Old Times in Windham
by Rev. Henry Hedges Prout
Originally published in the Windham Journal from February 18, 1869 to March 31, 1870. Article 9 published on April 15, 1869. Extracted from the microfilm copies of the Windham Journal located at the Vedder Research Library.
Retyped by Arlene Goodwin
The dwellers in the neat and well arranged village of Windham would hardly imagine how things were in and around this locality in old times. As late as about 1807 Nathaniel Stimson bought land on which the village now stands, of the grandfather of Col. George Robertson—paying $800. for the farm. What is called the Mansfield House had then been built, and for a time was Mr. Stimson’s residence. The next house was built by Judson Pound up the little creek north of Peck’s store, having a sort of underground room. The next house was built by Abijah Stone where Mr. White now lives, and the next in order of time was probably Dr. Camp’s.
The land was only partially cleared and very poorly cultivated. Heavy forests of timber covered the country in every direction. A fine spring broke out just in front of Captain Bump’s house, and fed a large pond in which were abundance of trout, and where you might drop a line, and on a favorable day secure a prize as often as you please. Near the pond stood an old hemlock tree for many years, that had been smitten and blackened by lightning. The grand woods between the village and Hidecker’s farm echoed with the howl of wolves as the cowboy made his cows scud through them. While the Stimsons still lived near the old rock at the lower end of the village they caught a wolf, and tied it up to a tree, as they supposed securely, having taken the precaution to put a strap round his mouth, but in the night he got his jaws loose and broke the line with which he was fettered and fled.
The pure streams of these mountains were abundantly supplied with trout, and they were caught and eaten both as a delicacy and as a necessary food. They were abundant till some persons from the other side of the mountain began to catch them with seines. Afterward the building of tanneries on the streams appears to have driven them almost away. Deer, also, were often seen. They came at night and fed among celandine and tall grasses growing near where St. Paul’s Chapel now stands, and used to wade about in the shallow water there and snort and blow as their habit is; and even in the day time often made their appearance in droves, sometimes of six or eight, in the limited clearing around. A first-rate rifle was not often seen and hence in part the boldness of the deer. Bee trees were frequent in the forests just above the village, and along the creek, and they were of course sought for the sake of the honey. Coons were also to be had for the hunting. The custom was to hunt them at night with dogs who chased them till they ran up a tree, and then the hunter ascended the tree and shook off the coon, and the dog caught him as he fell. It is obvious that the hunter might fall as well as the coon, as it is reported that Mr. Stimson did, who, thinking he was near the ground, let go, and found when he struck the ground that he had made a mistake in the dark, However, though he fell a good distance he fared better than the coon did.
It is said that as he was coming on a certain occasion near night, he met a wolf in the road a little west of the old meeting house. The wolf sat on his haunches and looked him in the face, and moved not. Mr. Stimson thought prudence the better part of valor and so got over the fence, and went around, and let the wolf alone. That night the wolf showed what he was thinking about. He went into Capt. Medad Hunt’s barn yard near by, and killed a cow and so helped himself to fresh meat.
Practical playfulness was not uncommon. Hunting on a time with his brother-in-law, Mr. Elliot, they killed a fine deer which they could not well take home and William Henson riding by on his horse, they persuaded him to carry the venison for them. He went on with it, but passing by their residence took his load to his own house, knowing very well that venison steak is savory food. Mr. Stimson on coming home asked for the deer but was told it had not been seen there, and hastening on to Henson’s found him at his supper, doubtless relishing the venison. "What do you mean," said Mr. Stimson. "The deer is mine," replied Henson. "I want the handling of your two minutes," said he as he caught hold of him and brought him down. "Hold, Mr. Stimson, the deer is yours," said Henson; and so ended a piece of pioneer humor.
Another instance: during or just after the close of the War of Independence, a suspicious looking wagon was driven along the road through the valley. When near the Matthew’s ford, where the creek is now crossed by a foot bridge the wagon was hailed and asked what he had? To which he answered—"Wheat" but on removing the bags from the top of his load it was found that it consisted chiefly of Tories concealed by something piled over them. This is strange wheat, said the people. So they took them in the cabin near by and threw them on the fire and scorched them. It was at or near the time when some sort of skirmish westward had been enacted between the Indians and Tories on one side and the Revolutionists on the other, and the latter felt inclined to singe their enemies.
Tradition tells the following probably true story: A man living in Lexington having a gun that wanted mending took it to Durham. On his return through the woods high up in North Settlement, he found three young bear cubs. One after another he shot two of them and then the old bear coming up he shot her in the mouth. At that instant the remaining cub descended from the tree and attacked him before he could load his gun again. He fought, however, with his gun for a club as well as he could till the bear was dead, and the bold hunter could show scalps as token of his prowess. But doubtless his gun wanted mending again.
The following may be of interest to school boys: the Windham school house of old times stood near the bridge on the turnpike where there is now an old saw mill, between the small creek and the old Samuel Reynolds place now occupied by Samuel Reynolds, Junior. It was built of logs and its hundred pupils were gathered from the whole of what is now Windham. How they could have got into the building, and how taught and governed when in, is something of a marvel. Every Saturday was school day as well as the rest of the week in those times, and Saturday afternoon was devoted to the good old practice of catechising. The house for the duty had come, when the teacher, Noah Pond, discovered that one of his smartest boys was missing. "Where’s Luther Pratt?" The eyes of the children , as a slight snicker went round, revealed the truant high up in the loft, crowded between the stones of the chimney and the rough logs of the building. And so Luther Pratt had to be brought down and tanned* till he would say the catechism willingly.
There is a tradition that seems quite authentic that it was a custom to drive cattle to these mountains to graze in summer, from Catskill and elsewhere; and that it was usual to employ someone to look after them and give them salt, etc. Far to the south among the Alleghanies the writer knows that it is a custom still to do so. Imagine a stripling with a satchel and a bag of salt, a gun and a little dry bread, superintending cattle as they roamed and fed through this valley then crowded with forests, following them down to the junction of Batavia and Westkill, and up the latter, and you have a sketch of what it is creditably reported the Rev. Mr. Stimson was employed to do in his boyish day.
Who that has ever wandered in the primeval forest that has not felt the strange fascination that broods around, How sublime the solitude! What elegance of form and figure! And what magnificence! What ease and grace! A beauty of finish that no art may rival. A variety and symmetry on every side that taste the most classical may not imitate. In those living solitudes who does not feel that he is near the Presence which is the Life, and whence flow order, life and joy!
*A communication to the Editor was published by the author—I beg leave to say that Luther Pratt is a favorite of mine, and neither my feelings nor the truth of history will allow of his being "tanned" to make him say the catechism. He was tamed, that is, disciplined in some way—the precise way, I believe was that he was required to say the catechism or go home; the alternative of creeping behind the chimney not being allowed, Luther went home, but got so tired of being away from his companions that he came back and submitted to the catechism. Would it not tame an unruly two-year-old to take him from the herd with which he was wont to graze and put him by himself? Would he not feel subdued: this is what was done with Luther Pratt. But to think of his being "tanned" to make him say the catechism! Which would of course make him hate the catechism more than ever.