February 1995

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Robert G. Koch

The hills around Springwater provided many necessities for early 19th century settlers of the area. Orson Walbridge's EARLY HISTORY OF THE TOWN OF SPRINGWATER, LIVINGSTON COUNTY, N.Y. issued in 1887 cites sawmills that provided boards and shingles, and a former ship's carpenter who hewed the flooring of his log house with a "a ship carpenter's broad axe in as good style as if it had been sawed at the mill." Another neat trick was making an old style wooden "Bull Plow." "The mold boards were made from a winding tree so as to give them the right shape and work with the grain of the wood."

Early settlers also faced exhausting work to create and maintain their niche in wilderness. Between vital chores they often found relaxation in whiskey. At the north part of the village was a still that was "the all important point of attraction for those who had an appetite for the ardent, and upon a rainy or leisure day there were many who were in the habit of assembling there to spend a pleasant hour with their friends, and take a little to revive their drooping spirits; and it often happened that there was quite a company assembled and that some of them would imbibe a little too freely of the crater, and become quarrelsome, and a few free fights would be indulged in, and some would go home with a blackeye…and in consequence…the village, or corner…[was called] 'Hell's half acre'…" The author adds that distilling was "considered not only a lucrative but honorable business, as most of the male part of the population…were in the habit of embibing more or less of the exhilarating fluid…"

A local tavern that sold "three cent drinks of whiskey" was the site of "the town meeting, in 1833, [during which] the floor gave way and let a large number into the cellar with the cook stove." Another episode in this tell-all history describes a settler's coming home from an election at which whiskey was plentiful. "[H]e opened the door [and] fell full length upon the floor, which awoke his wife. She called to know who was there, he answered back, 'It is me, wife; and I tell you, I have got just as full of whisky as my skin can hold and it hain't cost me a cent."

Sometimes there were far more serious consequences of such enthusiastic imbibing. One "Knapsack" Wilson, who was a veteran of the Revolutionary War received a grant of 160 acres of land, soon liquidated it while engaging in more or less fulltime drinking. In his army-issue knapsack he would pack home two gallons of whiskey in a wooden bottle or roundelet. "He continued to repeat this," writes the Springwater historian, "until the avails of the one hundred and sixty acres of land had been backed home in this manner, and had run down the throats of Wilson and his wife…I recollect once having stopped at the house, and found Wilson on the floor, and his wife on a straw couch in one corner, and they were both most beastly drunk; and a little babe not old enough to care for itself crawling about its mother. In these days such a scene would be quite a subject for a temperance lecture, but in those olden times it was not thought much of."

There were however countervailing forces at work as well. For example, "John Wiley…was a blacksmith and worked at his trade. About 1821 he experienced religion, joined the Methodist church and soon commenced to preach the gospel, and was a thorough preacher of the word of God for many years." And the Methodists at Springwater had a strong and working church, whose "members could be recognized without their telling you." That leading churchmen were often less than well educated is evident in an anecdote about a well-regarded Baptist deacon. "Some of his neighbors had a little disagreement by which there was talk of going to law. It is probable that the deacon had read his Bible more than he had the dictionary or legal terms; but being a peacemaker, volunteered to give them advice. He said they better not go to law, but to pick three good 'pernicious' men and leave it out to 'refagees' as it was bad to have 'intentions' in a neighborhood."

Whatever their hazards and supports, many of the early settlers survived into quite vigorous old age, walking miles to town or to church. One Revolutionary War veteran was still able to show his bullet wounds at 92 years of age. Accidents took others, like the man who "got upon the fence to pick some [peaches] to eat, and in getting them he slipped and fell on the fence in such a way as to rupture a blood-vessel, by reason of which he died." He was a poor man "and left his family in very destitute circumstances." The town voted him a two dollar coffin. Historian Walbridge adds, "Now I think this came nearer to a christian burial than those who are buried in a coffin costing fifty or one hundred dollars, and taking from the living what they need for their comfort and support, with no benefit to the dead, and to carry out a foolish fashion gotten up by the rich, for I verily believe that a man would rest as easily, sleep as sweetly, and be as readily found and as easily brought forth when the graves shall be called upon to give up their dead, and I think be as likely to hear the 'Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou to the joy of thy Lord,' if he had been laid to rest in a coffin costing two dollars instead of two hundred."

© 1995, Robert G. Koch
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