Landmarks: Ancestral homestead

Things aren’t easily discarded in the Gates family, from the smallest and most trivial possession to

Things aren’t easily discarded in the Gates family, from the smallest and most trivial possession to their stately and historic 1830 farmhouse, the oldest building in the town of Bolton.

Located on Route 9N in the Huddle, a hamlet on the west side of Lake George, the Gates Homestead was actually built by Elijah Reynolds, whose granddaughter, Zilpha Elizabeth Ferris Reynolds, married Jonathan Streeter Gates in 1873. But as William Preston “Bill” Gates will tell you, his ancestors were there before the house was built and long before Jonathan, his great-grandfather, fell in love with Zilpha.

“My great-grandfather’s great-grandfather was John Gates, and his family was one of the first five families that founded the town of Bolton,” said Gates, a retired Glens Falls school teacher who spends his time these days writing local history books and also serving as a steamboat captain on Lake George.

“He and his brother Nathaniel moved here right after the American Revolution, and they’re listed in the first U.S. census of 1790. These families settled in what we call the Huddle, which is actually about a mile south of the hamlet of Bolton Landing.”

The town of Bolton was officially created in 1799, 11 years before the town of Caldwell, now Lake George village, was formed. Elijah Reynolds moved to the area in 1808 as far as Gates can tell, and in 1830 built the house on 90 acres of property. His two sons, George and Amasa, helped him clear the land and build the home, originally on the on the east side of what is now Route 9N, also known as Lake Shore Drive.

A justice of the peace as well as a farmer by 1830, Reynolds built his large white clapboard structure in the Federalist style, with its front facade facing the road and its back to the lake. The building became known as the Gates Homestead sometime after 1873 when Zilpha Reynolds married Jonathan Gates and the couple moved in. Zilpha died in 1899 at the age of 50, and with Jonathan getting older and in ill health, he sold much of the land close to the lake to Dr. William Gerard Beckers in 1919.

It was then that the house was moved across the street, facing the lake as it does today, and Beckers constructed the Villa Maria Antoinette, part of a series of homes on the lake referred to as Millionaire’s Row.

The Gates Homestead isn’t on par with some of the huge mansions built right on the lake from 1890 to 1910, but for the 19th century it was an impressive house. Nearly always shrouded in shade because of the large trees around it, the house has five windows on the second floor aligned perfectly with four windows and the front door on the ground floor.

The covered front porch, supported by five white columns, wraps around the northern end of the house and extends to the rear. As with most houses built in the first half of the 19th century, the rooms are relatively small and the ceiling low. An extension on the rear of the building includes a low-ceiling kitchen, a woodshed and a summer kitchen.

Like a time capsule

“It’s something of a time capsule,” said Gates, who grew up living down the road with his parents and didn’t move into the home until his Uncle Bob died in 1996. “There’s no computer and no television in the house, and I come from a family of collectors. When they don’t know what to do with their heirlooms, they just say, ‘Give it to Bill.’ So, we keep things and I’ve been tagging them so the next generation will know exactly what they are.”

It was the Huddle Bay area of the lake, about eight miles north of Lake George Village, that first drew settlers because, as Gates writes in his book “Old Bolton on Lake George,” “most of the lake’s basin is enclosed by mountains of rock that drop to the water’s edge in steep cascades and was unsuitable for farming. Therefore, it was on Bolton’s rolling hillsides that farming was destined to begin.”

The Huddle Bay area also provided families with something of a safe haven from unwanted visitors to the lake.

“Lake George was a travel route, and right after the American Revolution things were still pretty hostile,” said Gates. “You had native Americans who weren’t always so friendly, and you had loyalists who were making their way to Canada. People were still coming and going, and in the Huddle you were up away from that a bit. You were a safe distance from the lake.”

By 1816, the Huddle had become an official hamlet when the first post office in that area was opened.

“It was the first place where you had a few homes and a few businesses, like the tannery, a general store, a grist mill, a blacksmith shop,” said Gates. “People were getting together for safety and convenience. It wasn’t until the 1880s, when the larger steamboats were coming to Bolton Landing, that most of the commerce ended up moving a mile north of us here in the Huddle.”

Trolley becomes diner

Beginning in 1949, some of that commerce that was happening in Bolton Landing included the Bill Gates Diner, a former 1895 trolley car renovated into a popular eatery.

Gates’ father and mother ran the business from 1949 to 1981, and the trolley eventually ended up at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. It is currently on loan to the Champlain Valley Transportation Museum in Plattsburgh.

While Gates is happy to have the trolley in a museum, he also wouldn’t mind if somebody plopped it in down in his backyard, where it could rest alongside the family wood shop, blacksmith shop, and two old barns, all of them restored since Gates took over possession of the property 16 years ago.

“There was a lot to do when I moved in in 1996,” said Gates, whose Uncle Bob was a bachelor but had a longtime girlfriend, Lorraine Cushman of Bolton.

“He was an excellent mechanic who served during World War II, as my father did. Their mother was Nettie, who took in a lot of boarders during the 1920s and ’30s. There are so many wonderful characters and stories in my family. My father worked as a welder down in Hudson Falls right after the war, but he hated the drive and that’s why my parents purchased the trolley and turned it into the diner. But I think he really was a frustrated historian. He was a history buff who really wanted to be a history teacher. History has always been important in my family.”

A graduate of SUNY-Plattsburgh, Gates has been greatly aided in his renovation work by the help of his sister Jeanine Gates Garnsey, who died in 2007, and his two children, Michael and Allison, as well as other family and friends. All the work led to the Gates Homestead being placed on the New York State Register of Historic Places in 2008. In 2010 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Willing tour guide

While it remains a private residence, Gates doesn’t mind giving visitors a quick look at the place.

“I’ll have a class of fourth-graders in here for a tour, and I enjoy showing the house to small groups,” said Gates, who taught history in the Glens Falls school district for 33 years.

“I appreciate the place a lot more now. People would tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s your home?’ but when I was growing up I just kind of took it for granted. But I love the place, and fortunately I have other members of the family coming along who feel the same way.”

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