A Catskill Catalog: April 21, 2010

Once there was a town called Eminence.

Probably, you have driven Route 30 north from Grand Gorge into Schoharie County. Beyond Blenheim Hill, past Mine Kill State Park, the road heads downhill into the little hamlet of North Blenheim on the banks of the wide, rippling Schoharie Creek. At the northern end of that village, Route 30 crosses the creek on a modern highway-bridge, right beside the world’s longest wooden single-span covered bridge, now an historic site.

Soon the ground beside the road flattens and widens into an expanse of fertile valley farm fields, the southern tip of the Schoharie breadbasket, the wide valley of truck farm flats. Right there, as the road leaves the creek-side, look up at the forested hill to the west. Up there, among the trees, on the top of the ridge, sits Eminence.

Never heard of the place? Neither had I, until I received an e-mail from Dick, my friend and editor, suggesting Eminence as a possible topic for a column. He had been up there years ago with a friend, and had the notion that the village-on-top-of-the-ridge, “was founded as a religious community in the late 1700s or early 1800s” and “at one time numbered several thousand inhabitants but today is all but a ghost town.”

Religious community? Ghost town? I’m in.
Finding Eminence seemed the perfect exploration for this spring’s first Jeep trip, so T, my jeep-driving companion-in-discovery, and I headed up Route 30 one sunny day last week. In North Blenheim, we turned up West Kill Road, county Route 43, climbing up hill, away from the creek bottom. A little over three miles up: Eminence Road, the entrance to the 10,134-acre Burnt-Rossman Hills State Forest.

Good thing we took the jeep. The road to Eminence is narrow and steep. The forest grows to the road-edge. The climb is steep. Eminence, it seems, requires careful approach.

Another three miles, and there it was. At the top of the ridge, 2,000 feet above sea level, 900 feet straight up from the creek, a weathered cluster of old houses at the junction of Eminence Road and Rossman Hill Road, a not-quite-ghost-town situated at the very point where three towns meet. On one side of the street, you’re in the Town of Blenheim; on the other, in the Town of Summit. At one end of Eminence you’re in the Town of Jefferson; at the other, you’re back in Summit.
Before making the trip, I had done a Web search for Eminence, N.Y., finding, on a Schoharie County genealogy site, a listing of the headstones in the Old School Baptist Cemetery in Eminence. That 19th-Century cemetery was there, near the center of town. Perhaps, that’s a clue to the religious community that, supposedly, established Eminence. Settling on top of the ridge might make sense for a religious community seeking separation from nonbelievers.

And Old School Baptists were separatists, tracing their religious heritage back to the first Baptist Church founded in London in 1612, coming to America among the Massachusetts Puritans – also separatists- before founding Rhode Island colony under the leadership of Roger Williams.
In the 1820s, Old School Baptists split from their “new school” compatriots over three issues: Sunday schools, theological seminaries, and missionary societies, all of which they found unscriptural. Parents, not teachers, should teach the faith to children. Elders were called to train, as apprentices, the next generation of ministers. Evangelization is the responsibility of all believers, not those directed by a missionary board.

Old School Baptists were prominent in the 19th-Century Catskills. Churches in Roxbury, Denver-Vega, Halcottsville and Shokan still stand. Many of the names in the Eminence Cemetery are familiar ones in our mountains: Proper, Shaver, Decker, More. Maybe it was the Old School Baptists who founded Eminence.

The trouble is no one can say for sure. An old-timer who grew up just below Eminence remembers two churches up there, Methodist and Presbyterian. The Summit Town Historian knows nothing of a religious origin to the town.

What they do remember is a bustling community, a prosperous hamlet of stores and homes surrounded by farms. Stone walls speak of pastures and meadows right up to the top of the mountain. A post office was established in Haven’s Store in the 1840s, decommissioned by the Post Office Department in 1938.

Seems more than the post office died in Eminence in the ’30s. That’s when the state forest was established, a reforestation effort designed to put back into productivity, fallow land, the hilltop farms of Eminence, abandoned, I’d guess, in the depression.
Today, a few hardy souls live up there, thinking of themselves as residents of Summit, rather than of Eminence.

Far down the west side of the mountain, is Summit, on state Route 10, home of the lovely little Lake Summit, and the Summit Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, a New York State boot camp for youthful offenders. Just north, on that side of the mountain, is Richmondville and Cobleskill. But there, you’re in rolling foothill country, outside of the Catskills.

For Eminence, on top of Rossman Hill, in the midst of a state forest, sits high on the boundary ridge that stretches northeast from Mount Utsayantha in Stamford and forms the northwest edge of the Catskills.
© William Birns