By Mary Lou Nahas
For Capital Region Independent Media
The hamlet of Durham, or Durham village as it was once called, is a special place.
According to the “History of Greene County,” the first settler in what is now Durham village was Adijah Dewey. He was called Major Dewey and built a log home that is said to have been the first hotel here.
Dr. William Cook was the first physician. He was a soldier in the Revolution and with Washington at Morristown, New Jersey, in the winter of 1777. It is said that a man by the name of Ford had the first cabinetmaker’s shop. Polly Chittenden taught school during 1787 and 1788 and Elizabeth Dudley in 1789. A Mr. Carter was the first lawyer, while Jacob Carter built the first bridge over the Katskill and another at Brown’s Mills. The Presbyterian church was organized Nov. 8, 1792.
Oriana Atkinson, wife of New York Times drama critic Bruce Atkinson, wrote quite a lot about Durham: “We found out that Durham was an old little town and had changed but slightly since it was settled about 1784 by people from Connecticut.
“It was through William Chittenden that Durham, New York, came to be born. His ancestor Jairus, at the age of 42, father of seven children, with a wife already middle-aged, decided to follow the trend out of Connecticut.
“It was becoming known that a great new road was going to be hacked out of the Western Wilderness for the use of people who were already thinking of Ohio and beyond. Jairus decided he would combine business with pleasure and buy land along the route of the new road and also build a home on some of the acres.
“In 1787, Jairus came alone to Durham. It was only a tiny cluster of houses but even that was too crowded for him. He climbed the Hill late called Prink Hill, and about a half mile above the town took up a tract of about 400 acres, most of it along the probable route of the new Road. He hired labor to build a solid story and a half house and a great barn across the road from the house.”
Today that house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to Alf Evers in “The Catskills from Wilderness to Woodstock,” when President Timothy Dwight of Yale revisited the Hudson Valley in 1804 and 1815, he found the houses “ordinary and ill-repaired,” the roads were “disagreeable” and the inhabitants lounging at taverns, “rude in their appearance and clownish in their manners.”
But when the president reached Durham, where a New England settlement had been made, everything changed. He found the land “thoroughly cleared, well-cultivated, and divided by good enclosures into beautiful farms. Indeed, everything here wears the appearance of prosperity.”
A 1906 Durham column in the Oak Hill Record gives a feeling of the activity in the village then:
- Two autos passed through this village on Saturday last.
- Bradley Bunce was recently bitten in the arm by a horse owned by Sidney Crandall. Dr. Conkling dressed the wound.
- The gypsies have arrived, several wagons passed through here last Sunday.
- We are sorry to say Mr. E. Lawrence lost his horse after a sickness of a week.
- Mrs. Myers is having the front of her home much improved under the skillful hand of carpenter F. Delamater.
- Prof. Dunham reports a big fish catch of 30 trout.
Thelma Bell, whose family came from downstate and stayed, remembered in “A Lifetime of Memories”: “When we were summer residents in West Durham, we would come down to the village for ice cream socials held by the ladies of the church. They took place on the lawn, next to Reynold’s General Store. The ice cream makers would be lined up and everyone got a chance to turn the handle, making the container of cream spin around in the surround crushed ice and salt. When it was done, oh what a thrill to eat that cold, homemade ice cream! The tables and chairs were set up with cakes and cookies fresh from the neighbors’ kitchens to go with the ice cream. “
In an unpublished account titled “Homes in the Village of Durham,” Frederick Hull describes the town he remembered: “The big house on the corner was owned by the Williams girls — sisters — 2 old ladies in the early 1900s. The estate sold it to Mary Hulsen and her husband, Fritz. They ran a boarding house there — small one but thriving. About 1950’s Ernest and Ruth Hill Hull sold their farm and bought this property and called it the Ox Bow Inn. They kept hunters and summer boarders until 1972. Ernest worked in Bell’s Store and Schmollinger’s in Freehold in the kitchen. They sold it in 1972 to Kathy and George Kuhn who have 9 children, a pair of twins, Jared and Melissa, born after they moved here from the city. The older children are Christopher, Veronica, William, Jennifer, Erik, Jaime and Andrew. Kathy is an R.N. who works in Hudson some and George runs a garage there in 1980.”
These are just a few of stories about this special part of Oak Hill and Vicinity. If you drive though today you will notice several houses being redone, the Methodist church got a new roof, and a number of places are for sale.
This is one of those special places that hopefully is coming alive again.