Tawasentha Park: Once a hunting ground for Mohicans became farmland for European settlers

Over many decades huge numbers of Town residents have experienced Tawasentha Park’s rolling hills  with its sweeping view of the Normanskill. Enjoying their recreational visit to the park, it’s the rare person who would stop to ponder that, like the other parts of the town, this spot and its environs must also have a history stretching back hundreds of years.

Imagine this scene 500 years ago. Silently, the Mohican hunters’ game-laden dugout canoe slipped through the clear waters of the wide creek bordered by vegetation and thick forest as they returned to their village on the river flats to the east.

With the arrival of the Dutch early in the 17th Century, the Mohicans began to be pushed off their traditional lands along the river that became known as the Hudson. No longer could they hunt and fish along this creek.

Archeological digs within our town along this waterway have proven indigenous peoples have camped, hunted, and fished at various spots along its banks in past centuries. Native Americans surely had their own name for this waterway teeming with fish and attractive to wildlife, emptying into the Hudson River to the east.

The Dutch establishment of the fur trade now brought Iroquois from the interior, their birch-bark canoes piled with furs navigating the creek as a route to Fort Orange. With the coming of the Dutch, the creek became known as the Normanskill after Albert Andriesen Bradt, a Norwegian who built a mill at the mouth near where it flowed into the Hudson River. Local Dutch settlers referred to him as “the Norman” leading to the waterway becoming the Normanskill.

Early in the 18th Century, the first Dutch settler known to have established a farm in Guilderland  along the Normanskill was Evert Bancker, Albany merchant, mayor of Albany, and Indian Commissioner, who retired here to farm, living on this land until his death in 1734. Bancker was reputed to have often paddled a canoe up the Normanskill to visit his farm rather than traveling along Native American trails.

According to later town historian William Brinkman’s research, Bancker’s farm was situated across Route 146 from the entrance to Tawasentha Park. It is possible that some of what is now parkland was also part of his farm. Look for the state historic marker on the opposite side of Route 146 as you drive by.



In 1712, German Palatines, seeking a refuge in the Colony of New York, New Netherland having passed to the control of the English in 1664, were given permission to settle in the Schoharie Valley. Trekking through the wilderness and traversing a Native American trail after branching off from the dirt road through the Pine Bush known as the Kings Highway, they followed a route that later became known as the Schoharie Road.

They followed a route that crossed what is now Western Turnpike Golf Course, either cutting  through what is now the park or passing nearby on their way to ford the Normanskill. The Palatines walked on foot on the narrow trail, but as years passed the route widened into a dirt road and for over a century was the approximate route used by most people traveling between Albany and Schoharie.

In 1849, the road was changed to connect more directly with the Great Western Turnpike when a group of investors laid out the Schoharie Plank Road to connect Schoharie with the Western Turnpike and Albany, improving the road with wooden planking. For this improvement, tolls were charged to travelers, there being a toll gate approximately opposite the entrance to the Tawasentha winter sports area parking lot.

And, for a few years after the Plank Road opened, there was a regularly scheduled stage coach passing by the farmland that eventually became Tawasentha Park. The construction of the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad through Altamont to Schoharie in 1863 put an end to the Plank Road and tolls, but the roadway continued to be used by local traffic, and eventually after some rerouting, was paved, now  Route 146 familiar to us.

For generations, the hill to be climbed after crossing the Normanskill past the winter sports area was first known as Bancker Hill, later Buncker Hill.


Farmland becomes parkland

Fast forward to the 20th Century when this area of Guilderland was farmland and the Schoharie Road had become paved Route 146. Claude and Lucy Durfee produced fruit and vegetables on nearby farmland in the vicinity of Evert Bancker’s long ago farm, where they operated a roadside farm stand on Route 146.

Their son Alton Durfee grew up on this farm, spending many boyhood hours nearby swimming in “Buster’s Hole” along the Normanskill and roaming the surrounding area, now all part of Tawasentha Park.

Years later, Alton Durfee, who worked for General Electric, was living on Carman Road. Remembering his boyhood haunts, he had the vision of creating a recreational park there along the Normanskill. In the 1930s, others had had the same concept, hoping to create a campground, but after purchasing the property were unable to bring their plan to fruition.

By 1954, Durfee managed to acquire title to their 55 acres including his childhood swimming hole and several years later had the opportunity to purchase an adjacent 55 acre parcel.

A hard worker, Durfee, over the winter of 1955-56, built 50 heavy picnic tables at his father’s fruit and vegetable stand relocated on Carman Road where the family had moved. Alton Durfee Jr., a bulldozer operator, worked to clear land and build roads on their newly acquired Normanskill property. After much preparation, their park opened for business in 1957.

Alton Durfee Sr. originated the name Tawasentha Park. The word dates back to prehistoric times as the name of a Native American burial ground near the mouth of the Normanskiil where it flows into the Hudson.

Its translation is supposed to mean “Hill of the Dead,” a location that had special meaning for both the Mohican and the Iroquois tribes.

Nineteenth-Century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, influenced by Guilderland native Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s studies of Native Americans, used the term “vale of Tawasentha” in his well-known poem “Song of Hiawatha.” Longfellow described the vale as a “green and pleasant valley, by the pleasant water-courses” in his epic.

Surveying Enterprise notices, one can see Mr. Durfee’s new park opened at just the right time to fulfill the need for a local recreation area, attracting over the next few years not only Guilderland residents, but those of nearby towns.

It was an extremely popular spot for family reunions, church groups, fire departments and their auxiliaries, school classes, fraternal groups, Sunday school classes, Scouts, businesses — you name it and some sort of organization announced a picnic, steak roast, or clam bake at Tawasentha Park over the next few years.

Under Durfee’s ownership, many improvements and attractions were added to the park’s appeal. The Durfees advertised their park in The Enterprise in the early 1960s as the “Fun Spot of the Capital District” with acres of picnic groves “in the rolling hills and ravines of the beautiful and scenic Vale of Tawasentha.” Certainly advertising would have appeared in other local publications as well seeking to attract visitors from the whole Capital District.

The Durfees offered to book and cater organizations’ outings and claimed it was a perfect location for school picnics. Within a few years of opening, there was a pavilion, rides, games, and a snack bar. The park was open seven days a week, and Durfee family members worked a punishing schedule during the months the park was open.

The added attraction with the most appeal was Paddock Pools’ installation in 1964 of a $40,000 swimming pool, which was 95-by-108 feet in size. In addition to daily visitors swimming, membership for seasonal pool use was also offered for one price including the use of a members-only picnic grove.

With the pool open to the public daily, lifeguards were required. In 1965, an American Red Cross lifesaving course was offered for high school juniors and seniors who were strong swimmers and were interested in doing lifesaving work during the summer. At the conclusion of the 1967 course, 37 students had completed the course. Eventually, the town began to sponsor a Red Cross Learn to Swim Program for elementary school children.

One improvement the Durfees sought to add to their park was the establishment of a regulation Go-Kart track for Go-Kart Association racing approved by the United States Go-Kart Association Inc. A public hearing was held in September 1961.

There was neighborhood opposition and the application was rejected. Alton Durfee applied again in January 1952 when it was again rejected by the town’s zoning board. However, park ads noted Go-Kart riding was allowed in the park, but there were no races.

The Durfees’ park was a huge success, but administering it meant they were putting in 90 to 100 hours a week operating the busy park during the months when it was open. By 1967, Alton Durfee began to think seriously about selling it.


Town park

Fortunately, Guilderland voters had elected forward-looking town Supervisor Carl Walters, who obtained a two-year option on the property. At that time, the price quoted was $295,000 and the town board gave its approval assuming that aid would be coming from both the state and federal governments.

The two-year time period was used to apply for governmental aid to pay three-quarters of the cost, leaving the town with about $73,000 to cover. This would result in a tax rate increase of 21 cents per $1,000.

Mention a tax-rate increase, no matter what the cause, and there will be people opposed. Not all Guilderland residents were thrilled about taking on the cost of owning a town park and swimming pool.

A group calling itself the Guilderland Civic Association claimed that it had collected 1,000 signatures on a petition calling for a public vote on the proposal. The town board rejected the petition.

Letters to the Enterprise editor reflected the opposition, some with arguments for a town referendum. One asked why the town wanted to take over the cost of a park when it was already available to the public at no cost to the taxpayers while another couldn’t understand why the town didn’t buy cheaper land in another part of Guilderland if it wanted a park.

The final closing was April 4, 1969. Tawasentha had become Guilderland’s town park, thanks to the foresight of Supervisor Walters and the town board members.

Since that time, additional land has been added to the park and there are many more attractions available to the public, including hiking trails, tennis courts, the band shell, community gardens, a climbing barn, the winter sports area, and a headquarters for the town’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Indeed, it is Guilderland’s gem, the latest chapter in the long history of that spot in our town.