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“Tales of the Past” by Frank Connor

Tales of the Past

Chapter 15 - Settlement of Hemlock, information about Pitts, information about distillery operations.

by Frank Connor


The first settler to arrive in Hemlock was Phillip Short who came to Pittstown about 1790 and the following year purchased from Peter Pitts 120 1/4 acres. This farm is known as the Short Homestead and remained in the family until 1929 when it was sold to settle an estate. The original deed covering this property is in the museum and reads as follows:

“Know all men by these presents that I, Peter Pitts of Dighton, in the County of Bristol, Gentlemen, in consideration of Five Hundred Fort One Pounds, two shillings and six pence a lawful money paid me by Phillip Short of Taunton, the County aforesaid, Yeoman, the receipt where of I do hereby acknowledge, do hereby grant, give full and convey to the said Phillip Short, his heirs and assigns forever, One Hundred twenty acres, and one quarter acre of my homestead farm with all the buildings, privileges and appurtenants there unto belonging, situate in the Dighton, bound as follows, Viz: Easterly on the road leading from Captain Jacob Winslows to Sylvester Pitts, Northerly on Simon Williams and my own land, Westerly on my own land and Southerly on the lands belonging to the Heirs of Constant Simmons, late of Dighton, deceased.

To have and to hold the same to the afore said Phillip Short, his heirs and assigns to their use and behoove forever and I do covenant with the aforesaid Phillip, his heirs and assigns that I am lawfully seized in fact of the premises, that they are free of all encumbrances that I have good right to sell and convey the same to the said Phillip and that I will for myself, my heirs and assigns, warrant and hand the same to the said Phillip Short, his heirs and assigns forever against the lawful claim and demand, of all persons, also Abigal Pitts, the wife if the said Peter gives up all her right of dower or third, in said premises, in testimony where of we have here unto set our hands and seals this Ninth day of May in the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety one. N.B. The said Peter Pitts reserves liberty for myself, my heirs and assigns to pass and repass from my own land yet unsold thru the above bargained premises if I do my proportion toward mending said way. Signed: Peter Pitts, Abigal Pitts. Signed, Given and Delivered in presence of Francis Codding and George Codding-Bristol May 9th, 1791. Personally appeared Capt. Peter Pitts, Mrs. Abigal Pitts, signers to the within instrument and acknowledge the same to be their act and deed before Georg Codding, Justice Peace. Bristol - S. S. May 25th, 1791. Then record this Deed and recorded the same in Book 69, Folio 473 - Attest James Williams Reg’r.”

In 1795 the first saw mill in the township was built near the foot of Hemlock Lake by a man named Higby. He arrived in Livonia in 1794. In 1797 he lost one of his children. This was the first death in the town of a white person.

The first real gristmill was erected during the winter of 1799 - 1800 by Seth Simonds, of Bristol, for Thomas Morris, of Canandaigua. This mill was of the stone type and stood near where the present mill owned by the Beam Milling Co. now stands. The “Burr” mill came a few years later. Stones from these old mills are becoming very scarce. They originally came from France and it is said that the stones were brought back from there by sailing vessels without charge as ballast. Mr. Kunze, at the lake, used several of these stones in building the Sullivan marker. This was an excellent way of preserving them.

The mill mentioned above was not used long by the builder. In 1805 or 1806, or about that time, Levi Van Fossen rebuilt it and in 1811 he improved it. He also built and operated a distillery on the lot where J. P. Coykendall now lives. Levi came to an untimely end in 1811 by falling into a vat of whiskey mash in this distillery. He left a widow and four children. Darius Jacques married the widow about two years later and by this union there were two children, a girl and a boy, Russel, who built the Jacques House at Hemlock Lake which was the first summer hotel in the country. (More about this place later.)

Phillip Short owned and operated a distillery near where the house on the Judson Smith place stands. It is said that a part of this house was built from the old distillery. This distillery was in operation in 1817 under a permit. The original of this permit is in the museum and reads as follows:

“License to work a Still for distilling Spirits from Domestic Materials. Whereas Phillip Short of the Town of Richmond in the County of Ontario of New York, possessor of a Still of the capacity of one hundred and eighty two gallons, including the head thereof, at this time erected and intended to be used in the Town of Richmond in the County of Ontario in the District aforesaid, hath duly applied for a License to distil Spirits from Domestic Materials, during the term of one month, to commence on the 26th day of March 1817, and to end on the 26th day of April 1817: NOW KNOW YE, that the said Phillip Short is hereby licensed to work and employ the said still in distilling Spirits from Domestic Materials, for the said term of ONE MONTH, as above defined, in conformity with the laws of the United States. Signed: Walter B. Beal, For the Commissioner of the Revenue. Countersigned at Canandaigua in the Collection District aforesaid, this 3rd day of March 1817. Leo S. Bates, Collector of the Revenue for the 24th Collection District of New York.”

These towns about here were well supplied with distilleries. There was another one down the outlet further where Holdenville was later to be built; another one stood on Kinney Creek a short distance from the mill now operated by Mr. Salsich at the Center. Whiskey was used by nearly everyone in those days. It is related that one fellow who used it to excess was approached by a minister who asked him if he was not drinking more than was good for him. The fellow replied that it was necessary for him to drink it so that the distilleries could be busy thereby affording him a market for his grain.