GLEANINGS FROM THE CORN FLATS: Tracing Niskayuna’s noteworthy Brownsey family


NISKAYUNA Six generations of Brownseys have lived in Niskayuna, beginning in the late 19th century.

Patriarch Frederick Henry Brownsey (1852-1933) came to America in the mid-1890s from Somerset, England.

Frederick first considered joining two brothers in Australia but, facing health issues, opted for a shorter journey to America instead.  

Following a difficult Atlantic crossing with his wife, Emma Priddle Brownsey (1855-1899), they immigrated through Ellis Island. A more comfortable overnight steamer carried them up the Hudson River to Troy. Sons Reginald (1877-1969) and Overton (1875-1956), who had traveled earlier, met them in Troy with a horse-drawn wagon for the final leg to Niskayuna.

Emma’s sister, Harriet Moncton, arranged a home rental at 2955 Troy Road, directly opposite the Birchwood Lane intersection. The home still stands today adjacent to Capital Forestry.

Frederick fathered 10 children, including two namesakes who died in childhood. Sadly, Emma passed in 1899 shortly after the birth of their last child, Adolphus, who also died in childhood.

Reginald and brother Newman Philip, or “Phil” (1880-1965), figured prominently in Niskayuna’s history. Reginald founded “Brownsey and Marks Greenhouse” on Troy Road located just west of the ancestral Winne 3009 Troy Road property on land acquired from Thomas Winne. B&M Greenhouse was the first in this region to grow winter produce.

With nearly four acres under glass, it was considered the largest greenhouse east of the Mississippi at the time.

Several coal-fired steam boilers provided heat for the greenhouse. To secure steady and reasonably priced fuel, Reginald eventually purchased the Niskayuna Coal Company.

Phil wasn’t as successful in his own greenhouse endeavor, so instead he built a general store at Troy Road and Rosendale, opposite the landmark Denison General Store/Post Office. Eventually, Phil found it more profitable to rent the building and it later became Mack’s Lunch, a popular Niskayuna eatery. A Dollar Tree store now sits on the site.

Phil delved into home construction as well. His homes included Sears catalog kits, shipped by rail via the Niskayuna depot. Among some notable homes Phil built were those for the Cregier, Carpenter and Faddegon families.

Phil’s son, Laurence (1915-2015), was an enterprising young man earning a reliable reputation delivering newspapers. During World War II, Laurence collected scrap metal, which he sold at a Watervliet yard. Using proceeds from these sales, Laurence purchased coal that he delivered to several newspaper customers. Perhaps inspired by uncle Reg, Laurence grew this sideline into a full-fledged coal business that later morphed into kerosene and finally to home heating oil operating as Brownsey Oil Company.

Laurence also moonlighted as a taxi driver. In this role he met famous entertainer Jackie Gleason. Gleason’s plane was delayed at Albany Airport, so he asked Laurence to recommend a really good Italian restaurant. Laurence took him to Panetta’s on Broadway in Menands. Apparently it was a most enjoyable meal, and as legend has it Jackie promised to contact Laurence whenever future travel bought him here.

Laurence’s son, Peter Brownsey, grew up participating in the Boy Scout troop at Niskayuna Reformed Church with lifelong buddies Roger Griffin and Jeff Denison. All three became Eagle Scouts under the leadership of Scoutmaster Roland Alexander. A memorable winter project found the boys building wooden canoes in the church basement.

Communicants complained of powerful odors emanating from sealant the boys were using. Partners Peter and Jeff aspired to name their canoe “Old Ironsides,” but at the urging of dismayed leaders it instead became “Mohawk.” The Scouts enjoyed numerous Adirondack canoe trips, including a culmination adventure on a weeklong trip to La Verendrye Wildlife Reserve in Canada.

Peter entered the family oil firm in 1966 and immediately invigorated the business. Utilizing knowledge gained by studying meteorology, Peter applied heating degree day calculations to refine fuel usage estimates for his customers.

Brownsey efficiently served clients by using large oil tankers, thereby eliminating travel to the Port of Albany for his smaller delivery trucks.

Under Peter’s direction, with assistance from son, Noah, Brownsey Oil flourished, growing to more than 1,000 customers as they acquired Murray, Fanniff and Niskayuna Oil. In 2001, Brownsey Oil was sold to Buhrmaster Oil, now Buhrmaster Energy.  

One can only wonder what new history Peter’s five sons and their offspring might contribute to this interesting local family narrative.

The author acknowledges and thanks Peter and Noah Brownsey for sharing background information and photos for this article. Please contact Niskayuna Town Historian Denis Brennan ([email protected]) with comments or questions.

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