A 171-year-old letter sheds light on normal school and camp meetings

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

The Knaggs Farm, on Route 20 in Guilderland, was the site of religious camp meetings in the mid-19th Century and is still the site of modern gatherings, according to Alice Begley, Guilderland’s town historian.

Apropos! Great! A column concerning the first class to graduate from Albany Normal School in 1845 just emerged from old yellowed files in this historian's desk. How did I miss this one for so long?

The Normal School in Albany was a new school for students who wanted to become teachers.  A letter tells of  final examinations and the number of graduates granted a “sheepskin.” The writer’s name was Edward Chesebro of Guilderland.

Chesebro was to begin seven weeks of vacation and was also preparing for a "camp meeting at the old place" somewhere near Fullers-French's Hollow. That "place" was  an old farm and house out Western Turnpike  near where the Watervliet Reservoir is today.  The house still stands.

Whole families spent an entire week there, renting one of the shanties or a tent, cooking by campfire, and attending religious services held every afternoon and evening. It was a picnic, a holiday, and a pioneer's Chautauqua with a chance to meet old and new friends, wrote the late Guilderland historian Arthur Gregg.

But the primary purpose was by no means neglected — that of “quickening their religious experience and of bringing new converts into the fold.”  The camp meeting of ancient Methodism was the principal source of their ever-increasing membership.

Another exciting feature of the vacation was that, of all locations and resorts, Principal Page, head of the Normal School, forerunner of the University at Albany, had selected the Chesebro homestead on the Normanskill as a boarding place for his children and their nurse.

Chesebro’s letter                                         

On Guilderland, Aug. 28, 1845, Edward Chesbro wrote to his brother-in-law, John, who had married his sister.

John Dearest,

We received your last a few days ago and hasten to reply. Allen [another brother] wishes me to say to you that your agency in regard to your school matter meets his entire concurrence and what time they will want him so he may make his plans to suit circumstances. He will still be obliged to rely on you for the desired information.

Business is all topsy-turvy preparing for camp meeting which starts next meeting at the old place. Everybody is going to make his fortune this time by putting up shanties. They are now clearing the ground, putting up tents, fixing up watering place etc. etc.

The Normal School terminated day before yesterday by an examination that lasted four days, and I intend  for the ensuing seven weeks prior to the next term to remain at home. There were 34 graduates at the end of the term and if I had seen fit to leave the institution I too, even I as  ignorant as I am, could have bought off their "sheepskin,”  but I would not have it under existing circumstances.

The Executive Committee say they have been very lenient in granting certificates at this time, but in the future they will require higher standard of qualifications. So I am doomed to another half year at Normal School.

Accompanying this you will find a "District School Journal " containing the catalogue with the graduates marked.

You would probably like to hear when Pa and Ma and Uncle Robert and Aunt Cataline will be to see you but I can't at this time because of the camp meeting. After that also Mr. Page's children and nurse will be spending a week or more.

I congratulate you on your respite from "Candleism.”  Respects to Polly, Charles and the children. Does Angelina want any flower seeds saved? If so, What kind?

You would probably call it news to know that Mr. Powell was married a few days since to Widow Throop from Schoharie.  Her first name was Seiby. They have commenced to keep house in his new house which Henry Carhart and John Moak built for him this summer down on his place near Harry Mains.

Aunt Laviana Chapman wants me to send her "hopping" compliments to you all and her "hopping" love to little Susan.

Yours etc. etc.

Edward W.  Chesebro

“Candleism”  was the term for the transition from candles to oil.

Widow Throop  was the widow of Washington Throop of Schoharie who operated the Throop Drugstore there. That family operated the famous Throop Drugstore for 136 years. The drugstore was removed to the Albany Pharmacy College and reconstructed for future generations with fixtures, patent medicines, and drawers filled with materia medica of  more than 100 years ago.