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History of Scrabble Hill

Hardy Pioneers Who Came from
The East by Oxcart or Afoot
To Carve Homes Out of
Tangled Wilderness

By Carlotta Wood and Nora Johnson Brown
August 26, 1937
Contributed by Marilyn Bobseine

On flats and over rolling uplands, with half-hidden valleys here and there, lies a section of land in the south-eastern part of Collins township known as Scrabble Hill. Ridges, in places one hundred to three hundred feet above the valleys, gradually slope to the west and descend abruptly to Cattaraugus creek on the south, affording a view of these foothills of the Alleganies, which once seen will never be forgotten.

Shortly after 1811, the year in which Peter Pratt br.ought his meager household goods down the Cattaraugus in a canoe to settle in Zoar Valley , there came to the wolf-infested highlands to the north a foot-traveler named John Mills, accompanied by his wife who for three hundred miles had cauied their two-year old child, while her short, heavy- shouldered husband, axe in hand, wore the pack containing their worldly goods.

John Mills was a man of extraordinary strength and determination, as the historical incident of his grist of wheat attests. On a certain Sunday morning in 1820, Samuel Tucker, for whom Mills had been doing a few days work, paid his debt with two bushels of wheat. Aware that flour was needed at home, John shouldered the wheat and. started through the woods to Taylor's mill three miles distant. Here the miller refused to labor on the Sabbath, so John proceeded to Lawton's mill where he found the water to low for grinding. His next objective was Townsend's mill at Wheeler Hollow in the town of Concord. Here he was successful, and after a tramp oftwenty-five miles, sunset found him at home with his bag of flour.

Origin of Name?

Who was the joker and what the jest that fixed the common-place name of Scrabble Hill upon this spot of horizion-sweeping vision? Some hold that it implies that the native had to scrabble for a living, but it may well have referred to its altitude and the scrabble imposed upon man or beast that essayed its rude up-hill roads.

Otto Mesch' s grove, which outlined against the sky can be seen for miles around, is, with about four exceptions, the highest spot in Erie county and was one of the locations considered in selecting a site for J. N. Adam Hospital, on which it now looks down from an altitude of 1,480 feet.

Nathaniel Knight

Half of the land cleared by John Mills was in time sold to Nathaniel Knight and the remainder became the Ferris farm, passing later to a Ferris son-in-Iaw, John Randall, and is now owned by Orrin Mesch. Nathaniel came to the locality in 1818, followed by his brother, Avery and other members of the Knight clan. His integrity and ability were soon recognized. He became the town's second supervisor, holding the office eight years, and in 1830m was elected to the Assembly-the first member from the southern part of the county .Be was a leader in all church and educational movements, tilled his fields, untangled his neighbors' legal problems and found time to play the clarinet. A descendant relates how, in the days when a night alarm might mean anything from a wolf in the cow-pen to an S. 0. S. from the stork, the Knight household was aroused from slumber to find a pair of lovers mounted on a house, importuning Nathaniel to arise a perform the marriage ceremony. Sleepily, he complied and and they rode happily away into the darkness. Before the roads route was changed in 1838, the Knight homestead, now owned by Mrs. Louise Knuth, was situated on the main highway between Collins Center and Springville.

The Knights came from the vicinity of Cooperstown, as did the Bolt, Graham, and Reynolds families. The fathers of Joseph Bolt and James Fenimore Cooper were friends and neighbors and lie in neighboring graves in the old cemetery in Cooperstown, where their respective grandparents were the first settlers-Joe's father being the second child born in the settlement. Joseph Holt was a charter member of the Friendship Lodge, 1.0. 0. F ., of Collins Center, which was organized in 1851. Being unmarried, he lived with his uncle-in-law, Austin Graham, who, plying his trade of shoemaker, kept the Hill folk shod.

Erastus Colbum

Erastus Colbum, Ancestor of the Collins Colbums, including the late Orlin Colbum of Colden, emigrated from Montgomery county to the Hill in 1822, housing his family in the log schoolhouse, he went prospecting for a location, finally settling on what is known as the Nenno farm. The upright part of the house now occupied by the Smith brothers is a remnant of the Colbum dwelling built over a century ago.

Francis Mathews Family

Neighbor to the Colbums in the valley to the east lived a Vermonter, Francis Matthews, his wife, Roxena Aldrich, and their six children-James, Orney, Henry, Joseph, Polly and Jane. A portion of their old orchard remains and the grove of honey locust trees beside the road thrive and multiply. These sprang from a twig that, on a day long past, young Omey picked up to spur the horse he was riding from town; pushing it into the ground as he approached home.

Francis' brother, James, also lived in the locality. His son, "lame Jimmie", whose avocation was playing the bass viol for dances, drove the stage, which before the coming of the railroad to Collins, traveled through mud and snow to Angola to carry the mail. His route at one time included Morton Comers and Woodward Hollow but finally and for many years was limited to the twice-daily trips between Collins and Collins Center. His stage accommodated passengers who were warned of its approach by long blasts on a horn in early English fashion. The horn was superseded by a bell, {irst rung by hand and then attached to the vehicle which was now called a bus.

Baultus Kelley

South of the Nenno farm were three small parcels of land. Through one of these a road led to the Zoar highway. Near this, Baultus Kelley built a house in such a wild and secluded spot that nature and civilization merged to the extent that partridges were known to share their nests with his hens. Baultus Kelley's wife was a daughter of Nicholas Coon and great- granddaughter of Captain Isaac Davis, one of the famous Minute Men who "fired the shot heard 'round the world' at Concord bridge. He fell during that engagement-the first patriot killed in the Revolutionary War-and is buried a Bunker Hill. The old vine-covered Kelley cottage burned many years ago and the road on which it stood as,  too, the wayside burying ground, are forgotten.

Tucker Beverly

The second rectangle of land consisted of ten acres. On it squatted a log house, occupied in old days by Tucker Beverly. He often declared that he had once felt that all he needed to complete his happiness was a wife, but having acquired one, found that he needed almost anything else except a wife. A separation effected, he settled down to "live alone and like it' in his twelve- foot square cabin with its tiny window, bunk, rustic table, open fireplace and in the middle of the floor a trap-door which opened upon a small stream, dammed to furnish the water supply.

Mills on Yaw Brook

Not far from the Tucker's cabin stood another log-house which in this time attracted successive tenants-Henry Moore at one period and lastly, AndrewOlsen. East of this hut on Yaw brook was a mill built by Jesse Frye. The old frame and parts of the dam were standing as late as 1877. Another dam and sawmill on this brook were built in 1837 by Cary Adams and Francis Knight. To ensure sufficient water to operate the mill, they reinforced the old Beaver dam on lot 83 and in times of need availed themselves of this extra supply.

Enoch Randall

In the 60's, Enoch Randall dwelt where Frank Welstead lives. Then as now, boys were boys. The late Casper Russell often recalled how Enoch and his wife once "went visiting" leaving their son, Millard, to keep the home fires burning. That they might burn to some purpose, Millard, with his cronies, Casper, Henry Johnson, Henry Aiken and Tracy Burnap, captured one of Matthew Beverly's fat turkeys and proceeded to prepare it for the pot. The embarrassment of an untimely call from Norman Cook was alleviated by promises of secrecy but feathers are more potent than straws in telling which way winds have blown and-"We had to pay for the turkey," said Casper .

John D. Beverly

Ed Ortel lives on the land on which John D. Beverly, driving his ox team from Schoharie county , settled in 1817. John D. was the son of David Beverly and Eve Straile, who, born in Holland and transplanted to Mohawk valley, was true Mohawk Dutch. The graves of David and Eve, along with a dozen or more others, may be found in the old Beverly burying ground which lies on the flat some distance north of the Ortel home. Ellsworth Beverly's seven boys, supplemented by young. John in the Peter Beverly family, give reasonable guarantee of the continuance of the name in Collins.

William Stevenson

William Stevenson, kin of the Knight and Adams families and whose name recurs with frequency in the early annals of the Methodist Society of Collins, was an Englishman, naturalized in 1813 and coming to the Hill in 1829, where he purchased from the Holland Company the farm now owned by Alfred Odell. During one of his relapses into occupations other than farming, he became a milkman in Newark, Wayne county. There he met Horace Wood, who ------fering a periodicure to re----- his trade for agriculture. ----------efell that in 1846 the Stev------ were traded for the two Wood village lots and Horace came to Collins. He remained on the Hill four years, then moved to the "Centre" to resume his cabinet making and carpentry ."Uncle Billy" also came to that village to end his days, which event took place in the Harmon Bettcher house in 1880. In 1881, " Aunt Betsy" followed him to the small triangular burying ground, contributed from the Knight lands on Scrabble Hill, where they lie among old neighbors- Lois Millis and her son, Richard, whom she canied in her arms through the wilderness and who died in early manhood; the yards first guest, two year old Hatriet Tripp (1827), daughter of George Tripp who lived on the present Chinchen farm; and the Parkinson brothers, Jonathan and Sylvanus, great uncles of Miss Dena Hathaway of Bagdad, who were soldiers of the Revolution.


The group of marbles bearing the name of Johnson is headed by John T., a veteran of 1812, who was clearing the Farner land about 1820. Grandsons in three generations have canied the name, the youngest being four year old "Jack", son of John H. and Dora Reiser Johnson of Collins Center. Jack's great-great-grandfather through another line also sleeps in the Knight burial ground-Isaac White, grandfather of Mrs. Charles Goodyear of Buffalo, as well as the later Herbert White and the late John Adams, heads of the stationary firm of Adams & White for nearly fifty years.

Reynolds Family

Abram Reynolds and his wife. Hannah Wilber" lie here and near them, Abram, Jr ., aged 23 years, whose death by drowning in the Cattaraugus in 1839 was one of the Hill's first tragedies. Abram's son, Nehemiah, was a life-long resident of the locality and the land which he obtained by an exchange of farms with Lorenzo Mabbett (grandfather of Mrs. Agnes Allen) still belongs to the estate of his grandson, the late Ira Vail.

Earliest School

Barring Nathaniel Knight's corncrib and other makeshift classrooms, the log schoolhouse, in which Erastus Colbum's family made temporary residence, was learning's first shrine on Scrabble Hill. It was doubtless built about 1821. In 1839, another and smaller one was erected on the "northwest corner of John Beverly's south lot" (pumping station corner). It was called the Hallenbeck school, named for the Peter Hallenbeck family that lived where the Neal house stands. The district, which was No.27 , extended eastward to a line halfway between the present homes of Otto Mesch and George Herman. The school served approximately 30 pupils, children of Seba Nichols, Hiram Walker, John Beverly, Peter Sipple, Peter Hallenbeck, Joseph Saunders, Jeduthan Beebe, Oliver Hanis and Harvey Dailey. Miss Rhoda Albee taught there in 1842, the year before her maniage to Philander Pierce, a young man who was acquiring a goodly bit of nearby property . The school was discontinued about 1844 and the district divided between the east district of Collins Center and No.12 of Scrabble Hill~ where a new frame building was displacing the one of logs. It was in this old Reynolds's schoolhouse, as it was called, that the first Methodist Society of the town was organized in 1823 with John C. Adams as leader.

School Teachers

Among teachers in District No. 12~ which in the school year 1880-81 became No.11 and is now No.1 were:

1837-Edward Vail, 25 years of age and a newcomer to the neighborhood, having purchased from the land company the farms now owned by Otto Mesch and John Wilson. The Vail home, which burned in 1877, stood on the site of the Wilson house.

1845-Eunice Palmerton, aunt of the late Eunice Palmerton Schmidt, James Matthews, adventurous son of Francis~ who mined in California, taught school in Utah and served thoughout the Civil War, participating in nearly every battle in which the Army of the Potomac had part, without wound, a day' s sickness or a moments excuse from duty.

1847-Amanda Herrick. S. Carey Adams, second son of John C. Adams who followed his brother-in-law , Nathaniel Knlght, to Collins. Carey became a carpenter but forsook the craft for law. Rising rapidly through the offices of supervisor, assemblyman, deputy county clerk and deputy collector of customs, he finally became legal advisor to BufIalo's then leading commission house, Pratt and co. He died in 1896.

1848-Ann Palmerton, Lyman Clark and Miss A. L. Kelley.

1850-Jane Arnold and Sarah McMillan. Sarah was evidently a teacher merit, for with the exception of one term in 1852, taught by her sister Phoebe, she was retained two and one-half years, receiving for the winter term, usually regarded as men's jobs, a modest wage of eleven dollars.

1853-S. B. Wickham, Chl------- ney and James Wickham.

1854-Erastus Harris at seventeen dollars per month. The Harris family lived on the comer west of the Hollenbeck schoolhouse from whence Erastus walked daily to Springville while attending Griffith Institute. Mary Jane Warner was paid two dollars per week for the summer months. She was aunt to Summer Warner .The Warner homestead~ now belonging to Mrs. Lola Beverly, is situated about halfway between the Hill and Collins Center .

1855-Franklin Pike from Morton's Comers. Paulina Wheeler. In 1856, Miss Wheeler returned, followed in the winter term by Hosea Heath, whose family had come to the locality in 1829. A romance developed between the two. Hosea became a lawyer and the pair established a home in Hamburg.

1857-Sarah Vail (Kerr), daughter of Edward Vail and mother of the late Thomas Kerf of Collins.

1858-Elizabeth Wilson, aunt of Burt Sisson. She married Phillip Perry , a harnessmaker in Collins Center, who, with his business, combined many years of service in town offices. William Pierce, a nephew of Philander Pierce. Maria Johnson (Carpenter), daughter of John T. Johnson.

1859-Arnold Chase, uncle of Fred Willett of Lawtons and Gretchen Wilbur Todd of New York. Wallace Bailey, who organized and lead the first band in Collins Center, where he was a dealer in musical instruments. Mrs. Irving Farnsworth is his daughter . Nephew of Jacob Taylor

1860-61 Cyrus Taylor, son of Caleb and nephew of the Quaker missionary, Jacob Taylor .

1861-62-W. H. Parkinson, father of Mrs. Michael McIntyre. Helen Ferris (Potter), mother of Clarence Potter. Emma Blakely, Dr. Blakely's daughter ofMorton's Corners who married "Jim" Wells.

1863-Mary Green.

1864- Hester Woodward.

1866-67-Helen Bunce (Roberts), mother of Roy Roberts of Silver Creek. Calista Briggs, a Sardinia girl who here met her fate in the person of young Curtis Bates, a clerk in Thorn White's store at Collins Center. Miss Francis Johnson.

Fire Destroys Schoolhouse

1868-69-Hannah Conger (Harrington). Charles Morton, nephew of S. A. Morton of Morton's Corners. The schoolhouse was destroyed by fire in 1871 and a new one erected by Noah Doty in 1872. This, with certain modernizations, is still in use. George Briggs was the first teacher to use the new building. He was brother of Morris Briggs, well remembered by yesteryear passengers on the Buffalo-Jamestown branch of the Erie. George, now 87 years, resides in Buffalo. He was followed in the summer term by Maryette Colburn (Cooper), granddaughter ofErastus.

1873-74-Wallace Fisk, who, on a gloomy Sunday when the folks were away, amused himself with a book about a new system of writing called shorthand. He became a court stenographer in Buffalo, then, moving on to Chicago where stenographers were scarce, obtained a super-job, studied law and died, a prominent attorney and businessman in DeKalb, lll. Grace Hudson (Reynolds), granddaughter of Stuckley Hudson, who, about 1830, came from Sardinia to settle on Scrabble Hill. He built the house now occupied by Vedder Abbey who relates how, in a recent remodeling, old newspapers of 1844 date were uncovered. Stuckley's great-granddaughter , Dorothy Reynolds Kelley, and his great-great-granddaughter, Alida Mosher Sherman, have in turn come to the schoolhouse on the hill to teach.

1877-78-Jane Beverly, who married John Cole from Springville. He was a dentist, practising first in Collins Center, then in Gowanda and finally in Helena, Montana. Milton Sherman, who was later a storekeeper and then a barber in Collins Center. He also "kept select school' on Phillips' Hall, that village, in the early 80's. Ella Colburn (Beebe), a descendant of Erastus.

1878~79-Mattie Smith, who manied Harvey Williamson, a Methodist minister .She was the daughter of Addison Smith.

1879-80-Lelia Randall and Julia Wells.

1880-81-Blanche Bartlett and Fanny Bradley, followed by Ada Vail, who continued for two and one-half years. She was succeeded in 1884 by Viola Shattuck of Eden and in 1885 by Ella Churchill of Springville and Edward Vail, Jr .

District Library

In 1850, the library of district No.12 about 200 books. These included history , biography and philosophy but no fiction. Text books were Olney's Geography, Dabolt's and Smith's Arithmetic's, Cobb's Juvenile Readers and Webster' s Spelling Book.

John Randall, when his children, Carl, Will, Lila, Ella, Ferris and Edna, were of school age, built a barn opposite the schoolhouse on the William Vail farm, to accommodate the horses that daily transported them and John Rothfuss' five children to and from home. In the days when political speakers came to small towns and torchlight parades were in vogue, another touch was added to the comer picture by the erection of a liberty pole bearing a banner that proclaimed to all and sundry that Scrabble Hill was rooting for Garfield and Arthur .

"Black Salts"

"Black salts" were one of the valuable products of the Holland Purchase and making them about the only industry that brought the pioneer "cash money~' acceptable to the tax collector. Up to fifty years ago, remnants of this pursuit might be seen in huge ashpiles on the "Johnnie lot" of the Butzer farm and elsewhere.

Charcoal for Market

The Colvin family burned charcoal for market. Logs~ four feet long, were stood on end in a formation, approximately four feet across, and covered with earth. Smouldering fIres were kept burning in the mass until it was reduced to charcoal. The last charcoal pit on the hill was operated by David Colvin on the farm previously occupied by Joel Phillips, Jr., and situated on the now abandoned road leading down to Yaw brook.

Laborious Shingle-making

The Colvins manufactures shingles also, as did Wilbur Irish. Shingles were made by sawing pine or hemlock into blocks of the required length and splitting them into slabs which were in turn shaved to proper thickness. They lasted a man's lifetime and beyond.

Trapping Wild Pigeons

In 1877 and '78, George Paxson, who lived on the Stuckley Hudson place, was making a business of trapping wild pigeons for the Buffalo and New York markets. Not only did he operate on the Hill, where his nets were set on the Elon Crampton or David Colvin farms, but he followed the flock to their nesting grounds in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The fluttering of a blinded pigeon fastened to a board was the lure that attracted the birds to the prepared area about twelve feet square, cleared of sod and strewn with corn, above which the net was stretched on poles. Beside it a bough-covered shelter was constructed in which, when the pigeons had become accustomed to the feeding spot, the hunter concealed himself before sunrise and, while the flock was busy with its morning meal, the net was sprung. If too small, the birds were kept and fattened, Mr. Paxson sometimes buying 1,500 bushels of corn at a time for this purpose. One of his nets is in the Museum of Science I Buffalo and another in a museum in Rochester.

Cows Treasured Possessions

The early settler considered his cow as one of the few treasured possessions brought to his newly acquired home in the wilderness and, as land was cleared, his number of cows increased. When more butter and cheese were produced than could be consumed on the farm, the surplus found a market in the then growing village of Buffalo. Cheese seemed to be more profitable than butter and by 1868, five years after the first factory in Collins, located on Quaker street, was opened, a factory sprung up in nearly every neighborhood. The one on Scrabble Hill, built on land leased from Humphrey Russell (now owned by Alfred Odell), as well as the one on the main road near Timothy Clark's, were both branches of the Harris factory, located southwest of Collins Center. These, in time, became a part of the Marshfield Combination. Later, the Hill factory was owned successively by S. D. Vance, Clarence Beaver, William Vail and Edwin Russell. It was in possession of the last named when it was destroyed by fire in 1914.

Seek Oil, Gas

About 1886, Moroe Kelley, who lived on the road, long since discarded, which ran from the pumping station into Zoar , took into his home a boarder who was seeking health in the high altitude of the Hill. He was R. H. Gordon, a salesman for the Pottstown Nail Manufacturing Company in Pennsylvania. He knew something of geology and the yellow ring about a nearby spring and other outcroppings of iron ochre caught his eye. He mentioned these signs to a friend, John N. Patterson of the Ohio Valley Gas Company, who in turn brought the subject to the attention of the company's president, James MacCreighton. MacCreighton sent Patterson to inspect the field and the matter rested until Gordon again acted, this time approaching MacCreighton himmself. Thus in October, 1886, Michael McIntyre, who was doing contract work for the company, was sent to Scrabble Hill. Seven thousand acres of land were leased and, in November, a test well was located on the Momoe Kelly farm, but when at a depth of 380 feet bedrock was not encountered, drilling was discontinued. Three months later, in 1887, another attempt was made on the William White farm in Zoar .

In this was a showing of oil and on the possibility that a major oil field was tapped, perhaps rivaling the famous McKane county field, the fmdings were kept secret and visitors not allowed near the derrick. These restrictions gained it the name "mystery well". Wildcatting across the Cattauaugus into Otto, the prospectors were further encouraged by the Harvey Kelley well, which showed both oil and gas. In 1888, on the Francis Kelley farm, they brought in the first paying well.

Gas Gusher Struck

By this time, 150,000 acres of land were under lease. Oil producers were facetious regarding the Zoar operations, for geologists held that searching for gas or oil west of the McKane-Allegany county lines were impracticable. Undeterrd by jokes, Michael McIntyre, acting for his company, proceeded to test the field. His judgement was vindicated with the coming in of the Kerr well, which blew drilling tools tree high and roared the news to the suuounding towns that a new gas field had been discovered. Newspapers of 1891 hailed this well as one of the best producers in the United States. About 1915, the wells of this field, numbering 23 at the present time, were shut in. The pumps of the Zoar Compression Station fill with gas this vast reservoir, which has an estimated capacity of 500,000,000 cubic feet, said to be the largest natural storage place in the world and is valued at $1,000,000.

Source of Material

Much of the material used in this article was supplied by Nathaniel Knight's great-grandson, Edwin Russell, whose youth was lived on Scrabble Hill. He also contributed the prose poem, written by a Hamburg woman, which follows:

The Hills of Home
By Ann Stratmeier

Low, rolling foothills of the Alleganies! Friendly, peaceful, inspiring;
now smiling, new tender, rain-washed, sun-kissed, dreamy, brooding; each mood is reflected by your tree-clad slopes.

In the cool gray dawn of winter's mom, you reflect optimism, since surely to you must first come the warm sweet kisses of spring. How lovely you are with your snow coverlet of winter! Steadfast, immovable you stand as old Storm King rages.

Spring, in all her glory , awakes you to radiant beauty .Serenely you smile and your smile is reflected in my heart. But of all your moods, it is at sundown that I love you most. purple shadows creeping, twinkling farm lights glowing here and there, deepening dusk-cool, sweet peace-slumber .

Though tides of life may bear me far from you, at each recurring eventide I shall remember your peace, oh hills of home. And when eventide has come and the long arduous day is done, when the last purple shadows fall, may my soul know the cool, sweet peace, and rise up in infinite joy.

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