History of the Town of Lexington
Contributed by Karen Deeter, Lexington Town Historian
In the southeastern part of the Catskills along the Schoharie Creek lies the Township of Lexington, encompassing Lexington, itself, North Lexington, West Kill, Spruceton, Little West Kill, Beech Ridge, Bushnellville, and Broadstreet Hollow. Once the hunting domain of the Iroquois Indian, traces of their feet upon this land are still findable.
A large part of Lexington is up on the mountains and tablelands. These are two separate valleys each named for the stream running through it; the Schoharie and the West Kill. The range of mountains that surround Lexington provides "some of the grandest scenery in the Catskills."
The Township of Lexington is situated within the lands granted to Johannes Hardenburgh by Queen Anne. First settled in 1788 as part of Windham, Lexington was officially separated in 1813, and was first called New Goshen after the Connecticut town that many of the early settlers came from. Just a short time later a settler from Massachusetts was instrumental in having the settlement renamed Lexington. From the 1790’s when many from New England and the Hudson Valley began the great movement west, settlers were drawn to the mountain by the availability of water power and timber, by furs and lumber as sources of income, and by the negligible rent charged by most Hardenburgh patentees. Often settlers immigrated in groups. North Lexington was settled by five families, four from Canaan, Columbia County, and later two large Barber families came and brought the temporary name, Barber Town, to that area.
The original Lexington village settlement was north and upstream from its current location. Education was evidently a first concern, for the December, 1819 Catskill Recorder reported: "School will be open in this Academy on Monday the 6th next…Boarding may be had in respectable families near the Academy on very liberal terms." Also in 1819 at that site a large tannery was built. A grist mill, a saw mill, a store and a post office developed around the hustle and bustle of the tannery business. Leather was high in demand. The then forming Township of Lexington was definitely a part of the emergence of tanning as a major industry. Captain Aaron Bushnell and Abraham Hare had a large tannery in West Kill in 1820. By 1930 there were several. Downstream from the original settlement just above the fording place where a new dam had been built, arose another tannery, a grist mill and a small distillery. The old settlement died away and the present village of Lexington grew around this new development bringing a potash manufacturing plant, the first wooden mill, a forge, a grist mill, a store and a post office.
Some 16,000 years ago, standing at the top of Hunter Mountain you could have seen, off to the west, the Grand Gorge glacier advancing up what is now the West Kill valley (or Spruceton Valley); and from the east, another glacier advancing westward down the length of the stream. It would have been quite a sight. This valley has the beautiful U-shaped profile typical of a glacier formed valley, but the West Kill valley is unique. It earned its shape the hard way, for it was the work of two glaciers together. Exploring the upper reaches of the niche of the West Kill Glacier has attracted many geologists and aspiring geologists to the area.
West Kill hamlet has always been considered a spot of quiet beauty. It has a main street where there once were three stores, a post office and a popular ice cream shop. West Kill is located south of Lexington village and just under the great mountain pass Echo Notch (or Deep Notch).
The Bushnell family (thought of by some as the true founders of West Kill) built tanneries, stores, saw mills, grist mills, a temperance hotel, and were responsible for many other enterprises. The hamlet of Bushnellville grew up around one of the tannery sites, a few miles south of West Kill.
At one time there was a road connecting West Kill and Broadstreet Hollow. The road is long gone and the only access to this hamlet is via route 28 on the other side of Echo Notch.
Beech Ridge lies west of West Kill on a mountain range that is called by some Vly Mountain and by other Angle’s Peak, named for Daniel Angle, one of the first settlers of Beech Ridge. Angle, a Hessian soldier, served in Burgoyne’s army, was captured at Saratoga, later enlisted in the American service and eventually was honorably discharged and granted a pension. A later Angle, Peter, discovered that he could make vinegar from the sap of beech trees and the hill where Peter Angle lived is now called Vinegar Hill, a place from which there is a beautiful view of the town.
During the great expansion of the boarding house business after the Civil War, many boarding houses sprang up in Lexington and eventually most homes had a room or two for regular summer boarders. Beer’s says of those days: "Of the hundreds of summer boarding houses and Hotels located in and about the county, very few can compare with Lexington’s O’Hara House….all in all, the spot is, indeed, charming….it is a most desirable stopping place."
Another well known stop for the boarders was the Lexington House. This historic house, circa 1883, is one of the last standing examples of late-nineteenth century resort architecture in the Catskill region. After serving as a resort hotel the property became a summer camp and then an art center. One of the buildings, the Morse Inn and a barn theater are today home to EST, a theater organization presenting new artists and their works as well as offering theater classes.
The birth of the Lexington Creamery, in 1899, brought a business that provided income for many in this community. During the butter production years that produced eight tons of butter every 24 hours and required 15 men per shift around the clock. Land O’ Lakes was their biggest buyer. These machines were replaced by sealing machines when Redi-Whip production replaced the butter production in the mid-fifties. The Lexington Creamery closed in 1959 when Redi-Whip moved out. In 1961 the building burned to the ground. Recently, a local carpenter opened his business on this site with a sign that reads "Creamery Mill Works" and thus reminds us of the part the creamery played in the history of our town.
Another business that was a dominant feature of the lives of the residents of Lexington just after the turn of the century, was the Fenwick Railroad. At the head of the West Kill valley, by the stream’s remote headwaters, stood the western terminus of a major commercial enterprise – a mountain tramway that was a feat of engineering rivaling the famous Otis Inclined Railroad. Big business was suddenly thrust upon this small mountain community. The scope of the whole business would be impressive even today and it was built at a time of complete reliance on the muscle power of man and animals. The Fenwick Lumber Company was a great industry that signaled revolutionary changes in the lives of a generation of Greene County residents.
The history of Lexington is long and varied and continues.