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Fall Home and Car Care Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 23, 2010


Making a landmark a hallmark of home

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

KNOWERSVILLE — Laura Shore and Nancy Ota are well equipped for the rigors and challenges of restoring a historic landmark, and making it into an inviting home.

A blue and gold state historical marker on Route 146 in front of their house proclaims, “Inn of Jacob Crounse: Built 1833, Midway Tavern where horses were changed on Schoharie-Albany stage coach route.”

Near the marker is an enormous slab of stone carved with a step to allow passengers to easily alight a horse-drawn carriage.

“I didn’t want the house to feel like a museum,” says Shore as she settles into a modern sofa with clean comfortable lines.

Shore was an art major at Union College and some of her work graces the white walls.

Across the living room sits Nancy Ota, a professor at Albany Law School. She is a woman who is not afraid to try new things, and then excels at them. Raised in California, she earned a bachelor’s degree at Berkeley and became a nutritionist before earning a master’s degree in business administration at Tulane to work as a banker in international trade and corporate finance in San Francisco and New Orleans. Finally, she earned a law degree at Stanford.

Ota’s grandson, Victor Tomelden, completes the household; he is a sixth-grader at Farnsworth Middle School. Victor’s favorite room in the historic building is, as it should be, his own bedroom.

A Batman aficionado, Victor shows off a print of the superhero made by Mohawk Fine Papers, where Shore works.

“The mill makes papers for everything from stationary to beautiful books,” says Shore, who is in charge of E-commerce — marketing and building the company’s website for sales on line.

She describes the last few years as “an interesting time” since the use of paper — for such staples as companies’ annual reports — has declined

“With the recession in 2008, there was an overnight shift, like someone turned off the light,” Shore said. “It generated a lot of soul searching.”

But challenges don’t seem to faze Shore. She’s worked with the company in figuring out new ways to grow.

Problems with Jacob Crounse’s inn haven’t fazed Shore and Ota either.

“Nancy spotted the house in the paper,” recalled Shore. “I love to do genealogy. She said, ‘You’d be able to research everybody that stayed at the inn.’”

Shore went on, “We fell in love with the idea of the house….We probably minimized the challenges that lay ahead.”

Old-house surprises

Shore and Ota bought the house in 2007, and did a lot of work before moving in, in 2008.

“We didn’t expect the recession,” said Shore. “Everything you do in an old house uncovers multiple other things.”

For example, when they tore down the ugly wallpaper in the dining room, they discovered the walls has always been papered and there was no finish coat on the plaster.

Plastering is a dying art in an age when most builders use drywall. They found someone to do the work but discovered that, on one of the walls upstairs, the plaster would not dry. It turned out that a hanging chimney was open to the weather and was saturating the wall with water.

In the family room, while taking the paper off the wall, “in one corner, you could see through to the outside,” said Shore. The corner post had been compromised by termites and carpenter ants and had rotted away.

“And the cross beam, too,” added Ota.

More discoveries awaited,

“Last summer,” said Shore, “I was out gardening, digging and pulling things away from the foundation, and I could feel cold air on a hot summer day. There was a hole in the sill, big enough for a good-sized animal to get in.”

Part of the sill had to be replaced.

Another time, Ota related,  “We heard this noise and then heard a clanging and a rolling.” It turned out a hydraulic support beam in the basement had given way.

The family hasn’t seen any ghosts although Shore says, “We’d like to see one.”

And not all of the discoveries have been bad. “One cool thing was they uncovered a wooden gutter inside the roof,” said Ota.

Careful caretakers

“We don’t want to mess up anything that’s original,” said Shore, and so the project is proceeding deliberately and with care.

The clapboard house, which now has a gleaming coat of white paint, has a pillared front porch that stretches all across the front. Huge floor-to-ceiling windows on the first story flood the downstairs with light. A cupola is perched in the center of the house, on top of the second story. Shore points to the trim and says she supposes it is a Victorian addition.

Inside, a visitor is greeted with a mix of early 1800’s construction — like hand-hewn beams exposed in a back room or an original Federal mantle in a front room — and Victorian additions — like a marble fireplace in the living room, polished narrow oak floorboards, and crystal chandeliers.

The front door opens to a beautiful center hall, where a leafy chandelier hangs from an ornate plaster medallion.  Wide white stairs, with a wooden banister and newel post, divide in two at the landing.

To the left is the family room. To the right is a dining room, centered with a long table and a crystal chandelier overhead. The walls look as if they are stenciled in a folk tradition — actually an elegant silk-screened paper of white on fawn (Thibault’s “Bridgewater Damask”).

Shore has a large family with four siblings; she enjoys hosting dinners for 22 people at Thanksgiving and Christmas and is pleased the dining room has ample space.

Behind the dining and living rooms is a stunning kitchen. Ota and Shore took out the former cabinets, which weren’t original, and installed elegant new ones, tall and slender above the sink and stove, with white subway tile on the wall between.

Overhead, beaded board fills in between exposed beams. A center island is an original piece from Altamont’s old A & P. Working at the island, the pair can look out at the backyard garden and patio and the cottage beyond, which will one day be a guesthouse.

The outdoor scene appears to come indoors on the far wall of the kitchen, which is papered in a silk-screened vintage print alive with colorful birds. (The kitchen paper is another Thibault design — “Little Bird.”)

A door through the vines and birds leads to a bathroom. There, the old tub was preserved, but repositioned, and the original pedestal sink was saved, too.

The unglazed hexagonal floor tiles appear to be original but are actually reproductions. But what dominates the room are the tiles surrounding the tub. They are varying shades of celadon and give the effect of a peaceful pond on a summer day. The bathroom tiles, like those in the kitchen, were made by Shore’s brother and sister-in-law, Don Shore and Linda Ellett, owners of L’esperance Tile Works in Rock City Falls, N.Y. They have done tile for many historic places, Shore said, including Mark Twain’s house, now a museum in Hartford, Conn.

The old inn’s backyard has been reconfigured with massive stone steps leading to the driveway, a stone wall that forms a border for a lush garden, and a patio and walkway of bluestone leading to the cottage in back.

The extensive stonework was done by Roy Melby of Guilderland Center. The bluestone, from Schoharie, is newly laid but looks as if it has always been there.

Shore is the gardener and says of Ota, “She waters.”

“And I pick tomatoes,” adds Ota.

A row of sunflowers forms a colorful backdrop for the kitchen garden, which includes basil, parsley, sage, and rosemary.

“The thyme grows wild in the backyard,” says Shore.

New life at 50

Shore, through Ota’s finding the listing, was drawn to the house for its history.

“I loved the expressiveness,” said Shore. “This is a house that has lived through a lot. It’s never going to be Martha Stewart.”

One of the things that interests Shore is the function of the inn.

“This was a stage-coach stop,” she said. “I was trying to understand what it meant, changing horses, for people disembarking.”

She and Ota on a recent trip to The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown brought back a copy of an 1843 poster on “The New Arrangement Between Albany and Schoharie.” It is topped with an etching of four white horses pulling a carriage.

The poster describes how a mail coach will leave the Clinton Hotel in Albany three days a week at 8 a.m., “passing through Guilderland, Knox, and Gallupville,” arriving in Schoharie at 3 p.m. to connect with the mail line heading west. On the alternate three days — with no travel on Sunday — the seven-hour trip is made in reverse, arriving in Albany in time for the steamboats to New York.

“First rate carriages and horses and careful and obliging drivers are employed,” says the poster, “and no pains will be spared to render this line deserving of public favor.”

Although Shore had, at first, hoped to find ledgers of guests who had stayed at the house when it was a hotel, she was disappointed that she found very little documentation but would love it if anyone who has stories to share would e-mail her at: crounse-inn@earthlink.net.

Beyond the history of the inn, though, Shore is interested in the history of Knowersville and would like the old hamlet to re-establish its identity. Before the train station was built several miles down the road, Knowersville, in the era of the horse and buggy, was the center of what is now called Altamont.

According to columns written by the late Guilderland historian Arthur B. Gregg for The Enterprise more than 80 years ago, and since published as a book, Old Hellebergh: Scenes From Early Guilderland, Jacob Crounse, born in 1783, was one of four sons of Frederick Crounse. Frederick Crounse came to America from Germany in 1754 as a 7-year-old child, with his mother, Elizabeth, and father, Frederick, a shoemaker by trade.

The three Crounses were en route to Schoharie to join a Palatine settlement there. “While they were making their way along the foot of the Hellebergh, the wife, growing tired of travel by land and sea, gave completely out and said she could go not further,” Gregg wrote.

When the young Frederick grew up, he continued to farm the land at the foot of the Helderbergs, acquiring 600 acres, where he raised his four sons, including Jacob. Jacob Crounse’s father is famous for helping to feed the Revolutionary soldiers. Because of his contribution to the soldiers, the Dutch patroon no longer required him to pay rent as most of the other farmers were forced to.

Jacob Crounse married Harriet Van Valkinburg and, over the course of 25 years, they had 14 children. Jacob made the trip west to Schoharie that his grandparents had originally intended. He kept an inn on the Loonenbergh Turnpike at Beekman’s Corners and is described, in Gregg’s book, quoting from Roscoe’s History of Schoharie County, as “a ready compounder of ‘flips’ and ‘toddy,’ much to the satisfaction of his many customers.”

In 1833, at age 50, after the death of his wife, Jacob Crounse returned to Guilderland and built the stagecoach inn where Shore and Ota now live. Referring to Knowersville as the Old Village, Gregg describes how the inn was built: “The late ‘Webb’ Whipple…stated that the blue foundation stones you may see any day were brought from Howe Cave by teams of horses and that the lumber was cut off the Pruyn place on the mountain.

“To Jacob, it was the most natural thing in the world, after his tavern on the Loonenbergh Turnpike, to want an inn on the Old Schoharie Road, near his son, Frederick, M.D., who had built the house just above…Both pieces of property were off the Knower estate. Sixteen years would still elapse before the Schoharie and Albany Plank Road would go through, but still this was the ancient artery between the two places. Traffic was heavy, and the inn business good. If he had to begin life over again, he might as well — yes, he might as well get someone to help run his hostelry — so, he took unto himself another wife.”

A Whig, Jacob Crounse became Guilderland’s Commissioner of Schools in 1838 and served as Superintendent of Schools in 1844-5.  In 1860, in a run for Justice of the Peace, he beat his son, Christopher, a Democrat.

“‘Meanwhile,’ said Mr. Whipple, ‘Yaup, as they called him, either sold or lost the tavern. I think he lost it for he was a great speculator. The inn was henceforth known as the Keenholts Hotel. Yaup went to live with his son, Dr. Fred, and made coffins in the building behind the office the doctor had erected on the corner near his home.”

The Frederick Crounse House, which still stands on the Altamont side of the Knower House, next to Gun Club Road was purchased several years ago for back taxes; the purchase was made jointly by the town of Guilderland and the village of Altamont. Altamont’s mayor has said he would like to see it become a museum for the village.

Gregg’s book continues with Whipple’s narrative on Crounse’s coffins: “I have seen him making them. They sold for from $12 to $15. A fine old gentleman, too, good build, stocky, smooth face, and hair that even to his death stayed iron gray.” He lived to be 94.

Funny story, Thrilling epic

Gregg also writes that Jacob Crounse was Knowersville’s first postmaster, a position he held for more than 20 years. Gregg uncovered a copy of Williams’ New York Annual Register for 1840 in a Berne loft and writes, “In the list of postmasters for that year, swept into office on the tide of ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler Too’ — the ‘Log Cabin - Hard Choice Campaign,’ is given as postmaster for Knowersville — Jacob Crounse.”

Whipple recalled, “During the Civil War, he was there handing out the little packet of letters or papers that would come only once a day.” The post office was in the store that stood opposite his tavern.

Gregg also relates “the story of Jacob and the first postage stamp.”

Up until 1847, payment for the delivery of letters was made either in advance or by the receiving party. A single sheet of folded paper could be delivered up to 30 miles for 6 cents, up to 80 miles for 10 cents, up to 150 miles for 12.5 cents, up to 400 miles for 18.75 cents, and over 400 miles for 25 cents. Two sheets were charged double those rates, and three sheets, triple.

The postmaster, on receiving a pre-paid letter, stamped or wrote the office, the date, “Postage Paid,” and his name.

With that background, Gregg relates an 1847 incident in Knowersville: “Into the post office in the Old Village on this particular day, came a little boy with a letter to mail and handed the usual fee to old Jacob. The latter took a little piece of paper from a box and gave it to the boy.

“‘What’s that?’ said the boy.

“‘Why, sonny, that’s what they call a stamp,’ said the old man. ‘You lick it on the back and stick it right there on the corner.’

“‘All right,’ said the boy and handed the letter back with the stamp affixed.

“The old man took it, turned it over, reached for his glasses, and looked at it again. Then, he took his quill and wrote beneath the stamp — ‘Knowersville, N.Y. Jacob Crounse, Post Master, Postage Paid — If the damn thing sticks.’”

Gregg concluded his chapter on Jacob Crounse with these grand words: “Down through the century he comes, reading George Washington’s Inaugural Address, training for the War of 1812, watching the Mexican War, feeding the Schoharie Regiment in ’62 as they encamped about his place in the fields of the Old Village, and weeping in sympathy as he delivered sad news from the battlefield to some trembling hand.

“Lincoln — Reconstruction — the completion off the railroad that would spell downfall for the Old village and birth for the new. His life is the story of our country. It is a thrilling epic, well worth the tribute of some mighty pen.”

Laura Shore may use the modern version of the pen — the online web log instead. “I’m sort of scheming to create an identity for this hamlet,” she said.

She has read up on Crounse history.

“I’d like to create a blog,” she said, “like ‘The Knowersville Enterprise’ [the original name of The Altamont Enterprise] or ‘Knowersville Notes’ and post tidbits.”


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