Sisters of St. Joseph of CarondeletJune 17, 2019

Earth Concerns News

Our Homeland Has History of Richness: the Future Is Up to Us by Sister Marilyn Feehan, CSJ

The piece of property that we now call our homeland (Provincial House land) has a rich and colorful history. The nearest center of population was Albany, nicknamed “the city of peace” because the Dutch, French, English and Native Americans could all meet safely within the city.

            In 1629, the Dutch East India Company, which owned the entire area, decided to sell off parcels of land for farming. From the original 700,000 acres, Kilian Van Rensselaer bought all the habitable land north of Fort Orange to the Cohoes Falls, 32 miles on either side of the Hudson River, including our property.


The Patroon System

            Patroon Van Rensselaer provided iron hoes, wooden pitch forks, scythes and plows with iron edges to prepare the land for farming; the land was rent free for four to seven years with no down payment needed. The first school was built in 1548 and the first library in 1651. The system proved successful because of the excellent glacial soil and the patroons determination to farm the land.  One problem continued, however, for 200 years. Patroons retained ownership although the land could be leased for two or three lifetimes, after which the title returned to the original owner. This process led to continual rent wars which culminated in insurrection in the 1840s.

            The first fire department was actually a law requiring that all homes keep a bucket of sand. The first police was every homeowner’s having a gun, 24 bullets and an ounce of gunpowder. When New Englanders arrived in the area after the revolution, river traffic increased with the steamboat and the Erie Canal.  (Did you know that the cattle were driven to the stockyards in Albany by way of Crumite Road and Route 9?)

            The patroon system ended with the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer. Renters owed the estate $400,000 in overdue rents. When they refused to pay, writs of evictions were issued. The writs could not be served because the people dressed like women and Native Americans and attacked the eviction posses. Eventually, the energy was diverted into political power, and a constitutional convention decreed that only individuals and corporations could hold land.


Rich Agricultural Area

            After the uprising, land was sold to such families as the Oathouts, Everetts, Humphreys, Mitchells and Goodriches.  Apples, especially Macintosh, Delicious and Northern Spies, were grown for cider; those orchards still existed during World War II when RPI students came to harvest them for the war effort. Every home had its garden of vegetables, spices and herbs, along with a children’s plot to teach responsibility. Cows provided milk; geese served as guards. The ice house was built over a spring which provided cold water for baths, courtesy of a pitcher and a basin on a wash stand (sounds familiar to some of us!) Berry picking and maple sugaring were the seasonal centers of society. Fun meant looking through the wish book (Sears catalogue), eating homemade ice cream and reading about Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill.


CSJ Involvement

            The story of CSJ involvement on the homeland begins in 1956 when the expansion of RPI caused the decision to look for another provincial house site. The initial choice was the Williams farm of 50 acres on the edge of Troy. Soon, however, news broke that Hudson Valley Community College had purchased nearby property, thus repeating the problem caused by the RPI growth. Fortunately, the farmland of the Danhauser summer home was available. The cost was $500,000 for the original 75 acres, including the Delatour House. To this property was added land on the far side of Delatour Road in order to accommodate water access to the Watervliet Filtration Plant. By 1960, the orchard had been cut down, and cement was poured the next year.

            When the Provincial House opened in 1963, the dream was completed. By 1967, all debts on the property had been paid, due in large measure to the sisters’ bazaars and the generous support of the local community.

            What of today? The Sisters of St. Joseph now own 126 acres, 86 on the PH side of Delatour and 40 on the far side. Possibilities that were presented to the fall gathering are gardens on the property, replanting the hillside, cleanup projects and labeling of trees. The major conclusion is that the homeland is ours, and what happens to it is, indeed, our concern.


(May 1995)