supervisor’s wife gathered to watch the production.

“They wanted a production that would be sort of like a pageant,” said Mrs. Weeks. “And Dick didn’t want that.”

Instead, he wrote about Isaac Hungerford; his wife, Margaret; and their adversary Stephen Van Rensselaer.

Costume design derived from careful research and thrifty gathering — farmers’ shirts were made from bed sheets, and masks were made from birch bark to resemble leather or found animal pelts. The then-Altamont historian, Arthur Gregg, who had himself written about the Anti-Rent Wars, lent a tin horn.

“We guarded that like it was a piece of gold,” said Mrs. Weeks.

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