Not long ago, while meeting friends for lunch in uptown Kingston, I happened to park where I have many times before. Kingston is known for its old stone houses, In fact, the “Stockade” four corners is an intersection whose claim to fame is that it is the oldest four corners of original stone houses from the late 1600’s in America and survived the burning of Kingston by the British. I parked on a side street not far from there in front of one of those old stone houses, abandoned and roofless with grass growing inside the walls. Normally I park the car and head to wherever I’m going, but this time I really looked at this skeleton of a house. It captured my attention. Perhaps it was the stonework, or the sun shining inside the empty rooms with dirt floors and vegetation growing between the rock walls. I decided to invite myself inside and sat in one of the rock chairs placed awkwardly around the structure. I sat silently for a moment and just looked around. I could identify the boundaries of a few rooms and tried to imagine the kitchen, living room and whatever other rooms might have been in the floor plan. The floors were rocky also and covered in grass and weeds. My imagination was running wild as I purveyed the scene and imagined what life was like In this house 400 years ago. What did it look like, what sounds did they hear back then!
I could see the remnants of two chimneys, and as I looked out what once were windows I imagined what the view would be like. Certainly different from the firehouse next door and the parking lot of a popular bakery and restaurant across the street. I imagined fields of corn, maybe a few barns or sheds. Maybe a plow or two strewn in the barnyard. I imagined settlers tending the crops, women preparing food and doing chores. But what I tried to imagine the most were children. We’re they out playing games in the yard or helping dad with the crops. Those were the boys of course because the girls were helping mom in the kitchen. My mind went to an image of today’s kids with video games, phones, and tv, not helping their parents but just obsessed with the technology.
I looked around more and wondered what life was like back then for the family. I was always interested in history but never really thought about how different life was. For example, were they worried about money, was there money? They worked the farm and “sold” their crops or did they barter for what they needed. Did they have bills to pay, and how did they do that? When the day’s work was done did they all sit by the fire and talk, did they read and chat about the neighbors or the kids? I imagine a much quieter household than we are used to. I suspect the children listened better and knew better than to question their parents’ words. A much different vision than today’s homes with everyone on some device or other without any interaction. What was hanging on their walls, no photographs obviously, but did they decorate the walls? I can visualize the kitchen but the other rooms are harder to picture. The kids probably lived in a loft tucked under the eaves, with small wooden beds and mattresses of straw, all home made.
Then the judgments started. Were they better off than we are today? Life was definitely harder, people had to be self sufficient, independent and families had to care for themselves without the help of specialists. They had to be carpenters, stone masons, and any other skilled laborer that was needed. I think about it and wonder how I ever would have survived in a culture like that. I forgot about lunch and kind of woke up from my stupor. I politely excused myself to the gracious hosts of this long ago thriving household and joined my friends in the noise and rush and clutter of today’s world and wondered once again who was better off!
I’m pretty familiar with the remnant of the stone structure that George describes. It does lend itself to thinking about times past and how people lived, particularly, since it was also the site of the Esopus Massacre.
Imagine a great fence of upright poles surrounding several blocks of the settlement where this house stood: basically, a fortress. The stockade was built by Peter Stuyvesant in 1658 to protect the fledgling settlement of Wiltwyck, now Kingston. During the day, the men went to work the fields near the Esopus River and the gates were closed. However, there were also days where the Munsee tribe of the Lenape were admitted for purposes of trade.
On one of those days, a coordinated attack of the settlement of Nieuw Dorp (New Town) and within the stockade of Wiltwyck was commenced. Nieuw Dorp was burned to the ground and eighteen inhabitants of Wiltwyk were killed. Forty-four women and children were abducted. Thus started the Second Esopus Indian War in 1661.
It was a pretty dangerous and difficult existence 350 years ago!
While I do believe that happiness is relative – people will find purpose and satisfaction in any given time period – I don’t have any yearnings to live in earlier times. Eric Sloane chronicled the diary of fifteen-year-old Noah Blake, originally written in 1805. Circumstances still do not seem so appealing:
March 27: Father was wrong about the weather, for it snowed again today. We kept within the house, sharpening and making ready tools for the year’s farming.
March 28: Snow stopp’d during the night, but it is very cold. My window glass is frosty and my ink froze.
April 9: Flooding all but washed our bridge away. Father says the new bridge beams are seasoned and ready. When the waters subside, he shall begin to erect it. We are shaping up the abutments.
Focus tended to be on the many tasks that needed to be completed: plowing, mending, transporting stone for the bridge, building sheds and mills. It’s clear that neighbors needed to stick together to finish larger tasks – a real positive, given the reality of today where folks might not even know their neighbors.
Kids like Noah had friends – and helped their parents with tasks. Faith was a social glue as well: many of Noah’s entrees highlighted church services and the opportunity to visit with a girl his age. I have a church pew taken from a demolished church which dates to 1804… I know this because children carved their names and dates into the back of the pew – likely during a service. I was struck by the neatness and skill of the graffiti.
While I admire the craftsmanship that was in the DNA of folks 200 years ago, I would not want to live in that time: if for nothing else, think of the learning resources we have at our fingertips – we are ignorant only if we want to be. So, thanks for the efforts of our forebears – they had challenges and enjoyments suitable for their circumstances – but I’m happy to be in this present… even with its problems.
Excerpt from The Present by Adelaide Anne Proctor
Do not crouch to-day and worship
The dead Past, whose life has fled
Hush your voice in tender reverence
Crowned he lies, but cold and dead:
For the Present reigns, our monarch,
With an added weight of hours;
Honor her for she is mighty!
Honor her, for she is ours!
Hard But Simple
I often think of living life in the days described by George’s visit to the late 1600s “Stockade” in uptown Kingston. It generally finds its way into my thoughts when I’m cutting and splitting firewood, repairing a piece of furniture, or working in my vegetable garden. During these physical exercises, I find myself more focused. I am less distracted from the daily interruptions, less likely to daydream, and more attentive to the task at hand. However, I do wonder what it would have been like to conduct these chores without the power tools I use to carry them out or the consequences of failing to cut enough wood to cook and heat the house or to successfully grow enough vegetables from the garden to feed the family. Never-the-less I get a great deal of satisfaction feeling I am capable of managing to provide the bare essentials for myself if I need to.
Fourteen years ago, I built a run-in (a roofed, three-sided shelter) in the woods at a campsite I created behind my house. The process entailed getting lumber from a local lumber mill delivered to an area near the front of my house. From there, beams, flooring, siding, roofing, hardware and tools had to be moved to a location 700 feet away. The traverse was down a very steep 300-foot hill, across a 18-foot bridge spanning a small creek, and up a 100 foot hiking trail that included two switchbacks. At the time, I didn’t have any vehicles that would assist getting the materials from the bridge to the site. Occasionally, I enlisted a friend to carry some boards with me. Most of the time, I pulled, dragged, and rolled each item inch by inch to the designated target. It reminded me of what life might have been like, back then. Fortunately for me there was no pressing deadline and I had battery powered tools to use at the site. It was a most rewarding and instructive experience. In fact I often felt more personal satisfaction during this project than in the work I did as an educator. I loved teaching and being a principal but the good work we did was always the result of a collaboration of people. This experience allowed me to feel a sense of individual accomplishment but also to understand the value and necessity of working as a team.
And, from time to time I would fantasize what it would be like to have to provide myself with food, water, and winter warmth, if the modern systems we all use would suddenly become unavailable. Before I moved, I had a cadre of friends, each of whom had unique skill sets that would enable them to manage through such a scenario. I often thought of the interdependence that existed during the time period George describes. I’d like to think that those friends would see the value in setting aside our drive to function independently and would band together to help each other through challenging times. As much as I enjoy my lack of dependency on others there is a strong appeal for communal living that seems ignored today. I wonder if we were all forced to provide for our basic needs, would we seek to work in concert. I can only hope we would.
Living with our wits and our hands is hard work. Knowing that our work is to provide food, clothing, and shelter while living in community with others, seems simple in determining how to live our lives.
“It is not more bigness that should be our goal. We must attempt, rather, to bring people back to the warmth of community, to the worth of individual effort and responsibility, and of individuals working together as a community, to better their lives and their children’s future.” – Robert F. Kennedy