Old Times in Windham
by Rev. Henry Hedges Prout
Originally published in the Windham Journal from February 18, 1869 to March 31, 1870. Article 1 published on February 18, 1869. Extracted from the microfilm copies of the Windham Journal located at the Vedder Research Library.
Transcribed by Arlene Goodwin
A little eastward of the village of Ashland, a range of low hills crosses the valley of the Batavia creek. Through a gorge at the south end of the range, the stream finds a passage and flows on toward the Hudson by way of the Schoharie and Mohawk. Very near the gorge, at the southern end of the range of hills, stood one of the residences first built in the Batavia Valley. It appears to have been built by one Isaac Hollenbeck. Dr. Thomas Benham bought his "possession," and removed thither about A. D. 1793. Dr. Jacob Benham, the oldest child of Dr. Thomas Benham, was then an infant of nine months, and is now living at the advanced age of seventy-six years. The family emigrated from Columbia County. The writer remembers a tall Lombardy poplar, marking the spot of the first settlement. It had been a riding switch, which Dr. J. Benham, when a child, struck in the ground at his father’s direction, who had just then ridden home with it in his hands.
The beginning of the settlement of the valley appears to have been during the Revolution. Tradition tells of one Isaac Becker, who raised a crop of some kind on the Benham farm near the creek, but having sent his colored man for the horses to take in the crop, he himself, on looking up saw the servant and the horses in the hands of a number of Tories and Indians, approaching him; whereupon Becker ran, and taking to the woods did not stop until he reached his home in "Old Schoharie."
The nearest neighbors of Dr. Thomas Benham were Zachariah Cargill, on one side, and Argalus White on the other. Cargill appears to have settled at or near the place occupied after ward by the Rev. H. B. Stimson for many years, and where his daughter now resides. Mr. White removed to Windham (then including Ashland and Prattsville) at the same period with Dr. Benham, 1793.
Very many still living probably retain a vivid recollection of the calm, pleasant, yet slightly reserved manner of Dr. Thomas Benham. He had visited every house and cabin in the region in seasons of sickness and trial. His life was uniform, maintaining always the same staid, erect demeanor, modified by his own peculiar smile, and gentle tone of voice. The health of a large and rapidly growing community was in his hands for nearly fifty years, and he enjoyed the well-won confidence of the public to a ripe old age. His driving-he probably never owned a buggy, and generally rode on horseback, and therefore it would be more proper to say his riding—was never rapid yet he met his calls punctually. The writer, then growing up to manhood, remembers very well his tall, perfectly erect form and the measured pace with which he moved to and fro on his rounds, year after year. A faithful, discreet physician, deserving and receiving the entire confidence of a large and grateful community, passed away when Dr. Benham died A. D. 1849, at the age of 82 years. The writer can testify to the touching gentleness and sweetness of his address when speaking to those who had grown up under his eyes and care. He seemed very little moved by the passions and ambitions working around him. He must have loved virtue for his life was singularly honest and pure. His pecuniary claims, for years of hard and successful professional services, in families reared under his eye, were as modest as possible, and it is not too much to say that he left to his descendants an irreproachable name, and to all who knew him, a pleasant and lovely memory.
Originally the road through the valley ran near the log cabin where Dr. Benham first lived, but its course was changed about 1805, and the house now owned by Austin Smith was built and occupied by Dr. Benham until his death. His family of three sons and three daughters are still living with the exception of Mrs. Holcomb, wife of Holmer Holcomb. The youngest of his children was a school companion of the writer. In our school days we got water and quenched our thirst at the spring near the house of Dr. Benham. The old school house, built probably before 1810 stood on the south side of the road on the corner of the lot owned by Mr. White. It was burned, probably about 1820, and another was built on the north side of the road. My present business is with the older house—a low pitched, plain building of one story, having a large fireplace at one end, and a large box stove toward the other end of the house; a table supported one cross legs; a writing desk against the outer wall, all round the room, rudely carved with boys’ knives, and deeply stained with ink; the seats of slabs, with holes bored in them and legs driven in on the round side. In this room were gathered the young of the community, and in a climate alternately chilling and sweltering, the young idea was taught to shoot. The master was doubly armed. His switch and ferule did vigorous execution. Thus were idling, trifling, apprehension, fear, strange antics and a little study all mingled together. A sort of chronic hostility prevailed in winter between the large boys and the master; but when spring came on, and bland airs began to blow over the landscape, and a lady teacher took us in hand, all was comparatively peaceful. Out of doors big snow balls were rolled up in winter and much leaping into deep drifts was done, and sliding on the ice in merry, noisy ways. In summer we were still children, and gathered fodder and fed horses in play barns, and reaped maywood with crooked sticks for sickles. The girls had their tiny houses and pantries, and lovely furniture on the shelves, all of broken bits of gay crockery. There was balancing on a slab run through a crevice in the fence or laid across a log—and one of my kind cousins remembers how she was thrown from a teeter board, striking her forehead on the corner of a large stone lying just in front of the house, and how our gaiety was quickly gone. These times had their own peculiar lights, and their own expressive shadows.
But the straight tree marking the early settler’s home, and the dingy school house have both passed away, and so has the cheerful crowd gathered within the walls of one, and in sight of the other.