Germantown unearths Palatine past

GERMANTOWN–The heart of history in this town rests with the parsonage on Maple Avenue, which dates from 1767 or 1746, depending on whom you talk to. Inside, below ground, is the original room, with a seven-foot stone-and-plaster hearth. Above that is a sitting room, of later vintage, and across from that, the office of the Germantown History Department, with the requisite computer and lots of paper files.

On the grounds around the building, history is still being uncovered, as Christopher Lindner, archaeologist in residence at Bard College, continues archaeological digs outside the parsonage.


If “archaeology” brings to mind Egypt or Italy or China, it should also conjure up Maple Avenue, a quiet, pretty road that runs from Route 9G to Main Street in the hamlet of Germantown. Since 2009, as the town prepared for its 300th anniversary in 2010, Dr. Lindner has been overseeing archaeological digs at the front of the parsonage. He’s had the help of students from Bard and the Germantown Central School District, and the steady, ongoing assistance of Alvin Sheffer, a descendant of the original Palatines who settled Germantown in 1710.

This past Sunday, for example, found Dr. Lindner at the bottom of a well at front left of the parsonage, taking photos and measurements. Up top Mr. Sheffer staffed the pump, which needed to be turned on periodically via extension cord. He also pulled up buckets of soil, screened them for “ecofacts”–Sunday brought the shard of a ceramic smoking pipe–and eased the ladder down 119” when Dr. Lindner was ready to resurface.

The well was built with layers of flat stones. Closed and stuffed with rocks, it has been a three-year project, and soon will be closed and protected again. Dr. Lindner recalled Sam Osborne, who graduated from Bard this year, rappelling down the rocks to take measurements. Out of the ground in and near the well have come animal bones, peach pits, clamshells, pieces of a Chinese tea bowl and leather shoe pieces.

What Dr. Lindner has found most recently is signs in the earth of a smaller building close to what is now Maple Avenue. In back of that is the well and in back of that, slightly up the hill, was buried ceramic piping.

The date on the parsonage is 1767, but from what he has found, Dr. Lindner is persuaded that a minister lived there beginning in 1746. Clergy, he said, were in charge of their community not only spiritually but also socially and medically. The parsonage was the center of ceremonial life for the community.

Thus, it wasn’t a surprise to find some 2,000 animal bones in a 2 x 10-foot dig in front of the parsonage, among other evidence of feasts. Harvest Home was a big feast in the Palatine community, held in late August or early September.

And there were a lot of Palatines in Germantown: 2,400 in 1710, those who had survived a 1709 crossing. About a third of them, 800 people, stayed, while some went off to Rhinebeck, some to the Schoharie Valley and others to Pennsylvania, where they were Pennsylvania “Deutsch” (German), Dr. Lindner pointed out, not Dutch. In 1725 the British crown granted 63 Palatine families in what is now Germantown the 6,000 acres they had been originally promised. “There was a very strong German presence here. It prevailed for years,” said Dr. Lindner.

From 1840 to 1911 generations of an African American family by the name of Person lived in the parsonage. After that, tenant farmers lived there until 1944, when Ernst Edward Ekert (1898-1988) and his wife, Friedl (1903-1989) purchased the parsonage for their home and a living history museum. In 1990 their family left the building to the town.

To this reporter’s ear archaeology can sound speculative, with a lot of “could be” and “might have been.” For Dr. Lindner it’s “enhanced history.” For Mr. Sheffer, the only regret is that such discoveries needed 300 years and a celebration. “Timing is everything in our lives,” he said.



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