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Coeymans: A history 10,000 years in the making

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    Melanie Lekocevic/Columbia-Greene Media Historian John Bonafide (right) presents a proclamation honoring the town of Coeymans for its historical significance to Albany County Legislator Rick Touchette.
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    Melanie Lekocevic/Columbia-Greene Media Historian John Bonafide presents a comprehensive overview of the history of the town of Coeymans, dating back 10,000 years ago, during the September meeting of the Ravena-Coeymans Historical Society.
October 9, 2018 12:17 am

COEYMANS — With a plethora of historic buildings in the town of Coeymans, local residents know it is a long-established community. But did you know historians have evidence of that history going back thousands of years?

To be specific, 10,000 years — back to the time when the Egyptian pyramids were being built.

While Coeymans has long been known as a prominent area to historians, the hamlet has now been added to the National Register of Historic Places, offering both an honorific and tax benefits to some homeowners.

Historian John Bonafide presented a program at the September meeting of the Ravena-Coeymans Historical Society detailing the storyline of Coeymans going back to its very beginning, and even long before there was even a town. Bonafide is a trustee of the historical society and for 31 years has worked with the New York State Historic Preservation Office.

Bonafide’s presentation was entitled “Celebrating the Coeymans Landing Historic District.”

The historic district, which encompasses the hamlet of Coeymans, was first pursued in a joint venture with a neighboring community.

“Two historic districts were designed as part of a larger coastal zone recognition,” Bonafide explained. “One was the hamlet of New Baltimore and one was the hamlet of Coeymans.”

In 1982, both hamlets were nominated for designation to the National Register of Historic Places, but neither was chosen at the time. In 1995, New Baltimore received the designation, but Coeymans did not, largely, Bonafide said, because Coeymans’ history is far more broad and there are more buildings involved, so the process was more complex.

Now, however, the hamlet of Coeymans has been added to the National Register, and with that comes certain benefits for local homeowners. The designation came after five years of work by Bonafide and local historians.

What is the National Register of Historic Places?

The National Register was created in 1966, Bonafide said.

“It’s the official list of the nation’s historic places that are worthy of preservation,” Bonafide said. “It’s those places that have a history that can be documented, and which we should be cautious about [preserving].”

Overall, New York state has 7,000 properties on the register, including big historic districts as well as individual buildings, Bonafide explained. Nationally, there are over 100,000 sites on the register. New York state leads the nation in listings.

Coeymans’ contribution to the list, particularly for a small community, is considerable.

“Coeymans has a very unique honor in that there are 20 properties that are designated on the register, and to understand that in context, Bethlehem has four or five, New Baltimore has two or three, Coxsackie has one historic district and two historic buildings, so that 20 properties on the register in the town is fairly substantial,” Bonafide said.

For people who have lived in Coeymans all or most of their lives, the depth and scope of Coeymans’ history may prove surprising.

“When the National Register was created in 1966, the federal government required every state to go out and designate or come up with a list of its most important buildings that could be a part of this new register of sites worthy of historic preservation,” Bonafide said.

The initial list included 66 properties statewide — two of those on the list were in Coeymans. They were the Coeymans School and the Arriantje Coeymans House.

Designation to the list

To get on the list, a site has to be significant in at least one of four categories:

• Areas associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of history;

• Sites that are associated with the lives of significant people.

• They embody representations of high artistic value or architectural construction.

• The site has yielded or may yield information important in history or prehistory.

“For a property to be included in the register, it has to fall into one of these four categories. For a property to be a little more unique, it needs to meet one or more,” Bonafide said. “In the case of Coeymans, we have met all four of these categories.”

Of all the properties on the register in New York, “as far as I can calculate, there are less than 20 properties statewide that have met all four categories, which is pretty impressive for a community like Coeymans,” according to Bonafide.

Back in the beginning

Ariaantje Coeymans, the town’s matriarch, was born in 1672 in what is now Coeymans, and the following year her father established the community of Coeymans. Consider that is 20 years before the Salem witch trials, 60 years before the birth of George Washington, and a century before the Revolutionary War.

But even that isn’t going back far enough.

“Two years ago, an archaeological survey was done as part of a really basic sewer project, which included a ‘shovel test’ — digging a round hole about 18 inches deep every 10 meters or so along the length of the sewer line,” Bonafide said. “They got to one spot and came up with several pieces — Native American artifacts.”

While finding items like arrowheads is not unusual in this part of the world, these findings went back much farther than that. More digging was needed.

“This tiny site, about 10 feet long, ended up yielding hundreds and hundreds of artifacts,” Bonafide said. “When they got to the bottom, the earliest artifacts were paleo-Indian, which included spear points, which pre-dates the time when arrows were used.”

“We now knew there were people in Coeymans hunting game 8,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago, which is pretty remarkable,” according to Bonafide. “Not only did they find these points, they found an elk vertebrae, so we know there was game here as well.”

Coeymans gets its start

Centuries later, in the 1600s, Coeymans got its start as the community it would later become by the Coeymans family, which the town would later be named after.

Barent Coeymans came to the area and built a magnificent home, which came to be known as the Coeymans Castle. It was built at Coeymans Landing, where the playground now stands, according to Bonafide.

The home no longer stands — it was demolished in the mid-19th century. Mills would later be established in the area, “that would go on to make the Coeymans family a lot of money,” Bonafide said. Barent Coeymans was known to be a very aggressive businessman, hounding customers for payment. He ruled his business empire “with an iron fist,” Bonafide said.

After he died, his daughter became hugely wealthy — and eventually became a prominent part of art history.

“Ariaantje Coeymans Verplank came into a vast amount of money when her father died,” Bonafide said. “She had a full-length portrait painting done, which is the first full-length portrait of a woman in the New World, giving you a sense of her importance in the world.”

The painting was done by Colonial American painter Nehemiah Partridge, the same artist who painted a portrait of Peter Stuyvesant.

“She didn’t do this because she needed to. She did this because it was status,” Bonafide explained. “She was obviously a woman who was struck with having status in this culture that she was living in.”

At 53 years old, Ariaantje Coeymans married David Verplank, at the time 28 years old. After her death 35 years later, her house was eventually taken over by the Ten Eyck family because of her husband’s debts. The Ten Eycks took over both the house and the mills, operating them into the mid-19th century.

The Coeymans House remains one of the earliest standing homes in the state. “There are very few buildings that are earlier than the Coeymans house,” Bonafide said. “The Bronck House in Coxsackie is one of the earliest in the state, but the Coeymans House is in the top 20 buildings in the state, probably the top 50 in the country for age, so it is very important historically, very important architecturally.”

Coeymans in the Revolution and beyond

The community also made contributions during the American Revolution. In 1777, then-General George Washington ordered that ships be built in Coeymans, stationing roughly 100 men in the town to build warships. Construction took place at a site where State Route 144 now stands. The famed Coeymans mills provided the wood for the vessels.

Several Revolutionary War figures are from Coeymans, and some were buried in three Coeymans cemeteries.

After the war, Coeymans was officially formed.

“Coeymans was established as a town in 1791, post-Revolutionary War,” Bonafide said. “Interestingly, they didn’t have their first town meeting until 1811, and they didn’t elect their first town supervisor until 1818, so it took almost 30 years before they got a formal government here. It doesn’t mean they were lazy or slow, it just means the Coeymans family and the Ten Eyck family had control of the town, so there was no need for a formal government. It just operated as it always had operated.”

The town was growing. In the 1800 census, there were about 3,000 residents, including roughly 118 slaves of African descent, “another area that we seldom discuss in the community, and that we don’t have a lot of records on,” according to Bonafide. Several prominent families had slaves at the time. There is still a slave cemetery off Route 9W with small bluestone markers.

Around this time, a significant parcel of land was purchased by a New York City woman and she began dividing it out into smaller parcels, so land was moving out of the hands of the Coeymans and Ten Eyck families.

In 1825, Coeymans became a stop on the Erie Canal shipping route, making shipping a big new industry for the town. That also meant it was a period of major economic development for the area, with booming industries like icehouses, mills and later, brick yards. Numerous buildings were constructed during this period, along with churches and mills.

One historic building that still stands was once the Civill Academy, built by Acton Civill in the 1870s. Civill, who lived on posh Fifth Avenue in New York City, is said to have spent $100,000 on the building with the intention of using it as a school. He hired teachers and a caretaker, but specified that the school could not be used until after his death.

“Civill survived until 1889, so for 16 years the building remain empty,” Bonafide said. After his death, it was revealed that while he paid for construction of the building, he did not endow it “so when he finally died, he gave it no money and it went up for auction.”

In 1897 the building was purchased by Aaron Radick of White Plains, for $3,000. Six months later, he sold it to the school district for $6,000, and the school finally opened in 1901. It went dormant again in 1960.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Main Street had become “a pretty hopping place,” Bonafide said. The brick yards, staffed largely by Italian immigrants and African-Americans from the South, were home to some 20 brick companies.

The brick yards were also the genesis for the Riverview Missionary Baptist Church, with a brick company funding construction of the church for the African-American employees to have a place to worship and for fellowship.

Another industry to experience tremendous growth in Coeymans in the 20th century was the mushroom industry, started by the Frangella family.

“By the end of 30 years, they were producing 30 million pounds of mushrooms as a crop,” Bonafide said. “It was a pretty monumental operation.”

This tremendous span of history dating from as far back as 10,000 years ago when humans hunted in the area now known as Coeymans, all the way up to the historical sites from the 19th and 20th centuries, made Coeymans a unique entry on the National Register of Historic Places. It encompasses everything from Native people’s history to the Dutch colonial settlement, art history, industrial development, the Revolutionary War, architectural history, agriculture, labor and various industries.

“This community has an ongoing 10,000-year history,” said Bonafide. “We have 300 years of architecture, beginning with the Coeymans House in 1700… which is far beyond anything we have seen anywhere else in the state. There is also a long list of important historical connections and historical people in this nomination, that you don’t see anywhere else in the state. It is really a unique opportunity to remember and memorialize this community.”

Along with the honorific of having the hamlet included on the register, there are also tax benefits for homeowners in the historic district. Homeowners looking to do a home improvement project worth more than $5,000 on a property within the district can apply for a 20 percent tax credit on the money they spend. Several have already taken advantage of the tax credit, according to Bonafide, for things like window replacement, roofing, new construction and more.