If farming or lumbering sounded like the career of your dreams in the late 1700s and into the 1840s, today's Downsville, in the town of Colchester, was a good destination for those looking for opportunities after the Revolutionary War.
Abel Downs arrived in Colchester about 1794. Downs wasn't the first settler in the Downsville area. Russell Gregory is known as the first, having arrived in 1766 and built a log cabin about two miles above Downsville. Others followed, but once the Revolution began, most of them headed for safety east of the Hudson River.
Once the war was completed, the pioneers of Colchester returned. Land was available from the Hardenburgh Patent, and Abel Downs obtained title to a couple of lots, called divisions. Downs owned a lot of land in the area of today's Downsville.
Downs opened a store in the area of today's business district, near the intersection of state routes 30 and 206. At about the same time, he built a large house, where he and his wife, Jerusha, raised their family of seven (four boys and three girls). Besides the store and his land interests, Downs was supervisor for the town of Colchester at the beginning of the 1800s and again from 1814-21. He was also the first postmaster and served in that position from 1815-23. His term at this position was the basis of the settlement being named Downsville. Previously known as Shack Port, its name was changed to Colchester and then Downsville in 1849. It became official in 1853.
One of Abel Downs' sons, George W. Downs, changed what had been a center of lumbering and a little farming into more of an industrial Shack Port, developing a tannery business, a sawmill and a gristmill in the mid-19th century.
George W. Downs became very wealthy, because land sales increased with the new industry. When the tannery business was at its height, hides and skins were brought in from miles around. The forests were cut clear of their huge hemlock trees, and the bark, used in the tanning process, could be seen piled high on both sides of the road leading to the tannery.
While the road was first called Park Alley, it was changed to the present Tannery Lane. The remaining logs were sawed into lumber and floated down the Delaware River to Trenton and Philadelphia.
After a few years, Downs retired and turned the business over to his son, John Jay Downs. In later life, George enjoyed sitting in the public room of the Downs House Hotel, where he could hear what was going on in town. That hotel sat where the convenience store is today at the corner of state routes 30 and 206. It is said that, to attract attention, George rolled up 10-dollar bills, lit them in the fireplace and used them to light his cigars.
George developed cancer and died in the winter of 1861. By his request, he was buried on the high bluff that extends almost perpendicularly to the east of Downsville, overlooking the village he had built. The grave was blasted out of a solid rock. A roadway was cut through the forest, but the only way of carrying his body up the steep, snow-covered hills to its final resting place was on a wooden ox-drawn sled. It is still visible from the village below, enclosed by an iron fence.
On Monday: The Tri-Town Theater turns 45.
City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. To contact Simonson, write to him at The Daily Star, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.oneontahistorian.com.