GNH Lumber-Outdoor Living-JUNE 2024

Oak Hill & Vicinity: Oak Hill, past and present

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By Mary Lou Nahas

For Capital Region Independent Media

The Mattice Law Office (1830s) houses a boutique department store with designer fashions, knits, a food hall and gifts from around the world. Contributed photo

I recently saw on Instagram a photo of a deserted, decaying local historic house which many people have loved and mourned for years. 

People do mourn the decay of lovely buildings. One person commented on how many deserted properties there are in the area, but that slowly some are being restored. Oak Hill is an incredible example of a place where that is happening, the person wrote. 

Since I live in Oak Hill I was touched and pleased by the comment. If you have not been to Oak Hill recently, please come out Route 81 and take a look.

Oak Hill was settled before the American Revolution. It early became known as an industrial center. Ray Beecher, the Greene County historian in 1991, wrote a brief history of Oak Hill.  Today I’m using his remarks for the history.

“Availability of an ample supply of water power both from the Catskill Creek and from its tributaries, did not escape the attention of these settlers,” Beecher wrote. “One might expect the normal building of saw, grist and fulling mills — this was the pattern of pioneer communities — but Oak Hill went far beyond that, becoming a center for iron foundry work.”  

“Throughout the nineteenth century, Oak Hill produced an incredible amount of manufactured goods,” Beecher continued. “Joseph Wright is credited with operating both a grist mill and a saw mill on the Saybrook. The DeWitt’s utilized the stream, known in 1867 as Kelsey Creek, which still bisects the Village. Nearby was the Campbell and Scofield Plow Manufactory. In 1844, the latter was acquired by Sheldon Cheritree and expanded to include other iron products. He also took title to the adjacent DeWitt grist mill… At the end of the Civil War, in 1865, the Cheritree Empire Foundry would burn, but it would soon be rebuilt, and would continue down the years making the Climax brand plow and other specialties.”

Daniel Peck established the first tannery at Oak Hill, just west of the settlement. The Dean’s Mill area, east of the village on Catskill Creek, also contained a DeWitt grist mill, while on the opposite side the Levi Tremain tannery operated in conjunction with a Mr. Dwyer.

After that tannery closed down, industrialist Kimball used the building to produce malleable iron.  This operation and site were taken over by Calvin Adams, the son of Thomas Adams, Oak Hill’s first nail maker. Alert to the advantages of New York state incorporation laws, in 1862, Adams, William Paddock, N.C. Whitcomb and S.R. Potter formed a stock company. The latter three eventually bought out Adams’ franchise. Potter sold his share to Winchel and Dietz. This foundry employed between 20 and 30 men.

Other businessmen producing products for sale at Oak Hill in the 19th century include George Flower (saw mill, carding, fulling and dye works), Wellington Peck (tannery), Gifford and Potter (counter scales and miscellany) Hiram Hurd and William Bullock (iron furnace) Dean’s Mills on the Catskill Creek easterly of the village, was first established by a Mr. Egbertson in the 1930s.  Silas Dean, son of miller Jeremiah Dean of New Baltimore, took over the operation in 1876. 

In the late part of the 19th century, the mill’s flour, packed in wood barrels, was shipped as far away as Jamacia in the West Indies.

“Over the generations, Oak Hill has witnessed a substantial change in ownership of stores and service establishments,” according to Beecher. “The Tripps were located in the upper end of the Village, while the Fords displayed and sold good at the eastern section. Beers’ Atlas of 1867 identifies J. Terbush, a harness maker, with his shop in the Cleveland building. S. Ives had all kinds of goods. R. Arnold was a boot and shoemaker.” 

The businessmen built the homes, many of which still line the main street.

Doug Tompsen, in a speech in 1995 at the dedication of the Historic Oak Hill sign, added a few more comments: “Besides the mills for lumber and grain, there were five iron foundries, two tanners and a plaster mill. In the 1830s, the Catskill and Canajoharie railroad came through town. There were doctors, dentists, lawyers and even Page T. Hoagland’s newspaper, the Oak Hill Record. There was a pool hall, three bottling works, three hotels. There were two fraternal organizations with meeting houses. The was an opera house where people saw plays, musicals and watched movies. Then the turnpike was paved with cement; electric, telephone and cable TV poles went in. Oak Hill became part of the modern era.”

The Rudd-Winnie house is the home of Wild Flower, a florist and gift shop. Contributed photo

That is the back story. What is Oak Hill today? There have a been a number of peaks and valleys over the years: We have lost some buildings, some are being left to decay. There is still much to be done, but enough has been done that someone could say Oak Hill is an incredible example of saving historic buildings.

Today a number of businesses are operating out of historic buildings that have been restored:  The opera house restored  by Sam Stickler is a restaurant run by the Twelve Tribes; the DeWitt hotel has been remodeled into a upscale guest house; Ford’s store houses Pidgin, an upscale mercantile that brings visitors from literally all over the world.

Wild Flower, a florist and gift shop, is housed in a historic house. Mattice, a boutique department store housed in an 1830s law office, offers designer fashions, knitwear, household goods, foods and gifts from around the world. I U Tripp is an antique and collectible store in the 1830s and 1888 Tripp buildings that retain their original fixtures.

The Tripp buildings (1830 and 1888) are open as an antique and collectibles shop. They are somewhat like a museum, with the original counters and shelves. Contributed photo

Other properties have sold and been restored for homes, several now housing people from downstate, some of whom are here only on the weekends; others live here full-time. Some residents were literally born here.

Two houses function as bed-and-breakfasts. Several homes have work being done on them at the current time. There are a couple of properties for sale and I heard just this week of one that will be for sale in the fall.

The Ford store houses Pidgin, which offers antiques, vintage, books, furniture, glass and textiles. Contributed photo

I don’t expect Oak Hill to become a foundry or manufacturing center again. In fact, that must have been terrible with foundries burning, waste being dumped into the creeks. Widening and paving the state highway, while it brought us into the modern world, did create problems of traffic and lack of parking. There is only one parking lot in town and that is owned by the Yellow Deli. The town is careful not to allow businesses to operate without some parking and to have adequate septic systems. 

In September 2017, Oak Hill was designated as a State and National Historic District, which has allowed property owners to get tax credits for improving structures in the district. There is a New York Main Street program thatprovides financial resources and technical assistance to communities to strengthen the economic vitality of the state’s traditional Main Streets and neighborhoods. The New York Main Street grant program provides funds to units of local government and not-for-profit organizations that are committed to revitalizing historic downtowns, mixed-use neighborhood commercial districts and village centers.

The Lyman Tremaine Lodge Hall is now home to the Yellow Deli, a popular restaurant with a porch overlooking the Catskill Creek, which originally attracted much of the industry to Oak Hill. Contributed photo

Other towns in Greene County have successfully received these grants. Is this something that could help Oak Hill? Likely, but there has been no one to take the initiative to make this happen.  It is not simple or easy. I have twice been with groups who have approached the county about Oak Hill’s receiving such a grant. They have indicated that it is likely we would qualify but we would need the backing of the town and someone to take responsibility for the project and so far, we have not had that.

Is that something we even want? With funds always come strings and rules to follow. For years, some people did not want a National Register District for fear that it would raise taxes. Some property owners today do not want any business near their homes. 

In the meantime, thank you to all the folks who have come to town and saved many historic buildings. If you have not been to Oak Hill recently, come and visit.

The DeWitt Hotel, which burned, was rebuilt, turned into an antique mall and then a bed-and-breakfast, now is home to Amaya, an upscale event space and guest house. Contributed photo
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