COLUMBIA COUNTY HISTORY: Who’s on that Hillsdale monument?

MOST RESIDENTS OF HILLSDALE probably drive right by the Civil War monument in the center of town without even noticing it. But the “Soldiers and Sailors Flag Bearer” memorial is worthy of notice because it is the sole Civil War memorial in Columbia County. That seems odd because although Hillsdale sent more than its share of men off to the war, so did many other towns in the county. In all of Columbia County, only Hillsdale erected a monument to honor their service and only then because of the generosity of one man.

On the front of the monument’s pedestal is the following inscription:

ERECTED BY JOHN K. CULLIN IN MEMORY OF THE SOLDIERS AND SAILORS WHO DEFENDED OUR COUNTRY AND FLAG 1861 – 1865

The monument sits on what was once known as the Village Green. Today, that triangle of grass is known as Cullin Park, although hardly anyone knows that since there is no sign.

In honor of the dedication of the monument, Thomas B. Evans (aka “The Bard of the Berkshires”) wrote an ode to Cullin that included these lines:

The flag that John K. Cullin defended

When he marched from his old native town –

That Grand Army veteran departed,

Who donated that granite and crown,

Two statues of bronze so heroic

Of the soldier and sailor we love

The American free soil beneath them

The American blue sky above.”

And then (big finish here)…

John K. Cullin will long be remembered

He fought not for Glory or Fame,

He fought for his Flag and his Country

And well may we honor his name.”

We’ve always wondered about John K. Cullin. Who was he? Where was he from? And how did he become a man of such means that he bequeathed $10,000 (about a quarter of a million dollars in 2020 money) to fund the monument?

John Cullin was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 1837, where his mother was visiting her parents. The Cullins lived in Glasgow, Scotland, where John’s father ran a business. After Cullin Sr. passed away, 22-year-old John and his mother emigrated to America and settled in Hillsdale. It’s not clear what brought them here but it may have been a relative who was already in Hillsdale.

John found work with harness maker James Doherty, but less than two years later came the outbreak of the Civil War. John enlisted with the Fourteenth New York Volunteers. It’s worth noting that he would have been mustered into the army on the village green, the very site of the monument he erected. According to “New York in the War of the Rebellion,” by Frederick Phisterer, the Fourteenth Volunteers joined the Army of the Potomac, and was heavily engaged in the Battle of Gaines Mill, where the regiment experienced some 225 casualties.

John was mustered out in 1864 and returned to Hillsdale. He was immediately hired as a clerk at the Hillsdale Mercantile (now the Roe Jan Brewing Company) on Anthony Street, where he became close friends with Freeland Pulver, also a clerk. Pulver eventually bought the Mercantile and reopened it with his brother. John worked at Pulver Bros. for eight years before relocating to Troy in 1872 to work for George Bristol & Company, a dry goods firm. (George’s sister, Flavia, was herself a prominent resident of Hillsdale and in 1918 bequeathed $30,000 to build a public library, housed in what today is the Town Hall.)

To describe John Cullin as parsimonious is to be way too kind. He could, as they say, squeeze six cents out of a nickel. In middle age, he would declare, “I cannot afford to smoke.” But it paid off. Despite working as a retail clerk for most of his career, he managed to amass a considerable fortune, which he distributed liberally in his later years and posthumously through his estate. For example, in his latter years John, a lifelong Mason, donated the funds to build Hillsdale’s Masonic Hall. (It was lost to a fire in 1927.)

John died at the age of 78 in 1915. At the time, he was living in Rock Ledge, FL, where he had moved for health reasons. In addition to the $10,000 he left for the monument, he bequeathed a total of 19 gifts to individuals and institutions totaling some $15,300 (or $400,000 today). Included in these gifts were pictures, books and $2,000 (today’s $50,000) for the Hillsdale Public Library.

And after all that, there was a considerable residue that he left to his nephew, Herbert Cogswell of New Haven, CT.

The Bard of the Berkshires said it best: “And well may we honor his name.

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