Schenectady County

SCCC professor unearthing history at long-lost Old Fort

Tucked behind a white picket fence in the backyard of an unassuming brown house at 15 Halcyon St. is

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Somewhere between 1891 and 2013, a piece of Scotia’s history was lost.

By many accounts, the Old Fort did once exist. Built in the 1750s, the fort was remembered mostly as a ramshackle structure constructed largely from stone, but also some wood. More than a century later, Union College students who visited the site described it in a report as ancient-looking, its entrance guarded by “massive doors and heavy irons.”

Inside were Revolutionary War relics — an English musket and blunderbuss used in the Battle of Saratoga, a looking glass imported from Holland in 1616, and a dozen or so muskets, including the one used by “the old soldier.”

That’s what they called him around town, at least. Nicholas G. Veeder was the keeper of the Old Fort and the last living Revolutionary War veteran in Schenectady County. People used to come from all over to look at his relics. He and his son hosted drinking parties and were well known and liked around town.

He died in April 1862, less than four months after his 100th birthday. His old fort-turned-museum was torn down to its foundation in 1891, and some years later mysteriously plucked from recorded history only to pop up again just last month.

“If a community values its history, they will protect it and they will educate their young folk and future generations with the importance of what they know about their local and regional history,” said Ron Kingsley, an archeology professor at Schenectady County Community College. “Unfortunately, this father and son died and time went on and people forgot this existed.”

It’s curious, too, since the fort was long considered a regional destination. People took the train into Scotia to see it. About a decade, maybe two, after it was torn down and the relics auctioned, streets were carved through the old Veeder farm on which the fort sat. The farmland was divided into plots. Houses went up and a neighborhood was built. The fort, it seemed, was lost to history.

But with the help of a few suspicious friends, Kingsley believes he has unearthed what is left of the Old Fort.

Tucked behind a white picket fence in the backyard of an unassuming brown house at 15 Halcyon St. is a pile of debris and a low stonewall. Nearby sits an old rust-colored shed. The debris pile is several feet high and full of slate slabs, greywacke stone and orange-red bricks. Earth has grown around and into it, so that it is more of a permanent structure than a pile of loose rock. If examined closely, the stonewall several yards away contains a broken stone inscribed with the year 1818 and a long flat stone inscribed with the date “MAY 1, 1885.”

Local history buffs have strong reason to believe that these inscriptions were the doing of Abe Veeder, Nicholas Veeder’s youngest son and fellow keeper of the fort.

“He seemed to be very focused on dates,” said Laura Conrad, a local real estate agent and graduate of SCCC’s Community Archaeology Program. “He remembered anniversaries of stuff. He never married. He lived with his father and brother and used to write stuff in his diary like, ‘This is the anniversary of my mother’s death’ or ‘I was in so-and-so’s wedding today.’ ”

Abe Veeder started a diary June 13, 1828, the day his mother died in a mowing accident at the Veeder barn. In a 1992 report on Nicholas Veeder, Glenville history buff Peter H. Graham wrote that the youngest Veeder kept a diary most of his life.

“The entries starting Jan. 9, 1829 are curiously unemotional as is most of the writing,” Graham wrote, followed by three short entries from that month.

An entry dated January 17 simply read: “I was to the funeral of my mother. Pretty warm day for the time of year.”

Abe grew increasingly eccentric, while his father continued his role as a revered local celebrity and storyteller. After all, he had a lifetime of stories to tell. The stories he enjoyed most were, of course, those from the battlefield.

Schenectady County Historical Society and Schenectady Gazette archives show he was just 15 when he shouldered a musket and enrolled in the Second Albany County Militia in 1777. He helped scout Ballston and Galway that year, and later did garrison duty at Fort Paris (Stone Arabia). The next year he marched against the enemy under Joseph Brandt after the destruction of Canajoharie. He marched in the Battle of Johnstown in 1781 and escorted General Abraham Ten Broeck and his regiment around Saratoga Lake, according to Graham’s research.

“He took it as his mission to follow through on his zeal for the American Revolution and so he collected various weapons and stuff and made a little exhibit in the loft of his fort,” said Kingsley. “He would conduct tours and give stories and became a local resource. He led parades in Schenectady and he was really a very famous character until his death.”

In these parades, he carried a Liberty flag that can be seen in an old photo from the 1860s of a uniformed Veeder seated outside his fort and surrounded by muskets. The flag is now on display at the Schenectady County Historical Society.

A few stone inscriptions wouldn’t have been enough to convince Kingsley he had found the site of the Old Fort. To be sure, the professor and a handful of students from his program set about mapping the site a month ago. They finished this week.

Over a half-dozen visits, the crew began plotting information and artifacts into a grid. They took out a section of the stone wall to look for artifacts and to determine how far down it went. They used a probe to study the ground beneath the surface and discovered a stone foundation about 10 inches down that covered a 16-square-foot plot of the backyard.

“That was very important,” said Kingsley. “Future owners of this site probably threw soil on top of this and it buried the foundation. But what we’re seeing is that history is very deep, and through archeology you can bring the past up to the present and make interpretations based on the evidence you have.”

The crew dug a 2- by 4-foot trench over the foundation and dug up bits of stone, some pottery and a hand-forged nail from the 1700s. Then they got around to the debris pile, which contained a mix of old stones, slate, brick and bits of plastic bag. The latter points to a 20th century innovation, so the group was able to rule out the pile as being part of the original fort structure. Rather, they determined through the type of stones in the pile and the size and shape of several bricks that what they were looking at was torn-up foundation from the 1700s. Whoever owned the property after the fort was torn down tossed other debris into the pile over the years.

Kingsley said there are records that show when the fort was torn down, several area residents took pieces of the stone foundation and used them on their property. Much was left over, though, and remained on the site.

That piece of local legend never dawned on Scotia Mayor Kris Kastberg when he discovered an inscribed stone in his backyard a few houses down the street. When he moved onto the property, he noticed a stone wall out back and decided to extend it around the yard’s perimeter.

“As I did that, I came across this rock,” he said Thursday morning.

Crouching in front of the wall, he pointed to a flat gray stone nestled between two layers of the wall. It bore an inscription: 1826 AV.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “I thought maybe it had been part of the original foundation of my house. But Laura [Conrad] pointed out that those initials could stand for Abe Veeder.”

Conrad had suspected all along that the property at 15 Halcyon St. might contain remnants of the Old Fort. It seemed to match up with old maps of the Veeder farm and fort. When one of her colleagues recently sold the property, she took advantage of the transition period. Her husband, Ron Simmons, knew the buyer and toured the backyard one day.

When he saw the stones, his alarm bells went off.

“I went back to Laura and said, ‘You need to get a hold of Ron,’ ” he said Thursday.

The discovery of the underground foundation was convincing. So were the inscribed stones and dates and initials. But Kingsley said he can’t say with 100 percent certainty that what he found was the foundation of the Old Fort.

“I can only say that this is the preliminary archeological component,” he said. “What we need to do now is the document linkage. But the material we found says a lot. We hope that this will eventually show that Scotia’s got some local history it can be proud of and let people know that this man was an important character.”

Veeder and his son, Abe, likely owed some of their celebrity status to their drunken escapades.

“He did a lot of drinking and had a lot of alcoholic friends,” said Kingsley. “He loved his museum and had people over all the time. It gave him all the fame and glory that I’m sure he loved.”

The Veeder farm was never short of alcohol and spirits, according to Graham’s research. At one point during the 1840s or 1850s, court records show three girls were sentenced after taking part in an orgy at the Old Fort with 24 boys and the Veeder family. Nicholas himself was allegedly involved, and — if you were wondering — he would have been in his 80s or 90s by then.

“Nicholas knew how to have a good time,” wrote Graham, “and is recorded as dancing to his favorite jig ‘Soldier’s Joy,’ played by Abe on his fiddle outside the fort on his hundredth birthday, December 25th, 1861.”

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