Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Battenville...yesterday, today & tomorrow

     Want to have some fun? Ask a travel agent about booking a vacation to Battenville. Then step back and enjoy the puzzled look on her face.

     Battenville isn't way up there on the list of popular get-away destinations. In truth, it doesn't even crack the bottom of the list. But who knows? That could change.

     In case you're wondering, Battenville is indeed, a real place. It's a small hamlet in Washington County, New York. Really, just a string of houses along Rt. 29, the east/west highway that doesn't quite make it to Vermont. There's a T-intersection here where Co. Rt. 61 branches off to cross the Battenkill River (thus the Battenville name). And, if like most people, you're in a hurry to get somewhere else, that's about all you'll notice.

Downtown Battenville

     But if you slow down, stop to look around, you'll find that Battenville is really quite an interesting place. Take the brick house on the north side of the road. The one with the marble retaining wall. This was the childhood home of Susan B. Anthony, the famous women's rights activist.

From a State press release

     Today New York State owns the Anthony house as well as the historic Stoops Tavern next door. Work is currently in progress at the site and presumably the buildings will be open to the public in the near future. Actually the entire hamlet bears the imprint of Anthony's family. Daniel Anthony (Susan's father) came here in 1826 to retrofit a shuttered woolen mill for the production of cotton cloth. While in Battenville Mr. Anthony also built sawmills, gristmills, a Methodist church, a covered bridge and a post office/store as well as the home currently being renovated.

Anthony House

Stoops Tavern

     A valuable source of information on the family's time in Washington County is Theodore Corbett's A Home in the Battenkill Valley - The Early Years of Susan B. Anthony. In it the author acknowledges the Quaker influence on Susan's values but also suggests that her time in the Battenville mill yard was also formative in molding the future activist. The mill employed both male and female workers, some of them children. According to Corbett, "Daniel Anthony believed he had a social responsibility to his workers. He felt that he had been put on earth by God to do 'all in (his) power to relieve the miseries of the afflicted and improve in every way possible the condition of man.'" Susan was shaped by her father's progressive beliefs and by her interactions with the mill workers as she briefly worked as a spooler and also taught summer school to their children.


     Industry at Battenville suffered all the bumps, bruises and knockouts our free enterprise system can dish out. While initially successful, Daniel Anthony's mill succumbed to the financial panic of 1837. The family lost everything and subsequently operated a tavern in nearby Center Falls for a few years before most of the Anthony's moved to Rochester, N.Y. with only one married sister (Guelma) remaining in Battenville.

Guelma and Aaron McLean house, next-door to Anthony house

     The cotton mill was eventually revived by others and prospered for a time, with the population of the hamlet peaking at 400 people. In 1868 the mill was consumed by fire and sometime later a paper mill was built on the site. Industrial activity finally came to a close here in the 1980's  after citizens protested ongoing pollution of the Battenkill by the Bio-Tech company. Today the millyard where Susan B. Anthony's ideas on social reform were shaped is tax delinquent and derelict.

The millyard and crumbling buildings

     Back in the day, Marvin Ferris, the feisty owner of Bio-Tech, purportedly threatened to throw a TV cameraman filming the mills discharge over the rail of the bridge and into the river. Today the scene from the bridge is a little more sedate. It's actually a pretty good spot to contemplate the future of Battenville. The upstream dam and millpond are long gone. Brick mill buildings still line the river's bank but they are in a severe state of decay. Several houses that are part of the mill property sit empty and in need of maintenance.

     I don't think anyone believes there will ever be industry and employment here again. Economic conditions have shifted and while I hope we do everything possible to keep the two remaining downriver H-V plants open and providing jobs, it seems that the era of manufacturing along the Battenkill is coming to a close. 

The H-V plant in Center Falls


Phantom Labs peeking thru the trees

     So what does the future hold?  Phantom Labs, the medical supply company that sits on the outskirts of Battenville (though all but invisible) is one possibility. But sought after businesses like that are hard to come by. Agriculture is still important, creating food and jobs. Beyond that, probably the best hope is in keeping the Battenkill Valley a desirable place to live. Retired folks, second home owners and commuters to the Northway corridor are drawn here by the natural beauty and quality of life with the river being key to that draw.

Blue sky and white river - the frozen, snow covered Battenkill

     Like cancer, property deterioration and abandonment are best caught and dealt with at an early stage. It's my understanding that the current owners of Bio-Tech would like to be done with it but don't have a clear way out. With taxpayers making an investment in the Anthony house across the road, now may be an opportune time to deal with the defunct mill. Perhaps some of the buildings will have to be razed. Ideally the houses could be refurbished and put back on the tax rolls. Then a small pocket park could be created with river access for paddlers and fishermen and interpretive signs installed linking Susan B. Anthony's formative years to the site. You could even envision a food cart here on busy summer weekends.

     Making this an even more desirable destination would be a rail trail on the other side of the Battenkill. The line is hardly used now with what little business Northeast Rail has coming from the Cargill and Carovail plants further to the east. The bed is in woeful condition and this section has seen derailments with cars and their contents ending up in the river. It takes a constant infusion of taxpayer dollars to keep the tracks just barely operational. With huge federal budget deficits and daunting economic challenges facing the country, spending big dollars to try and keep an antiquated, little used line going is questionable.

 U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (aka Santa Claus) comes bearing
gifts of taxpayer dollars for Northeast Rail ($1.3 million this time)
web image

     Converting the bed to trail from Greenwich thru Battenville to East Greenwich might be the better way to go. I can see it being quite popular with walkers, bikers and equestrians, actually contributing more to the local economy than rail. Horses and trail riding are a particularly good fit. With a little investment and marketing Washington County could become the Northeast destination for those activities.

The unused rail bed at Battenville

     For various reasons it seems hard to get anything done nowadays. With any situation the inclination is to take sides, butt heads, hunker down and oppose with stalemate being the result. Battenville could be different. Public/private cooperation could make things better here. Various levels of government could actually work together for the common good. There's an opportunity to clean-up a mess, preserve history and improve access for future generations. All that's needed is the will to do it. 

     A nation in which women are denied the right to vote would be unimaginable today. But in the 1800's relatively few people could imagine a world where women could vote. Susan B. Anthony was one of those who could imagine such a world and she inspired others to join the cause. All progress requires people of vision and action. Perhaps the best way we can honor the memory of Anthony is by bringing vision and action to the mill yard where she grew up.

 One final thought...

     In retrospect, the word 'unimaginable' could apply to our last election. There are those who would deny the vote to anyone not in their gang, there are those who would take our vote away with gerrymandering, electoral college shenanigans and false claims of fraud. Susan B. Anthony devoted much of her life to winning suffrage for women. Sadly, she didn't live to see the fruit of her labor. As the last few years have made painfully clear, rights we take for granted aren't guaranteed. Freedom isn't free.

SUFFRAGE - from latin word 'suffragium' meaning the right or                                  privilege to vote


     I'm guessing your travel agent came up empty on Battenville. That's certainly understandable. Most of the places I mention are private, it's hard to even walk here (busy highway, no sidewalks) and there's no place to park. Changing that situation is the point of this post. But for future reference or if you're just driving thru, here are a few interesting things to look for...

* On the north side of Rt. 29 and near the eastern edge of the hamlet are the Stoops Tavern (painted red), the Anthony house (brick with marble retaining wall in front) and Guelma McLean's house (rather ramshackle). 

Anthony House - side view

* Across the road in a grove of trees is the McLean house (private and beautifully kept). It's a Federal style, said to be the first house built in the hamlet. The Anthony family stayed here for a short time when they first came to Battenville.

* Between Rt. 29 and the Battenkill River is the mill yard with a number of industrial structures and houses, all looking rather sad. The Anthony's stayed in one of the houses for a number of years before building the brick house and they also built a store and post office on this side of the road. 

* Back on the north side of Rt. 29 and a little to the west is the Methodist church that Daniel Anthony built. At least it was still there a few days ago. It looks like it could collapse at any moment.

Open to Heaven - The old Methodist church

* Turning onto Co. 61 you cross the Battenkill on an iron bridge. This was the site of a covered bridge that was replaced in 1916. Just past the bridge you cross the tracks that would make a great rail trail.


...and now

* Beyond the tracks the Cambridge - Battenville Road goes off to the right. Sitting above the intersection is another stately home built by the McLean family. In the past it has been a restaurant and also an art gallery. In her memoir No More Tiaras Solange Batsell Herter tells interesting stories of her time here.


* Continuing up Co. 61 you'll see a small cemetery on the right. Susan B. Anthony's sister Eliza died at a young age and is interred here. Across the road you can see the site of a Dutch Reformed church built by the McLeans. Nothing remains today. The former district school #3 sits at the junction of Skellie Road and Co. 61. It is now an attractive private home. Adjacent to the cemetery,  the Weir-Collins house/blacksmith shop is another nicely restored private residence.

Web image

 District school #3 - now a private home

Weir-Collins House

* Back on Rt. 29 heading west you'll come to Center Falls where the Anthony family operated a tavern for a few years after leaving Battenville. I don't believe the building is still standing.

Center Falls was known as 'Hardscrabble' when the Anthony's were there

* If you go thru Greenwich and head south on Rt. 40 you can visit two Quaker Meeting Houses where the Anthonys worshipped. Easton was also the home of an active group of suffragettes who were inspired by Mary Anthony, Susan's sister. Their story is told in Teri Gay's Strength Without Compromise

Quaker North Meeting House


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