Story of John Prout
Ashland Is Rich Historically
From the Daily Mail, Wednesday, March 6, 1929
Transcribed by Arlene Goodwin
Town Had 1500 Population in 1850, A Mark Which it Has Never Since Reached
Hoover Cabinet Memberís Ancestor Built Houses on Adjoining Property--Story of the Willow TreeóGovernor Robinson Attended School There
We believe this historical sketch of Ashland Town should prove interesting to many of our readers. Contained in it are many facts which few Greene County people know. We will be pleased at any time to publish articles of this kind.
Pleasant Valley, that beautiful section of western Greene county through which the picturesque Mohican Trail winds, seems to have retained in its name something of the honesty and modesty of the early settlers who established their homes there. Certainly anyone who has traveled that fine macadam highway which skirts the level flatland of the valley bed will agree that "pleasant" does not do full justice to it. And of these splendid farms located therein, none is finer or historically more interesting than the Prout homestead located a bit over a mile east of the village of Ashland.
This old place, which had been in the Prout family for nearly a century and a quarter at the time of its sale seven years ago, has been conspicuous to the traveling public since early last spring by reason of the many changes that have occurred there. We hope to take this up in a future article.
The Prout farmhouse attracted attention before these wholesale alteration and improvements were started. It is located some distance from the highway in a small grove of trees that is surrounded on all sides by level flatland, a part of the extensive acreage of the homestead. Splendid, well-tilled soil, fine buildings and every device that modern ingenuity can produce. What a contrast compared to the country the Greene county pioneers knew! Today it seems difficult to understand what impelled our ancestors to under take so difficult a task as the conquest of that new country beset as it was at that time by so many handicaps.
At the time John Prout first went into that country in 1796, he made the journey on horseback and by a rough trail over the mountain and into the valley. From the perusal of old letters it would seem that there were two principal lures to the pioneer who settled in the high-lying land of the Catskill mountains,--the first of these was a virgin soil in which wheat could be easily grown and the second, (and by no means the least) was a country free from the annoying and health destroying pest, the malaria bearing mosquito. It is difficult to realize what a boom this elevated region was to the people inhabited what was then a malaria-ridden country along the New England coast and the lower reaches of its various rivers where it was a common occurrence for a considerable portion of the inhabitants to have their chill and fever every second or third day over long periods of months and years and with very little relief. Migration to a new section was often found helpful in that day. This fact furnished our ancestors a strong impulse to move about. Any section that became known as having curative properties was found to be supplied with an ample migration within a relatively short period of time.
This is exactly what happened to that entire region. The population of the town of Ashland for example in 1850, was about fifteen hundred inhabitants. This number has since never been equaled, and the fact that the people almost without exception bore New England names is very suggestive of the region from which they came and the cause of their migration. Names such as Stimson, Steele, Warner, Smith, Snow, Tompkins, Tuttle and Turner are a few associated with the place about the old Prout homestead. Of course, the exploitation of the hemlock timber for the tanning industry was a later development.
John Prout went up into that region from the valley of the Connecticut river (Middletown) in the summer of 1796. He helped to build the older part of the present Prout farmhouse and to clear some of the land for wheat. He must have been pleased with his experience for he returned again in the spring of 1799 and purchased the house and the land which he had helped to clear of timber three years before. He was looked upon as very foolish by friends whose advice he sought. They told him that "miasma" (malaria) was in that flat land in the valley and that he should settle on the high land on the north side of the valley where there was already quite a settlement which was provided with a crude road called the turnpike.
It is hard to realize that the first road through that country was not along the line of the beautiful road that now graces the valley from end to end, but rather that it was laid upon the hills on the north side of the valley in deference to the intense fear of getting into the thralldom of the malaria disease that the settlers were trying to get away from when they migrated into that country from the low-lying lands of the New England coast. They undoubtedly experienced a sense of freedom that enabled them to cope successfully with what seems to us rather forbidding conditions.
When the paternal ancestor of the Prouts made his way into that country for the second time in 1799, he carried a willow stick with which he urged the horse he was riding and when he reached his destination he stuck it down in a swampy place in what was then the rear of the house. The trail through the valley went straight down through its center and it was some years later that a proper survey was made and the road was placed in its present position. The tree that has grown from his riding stick still stands in the place where he planted it and without doubt it is the very oldest willow tree anywhere in this section of the state. It is conspicuous to the passer-by because of an attention-compelling slab of concrete around which the tree is growing which carries the date of planting.
There are other trees, not far distant from it that are very much older, notably the oak and elm standing about 800 feet east of the old willow and beside the road. They are both more than 200 years old and were grown trees when John Prout first saw them. The old buttonwood tree standing east of the house is about the same age as the old willow. Just in front of it stood the old loom house. The old well with its sweep was directly in front of the house and the well was not finally filled up until about fifty years ago.
The larger elms in front of the house were planted about 1840. The hemlock tree standing at the east end of the drive leading in to the house has a little story. It stood beside the little old school house when Dr. Thomas P. Prout was a boy. It naturally got very little chance to grow under those circumstances. It was an insignificant and stunted little tree. Dr. Proutís father was especially interested in it because it was a seedling from the old patent line tree which was an enormous hemlock and which stood in almost the same place where this tree stands until the late sixties of the last century. The older tree, it is believed was one of the line trees of the Hardenberg patent and stood directly in front of the door of the old school house and the present hemlock is a seedling from it and its about sixty five years old. Dr. Prout, who is now a resident of Summit, New Jersey, remembers the stump of this old tree, but it had entirely disappeared when the old school house was torn down about 1885. The stories of wolves that destroyed the sheep, and the deer that destroyed the crops in the early days, had passed into tradition when Dr. Prout was a boy.
The little old school house noted above, which stood on the Prout homestead, was built by the early settlers as a "select school." There were about a dozen families that clubbed together and built the school and hired the teacher from year to year. This antedated the district school and this school building later became the district school house. It was crude and old and dilapidate when Dr. Prout was a boy. The desk space for the pupils was furnished by a heavy slanting shelf which ran around three sides of the room and was amply carved by the jackknives of three generations of children. The walls were badly cracked and badly patched and the wind found easy ingress.
When Lucius Robinson became the twenty-ninth Governor of New York in 1876, the stories of his school days in this old structure was locally revived, doubtless for the benefit and encouragement of that generation. It is not recalled that the atmosphere and surroundings of Governor Robinsonís early life were touched upon but if his campaign managers had chose to exploit the particular little school house associated with his boy hood, they would surely have found this one to their liking, for the opinion is ventured that in the crude and primitive character of its meagre appointments, it was fully the equal of any before or since the days of Governor Robinson.
The Stimson homestead which lies to the west of and adjoins the Prout homestead is another historic landmark. When John Prout went into that region in 1799 he found the Rev. Henry B. Stimson putting the finishing touches on his house. He was the great-grandfather of Colonel Henry L. Stimson who, it will be noted, bears his name and who has recently accepted a place in President-elect Hooverís cabinet as secretary of state.