Just north of the village of Chester on New York State Route 94 cars and their occupants whiz past the homestead site of a once-famous pioneer and author, the public house site of a once locally renowned innkeeper, and a resting place for local residents probably known only to loved ones. The first two sites have only their historical markers to indicate what once was there, while the last has, I suppose one could say, historical markers of a sort, but also continued presence that evokes an image of past community and that gives poignant testimony to the way we have layered our world on top of it.
Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735 – 1813) came to North America in 1755 and arrived in New York in 1759. By the time of the Revolution he was a prosperous farmer with a wife and children, and with a devotion to the idea of a place to which ordinary people from Europe could come and work together to build lives and community. Then came the war, a war Crèvecoeur didn’t want for a cause he didn’t believe in, because he didn’t think it necessary. Contrary to our modern image of the Revolution, which pictures a rebel army freezing at Valley Forge before being led by George Washington to victory over British Regulars in red coats and Hessian mercenaries in who knows what color and with everybody else back home just kind of chilling, the everyday reality in all of New York was anything but peaceful. Instead, even in those parts of the state that were spared actual warfare and raiding parties, the lives of ordinary people were marked by years of conspiracy fears, suspicion of neighbors, compulsory loyalty oaths, and harassment and even imprisonment for the less than enthusiastic. There was no room for staying neutral, and Crèvecoeur saw the effect that the war had on the sense of community he valued so highly and thought essential to human well-being.
In response to his experiences and observations in colonial and revolutionary New York, Crèvecoeur penned what is now considered a seminal work in the line of studies of American society, works written in the early days of settlement and nationhood that sought to understand if and how a society based on community and republican ideals could possibly function, let alone succeed. Today’s student taking a survey course in the history of American literature or the interested lay person working through an anthology might encounter an excerpt from Crèvecoeur’s “Letters from an American Farmer”, but will probably read only one of the earlier “letters”, in which a still optimistic Crèvecoeur describes the joy of a free life in a communal setting. Time pressures being what they are, the modern reader probably won’t get to the chapters that describe life under the gloom of war, the coercion and even violence by once trusted neighbors, and the need for constant watchfulness in public expression. So while today Crèvecoeur’s work is generally thought of as a feel-good paean to frontier virtue (when it’s thought of at all), in its entirety it actually presents a sobering picture of the human condition that was widely read at the time and that influenced the thought of many on both sides of the Atlantic.
Just 300 yards on up the road from the site of Pine Hill Farm is the site of Cromline House, an inn that sat along this then well-traversed roadway. Cromline’s name appears on a deed dated June 10th, 1704, though the land he acquired wasn’t actually surveyed until 1741. Cromline owned nearly 4000 acres and built in 1716 a house and inn that bordered what was then known as The King’s Highway and that stood until being torn down in 1832. Now the site is covered by a cornfield.
I like to imagine people and horses and wagons and carriages jangling and clattering along, passing the inn or stopping there for the night. A modern person transported through time along with modern sensibilities would probably be shocked by many of the attitudes and behaviors of those old-time spirits. But I think our time traveler would also find many of the same things we know, personality types and dilemmas and jokes and all the things that make up daily life. I’m reminded of a poem by Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt; Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd; Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d; Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried; Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d. ... These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you
Just a stone’s throw further up the road an unexpected break in the highway guardrail invites inspection.
Peering down from highway’s edge, one finds at the base of the 10′ high roadbed a still well cared for cemetery. The cemetery gate remains, a valiant old stalwart still offering service but now overgrown, bypassed, and neglected. Of course, the path that originally led to the gate was not a hill, but was flat. But the needs of the modern highway took precedence, offering a nod in the form of an interrupted guardrail but otherwise submerging this place of remembrance. What would the people who first staked out this site as the final resting place for loved ones and who visited those loved ones from time to time make of the changes that modernity has exacted?
We all know that things come and go. Crèvecoeur returned from Europe during the Revolution to find his house burned, his wife dead, and his children dispersed to Boston. And Cromline’s Greycourt Inn yielded to, I assume, age, or fire, or changed circumstances. Anyway, like most buildings of its time, it’s not there any more. But the cemetery along Highway 94 persists, and through the manner of its persistence tells us as much if not more than any historical marker could about what it felt like to be around here when the road was still known as The King’s Highway and traffic moved a bit more slowly.