Frenchs Hollow: From hunting ground to factory site to gathering spot

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

This is a view of the grist mill demolished in the 1920s and the covered bridge just beyond it. Both were gone by the early 1930s. You are looking downstream. The old factory building would have been down a bit beyond the bridge. This photo was most likely taken not long before the old mill in disrepair was razed.

A century or more ago, Frenchs Hollow would have been a familiar landmark to just about everyone in Guilderland, most of them having actually visited the scenic spot on one or more occasions. Today it is probable that the majority of Guilderland’s 37,000-plus residents have never even heard of the place, much less visited it.

Melting waters from the last Ice Age’s glacier carved through bedrock to create a narrow ravine. An ever-flowing creek later named the Normanskill followed the contour of the land to establish a streambed between the narrow banks. Evidence of Native American activities in this area have been uncovered by archeologists.

Here the rushing waters had the potential for water power, a key resource needed for early 18th-Century settlement, making the area attractive for a small number of Guilderland’s early settlers. The 18th- and early 19th-century history of the hollow is fragmentary.

Certainly by 1800 the spot had become known as Frenchs Hollow or Frenchs Mills due to the entrepreneurship of Abel French who had used the Normanskill’s water power to establish a saw mill, grist mill, and a cloth factory. Peter K. Broeck set up a woolen factory in 1795 as well.

Workers settled there, but Frenchs Hollow never was considered one of the town’s hamlets, lacking a one-room school, post office, church, or even a store. Guilderland Center or Fullers served the needs of Frenchs Hollow’s residents.


Revolutionary times

A tavern run by Jacob Aker, otherwise unknown, was supposed to have been in the hollow at an early period. Was it a meeting place for Revolutionary War Patriots?

According to French’s 1860 Gazetteer of New York State, to celebrate the good news of Burgoyne’s defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, at the top of the hill across the Normanskill a hollow chestnut tree was filled with a barrel of tar and set ablaze.

Another story associated with Burgoyne and Frenchs Hollow was recorded in an 1880s composition by a schoolgirl descendant of the Chesebro family who lived on the old Wemple farm not far west of the hollow.

It seems equipment carried by the defeated British forces was confiscated and brought south to Albany. Somehow one of these items, an oversized copper kettle with a “huge faucet as big as a man’s wrist” at the bottom, was obtained by Abel French.

French thought he’d find a use for it in his cloth factory, but eventually tossed it out into the lumber yard of his saw mill. A quarter of a century earlier, the girl’s grandfather as a schoolboy had measured the abandoned kettle, reporting it to be five feet deep and six feet across.


Changing uses

Early in the 19th Century, Abel French’s original cloth factory burned and the large brick building seen in late 19th-Century photographs was erected in its place. Supposedly the building wasn’t sturdy enough to accommodate later, heavier machinery so that it could no longer be used for manufacturing or weaving.

It is also likely that by the mid-19th Century, competition from other areas had an effect as well. The grist mill continued to operate into the early 20th Century because buckwheat and rye were important farm crops grown on Guilderland farms at that time. Locals called the buckwheat flour ground here “pancake timber.” The building was taken down in the early 1920s.

After Abel French’s death, the family continued to own the mill and factory building, leasing it out to others. Elijah Spawn and Son ran the grist mill and rented out the factory for social occasions, the scene of many a large gathering during the last decades of the 19th Century. However, it was still owned by the French Estate, a term used in The Enterprise.

Frenchs Hollow was located off of the Western Turnpike and the Schoharie Road, later called Schoharie Plank Road. Dirt roads connected to these main routes gave access to the mills there and today are designated Frenchs Hollow Road and Frenchs Mills Road.

It is no longer possible to access Frenchs Hollow from Route 146 by car as it once was because the Frenchs Mills Road railroad overpass is closed while the bridge over the Normanskill at the Hollow is now restricted to cyclists and pedestrians.

The Normanskill had to be bridged, but information about the earliest bridge is unknown. However, in 1869, a “spring freshet” washed out whatever bridge was there.

A Haupt style covered bridge, with a span of 62 feet, 8 inches, was built on the original stone abutments; this covered bridge is seen in many old photos. According to his descendants, Henry Witherwax was supposed to have constructed the trusses on open land near Fullers Tavern on the Western Turnpike, and then skidded them down to the Normanskill.

Twentieth-Century traffic took its toll and, in 1924, a motorbus’s rear wheels broke through the planking; it took five hours to get it unstuck. In 1933, the now inadequate covered bridge was demolished, replaced by a bridge that has been in turn judged inadequate and closed to motor traffic in 1987.

“Modern” technology encroached on Frenchs Hollow in 1865 when the Saratoga & Hudson Railroad was laid out, linking the New York Central tracks in South Schenectady with Athens, a village on the Hudson. Crossing the ravine at Frenchs Hollow was a major engineering and construction project for the time when a wooden trestle was built on stone abutments to support the tracks.

This first railroad was unprofitable, but the route was taken over by the New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railroad in 1883. Rebuilt more than once since that time to carry heavier and longer trains, the railroad trestle at Frenchs Hollow carries numerous, lengthy CSX freights daily and has never been out of use since the 1880s.


Social gatherings

During the 19th Century, Frenchs Hollow became a popular destination for social events, both indoors in the otherwise unused factory building and outdoors. It was a tradition for many years that the Sunday schools from the town’s churches join together there for a Town Picnic.

A popular spot at Frenchs Hollow, mentioned often in The Enterprise once it began publication in 1884, was Volkert Jacobsen’s two islands where there was a fine spring, spacious grounds, and plenty of shade. The exact location is unknown today, but the islands are probably now under the waters of the reservoir.

Elijah Spawn, who owned a farm there, also had a grove available for picnics. Food, ice cream, and baseball games were key features of the Sunday school picnics and, in 1889, it was estimated that 2,000 kids, parents, and friends attended with the Knowersville Band, and the Guilderland Center and Guilderland Drum Corps furnishing music “to the delight of all.”

In the 1890s, A.F. Spawn apparently remade his farm located on “the rapids” and likely under the waters of the reservoir today, into “Hillside Cottage,” a mini resort with a large tent adjacent and “Entertainment Hall,” probably the old factory building.

Guests, some traveling from nearby cities, others from nearby local hamlets, came to hear Sunday afternoon preaching or other entertainments in the tent or to attend dances in the “Hall.” All these activities were recorded in the Guilderland Center’s Enterprise column, although by the late 1890s mentions were no longer made of Hillside Cottage.

The old factory building, having been leased by Elijah Spawn and Son in the 1880s, had been repurposed into a venue for group gatherings. As early as the 1840s, before any of the town’s Methodist churches were built, Methodists had camp meetings at Frenchs Hollow, although they may have had open-air meetings rather than using the factory building.

A hugely popular event took place there the summer of 1887, just one example of the entertainments at Frenchs Hollow. It was given by the I.O. of G.T. (the International Organisation of Good Templars) of Guilderland Center where at 3:30 p.m. there was a baseball game, then a peach supper at reasonable cost, and an evening’s dramatic and musical program including two elocutionists from Amsterdam, and the Fullers Cornet Band and the Guilderland Center Boys Drum Corps to provide the music.

Let’s not forget that most arrived by horse and buggy and attendees were assured “two competent hands have been engaged to take care of the horses.”

A once well-known local poet, Magdalene LaGrange used one of these dinners followed by entertainment as the subject of a lengthy 120-line narrative poem composed in the 1880s entitled “The Drill.”

Beginning with, “An old factory three stories high, a basement below…,” it recorded the scene of one of these dinners with “The sandwiches, biscuits, pie and ham/ The cake, the preserves, the jelly and jam…” and told of the entertainment, describing a broom drill performed by “Twelve young ladies dressed in white/ Composed the drill we saw that night … The tall sweet leader’s name was Nell…” to the tune of “Bonnie Doon” played by a cornet band.

Both Guilderland Center’s Helderberg Reformed Church and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church made use of the building which Spawn advertised as “a large and commodious space” on two floors with “ample accommodation for horses.” The two churches alternated putting on suppers and entertainments there on Decoration Day (Memorial Day) for many years.

Finally, in 1901 the Reformed Church Ladies Social Union announced that the annual supper and entertainment would be at the church parlors in Guilderland Center, noting “for several years the old factory in Frenchs Hollow has generally felt to be unsafe and is generally felt that no considerable body of people should gather in the building.”


Factory demolished

The old factory building remained empty and decrepit until 1917 when it was taken down as part of the construction of the Watervliet Reservoir.

In 1917, the Watervliet Reservoir construction dammed the Normanskill after the city of Watervliet purchased much farmland in the area of Frenchs Hollow. As part of the reservoir project, the old factory building was removed and in its place a pumping station was built.

In the 20th Century, the hollow continued to be an outdoor recreation area for both children and adults. After the turn of the century, Sunday school picnics were more likely to be organized by individual churches, mainly Guilderland Center’s and Altamont’s.

Try to imagine the excitement of the 10 Altamont lads from Mrs. David Blessing’s Sunday school class who were crammed into Mr. Montford Sands’s touring car one summer day in 1908 to motor to Frenchs Hollow for a picnic.

Other picnickers over the years included Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and junior 4-H girls who were practicing campfire cooking. Hot-dog roasts were almost always mentioned as being on the menus. It was also a popular spot for adults to picnic informally and for decades the Normanskill provided a swimming hole attractive to all ages.

Over the centuries, Frenchs Hollow has evolved from what must have been an excellent hunting ground and fishing waters for Native Americans to a prosperous early American settlement based on water power.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the scenery attracted local folks as both an outdoor and indoor recreation spot. Once the mill, covered bridge, and old factory buildings were gone in the 20th Century, it was no longer so charming, but the popular swimming hole remained and that’s what many of today’s Guilderland’s residents associate with Frenchs Hollow.