Peter Couchman may not be one of the founders of the Schoharie County Historical Society. But as the group celebrates its 125th year this summer, the former New York assemblyman from Gilboa will be celebrated as a man of vision.
“It was Couchman who ensured that the Old Stone Fort would become property of the people of Schoharie County,” said Pete Lindemann of Howes Cave, a society trustee who worked with museum staff to create an exhibit on the founders.
“It had been an armory, and the adjutant general of New York wanted to sell the building, but Couchman interceded. Without him, we might not have the fort and the museum today.”
The structure was built as a church in 1772, converted into a fort during the American Revolution, and then, after being turned back into a church, became an armory in 1857.
In 1873, it was given to the people of Schoharie County thanks to legislation pushed through the state Assembly by Couchman.
WHAT: An exhibit to celebrate Schoharie County Historical Society’s 125th anniversary
WHERE: Old Stone Fort Museum, 145 Fort Road, Schoharie
WHEN: Through Oct. 25
HOW MUCH: $7, $6 for seniors, $2 for children 5-17
MORE INFO: 295-7192, www.theoldstonefort.org
“People who were really interested in history realized they had this great fort and thought, ‘Well, what are we going to do with it?’ ” said Lindemann. “They also had a lot of stuff from the American Revolution that was here and there around the county, and they decided to put it all in one place, this wonderful centerpiece that’s been home to the society since it started in 1889.”
Solomon Sias, Henry Cady and Henry F. Kingsley are considered the “Big Three” in a group of 17 men that formed the organization. Carle Kopecky, who will begin his 19th year at the Old Stone Fort Museum, is the executive director. He and two other full-time employees, including curator Dan Beams, are paid by the county, and six part-time employees are paid by the historical society.
A New Jersey native, Kopecky was always interested in the American Revolution, a major part of which was played out in the Schoharie Valley.
“Certainly the American Revolution and the Colonial period are very important parts of Schoharie’s history,” he said. “We may think of ourselves as a poor county these days, and that may or may not be true. But at the time of the Revolution, Schoharie was a very wealthy place.”
The valley’s 18th century history is reflected in the Old Stone Fort.
“The Old Stone Fort is a very unique place, because there are very few original fortifications from the Revolution that are still essentially in their original condition,” said Kopecky.
“Fort Ticonderoga was essentially a pile of rubble. Fort Stanwix was completely reconstructed, and Fort Klock, which is probably the closest thing to us, is really a fortified home. During the Revolution, there was a stockade wall around the fort, and, while that is gone, the place is pretty much unchanged since then.”
The building came under attack just once, in October of 1780, and three years earlier just outside of the fort, was the first cavalry charge in American history, the Battle of the Flockey. Both engagements were successful for the Colonials.
Civil war soldiers
While no Civil War battles were fought in New York, the Old Stone Fort pays homage to the many men from Schoharie County who fought for the Union.
“There were a lot of men from the valley who served, and we remember them every year on Decoration Day,” said Lindemann, who, along with playing Abraham Lincoln at various re-enactments and other Civil War-related events, performs as Cpl. James Tanner.
A Richmondville native who lost both legs at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Tanner was at the Peterson House in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln lay dying after being shot by John Wilkes Booth in April of 1865.
“He’s not here, but we have identified 35 Civil War soldiers who are buried in the Old Stone Fort Cemetery, Lindemann said. “We have a wonderful history here, and it’s not just Revolutionary War history.
Along with the fort, the grounds include the William Badgley Museum and Carriage House, the Warner House, the 1830 Jackson Law Office; the Ward Oliver One-room Schoolhouse, the 1780 Schaeffer-Ingold Dutch Barn and the Hartmann’s Dorf House, a Palatine dwelling from the 1760s.
Of the founders of the society, Couchman’s may be the most intriguing than.
“He was 6-foot-6 and weighed 300 pounds,” Lindemann said of Couchman, who went west and became a county sheriff, a candidate for governor and an Indian agent in South Dakota before returning to Schoharie County later in life.
“He becomes a real legendary character out there, and the Indians called him ‘Tonka Cola,’ which means big friend. The Indians considered him a very wise and fair person.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org.