Raising a future based on a solid foundation

— Photo from the Westerlo Historical Society Calendar taken by Jesse Palmer

In 1910, a barn-raising was held at Lockwood Farm, a mile west of Thayers Corners. “Neighbors helped with women cooking a huge meal for all. On completion of the barn, a dance was held inside, lasting all night,” says the caption in the 1994 calendar that included this picture.

WESTERLO — As the town turns 200, Westerlo will celebrate its history and have some fun in the here and now.

A three-day festival is planned for the last weekend in September.

The bicentennial committee is headed by Mary-Jane Araldi, director at Memorial College of Nursing, who dove into planning after her daughter’s wedding in June.

“I had a good committee to work with,” she said of pulling together the multi-faceted event — including a play, a parade, a dance, a picnic, and a 5K race — so quickly.

Among those who are helping is Kate Latham, 76, a retired Westerlo schoolteacher, the youngest of 10 children raised on a diary farm in a family with deep roots in town, and Dennis Fancher, 70, a retired engineer at Hannay Hose Reel and the Westerlo town historian.

Fancher likes old things. He and his wife, Susan, have a collection of lamps — from the days before kerosene, before the Civil War, when beeswax and tallow was used.

Fancher got interested in local history when he asked the late Thurmond Bishop Jr. to look at a cemetery on his property

“I found some hardware off a casket in a woodchuck hole; Junior said to put it back in the hole,” Fancher recalled.

Bishop, who was the Westerlo historian, had done research on the town’s history and shared it with Fancher.

The town was founded in 1815, named after an Albany minister, Elardus Westerlo, of the Reformed Church.

“He had never been to Westerlo,” said Fancher. “He had died 25 years before, in 1790. It was political; he had connections with the Van Rensselaers and the Livingstons.”

The Helderberg land that is now Westerlo was originally home to the Mahican people — an eastern Algongian tribe. It  had been part of the West Manor of the Van Rensselaers and was later part of Watervliet, then Rensselaearville, then Coeymans before it became Westerlo.

One of the earliest settlers was Philip Meyers who arrived, as a boy from Germany, traveling up the Hudson river with his father in the mid-1700s. “His father went back to Europe and never returned,” said Fancher.

Meyers eventually built a log house in what is now Westerlo. It stood where the Albert Percy House is now. “Logs from that probably came from the original cabin,” said Fancher. “It was said to be built in 1763.”

“I’m the one that encouraged the town to buy the original Meyers homestead,” he said. That homestead, also called the Percy House, with most of the structure from the 1840s, will be opened as the town’s museum as part of the bicentennial celebration.

In 1815, when Westerlo was founded, the town was largely agrarian. “There were some sawmills and gristmills,” said Fancher. “There was a potash plant for soap and lye. That’s where all the trees went; the forests were leveled. There was also a tannery.”

 

Westerlo, history, barn fire, The Altamont Enterprise
— Photo from the Westerlo Historical Society Calendar
In 1930, a fire destroyed Britton’s Grist Mill on West Street in Westerlo. “It opened the eyes of local men who later formed the fire company,” says the caption in the 1996 calendar that included this picture.

 

Westerlo reached its peak population just before the Civil War, after which the westward migration began.

According to a 1976 history of the town, written for the country’s bicentennial, Westerlo in the 1870s had a three-story hotel owned by Henry Latham; four stores — Archibald Green, general merchandise; Perry Swartout, sundry merchandise; H.K. Jones, dry goods and groceries; and Gilbert Anderson, hardware and tin; three blacksmiths, two wheelwright shops; one undertaker, Moses DeLaVergne; a shoe shop; a paint shop; and a millinery and dressmaking shop.

In the third or fourth decade of the 19th Century, the hamlet took the name Chesterville, a name it kept until the early 20th Century, although the post office, founded in 1827, was always known as Westerlo.

“Chesterville was named for another Albany minister,” said Fancher. This one had actually been to the town. Rev. John Chester of the Second Presbyterian Church at Albany visited the Presbyterian church at Van Leuvan’s Corners.

One of the town’s treasures is an 1881 bandwagon, emblazoned with the words “Chesterville Coronet Band.”

“My uncle found parts of that wagon in Medusa,” said Fancher. His uncle, Fred Clickman, used a picture of the wagon to piece it back together. The bandwagon will be part of the bicentennial parade.

Fred Clickman’s father, Walter Clikman, was a coronet player in the band. “I have the coronet,” said Fancher. “We even found some of the music that was being played.”

 

Westerlo, history, The Altamont Enterprise
— Photo from Katie Latham
In 1885, The Chestertown Coronet Band posed in front of the hotel in Chesterville, as Westerlo was called then. From left, seated, are Charles Lockwood, John Peck, Oscar Martin, and Edwin Hannay Sr.; standing are, Archie Atkins, Theodore LaVergne, Beaman Hannay, Charles Green, George Stone, and Frank Palmer. The drummer is noted on the back of the picture only as “Nelson.”

 

He enthusiastically read some of the titles from the recently discovered 1891 book — “Our Flag is There,” “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “The Last Rose of Summer,” and “A Warm Baby.”

“It says in smaller print, ‘Cake Walk and Two Step,’ so it must have been a dance number,” said Fancher.

He concluded, “I wish we could find someone to play the coronet.”

He and his wife will have a display at the town park during Saturday’s bicentennial celebration where, in addition to their antique lamps, they will display a butter churn that was once powered, with a treadmill, by a dog or a goat.

The Fanchers will also display a scale model of a sawmill and a salesman’s sample of a hay baler from a store in Medusa.

“We just want to let people know more about Westerlo…and we’d like to increase interest in the historical society and get younger people involved,” said Fancher.

The Belgian connection

Three decades ago, three young men showed up at Town Hall and said they were from Westerlo in Belgium and wanted to see the town of the same name in America.

“My father was the superintendent of highways. He invited them to dinner,” recalled Mary-Jane Araldi.

So began a fast friendship that spanned generations and continents.

“My father had landed on the beaches of Normandy and had marched through Belgium and France during the war,” said Araldi.

Now George and Mary Snyder were invited to a wedding in a no longer war-torn Belgium.

In March 1985 a delegation from Westerlo in the Helderbergs went to Westerlo in Belgium. “It’s gone back and forth,” said Araldi.

In 1988, a charter of friendship was signed by the elected leaders of the two Westerlos.

“We’ve exchanged visits about every five years,” said Araldi. She was last there about two years ago.

“It’s bigger than our Westerlo, about an hour from Brussels, but still rural,” she said. “People ride their bikes there rather than drive a car.”

Westerlo is in the Flemish-speaking half of Belgium rather than the French-speaking half, but, Araldi said, communication is no problem: “They all speak English.”

The mayor of Westerlo and his wife are coming to the Helderbergs for the bicentennial celebration and will ride in the parade. “They will stay in my house,” said Araldi.

“Down with the Rent!”

Hilltown history will come to life through song on Friday, Sept. 25, at the town hall, starting at 7 p.m. for the opening act of the bicentennial celebration.

The story of the Anti-Rent Wars will be performed by local musicians following a script written by Andy Spence, founder of Old Songs Inc.

The two-hour performance uses period lyrics to tell of the uprising that spanned several decades in the mid-19th Century.

Tenant farmers, in the same spirit as the revolutionaries who caused the Boston Tea Party, dressed as calico Indians to harass the sheriffs sent by the Dutch patroon to collect the back rents on the lands they farmed.

“Hail, patriots, hail the sacred day our fathers broke the tyrant’s sway,” goes a song sung on the Fourth of July in 1845 at an anti-rent celebration in New Salem. “Let Earth resound with notes of glee! It is our nation’s jubilee…We will be free from feudal rents and tyranny.”

“I just want to get people to come,” said Araldi. “We haven’t sold many tickets, and they’re only $10.”

Tickets at the door cost $15. To reserve a ticket, call 797-3010 or email mjarldi@msn.com.

Museum opens

Setting up a town museum has been a 20-year effort.

The Town of Westerlo Heritage Museum will finally open in the midst of the bicentennial celebration.

“We got a grant and had a referendum for a museum; it was voted down,” said Latham.

She described the extensive work that has been done on the Percy House. “It’s been all gutted, upstairs and downstairs. Insulation was sprayed in to reinforce the structure. We put new wallboard up and put in new windows,” said Latham. “It had been a home for animals; it smelled.”

Latham went on, “We have a beam we want to enclose but will wait till the open house. It still has the bark on it.”

 

Enterprise file photo — Saranac Hale spencer
 In 2002, when the Westerlo Town Board reviewed plans for an addition to the Percy House, wavy glass showed the age of the windows; the bottom center pane was newer, offering a clearer view of the clapboards outside. The old windows have since been replaced.

 

Among the collections that will be displayed at the museum are the old post office slots, an original uniform from the coronet band, and a dress from the early 1900s.

“The dress is black lace; it’s beautiful. We have a hood that goes with it,” said Latham. “It was used for funerals.”

She went on, “We have quilts — an old wool quilt, and a signature quilt where each lady put her name on it.”

Many of the artifacts had been housed at the library.

“They’re objects that can’t be replaced,” said Latham.

Parade

The centerpiece of the celebration will be a parade, starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

“We’ll start out near Hannay’s and come down the hill to the town park,” said Araldi.

Long-time Supervisor Richard Rapp will be the grand marshal; he will ride in the lead car with his wife and with the mayor of Westerlo, Belgium and his wife.

The Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company and the Westerlo Rescue Squad will follow, and invitations have been extended to other fire departments as well, Araldi said.

Also, she said, “We want to recognize the town’s oldest residents. And we’ve mailed letters to all the veterans in town to see if they can come to march.”

Additionally, Fancher is putting together a display of veterans from Westerlo and is requesting pictures of those who have served. “From the Civil War to Afghanistan, we have 30 right now,” Fancher said, “and more are coming.”

Various organizations are making floats for the parade, said Araldi, including the Helderberg Christian School, churches, and the library.

School bands from Berne-Knox-Westerlo and Greenville have been invited, and an accordion band will play in the parade, too.

Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are expected to march and the American Legion Riders are coming.

After the parade, spectators can enjoy a variety of activities at the town park where food vendors and crafters will be on hand.

“We tried to get old-fashioned crafts, like spinning and weaving,” said Latham. “We have a blacksmith coming and someone bringing maple syrup.”

There will be a chicken and pork barbecue. There will also be a bouncy-bounce, a dunk tank, pony rides, face-painting, and games as well as historic displays.

“I’ll have a display on the Belgian friendship,” said Araldi.

From 7 to 9 p.m., Peaceful Country will play music for round and square dancing in the park.

Hannay Hose Reel Company is sponsoring fireworks at 8 p.m.

What if it rains on Saturday?

“We go for it,” said Latham. “We have no alternate date.”

On Sunday

The festivities on Sunday will start with a five-kilometer run. Pre-registration is $20; it costs $25 on the day of the race. Any money taken in goes to offset costs, said Araldi.

“Anybody can come,” she said. “The more, the merrier.”

The race will start at the firehouse on West Street, said Latham, and will end where it began.

At 10:30, following the race, a community church service will be held in the park. “We’ve invited all the ministers — Baptist, Reformed, Methodist, Congregational,” said Latham.

A community picnic will follow at noon with hotdogs, hamburgers, and drinks provided by the town. Picnickers are urged to bring a dish to share and to bring their own place settings.

From noon to 3 p.m., a cruise-in car show will conclude the festivities.

“We’ve invited antique cars and tractors, anything old,” said Latham. “There’s no entry fee.”

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