VILLAGE OF JOHNSTOWN, NY
The first name to be mentioned in connection with the history of Johnstown is that of Sir William Johnson, founder of the village and its benefactor during the last fourteen years of his life. While eleven of these fourteen years were passing by, 1763 to 1774, Sir William was living at Johnson Hall, which was built during the years 1761 and 1762, and is still standing in the northwest corner of the village. The old mansion has been remarkably well preserved, and the deep historic interest with which it is invested seems to increase with each succeeding year. There is no doubt that the baronet's prime motive in locating at the hall was not only to gratify the desire of his eldest son, Sir John, who wished his father to establish a baronial estate of corresponding importance with the dignity and rank of his title; but to have general and personal supervision over the settlement of his rich and extensive lands, which comprised the country surrounding the present site of the village.
He had been living for twenty years at Mount Johnson (now Fort Johnson) and his removal to Johnson Hall cannot be attributed entirely to motives of personal aggrandizement as his subsequent deeds of public benevolence, and also his untiring efforts for educating and improving the condition of his tenants indicate.
Located on the farms adjacent to the hall, many of which consisted chiefly of dense forest growths, were many tenants, including not only farmers, but also artisans, such as millers, hatters, tanners, wagon makers and also a physician. It is probable that the Johnstown of that day didd not bare any resemblance to a village until the erection of the old stone church, which was built in the grave yard at the corner of what is now Market and Green streets. Possibly there were not enough houses in the place to deserve even the name of a "hamlet" until the erection of the court house in 1772.
The chief center of information for the entire community in those days was Johnson Hall, where the baronet entertained his guests, and where his Indian allies were often a conspicuous feature. It was there that important councils were often held, and there also Sir William enjoyed the sports and games in which the Indians bore part. This led to an annual tournament of their native games, together with what were widely known as "sport days" at the hall. On these occasions the yeomanry of the adjoining farms engaged in various amusements of an athletic nature, the contests being stimulated by the offer of prizes, and among the comic features were foot races, in which the contestants ran with their feet in bags, and also horse races, in which the riders were placed upon the animals with faces reversed. A source of great merriment was the chase after a well fatted pig, whose exterior was greased, and another was the climbing of a greased pole, upon the top of which a prize had been fixed. A similar rivalry brought a prize to the person who could make the ugliest face and could sing the worst song in point of melody.
It will thus be seen that for a number of years the hall was constantly the scene of life and activity. The building itself, though of wood, was of unusual strength, and its size sixty by forty feet in area, and two stories high, rendered it unusually spacious. Superior judgment was exhibited in selecting a southern exposure, sufficiently near to the Cayadutta for supplies from the grist mill, which Sir William had already constructed, and also sufficiently remote from the village to insure the dignity of a manorial residence. Occupying a space fifteen feet wide through the center of the building was the grand hall, from which on each floor opened large and commodious rooms, wainscoted with panels and heavy carved work. At each end of the building stood a square stone structure, intended for defence, the one on the southeast end, however, was chiefly used as the business office of the estate, and the other as Sir William's study. These buildings formed a part of the fortifications, to which was added, in 1763, a stockade surrounding the hall, an attack of the western tribes under Pontiac being then expected.
The great care exercised by the baronet to increase the beauty and comfort of the hall, and its surroundings, shows more conclusively than his public deeds, that culture and refinement which formed so large a part of his character. His constant desire was for the improvement, not only of his own farm, which was worked by ten or fifteen slaves, under an overseer named Flood, but of the entire settlement, whose agriculture was thus advanced. This led him to obtain superior oats from Connecticut; scions for grafting from Philadelphia; fruit trees from New London, and choice seeds from England. His love for horticulture led to the formation of a nursery, which, with the garden, occupied a space south of the Hall, and the latter furnished the baronet's table with the best vegetables of that day. Speaking of this famous mansion, ex-Governor Seymour once said: "It was from this spot that the agents went forth to treat with the Indians of the west, and keep the chain of friendship bright. Here came the scout from the forests and lakes of the north to tell of any dangerous movement of the enemy. Here were written reports to the crown which were to shape the policy of nations; and to this place were sent the orders that called upon the settlers and savages to go out upon the war path."
Of those who were counted among the guests of Johnson Hall and shared its hospitality contemporaneously with members of the Iroquois confederacy may be mentioned Lady O'Brien, daughter of the earl of Colchester; Lord Gordon, whom Sir William's son John accompanied to England, where the latter was knighted; also Sir Henry Moore, governor of New York; Governor Franklin, of New Jersey, and many other dignitaries of colonial fame.
It was customary to hold fairs at Johnstown in those days, under the supervision of Sir William, who furnished the premiums from his private purse. He was the first to introduce sheep, and also blooded horses into the Mohawk valley. Among his staff of assistants and employees was a secretary named Lefferty, who was well read in law, and served as surrogate of the county; also, a family physician named Daly, who, in addition to his professional duty, was valued as a social companion, and often accompanied the baronet on his pleasure excursions. Added to these were a butler, a gardener, a tailor, and a blacksmith, the last two having shops across the road from the hall, in order to be of service to the public.
The removal of Sir William from Mount Johnson to the baronial hall which he had built at Johnstown, was connected with the organization of a new county, which it preceded by ten years, and which was named after Sir William Tryon, governor of the colony. It was only natural that Johnstown should be selected as the capital or shire town of the new county, and accordingly in May, 1772, work was begun on the court house, the sum of £1,000 having been authorized (by the act creating the county) to be expended for that purpose, and also for building a jail. The bricks for the court house were imported from England* and reached Albany by boat, being there transferred to wagons, in which they were brought to Johnstown. At the time of its construction, and for years after, it was the first and only court house between Albany and the Pacific coast. In the tower surmounting the steep roof was placed a great iron bar, bent into a triangle, and this odd contrivance has served the purpose of a bell for one hundred and twenty years. The first court in this ancient structure was held September 8, 1772, with Sir Guy Johnson on the bench. This old court house has been the scene of some very thrilling trials, in one of which Aaron Burr and Thomas Addis Emmet were both retained. Could the walls of this seat of justice only repeat what they have heard, a strange history indeed would they unfold.
An interesting relic still preserved in the court house is the old Montgomery county gallows, which is the most ancient thing of its kind in existence, and has seen nearly four score years. Among the executions at which it served, was that of Becker, who was hung for murdering his wife, and the colored boy "Will," who was hung for arson. The last execution in which the old gallows served was that of Moses Lyons, who murdered his housekeeper, December 18, 1829. The gallows was then placed in the garret of the court house, whence it never has been removed. It is built of heavy timber, painted dark yellow with black stripes, and worked with a drop after the old fashion, but it always did sure work.
One of the first trials for murder, perhaps the first, was that in which John Adam Hartman, a Mohawk valley veteran of the revolution, was charged with the killing of an Indian, in 1783, in what is now the town and county of Herkimer. Hartman and the Indian had met at a tavern, where the latter had boasted of murders and scalpings performed by him during the war, and exhibited, as alleged by Hartman, a tobacco pouch made from the skin of the hand and part of the arm of a white child, with the finger nails remaining attached. These revelations incensed the feelings of Hartman, who concealed his excitement for the moment and the two left the tavern to traverse the forest together. The red man, however, never returned, and his body, rifle and some baggage he had carried when at the tavern, were found in th e woods a year later. Hartman was acquitted for lack of legal evidence.
Another celebrated trial took place here in 1828. An action for trespass was brought by Henry Garlock against Henry J. Failing to recover the value of a negro slave, Jack, whom it was alleged the defendant had wrongfully and maliciously killed. Garlock possessed a deed of the negro in which a consideration of three hundred and fifty dollars was expressed, and Failing admitted the killing of the slave, but declared it had been done by mistake. The circumstances as brought out by the trial indicated that on the night of the alleged crime several negroes had engaged in a promiscuous gathering near the river below Dutchtown, and when the gathering broke up, whichwas at a late hour, many of them were intoxicated. The slave, Jack, started home with one of his companions and passed Failing's house on the way. The same night a colored man called at defendant's house saying that he had seen a bear a short distance away. Failing took his rifle and accompanied by his dog, started in pursuit. He discovered the animal sitting on his haunches about ten rods distant and could see his eyes in the dim starlight, but the dog refused to advance towards it. Failing took good aim between the eyes and fired. The result was a terrible groan, a struggle and then the figure was perfectly still. An investigation with a lighted lamp disclosed' the dead body of the unfortunate Jack. The negro had taken a keg from a trough where it had been placed to soak, and had seated himself upon it in the middle of the road with his back toward Failing, and the bright buttons in the rear of his coat had been readily mistaken for the eyes of the bear. Both parties retained brilliant counsel, and verdict was found for the plaintiff of two hundred and fifty dollars.
A murder case that attracted much attention at the time, was that of the People against Frederick Smith, charged with the murder of Edward Yost, who conducted a meat market adjoining the bank of Hays & Wells, and slept in a bedroom occupying a corner of the bank building. On the morning of March 6, 1875, fire was discovered in the bank, and the horrible discovery made by a number of the men who forced an entrance to extinguish the flames, was the corpse of Yost, disfigured and burned almost beyond recognition, lying on the floor of the bedroom through which the fire had penetrated. Two bullet wounds were found in the murdered man's head, each of which might have caused his death. His gold watch valued at one hundred and ninety dollars, a diamond pin, and several hundred dollars, known to have been on his person, were stolen and circumstances indicated that the perpetrator of the deed had set fire to the building in hope of destroying the evidence of his crime. Smith had formerly been a partner of Yost, but this connection had been dissolved. During their partnership Smith and Yost had slept together and even afterwards Smith had occasionally occupied the room with his former partner, once, indeed, only two weeks before the murder. He was therefore familiar with the premises and suspicion naturally rested upon him. Smith being called to account admitted having been about the village until one or two o'clock in the morning of the crime, but declared his ignorance of the deed. He was placed under arrest and remained in jail nearly a year before his trial, at which through the efforts of able counsel he was acquitted and subsequently went to California. Rewards for the perpetrator of the crime amounting to $6,00o were offered by the sheriff of the county, and the friends of the murdered man and Governor Tilden, but no conviction took place and the murder of Edward Yost remains among the mysteries of crime.
In closing this review of Johnstown's ancient court house, it seems proper to add a briet extract from the speech delivered by Horatio Seymour June 26, 1872, at the centennial of the laying of the corner stone. A platform was built in the court house yard, a portrait of Sir William was hung outside the front wall over which was suspended the British flag with this inscription: "One hundred years ago," while on the railing near the entrance was a massive iron casting of the British coat of arms, imported by Sir William.
"The edifice and its objects were in strange contrast with the aspect of the country. It was pushing the forms and rules of English jurisprudence far into the territories of the Indian tribes, and it was one of the first steps taken in that march of civilization which has now forced its way across the continent. There is a historic interest attached to all the classes of men who met at that time. There was the German from the Palatinate, who had been driven from his home by the invasion of the French, and who had been sent to this country by the ministry of Queen Anne; the Hollander, who could look with pride upon the struggles of his country against the powers of Spain and in defence of civil and religious liberty; the stern Iroquois warriors, the conquerors of one half the original territories of our Union, who looked upon the ceremonies in their quiet, watchful way. There was also a band of Catholic Scotch Highlanders, who had been driven away from their native hills by the harsh policy of the British government, which sought by such rigor to force the rule of law upon the wild clansmen. There were to be seen Brant and Butler, and others whose names to this day recall in this valley scenes of cruelty, rapine and bloodshed. The presence of Sir William Johnson, with an attendance of British officers and soldiers, gave brilliancy to the event, while over all the group, asserting the power of the Crown, waved the broad folds of the British flag. The aspects of those who then met at this place not only made a clear picture of the state of the country, but it came at a point of time in our history of intense interest. . . . All in that mingled crowd of soldiers, settlers and savages felt that the future was dark and dangerous. They had fought side by side in the deep forests against the French and their Indian allies; now they did not know how soon they would meet as foes in deadly conflict."
The jail was begun in 1772 at the same time with the court house, and was constructed of stone in order to serve as a fort in case of attack. Good judgment is shown in the size of its massive walls, and also in the selection of the highest point of ground for a site, which afforded a full view of approaching danger. When finished it was the best building in America for defense against all weapons but artillery. Neither the jail nor court house was completed at once, and in 1774 the legislature appropriated £1,600 for this purpose. One year later, October 26, 1775, the Tryon county revolutionary committee inquired of Sir John Johnson whether he pretended to a prerogative to the court house and jail, "and would hinder or interrupt the committee to make use of the same public houses to our want and service in the common cause." Replying, Sir John made claim to both buildings as his property until the sum of £700, which Sir William had advanced toward their construction, should be refunded. The committee respected this claim at the time, and fitted up a private house as a prison, sending convicts to Albany and Hartford. Information was given to Congress, later on, that the building had been conveyed to the county by Sir William, and that the jail had been used as a fort by the patriots during the revolution, being fortified with palisades and block houses. Their respective uses were then resumed, and with the exception of slight repairs to the courthouse and the replacing of the wood work in the jail, which was destroyed by fire, both buildings have remained in tact ever since. Until 1815 the county clerk's office was located in a little building on Market street near the Academy. The next one stood for many years at the corner of William and Main streets, and was also a small building. The present clerk's office was built in 1867.
Among other steps taken by Sir William for the improvement of the village and the comfort of its inhabitants was the erection of a stone church larger than the first, details of which are given elsewhere in this narrative. Sir William gave evidence of his loyalty in the construction of this church, by providing a pew for the king at the right hand of the pulpit, over which was an elaborate canopy, and the pew was kept closed, awaiting the use of the royal dignitary, its vacancy being a silent witness for the royal power. On the opposite side of the pulpit was another pew for Sir William's use and his successors in the manor. Thus were the royal and manorial powers appropriately honored in St. John's church.
Sir William also laid out the village in squares, four streets running north and south and four east and west, but did not give them names. In the spring of 1760 he was busily engaged in establishing the settlement, and not long after his removal to Johnson Hall he built six houses near the court house. These dwellings were about thirty feet in front by eighteen or twenty deep, one story and a half high, and contained two square rooms on a floor. They were painted yellow.
In 1766 Sir William went to Albany and became a Mason, together with Guy Johnson and Colonel Claus, and during the same year established in his own mansion a Masonic lodge, whose history is included in these pages. Very soon afterward he established a free school, which stood on what is now the southeast corner of Main and William streets, and had the distinction of being the first free school in the state. The year 1771 and the one following were years of marked progress in every respect, and Johnstown may be said to have assumed the appearance of a village. Sir William indeed says in one of his letters, "settlers now flocked in, bought lots and built houses," and another writer states that "several new streets were laid out, and gaily painted signs were to be seen swinging from the doors of the different tradesmen." About eighty families were added to the village during 1771, and the name of Johnstown, which is a contraction of Johnsontown, was given to the settlement in honor of the baronet.
During this prosperity a sudden and deeply felt sorrow was cast over the village by the death, on the 11th day of July, 1774, of Sir William. He had long been a sufferer from an aggravated dysentery which at times almost caused suffocation. In seeking a cure for this disease he had visited Saratoga, where he drank of the now famous High Rock spring, a knowledge of its medicinal virtues having been imparted to him by the Indians, a band of whom accompanied him to the spot, showing their great regard for the baronet by bearing him through the wilderness on a litter. Sir William's disease, however, was too complicated to be susceptible of cure, and hence the benefit received at the spring was only temporary. It served, however, as the foundation for the wonderful and growing popularity which Saratoga has enjoyed as a health resort for many years. On the day of his death the baronet had addressed for two hours in a hot sun a party of Iroquois Indians, who came from the west with complaints of ill treatment at the hands of the Ohio frontiersmen. Various writers have adduced the theory that Sir William took his own life, giving as an argument the suddenness of his death and the prophecy made by himself that he would never live to see the already threatened war between the colonies and the crown. Sir William's correspondence with one of his physicians, however, disproves the theory of suicide, and there is certainly very little ground for it.
The funeral which took place on the Wednesday following Sir Wiliam's death, was the most solemn demonstration the colonies had up to that time ever witnessed. The clergyman in attendance was Rev. Mr. Stewart, missionary at Fort Hunter, and the funeral procession numbered more than 2,000, including colonial dignitaries and 600 Indians, who were bereaved of a lifelong friend. The pall bearers included Gov. Franklin of New Jersey and the judges of the New York Supreme Court.
The burial took place in a vault erected beneath the floor of St. John's church for the family, but Sir William was the only one of the number who ever occupied it. On the following day the Indians were granted the privilege of performing their own peculiar rites, which they did with much solemnity and emotions. The old church was destroyed by fire in 1836 and when rebuilt its position was altered so as to leave the vault containing the baronet's remains outside the church wall. Prior to 1862 there had been rumors circulated about Johnstown that either Sir William's body had never been interred there or that it had been taken up and carried to Canada. This led to investigation, and the tomb being reopened, all that was left of the body was disinterred and afterward buried with honor. A portion of the vault roof had caved in and most of the coffin had disappeared. A section of the scull was found, however, with some of the larger bones and a plain gold ring bearing the date "June 1739, 16," and supposed to have been Lady Johnson's wedding ring, worn by the baronet after her death. The bullet which he received at the battle of Lake George and which had never been extracted, was also found in the vault. Arthur D. Bedford, now living in Gloversville, was present at the opening of the vault, and although quite a young boy at the time, distinctly remembers having found a small piece of the coffin lid, around the edge of which were several ancient nails. The tomb was repaired and remodeled and the remains, after being sealed in a. block of granite, were returned to their resting place June 7, 1862, the services being conducted by the Right Rev. Bishop Potter of New York. It will be of interest to note that there is at present in Johnstown a recently organized society, the purpose of which is to raise a fund for the purpose of erecting a suitable monument to the baronet.
Hardly had the confusion resulting from the death of Sir William passed away, when the war clouds of the revolution began to darken the political horizon, increasing day by day, until at last they burst upon the struggling colonists with all the horror of that long and fearful conflict.
After Sir William's death, Sir John occupied the Hall, with the intention of retaining the family dignity, but (as has already been related in these pages) the hostility he bore against the colonists made it necessary for him to flee to Canada, whence he returned, wreaking hellish vengeance on the brave patriots of the Mowhawk Valley, in that raid whose memory will forever stamp his name with infamy. The confiscation of the Johnson estate followed his flight, and thus forever passed away the power of that lordly family, leaving only the memory of former grandeur.
The commissioners of confiscation placed Sampson Sammons in charge of the Hall, but the greater part of the furniture was taken to Albany and sold at auction. Sir William's papers were likewise taken to Albany and came into the possession of the Cooper family, which subsequently placed them in the care of the state library, where they received careful attention, and were printed in the documentary history.
When the war began Johnstown contained a number of men of local prominence including Daniel Claus, John Butler, Gilbert Tice, Robert Adams, Hugh Fraser, Bryan Lefferty, Hugh McMonts and William Crowley. The first two were well known tories and adherents of Sir John; the last two fought in the battle near the Hall and were killed. The population of the village decreased during the revolution, partly by the withdrawal of the friends and followers of Sir John, and partly by the loss of life caused by war, but when peace was renewed Johnstown took on new life and its population was greatly increased by settlers from New England. It then included among its inhabitants Zephaniah Bachelor, Amaziah Rust, John Little, Thomas Read, John B. Wemple, John McCarthy, Garret Stadts and John Egan. It was the only place of prominence west of Albany, ranking even Schenectady, which was due to its frontier position. The names of the streets were given by the state commissioners appointed to sell the confiscated lands. In 1787 the Marquis de Lafayette visited Johnstown, and wrote from there a letter to Col. Gansevoort, urging him to take every possible measure for the capture of Col. Carleton, who was supposed to be acting the part of a spy in the neighborhood.
In 1784, when the name of Tryon county was changed to Montgomery, Johnstown acquired additional importance as a promising place for enterprise. Thus it was that such men were attracted to the village as Richard Dodge, George Henry and his brother, Henry Brevoort Henry, all of whom came from New York. Dr. Thomas Reed, and Judge Haring, came from New Jersey; Daniel Cady and John W. Cady, from Florida. An aristocratic foreign element was formed by the families of Sadliers, McCarthys, Egans, Philpots, and Rev. Hosack.
An interesting idea of the appearance of the village in 1790 can be gleaned from the following letter written in 1872 by the venerable ex-Gov. Enos T. Throop, who was at one time a student in Johnstown Academy, and whose boyhood was passed in Kingsboro.
"The year 1772 was but twelve years before my birth. At six years of age I had a perfect knowledge of the town and the people, and my memory retains it, with the incidents of that day. Johnstown at that day, besides what was then considered the palatial edifice erected by Sir William Johnson as his residence, consisted of the Adams house, the Reed house, the Rawlins [Rollins?] house (the tavern), the court house, the jail, the stone church, and a few small dwellings which it is was understood were erected by Sir William Johnson, and a few additions to them to accommodate the business and domestic comforts of the residents who had pitched their tents there."
Within a short time Howland Fish came to Johnstown, from Hudson, and Daniel Paris, from Herkimer, thus adding to the political and legal power of the village. Johnstown was at that time the great center of the fur trade of a vast frontier area, and the transactions in this commodity, which included the purchases of John Jacob Astor, were of great magnitude. The village was also on the main traveled highway from east to west and became celebrated for its unusual number of hotels. One of them occupied a position next to the court house and was kept in later years by Heathcote Johnson. Another stood where the Dr. Francis Burdick dwelling is now located. Another was on the plat occupied in recent years by the Dewey residence and one stood on the site of the John C. Ferres hardware store. The Jackson House should also be mentioned. It stood on the present location of the Fancher block. There was also the "Old Yellow Tavern," corner of Main and Market streets, and the Union Hall in the eastern part of town. Two other taverns occupied opposite corners on Main and Perry streets. These hotels caught much of the patronage of travelers en route to the "Black River Country," over the state road.
Thus Johnstown increased in size and importance and on the first day of April, 1808, became an incoporated village. On the sixth day of the following December, the first trustees were elected; five in number, as follows: Daniel Cady, Daniel Paris, Daniel Holden, Caleb Johnson, and Caleb Grinnell. Joseph Cuyler was appointed clerk and the sum of $150 was voted for purposes contemplated by the act of incorporation. A tax list for the year 1808 shows the assessed valuation of real estate in the village to have been $8o,000, the tax collected upon which being $157 50. Not as much as is paid by many individuals at the present day. In 1809 taxable property had increased in valuation to $93,140; in 1810 it was $103,740; in 1812, $112,720; in 1813, $121,600; in 1814, $134,550; in 1815, $137,040; and in 1816, $14.5,97o, showing a net gain each year.
In May, 1810, it was voted that Caleb J. Grinnell be allowed $2.75 for finishing the public well, and during the same year the subject of supplying the village with water was agitated, and the legislature passed an act incorporating a company which. laid pump logs in the streets, but the enterprise was doomed to failure, and was not successfully revived until 1877.
In 1815 an ordinance was passed directing the sidewalks on certain streets in the village to be raised, leveled and paved, thus giving evidence to the present generation of the interest the forefathers had in beautifying their habitations. A general plan of planting shade trees at frequent intervals along all of the principal streets was adopted and has always been maintained. William street at a point in front of the Sir William Johnson Hotel was paved in 1815, and the short thoroughfare connecting William and Market streets known as Church street, was laid out and the adjoining land which had formerly belonged to St. John's church was divided into building lots.
Precaution against fire was active in Johnstown as early as 1808, and the following names, which include some of those who became members of the fire company on December 7 (of that year), are even now remembered by the older citizens. They deserve remembrance indeed, having been representative men in their day: Daniel Cady, Nathaniel R. Packard, Nicholas Philpot, Caleb J. Grinnell, John G. Murray, Joseph Leach, Daniel Holden, Caleb Johnson, Stephen Owen, John Marsh, David D. Bedford, Tristram Dunham, William Van Voast, Henry Conklin, Peter Vosburgh, Elisha Coffin, John Dodge, John Pool, John Brower, John Howland, Abraham Morrell, Joseph Cuyler, Rufus Mason, David Rust, and a number of others. Among the firemen of Johnstown between the years 1810 and 1819 the following names may be mentioned: John McLaren, John W. Cady, William I. Dodge, Howland Fish, James Lobdell, John McArthur, Br., Peter McKie, Henry Cunningham, Duncan McLaren, James Campbell, Br., George Wells, Guy T. Wells, and Asahel Whitney. A hand engine was procured in 1809.
In July, 1819, it was voted that a penalty of "five dollars be collected from Benjamin Hyde for his room chimney blazing out of the top in the night time."
The ordinances on the subject of fire and precautions against it were strict and to the point, as may be seen from the following instances:
At a meeting of the trustees of the village, held September 15, 1809, present, John Yost, Caleb Johnson, Daniel Holden, the following resolution was adopted:
"Resolved, That each of the members of this board, in case of fire, and when at the place where the fire is, shall wear a white scarf over the right shoulder to the left hip as a badge of distinction. By order,
"J. CUYLER, Clerk."
It was also ordained in that early day that it should be the duty of the freeholders and inhabitants of the village, in case of fire, and when at the place where the fire is, to conform themselves to the directions of the trustees, in forming themselves into ranks, to convey water to the engine. And in no case to do damage to any building or buildings but by direction of some one of the trustees, unless none of them should be present, under the penalty of two dollars and fifty cents.
Another ordinance was that it be the duty of all housekeepers in said village, in case of fire breaking out in the night, at the cry of fire to place lights at the front windows of their respective dwelling houses. Any person neglecting to do the same being fined in the sum of fifty cents. It was provided that every owner of a dwelling house in the village should furnish their respective dwelling houses with good and sufficient leather fire buckets containing ten quarts each of water, to be used in case of fire, the number of buckets being regulated by the number of fire places in the house.
It was probably due to the strict measures taken against fire that Johnstown escaped any serious conflagration for many years, the first really great fire occurring in July, 1834. It was discovered in an old building on the south side of Main street near what was afterward Potter's meat market, and extending west, did much damage to property, upon which there was little or no insurance. A later fire swept away the remaining buildings on the same side of the street, including what is now the Selmser block. In 1836 a fire occurred on the north side of Main street, working its way to St. John's Church, which was destroyed. The fire apparatus in those days consisted of a hand engine, a small amount of hose, together with a long sucker to insert into wells, for the purpose of filling the water box. Town pumps were located, one at the corner of Main and William, the other at the corner of Main and Market, and constituted the chief water supply in the emergency of fire. Both sides of Main street, between Market and William, were destroyed by fire prior to 1840, with the single exception of the brick building at the corner of Main and William, owned and occupied by Charles O. Cross, which recently shared a similar fate and has been replaced by an elegant four story brick structure.
The fire department of more recent years has been larger, in accordance with the growth of the village, and at present consists of three hose companies and a hook and bladder company, steam fire engines being unnecessary owing to the great pressure attained by the water from the village reservoir located at Cold Brook. The fire company's apparatus is well protected, part of it being kept in the Decker Hose house, on North Perry street, and also part in the corporation building, a handsome and commodious brick structure on South William street. The following names represent the chiefs of the department since 1878: James D. Scott, A. J. Thompson, Alonzo Philes, William A. Ely, Clark Robertson, R. F. Van Nostrand, W. G. Miller, William Board, A. J. Thompson (elected several times), and the present chief, Charles H. Ball.
The first merchant in Johnstown was Robert Adams, a man of high character, and who, like Sir William, was a native of Ireland. His store was a large frame building and stood in William street next to the site now occupied by the Sir William Johnson hotel. It was burned many years ago and among the ruins was a cast iron fire back bearing the arms of Great Britain and the figures "59." It was probably cast in 1759 and is a very interesting memorial of the past. The property belonged to the late Daniel Edwards and the memorial came into the possession of his family. John Van Voast, of Schenectady, married Mary Letitia, daughter of Robert Adams, and their son, William Johnson Van Voast became the leading builder in Johnstown. He erected the academy and assisted in building the Presbyterian church. His son, A. S. Van Voast, is now one of the oldest residents of the place. In his possession are many historical relics, including Sir William's prayer book, elegantly illustrated with copper plate engravings, and bearing date "London, published by A. Wilde, 1762," indicating that Sir William ordered it for use in the new church which was built soon afterward. Mrs. Abbott, wife of Dr. Abbott, of New York, also has a number of relics of Sir William which have descended as heirlooms from her ancestors who were among the old families of Johnstown.
Among the interesting old buildings may be mentioned the one at 18 and 20 South William street. It was erected by Matthias B. Hildreth, who held the office of attorney general for two terms, beginning in 1808, which is no doubt the date of the building. The brick dwelling in the same street now owned by Dr. Lefler was built by Peter Brooks, who also was a member of the bar. He married the sister of Capt. George I. Eacker, who shot Alexander Hamilton's eldest son (Philip) in a duel in 1802. Eacker was challenged and was really driven into the unfortunate affair. The block corner of Main and William, built by Dr. Thomas Reed in 1812 and recently burned, was the earliest brick structure erected in the village after the court house. The picturesque Vounglove place at the northeast corner of William and Montgomery streets, was built early in the century and originally was used as a tavern. The oldest house in Johnstown, however, stands next to the old burial ground and is owned by the heirs of P. Z. Drumm. It was built during Sir William's time and was occupied by a schoolteacher, who was the first man to exercise that office in the village. A structure around which centers much interest is "Union Hall," which was built before the opening of the present century by Vauman Fonclaire, who was probably one of the French army that assisted in the war of independence. Fonclaire kept tavern there, but the building is now used as a dwelling.
Johnstown enjoyed a general prosperity until about the year 1825, at which time the opening of the Erie Canal offered a new channel to traffic, and the village in consequence suffered a decline. This trying period lasted nearly twenty years, during which Johnstown experienced "hard times" in their most striking sense. Real estate depreciated in value and became almost unsalable; the lot on the corner of Market and Clinton streets extending to Perry street, containing an acre of ground being sold to Joseph Farmer in 1835, for three hundred dollars. The same property today would readily sell for ten thousand dollars. Land in other portions of the village was depressed in a corresponding degree. Laborers received seventy five cents per day for toiling from sun to sun and mechanics were seldom paid more than one dollar. Life, then, indeed, was dull and monotonous as compared with our modern ways of living. Ordinary people were compelled to live on the plainest food and children went barefooted until frost, often continuing this practice until arrived at an advanced youth.
During this unfortunate period Johnstown received a severe blow in the removal from its limits in 1836 of the county offices, depriving it of the benefit and distinction of a county seat, a privilege the place had enjoyed for sixty four years. No public matter (except war) has ever thrilled the hearts of the people of Johnstown with equal intensity, prompting them to a hard, relentless, but unsucessful struggle of more than a year. The old records and the seat of justice were finally removed to Fonda, as already mentioned in a preceding chapter, but in 1838, upon the division of Montgomery county, and the formation of Fulton, Johnstown again became the shire town, and the historic courthouse was again opened for judicial proceedings.
The development of the glove industry was the remedy for Johnstown's decay, and a most effectual remedy it has proved. Its growth and advancement from an insignificant beginning to its present magnitude has been fully described in a separate chapter, and it need only be added that since the middle of the present century the village has been steadily on the gain, each year having brought some unmistakable proof of permanent prosperity. The detailed history of its many public, social, religious and also its secret organizations, together with sketches of its principal manufacturing concerns will be found on subsequent pages.
The post office in Johnstown was established about the first of January, 1795, and Richard Dodge was appointed the first postmaster. His successors in the office, with the dates of their appointment are as follows: Nathan Brewster, February 9, ; Howland Fish, January 24, 1815; Tobias A. Stoutenburgh, November 22, 1817; Henry B. Mathews, October 17, 1838; Charles S. Lobdell, June 14, 1841; Henry B Mathews, May 28, 1843; Daniel B. Cady, April 9, 1849; Peter J. McKinley, November 5, 1852; James Dunn, June 15, 1853; William B. Comrie, May 3, 1861; Bradford T. Simmons, November 17, 1868; Mortimer Wade, November 15, 1883; Michael D. Murray, June 19, 1888; Andrew J. Thompson, February 14, 1890.