This Saturday, September 24, the Palatine Farmstead in Rhinebeck – a historic restoration-in-progress being accomplished under the auspices of the Quitman Preservation organization – will be hosting a celebration of the culture of the area’s Palatine settlers called “Let’s Go Deutsch.” Most folks in the mid-Hudson Valley are at least somewhat familiar with the history of Dutch, English and Huguenot settlements in the region; but who were these mysterious Palatines? And why did they come to these parts in the first place?
The Palatinate is a region in southwestern Germany, sandwiched between the Rhine Valley in the east and Lorraine in the west. It’s where Moselle wine comes from, among other desirable attributes. Its proximity to the French border was the source of most of its troubles in the late 17th and early 18th century, when Louis XIV was gradually expanding his empire by nudging out his frontiers wherever he could find some dubious document or other to substantiate France’s land claims. With his eye on annexing the rich agricultural Rhineland, the Sun King came up with a hypothesis that the Palatinate really belonged to his sister-in-law, and proceeded to try to take it over.
By the late 1680s, the mostly Protestant Palatinate – die Pfalz, in German – was already playing host to Huguenot refugees who had been forced to flee France when Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes. The Nine Years’ War between France and the Holy Roman Empire’s Grand Alliance commenced in 1688 when Louis’ army invaded the Rhineland. The Huguenots in the Palatinate – mainly educated, bourgeois families with the means to travel – escaped to England, South Africa and the New World, including the founding families of New Paltz.
Not so lucky were the masses of native German Palatines, who were largely illiterate and unskilled farm laborers. Throughout the Nine Years’ War and subsequent War of Spanish Succession, passing French armies devastated the region, ransacking towns, forcibly conscripting young men and torching the croplands. The Palatines were reduced to desperate poverty and famine; and although the region usually enjoys a mild climate, the winter of 1708 is said to have been so harsh that birds froze solid in midair and grapevines were blasted to the roots.
Meanwhile, agents from the American Colonies had been recruiting Germans to emigrate and work on plantations. Britain under Queen Anne began to create incentives for mass immigration to build up the nation’s workforce. So in 1709 German Protestant peasants began to flee down the Rhine Valley by the thousands, headed for England.
The trouble was that a divided Parliament couldn’t quite figure out what to do with the 13,000 or so “Poor Palatines” – so-called for their destitute condition – who arrived in that one year. Then as now, political parties had very different views on whether the most recently arrived crop of immigrants was an asset (the Whigs) or a scourge (the Tories). A huge winter camp for the refugees was set up on the outskirts of London, and efforts – mostly unsuccessful – were made to relocate them throughout the British Isles.
Most of the Palatines had already heard the siren call of the Golden Land of the Americas, however, and resisted being sent to the poorer parts of Scotland and Ireland. In 1710 the English acquiesced, providing ten ships to relocate nearly 3,000 of the refugees to New York, although many of the malnourished passengers succumbed to illness and died en route. The survivors were settled in the mid-Hudson on both banks of the river, at the sites still known as West Camp, near Saugerties, and East Camp, on the Livingston estate in Columbia County, giving Germantown its present-day name.
To work off their passage, the Palatines were required to toil at the production of supplies needed by the British Navy. Unfortunately, what the Navy needed most were tar, which didn’t occur in significant natural deposits in the Hudson Valley; pitch, which the local species of pine were not suited to produce in reasonable quantities; and hemp, to whose cultivation the Northern climate was inhospitable. So in 1712, the British government stopped supporting the Palatine settlements, and the inhabitants began to find themselves new places to live and new sources of livelihood throughout the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys.
The son of original Rhinebeck patentee Henry Beekman recruited a group of about three dozen East Camp Palatines to become tenant farmers in the growing town in 1714/1715. One of those immigrants, named Frans Neher, built the house known today as the Palatine Farmstead sometime around 1720; the historic property, including a circa-1770 Dutch-style barn, remained in the same family until the year 2000.
The German immigrants brought their Lutheran religion with them, of course, and the 1786 Stone Church built on former Livingston property just north of the intersection of Routes 9 and 9G is one of Rhinebeck’s beloved historic landmarks. To house their pastor, the reverend Frederick H. Quitman, the Palatine congregation built a parsonage across the street from the Church in 1798. That structure, now restored and known as the Quitman House, serves as headquarters for the Quitman Resource Center for Preservation, the not-for-profit whose main project over the past several years has been careful reconstruction of the much-deteriorated Palatine Farmstead of the Neher/Elseffer family. Although funds are still needed to complete the restoration, that ongoing project has progressed to the point where the Farmstead can now safely host public events like this Saturday’s “Let’s Go Deutsch.”
So what goes on at such an event? Burning or tarring-and-feathering an effigy of King Louis XIV might not be inappropriate; but tar does remain scarce in these parts, and preservationists would probably be among the last people to want to throw off frivolous extra CO2 into the atmosphere just to revile a long-dead monarch. Instead, visitors can expect to meet costumed reenactors giving guided tours of the house and barn, explaining their history and what has been done to restore them, as well as demonstrating various crafts of the era. The house’s Dutch oven has been restored, and if you’re there at the right time you may get a chance to sample bread baked in it that morning, slathered with butter freshly churned onsite. Traditional hearth cookery and cidermaking will also be demonstrated. Spinning, weaving, blacksmithing, farming practices and period music have also been features of past years’ events at the Farmstead.
“Let’s Go Deutsch” activities go on from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. rain or shine at the site, which is located at 6916 Route 9, three-tenths of a mile north of the intersection with Route 9G. General admission is $5, helping support the costs of conservation, research and restoration of the house and grounds; kids age 12 and under get in free. For more information, call (845) 876-8172 or visit www.quitmanpreservation.org.