Recently, while working on the trails of MHLC’s Bennett Hill Preserve as part of my internship with the Conservancy, I became curious about the history of European agriculture and settlement on this land. The history of the small farm neighboring the property (while beginning your hike on the Green Trail, you’ll often catch sight- or scent- of the cows who graze next door) offers a peek into the lives of those living in New Netherland, and how the beauty of this area brought lots of attention from European settlers.
In the summer of 1787, Jonas T. Bush leased this property for agricultural use from Stephen Van Rensselaer. This land lease, drafted by Alexander Hamilton, the brother-in-law of Van Rensselaer, bound tenant farmers to the land under strict guidelines. This type of lease was common in the patroonship system: a system of colonization which characterized Dutch settlements in New Netherlands in the late 18th century. Patroons were very popular in this region because they provided people with an opportunity for self-employment and a place to live. The Van Rensselaer family were the largest landholders in the Albany area, and their full estate, known as Rensselaerswyck, covered most of modern-day Albany and Rensselaer Counties, as well as parts of Columbia and Greene Counties.
The agreement was also sweetened to entice veterans of the Revolutionary War to lease portions of the land, as they could farm the land for seven years without any payment, after which the normal contract (including rent payments) would apply. During his time on the property, Jonas T. Bush made many improvements to the land. He started by building the original barn and farmhouse (no longer existing) on site and opening up the land up for farming. Bush would continue to farm the land until the 1820s, when William Chapman purchased the land. Chapman constructed a stone farmhouse and continued to farm the land until 1834, when it was sold once again.
This new owner was named Rushmore Bennett, and he was quick to purchase the land after seeing untapped potential in the farm. Bennett was eager to make changes and went for a more industrious farming model. During his time on the property, Bennett installed a gristmill on the Onesquethaw Creek. The mill allowed for the rapid production of flour, which provided additional income. Aside from farming crops and producing flour, Bennett also raised animals on the property. Many of them enjoyed grazing at the top of the hill, so he installed a bathtub, located downstream of a natural spring, for use as a trough. Today, this ‘bathtub spring” has been restored to its former glory and can be found near the trail.
During his ownership, Bennett also made several expansions onto the stone farmhouse, and turned one wing into a local inn. Bennett himself did not live to see the success of the inn, but his daughter, Elizabeth H. Bennett, and her husband worked hard and the inn became a local mainstay. At its peak, the inn could hold 40 occupants, and the typical rate was about $14 a week. As the railroad system spread across upstate New York, more travelers arrived on the West Shore Railway, often departing from the Altamont or Ravena rail stations. The Bennett family operated a service cart that would transport the travelers from the station to the inn for their stay.
Visitors to Bennett Hill Farm’s inn were attracted to the scenic beauty of this rural area: great views of Pinnacle Mountain and Clarksville are still enjoyed by visitors to today’s Bennett Hill Nature Preserve. Other features of the preserve include sinkholes, springs, a small wetland at the top of the hill, and beautiful forested terrain for a nice, shady hike to the top.
Please note that the Bennett Hill farm house and barn area is on private land, and we ask that any visitors respect the owner’s property and privacy. We hope that you can make it out to Bennett Hill Preserve sometime to discover (or rediscover) the beauty of the area, which has attracted Native and European people for millennia.
National Archives Catalog: National Registry of Historic Places Registration Form
National Archives Catalog: Single Property Listings, New York: Bennett Hill Farm, Page 13