GLEANINGS FROM THE CORN FLATS: A boy’s life in 19th century Niskayuna

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It was 1862 when 6-year-old Conrad Mesick, “wrapped in Buffalo robes,” according to his recollections, traveled with his parents and brothers from his birthplace in Guilderland to their new home in Niskayuna.

Along with his parents, Thomas and Anna Barbara, and brothers Jacob and David, Mesick moved to a 114-acre farm that his recently deceased grandfather had purchased in 1854.

Before his death in 1933, Conrad memorialized his recollections about his new home and provided a glimpse into the mid-19th-century life of a young boy in Niskayuna.

war, church, family
Among Mesick’s earliest memories was the U.S. Civil War. He did not remember the beginning or early years of the war, but clearly did “fully recall” Richmond’s fall, the surrender at Appomattox and the joyfulness expressed when the “boys in blue” returned home. He also clearly remembered the influence of the Dutch Reformed Church in his new hometown, which was where “so much of [his] social life” was centered.

Furthermore, the church was the “great power and force in forming the character of [the] community,” he wrote.
It was a country church which, in Conrad’s perspective, like so many other country churches in the young nation, defined the “character and … eminence” of that nation.

Foremost among the prominent people of the town were several Vedder families, one branch of which had established and built the farm that was now owned by his father. Conrad was most familiar with the Cornelius Vedder family, and he was especially close friends with the youngest member of the family, Lansing Talmadge Vedder.

They shared a seat in the “little red school house” they attended, which we know today as Rosendale Elementary School No. 1 (also Grange Hall No. 1542). They carved their names “side by side” in the desk they shared, and together “we planned our earlier campaigns in the social world.”

‘uncle Billy’
Meanwhile, other social adventures awaited the youngster.

Directly across Troy Road from Conrad’s new home was a “red cottage” which was home to William Burgess, an Englishman called “Uncle Billy” by the neighborhood boys. Uncle Billy had spent his youth sailing the high seas with his own real uncle, who was a ship’s captain.

After service at sea, he had traveled in Canada before somehow finding his way to Niskayuna, where he served at times as justice of the peace and was addressed by some as “Squire Burgess.”

Uncle Billy was widowed by the time Conrad’s family came to town, but the stories of life at sea and the wonders of Canada made his home a “gathering place for the boys in the neighborhood.” He was “a kindly old man and his power of narrative made him a most interesting character.”

Unfortunately, Billy had a weakness for drink and frequented two nearby “saloons,” where he filled “a little brown jug” with something that Conrad recalled made Billy “happy and musical.” His drinking also brought about “visions of things … never seen at sea or land.”

The neighborhood boys witnessed those visions take a toll on Uncle Billy, and they were “not without its effect.”

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Van Vrankens
Not far from Lansing and Conrad’s school were several farms belonging to the many Van Vranken families, in an area known then and today as Rosendale. There were so many Van Vrankens that one “always spoke of them by their first name” and, often, middle initials to distinguish even further and avoid confusion.

There was old “John B,” known for his hospitality and kindness; his eldest son, “Jake B”; and another son, Peter or “Curly Pete,” who possessed a “wonderful personality with genuine polish.” There was also “Case,” who had a speech impediment, “not noticed by friends and neighbors” but most evident to strangers. Case was known for his love of horses; the boys frequently saw him on the roads with his trotter and sulky.

West of “John B” was the home of “Uncle Hansi” — legally John Van Vranken — who had four sons and five daughters; Conrad remembered often being “a guest of their hospitality.”

‘boy’s paradise’
A most prominent feature near the farm, at the present-day intersection of Rosendale and Lock 7 Road, was a sawmill, as well as a “boy’s paradise in the form of an old fashioned mill pond.” What young boy could resist the opportunity for “swimming, fishing and rowing in the summer and skating in the winter.”

Furthermore, between the mill pond and the schoolhouse was a tract of land jointly owned by three Van Vranken families, which became a large school playground and the scene at lunchtime recess for playing “fox and hound.”

There were many valleys and pathways worn in the “playground,” and it was the fortunate student who knew the quickest route back to the school when the school bell rang.

Many teachers, according to Conrad’s recollections, had difficulty looking serious while lecturing the “tardy ones” when they finally found their way back to the schoolhouse. After the Civil War, the land became the “training ground” for local militia.

On some afternoons when school ended, “it was one of [Conrad’s] … pleasures to go down to Rosendale and see the soldiers drill.”

Few children today, Conrad opined around 1933, “enjoy such privileges as this vast playground afforded.”

Nearly 90 years later, it would be difficult to disagree.

To submit information to the Niskayuna Historical Committee, email Niskayuna Town Historian Denis Brennan at [email protected].

More: All NewsEverything Niskayuna

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