To prepare for our petition to be included on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as out of sheer curiosity, we spent a lot of time researching the house upon its purchase in 2005. Nora took up the reins of this research, spending many hours in county court houses and research libraries, nose deep in deeds and records, the majority of which were handwritten with the indecipherable flourish that is the hallmark of 18th century handwriting. What follows is the result of her many hours spent researching Howard Hall Farm (nee the Wagner Farm, nee The Woodburne, nee the Sprague Farm, nee the Haxton-Griffin Farm, nee the Groom Farm).
You can also view the narrative description of Howard Hall and the narrative statement of significance of Howard Hall included on our National Register of Historic Places record.
I have been dutifully entrusted with the research of the history of our house, and while I have attacked it with all good intent, the task seems to stretch out to infinity; the task of knowing precisely how this house came to be built and by whom.
I started this job some months ago, and armed with a small clipping my friend Ursula had found in the New York Times on how to research the history of "your" house, I embarked on what I assumed would be a hastily dispatched chore. I looked at the warnings of the difficulties in really coming up with concrete information with a sort of lofty disdain; I, of course, would use my intuitive research skills and cut through the drudgery in record time and, well, just get on with it.
And so I did, at least, at the start. Frankly, owing nothing to a single ability I possess, the most important fragment of information came right at the beginning of the process from the Vedder Research Library. Reggie and I dashed up there for one of the rare open library moments and while trying to decide how to plunge into the task, stood staring at a map of Greene County about 1881 or so, and realized it showed what we were pretty sure was our house with the horse-shoe drive and indications of another drive around the back of the house for deliveries. And there was a name on the house: George Griffin. Considering there were very few names of actual people on that map, this seemed terribly impressive and from there, I was sure that all we had to do was find George and we would be home free!
Then, upon scanning a copy of the Beers' History of Greene County in the Athens history section, suddenly the name of George Griffin popped up again, but this time referencing not only the previous owner who sold it to him, but the owner before, who, it stated, was a "very prominent man of his day"; Joseph Groom. A definite tingle-all-over moment!
Yes, we knew someone prominent had to have built this grand old stone manner house, but was Joseph the one? Well, that was easy, I told myself, I would march off to the Greene County Court House and just get copies of all the deeds. I had no idea how to do that, and that New York Times article had warned that it was not as straightforward as one might imagine, but surely, they had a hot paper trail to the truth!
Well, sort of. The start of the search quickly proved my inability to navigate most library and or official computer systems that require the user to remember and use a series of commands like F5 followed by.... Soon after, I discovered that by annoying the staff the information I needed soon materialized. Each deed referred to the previous deed transfer by actual book number, and the actual books were there, all lined up and yes, there were Xerox machines! A snap! Well, until I realized the books were huge, the machines give only 8.5" x 11" sheets and at some point back in time, the books stopped being there! And that point was around 1881 (I am sure that is not the actual date, but the last deed in my chain seemed to be there) and, at that time, was of course all hand written! There is a certain charm to that, although somewhat difficult to decipher, at least for me, without a lot of work. I was still convinced this process was a snap.
And then, what came prior to the last deed I found there? The deed I was scrutinizing was the sale of the property by George Griffin's widow to a Samuel Sprague. It referred to five deeds that made up all of the land being sold and the land they were about to purchase between 1835 and 1849. They were all logged by book number and page, but the books I needed were nowhere in the courthouse that I could see. Those old books, I was told, were up the street in a sort of Annex and I could access them there. Up the street I scurried, only to find myself in a sort of warehouse of old brown-paper wrapped record books, and was told, if I was lucky, the books I wanted had not been destroyed when the new court house was built and the older records moved to storage. Destroyed? Yes, it seemed the moving guys sort of got tired of it all and... Oops!
I did manage to find four of the five documents of the land sales to George, but the one that probably would have been the most significant is the deed transfer between Reverend Joseph Prentiss to George Griffin. Prentiss, it seemed, had been an incredibly popular guy in Athens and Catskill, being the first Episcopal Rector in the newly formed church in Athens. And he, I knew, was the link to that prominent man, Joseph Groom. Without the deed, I could not really trace with certainty (at least not by court house record method) the line of ownership back to Groom.
But Groom it had to be, at least in my mind. So, now to find the kernels of information about the Groom family.
At this moment, after months of searching for scraps of information about the Groom family, I feel obsessed with them. Last night I actually dreamed about that family building a house and living there on the hill. So who WERE these guys, and what were they doing before they built that house, assuming they DID build it, and at this point I pray there is not another owner prior to them. In my dream, the elder Groom - the patriarch, shall we say - was a dead ringer for David/Keith Caradine. There was an elder son, Edward I believe, living there with his wife and the younger son, by six years, Joseph. Edward, in my dream, was a sort of Edward Ruhe type, and Joseph, well, I can't quite get a handle on his m.o.
Let me back up for a minute: the house, it seems was built to be sort of grand at a time when there were very few families living in Loonenburg (what would become first Catskill in 1787, then eventually part of the town of Athens in 1815). Beers' lists the number of families that were known to be living there (Loonenburg) in 1780 at only 46, and the William Groom family is one of them. And let's not forget times were iffy in terms of political stability for the colonies... wasn't there a war lurking? And the Hudson River Valley a strategic part of the war's campaigns?
I do know from a copy of the 1790 census that William Groom is listed as head of the household in Katts Kill (Catskill) with three white males over 16, one white male under 16; eight white females and children, and from other sources I know there was at least one, maybe three slaves (slaves were listed on the census, but the old records are missing that part of the page next to Groom). I also know that William, the "head of the family," was born Wilem Groen in Albany County in 1719, of Dutch parents, Edmond and Antje Groen, making him in his early 60s when the house was built. He married a Sara Cottington, also born in Albany County in 1720, and between them, they had four children. The first, Edward, in 1744.
Joseph, the younger son, was born in 1748. He married a Rachael Van Loon in 1770, and by 1780 had produced a brood of children, having at that time probably five of either seven or nine children, depending on which records you are looking at. A guess would be that the three white males over 16 were William, Edward and Joseph, as Joseph had no sons at that time. The eight females could have been the two wives and six children. The only problem with that theory is that Edward Groom is also listed separately as a head of household with three white males over the age of 16, one male under 16, seven females and children, and three slaves.
Assuming it was Joseph's family who filled the house, when that census was taken three of the children would have been under 10 years of age, the youngest being three. When Rachael Groom, the mother, died in 1795, Joseph quickly took a new wife, Hannah Schermerhorn (married in 1796), and probably with obvious need and reason.
Regardless, they could easily have filled up a house without Edward's family, if he did indeed live elsewhere. Joseph's name does not appear separately on the census, so my guess is he (aged 42) and his seven to eight children made up the inhabitants of the stone house.
While Beers' mentions in The History of Greene County that the "Dutch settlers were mostly farmers who kept their lives simple, they married wives, planted, they 'builded' but know little of life beyond their narrow limits" (farms). He compares the Dutch to the English, citing the Dutch as having lives lacking in "excitement and enterprise" while the English were actively engaged in community and civic life.
The Grooms, however, were active enough in the growing communities of the future Greene County. It is assumed the Groom family resided in what was then the district of Coxsackie, which included all the land that would later become Catskill and Athens. Both William and Edward were signers of the Coxsackie (Dutch) Declaration of Independence (from the British) in 1775, a year prior to the 1776 Declaration in Philadelphia. While the War for Independence never really touched Greene County (at this time it was still Albany County), Joseph and many of his neighbors joined the Albany County Militia as enlisted men. The names appear over and over in deeds and records of marriage.
The Howard Hall site was considered part of Coxsackie until the formation of Catskill in 1789, and in 1787, the town assessed William for $16 in owed taxes.
We can assume Joseph Groom had an interest in community politics as we know that Joseph, then age 41, was present at the first town meeting when Catskill was formed, and was listed as "collector". A copy of the Catskill packet contains a copy of an advertisement taken out by Joseph to prompt the citizens to pay owed tax moneys (the original still exists in the Vedder Research Library).
While I have yet to find out exactly where the Groom family resided prior to building the stone house, or from whom they purchased the property (those records may be in the Albany County Court house or New York State Library), it is possible William purchased the land directly from one of the original families that owned parts of the Loonenburg Patent, as the patent was broken into smaller partitions or lots. Most of the landowners were Dutch farmers and their names repeat throughout the records of marriages, wills, deed descriptions and the like. Joseph Groom married a Van Loon, the property was bounded by Hallenbeck, Van Hoeson and Brandow, Aaron, whose brother William was the son in law of Joseph (a guess, not verified). In other words, their lives were quite intertwined. The History of Greene County gives a fairly detailed description of the Loonenburg Patent and how it was mapped and divided into lots numbered from one to 146, although all original maps have been lost. Just an aside, in 1796, Aaron Brandow sells his brother, William, lot number one, which lay on the patent line. This could very well be the son-in-law of William Groom, or grandson, as he is referred to in his will. In a description of the lots and their owners, Beers' mentions lots 71 and 72 as the Sprague farm (this was in 1881), previously owned by Joseph Groom. The earliest deed I have copies of is of the sale of the Groom farm after William's death in 1812. The deed transferring lot 71, 72 and 127 from Joseph Groom to a Benjamin Haxton of New York City refers to the land being in the Loonenburg Patent. The boundaries of the property sold are vague; certain trees, piles of stones, but do mention bordering the land of William Brandow, son in law of John Van Hoesan. This son-in-law could very well be the owner of lot one. The deed of transfer from Groom to Haxton lists sale of 210 1/16th acres, selling for $8000, and refers to a survey and map attached to the deed made by John D. Spoor (we do not have a copy of that; another thing to research!).
While we don't know fully about the finances or income sources of the family, we can assume the Groom family was prosperous enough to not only build a rather grand house for a farm, but were able to acquire other land holdings as well as the farm. At some point prior to 1801, William purchased two farm lots in Schoharry County (mentioned in his will) and Joseph purchased another 100-acre lot, listed as Expense lot 27 from the Catskill Patent, land sold as further partitioning of the Loonenburg Patent. By the time of William's death in 1812, a home in the Village of Athens had been purchased (no, don't have a record of that either) and William is listed as being a resident of the Village. Joseph, who sells the property within months of the father's death, also then resides in the Village, where he becomes active in its formation into a town three years hence.
That the Groom family held an emotional attachment to the farm could be assumed because the family burial grounds were there and Joseph made sure the burial plot was exempted from the sale in 1812 and future sales. In his will of 1831, he gave it to the custody of the Dutch Reformed Church. Sarah, wife of William, was the first of four family members to be buried there, the other three being William, Joseph and his wife Rachael. Even though both William and Joseph remarried after the deaths of Sarah and Rachael, neither second wife seems to be part of the family plot. A footnote in Beers' History of Greene County states: "Upon this farm is the burying ground of the Groom Family, overgrown with weeds. A headstone almost level with the ground bears the following inscription: 'To the memory of Joseph Groom, who died August 15, 1832, age 85. This marks the resting place of the man who was president of the village and one of its most influential citizens. William Groom died April 18, 1812, age 93; Sarah, wife of William Groom, died March, 11 1788, aged 40; Rachael, wife of Joseph Groom, died August 20, 1795, aged 47." There is also no mention of Edward and his family, who by the time William died, were living in Schoharie County.
The family burial plot was exempted form every deed until the sale by Louise Sprague to Wagner in 1921, so I conclude the burial plot is on land that is not owned by us, as that deed's description and ours is identical in acres and boundaries.
Some of the most insightful information I found was in the wills of William and Joseph Groom. I had pretty much run out of tidbits in my other research, but one Saturday in the Vedder Research Library, came across a file on the Grooms with copies of the original, and thank goodness, transcriptions. The original handwriting is almost impossible to decipher for most of us, myself no exception.
William's will was written in 1801. In it he wills to Edward, the eldest, two lots of land in Schoharie County called Stringers Patent. He also leaves his livestock, farm implements, wearing apparel, his Holland gun, his Tanner and Furriers utensils and notes that they are already in Edward's possession, and that he is already living on the land in 1801. He also leaves him is clothing, and one would assume either it fits him, or was working man's farm clothing, and Joseph, who does not get similar items of clothing, would have no need for it.
To Joseph, he gives the remainder of his real estate, where he (William) "now lives", and "the same may be found". Joseph also gets the English Bible, and Jacob a negro slave. (Albany county records of sales show Joseph purchased a slave called Jacob prior to that, so either the sale was in his name, or Jacob was a popular name for slaves). William stipulates that Anna, his second wife, be given 100 pounds and that Joseph, Eydtche and Maria annually pay her 20 pounds for the remainder of her life (Edward has no such mandate). Left to the two daughters, he bequeaths his two wenches, female slaves, and sums of moneys to each daughter.
There is a codicil made in 1805 with some significant changes. First of all, the slave Jacob and wenches, Dina and Deyone, were to be set free upon his death, implying that the farm had less need of them, or farm labor came from another source, or he had a bout of conscience. William at this point was 86, too old to farm, and Joseph had many daughters, maybe one son who was not alive when he made his will, and perhaps the source of income and sustenance was elsewhere. Joseph himself was at this point 57, his daughters married and some of them, by reading Joseph's will, could have been farming land contingent to the Groom family farm. The names of Brandow, Wilham Tolley and John Van Loon are all names of extended family with lands in the near surrounds.
Another point in the codicil is that instead of giving all farm related items to Edward along with clothing, etc., he should get only 1/2 and he and Joseph should share everything 50/50. It also orders that all bonds, notes, book debts, etc., be given to the 2 daughters, and that 100 pounds be given to Edward (no reason given).
The executers of William's will are Joseph and William Brandow, grandson. This is the only reference I have found as to the relationship of a William Brandow who married Maria Patterson and fathered numerous children in the 1790s and eventually moved to Oak Hill. The sponsors for the first child were John and Sarah Claw, and this is only important because the name Claw appears in future deeds for the Howard Hall property. I guess they were all marrying neighbors.
Also discovered in the Groom file is a piece of correspondence from another seeker of Joseph Groom information, a Michael Hanke. He was researching his own family roots and this led him to the marriage of his ancestor, Barnet Gay to Magdeline Groom, daughter of Joseph. He was searching for the Groom burial plot and his correspondence gave every indication that he knew a lot already about the Groom family. His notes and subsequent conversations have been part of piecing together the puzzle, and he has since informed me that he has boxes of information on not only the Groom family, but clues to the history of Greene county in general at the time they were living in the house. I have been anxious to have him come to Howard Hall with his "box" of clippings and plan a moment to do that. He has also unearthed and restored other historic burial grounds and is most anxious to try to find the Grooms'. Well, us too!
October of 1812, only a few months after the death of William, Joseph Groom sold lot 70, a portion of lot 71, and lot 27 to Benjamin Haxton (from New York City). The total sale of land was 210 & 1/16 of an acre for which Mr. Haxton paid $8000. The deed stipulates that 1/8th of an acre be held out of the sale as it is the burial ground of the Groom family (William and Sarah and Rachael were buried there at that time). The deed also exempts 1 & 1/6th of an acre for the Van Hoesen family plot. Casper Van Hoesen was the son-in-law of Joseph Groom.
Joseph moved into the Village of Athens, and it seemed he became active in local town politics. It is hard to know whether Joseph sold the farm within months after his father's death because he was ready for life in the Village (there is no mention in William's will about the property in the Village), or if the share and share mandate in William's codicil made it necessary to sell and split the profits with Edward, but sell he did, to a Benjamin Haxton of New York City. He remained quite active in local civic life. In 1814, his name appeared in an advertisement in the Catskill Recorder as President of the Trustees of the Village of Athens. The advertisement was to petition the New York State Legislature to allow for the Town of Athens to be created out of parts of Coxsackie and Catskill. In 1815, the Town of Athens was made an entity, and would include the Groom farm, now our house, within the boundaries.
Joseph's name also appears in a later paragraph in The History of Greene County as blocking the approval of the purchase of a bell for the new Trinity Episcopal Church, to be paid for by the town. The bell would have served the town function of calling people to religious services, town events or fire. In 1814, the Trustees had voted to appropriate money, but Joseph refused to put the motion and "took his Hatt and left the Board without adjournment." It was left to the church to purchase the bell themselves; perhaps Joseph was either a believer in the separation of church and state or just ornery.
He remained an active citizen, being one of the founders of the Dutch Reformed Church of Athens in 1826, which remained in existence until 1886.
Joseph's will was made in 1828, five years before he died. The first order is for the family burying ground to be entrusted to the care of the Dutch Reformed Church of Athens. He mentions the plot to be on the "farm now occupied by the Reverend Joseph Prentiss in the town of Athens."
He leaves the house in the Village of Athens to his daughter Mary, along with all his household furnishings and miscellaneous items.
To his daughter Magdeline, he gives land (32 acres) purchased from a John Armstrong in Coxsackie. The rest of the estate is to be divided among "all my children," namely: Magdeline, Eytie, Mary, Rebecca and Hannah and the children of Catherine, now deceased.
In 1831, Joseph adds a codicil dividing the property appropriately after the death of Hannah.
The sale of the farm in 1812 was to a Benjamin Haxton of New York City. I know almost nothing of him, as his name hardly ever appears except for one reference I found online while looking for information on Reverend Joseph Prentiss, often referred to as having occupied the Groom farm prior to selling it to a George Griffin. In this case I found a wonderful sentence about a Reverend Prentiss who was for years coveting a property owned on Union Hill, which the church owned, with sweeping views of the Hudson River. Not to be daunted by refusal, he purchased the Haxton Farm "at the south end of the Village," i.e. Athens, later known as the Sprague Farm. Samuel Sprague owned the farm when Beers wrote The History of Greene County, so that is a natural reference to the time the history was written.
The Reverend Joseph Prentiss owned the farm from 1826 until he sold it in 1835 to George Griffin. A native of Connecticut, Reverend Prentiss came to Athens to the fledgling Trinity Episcopal Church, the same church to which Joseph Groom had denied a bell purchase by use of public money. Reverend Prentiss was much loved in the Community, and I found many references to that, some from correspondence between individuals and the Episcopal Diocese of New York as well as James D. Pinckney's "Sketches of Catskill", which notes that: "the clergyman will be remembered by many inhabitants of Catskill as perhaps the most eloquent divine who ever occupied the desk of that church." He served the Athens church for nearly 20 years as well as the Hudson Church for several years, and after 1825, served only Catskill. He resigned due to poor health in 1835, presumably around the same time he sold the farm to George Griffin. And in 1836 he was killed in a freak accident when his stagecoach overturned in Coxsackie while returning from a visit with his daughter. He died without leaving a will. It's a little difficult to figure out exactly, but he very likely deeded over some of the farm property to the children and some was given or sold to Peter Hubbel who was his son-in-law, because George Griffin purchased the Hubbel lot in 1839 and the children's in 1843.
Again, the information about George Griffin is sketchy, but his first purchase in 1835 from Reverend Joseph Prentiss was very likely the farm proper I assume, including the buildings, and as that is the one deed I have yet to find, I am not sure of the acreage. I know of the date of sale from records of Griffin's widow's sale in 1881. (Actually there are 2 missing deeds, the deed of sale from Haxton to Prentiss and deed from Prentiss to Griffin). After the Prentiss purchase, he purchased another lot from Richard Rushmore in 1836, the Hubbel lot in 1839, and in addition to the children's property, another lot in 1843 from William Brandow, possibly the grandson of William Groom.
At the time of the first purchase, George Griffin was a young 24-year-old. It appears he had two marriages; first to Anna Augusta who died in 1841 at age 28, and second to Elizabeth Francis Cooke of Catskill. He produced a family of eight children: two boys and six girls. The census of 1860 lists George Griffin as being a property owner of around 326 acres of farm.
During his lifetime in Greene County, George Griffin became involved in the community of Catskill. He was a founding member of the Presbyterian Church in Catskill and one of the first trustees of the Catskill Savings Bank, which opened for business in July of 1868. I found only one reference to the Griffin family in my periodical research, but in 1879 his wife took out a notice announcing the marriage of a daughter, Sophie D. Griffin, to a Louis Vermilye Davison of New York City. Perhaps members of George Griffin's family still resided in the city and his family visited, or perhaps an acquaintance was made between Sophie and Louis, because by then the Catskill Mountains had become popular as a place for visitors and travelers.
George Griffin died in about 1880 or 1881. His will was probated in 1881, but stipulated that Elizabeth Francis, his wife, sell the property within two years, and she sold the farm to Samuel Sprague in 1881. His will was written in 1867, when he was 56 years old. He stipulates that one son, Fredrick, should be in custody of Fredrick Cooke of Catskill, while custody of all other daughters be in the hands of Elizabeth Francis, his wife. I suspect that at the time of his death, custody of children was probably not an issue.
There is a codicil, but no date on it that I have found in the Griffin file at the Vedder Library. It changes the first clause from "all my debts and funeral expenses to be paid" to giving his wife the use of the farm for two years as well as use of carriages, stock, and farm implements. Maybe by then he had no debts! In the original will of 1867, he leaves his wife $30,000 for her maintenance and support, as well as his "plates, pictures, library, papers, watch, wearing apparel, household furniture and groceries and provisions and fuel for family use."
To his one son, the younger, he leaves $5000, as long as Fredrick makes no claim against the estate. The rest of the real, personal and residue of the estate was to be divided equally among the rest of the children.
It seems evident to me that George Griffin was a man of some substance and could afford the improvements to the farm that seemed to have been added or altered during the time the Griffin family resided there. I would imagine $35,000 cash to wife and child was no small thing in 1881, and if the photos from the interior of the house are taken prior to his death, they indicate a rather comfortable and stylish lifestyle for the day.
By all accounts, Samuel Sprague, who purchased the farm from Mrs. Griffin, was a working farmer. Records classify the land as farmland of 326+ acres for the sum of $20,650. The deed was transferred to Louise Sprague in 1896, and I believe it was due to the death of her husband. I do not have much information about this period, but do believe it may have been when the farmhouse was transformed to "The Woodburne," a boarding house for summer guests. The copy of the photo we have has been published (I believe in Greene County, its Industry and People), printed above a photo of Howard Hall, which it seems filled the same summer time need for an escape to greenery.
In 1921, Louise Sprague sold 6+ acres to the Wagner Family who focused the boarding house on the German constituency escaping urban heat. The deed description of that purchase matches exactly our deed, so it is to be assumed the Wagners purchased several other pieces of property, either from the Sprague land or others, as the Wagner family clearly owned more land than just our 6+ acres.
The Wagners sold the property to the Kelly family, who sold it to O'Connel, then we stepped in. The last 25 or 30 years have been a history of the house suffering neglect and painful renovation decisions. But here we are, full of enthusiasm and expectations.
As you can see by this long epistle, I really lack in juicy tidbits as time goes on.... Lots of the house history of the Wagner period can be gleaned by conversations with the living Wagners; John, Cathy, John's mom, cousins, etc. and neighbors...and there are of course the photos so serendipitously left for our fabricated "memory bank".
- Nora H. Johnson, June 2008