The Old Yellow Brick Road that was once a part of the Albany and Delaware Turnpike is rumored to be the inspiration behind the road featured in “The Wizard of Oz.” Similar golden bricks ran through Normansville as far back as the early 1800s. Photo by Michael Hallisey / Spotlight News
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When driving, walking or biking around Bethlehem in 2018, one can still see remnants and reminders of the town’s storied past. Founded in 1793, ten years after the American Revolutionary War ended, Bethlehem celebrates its 225th birthday this year.
Most locals are familiar with the history of the Slingerland family, which not only built the oldest standing home in the eponymous hamlet and was instrumental in bringing a railroad through town, but also established a post office and implemented a water system that served multiple municipalities. Many are also aware of Nathaniel Adams, who served as Delmar’s first postmaster in 1840 and constructed the historic house which bears his surname.
It is important to note, however, that the individuals who helped shape the town into what it is today played important roles years before Bethlehem was actually founded.
Sgt. James Selkirk, for whom the hamlet of Selkirk is named, was a revolutionary soldier whose discharge from the Second Regiment of New York was signed by George Washington only months before the war ended in 1783.
The Haswells, who rented 300 acres near the present-day Haswell Farms development on Feura Bush Road from the local patroon (Dutch landowner), did not fight in the Revolutionary War. Instead, they supported the fight for independence by contributing financially to the effort, according to a relative who was still farming the land in the 1960s. A home built by William Haswell in 1820 still stands at the entrance to Haswell Farms today.
A plaque at the entrance of Mount Pleasant Cemetery in South Bethlehem indicates the gravesite of Patrick Callanan, who served with the Third Regiment of the Albany County Militia during the Revolution. Fifty-nine years after his death in 1824, Peter Callanan, Patrick’s great-grandson, founded the Callanan Road Improvement Company, which ultimately became Callanan Industries— which continues to operate in South Bethlehem today. Callanans Corners and the Callanan quarry also owe their names to this early Bethlehem family.
According to Town Historian Susan Leath, there are eight signs scattered around town marking the graves (or approximated graves) of 18 Revolutionary War veterans who “mustered” out of present-day Bethlehem. In a 165-page history of the town, published in 2016, she investigates historical records, old photographs and correspondence, recorded interviews and living relatives to piece together a series of essays about the town’s history—not only from a military perspective, but from a host of other viewpoints as well, such as cultural, industrial, commercial, and educational.
On Sunday, June 10, from 1 to 4 p.m., the Bethlehem Historical Society will celebrate the town’s 225-year existence during its annual ice cream social at the Cedar Hill Schoolhouse Museum (1003 River Road in Selkirk). Anyone with an interest in local history is invited to stop by and check out the museum’s exhibits, one of which includes more than a dozen wedding dresses from the 1860s through the mid-20th century. Matrimonial items from notable local families are also on display. Another exhibit plots all of Bethlehem’s 15 one-room schools in 1866 and includes photos of students as well as the buildings, several of which are still standing.
Leath and other local history enthusiasts will also be on hand to share the stories of the bygone residents, buildings and influences that made Bethlehem the community it is today.
Other opportunities to explore the town’s history of Bethlehem include walking tours of its historic cemeteries and a history kayak paddle on the Hudson River.
“Looking back across 225 years is a great reminder that we’re a living part of history,” said Town Supervisor David VanLuven. “The town has changed so much over the last two centuries. What roles will each of us play in shaping what Bethlehem will look like 100 or 225 years from now?”