History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Pioneer and Builder
Reprinted from and article in the St. Johnsville Enterprise and News
July 19, 1933
St. Johnsville, N.Y.
Corner Stones in Our Civic Structure
Man of Vision and Public Spirit. Pioneer in the Movement for Free Schools, Fire Protection. Gave Center Street and Founded Cemetery in Saint Johnsville, N. Y.
(By Eugene W. Thumb.)
Note: Mr. Thumb's first name was variously written as Absalum and Absalom in the booklet. To keep it uniform, I used Absalum. ajberry
If you would know a stream go to its source.
Having been requested to write for publication, some memories of my Father, the late Absalum Thumb, thought best to go before; starting as far back as we have knowledge of record indicating his source.
Adam Thumb, born in Wuerttemberg, Germany, January 10th, 1735; died at Youkersbush, Montgomery County, April 24th, 1814, in his 80th year. He being the founder of the American Family, we record a little of his life.
He service as a private in the Tryon County Militia, Second Regiment, under Colonel Klock. He was also Captain of the Rangers, Colonel Jacob Klock's Regiment.
Many sidelights on his heroic and strenuous career have been handed down, as family tradition have never been written nor printed.
He was a Smith or Blacksmith, as the trade was commonly known then, and had his first forge, or shop, in this country, near the old Palatine Stone Church, where he plied his muscle-building trade; when he was not fighting the enemy. The enemy, it must be known, was not alone represented by the English Army, but Indians-French-Tories, and still another and perhaps as menacing as all the others, was a lack of food--starvation. It is truly related that one summer his family subsistance consisted of a peck of salt and the seed potatoes he was compelled to dig up from the planting.
The fold flint lock musket stood handy by the anvil while he worked. Did he help forge the ship of State? Yes, he helped weld the links of a chain, to life humanity from the state of almost political slavery of "divine rights" to the millennium of human self control. Sparks from the old anvil and sounds from the old musket led to the path of freedom of personal rights, which shall endure until the leaves of the judgment book unfold.
This pioneer Adam, with two brothers, was in the bloodiest of all battles of History--Oriskany. Here he captured an Anvil as a trophy. This was in possession of the writer until stolen and who will pay a liberal cash reward for its return. (This anvil is of peculiar form and easily recognized. Believed to have been sold in Utica. Information should be forwarded to E. W. Thumb, 872 Orleans Street, Chicago, Ill.)
As a type of the strenuousness of the times it was related, that a party of Indians crept on him while he was splitting logs. When close up, the leader demanded his surrender. There was a reward offered for his capture and delivery to Canada of 500 pounds, gold, if alive, and 100 pounds if dead. Naturally they wanted to capture him alive. After some parley, he showed the aptness of his quick wit by arranging that he would go with them quietly if they would help him split the log he was working on, and under his direction they divided their forces each on either side of the log, placing their hands in the opening, designing by their pulling in opposite direction to help the wedge and pull apart the log. Adam very quickly knocked the wedge out, the split closing with force, firmly imprisoning their hands. Then, without compunctions, he sent them on their last trail. That was a part of warfare as it existed then, and fully justified by conditions and necessity.
This is only a little of his story; fight, work, cold, hunger, ill-clothes, but through it all---Courage. He saw the victories of "76" and "1812", which made his dreams of full liberties come true.
This Adam, the first in our American line of family was followed by a son--another Adam--who was born in 1775, near the old Palatine Stone Church.
Outside of an occasional scrap with an Indian of some wild animal, his fighting was done with rugged Nature, battling with the crudest of implements of a home, as well provided for as possible, located on what is to this day know as the Thumb Farm, some two miles north of St. Johnsville, where his body lies at rest in an old burial plot located there.
Now in comes our Father Absalom, Son of Adam the second and Grandson of Adam, the Hero of Oriskany in particular, and that part of the revolution in general that was fought in the Palatine District. Every one who sustained this cause were unquestionably Heroes.
Absalom Thumb was born on the Thumb Farm above mentioned, in the year of 1817. At early age found him doing a man's work on the Farm, in the forest and in the Saw Mill, his inclinations running strongly to logging and lumbering. It was a familiar remark of his that he was "born in the saw mill". He was so occupied until 1848, at which time he bought what was known as the Gus Smith farm, on which he remained until 1853, when he sold it at a profit and bought what was then known as the Wilsey place, now the site of the St. Johnsville First National Bank. He moved to an old house located in "Thumb's Hollow" in 1862 and later he built and moved to the "house on the hill".
On March 18, 1848, he was married to our mother, Sarah Katherin Hill, and the writer cannot pass this point without diverging for a word about mother. He fraternal Hill family traces back to Saratoga and earlier to pre-Revolutionary New England stock, and on the maternal side the Walraths, who originally settled on the north bank of the Mohawk River, on lands extending near, if not quite to, the "State Road". She was born on the Walrath Farm in 1832, living in the Forest, sweetening her tea with sugar made from the maple tree in sight of the house; her clothing made from the wool of the sheep, grazing in the fields through which she went barefooted to school. She descended on both sides from lines of families running far back before the revolution.
This was our Wonderful Mother--"Earth's noblest thing, a woman perfect".
Returning to Father Absalom:
Fortified by the energy, strength and persistency, naturally following such stock as he came from, it was no wonder that we find him so strenuously self assertive, whom few could advise and to whom none could dictate. He spent his force largely in acts that helped put St. Johnsville in a larger and better way.
He and barely made his home in St. Johnsville before he was in the fight for "Free Schools", which was the burning issue at the time. The railroad interests, on account of fear of taxes, were against it, and marshaled all possible influences that way. This made the free schools project especially hard to accomplish and made some battle for Absalum and his associates to accomplish. Absalum's remarks on the subject later was "Some fight, but we licked them".
The next in importance, as occurs to the writer, was the inception of a drinking water supply. At this time Absalum Thumb owned a large tract of land north of the school house on the hill. This he blind-ditched, accumulating water, leading to a reservoir on the cemetery hill and from there was led by wooden pump-logs along Center to Main Street, and made a fountain and drinking trough for horses at that point.
We mention this a little out of its order on account of its importance, as before this he had laid out and donated, free of cost, land for what is now known as Center Street, selling to good people lots for homes at low costs and on easy terms.
Another service he tried to render St. Johnsville, but the project failed on account of lack of support from those who should have been interested; he had a survey and tentative arrangements for a reservoir dam in the Duesler section of the Zimmerman creek. This would have held water for a supply at dry times that would nearly have doubled the capacity of the Zimmerman Creek, and the investment for which would have been nominal compared to its value.
What is now the St. Johnsville Cemetery was at one time his farm land. He was largely the factor in the forming of the St. Johnsville Cemetery Association by selling them a part of this land for cemetery purposes, (original contracts of which are now in the writer's hands.) There is no question but what St. Johnsville was put in the right way, leading to the possibilities for one of the finest cemeteries in the Mohawk Valley.
He built one of the first substantial brick business buildings, what is now the Handy store, and many other stores and residences. He fought for and built, under contract, the brick schoolhouse on the hill--some schoolhouse for those days. He was a busy man, still he found time for all this, besides pushing a private business of some magnitude for that time and place. This he located in what is known as "Thumb's Hollow". Here a place of twenty-five acres, including three water powers on the Zimmerman Creek were bought by his Father and associates in 1836, and which he purchased later. Here he employed a swarm of men and teams in building stone dams, stores, grist mills, saw mills, planing mills, etc.; having the first stock flooring dressing machine in the county. He employed this swarm of men in operating these mills after erection and built up a large manufacturing and merchandising lumber business. He was very popular with his men or "boys", as he always called them. They swore by him and we suspect occasionally swore at him, as he was very dynamic in his rule and orders, but they seldom, if ever, got the last word. For the community his was the large business, that necessitated his issuing private money in the War time--"shin plasters" as they were known. These were issued on regular money paper in a special good form and signed, and in denominations of five, ten, twenty-five and fifty cents, and they circulated at par without question over a wide section.
His ambition would not leave him contented with this growing and successful business, so he sought other business worlds to conquer, and organized the St. Johnsville and East Canada Creek Lumber Company with a capital of $100,000, associating with him in this project Ex-Governor Claflin of Massachusetts, the Stewart Brothers, a Mr. Wheeler and a Mr. Jon Plank. They purchased several thousand acres of virgin forest lands on the Canada Lake, designing to cut the logs and float them down the East Canada creek, through which they secured riparian rights for the log passage to the Mohawk River, and then down the Mohawk to St. Johnsville, where they were to be halted by a boom stretched across the river and landed to a steam mill to be erected there and be sawed for market. Here he especially showed a devotion to St. Johnsville and that to his own disadvantage, as was proven, as they found it impossible to stop the logs at St. Johnsville. Every method failed. Several booms were carried away, to the loss of boom and logs. If the stopping had been made at East Creek, a railroad shipping point, the logs could have been saved ,and these losses undoubtedly caused the wrecking of the company, with the entire investment, a total loss. His investment in this company, drawn from the resources of his private business, or rather the business that was then "Thumb & Flander", leaving that business practically exhausted, and after struggling along until 1872, with a lack of funds, Flander retired from the firm and Father Absalom continued alone with the business until 1878, when he, by contract, signed and sealed before witness, sold all his personal property and equity in real estate to the writer, the consideration for which being as named in the contract, the writer freeing, by assuming himself, Absalom, from responsiblity on bonds, to secure mortgages that amounted, with accrued interest, to $10,000 and other liabilities of judgments, accounts, etc., for many thousand dollars more, or a consideration of double the value of the sale. The consideration also included the support of the mother and his Daughter Allie for two years; this was all assumed by the writer.
Absalom Thumb was a lifelong member of the Reformed Church and a liberal and constant supporter to its building and maintenance.
He was a charter member of the St. Johnsville Masonic Lodge, No. 611, and was a constant member until his death.
Inflammatory rheumatism seriously afflicted him for many years, never fully recovering from its effects, which hampered him largely in his business, as well as public efforts.
There is much more, but this is enough to show his public spirit and energy and how he used it for the benefit of St. Johnsville.
He died at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Rev. Helen Gutweiler, at Hicksville, N. Y., and the body was brought to St. Johnsville by the writer. The funeral services were held in the "house on the hill", the services being attended by many Masons. The body rests in the cemetery which had been his farm land, on his special reserved plot, just as you come up the hill.
Reprinted from an Article in the St. Johnsville Enterprise and news July 19, 1922.
Last in Line of a Family Whose Influence on the destiny of St. Johnsville is still felt.
Eugene W. Thumb is now a resident of Chicago and owns and directs a prosperous manufacturing business. He was in his early days one of the moving spirits of St. Johnsville and possessed abounding energy and enthusiasm which found outlet in many civic enterprises. He founded the St. Johnsville Club which is still flourishing. He was the central figure in every movement towards improving the town and through his efforts secured the first textile manufacturing plant which was taken over and continued by Wesley Allter and is still waxing prosperous. It was through an excess of civic enthusiasm that Thumb finally left St. Johnsville for he was the man who to induce outside manufacturers inserted an advertisement offering a water power for sale. It was his own water power and J. H. Reaney bought it. Thumb was out and nothing turning up he went away to later become prosperous in Chicago. The advertisement was inserted in a Utica paper. J. H. Reaney then a young traveling man was in New York waiting to come home. The agent was a former Utica boy and invited Mr. Reaney inside to look over the home paper. It was while waiting for a train in the New York station that Mr. Reaney came across the little ad offering a water power for sale. He came, saw and purchased, thus the invitation of a friendly agent to look over the home paper changed the destiny of two men's lives and brought both of them prosperity. On such small circumstances are great events hinged. Eugene Thumb was only eighteen when he assumed the burdens of life inherited from his father's break down in health and fortune. Life seems serious without handicap, but to start as did Eugene Thumb with a father and mother and sisters and a load of debt is enough to sour the disposition and dim the horizon. But Eugene was of stern fiber and true to his ancestry. His unbounding enthusiasm, courage of conviction and self confidence carried him through. His is of the kind who thrive on opposition and his failure and victories alike have not spoiled him. He is the possessor of a keen sense of humor, enjoys living, is a royal companion socially and while a citizen of the big metropolis on Lake Michigan he still has an abiding interest in the village of his nativity where his forefathers fought the good fight and where they sleep in the beautiful cemetery overlooking the scenes of their endeavor.
Mr. Thumb is an ardent fraternity man. he belongs to the following societies: Covenant Lodge. No. 526A. F. & A. M., Chicago; LaFayette Chapter, No. A. R. A. M., Chicago; Apollo Commandery, No. 1, Chicago; Oriental Consistory, S. P. R. S., 32nd degree, Chicago; Medina Temple, A. A. O. N. M. S., Chicago; Illinois Society Sons of the American Revolution; Edgewater Golf Club, Chicago.
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