Tag Archives: Altamont NY

My agricultural ancestry

Perhaps because I lived as a child in an 1850s farmhouse on Route 20 in Albany County, N.Y., I take particular interest in the agrarian history of ancestors like my great, great, great grandfather Jeremiah Bull — who in 1860 lived with his family on a farm in Town of Conklin, Broome County, N.Y.

Standing on the porch of our 1850s farmhouse on Route 20 in Albany County, N.Y. (circa 1954). Photo by Norman J. Charboneau
Standing on the porch of our 1850s farmhouse at Whispering Chimneys on Route 20 in Albany County, N.Y. (circa 1954). Perhaps because I lived in farm country until I was seven, I take particular interest in the agrarian history of my ancestors. Photo by Norman J. Charboneau

When I recently discovered Jeremiah’s farm facts, my mind wandered back to the 10-acre farm where I resided in the early 1950s with my parents, maternal grandparents and two younger brothers.

We children absorbed the cycles of nature on the farm — which bore the official name of Whispering Chimneys on a high, swinging metal sign down by the road.

Our family raised only chickens and rented out the hay fields to nearby working farmers — in contrast Jeremiah, whose rural property was productive enough to require a live-in farm hand.

Still, in some ways, his homestead resembled ours. Not a fully working farm, really — since Jeremiah earned his living as a tanner (while my dad worked at General Electric and my mom was a school music teacher). But with a good amount of land — way more than our 10 acres, and sufficient for some working livestock and cultivated fields to provide food and income for his family.

Recalling my formative years at Whispering Chimneys, I conjure up the rush of cool creeks in spring, the taste of tiny wild strawberries in early summer, the warmth of just-laid eggs from the nests in our barn, and the smell of fresh crushed grass in the mouths of the ruminating cows that poked their heads through the fence from the Mennonite farm next door.

I also remember staring in awe at the majestic two-story snow drifts that blew up to the rooftop in winter — when candles were kept ready in case the power went down. And watching white cotton sheets billow skyward in warmer weather on the clothesline that stretched to the stately pines out back.

Of course mine are childhood memories. My dad, who had to deal with practical matters in our drafty farmhouse, took a different view. At age 78, he wrote down his recollections in a third-person story:

A young family came upon one of these mansions and was hypnotized by its ten acres of land, big red barns, and a few tourist cabins. [But] during the first winter they could feel the wind whistling through the walls, and had to fill the walls with poured insulation. It was still so cold that a second furnace was needed to heat the windy west side.

I wonder what Dad would make of having Jeremiah Bull as an agrarian ancestor? He’d probably be pretty amazed at how our early road trips unlocked so much of this family’s history — and how the lives of our ancestors in some ways resembled our own.

What more could I learn about the civilian lives of my Bull forebears during and after the Civil War? The search for answers continues in future posts.

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