November 20, 2003

Dryden as a lumbering town

While Dryden has been slowly reforesting itself for the last century, there was a time when this was much more thoroughly forested. In the first chapter of The Centennial History of Dryden, George Goodrich describes primeval Dryden:

When first discovered by civilized man our town was a dense forest mostly of hemlock and hard wood timber, liberally sprinkled with large trees of white pine, which in some places grew to be so thrifty and thick as to monopolize the soil and overshadow and crowd out the inferior growth. How many generations of these undisturbed forest trees grew and decayed before being seen by the first settler is a matter of pure speculation; how this primeval forest appeared to the hardy pioneers who cleared it from the sites of our present homes, must be to us a subject for interesting reflections. (p. 2)

Goodrich's description of that early clearing, as well as of the many creatures who lived in that forest, is well worth exploring.

Chapter XII - Review of the Pioneer Period

We have now hastily passed over the first twenty-five years of the history of the town of Dryden, as a whole, commencing from the first settlement in 1797 and extending to the year 1822. We shall refer to it hereafter as the Pioneer Period, being the first quarter of the century of Dryden's inhabitation by her present race of population. To obtain a correct and reliable view of this period, we have been obliged to look back beyond the reach of human memory and to rely upon such information as tradition and the fragmentary records of those early times afford. Reliable memoranda of those times, when obtainable, have been quoted minutely as furnishing the most trustworthy means of obtaining a correct idea of the condition and habits of our ancestors in that distant period.

We can readily understand that the wilderness was not transformed into fine cultivated fields, such as we now have, during that time. The best of the farms must have been thickly beset with stumps and cradle knolls when the year 1822 dawned upon the new country. Farming tools and implements of husbandry were then few and of the rudest character. Mr. Bouton says that the first cast iron plow seen in the town of Virgil was introduced there in the year 1817, and we may assume that Dryden was not much in advance of her older sister town in that respect. Hitherto plowing had been done with a home-made wooden implement, held with a single handle, the original "mould board" being of wood instead of iron. Fortunate was the farmer in those days who possessed a sickle with which to cut by hand his grain standing in the fallow, a handful at a time, and when it had been threshed with the flail, the willow fan and riddle afforded the best means of cleaning it for use or market. Such roads as then existed through the woods would now be considered almost impassable and all means of transportation were so difficult and expensive that people lived as far as possible on their own productions. Log houses were the rule and frame buildings the exception, even at the end of this period. We have queried as to whether any old houses, first constructed in those times, still exist, without becoming much the wiser for the speculation; but we mistrust that the little red house, now used as a storage building on the Burlingame farm, near the reservoir of the Dryden Village Water Works, is among the oldest survivors of former dwellings. It was the home of Edward Griswold, Sr., when he was the owner of a large part, at least, of the (No. 39), a mile square, near the center of which it still stands. John C. Lacy, in his Reminiscences, states that within his recollection (he was born in Dryden in 1808) the Dr. Briggs house, originally built by Dr. Phillips, on South street, but now moved off and occupied by John McKeon, on Lake street was the finest house in Dryden village.

All of the dwellings of this period were lighted as well as heated from the fire in the open fire-place, tallow candles even at this time being a luxury only to be used on special occasions. Many a time has the thrify, industrious housewife of our ancestors, with the aid of the numerous small children who "played around her door," gathered in at twilight a supply of pine knots so that she might have them to throw on the fire as needed to enable her to spin by their light in the long fall and winter evenings. We regret that we are unable to do justice to the pioneer Mother of that period, for the reason that no record was ever made and kept of her hardships and privations, there having been no "strong-minded women" in those days to record them; and our only remedy is to give to her a full half of all the credit which belongs to the pioneer families for all of that which was accomplished.

Sheep husbandry prospered in the new country as soon as the sheep could be protected from the wild animals of the surrounding forests, and the cultivation of flax was early introduced. So abundant was the flax seed left after the fiber was worked up into cloth, that an oil mill to express the linseed oil was early in operation on what is now South street in Dryden village, the heavy frame of of which mill still serves to support a dilapidated barn, the covering of which was put on new since its use as an oil mill was discontinued. The plain clothing of the family was made from homespun cloth, coarse and heavy but at the same time strong and durable.

Joseph McGraw, Sr., already referred to as the father of the millionaire, John McGraw, came into the settlement in this period as a professional weaver, going from house to house to work on the hand looms of those days and to instruct others in the art; and his fellow townsman, Benjamin Wood, the grandfather of our ex-governor A. B. Cornell, at the same time was known and employed as a "read maker", manufacturing by hand from reeds the delicate parts of the looms by which the warp was manipulated in the process of weaving. Mr. Wood early resided near Willow Glen in the little wood-colored house recently taken down on the farm formerly owned by Charles Cady; but afterwards he became the proprietor of the premises near Etna, known as Woodlawn. A subsuquent chapter will be devoted to Mr. Wood and his family.

We have intentionally omitted from our narrative some hunting and fishing stories which have come down to us, suspecting that even the good and true old men of those times, like their descendants, might be given to exaggeration on these subjects, and preferring to leave them out altogether rather than to furnish exaggerated fiction under the guise of reliable history. We should, however, say something concerning the wild animals which were native here when disturbed in their haunts by the pioneers.

Of the larger animals the deer were very abundant and did not wholly disappear from the forests of the town until about 1835. It seems to be stated on good authority that Peleg Ellis, during the first autumn of his settlement in Dryden, killed eighteen deer so near his log house that he drew them all up to his door upon his ox sled. The woods were full of small game and the squirrels and chipmunks were so abundant that when the raising of grain was first attempted in the small clearings entirely surrounded by the forest, it was almost impossible to save it from destruction by these pests. It was only by persistent trapping and hunting and sometimes by the use of poisoned bait that the crop was secured. The bears and wolves were somewhat troublesome, but they soon avoided the neighborhood of the settlements. The only animal which seriously endangered human life, and that not except when hunted and at bay, was the cougar, or puma, or American lion as it was sometimes called, and ofter referred to by old people as the painter or panther, but improperly so, the true panther being a denizen of Africa. This cougar or puma was a cat-like carniverous animal about five feet long, of a reddish brown color above and nearly white underneath, being closely related to the leopard family of animals. It was King of Beasts on the American continent, nearly all of which it originally inhabited, and woe to the unsuspecting deer or other animal which passed under the tree from which it was watching to spring upon its pret. It had a peculiar cry which was sometimes mistaken for that of a human being in distress, and many were the thrilling stories told of it by the early settlers, though it was too cowardly to often attack mankind.

The American eagle, too, in early times made his home in Dryden, as appears from the following account published in the Ithaca Daily Journal of April 20, 1880, as copied from the Dubuque (Iowa) Times of an earlier date:

"In the years of 1828-9 a man discovered an eagle's nest in the top of a pine tree on the bank of Fall Creek in the town of Dryden, Tompkins County, N.Y., east of the town of Ithaca. The tree was cut and three young bald-headed eagles just ready to fly left the nest before the tree reached the ground. They were caught. One of them was presented to Roswell Randall, a wealthy and prominent merchant residing in Courtland Villa, Courtland county, N.Y. He caged, fed, and cared for the bird two or three years. It grew fast and became a very large, noble bird of attraction. Mr. Randall placed the caged prisoner by the side of the front walk leading to his beautiful mansion, in the foregrounds, that visitors and passers-by could easily enjoy the sight. Finally the bird caused so much trouble that Mr. Randall gave it to William Bassett, a near neighbor, who was an engraver and silversmith; in politics an old line Whig. In 1831 a Fourth of July celebration was had in the village. Mr. Bassett being a public spirited man, added largely to the enjoyment of the day by preparing a silver clasp with these words engraved on it, viz: "To Henry Clay, of Louisville, Ky., from Wm. Bassett, of Courtland Villa, Courtland county, N.Y.,' and riveting it loosely, around one of the legs of the eagle carried the bird and placed it on top of the cupola of the Eagle Hotel in the village, its head in a southwest direction. The military corps and citizens being drawn up in front of the hotel, the eagle was set at liberty. It stood erect upon the cupola, made three flaps with its wings, then set off southwest. The military were ordered to fire, the citizens, swinging their hats, gave three cheers for Henry Clay. The eagle continued its course until out of sight."

This was on the Fourth of July, 1831. The sequel subsequently appeared in the Western papers giving an account of a "large bald-headed eagle being shot by an Indian on a high, towering bluff on the west bank of the Mississippi, about three miles north of Dubuque, on the eleventh day of July, 1831, measuring seven feet three inches from tip to tip of his outstretched wings, having an engraved silver clasp riveted around one of his legs reading as follows, viz: "To Henry Clay, of Louisville, Ky., from Wm. Bassett, of Courtland Villa, Courtland, N.Y.,' In seven days from the time this noble bird graced the dome of the Eagle Hotel and set sail in the direction of Henry Clay's residence he was shot as above stated."

This incident was first furnished to the press by G. R. West, who was present at the celebration at Courtland in 1831 and saw the eagle take its flight from the old Eagle Hotel, which stood where the Messenger House is now located in Courtland village, and the promonotory on the Iowa bank of the Mississippi river, where the eagle was shot as above stated, has since been known as "Eagle Point" and is a land-mark for all steamboat men on the upper Mississippi.

But the most interest of the native animals which inhabited Dryden was the beaver. These industrious creatures were about the size of a small dog, and lived on the bark of trees, taking up their habitations in colonies of fifty or more each, in the streams, across which they built dams with wonderful instinctive sagacity. They formed houses of sticks plastered with mud so regular and perfect that they seemed almost to be the work of human hands. It was some time before the writer could ascribe to a certainty that the beaver inhabited Dryden. The name "Beaver Creek," applied to a sluggish, muddy stream in the northeast corner of the township, first suggested the thought and was followed up by inquiry which develops the fact that the remains of a beaver dam could be distinctly seen in the woods on this creek as late as twenty-five years ago. These interesting animals carried so much value in the fur upon their backs that they could not long survive the efforts of the pioneer hunters to capture them, and hence they early disappeared from this section of the country, so that their former presence here had almost been forgotten.

Goodrich, George B. The Centennial History of the Town of Dryden, 1797-1897. Dryden: Dryden Herald Steam Printing House, 1898. Reprinted 1993 by the Dryden Historical Society. Pages 35-39.

(The Dryden Historical Society, which sells this book, may be reached at 607-844-9209.)

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