Musings from the Catskills

Siekman 1
“The Farm,” 17 October 2009

I spent my childhood at our family home in the Catskill Mountains in New York. My roots in the Catskills date back to the mid-eighteenth-century, when the first of the Holdridge line of my family appeared in the area. As far as we can tell, the Holdridges came from Connecticut, settling first in Columbia County, New York, before finally establishing a line spanning many generations in Greene County. While my mother’s family has lived in these mountains for two centuries, it was my father’s family home, which we lovingly refer to as “The Farm,” where I still spend many lazy days of summer. It is a special place for me which connects numerous points of my ancestry.

Siekman 2
The Farm, circa 1937, with brothers Bob Heisinger at left and Don Heisinger on the right.

The Heisingers are far more recent additions to the Catskills. Walter and Anna Heisinger (my father’s grandparents) purchased the house from the Van Valkenburgh family in 1937 to use as a summer home. At that time my grandfather, Walter “Bob” Heisinger, was about 10 years old. The Van Valkenburghs also had a boy about the same age named Philip. We have a number of photographs of both of them as little boys at the Farm. Oddly enough, Bob and Philip’s sons both married Kiley women. My father married my mother, and Philip’s son married my mother’s sister. For this reason, my cousins are Van Valkenburghs who also spent much of their childhoods at the Farm. We often joke that we kept the house in the family, since my great-grandparents purchased the house from their great-grandparents.

My cousins and I were strange children, interested at an early age in the history and people of the region. At the bottom of our driveway is a small cemetery with only fourteen known interments, almost all of which are for the Shoemaker and Wiltse families. As children we would make our annual trip down the quarter-mile path carrying a bucket of soapy water and some scissors. We would spend an afternoon cleaning the stones and cutting the grass to make sure the names were visible. We often imagined the lives of the people who managed our land long before us and assigned them relationships and personalities based on what we could glean from the grave makers. Over the years, the individuals in this plot became adopted members of our family and I still go down to be sure the cemetery is looked after.

Siekman 3
George Wiltse’s grave, 19 July 2014

As I grew up, I became more interested in finding out more about the real lives of the individuals buried in the Shoemaker/Wiltse Cemetery. Some things we could discern just by looking at the stones. We knew that George Wiltse was in the 120th New York during the Civil War and that his wife was Laminda C. Deming. My father, the Civil War buff, then informed the family that George Wiltse served in the Battle of Gettysburg. The only United States flag in the cemetery marks his service. Beyond this we did not know much about the individuals buried here. We were also not certain if all or only some of them lived on our property.

To find out more about them, I started by searching the 1855 New York States Census and found George Wiltse/Wiltsey as a nineteen-year-old living in the household of his parents, Samuel and Mariah. They are listed directly next to the household of William Shoemaker and a number of familiar names from the cemetery. One of the first things that struck me about the record was that Samuel Wiltsey and William Shoemaker were born in Columbia County. Even more striking to me was the fact that William Shoemaker’s wife, Mary, was born in Connecticut. At first glance, it appeared that these two families made a similar migration to the area as my Holdridge family. Perhaps further research will reveal if they took the same path and even if they knew each other.

Siekman 4
Prattsville, Greene County, New York. Census of the state of New York, for 1855. Microfilm. New York State Archives, Albany, New York.

From the 1855 New York State Census, I was able to determine that the Wiltse and Shoemaker families were neighbors, both living in the area of our property at the same time. My next question was: Which one of these families lived at The Farm? During my last visit home, my dad presented me with a box he uncovered containing various documents relating to the property. Included in the box were a number of original deeds.

Siekman 5
Hare to Wiltse deed for “The Farm,” 1911. Author’s collection

Flipping through the papers, one name immediately stuck out: Wiltse. The oldest deed in the box is dated 1911, which states that Richard C. Wiltse purchased the property from a George M. Hare. This was a name I had never heard before, and I knew that there were not any individuals with the surname Hare buried in the plot at the bottom of our road. My new quest is to locate earlier deeds and maps to determine who lived in our house and how the property was transferred. It always seems that answers will generate at least twice as many new questions on which to reflect.

About Meaghan E.H. Siekman

Meaghan holds a Ph.D. in history from Arizona State University where her focus was public history and American Indian history. She earned her B.A. in history from Union College in Schenectady, New York, the city where she grew up. Prior to joining the NEHGS team, Meaghan worked as the Curator of the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts, as an archivist at the Heard Museum Library in Phoenix, Arizona, and wrote a number of National Register Nominations and Cultural Landscape Inventories for the National Park Service. Meaghan is passionate about connecting people with the past in meaningful and lasting ways. She enjoys finding interesting anecdotes about an ancestor to help bring the past to life.

14 thoughts on “Musings from the Catskills

  1. This was a great post Meaghan – good old fashioned genealogical work. You worked your way through to a lot of answers and some intriguing new questions. Very nice!

    J. Record

  2. Great Post! Even though I know some of the history of The Farm, your thought provoking post only makes me want to learn more.

  3. Greene County deeds, from the county’s formation in 1800 to the present, are in the Greene County Clerk’s Office, 411 Main Street in Catskill.

    George M. Hare lived his entire life in the towns of Prattsville and Lexington. You’ll note that in 1855 he was living in Lexington next to William Wiltsie, a native of Columbia County, NY.

    George, his wife and several of their children are buried in Prattsville’s Fairlawn Cemetery.
    George M. Hare, b. February 15, 1834, d. November 7, 1919
    Susan L. Rivenburg, his wife, b. November 1, 1833, d. October 15, 1906

    Either his gravestone or this transcription is in error. According to The Recorder, a Catskill, NY newspaper, George Hare died in November 1918 of measles and pneumonia.

    1867 map of Prattsville showing the names of homeowners, specifically Mrs. Wiltse and G. Hare, living near the Shoemaker-Wiltse Cemetery.

    1. Thank you, Patricia, for the wonderful information! I will make it a point to pay a visit to the Fairlawn Cemetery the next time I am in town. I am excited to learn more about George Hare and the Wiltsie family! Thank you for helping me continue my research on my family’s home.

  4. So, ASU in Am-In History! Must have taken a course or 2 from Ken Morrison, eh? On your doctoral board?

    1. I did not study with Ken Morrison, but I know of his work. Donald Fixico was the chair of my doctoral committee and I worked closely with Peter Iverson. Did you study at ASU?

      1. Knew Ken at UMaine-Orono (primary campus) where he was doctoral student and I was doing my history master’s work. Ken suggested I tackle the 9 volumes of The Pejepscot Proprietors’ Papers (which I did); later, I handed him a prospectus for Newbery Library pre-doc fellowship and said you need to go for this re their Indian collection & your career. From that, he had leg up for the UCLA job which he later left for ASU to concentrate on N-A religious studies. Sorry you didn’t get a chance to take a class with him–doing a Simon Schama-style video documentary on N-A and their religions was a project that would have showcased his mastery of history, acute empathic understanding, and quirky delivery, and I kept suggesting it for 2 decades. Accompanying book, too! He’s retired now to a cabin up in the higher Arizona hills.

  5. Hello Meaghan! I thoroughly enjoyed your post! I am a Wiltse, and there is a great deal of research on that line that has been done, a great deal of it by my mother, Margaret Brandow Wiltse. Leonard Warren published a book some time ago regarding the line as well. If you have any questions, perhaps I can assist with clearing some of it up for you 🙂 On a side note, my father, Alex Wiltse Jr, and George Holdridge were fast friends and fishing buddies… they spent many a Monday night at Georges Cabin on Game Farm Road playing Pedro and fishing all weekend long. Genealogy is a fascinating study, and yes, for every one question answered, 20 more pop up and the wheels begin turning. Keep up the wonderful work and please let me know if I can be of any assistance!

    1. Hello Paige, I am Meaghan’s mom and my maternal grandfather was Leslie Brandow Holdrdge. One of his son’s was George. Would this be the same George you mentioned or a different one? They lived in Ashland. Also, you mentioned your grandmother and her middle name is Brandow. Do you know where she might be in the Brandow line and if perhaps, she was related to my grandfather? His mother was Caroline Brandow and her father was Lucius King Brandow.

      Thank you and I look forward to sharing more information on the Wiltse-Holdridge-Brandow connection.

  6. I really enjoyed reading your post. And the connections being made in the comments is so great!

    I am also researching my family’s home and have found some clues in the archives of the local newspapers. Many reported on pretty mundane activities of the town’s citizens which sometimes can help with establishing relationships between neighbors and family but also give an intimate picture of everyday life. The property I am researching was a saloon, dance hall and boarding house so, lucky for me, it was in the news quite a bit!

    I hope you write some follow up posts about “the Farm” and your research journey!

  7. I have a George Wiltsie on my tree, starting with my Great Grandmother’s maiden name as Wiltsie. My George was b. 27 March 1792 d. 7 Feb. 1835. But his wife is listed as Elizabeth Carpenter. George would be my 4th Great Grandfather. I’m curious that this George has to be related because the majority of our Wiltsie’s are from the New York area.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.