Remembering reservoir's swath on the Great Western Turnpike

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The damming of the Normanskill Creek in 1917 created the Watervliet Reservoir, which supplies part of the Town of Guilderland’s water supply. All manufacturing buildings in French’s Hollow beyond the trestle disappeared at that time. 

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The house and barns of the old Chesebro Farm near the Normanskill were originally built in 1760 and occupied by Colonel Abraham Wemple. The farm was located near Fuller’s Station on a site that was cleared later to make way for the rising waters of the Watervliet Reservoir. The house was razed in 1915 for that project.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

An 1890 view of the old cloth factory at French’s Mills on the right. Students living in those houses walked out to the Fullers School, while churchgoers attended Guilderland Center or Parkers Corners Church. All of these buildings disappeared by 1917 when a pumping station was built in anticipation of developing the Watervliet Reservoir. 

Thoughts of the changing times, changing landscapes, changing ways of life coincide in several articles uncovered by this historian.

Joseph Roth wrote in The Radetzky March in 1932: “In those days before the Great War, when it had not yet become a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When one of the living had been extinguished another did not at once take his place in order to obliterate him:  there was a gap where he had been, and both close and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they became aware of this gap.

“Where fire had eaten away a house from others on the street, the burnt out space remained long empty.  Close neighbors and casual passersby alike, when they saw the empty space, remembered the aspect and the walls of the empty space.

“That’s how things were then.  Everything that grew took its time in growing, and everything that was destroyed took a long time to be forgotten.  And everything that had once existed left its trace so that people lived on in memories, just as now they live by the capacity to forget quickly and completely.”

One of the Chesebro brother’s letters that was not published in this historian’s book, From the Historian’s Desk, was written by Allen E. Chesebro.  He wrote of his grandfather’s farm by the Normanskill Creek and was later published by historian Author Gregg in The Altamont Enterprise in the early 1970s.

The sturdy old farmhouse and barns pictured years ago now lies beneath a manmade lake, the Watervliet Reservoir.

Chesebro writes “I can scarcely more than allude to the immense barns and sheds, in which we children used to swing and hunt for eggs, or to the orchards, the vegetables and flower gardens, the fruitful nut and sugar trees, and the large fields of broom corn grown each year by my uncles, to be made each year into brooms during the winter months.

“Besides gathering nuts, apples and eggs, we children sometimes coveted the privilege of helping to sort the broom corn brush in the preparation of the shelling and drying processes.  Though quite young, (I was then about 7 years of age) my impressions are that we worked as well and accomplished as much as the women and girls that worked for pay.

“But ‘every rose has its thorn.’ The peculiar broom corn dust that filled the air caused an itching that was not enjoyed by our tender skins!

“The recollections I have of this old place are many and very pleasant. There were numerous ‘Uncles and Cousins and Aunts’; the genial help both in and out of doors; the individual animals, several of which I recall as if they had been personal friends.

“Among these were Prince and Hunter, a smart team of bay horses that once upon a time ran away and made 7 or 8 miles before giving up the fun. Prince was a greedy one.

“While once upon a visit, the horses were fed oats from the same box.  Prince gorged his gullet with the dry oats which swelled and caused his death, the wise ones averring that he died of bots.

“Then there was ‘old Tom.’   I used to lead him up into the tread power where hour after hour he patiently plodded on, getting nowhere, though doing his part to shell out the broom corn seed.  He was more than 30 years old — and a year or two later, concluding he could render humanity no further service — he quietly gave up the ghost.

“About the place were some fine hills for coasting, and a creek several rods in width ran near the house.  It was fine to feed minnows with our hands; the boat was tied to the roots of a large tree.

“In winter, especially at Christmastime, there were rare sports up on the ice.  The family cutter, well loaded with women and children, would be pushed swiftly along by my fleet-footed uncles and sometimes spent spinning around in a circle that  to me seemed wonderful.

“Grandma Chesebro,  as we called her, was at the time I knew her, practically blind, yet she was always cheerful and most agreeable to those around her. She liked to hear the letters written by members of the family as well as those from outside.

“She was a great lover of flowers, though then unable to see them, and she cultivated many kinds, among them the glorious hollyhocks. I have never ceased to wonder that people do not cultivate more hollyhocks.

“But I must not linger to tell of the greening apples, the turtles and fishes, and a multitude of other objects and incidents that flock to my memory.”

Historian Arthur Gregg’s 1978 column in The Altamont Enterprise tells that the sturdy old farmhouse and barns lay beneath the Watervliet Reservoir since about 1920 on  the Great Western Turnpike.

The Albany County Book of Deeds: Volume 21, page 312  shows that, in 1765,  Stephen VanRensselar, the boy patron, and his guardian uncle, Abraham Ten Broeck, sold the farm containing 267 acres to Abraham Wemple for 500 pounds.  By his will, his wife, Antje, and son, John A Wemple, received the property.

They, in turn, conveyed half of said tract on June 10, 1801 to Adam A. Vrooman for $2,500.  Eventually, the property came into the possession of Elijah Chesebro, postmaster of Guilderland Center.

The house and barns were located on the Normanskill near Fullers. Through a dense wood, their road connected with the Cherry Valley Turnpike, while another paralleled the creek to French’s Hollow.

How special it is that we, as residents of the town of Guilderland, can be aware of and know the history of this important piece of land, an integral part of  today’s living.

Historian’s note: A young Guilderland girl, Susan Carhart Tallman, was the daughter of Edward Chesebro and granddaughter of Elijah Chesebro of this same  farmhouse on the Great Western Turnpike.  Susan wrote of the love and happiness she had when she and her family came back to visit her “Grandma.” Her story was also retold by Historian Arthur Gregg in a 1948 issue of The Altamont Enterprise.