A Catskill Catalog: Nov. 25, 2009
It takes a mill to raise a village.
Often, in the early days of America, the site of a gristmill, or a sawmill, led to the establishment of a village. Early settlers in wilderness lands established self-sufficient farms. Most work and play - most life - occurred on the farm. The mill was one of the few necessary off-farm meeting places, one of the few required off-farm commercial centers.
Today, the Village of Margaretville is the commercial center of the west slope of the Catskills, site of the only supermarket between Boiceville and Delhi (a stretch of some 50 miles), home of shops, stores, restaurants and a bank.
Two hundred years ago, it was a farm.
At the end of the American Revolution, in 1784, Ignos DuMond established a farm on the land where, today, Margaretville sits. The land had been in the DuMond family since 1769 when, Ignos’s uncle, Harmonus DuMond, had settled on the upper Delaware, along with three other families from Hurley, down on the lower Esopus.
Harmonus DuMond had been killed in the Revolution. His heirs continued to farm his place, about a mile downstream from Ignos, on the other side of the river.
The men and women who first wrestled with the American wilderness have been traditionally honored as pioneers. These were of them. Ignos and his family cleared the land with controlled burns that left an ashy, alkaline soil, good for wheat production. Wheat was the much-in-demand staple crop of early America, and Ignos’s Upper Delaware River farm would have produced its share.
But the lack of lime in mountain soil soon rendered wheat production scanty and unprofitable. Ignos and his neighbors found their farmlands more congenial for raising pasture grass - timothy and rye. Crops of potatoes, buckwheat, oats and corn did better here. Pasturing sheep and cattle, producing wool and butter, was how early Catskill Mountain farmers sought prosperity.
Sometime in the early years of the republic, John Tompkins bought the farm, paying about 100 bucks. He’s the one who built the sawmill that was the first commercial venture in what was to become Margaretville. Later, Tompkins’ successors, Salmon Scott and Jephtha Seager, divided the land in two, with Scott taking the mill.
In 1843, Scott’s mill became the property of Dr. Orson M. Allaben. That’s when the mill raised a village.
Orson M. Allaben was the local Roxbury boy who had gone off to study medicine in Maine and returned to marry the daughter of the leading citizen of Dean’s Corners, today’s Arkville.
Dean’s Corners was the site of one of the earliest gristmills in the area. Owning that mill, and a tavern, made Noah Dimmick the most important man in these parts. He was also the father of Dr. Allaben’s bride, Thankful Dimmick.
Perhaps, having a powerful father-in-law motivated the ambitious Dr. Allaben to seek his own place of influence. He opened a medical practice, ran successfully for the state legislature, and bought a sawmill. Soon, he maneuvered to use that sawmill as the basis for a new settlement.
Allaben entered into a deal with David Akerly to build a hotel on the land he purchased from Scott along the East Branch. Lumber for construction would be cut at the doctor’s sawmill. Akerly would serve as the host and proprietor at the new hotel.
Dr. Allaben, then, built a house and medical office near the hotel. Reverend Ananias Ackerley brought religion to the place, conducting church services in the Akerly House. He and Dr. Allaben opened a store in the doctor’s office.
Soon, Francis O’Connor built a proper store, followed by partners Keator & Mead, who erected their own dry goods store in the fledgling village. Charles Gorsch put up a cabinet-making shop, his casket-building skills leading to an undertaking business. Dr. Allaben successfully lobbied the James A. Polk Administration for a post office, using his influence as a Democrat with that Democratic administration. A post office building soon followed.
Today, there are still Ackerleys and O’Connors, Keators, Meads, and Gorsches living in and around Margaretville. Allaben, of course, is the name of a hamlet in the Town of Shandaken. Down the Delaware River in Milford, Pennsylvania, an old tavern-hotel called Dimmick’s survives into the 21st century by being a very good restaurant.
Margaretville grew quickly. A tannery, a newspaper and a cooperage were established there during the Civil War years, a foundry shortly thereafter. By 1875, 30 years after the construction of its first buildings, Margaretville was incorporated as a village. Its third mayor was Dr. Orson M. Allaben.