Berne during the 1850s

From Helderberg Hilltowns of Albany County, NY

A revised excerpt from Memories of Berne, Days Gone by Helen M Lounsbury.

Today Berne is a quiet rural community nestled in the shade of U-Hai Mountain. About eighty-six families live in the hamlet, almost the same number as did in the 1850’s. A post office, two large school buildings, three churches and a building containing a museum, library and the town hall are located on the main street, which is now known as the Helderberg Trail.

However, in the 1850’s the town of Berne was a very different place. It was long before there were automobiles, television, telephones, computers or even electricity. However, life in Berne, the locals called it Corporation, was far from dull.

In those days, the main street was known as Beaver Street. Each day a stage bumped along the dusty rutted road from Albany. Four draft horses struggled to pull the coach up the rugged side of the Helderbergs. The rumbling old coach rocked on its leather springs threatening to spill trunks, which crammed its huge boot. The passengers were from “under the Hill” and had come to do business in Corporation.

Towering pines could be seen on every hilltop, and giant trees of all varieties enriched the landscape and rested the weary eye. (The street which is now 443, coming down past what use to be Peg and Art Shultes home was then known as Jug Street.)

Sprinkled along the creek sides were mills and factories of varied sizes and descriptions. There was the turning mill where Old John Bell made spinning and flax wheels, neck Yokes and whiffle trees. There was a tannery, a cooperage, a clover mill, a felting mill and along the creek sides was a woolen mill where homemade cloths of wool and tow were carded, bleached and fulled. There was a polishing shop to polish hay and manure forks and hoes. And who could ignore the clack, clack of the bolts of the gristmill as the meal was separated, or the splashing of the mill’s great wheel as it emptied its buckets on the downhill side of the raceway.

At that time in Berne, the stage coach would have turned off Jug Street and continued across the Fox Creek to its first stop at the post office where the driver delivered mail. Postage had not come along yet. Letters were written on foolscap, then carefully folded together and sealed with a gob of sealing wax, or many brightly colored wafers. Letters arrived C.O.D. (This was where the video store was located for a while, next to what was until recently the Berne Store.)

The next stop was at the sign for Reinhardt’s, (town hall now) one of Berne’s three hotels. A large trough carved from a pine tree marked it. The trough was kept full of small minnows to be used by parties that went to the lake after pickerel. A huge pump made out of a log supplied the water from a well under the sign. Innkeeper Reinhardt, always red faced, smiled a welcome to the weary passengers as they brushed off the dust of the day’s journey. His son, Little Pete, who weighed in at over 200 lbs., hastily waved his two white shoats out of the hotel yard. There were two good springs in the cellar. The hotel was famous for its buckwheat pancakes sausage and milk crullers. Other favorite foods for evening suppers included hot biscuits, smoked beef, sauerkraut, roulages (pickled tripe and beef), honey and other delicacies.

Berne (Corporation) was a bustling place. Beaver Street was lined with wagons. There were people on horseback and afoot. Photographers, Schoonmaker and Cass, might be driving through with their gallery on wheels, a sort of traveling house. Possibly, you would see George Ball, the village constable, driving his fine gray team. Traveling shoemakers could be seen going round from house to house shoeing the family. They called it whipping the cat. Seamstresses also came. There were also lightning rod men with long wagons loaded with rods and lanterns passing through town, determined to rod every house, barn and corn crib in the township. Common sights also included deliveries of whiskey from Peoria (West Berne), price just fifty cents a gallon, and stove peddlers, excellent bakers all, trying to tempt you with pumpkin pie fresh from the oven. There was a fire engine, too. It was mounted on wheels about two feet in diameter, without springs. It had a box that held about 40 gallons of water which were poured into it with pails and forced out through 75 feet of leather hose, operated with straight hand brakes, like those used on a railroad car. The wheels were red and the body blue, the brakes natural wood.

In those days, huge drovers of cattle and sheep passed down the deeply rutted main street en route to Coxsackie where farmers found a ready sale for the stock. Many peddlers came through town with candy, tobacco, spices, and coffee and in the winter they brought oysters in little wooden kegs. Yankee peddlers came, too, hawking their wares from great arks on wheels, loaded with tin and woodenwares that they traded for cash, rags, maple sugar, beeswax, flaxseed, or any odd thing at all.

A passerby might run into “Flippy “ Chrysler, from a crossroad between Berne and Knox, known locally as “Skunk’s Misery” but officially called Pleasant Valley road. He butchered sheep and then carried the meat to the village in a basket to sell. You might also see Jacob Shutter, a fiddler, and his performing dog. There were many shops. There was Daniel Wright’s cabinet shop where coffins were made to measure while the customers waited. (This is upstairs in the mason’s hall, next to town hall.) There was also a tin shop, a harness shop, a wagon shop, and a paint shop to name but a few. A favorite haunt for many was Patrick Corr’s Smithy or the Merchant Tailor, Hair Cutting and Peanut Foundry of Tailor Bill and his brother Amos. They sold candy, nuts, cake, cut hair, stitched clothes, dictated the fashions, painted churches, shops, chairs, wagons, churns, wheelbarrows and almost anything else. In cider time, apples were ground in a mill that was turned by a horse attached to a long sweep. Then with straw the pomace was built up in what was called a cheese, under a huge beam through which two big wooden screws were turned down.

In winter, favorite activities included sledding down the big drift in the field west of Davis’ store. The store was quite a place. Inside were two counters that ran back the length of the store. On the right, dry goods, boots shoes and so forth. On the left were groceries. At the end of the open space between the ends of these parallel counters stood a huge box stove. It held half a cord of wood. This was the place to thaw out! Back by the stove, Mr. Davis was usually playing checkers with Robert Adams. The board was drawn with a lead pencil on top of a barrelhead. They used black and white trouser buttons for the playing pieces. A tallow candle on the counter provided the only light. Then too, there were husking bees, apple cuts, spelling school, quilting bees, donation gatherings, for the parson and Prof. William Sherman’s musical evenings at the Dutch Reformed Church.

Spring meant dandelions and dandelion time was always a sure sign that the fish would bite. Many the boys would neglect their education and head for the banks of the Fox Creek. Usually Old Horsey Engle would be there first. “ The leatle yaller flies from the swamp is worse as skeeters,” he would say. And they were! The boys would each get a willow wand full of redfin, trout, dace and other small fish.

And so it went. Summer, fall, winter, spring Berne was a wondrous place to be.

Author’s note: This information is based on endless conversations with the late Retha Stapleton and Thomas Emmett Willard’s journal.