UPSTATE. Both Bob Sutton and Monika Costello are, like myself, from Upstate New York. Bob now runs our community farm here in Jamestown. Monika is still in the country.
A Child’s Guide to the Normans Kill
Late winter, early spring, the snow has mostly melted and the ice is pretty much broken up and my cousin Jimmy says to me, “The Normans Kill Creek is really high let’s take my rubber raft and float down the Normans Kill. It should be a great ride.” So we did. Jimmy and I are cousins and at the time we were both in our early 20s. Jimmy had a strong professional rubber raft built for this kind of adventure. We took my car and left it by the creek somewhere, I believe along Old State Road near the eastern edge of Princetown, and then we drove back 6 or 8 miles to where the Normans Kill passes under Duanesburg Road close to the western boundary of Princetown.
The Toboggan Hill and the Swimming Hole
We were about two miles west of mom and dad’s house on Duanesburg Road and exactly opposite the greatest toboggan hill in Princetown. It was located on the DeCocco Farm and is the steepest hill I have ever tobogganed down. After school we would walk our toboggans along the road and up this incredibly steep hill. When the snow was really hard and crusty you could actually slide all the way to the Normans Kill, about a half a mile from the top of the hill. The two-mile walk and the trek up the hill took some time, and you only got to go down two of three times before it was time to go home for supper. The trick was to get home on a darkening night, dragging a toboggan, without getting hit by a car. (I only got hit by a car once).
A great swimming hole was just to the west of our launch site. The creek flattens out into relatively deep water. Dad did not like us swimming in the Normans Kill. He said there are 100 cows and horses wading in that creek and you should not be swimming in it. Mom did not seem to mind. One time I went there with Henry DeCocco and Jimmy Myers. I had brought my swimming suit but the other two had not, so they swam in what nature provided. I felt silly or something, putting on a swimming suit so I also swam in what nature provided. On the way home, I realized that mom would figure out that I swam with nature, so I dipped my swimming suit in the DeCocco’s well alongside the road, to get it wet.
We launched the raft and quickly passed under the bridge in the moving water and headed east down the Normans Kill. We first passed the back of the DeCocco Farm. For as long as I can remember, and to this day, the DeCoccos have operated a beautiful farm. Much of the pastureland for their milk cows is on a steep slope that runs up to the railroad tracks. Over the years, the cows have worn a very narrow path that barely clings to the side of this steep hill.
Just past the DeCocco farm we encountered our first tributary to the Normans Kill. It is a fast-moving stream that comes down along Kelly Station Road, through a tunnel, and into the Normans Kill.
The Tunnels and Lovers Lane
There are actually two beautiful stone tunnels built by the railroad to accommodate the elevation of the tracks over Kelly Station Road, one for the water and the other for the cars. When I was young the car tunnel was the treat because it was a long narrow tunnel that was only wide enough for one car at a time. When you approached the tunnel from either side there was a sign that said, “Blow Your Horn Before Entering.” Dad would blow the horn as directed, listen for a replying horn, and hearing no sound would proceed into the tunnel with his headlights on. As soon as we got into the tunnel we would shout, “Blow the horn again, blow the horn again,” because it made a great echoing sound. The tunnel is still there today and still only one car wide, but a few years ago I stopped yelling “Blow your horn again, blow your horn again.”
The other landmark for me was the “lovers lane” just on the north side of the tunnel. When I was young I could not figure out why there would be a car, or cars, parked there but no people were apparent. As I got older I would look to see if I recognized the car and then I would know who the people were that I didn’t see.
If you think about Duanesburg Road east of the tunnels you realize you are going downhill, and the Normans Kill immediately adjacent to the road is doing the same thing. This was an exciting part of our wild river trip. Bill Lee had a small farm next to the creek, and on the south side is a 100-foot-high very steep sand bank. Ned and I were cutting firewood one time off of Darrow Road and rather than ride home with Ned I walked cross lots through the woods and came out at that sand bank and had to climb down it and then cross the Normans Kill.
After the sand banks, the land and the Normans Kill flatten out as you pass behind Siegel’s Tavern and the little tourist cottages that were for rent along the waterway. Those cottages seemed always in a state of disrepair, and I cannot remember a single instance of seeing people staying there.
Mrs. Watrous and Siegel’s Tavern
Mrs. Watrous lived in a tiny house next to Siegel’s and had several children, one of whom got polio as a child and remained crippled his entire life. Living in Princetown, I never thought much about who had money and who didn’t. If at the time someone had asked me, I think I probably would have said, “I don’t think any of us have very much money.” But I am pretty sure Mrs. Watrous didn’t have much money and I am pretty sure she had a lot of problems to face. Mrs. Watrous was my Cub Scout den mother and I remember her as a very kind woman and I remember my Cub Scout days as very pleasant. As cub scouts much of our time was spent in her back yard right next to the Normans Kill, and sometimes after the meeting she would take us next door to Siegel’s Tavern and buy us all popsicles.
For whatever reason, I have a very clear memory of our Cub Scout visits to Siegel’s Tavern. It was a small dark place with what seemed like a few older men sitting on stools and completely ignoring us. I don’t remember recognizing any of the men. There was no juke box or pool table and it seemed a joyless and empty place. Later in life, like the “lovers lane” situation, I would recognize the people’s cars or cattle trucks in the parking lot, but knowing who was there added nothing to the appeal of Siegel’s Tavern.
Right after we passed Siegel’s Tavern and Mrs. Watrous house we floated past the pasture land of the Gifford farm. I was friends with two of the Gifford boys, Ralph (a little older than me) and Bobby (a little younger). When I was little I would walk to grandma’s house across her pastures and then to the Gifford farm where Bobby and I would play with our small farm toys. We went to the same Princetown Reformed Church and as we got a little older we tended to do things together, one of which was start a baseball league.
The Gifford Farm Pasture League
I was 9 or 10 and I said to dad, “I sure would like to play little league baseball.” Characteristic of all the Suttons’ interest in athletic pursuits, his reply was, “I don’t have time to take you down to Rotterdam every night and sit around a baseball field for two hours.” That pretty much terminated my little league career but not my baseball career.
Bobby’s father, Harlan, operated a small dairy farm and was also part owner of a feed and coal company (Gifford Tanner Feed and Coal). He had two pastures for his dairy herd, one abutting my grandparent’s farm and one across Duanesburg Road next to the Normans Kill. I was talking to my friend Bobby about baseball, and we decided we should start our own baseball team. Bobby suggested we could build a ballfield in the flat pastureland next to the Normans Kill. Only one problem, Harlan’s dairy herd was quietly grazing there. Bobby talked with his father, and he agreed to relocate the cows to the other pasture for the balance of the summer.
We cleared out the “cow pies,” built the infield and pitcher’s mound, mowed the outfield, and got all the boys in the neighborhood to practice hitting fly balls and grounders to each other. We taught ourselves the dimensions of a baseball field, how to build it, how to manage a baseball team, how to play baseball, and finally how to find some competition. Somehow, we became aware of a similar group of boys playing in a field somewhere near Pine Grove School. We invited them to our field and in the late summer they peddled their bikes, about 10 miles, over to our field and we played an actual game. They beat us badly. Summer was nearly over and the pasture league folded after only one game.
A little further down the Normans Kill, the creek bed tends to flatten out as you come around a bend to the Berical Farm. Although I did not live particularly close the Bericals, it was certainly one of my childhood destinations. To get there I crossed Duanesburg Road, climbed the hill behind Whitney and Marie’s house, followed a series of paths over to the Carlson’s house, then down a very narrow and very steep road, reminiscent of the Appalachians, passed the Mott Farm, down the road to a small parking area, then over a pedestrian cable suspension bridge, up another hill, and on to Eric and Patty’s porch. It was a long but fairly straightforward walk with one exception, passing the Mott Farm.
Roy Mott, a 1929 Chevrolet Car and the Church Picnic
In all my childhood and into my adult life I have never heard anything negative about Roy Mott; however, his son Irvy was something of a Princetown renegade. Roy lived by himself in an old farmhouse, had barns and fences, but no animals except a dog, which you never saw but barked viciously and constantly as you passed the house. You had to walk very close to the house on this very narrow road with the Normans Kill on the other side. He drove a Studebaker (one of the cars that I would recognize in the Siegel’s Tavern parking lot). The only thing other than the barking dog that was unnerving was that Roy always seemed to be watching you from the same window as you passed by the house. I would tell Mom about my fears of this man, and her advice to insure my safety was to just run fast when you go by there.
I have always felt that city kids had more opportunity to be involved in different things (Little League for one), but there was one exception and it was a big exception. At a very young age we learned how to drive, and the vast amount of open land, vacant land, pastures and minimum law enforcement made driving unregistered vehicles by unlicensed, underage drivers both possible and a lot of fun. (Ned gave me a 1935 Plymouth to drive when I was 14 years old.) Eric Berical wanted a car and he was probably about 14, so he bought one for $20.00 from Carl Carlson. It was a nice little 1929 Chevrolet Coupe that if you owned it now would be worth many thousands of dollars. The only real problem with the car was that it did not run. Eric and I pushed the car over to the steep Appalachian-style hill and coasted it down the hill trying to jump start it. It did not start, and unfortunately we coasted into the family parking area the same time his father arrived home from work. Eric said to his father, “Look at the great car I bought for only $20.00.” And Eric’s father said, “Take it back.” I left and I don’t know how Eric got it up Appalachian Hill, but the next time I went by Carl Carlson’s house it was sitting there next to some other old cars that Carl owned.
The Princetown Reformed Church annually held a summer picnic. The picnic was held at many different locations, once even at Central Park in Schenectady. One year we had it on the Normans Kill at the Berical property. Times may have been hard at the Church or Eric’s father may have persuaded the minister it was a good location. The Berical property had two main features that were particularly favorable to young kids—it had a great swimming hole and the kids could jump up and down on the cable suspension bridge, terrifying all the parents thinking the cables would surely break. It was a legitimate fear, and the bridge itself was about 10 to 12 feet over the rocks and the water so if it did break it could have been harmful. But nobody stopped us, and it did not break.
Beyond the swimming hole and the Berical Farm the Normans Kill again picks up speed, and the added speed, the rocks, and occasional floating spring ice made this an exciting part of the ride. Along this section there is another tributary stream that flows into the Normans Kill from the north. This tributary is not particularly long and not particularly wide, originating about one mile away in the hills of northern Pangburn Road. It did, however, create a landmark destination for me and my two sisters throughout our childhood.
The Old Railroad Bridge
There had always been a railroad 1000 feet or so behind our house; however, about 100 years prior (approximately 1900) the railroad tracks had been much closer than their current location. When they moved the tracks north, they left much of the original infrastructure, not the tracks but the railroad bed, the culverts, and, most importantly, the bridge abutments that supported the railroad bridge crossing a tributary stream to the Normans Kill. These abutments, made of huge granite blocks, rose about 20 feet in the air and were at the same elevation as the old railroad bed. If you were walking on the railroad bed on a dark night you could have easily walked right off the edge of the abutments. By any standard, it was both dangerous and inviting, at least to me, and I once built a treehouse very near to it. My sisters were also attracted to this spot but not because they wanted, to or would, walk along the edge of the 20- foot high abutment, like their brother. They liked it at the stream level. The water entering the abutments dropped from a little falls into a tiny pond and then meandered between the old granite walls down to the Wingate Farm and on to the Normans Kill. For them it was a natural peaceful place, not an arena to challenge one’s life expectancy.
After that tributary stream leaves the Wingate Farm, it flows under Duanesburg Road and meanders south for a few hundred feet to a culvert underneath old Pangburn Road and then behind the old two-room Pangburn School.
The Pangburn Road School
Pangburn School was a two rom schoolhouse that my oldest sister Carole went to for 1st grade. At the time I was 5 years old and scheduled to start 1st grade in the fall of 1947. In the late spring of 1947 my mother packed us both a lunch and we walked across the Wingate farm hay fields on the south side of Duanesburg Road, headed to Pangburn School, to register for the upcoming fall class. (Pangburn did not have kindergarten.) My Mom got me registered and then it was time for lunch. The 1st grade boys showed me where they ate their lunch down by the old stone culvert that carried the tributary stream down to the Normans Kill. That walk across the Wingate fields with my mother and the lunch with those boys is one of the clearest memories of my young childhood.
Passing under the Pangburn Road bridge the creek bed widens and flattens out. On the east side of the bridge the Petersen farm and then the Furbeck farm, both on the north side of the creek. Over the years the Petersen farm has been a more active and varied agricultural operation. The Petersen family pursued a variety of different enterprises including; oil delivery, dairy farming beef cattle farming, cattle trucking, auto mechanics, whatever it took to keep the farm functioning and food on the table. In my lifetime the Furbeck farm has never been an active agricultural endeavor for the owners although the Petersen family typically harvested the hay from the Furbeck fields. The Petersen farm was a multigenerational family unit and the Furbecks a single generation family, comprised of two sisters and their brother, all un-married and all three holding jobs off the farm.
“Here Comes Lenny” and Miss Furbeck
Leonard Petersen was probably about 10 years older than me and spent his entire life on the farm. Of all the career paths available on his farm I most remember “Lenny” as a cattle truck driver. There were several slaughter houses in the immediate area of Princetown and some farmers owned cattle trucks to haul their animals and their neighbors’ animals to the slaughter house. Cattle trucks were large, flat bed vehicles with loosely fastened high wooden side boards to keep the cattle from jumping out. Because of their use they were always “barnyard muddy,” “cow kick dented,” generally older models of little trade-in value. They were noisy with bad mufflers. The heavy wooden sides rattled back and forth, continuously swaying the truck down the road. And they were always driven about as fast as they would go. The young drivers did not strive for anonymity. The young drivers wanted everyone on the road to know who they were when they came up behind them and tailgated inches from their bumper. To insure celebrity status, they wrote their name on the hoods of their trucks. “Here Comes Bucky,” “Here Comes Junior,” “Here Comes Irvy.” Leonard came up with a major innovation. He painted his name on the hood backwards “ynneL semoC ereH.” Looking at the hood with the truck parked the letters made little sense, but it was certainly very unnerving to have “Here Comes Lenny” suddenly fill your rear view mirror. And recognition? Guaranteed.
Although they lived next door and seemed to be friendly neighbors, Miss Furbeck was as opposite a personality from Here Comes Lenny as two people could be. Because the Pangburn School was now closed we were all sent to Draper School in Schenectady. Miss Furbeck worked as a secretary to the principal at Draper and the principal’s office was right next to my 1st grade classroom, so I would see her on occasion. Draper was a big school with grades K-12 all in the same building. We were in large classrooms and in an urban area. The few kids that got off the bus from Princetown were country bumpkins ripe for being picked on. For whatever reason, some 2nd grader bully type chose me as his daily punching bag. For a while I endured, or ran away, but after about a week I had had enough and I punched him right in the nose. Tears in his eyes and blood running down his nose, he did not punch back but ran into the school and straight to the principal’s office. I went into my classroom, but in short order was summoned to the principal’s office. At the office I was directed by Ms. Furbeck to leave the office and wait in the hall in a chair directly outside the principal’s office door. I was a little scared because I had never had disciplinary issues before. There was also a rumor at the time that the principal had an “electric paddle” that he used on kids who required discipline. I sat there for probably 5 or 10 minutes and then Miss Furbeck stepped into the hall. All she said was, “Bobby you can go back to your classroom now.” And I did. I never mentioned this incident to anyone, but many years later I saw Miss. Furbeck at my mother’s funeral service and I thanked her for taking care of me that day. Miss Furbeck replied “Oh it was nothing. I had to protect all my Princetown students from time to time”
After the intersection with Pangburn Road, the Normans Kill starts to take a more southern direction and the countryside becomes more remote. The eastern side of the Pangburn Road bridge was the eastern boundary of our neighborhood, and we floated down into territory that was more unfamiliar and without the local landmarks. The water was running fast and it was an exciting ride. We made it to the end of the trip relatively quickly. We packed the raft into the car and headed home.
Conclusion with Surprise Ending for Jimmy and Me
In his “Atlas of Indian Nations” Anton Treuer, writing of the Plains Indians, concludes, “the land has always shaped the people more than the people shaped the land.” The land defined their diet, their spirituality, their recreation, their friends, their enemies, defined their expectations, their limitations, and their understanding of each other and the larger world. Certainly you can make the same case for children growing up in rural areas. If you grow up with parents that believe it is better for you to be outside than inside and believe that you do not need a lot of parental oversight or guidance defining and organizing your own discoveries, then the physical geography of your location has a greater meaning. If your early education and religious or spiritual views are formed in a 2-room school, where many students drop out by the 5th or 6th grade, and a rural church where the members of the church work in the outdoors and learn to recognize and accept the vagaries of the weather and the limitations of the soil and the limitations of their own physical capabilities to alter these limitations, then the land can shape your early education, your spiritual sense, and your sense of what is possible. I don’t know if this is good or bad or unimportant.
Mobility is a real change agent. When you can only walk, the land shapes much of your understanding. A bicycle, a school bus expands your world and certainly the way you begin to see the world. A car, even when you are limited to driving in fields and pastures and roads (when the police are not around), starts to diminish the limitations of land and time and starts to broaden your sense of what is possible. Finally, a driver’s license or a train or plane ticket begins to change everything. I lived in Princetown my first 18 years. After I turned 18, during the next 10 years, I lived in Pella, Iowa; Seattle, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; Memphis, Tennessee; Lexington Park, Maryland; Princetown, NY; Herkimer, NY; Pella, Iowa; Scotia, NY; and Jamestown, RI. I do not believe the land shaped any part of the decision making that went into living in these locations or leaving these locations.
But I am very sure my parents, my sisters, my relatives, my neighbors, my church, and the land and water of Princetown shaped my childhood and my remembered stories of that childhood.
A couple of years ago my sister Ann began seriously searching our family’s ancestral path. She uncovered an ancestry that Jimmy or I could not have known. We are cousins, and we both knew that. We share great-grandparents, Peter and Johanna Alexson McClaine. Ann has traced Peter McClaine’s direct ancestral lineage back to a man named Albert Andriessen (de Noorman) Bradt who came to this country in 1636. On the ocean voyage to this country he was known to the other passengers simply as “The Norman.” He was sent to this country by the Dutch East India Company to establish a sawmill. He chose a wild tributary to the Hudson River, just south of Albany, to build his sawmill. The tributary was subsequently named Normans Kill, Kill being the Dutch word for waterway. “The Norman” was Jimmy and my great-grandfather to the 9th power. Without knowing it Jimmy and I were on a great winter adventure and a 300-year ancestral trail, shaped, in fact, by the land.