300 years and now there’s a film

(This is the second of a two-part series on the Germantown parsonage.–Ed.)

GERMANTOWN—This town of 1,954 souls, founded by Palatine immigrants in 1710, is so chock-full of history that it has an active History Department, based in the 18th-century Maple Avenue parsonage for the First Reformed Church.

Margurite Riter headed the department for 21 years; she retired from the post recently, and now town historian Susan Raab is in charge, working with a 10-person History Committee.

Ms. Raab is a special education teacher at the Germantown Central School, and she makes sure that all students, grades K-12, are part of an organized visit to the parsonage at least once a year.

In the building’s original room, below ground, students can see 18th-century technology: rope made from hemp, and the rug beater that served as a vacuum cleaner. Beams are made of one board, hinges are handmade, and the door handles are original, from the mid-1700s. The stove in the cellar kitchen is the stone and plaster hearth, which opens seven feet across the west wall. The oven—the equivalent of microwave, toaster and baking combined—is a small insert at the rear of the hearth.

Each year’s visit has a theme; this year, the Germantown History Department is partnering with the Hudson River sloop Clearwater. Students are learning about the Palatines, the original German settlers of the town, and their use of river technology.

The annual visit may occur during Palatine Heritage Days in early October, an offshoot of the town’s successful 300th anniversary celebration in October 2010.

For the rest of the world, the parsonage is open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Visitors find Ms. Raab happy to leave her paperwork to give a tour of the downstairs kitchen and the upstairs parlor. Across the hall, her office area was added in the 1800s, and a kitchen after that. Three bedrooms on the third storey are not open to the public.

The parsonage was a home for almost 250 years, first to the church’s pastors, then, from 1840 to 1911, to generations of the Persons, an African American family. After that, tenant farmers lived there, until Ernst and Friedl Eckert purchased the house in 1944. After their deaths, the family left the building to the town, in 1990.

Ms. Raab keeps the History Department’s website current, at germantownnyhistory.org. Visitors there can find two oral histories, by Rita Rifenburgh and Nadine Rumke (with additional histories to come), a list of reference books available at the parsonage and plenty of historic photos, from the 19th century to the 300th anniversary celebration. Ms. Raab also set up a PowerPoint historic photo show in Town Hall.

Next month brings another special event: the September 9 premier, at the Germantown Library, of “Germantown: The Stories of Our History.” The film is brand new, produced this past spring. Nicholas Holsapple, a Germantown native whose family name goes back to 1725, in collaboration with cinematographer Travis Bleen, a former Germantown resident, and in consultation with oral historian Sara Wolcott, conducted interviews with more than a dozen town natives with familial links to the original 1710 Palatine migration.

The film is presented by the History Department and the Library, and was funded by the Alexander and Marjorie Hover Trust Foundation, which is based in Germantown.

Screenings will be at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Mr. Holsapple will attend both, to introduce the film and take questions afterward.

Outside the historic parsonage archaeological research continues. Inside, the town’s 300+-year history results in a generous pride, a self-respect that wants to share its story.



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