January 18, 2004

Dryden in the Gilded Age

It's been too long since we've heard from George Goodrich, whose 1897 Centennial History of the Town of Dryden richly describes what happened here long ago. In today's chapter, Goodrich takes a close look at his own time, and ends up sounding part booster and part scold. (Those tendencies are clear throughout the book, but surface with special fervor here.) Goodrich decries "extravagance" and talks about "so-called hard times", but it's worth remembering that this period was a gigantic economic roller coaster for the entire country, and Goodrich seems somewhat insulated from such problems by his social status.

Apart from the distinct tone of the historian's voice, though, there's a tremendous amount of information here. It seems that the last quarter of the 19th century presented some tough challenges to Dryden, most notably in a general depreciation of real estate values. He also talks about boxing in the town, the improvement of roads and bridges over time, better schools, homes, barns, and dairy faming practice, the increased use of bicycles, and the development of stable land titles.

Chapter XXI

The Period of Maturity

By applying the term "maturity" to this present time, the last quarter of the Century Period of our history, we do not intend to imply that it is a time when perfection has been reached, or that further developments of a progressive nature may not be expected in the future history of our town. It is regarded by us as mature only as we view it from the standpoint of the present as compared with the primitive conditions of the past, while to those who may review it one hundred years hence, the present time will doubtless appear, in some respects at least, as a period of rude development. This period will be treated of here very briefly, as it is not yet ripe as a subject for history, and it is rather to give those who shall come after us and who may chance to peruse our efforts, some idea as to how our times appear to us to-day than for any other purpose that we complete our general history of the town of Dryden with this chapter.

There are some few respects in which great progress has been made during the past hundred years where it would seem that but little improvement need be expected or asked for in the future. One of them is in the matter of highway bridges, of which our town is required to maintain many, although none of them of extraordinary dimensions. In the Pioneer Period it is presumed that there were no bridges of any account, the inhabitants then being required to ford the streams in summer and cross them on the ice in winter. In the Second Period pole bridges were constructed, rude affairs - many of which were carried away with every spring flood. These were replaced in the War Period with comparatively substantial structures of wood, of the truss pattern, but they were subject to decay, the life of such a bridge, however well constructed and protected, being less than twenty years. But now all or very nearly all of them have been replaced during the past twenty-five years by substantial iron structures, supplied by the town at considerable expense, placed upon solid piers of masonry or iron piles, in such a manner that they seem to be alomst indestructible and imperishable.

Another respect in which great progress has been made and apparently the limit of perfection almost reached is in the matter of educational advantages. Common school education for the young is now not only free, but in a measure compulsory, and there can be but little hope for the children of to-day who do not readily improve the superior advantages now afforded them by our schools. If we compare the school buildings of to-day with those of twenty-five years ago, and then again with those of fifty and seventy-five years ago, we shall be impressed with the degree of comfort and elegance which our own times afford in comparison.

The dwelling houses and farm buildings of the present time are not to be compared with the rude habitations of fifty and seventy-five years ago. It was not then considered necessary to winter cattle under cover except in the worst storms, and then the poorest shed was supposed to furnish ample protection. When the country was mostly covered with forests the severity of winter was not felt by man or beast as it is now, and we are told that in the Pioneer Period snow drifts were unknown. Now the cattle barn of the Dryden famer is usually larger and more expensive than the house in which he lives, which is itself a palace in points of convenience and elegance as compared with the homes of his ancestors.

The methods of dairy farming as practiced in the town have met with a wonderful change, since fifty years ago. Then the milk was all made up into butter and cheese at home, while not all that which is not consumed in fattening calves for the city markets is, in most localities, taken to the railroad stations to be shipped on the milk train, or to the nearest of the cheese and butter factories which are distributed through the township.

We should not pass over the present time without mentioning the now omnipresent "bicycle", which within the past twenty-five years has developed from its first appearance as the old "velocipede" and within the past few years come into very general use as a means of transportation even in the country. It promises at last to compel the farmers to build and maintain better roads, which will result greatly to their own advantage and profit in the end.

In one respect there is some reason to complain of our times and that is in regard to the depreciation in the market value of real estate within the past twenty-five years. In the Pioneer Period, as we have seen, land was purchased for a few dollars per acre. For the first seventy-five years and until about the close of the War Period, the value of real estate had a steady and constant upward tendency, until good farms in the town were readily sold at from sixty to one hundred dollars per acre. The young farmer who had invested in land and lived during that time, as old age came on often discovered that his increased wealth was as much due to the natural increase in the value of his farm as to the crops which he had raised and sold off from it, while the farmer of to-day, who invested his resources in the land twenty-five years ago, finds to his sorrow that the depreciation in the market value of his farm often counterbalances the labor and efforts of a lifetime expended upon it. The actual market value of the real estate during that time, in spite of improved buildings, has depreciated nearly, if not quite, one half. From this tendency of the times, which was unforseen and unexpected, many, and especially those who had invested beyond their means in real estate, have suffered severely; but in other respects these times are propitious. It is the abundance and cheapness of the necessities of life which now surround us, and not their scarcity as it was in the year 1816. In spite of this plenteous supply of various products, labor itself is in good demand and well paid, and at no time, it is safe to say, within the century would the same amount of well directed labor purchase so much good common food or clothing as at present. The very prosperous times which have immediately preceded the present have unfortunately stimulated extravagance, and to this more than any other cause is due the complaint of hard times so commonly heard.

As an illustration of this the writer remembers that about fifty years ago old Esquire Tanner used to keep in his postoffice at Dryden village, in two small glass jars with tin covers, and four square red boxes with sliding glass fronts, the stock of sugar candy which supplied the children of the village and surrounding country, more numerous then than now. One jar contained lemon drops - thirteen for a penny; another jackson balls, at a cent apiece; and the four others contained stick candy of various kinds. His total sales of that commodity could not have exceeded twenty-five dollars per annum. Now the merchants tell us that the retail trade in candy in Dryden village exceeds one thousand dollars per annum, and is more than equalled by the sale of southern grown fruit, which fifty years ago was unknown to us. Not only is extravagance exhibited in such kinds of food, much of which is worse than useless, but so extravagant have people become in these "hard times" in the matter of superfluous clothing throughout the country, that during the past winter the Legislature of the great State of New York has in its wisdom enacted a law requiring the ladies who insist upon displaying such a profusion of flowers, ribbons, and feathers in their head gear as to eclipse the view of everything else, to remove their hats when attending entertainments, and at the same time we believe an amendment was offered but lost limiting the number of yards of cloth which might be wasted by the ladies in making up their puffed sleeves.

But in spite of the so-called hard times, useless extravagance, and the depreciation in the value of real estate, there are many respects in which marked improvement has been made throughout the country with prospects of still greater advancement.

We read of many of the earlier settlers who lost the land which they had under many hardships and with much difficulty paid for, without any fault of their own, through defective and fraudulent titles, which were then very common. Now the system of recorded land titles is so perfect that very seldom does any such loss occur, and even then it results from gross carelessness.

We learn that in early times there was a great deal of local litigation, and that a number of pettifogging lawyers were kept busy in every hamlet of the township settling the disputes of neighbors by contested law suits in Justice's Court over horse trades, dog fights, and other foolish matters. This state of things has almost entirely disappeared.

We are told by old people that in those "good old times" there was never a town meeting held without more or less fighting being witnessed. These were not wrestling contests or boxing matches, but real bloody, brutal fights, in which the "bullies" of the town exhibited their powers of inflicting and enduring blows to the crowd of their assembled townsmen. Now happily such an exhibition would not be tolerated at our town meetings or elsewhere, and the most noted of pugilists are obliged to seek a refuge as far away as New Orleans or Nevada in which to exhibit themselves in their contests.

It is said that in the early days of Dryden the Lacy and Knapp families were noted for their pugilistic contests with each other in dead earnest. Think of the family from which our very exemplary late lamented John C. Lacy descended, being noted for its brutal fighting qualities, frequently exhibited at town meetings, and then tell us whether the times and the manners have not greatly improved during the century.

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 70-73.

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

Posted by simon at January 18, 2004 10:29 AM in ,
Note on photos