History in a can

Heppner-history-Lease-3-Lives-with-signature-HZTSome days, you just don’t know where or how the past will make itself known. At times it can be a name you stumble upon in an old newspaper article and, after multiple days of googling, checking indices in old volumes or endlessly spinning a squeaky microfilm reel, you finally begin to piece together the life and labors of a person heretofore unknown to you. Then, there are moments when, out of the blue, you get a phone call saying, “You won’t believe what just turned up in an old coffee can.”

Such was the case when, just prior to the holidays, I took a call from JoAnn Margolis, archivist at the Historical Society of Woodstock. What “showed up” and what the old coffee can contained, was an original, 1835 lease for a parcel of Woodstock land signed by Robert L. Livingston. The document, though in pieces corresponding to where it had been folded, is very rare. It is the first I have ever seen and, in checking with various sources, including the Clermont Historic Site (home of the Livingstons), its uniqueness serves an important confirmation of our town’s past and the onerous practice of “three-life leases” that once existed here.

For those unaware, the Livingston family of Clermont, at one time, owned much of what we call Woodstock. Yes, owned. The Livingstons were, for the most part, our landlords. And, over the course of our town’s early history, the Livingstons acted much as landlords act, collecting rent and telling you what you could or couldn’t do. (In the case of the “coffee can lease,” the yearly rent was to be “four fat hens, and one day’s labor with a wagon, sled or plough together with a yoke of oxen or pair of horses and a driver…”) I should also note that the Robert Livingston whose name is on the lease is Robert “L.” Livingston, not the original Robert who first purchased the vast amount of land that was once part of the Hardenbergh Patent and who bestowed the name “Woodstock” upon us. Which points to one of the problems with the Livingstons…there are so many damn “Roberts” in the family that it would take more space than I have available to explain the lineage of Woodstock’s founding family.


The lease that had nestled itself into the coffee can (Coronation Blend), was brought to the Historical Society by a great friend of Woodstock history, Velma Grazier. Velma, whose knowledge of everyday Woodstock history is encyclopedic, came by the lease through her family’s long-held property in Wittenberg, property neighboring the land that is the focus of the document signed by Livingston and Adam Spielman of Kingston. The mention of Isaac Elting in the lease also provides further testament to the Wittenberg location as Elting, an early Woodstock supervisor, lived on property in the Yankeetown/Cold Brook Road area of Wittenberg.

There are a number of points to be made when looking at the lease. First, the date, 1835. Why is that important? Going forward from that point in time, the lease to the Spielman family places it within the period of the Down Rent War. And what was the Down Rent War? Beside the fact that it offered an early indication that Woodstockers might have some future issues with authority, the Down Rent War was a response by tenants in upstate New York to the feudal-type leases imposed by wealthy landowners on area settlers. Unable to ever secure the lands for themselves, no matter how many years they or their descendants (three-lives) worked or improved the land, tenants, often disguised as Indians and hiding their identity beneath sheepskin hoods, began, in the second half of the 1830s, to retaliate against the intolerant lease system imposed upon them. As a result, agents representing landowners such as the Livingstons often found their work — collecting rent and insuring that resources such as cut timber went to the landlord and not somewhere else — became the target of repeated harassment at the hands of the tenants.

The center of tenant agitation in Woodstock was the Cooper Lake area. When an agent of the landlord was seen approaching, tinhorns were sounded. Upon hearing the signal, down-renters would gather and, costumed to prevent identification, attempt to impede the intended purpose of the agent. In one such incident as described by Anita Smith in the Publications of the Historical Society of Woodstock (July, 1931), Livingston’s agent, John Lasher, was captured near Lake Hill and hauled into “Peter Sagendorf’s barn nearby.” There, “finding some tar in a barrel, (they) daubed their victim and added chicken feathers from the henhouse alongside before they allowed the unfortunate Lasher to get away.” Even when the law, in the form of a sheriff’s posse showed up, down-renters refused to back down. In a further incident chronicled by Smith, as a posse sought out a small group of tenants that had retreated to a swamp near Cooper Lake, “one of the Indians fired at the sheriff and hit the bone button of his coat, which fortunately saved his life.” Eventually, with the election of a new governor who had campaigned on a platform favorable to tenants, laws were changed and the era of life-leases was brought to an end. Unfortunately for the Spielman family, change did not come soon enough. Records indicate that the property noted in the lease discovered by Grazier reverted back to the Livingstons and, eventually, following reform, was sold into private hands.

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