Sunday, August 26, 2012

Blueberry Teacake

What are those ghostly figures up on the hill?

Hidden under the gauzy cheesecloth are dozens of ripening blueberries:

As they ripen during August, I make several trips up the hill to pick the ripest berries before the birds and insects realize what is hidden under the shroud-like gauze:

More than enough to make Aunt Doris's blueberry teacake recipe:

Doris wrote down the recipe for Mom, but Mom wondered if a different sequence of steps would work just as well. When I tried the recipe, I did adapt it a bit, reducing the sugar to a half cup, and adding a teaspoon of vanilla to make up for the lesser amount of sugar. Most of my cake recipes call for sifting the dry ingredients first to set aside, then cream the shortening and sugar, beat in the egg and vanilla, then add the milk and dry ingredients alternately. That's what I did here as well. The cake is in the oven now, and we'll see how it turns out. It's beginning to smell good. . .

Blueberry Teacake fresh out of the Oven

Doris used to freeze enough berries to save until November, to make blueberry pie for Thanksgiving. It was like having a bit of summer sun preserved for a chilly fall day. I'm not sure I'll keep mine for that long -- blueberry pancakes seems like a good idea too.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

An Early Aviator Visits Fort Plain

Fort Plain, August 22, 1911: The fragile biplane glided over the village at dusk and landed in a field across the river. Out stepped aviator Harry Atwood, an early graduate of the Wright brothers' flying school near Dayton, Ohio. Fort Plain historian Nelson Greene recounts that Atwood did not know the name of the locality where he had landed. A young boy ran up towards the plane.

"Where the devil am I?" Atwood asked him.

"In Ed Nellis' cow pasture," the boy answered.

Great-Uncle Frederic remembered the event thus:

Frederic w. Mother & Father, 1912, w. unidentified relative
In the summer of 1911, village residents were intrigued when it was reported that early aviator Harry Atwood was coming. Atwood left east St. Louis [in an attempt to] make a flight to New York City, a distance of some 1266 miles, which he completed in eleven days. As word came through via telegraph that Atwood’s plane was coming down through the valley, everyone gathered up on the hillsides to await his arrival.

That evening, Father, Mother, and I went up to the top of the hill in back of our house and there, sure enough, just before dusk, along came Atwood. Dusk was rapidly falling, so he had to make a landing, and he landed on a farm over slightly north of Nelliston.

This was the first airplane I ever saw, and I was six years old at the time. It’s quite a contrast to the planes which now regularly fly intercontinentally and around the world at high speeds, carrying hundreds of passengers.

Atwood’s plane might be described as a collection of poles or spars, wire, cloth, and a low-horsepower engine. It seemed to be strung together with wire, and many people flocked over to view it.

In fact, the Sheriff had to send over a number of men to surround it and keep the people away because they might have taken it apart as souvenirs. Atwood stayed in Fort Plain at the hotel that night, and the next morning took off and eventually arrived in New York. The day he landed outside of Fort Plain he had taken off from a village near Syracuse and that day made a total of 94 miles.

                                                               *     *     *

Atwood's historic flight, the first through the Mohawk Valley, was one leg of a cross-country flight from St. Louis to New York city, a total distance of 1265 miles. He had been offered a prize of $10,000 to make this long-distance flight. The August 26, 1911 edition of the New York Times includes the following details: Atwood left St. Louis at 8:00 AM on August 14 and arrived at Governors Island, NY City on August 26. The flying time for the entire trip was 28 hours and 31 minutes. The average distance of each leg of the journey was 63 1/4 miles, with an average speed a little over 44 miles an hour. (One wonders how the aircraft managed to stay aloft at what seems to us today such a dangerously slow speed.)

View from the cemetery hill across the Mohawk River to Nelliston field

Atwood's flight beat the previous world record by 101 miles, and was described in the Times article as "the greatest cross-country flight in the history of aviation." But Atwood was apparently quite modest about the feat he had accomplished. "I want a bath and some clean clothes more than anything else," he declared upon arriving at the Hotel Knickerbocker, where he was the guest of the proprietor.  

                                                          *     *     *

At some point many years later, a section of the family property up on the hill above the house was sold to the village cemetery, when the cemetery expanded. Ironically, Frederic and his parents are now buried only a few yards from where they stood on that August day 101 years ago to watch Atwood's plane glide to a landing in Ed Nellis's field. 

- Greene, Nelson. Fort Plain Nelliston History 1580-1947. Fort Plain-Nelliston Historical Society, 1947. 

- "Atwood Ends Record Air Trip," New York Times, August 26, 1911.

- Wikipedia article on Harry Nelson Atwood: ; accessed 8/21/2012. This article includes a photo of Atwood and Albert Leo Stevens, from the Library of Congress collection.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Memories of Mindenville

Minnie's younger brother Frederic recorded a series of reminiscences in 1976. Here is an excerpt, which deals with his visits to both sets of grandparents in Mindenville, just west of Fort Plain:

Frederic and Jonas in Mindenville 1912
When I was quite young, Mother and I used to go and visit my grandparents frequently. We’d get up in the morning and go over to the West Shore Railroad and ride what was called the milk train, catching it at Fort Plain, and it was about a twenty-minute ride up to Mindenville.

It was at Mindenville that both my mother and dad grew up and were married. Grandpa and Grandma Van Slyke (Jonas and Margaret) had a house which was very near the right-of-way of the West Shore Railroad, and Grandpa John and Grandma Barbara Fineour had a farm which was about a mile farther up the dirt road from the little hamlet of Mindenville.

Once in a while we stayed overnight, and I can remember lying in bed in my grandmother’s house just a few feet from the railroad tracks, and hearing the big freight trains come roaring down the tracks. Sometimes it sounded as though they were going to go right through the middle of the house, and actually the house shook with the vibration of these passing trains.

Jonas & Margaret Van Slyke, 1912

Usually we only stayed during the day and in the afternoon, we’d walk up the dusty path alongside the road and visit Grandma and Grandpa Fineour, and then coming back, we’d catch the train, which came along about half past five, and we would be home in time for my mother to get supper for the family. 

John and Barbara Fineour, ca. 1911

These were nice trips, and I looked forward to them as a youngster with a great deal of anticipation. Mindenville was a nice little hamlet in those days, and it was characterized by a big platform along the railroad track. The farmers came down from all directions in the morning and unloaded their cans of milk onto this platform. The milk train started somewhere west, probably up near Rome, and came through and picked up the cans of milk and took them eastward to the metropolitan areas, where it was processed and eventually consumed; and in the morning, the train came back the other way and stopped at all the towns and picked up passengers and freight, and it usually had one or two coaches for passengers at the rear of the train.

My mother used to tell of the construction of this railroad in the early 1880’s when she was a rather young girl, and how the contractors imported Italian labor and housed them in labor camps, one of which was just a little west of Mindenville. The Dutch- and German-American natives were very impressed as the bands of Italian families came walking up the railroad tracks, many of them playing concertinas and singing, and with a type of dress that was new to the old residents of that area. They were somewhat afraid of these newcomers for a long time.

The opening of the West Shore Railroad was a spectacular affair because a westbound train and an eastbound train collided head-on at a curve near what is called Dievendorf Hill, west of Fort Plain. One of the engines toppled into the Erie Canal, and there were quite a few injuries. I can’t remember exactly whether my mother was on that run or not, but it was a big celebration and maybe she just was told about the incident or accident by some neighbors, because many people flocked to get a ride on the first train. At least one of the engineers was killed, and it was a very unfortunate and spectacular opening of that particular section of the railroad.


The 1870 census of Mindenville lists John Fineour as a 44-year old farmer. Barbara, ten years younger, is listed as "keeping house." Their place of birth is listed as Bavaria. Their three children are John, Jr., age 14; Fred, age 8; and Mary, age 4. The two boys are attending school, while little Mary is still "at home." Other records indicate that John Sr. was born in Neustadt, Germany, on August 27, 1825; he is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery in Canajoharie. Barbara was born on March 27, 1837. The census lists the value of the Fineour farm as $7000, a considerable sum for the time, and twice as much as the second most valuable piece of property listed on the same page. 

The 1880 census of Mindenville lists Jonas Van Slyke as a lock tender, age 39, living with his wife Margaret, also 39; their three daughters and a son; and Jonas's parents, David and Sally. For more about Jonas and his father, see The Family Bible, Part II

In Fort Plain-Nelliston History (1948), historian Nelson Greene cites the train wreck described by Frederic. This happened in 1883 upon the completion of the West Shore Railroad. The railroad was so named because it came up from the southern part of the state along the west shore of the Hudson River. 

For additional excerpts from Great-Uncle Frederic's reminiscences, see:

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Grandma Minnie's Oatmeal Cookies

The American English word "cookie" comes from the Dutch koekje, which means "little cake." Grandma Minnie's cookbook contains several recipes for cookies, including oatmeal cookies, which can be a nutritious breakfast cookie, if you don't eat too many of them!

Recipes for oatmeal cookies are pretty standard, so there wasn't much modernizing to do with this one. However, I usually reduce the amount of sugar in any cake or cookie recipe I use, so I did that with this one. I also reduced the amount of flour, as my first attempt came out too "doughy." And I believe the technique of dissolving the baking soda in the milk is a holdover from the days before the soda was widely available. When yeast was used as the leavening agent, it was necessary to dissolve it in warm water or warm milk.  Here is my updated version of the recipe:

Oatmeal Cookies

1 3/4 - 2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
3/4 cup margarine or baking stick
3/4 cup lightly packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup milk
2 1/2 cups uncooked oatmeal
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried currants

- Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a medium bowl, sift together flour, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon. Set aside.
- Cream together margarine and brown sugar; beat in eggs and vanilla.
- Add flour mixture and milk alternately, mixing well. Stir in oatmeal, raisins, and currants.
- Drop rounded tablespoonfuls of dough onto ungreased cookie sheet.
- Bake until edges are golden brown, approximately 8 - 10 minutes.
- Let the cookies cool for a minute or two on the cookie sheet before removing them to a wire rack or plate to cool completely.

This recipe will make 3 or 4 dozen, depending on how big you make your "dollops" of dough. I love how they smell so fresh with cinnamon right out of the oven!