When Charles “Bub” Bach was a boy in West Saugerties in the late 1930s, he remembers, the hamlet had very few automobiles. “You could count the number of cars,” he recalls with a chuckle on the porch of his sprawling farmhouse. “Folks would take horses and buggies or they’d walk. There were so many paths. You’d walk right through people’s yards in those days and they’d stop you and talk.”
The 84-year-old Bach (pronounced “Batch”) comes from a long line of old families in the area; other neighborhood names that may ring a bell are Hommel, Schoonmaker, Doyle, Burton, Snyder, Miller, Cole and Vedder, among others. They constitute part of the merchant, farming, working and propertied classes that have populated West Saugerties for well over a century.
But where, and what, is West Saugerties? Let’s start with Saugerties itself. The name Saugerties means “Little Sawyer” in Dutch, apparently referring to a Dutchman named Barent Cornelis Volge who operated a sawmill in the 1650s in the northern part of town. In the early 18th century, what is now the town of Saugerties was part of Kingston (then called Wiltwyck), at the northern end of what was known as the “Kingston Commons,” a huge tract of land parceled into connected lots, upon which landowners were entitled to graze their cattle. Wheat, as well as dairy products and salted meat from Kingston Commons cattle, were huge commodities.
“The Hudson Valley fed Virginia, because you didn’t waste tobacco land on food crops,” says historian Michael Sullivan Smith. The Commons—the “wheat belt of the New World,” according to Smith—fed not only the American colonies but the Caribbean, where the grain supplied the Dutch slave trade.
Many of the early European settlers in the area were Palatines, German-speaking Protestants who escaped, first to England and then to the American colonies in the early 1700s to avoid war and crop failure. The British, eager to maintain their huge naval fleet, were seeking a labor force to send tar and pitch from the Hudson Valley’s pine forests down the Hudson River to New York City. The Palatines could provide the labor for what was called the “naval stores project,” and a strong Palatine presence in the New World could act as a buffer against the French in Canada and strengthen the Protestant cause in British America. The contract stipulated that the relocated Germans—some 3,000 of them, the largest influx of immigration to the New World at the time—would work off the expenses of their journey; then they would receive 40 acres of land, free from taxes for seven years. The state purchased 12,000 acres on the east and west sides of the Hudson—East Camp (now Germantown) and West Camp (part of Saugerties)—for settling the Palatines, who arrived in the Hudson Valley en masse in a move that came to be known as “the migration of 1710.” The lots they received were 40’ x 50’, rather than the 40 acres they were promised; the acreage was withheld on the grounds that they must first earn it.
The Palatines in what was to become Greene County (the lower part of which, above Platte Clove, was considered part of West Saugerties), grew increasingly dissatisfied with their status and demanded their rights under the contract. The colonial governor, Robert Hunter, disarmed the Germans and put them under the command of overseers and a Court of Palatine Commissioners. However, Hunter lost financial backing for the naval stores project and in September 1712, he withdrew his support to the Palatines. Left to their own resources, the more adventurous moved in 1712 to the Schoharie Valley. “But some only got as far as Platte Clove; that was their only way up to the valley,” says historian Vernon Benjamin.