History column: Youth and experience

james-eightsJames Eights, M.D., an amateur geologist, writes in the fall of 1835 in his description of the rock formations the Esopus cuts through to reach the Hudson River:

“The Village of Ulster… is of a quite recent date, not having been much improved ‘til within the period of the last eight or ten years. It now contains about two thousand five hundred inhabitants, and wears very much the appearance of youth and vigour. The falls on the stream, at this place, give site to several manufacturing establishments, to which in fact the village owes its origin and growth.”

In the middle of the 18th century, Saugerties was a few taverns, grist mills and stores servicing traffic that ran from the Clermont Livingston’s million acres of Catskill mountain land to their warehouses across the Hudson River.


Shortly past the first quarter of the 19th century, the dozen or so farm families at this crossroads exploded into a population of thousands, all youthful and enterprising and intelligent, following the technology boom here that would continue throughout the 19th century.

Between 1825 and 1835 the growth and “vigour” Eights was observing wasn’t a haphazard boomtown like those that sprang up along the Erie Canal, which Eights had surveyed while it was being built. The village was a plan, executed by founders who brought knowledge and experienced gained in decades of business experience in the stressful environment of New York City. Their intention was to make something on a different model. I see this early village simply as retired 50-somethings making the atmosphere for 20-somethings to thrive in.

A few years ago I scanned the earliest book of handwritten minutes of the founding trustees of the village; this village Eights knows as Ulster. These covered 1831 to 1841. Audrey transcribed these and they are available in digital form at Village Hall and the Saugerties Public Library. Anyone who wants to get a sense of the atmosphere of the village in these early times just has to read these pages. They are a log of the good ship Saugerties through a passage that had already been charted by the captains of Saugerties industry; strong-willed, highly reputable thinkers whose interests were a magnet to those with the dreams and passions of their age.

Henry Barclay was in his 50s, retired from a trade finance business in New York City he’d founded, when he built in Saugerties a water power system on the Patterson, NJ plan. It was the only other one powering multiple mills in America at the time.

This was in 1825. By the early 1830s a village was incorporated, fortunes were being made and an elite community of America’s earliest proto-industrialist/venture capitalists, centered in Barclay Heights, had created a lifestyle that remained there, undisturbed, for a century.

In 1826 the first continuous roll paper-making was done in Saugerties with the first pair of Fourdrinier machines in America. Operating this machinery was Moses Yale Beach, then in his 20s. He was but one example of the vigor of youth that was drawn to Saugerties. He would go on to run the New York Sun and found the Associated Press. In his short time here he founded the fire department and also served as village trustee.

Our best kept secret is Saugerties’ history as a dynamic between youth and experience. This story of the earth, capital, ambition and innovative minds that Saugerties forgot for a century is a past worth remembering.

For years Saugerties has considered its industrial past embarrassing, letting evidence of it decay. But this recent information gives us a Saugerties of the early Industrial Revolution that rivaled the exuberance we relate today to Silicon Valley. Saugerties was in fact a hive of innovative 20-something upstarts for which the retired 50-somethings had created an environment for them to focus their energies.

In Audrey’s transcription of the trustees’ minutes there is a sense of maturity and dignity of mission. Henry Barclay incorporated the village of Ulster and was its first president but that was a formality and he attended few meetings. His style was to give an example. Early meetings have Henry Heermans, a merchant, as president, and the trustees — Overbaugh, Dederick and Kiersted — all land owners in the village area when the industrialists came.

This institution of a village government was to make the old guard land owners and merchants responsible for the thousands that had flocked here, the feeding and housing of which was the source of their new wealth. Barclay was making a forum where they shared the responsibility for the benefits industrialization had brought. What we know as the commercial village today, as opposed to the “South Side” and Barclay Heights, must be remembered for what it always was. From its origins as a planned village, Saugerties was something akin to a campus with housing and places to eat and supply services for a population building and moving on. The founders’ economic plan had always been to innovate and let the up-scaling happen somewhere else. Saugerties’ history is as a destination community for innovators and that is still the case if you look for it.

Keeping the innovators coming means attention to the spirit of place. It is instructive to have this ability to compare what was successfully created in this young, vibrant Saugerties with how the challenges and demands of leadership are approached today. In our beginnings the helm of the ship was being directed by seasoned managers experienced on a world stage that were guiding the energies of a motivated population eager to apply their youthful minds to the newest opportunities of their day. This is a formula we must restore to our present day conversation.