Historian Contact Info

  • Tom Moreland

  • Historian
  • phone icon (518) 392-3260 ext. 306
  • fax icon (518) 392-9350
  • email icon This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • home icon PO Box 238
  •        Spencertown, NY 12165
  • Austerlitz History Center

  • home icon 812 Route 203
  •        Spencertown, NY 12165
  • phone icon (518) 392-3260 ext. 306
  •  
  • Saturday 9-11am, and By Appointment

Four new historic markers erected

Tom Moreland, Austerlitz Town Historian
The Austerlitz Historical Society has installed four new historical markers around the town of Austerlitz, highlighting three persons notable in the town’s past plus one important building. These markers have been funded by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation of Syracuse, which since 2006 has helped place over 800 historic markers around New York State.

Former Hotel
What is now the apartment building across the street from the Spencertown store was a hotel from about 1850 and later, from 1909 until 1953, the home of the Austerlitz Grange. The marker notes these facts and highlights one notable event: a speech made from the hotel’s then balcony in 1862 recruiting volunteers for the Union army. The speaker was Dr. Wright H. Barnes, a prominent local physician who served two terms as town supervisor.
This building, now owned by Greg Campbell, may date back to at least the very early 1800s. Spencertown resident Charles Davenport wrote an article in 1923 stating that his father had worked in the store of a Mr. Parke in the building in the 1840s, and that his father had told him it was not a new building even then. It would appear that it was constructed as a residence and was the house of Elisha Murdock from 1814 to 1832. If true, then the building was the site of the first town meeting of Austerlitz in 1818: the statute creating Austerlitz required (for reasons unknown) that its first meeting be held in the house of Elisha Murdock.
But there are no deeds or other documents proving this possible earlier history of the building. Pomeroy Foundation markers are restricted to facts supported by primary sources, an important requirement since undocumented historical lore can often be wrong. Thus this marker asserts only the building’s documented identity as a hotel starting around 1850.

Charles Kinne
This marker stands in front of the former home of Charles Kinne (1808 – 82) on Route 22 in the hamlet of Austerlitz. It is now owned by (and for sale by) John Mesevage and Caroline Geisler. Kinne conducted a wagon making business from about 1847 to 1880. It was probably the largest employer in the hamlet, with all of three workers. The business, which did not survive Kinne’s death, included two manufacturing buildings nearby. Kinne also built around 1873 the two Gothic Revival houses standing to the south of this one, as the marker notes. This section of Austerlitz is called Kinneville by some longtime residents, but that name is not on this marker since we have no evidence of its use prior to the 1950s. Kinne’s house was probably constructed around 1810 by Lewis Bristol, but evidence of that was not sufficient for inclusion on the marker.

Caption Joel Pratt
The proven patriot in this article’s title is Captain Joel Pratt (1746-1821), who organized a Spencertown company of 49 men in 1775, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Pratt initially planned to march his troops to Boston but was persuaded instead to march to the relief of Fort Ticonderoga by the Albany Committee of Correspondence. The company returned to Spencertown before reaching the fort, as the threatened British attack did not materialize. Pratt continued to fight for independence throughout the duration of the war.
Joel Pratt was the younger brother of David Pratt, another Spencertown Revolutionary War hero who is honored by a Pomeroy marker, this one at the Van Alstyne home which David built in 1777.
The Joel Pratt marker stands in front of the house owned since 1975 by Lynne O’Connell (and her late husband Thomas). Joel Pratt owned and occupied the house from at least 1790 until 1802, when he moved to Steuben County. Probably he was living in the house years earlier with his father Elisha, who is believed to have built the house in the 1760s. The house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is commonly thought to be the oldest house in Spencertown. But this early history remains in the realm of conjecture, absent any deed or other proof, and thus is not mentioned on the marker.

Oscar Beckwith
Surely the most unusual of these markers is this one remembering (“honoring” would be the wrong word) Oscar Beckwith, often referred to as the “Austerlitz Cannibal.” While this label is disputed (and not mentioned on the marker), on January 10, 1882, Oscar did kill Simon Vandercook, his partner in a failed gold mine, in Beckwith’s shanty in the Austerlitz hills. He then cut the body into many pieces, intending to burn the evidence in his stove. Before he could do so Vandercook’s landlord, puzzled by Vandercook’s disappearance and suspicious of Beckwith, alerted the Sheriff. The Sheriff’s posse broke into Oscar’s shanty and discovered the grisly sight. Some later maintained they had seen evidence that Oscar had planned to devour Vandercook’s liver and heart or had actually done so.
Oscar had fled before the posse arrived. Some 72 years old, he managed to walk over 600 miles to a remote area some 200 miles north of Toronto. There he lived under an alias, eluding a nationwide search. He was finally captured in 1885 after disclosing his alias and location in a letter to a Spencertown relative asking for money (so he could buy a set of teeth).
Beckwith was extradited and then tried twice in Hudson for murder. The two trials -- the first guilty verdict was vacated based on claimed newly discovered evidence -- captured national attention. Sentence to death six times, as the case ran up and down the court system, Beckwith was ultimately hanged in Hudson on March 1, 1888, on gallows imported for the occasion from New York City.
Why commemorate this sordid tale? Because it was the most notorious event in the history of Austerlitz. The Beckwith marker stands on the east side of Route 22, a half mile north of Upper Hollow Road, in front of an open field owned by Darin Johnson and Gregory Keffer. From there one can see the Austerlitz hills where, some 1.6 miles to the east, the dastardly deed took place.

Austerlitz History Center Salutes “Pop” Sweet
New Exhibit Opens July 9

The Austerlitz History Center in Spencertown will open a new exhibit on the life and career of George R. “Pop” Sweet, the Famed Fiddler of Fog Hill, on Saturday July 9 from 9 am-2 pm. The Sweet exhibit will remain on view for the remainder of 2022.


In 1930, from the remote Fog Hill section of Austerlitz, Pop Sweet launched a career as an old-time fiddler and square dance caller that brought him wide renown in Columbia, Dutchess and Berkshire counties. There was hardly a hamlet where Pop Sweet and his Huckleberry Pickers did not play during the 1930s into the 1950s. Granges, fraternal lodges, dance halls, restaurants, taverns, campgrounds and even barns all resonated with the joyful sounds of Pop’s fiddling and calling.


Sweet’s fame extended beyond the local region. He was called by the founder of the National Folk Festival “the best caller in the United States,” a title he earned at the Philadelphia Festival in 1943 when he was selected as the best square dance caller out of a nationwide field of more than 130.


The Austerlitz History Center’s exhibit traces Sweet’s musical career and features a soundtrack that includes recordings of Pop’s fiddling and calling from 1947 that are now housed in the Library of Congress. Explored as well is Sweet’s colorful persona as a genuine backwoods character: a hunter and trapper, pursuer of the “Black Beast of the Berkshires,” and long-time Groundhog Day forecaster.


The exhibit also plays tribute to the Sweet family: six generations of musicians dating back to the 1830s. Sixth-generation musician Bobby Sweet, a well-known Berkshire singer, songwriter and bandleader, will perform with his band at Spencertown Academy’s Community Day, also on Saturday, July 9, 2 pm at Spencertown park. Community Day celebrates the 175th anniversary of the Academy’s historic home and the 50th anniversary of the Academy as an arts center.


Accompanying the exhibit is a richly researched book on Sweet’s life written by Tom Moreland, Austerlitz Town Historian. It includes a detailed chronological review of Pop’s square dances, listing more than 300 appearances in more than 150 venues scattered among some 70 localities.


The Austerlitz History Center, 812 Route 203 in Spencertown, will be open on Saturday July 9 from 9 am-2 pm for the exhibit’s premiere, and for the remainder of the year on Saturdays from 9-11 am, or at other times as arranged with the Town Historian (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). The Center’s permanent exhibits cover the history of the Austerlitz area from its settlement in the 1750s to the 21st century.

CONTACT:
TOM MORELAND
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
518-392-7207

 In 2018 the Austerlitz Historic District and the Spencertown Historic District were added to the National Register of Historic Places, a listing of historically significant sites and districts maintained by the United States Department of the Interior.

 This honor was accorded to Austerlitz and Spencertown based on the detailed nomination forms prepared by consulting historian Neil Larson. These two forms are now posted on the Historian's page of the Town's website.
 
 These forms are must reading for anyone seriously interested in the history of these two hamlets and the town. For the Austerlitz district the form details the history and architecture of some 37 "contributing" properties, meaning significant old houses and other buildings. For Spencertown there are some 78 contributing properties profiled. Both forms also contain maps and a history of the Spencers Town proprietorship (1757-72) and the Town of Austerlitz.
 
 Photographs of most of the contributing buildings in each district are contained in separate files also posted on the Historian's page.
 
 As Town Historian I invite and ask you to call to my attention any statements in either form that you believe may be inaccurate; there are bound to be some errors in submissions as large and detailed as these. We can post any significant corrections on the Historian's page. Tom Moreland, Town Historian, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

 

The Austerlitz History Center opened in the old town hall on Route 203 in Spencertown. The Center will be open most Saturday mornings from 9 am to 11 am, and at other times by appointment made with Town Historian Tom Moreland (518-392-3260 ext. 306; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

The History Center tells the history of Austerlitz in a series of six wall displays covering successive periods of time. The first explores the initial settlement of the area from the 1750s to 1799, while the last covers the twenty-first century to date. Each wall lists the notable events during its era, and includes maps, artifacts or other visual material pertaining to the era.

A dramatic centerpiece in the room is the restored 1915 chemical fire engine, courtesy of the Spencertown Fire Company, which had it beautifully restored a few years ago. The old town hall was in fact built in 1915 principally to house this very equipment, the first fire-fighting apparatus in the town, acquired after the 1914 fire that destroyed the general store and nearly consumed much of the village.

Another important display consists of two sets of portraits of Sherman and Lydia Griswold, donated by the James Rundell family. Sherman Griswold was by far the largest landowner in the town at the height of the sheep boom in the 1830s. The paintings occupy both sides of wooden boards. On one side are portraits of the Griswolds by Ira Chaffee Goodell, a prolific itinerant artist who visited Spencertown in the early 1830s. On the other side are the Griswolds as painted a few years later, in quite a different style, probably by James E. Johnson. Johnson’s iconic painting Salting Sheep (c. 1836), showing the Griswolds in their Sunday best feeding salt to their sheep, with their house and barns on Beale Road in the background, is present in the form of a handsome reproduction donated by the Columbia County Historical Society, which holds the original.

The Center also displays the original Proprietors Book of the Spencers Town proprietorship, a Massachusetts-chartered entity which functioned from 1757 until the area was determined to be part of New York in the early 1770s. The book records the meetings of the proprietors, and its contents have been transcribed and annotated.

A wall display entitled Austerlitz Archeology presents  artifacts recovered in the town soil by Max Cane.  His findings, from a site on Dugway Road, feature coins and other objects dating as far back as the earliest settlement of the area in the mid-1700s.

The History Center, which also includes the historian’s office and files, is located next to the new Austerlitz town hall, the 1836 Spencertown Methodist Church which was acquired and repurposed with funding from the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

Town Historian Tom Moreland is available by email (link above) or phone (518-392-3260 ext. 306) to answer inquiries concerning any aspect of Austerlitz history, including genealogical questions. He is also interested in receiving for the Town any information, documents, photographs or artifacts pertaining to Austerlitz history or any of its prior residents.

The Austerlitz Historical Society, located at Old Austerlitz on Route 22 in Austerlitz, maintains a reference library for the study of local history. To make arrangements to visit the library call the Society's,  at 518-392-0062.  

This page contains a short history of Austerlitz excerpted from the fuller history written by Tom Moreland as part of The Old Houses of Austerlitz, a book published in 2018 by the Historical Society. That book, available from the Society on CD-rom, also contains individual histories of each of the 168 houses and other existing buildings in Austerlitz that were constructed between the 1760s and 1888.