Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Actually, there was no hamlet of Berne when the town was founded in 1795. The major buildings would have been the Weidman sawmill and gristmill plus the home Jacob and Elizabeth Dietz Weidman shared with the family of their son, Peter.

Weidman mills and home

It was about 1750 or 51 when the Jacob Weidman moved his family from Greene County to settle near the families of his wife's brothers. Weidman built his home on the north bank of Fox Creek, just above the upper falls in what is now the hamlet of Berne. By 1755 he had built a dam (
of logs?) along the top of the falls to create a pond to harness the water power of the creek. Below the falls he built the first sawmill in the Helderbergs; a waterwheel would have operated a vertical saw blade that moved up and down. Within a few years a gristmill was constructed below the sawmill.

Bruce Wideman, a Weidman descendant and researcher, shared with me information from the early deeds and leases for the Weidman family. The earliest is a scrap of a 1774 lease for the mill land. This is one of the earliest Van Rensselaer leases for land in the Helderbergs.

On 3 March 1787 Steven Van Rensselaer deeded outright 261 acres to Jacob Weidman. This was most unusual, since Van Rensselaer did not ordinarily sell his land. Still, even in this sale, Van Rensselaer kept all rights to the mills, milldam, and millstream. Included in Jacob’s purchase was all of the land on both sides of Fox Creek from the sawmill east on both sides of the Helderberg Trail (State Route 443) to its intersection with today’s Tabor Road. The 1787 map shows Jacob owning the southern 165 acres of lot 598 and his son Peter owning the northern portion of the land.

18 December 1790 Jacob's son Peter leased an additional 30 acres of lot 597, which was called the "Mill Lott." This is to the west of lot 598 and includes the lower falls and the land on which the gristmill is shown on the 1787 map. Based on this, I conclude that Jacob operated the sawmill and Peter operated the gristmill.

The 1790 Federal Census for Rensselaerville, which at that time included Beaver Dam, lists for Jacob Weidman: 5 Free White Males over 16, 3 Free White Males under 16, and 5 Free White Females. There are separate households nearby for all of his children except Peter. By studying the number and ages of the occupants of Jacob’s household, I conclude that at the time of the 1790 census, Peter and his family were living with his parents.

Jacob Weidman’s house is shown on the 1787 map as being on the south side of the Helderberg Trail just east of the mill. That is the site on which Peter later built his own home, as shown by a New York State Historical Marker that says:





IN 1800, STOOD


Our Heritage says, "When the surveyor’s map of the Van Rensselaer’s estate was drawn in 1787 it clearly indicated that Jacob Weidman’s house and barn were already built on the Tabor Road location and that the grant was then owned by Jacob Jr. who also rented an adjoining tract of land. The footpath drawn on the map is approximately the same route as the present Tabor Road." While the map does show a house and barn on what is now Tabor Road, on a tract owned by Jacob Weidman Jr., it also clearly shows the house and barn of Jacob Weidman as being above the falls near the sawmill and gristmill; it was an easy walk to work.

The last record of Jacob and Elizabeth is 28 November 1794 when Jacob sold the 261 acres in lot 598 to his son, Peter, and presumably retired. In the deed Jacob refers to Mathias Shultes as being the son of his wife Elizabeth, so she must have been still alive. (The next to last record for Jacob and Elizabeth is 3 March 1794 when Jacob and Elizabeth sponsored the baptism of their great-grandson Jacob W. Ball.)

I suspect the large Peter Weidman home was actually built prior to 1790 by his father, Jacob.

1795 roads in the hamlet

Helderberg Trail was only a horse trail in the early years of Beaver Dam. By the time of 1787 survey it had been upgraded and realigned to make it passable to wagons. It would have crossed Fox Creek between the upper and lower falls on a one lane wooden bridge. There would not have been the T shaped intersection at the junction of Rts. 443 and 156; rather, the road going east across the bridge would have gone straight ahead and up the slope then curving right to join the present alignment.

The 1787 Van Rensselaer survey map shows the only road to Knox being a combination of the present day Turner Road and Tabor Road. There was probably a trail down the southern bank of the Fox Creek on a similar alignment with the present access road to Fox Creek Park but the map is not very clear. Certainly by 1795 it continued on down to the flats where there would have been another single lane wooden bridge crossing the creek.

The Johannes Fischer House

The first meeting of the Town of Berne was held in the home of Johannes Fischer. This is now the home of John and Linda Clemmer at the end of Stranahan Lane, which approaches the house from the rear. The Fischer home faced the old wagon road to Knox which crossed Fox Creek on a bridge on the flats below the Weidman mills.

The Johannes Fischer House, built by 1789

Piter Fischer, father of Johannes, probably homesteaded his farm in the 1740’s. About 1750 he married Dorothea Ball, whose father, Peter, may have had the next farm to the west. They were among the earliest settlers in Beaver Dam (now Berne), and settled on choice valley land. Perhaps the Fischer House was built before 1789, when it is said to have been the site of the first “Town” meeting, called to propose that the Town of Rensselaerville, (which then included Berne and Knox), be separated from the Town of Watervliet. Fischer operated an inn and store from his home. Farmers bringing their grain to Weidman’s gristmill would buy supplies and spend the night before making the long journey home.

In 1790 Fischer was one of the few local families to own slaves. It was generally the earliest settlers, who had settled on the best valley land, who were prosperous enough to afford them. About 1812 Fischer built a large, one-room brick building to house his three slaves, plus the slaves of travelers staying in his inn. Conveniently located behind the slave quarters is an outdoor brick beehive oven. There are slaves buried in back of the Wood Cemetery. In 1827 slavery was outlawed in New York State. The slave quarters and oven still exist.

An 1854 map of Berne shows J. Wood living in the Johannes Fischer House and also a J. Wood in the Jacob Fisher house across the road, built in 1829 by the son of Johannes. Perhaps John M. Wood, of Dutchess County, owned them both. Col. Wood moved to Berne before his marriage in 1832. Although the 1855 census indicates he was not a property owner, Berne Historical Society records say that his young son, Thomas, inherited a portion of Col. Wood’s farm in the 1840’s. The 1866 Beers map shows P. J. Wood in both houses. This was actually Thomas J. Wood, son of John. In 1878 the Cheese Factory Association built a cheese factory nearby on land given them by Tom Wood.