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This year in the North Country, we've focused on the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain's discovery of the lake that bears his name.
We should also dedicate some time to ponder the explorations of one Hendrik Hudson that same year.
Hudson has been memorialized via the name of a river and a far northern bay. His fellow Dutchmen became early settlers of New York state, leaving a rich heritage.
A good place to appreciate this heritage is at Mabee Farm on the Mohawk River west of Schenectady. One early arrival, Daniel Van Antwerpen, set up a fur trading post here in 1670. In 1705, he sold his holdings to Jan Pieterse Mabee, whose family relocated from the Schenectady Stockade after an Indian massacre.
Mabee and his descendants maintained ownership until 1993, when George Franchere donated the site to the Schenectady County Historical Society as a museum and educational site.
The Historical Society has proved to be an excellent steward. Three early buildings have been preserved for interpretive tours. One notable barn has been relocated here and another one built. Various events, including "Early Technologies Day," and projects add to the richness of the offerings and attract plenty of visitors. Mabee Farm hosted an estimated 17,000 people in 2008.
UNIQUE DUTCH FEATURES
We began with a tour of the original fieldstone farmhouse. Constructed in 1705, it's the oldest home in the Mohawk Valley. Along with the wide plank floor and original ceiling beams, there's a typical Dutch double door featuring original hardware. The nails were handmade on site.
Our guide Courtney, an enthusiastic college history major, pointed out other unique Dutch features, such as the jambless fireplace. The original enclosed alcove bed has been replaced by a rope bed.
Mabee and his wife had 10 children, so expansion became a necessity. In the house's addition, a more typical English hearth with a metal crane has superseded the earlier jambless one. There's an enclosed staircase with doors at both bottom and top. Aside from giving the aura of neatness, such design found purpose in controlling temperature.
Beside the house is the inn that Jacob Mabee operated from around 1750 until the Erie Canal diverted traffic away from the Mohawk in the early 1800s (It was moved to the site later on).
Though important for commerce, the Mohawk River had more than its share of sand bars and shallow spots. Boatmen frequently had to drag their boats out of the water for short distances. Such heavy work stimulated appetites, and inns flourished along the route.
On the first floor of Mabee's inn, we found a typical colonial tavern. Overnight visitors could find space in the large upstairs bedroom.
Too few people realize that not only southern landowners had slaves in early America. Jacob Mabee, Jan's son, purchased a slave in 1727. Eventually, the family owned at least 10. Only in 1827 were all the slaves freed. Mabee Farm works to remember that part of New York history with both education and efforts to document the lives and burial sites of those people.
The slaves lived in a whitewashed brick home built alongside the farmhouse in 1725. Unused for more than a century when the Historical Society took ownership, it's in remarkably good condition. Inside, we found another enclosed staircase and an original jambless fireplace. There's also a unique built-in "butterfly" cabinet.
Adding to the farm's resources is a large mid-18th-century Dutch barn moved north from Johnstown in 1998 under the auspices of the Dutch Barn Preservation Society, a group dedicated to appreciation of New World Dutch barns. The H-shaped pegged frame provides stability. Large doors at each end controlled temperature. Animals would have roamed through. They were fed with hay stored on the second level.
One exhibit inside the barn shows off a huge array of stoneware. Along with the usual jugs and vessels are a ceramic hot water bottle and a perforated leaching colander designed for use in making lye.
A section devoted to Mabee family history features a timeline and an amazingly complete collection of tintypes. Artifacts range from a Betty lamp, which burned whale oil to give light, and a beaver fur hat, as well as rope-making tools and the stamp used to mark products shipped by Simon Mabee.
One corner of the barn is reserved for broom making. When present on selected weekends, broom maker Charlie Long demonstrates the traditional process of making such implements. He uses broomcorn and flax grown on the property.
We visited while work was proceeding on a replica of the Onrust, the first large European-style ship built in colonial America. In those days, the Dutch were the world's premier boatbuilders. Adriaen Block (an island off the coast of Rhode Island is named for him) supervised the construction, which took place in Manhattan in 1614.
The all-volunteer effort on the replica was completed earlier this summer, and the vessel celebrated with a maiden journey to New York City (New Amsterdam, remember?). It will travel regional waterways to stimulate interest in New York history.
Elsewhere on the site are a red English barn, a blacksmith shop and a carriage shed. Down by the river are two bateaux similar to those once built in Schenectady and used in Mohawk River trade during the 1700s. These two examples were crafted by local students.
Before leaving, we stopped at the Mabee family cemetery. A nicely maintained stone fence forms the perimeter around the markers. One wonders if, when he purchased his original 43 acres in 1705, Jan Mabee could ever have dreamed that the property would stay in his family for almost three centuries. And that others would ensure his name lived on forever.
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