History of the Town of Schaghticoke

the results of research about the history of the town of Schaghticoke

Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Presbyterian Church in Schaghticoke

Up until the Revolutionary War, Schaghticoke was a small frontier settlement, organized around a fort and a Dutch Reformed church in the area belonging to the city of Albany and rented to Dutch farmers, near the Knickerbocker Mansion. Post-war, New Englanders interested in establishing industries to use the water power of the Hoosic River flooded into town, building their homes near the falls where the new bridge crossed the river in 1790. They were Protestants, like their Dutch neighbors, but needed a church near their homes and in their language. In 1803, forty-four men, most from Schaghticoke, with two from Easton and three from Pittstown, established a society with the goal of forming a Presbyterian congregation. Each man pledged from $10 to $25 toward the erection of a building,
It’s interesting to look at the list of original subscribers to the church. James, Josiah and Nicholas Masters each had a full $25 share. As I wrote in earlier columns, James was the patriarch of a wealthy family, which had moved to the area from Connecticut in 1793. Josiah was a Rensselaer County Justice of the Peace at the time he joined the Presbyterians, and was soon to be elected a U.S. congressman. Also on the list was Dr. Ezekiel Baker, a prominent local doctor, who was to serve the church as secretary of the trustees until his death in 1866. Another was Charles Joy who probably had the earliest mill on the Hoosic River at Schaghticoke. Several of the original subscribers to the Church did have Dutch surnames: John Fort, a P. Knickerbocker, and three Vieles, but the rest were probably newcomers to town.
The first meeting was held at the home of “Colonel”Bethel Mather, where the M & T Bank is now. I have also discussed this New England immigrant to Schaghticoke in previous columns- he was called “Colonel” by virtue of his militia service. The intersection of Route 40 and 67 at the north end of Schaghticoke was called “Colonel Mather’s Four Corners.”
The first Presbyterian church building was erected near the junction of Route 67 and Geary Road, on land belonging to Bethel Mather. The cemetery in the woods there was associated with the church. To us that would seem a remote location from the village, but according to a history of the church published in 1909, “as no village existed at that time, the church was placed where it was the most convenient to the attendants.” About $1200 was pledged to build the church, but it was never quite finished. There was no full time minister, and members took turns preaching when a minister was not available. By 1814, the minutes already indicate a decision relocate the church to the growing village of Schaghticoke Point- now just called Schaghticoke. At the end of the year, a subscription was circulated to decide whether to move the meeting house to Schaghticoke and finish it there or build a new one. It was decided to sell pews in the building and use the income to move it to the village and finish it. Trustee A.L. Viele resigned in disgust at the decision. It took until 1820 to collect the money and move the building.
The trustees’ minutes of February 14, 1820 announce in big black letters, “Reincorportation”, “a meeting of the proprietors of the meeting house now standing on the ground formerly belonging to Colonel Bethel Mather.” Bethel Mather continued his strong support of the church, having provided both the original and new land for the church. He and his wife Huldah had had all of their children baptized in the church right away. In March 1820 the fledgling congregation hired Rev. Mr. Ogilvie to preach for three months, at $5 per Sabbath. In October, they appointed men to inspect the newly relocated and moved meeting house, with one representative from the congregation, one from Derrick C. VanVeghten, who had moved and finished the building, and a neutral party. Despite this careful planning, VanVeghten still threatened to sue for what he felt was owed him. A compromise settlement was reached.

This view of the Presbyterian Church is from the 1856 map of the town of Schaghticoke

This view of the Presbyterian Church is from the 1856 map of the town of Schaghticoke

In October, the pews were sold anew. Men bid from $14 to $50 for the pew or pews they wanted, with 45 pews sold. A new name to the list was Herman Knickerbacker, who was then a county judge, but had been a US Congressman a few years earlier; and Job Pierson, who was then a young lawyer, but was elected a US Congressman from 1833-35. Of course Josiah Masters, another Congressman, was still a member. Another member, Amos Briggs, became the most prominent local industrialist, owning literally half of the village by the time of his death in 1874. He married one of Bethel Mather’s daughters. I have to think that everyone- Presbyterian or not- would have had to be impressed with the prominence of the members of the Presbyterian congregation.
Though it had a wealthy and influential congregation, the Presbyterian Church struggled with issues of religious theory. Rev. Thomas Fletcher became the first full-time minister in 1824. He was a proponent of Rev. Charles Finney, a great revivalist preacher of the era, and his services were very lively. Some more conservative members of the church were unhappy and hired an Episcopalian minister from Stillwater to take his place, without telling him. For a while, the ministers preached on alternate Sundays. The supporters of Mr. Fletcher went so far as to erect a separate place of worship, which later became a residence. Rev. Fletcher departed in 1829, and the church reincorporated in 1831. There was no permanent minister until Rev. Dr. John Noble in 1837. He served until 1869, finally giving the congregation some continuity.
The church must have stabilized and grown during this long ministry. The first choirmaster was hired the same year Dr. Noble arrived. In 1846, the trustees voted to tear down their current church and build a new one on the same site, at a cost of $5000. This is the church, somewhat altered, that still stands on the site. At the time, the bridge crossed the Hoosic River near where LT’s Tavern is now, on lower Main Street, so the church had a number of residences, the parsonage, and two mills between it and the bridge. Just across the street in the park, where the World War I soldier statue stands now, was the American Hotel. After 1852, the Methodist Church was across Main Street, where the car wash is now. So the setting of the church was quite a bit different than what we see.

The church also established a Sunday School in 1823, with one of the church founders, Dr. Ezekiel Baker, as the first Superintendent. From about 1855 to 1880, the church had a second Sunday School in the “Bryan neighborhood”, which was along River Road, near the junction with Allen Road. The superintendent was Jacob Ackart. The first choir was organized in 1837. The trustees’ minutes record the hiring of various people to be either organists or choristers and sexton over the years.
Though the 1909 history of the church in my files states that women have always been prominent in the history of the Presbyterian Church, this is not reflected in the official minutes. The first female trustees and officers of the church do not appear until about 1920, when Mrs. Minnie Button became the Treasurer. But the ladies were certainly influential in a non-official capacity. After the formation of the Ladies’ Aid Society in 1893, the minutes frequently refer to having the Ladies’ Aid Society plan and pay for various interior improvements in the church and manse. Unfortunately the book of minutes of the Society only covers the years from 1893 to 1908. The object of the Ladies’ Aid Society was to “promote sociability and increase the revenue of the church for repair.” For example, in October 1904, the trustees’ minutes note that the minister was to go to the Ladies’ Aid Society with the bill for furnace repair, which they had offered to pay.
The minutes of the Board of Trustees of the church have several ongoing themes over the years: difficulty in keeping up with the salary of the minister and other church costs, difficulty in finding and keeping a good sexton, ongoing need for repair of the building, progress of the Sunday School and religious education, the routine of choosing a new minister. During one stretch from 1905 to 1906, the church hired and lost four different sextons. Some of the entries show the unique history of Schaghticoke. There are periodic notes that damage to the church has been caused by an explosion at the Powder Mill. For example, on May 28, 1912, Alexander Diver was appointed to inspect the damage caused by the explosion of the Powder Mill, and was t ask Mr. Duncan, a Troy builder to help him. In July, Mr. Diver and Robert Sample went to see the Dupont Company to demand $300 for damages caused by the explosion. In November, they reported that the check was expected soon. The final explosion at the mill in 1928 caused $6000 in damage, which was discussed for at least a year afterwards. It isn’t clear if the church ever received any compensation for that extensive damage.
One of my favorite sequences in the minutes concerns the steeple. It was repaired periodically over the years, and was found “in good condition” on May 9, 1939. On May 28 it fell down “in a gentle wind”, at the intermission between church and Sunday School, but fortunately no one was hurt.
The Presbyterian Church manse had been almost next door to the church, just down the street a bit toward the river. Sometimes, over the years, the minister did not live in the building, when it would be rented out. In 1940, the trustees learned of the plan to build a new bridge over the Hoosic River, which would “interfere with the manse property.” At first they registered a protest. Then it became clear that they had no choice. The bridge would be built; the manse would have to go. One thought was to move it, though “the fixtures were declared out of fashion by the ladies.” Then the price of the manse was set at $5000, and there was “a sharp discussion on what to do with the sale of the land” where the manse was located. In 1943, the board decided to buy the home of Mrs. Louise Donaha to be a new manse for $4000, and to build a garage next to it. The garage was finally built in 1949.
When World War II began, two trustees, Chester Hack and Herman Spoonagle, tried to resign, as they were soldiers and to be sent abroad. The board refused to accept their resignations! Chet Hack returned from the war safely, and continued to serve his church, but Sgt. Spoonagle was killed in North Africa. A memorial to him was framed and hung in the church in November 1945. His funeral was conducted in June 1949.
The minutes reflect constant work over the years to maintain church property, improve the Sunday School, and collect the necessary funds to pay the pastor and contribute to missions. The pastors reported on their work. In 1948, Pastor Kilgus reported in the past nine months he had given 40 sermons, made 18 hospital and 140 house calls, done 2 radio services, and presided at one wedding, one baptism, and two funerals. All kinds of plans were tried to raise money, beginning with sale of pews, moving on to the envelope system of donations, adding extra collections, holding fund raising activities like the famous clam chowder suppers or concerts, plays, and lectures. Trustees often had to canvass the congregation for donation. Many members gave a lot of time, effort, and money toward the church.
In 1949 there were long discussions about either federation or union with the Methodist Episcopal Church across the street. A joint committee came up with Articles of Federation at the end of 1954. According to the Schaghticoke Centennial Booklet, “Joint services began in November 1954 with both churches paying equal salary under Rev. Melvin Lavender.” Though both churches voted for the union in January 1955, the constituting service when Presbyterians and Methodists became members of the Presbyterian United church was not until June 29, 1960. The Methodist Church was sold to Thomas Arnold, owner of the “Schaghticoke Sun” newspaper for $2000. At some point, the parsonage was sold, and the Methodist Parsonage used for the combined congregation.
Besides the Trustees, the other governing body of the church was the Session, which managed the religious life of the church. Its elders left a separate set of minutes. These minutes record the people joining and leaving the church over the years, as well as baptisms. I was surprised to read that the church monitored the moral behavior of members of its congregation, actually conducting “trials” in several cases. For example, in September 1861, Ezekiel Baker and Jacob Ackert were appointed to see Thomas A. Hayden “in reference to a report of his dancing.” Baker and Ackert were long-time officers of the church. Both had been trustees and on the session. Dr. Baker was a 65 year old, well-respected physician in the village. Jacob Ackart was a 47- year old farmer, who had run the Sunday School in addition to being a member of the Session. I found Thomas Hayden as a 22 year old clerk in the 1865 census, so he was only 17 or so at the time of this infraction. In November, Hayden appeared before the Session and “admitted dancing at a recent picnic and promised to abstain in the future.” He remained a member of the church until 1975, and became a druggist in the village.
At the same time, William Geddis was seen participating frequently in public dances at Collars Hotel. He was asked to appear before the Session, but did not. After being given several chances to appear, Geddis was suspended from the church for “contumacy.” I was surprised to discover that William was a 16 year old at the time, the son of Irish immigrants Samuel and Margaret Geddis or Gaddis.
In 1868, Henry L. Baker and Alice L. Finch “confessed in breaking the seventh commandment (“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”) and were forgiven.” I find this perplexing as they were married that year. Perhaps the marriage solved the problem. In 1878, David Myers, a railroad agent, confessed to having broken the 9th commandment (“thou shalt not bear false witness”) by deception in a certain business transaction in his job at the Troy and Boston Railroad. His sentence was to make a public confession. In general, those who appeared before the Session were forgiven and rehabilitated, but those who failed to appear were excommunicated from the church.
Around 1880, the Session passed a resolution requiring a pledge of abstinence as a condition of membership in the church. But the Presbytery, the higher regional governing board of the church, found that doing so was “unconstitutional.” The solution to this was that the Session wrote a resolution to be read from the pulpit which urged the members “to abstain from all amusements as dancing, card playing, attendance of theatrical performances…which lead the mind of the Christian away from serious thought and more elevated occupations.. .Membership urged to pay attention to their religious condition, attend church more, and study the Bible daily.”
The minutes of the Women’s Missionary Society from its inception in 1881 reveal a sincere and sustained effort by the members, first, to learn about foreign people and cultures and second, to help those in need both in the US and abroad. The constitution required the group to divide its donations equally between home and foreign missions. Barrels of clothing were filled and sent to Indian schools in Alaska and New Mexico, and to the needy in the hills of North Carolina. Donations were made to missions in China, India, Korea, and Mexico. The monthly meetings, which were held at the homes of the members, included lectures by the ladies themselves about the parts of the world to which the donations were made, and periodic visits from the missionaries in person. Generally the programs came from books provided by the Presbyterian Church governing body and from newspapers.
One member, Dr. Alma Beale, had worked in New York City among Italian immigrants. She spoke about her experiences in 1914, “making us think we are too harsh sometimes in our criticism of the foreigners.” Money was raised by making and selling quilts, by holding “silver teas,” and by putting on “missionary plays.” Every summer through the 1920’s the group had a picnic at the home of Mr and Mrs Bert Weatherwax, with free rides provided by Mr and Mrs Alex Diver. Mr. Diver was the undertaker, so he had good transportation.
Another organization of the Presbyterian Church was the Standard Bearers. The minute book of this group from 1918 to 1925 describes monthly meetings of couples and a few single people, rotating among the homes of the members. The yearly dues were one cent for each year of the person’s age, payable on his or her birthday. The meetings always began with devotions, and each person responded to the roll call with a Bible verse. There was an entertainment and refreshments each month. Sample entertainments were a reading of papers on the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, followed by a debate on which was greater; some members dressed to represent some book and the others guessing which ones; a debate on the question: “resolved: women should rise one half hour earlier than men;” and musical performances by members. In 1922 member Willard Ackart complained of the tendency of the meetings to exist only for sociability, when the original purpose was to study the Bible, debate about Bible characters, and learn Bible quotations. The rest of the group did not want to return to that plan. The group also raised money for charity, and had a Sunshine Fund to send cards and flowers to the sick of the congregation.
Thanks to the good stewardship of the Presbyterian Congregation, we know quite a lot about the church and its activities over the years through the records preserved. They reveal a congregation at the heart of its community. I have cited these records throughout these columns. If you are interested in reading more, my transcriptions of the records are on the Town website: http://www.townofschaghticoke.org in the History section. I extracted the membership, baptism, and marriage records from the minutes and alphabetized them, and they are listed separately. You will note that I have not covered the last fifty years of the history of the church, as they were not included in the records I transcribed. I invite the congregation to step forward and write that history.

Bibliography: Lohnes, Dick, Schaghticoke Centennial Booklet, 1967.
Sylvester, Nathaniel, History of Rensselaer County, 1880.
Records of the Presbyterian Church
Pamphlet history of the Presbyterian church, 1909