By LINDA KELLETT
C-S-E News Staff
CANAJOHARIE — Teas, coffees, homemade sandwiches, savories, fine handcrafted items and an impromptu lecture/tour of the historic Van Alstyne Homestead were among the treats awaiting participants of the homestead society’s second annual Holiday Tea and Craft Fair Sunday, Dec. 2. Among the vendors present included jewelry makers, ag producers with food and alpaca fiber items, a photographer, and others.
Historian Alice Smith Duncan served as the guide, taking visitors on a virtual tour of the Moyer Street building’s unique past while in the upstairs exhibition space housing the Rufus Grider collection.
She noted that the stone building is the oldest homestead in the village of Canajoharie, built at the site of an earlier wood structure.
It was constructed in 1749 by Martin J. Van Alstyne, a miller and Dutch immigrant, at what was then a central location for a broadly distributed community.
Duncan said, “It was so sparsely settled at that time, so people could come from as far west as Herkimer, as far south as Cherry Valley, as far north as Ephratah, and east to Fonda-Fultonville.”
During its earliest days, as many as 15 family members lived in one room — the first floor parlor in the oldest part of the building, which contains period artifacts, she said. The original loft space, which would have contained a “strap loom,” has been incorporated into the second floor exhibition space.
The building was eventually expand in the mid-18th century and served as a meeting place for the Tryon County Committee of Safety in 1774 and 1775, when patriot militias in the region were organizing.
Smith said 16 of 30-some meetings were held at the site during that tumultuous time. Afterwards, it served as a refuge for Cherry Valley residents while they rebuilt after the Burning of the Valleys campaign, she said.
Duncan said Grider, an artist who came to Canajoharie from Pennsylvania in the late 1880s to teach at the Canajoharie Academy, had read about and was familiar with the area’s storied history. By that time, the Van Alstyne house was in a deteriorated condition and “about to be torn down,” said Duncan, noting one side was being removed for the construction of the foundation of a next-door structure.
Grider was able to raise awareness about the Van Alstyne homestead’s historical importance; and within the next 10 years, he and supporters did a complete restoration of the place, including the roof, windows and started collecting artifacts, she said.
In addition to Grider, who collected the bulk of a museum collection, Smith said two other men were able to amass an amazing collection of over 1,800 Native American, agricultural and historical artifacts.
It wasn’t to last.
She said, “After they died, however, nobody cared, and it kind of stopped. That was in 1900.”
Beech-Nut founder Bartlett Arkell, a former student of Grider’s, subsequently helped form the private Fort Rensselaer men’s club, which met at the building for many years. The club owned the building from around 1912 to 1985, and it once again became a museum.
In 1985, the Van Alstyne Society took possession of the building. Members of the Fort Rensselaer Club are also society members, and they continue to meet and socialize at the building.
More images in the Seen section.