(Note to readers: I do have illustrations for this post and will work on getting them online!)
An imposing Federal house on the west side of Route 40 between Speigletown and Melrose is home to Paradise Tree Service and( formerly) The Other Side of Paradise. I have always heard it referred to as the old Brookins home, though I knew nothing about Mr. Brookins. There is a small cemetery on the same side of the road, just north of the home where “Colonel” James Brookins and his wife Mary Taft are buried, along with two of their sons, Kasson and Wooster. Who was this “Colonel” who built such a grand house around 1800 in a relatively undeveloped area?
Fortunately, Brookins’ wife, Mary Taft Brookins filed for a military pension after the death of her husband. The pension papers reveal a lot about their history. James Brookins was born in New Marlboro, in Berkshire County, Massachusetts in 1747, apparently a younger child in a huge family. He and Mary married in 1771 in that town. When the Revolution began, they lived in Poultney, in what would become Vermont after the war. Perhaps James had already been involved in the local militia, as many men were. He joined Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys, and participated in the taking of Ticonderogaon May 10, 1775. Ethan Allen and Colonel Benedict Arnold and a small group of Allen’s Green Mountain Boys took Ticonderoga by surprise, capturing the cannons which were so vital to the fledgling US Army at the siege of Boston the next spring. General Knox and his men laboriously moved those cannons from Ticonderoga to Boston through the winter, crossing the Hudson River near Half Moon. There is a Knox Trail marker in Mechanicville.
Brookins went on to serve as a Lieutenant in the Regiment commanded by Colonel Ebenezer Allen at Pittsford, Vermont, and then as a Captain in the Vermont State Troops stationed at Castleton,Vermont for two years. At the time of the battle of Bennington- that attempt by Burgoyne, the British army, and its Hessian allies to get supplies during the invasion of New York in the summer of 1777- Mrs. Brookins and her friends fled back to her old home in Berkshire County. After the battle, Captain Brookins retrieved Mrs. Brookins and took her back to Poultney. For the rest of the war, he led scouting parties from Castleton, ranging all the way up Lake Champlain to Canada.
In 1793, the Brookins moved to Schaghticoke with at least their two sons, Wooster, born in 1778, and Kasson, born in 1790. A document created after Brookins’ death lists the following children: sons Wooster, Alanson, Kasson, and James, and married daughters Clarissa Pratt, Purly Gardner, Polly Rich, and Sally Turner. It does not include any dates of birth for them, however. Only Woosterand Kasson are buried in the cemetery with their parents. Wooster died in 1856 and Kasson in 1854. On Mrs. Brookins’ tombstone, her husband is referred to as “Colonel” Brookins, a rank he never achieved.
Once James Brookins reached Schaghticoke, his biography became more difficult for me to piece together. Deed research in the Rensselaer County Court House revealed that in November, 1792, he purchased 185 acres of land along the main road from Martinus Weatherwax for 600 pounds. It was next to the farm formerly of Alexander Weatherwax. I wrote about the Weatherwax family in earlier columns.
On March 1, 1797, Brookins was listed as licensed to keep an inn or tavern The tavern was probably just a room in his home. When the Northern Turnpike Company was formed in 1800, James Brookins was one of the five commissioners. This indicates both his desire for a better road in front of his property, and his ability to make an investment in it. I wrote about the Turnpike in an earlier column. By 1800, Brookins was one of the ten wealthiest men in town, with real estate worth $5,147 and a personal estate of $166.
Brookins was also one of the five original investors in the Rensselaer Cotton and Woolen Mill in 1810. This was one of the first industrial enterprises based on the water power of the Hoosic River in Schaghticoke. Brookins and four others paid $9000 for about 30 acres of land on the Hoosic Riverat Schaghticoke between a grist mill and a cooper shop, including all “edifices, ways, water courses…, mills of every kind, all utensils, etc” from the heirs of Joseph Klein.
He also turns up as “a respectable and observing farmer of the town” in the proceedings of the New York State Agricultural Society about 1820, commenting on the pest, the “Hessian fly”, which he felt came along with the Hessian soldiers employed by the British during the Revolution. He had had occasion to view the stabling of the horses of Hessian soldiers while serving in the Revolution
James Brookins died in 1826, his wife Mary in 1836, the year she filed for his Revolutionary War pension. Unfortunately, examination of James Brookin’s will reveals a sad ending to his seemingly successful life. Brookins’ personal estate was insufficient to pay his debts, so his real estate was seized so that enough of it could be sold to pay them off. Perhaps the reason for the indebtedness was at least in part that the Rensselaer Cotton and Woolen Mill was bankrupt by 1819. In May, Michael Vandercook, sheriff of the county, had to sell the mill to pay off about $6000 in debt. The highest bidder, William Howard of New York City, only paid $2,025.
An 1828 document in Brookin’s probate file is Mary Brookins “petition for Dower”. As a widow, she was entitled to 1/3 of her deceased husband’s land and premises. Three “disinterested freeholders” were appointed by the judge to measure and lay off that amount. She even was to receive 1/3 of the house to live in, specifically “the front center room of the first floor, the bedroom and pantry in the rear of that room, and the chamber above those rooms.” A long inventory of the contents of the house and barns includes a wagon, pleasure sleigh, lumber sleigh, fanning mill, eight platters and six silver spoons, to begin with. It goes on for four pages. The most expensive items on the list were the wagon, valued at $15, and the fanning mill, valued at $12.
Brookins’ probate file also contains copies of advertisements which his son,Wooster, executor of the estate, placed in the local newspapers in 1829. Several advertised the sale of some of Brookins’ property in April of that year, the original 185 acres less 70 acres already sold to Wooster. Interestingly, one of the supposed “disinterested freeholders,” Stephen Germond, of Speigletown, purchased the land for $1200. Another clipping advertised that the monies from the sale of Brookins’ property would be distributed that July, urging his creditors to come forward. The file also includes a bill from Wooster to the estate for everything from “27 years service…$3000” to “coffin…$13.” Perhaps by billing his father in this way,Woostermade sure of his inheritance. Another bill from Dr. Timothy Cone , lists 74 visits he made to Brookins during the last year of his life, at $1.50 per visit.
It was in these documents that I discovered the list of Brookins’ children, all heirs of the empty estate. The information on Brookins’ Revolutionary War service came from the application his widow Mary made for a pension, necessary now that she was impoverished at his death. The file did not include a list of Brookins’ creditors, which would certainly have added to the story. The inventory of the estate did not reveal a lavish life style. The most expensive furnishings of the home were several feather beds and bed steads. Perhaps the investment in failed Woolen and Cotton Mill was just too much for him to handle. In any event, it is an interesting tale of an early pillar of the Schaghticoke community.
I thought it might be interesting to follow the story of Wooster Brookins, the executor of his father’s estate. He was a bachelor farmer who continued to live on part of his father’s property. He served in the county militia, where he was listed as a 1st Lieutenant in Herman Knickerbocker’s troop of Cavalry in 1804. Wooster is listed as one of the early school commissioners in the town of Schaghticoke. He was Town Clerk of Schaghticoke in 1813 and Supervisor from 1816-1817. So while father James was investing in industry and roads, his son was very influential in the political life of the town.
At that point the boundaries of the town changed, the Deep Kill became the southern boundary of Schaghticoke, and Wooster now lived in Lansingburgh, a much bigger and more urban area. He was one of the original managers of the Rensselaer County Agricultural Society in 1819,and signed a testimonial in its publication, “The Cultivator,” in 1845, attesting to the excellence of I.T. Grant’s (of Grant’s Hollow) Fan Mill. This indicates he must have been prominent not only in the town, but in the county, a person whose stamp of approval was desirable to sell this product.
In the 1855 census, Wooster Brookins was listed as a 77 year old farmer. Also living in his home were his housekeeper, a widow named Margaret Ash, aged 59, and John Bennet, a 22 year old listed as a farmer, probably Wooster’s farm help. I don’t know who two other people in the household were: Pealy Black, a 54 year old widow fromVermont, and James Chambernice, a local 14 year old. Perhaps James was a farm hand, and Mrs. Black an old acquaintance of Brookins, who himself had originally come fromVermont. His farm had 200 improved acres, 50 unimproved. The land was valued at $15,000 and the livestock at $1600. In 1855 the farm produced 60 tons of hay, 100 bushels of winter wheat, 150 of oats, 250 of rye, 100 of corn, 20 of potatoes, and 100 of apples, plus 5 barrels of cider. There were 23 cows, 4 oxen, 3 cows, 1 cow slaughtered for meat, 3 cows milked with 400 pounds butter produced, 3 horses, and 9 pigs.
Wooster was a bachelor, and when he died in 1856 was able to leave about $1500 to each of his surviving siblings, James, of Aurora, New York; Polly Rich, of Ogden, NY,; Purley Gardner of Canandaigua, NY; and Sally Turner of Canton, Illinois. Their locations are a good illustration of the migration of people west from our part ofNew York. Woosteralso left about $500 each to several nieces and nephews.
Wooster Brookins also left an inventory of his estate, which, unlike his father’s, includes animals and crops. There was one hog, worth $19.68; a pair of cattle, $151.30; 16 sheep, $75; 1 34-year-old horse (!); 2 red cows, $40; 1 grey horse, $150; and 20 steers, 2 years old; $500. In crops, he left 11 tons of hay, 200 bushels of corn, 420 bushels of oats, 100 bushels of rye, and 10 acres of sowed rye. Brookins also had twenty shares in the Rensselaer County Bank, valued at $850. The inventory goes on to list in detail all the furnishings of the house and barn, plus the contents of the pantry, with no one item worth more than $12.
How did Woosterend up solvent and more, while his father was bankrupt? We can only speculate. At least we can enjoy reading the inventories of these men James, the Revolutionary War veteran, who inflated his rank from Captain to “Colonel”, and Wooster, the bachelor son, who left a diversified farm.
Bibliography: for all columns on Brookins
Miller, Richard, “Patroons of Modernization: The Economic Elite ofRensselaerCounty”, 1986.
Pension papers of James Brookins
Probate file of James Brookins
Probate file of Wooster Brookins
Military Minutes of the council of Appointment of NYS, vol 1.
Sylvester’s History of Rensselaer County,1880.
Federal and NYS Census records
Deeds in the Rensselaer County Courthouse Annex