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County History

Early Days in Allegany County- Interview with Benjamin Cowles

Benjamin F. Cowles came to Bolivar, N.Y. in 1826. In this interview by J.P. Herrick, Cowles talks about the early days in the county and the challenges that early settlers faced. This article is from the Bolivar Breeze, August 12, 1897. It was submitted to us by Richard Palmer, and transcribed by Stephen Sweet.

 


The Bolivar Breeze, August 12, 1897 

Early Days in Allegany

Interview with Benjamin F. Cowles, Bolivar's Oldest Citizen, Who Celebrates His 94th Birthday, August 12. Lights and Shadows of Pioneer Life.

Bolivar, N. Y August 6 [1897] —A wonderful old man lives in this oil region village among the hills of Allegany County. This month he will celebrate his 94th birthday, and he is one of the most active and interesting old men to be found anywhere. Every day in the week he walks from his home down the main street of the village and takes his place in a circle of old-timers and spins stories that a sea dog might envy. He starts on his morning walk at 7 o'clock and so punctual is he that a trainman who goes out at 7:05 every morning never misses meeting him on the corner unless it is stormy.

Benjamin F. Cowles was born in East Hartford, Conn., August 14, 1803, of old English stock. He comes of a long-lived family. Last winter, a brother, the last of the family, died, aged 92. When ten years of age he went with the family to Otsego County, N. Y., where he worked on a farm in summer and attended a district school in winter. Only three branches were taught, the three R's. Teachers boarded around and received from $8 to $12 a month.

As a small boy in Connecticut he was compelled to attend church and listen to long dry sermons. No matter how much his back and legs ached from sitting on the hard, high benches, he dared not complain, for the tithing man appointed to keep order sat among the children and threatened dire punishment. The whipping post had gone out of use but the instrument of torture still stood in the center of the village to terrify the disobedient. It was a hard, unforgiving religion that was preached and there was much fire and brimstone in it.  People carried a feet-warmer to church in winter; there were no stoves in the meeting houses then.

When sixteen years old he went to work in the lumber regions of Otsego County, and counted himself lucky to secure work at $6 a month and board. A day's work meant from daylight to dark. When he was 23 years old, in 1826, he came to Bolivar and cleared up a farm. He made the journey of 200 miles on foot, averaging 60 miles a day. He remembers Utica as a good-sized country village, Elmira as a country town and Hornellsville as a settlement that had only one tavern. Railroads, canals and airships there were none.

He left the old turnpike at Angelica and followed a sled road through the woods to Bolivar, which at that time consisted of a huddle of six log houses. There were no bridges across the streams, and the outlook was not inviting. There is just one person alive today who was here when Mr. Cowles came. She was a curly-headed miss, aged two, the day he arrived. He has outlived all the rest. Mail came in once a week on horseback and. it cost eighteen cents to send a letter back to Otsego County.

"The history of Allegany County is the history of Western New-York with a few minor changes. The first flour came into the valley from Buffalo, 80 miles away. It was hauled by an ox team and the trip required seven days. All of the family clothing, and it was meager, was made by the woman of the household. The woman who had a new calico dress once in five years was counted fortunate. Food consisted of rye and Indian bread, beans, potatoes and venison. On Sundays pie and fried cakes were served.

"There was little money in circulation. Allegany County was then covered with a virgin pine forest. The very best clear pine lumber sold for $2 a thousand delivered at Ceres, then a great rafting point on the Allegany River. The lumber was floated down to market at Pittsburg. Pine timber
land sold for $1.50 an acre, cash, or 
$2 an acre on ten years' time. The
 soil was rich and large crops were 
raised among the stumps. The sickle
 was the only harvesting machine in
 use and many a day I have cut an 
acre of wheat with the now despised 
crescent.

"The farmers' wives worked very hard, and every pioneer farmer was expected to wear out at least two women. The women who died from overwork on the pioneer farms would turn over in their graves in surprise if they should learn what an easy time their successors have, if the poor creatures have rested sufficiently by this time to be able to turn.

"The early settlers were very neighborly, and what one man owned was regarded as common property. Funerals and weddings were important events and everybody was expected to attend. The bright side of pioneer existence came from the turkey shoots, loggings, raisings, dances, picnics and revivals. The boys were all brought up to work and the girls learned to sew, bake, knit and spin. There was a fiddler and a shoemaker in every community.

"The brooks were full of trout, and often I have slipped out at daylight and caught a mess for breakfast. In those days there were no chubs, dace or suckers in the streams. The latter followed the sawmills, and when they became more numerous than trout I quit fishing. A man who [enjoys] the delights of trout fishing can find no pleasure in sitting on a creek bank waiting for a sucker to make up his mind to bite.

"Deer, bear and small game roved through the forests and furnished all the fresh meat we needed. Many a night have I been awakened by the wail of a panther. There were no game laws then, and we had venison whenever we wanted it. Wolves gave sheep a great deal of trouble and bears often stole our pigs. One morning I went to a pasture lot and found 30 sheep dead, killed by wolves during the night. The wolves did not mutilate the sheep much, all they wanted was the blood out of their victims. I once killed a buck that dressed 250 pounds, the finest one I ever saw. In going through the woods on hunting trips I often saw elk antlers that had been shed, but elk had left Western New York before I came.

"Wild bees were very plenty and every year I made it a practice to locate a couple of bee trees, mark them and cut them in the fall. Sometimes I secured as much as 150 pounds of honey. Every early settler was skilled in woodcraft and my boast was that though I never carried a compass, I was lost in the woods only once. The bark is thickest on the north side of a tree and there are many other signs that guide hunters by day as well as by night.

"There was little furniture in the log houses. Cooking was done over a fireplace, and bread was baked in a kettle set in a bed of coals. Fires were lighted with flint secured from the Indians. The men who worked in the woods and on the farm nearly all drank more or less whisky, but it was good whisky, and no one thought of raising a house or barn with less than a gallon of liquor. I have used tobacco 75 years, and do not believe that it has been injurious. Twenty years ago I quit smoking but no one has ever found me without a tobacco box since 1822.

"My first vote was cast for Andrew Jackson in 1828, and I have voted at every presidential election since then, and always the straight Democratic ticket. There were only 28 votes cast in Bolivar in 1828 but there was more interest manifested than there was last fall. As a boy my heart was fired by the news of Jackson's victory over the British at New Orleans and I have always idolized him. Next to Washington I have regarded him as the greatest of Americans. Old Corn-planter, the great Indian chief, was a frequent visitor to Bolivar in the early days and I knew him very well. He shared my admiration for Jackson.

"My father and seven of my uncles were Methodist preachers but I have never joined any church or society. My belief is that if a man does right on earth that he will not be punished after he is dead. I am sure that the harsh, unforgiving religion that was preached when I was a boy, and to which I was compelled to listen under pain of punishment, steeled my heart against the church and prejudice has never worn away. Some of the stories of heavy crosses that the overworked farmers' wives told at prayer-meetings, and the wearied look they wore convinced me that they were the most unhappy people in the world and in my boyish way I pitied them. Somehow I thought that their religion made them unhappy. Of course it was a childish fancy, but sometimes first impressions remain until the grave closes over a man."

Mr. Cowles' appetite is the foundation of unusual good health and strength. He has never been sick but once in his life; that was three years ago when he was confined to the house several weeks with grip. His hands are not shriveled much, and his grip is as strong as that of most men at 60. He has never worn glasses and his sight is remarkably good. One day this spring he spotted a woodchuck on the hillside 60 rods from his house.

Incidents that happened 75 years ago are as clearly imprinted on his memory as those that occurred yesterday. He has never been a traveler or an office-seeker, and the last 40 years of his life have passed quietly away. He has never had but one photograph taken, and that as a special favor to the writer, who often consults him concerning local events that happened half a century ago. It was taken on his 93rd birthday, just after his friends had presented him with a handsome silver-mounted cane. He attributes his long life to an out-of-door existence all of his days, to a naturally good constitution, to daily work on a farm or in the forest and to no worry since earliest childhood. His wife died in 1883. Since that time he has made his home with his son.—J. P. Herrick, in Illustrated Buffalo Express.

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