Categories: Fall Home
NISKAYUNA — When Jeffrey Stringer purchased his home on Rosendale Road in 1998, he found — quite literally — history inside its walls.
Stringer was replacing the vermiculite insulation in the attic with cut foam blocks, and as he scooped the old insulation out of the walls, with it came a veritable treasure trove of the history of a house that dates to the 1840s.
“You could just scoop it out and find stuff in there,” Stringer said. “Buttons, a shoe, marbles, just trinkets, doodads, knickknacks — whatever you could find.”
Inside the walls there was even some documentation that helped illustrate the business interest of the home’s original owner, Matthew Winne Jr. Stringer found a receipt, more than 150 years old, for the purchase of a pair of gray workhorses purchased in Troy.
Perhaps they’d been used to help work the 80 acres of farmland that were once part of the property, or maybe they’d been instrumental in the sale and transport of coal from the tipple that once stood at the front of the property.
“They were grays,” Stringer said, “so I don’t know if maybe they didn’t show dirt from the coal dust.”
In the more than two decades he’s owned the house, Stringer — a retired exhibit specialist at the New York State Museum — has collected boxes of miscellanea that help tell the home’s story.
Stringer married his wife, Denise, in 1999, and she shared his passion for exploring the history of the home.
In fact, as a gift for her husband one year, Denise embarked on a massive project. She spent countless hours deep in research, delving into resources at the Schenectady Historical Society to comb through maps, genealogies, property records and more to put together a massive manuscript — titled “Finding Home in Niskayuna” — that not only explores the history of their current home and of the Winne family, but also traces the property the house sits on going back hundreds of years.
“I had just retired and my husband was part of the history department at the New York State Museum,” Denise said. “I did this for him.
“I still had a lot of energy.”
Denise’s work begins by tracing the area’s Native American roots, then back to the property’s early days as part of a massive land grant commissioned for Dutch settlers by the king of the Netherlands in the 17th century, to its purchase by Matthew Winne Sr. before the Stringers’ current home was built by Matthew Winne Jr. around 1842.
“I did a tremendous amount of my research down at the Schenectady Historical Society,” Denise said. “It takes into account the history of the Native Americans in relation to the Dutch. It gives you the original maps — the only maps that are available, really. It’s a fascinating thing to me. It takes a lot of time to go through all of this.
“We give all the history leading up to the Winnes,” she added, “and then we go into depth about this American family.”
The Stringers’ research has uncovered a great deal about both the Winne family and the home.
Matthew Winne Jr. represented Schenectady in the New York State Assembly as a member of the Whig Party; served as a postmaster; and had multiple business interests, including farming, coal sales, operating a boatyard on the Mohawk River and owning a boarding facility where some of the farm workers lived.
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Other farm workers — as well as at least one Dutch-born domestic servant, though the Winnes weren’t slave owners — lived in what is now the basement, which still has several features from the original construction of the home, including a wood-burning brick stove that was part of the original kitchen.
There are several other pieces of the original home that have lasted to this day, including much of the woodwork in the dining room.
“The woodwork and the fireplace in [the dining] room is original,” Jeffrey said. “In the living room, it’s not. It’s a replacement.”
There’s also some speculation — by both the Stringers and through surveys conducted by the town of Niskayuna — as to whether some parts of the current house were once part of a different house on the property, or merely additions made to the original house over time.
“There’s a door downstairs which might’ve been recycled from a different property, and there are a couple of beams that indicate there might be some truth to Denise’s belief that this was a different house at one time. Or, it could’ve just been recycled when they built the house,” Jeffrey said.
“You’ve got a solid wall here, solid wall there and then the rest of the house is just the little bump-outs,” he added as he gave a tour of the basement.
“Those could be the additions,” Denise said.
“It’s really hard to tell,” Jeffrey Stringer replied, “because the brickwork is different.”
The home also features a few quirks that show the property’s age. Technically, the front of the home faces the Mohawk River, away from Rosendale Road. That’s because the house was constructed just a few years after the completion of the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad in 1838 — the first railroad built in the state.
“The front of the house is to the river, but you come in the back at the roadside,” Jeffrey said. “The variances and everything dictated that’s the front yard and that’s the backyard. The garage is in the front, because it was grandfathered in. When I moved in, there was a dilapidated structure there and that was taken down.”
“Very dilapidated,” Denise added.
The presence of the railroad also helped provide the Stringers with vital clues about the way the Winnes led their lives, gleaned from the tiny pieces of history dug up inside the walls.
“Everything [Winne] bought came from Troy,” Jeffrey said. “It didn’t come from Schenectady. It was closer to go to Troy, because after 1838 when the railroad was working here, it’s a quicker trip to go to Troy. It’s a bigger town, and that’s probably where his buddies were.”
“Mrs. Winne liked to shop in Troy,” Denise Stringer added, “because there was more selection. Schenectady was more of an industrial city.”