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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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