This Greek Revival House near Smyrna, is located at 630 Chenango County Route 14, Smyrna. "John F. Billings built on his farm in 1850 a large and commodious cobblestone house, which was then said to be the finest house in the county. It is also said to be the only house of its kind in the county."P. 467, History of Chenango and Madison Counties, New York" by James H. Smith. Published by D. Mason & Co., Syracuse, N.Y. 1880.
Comments, suggestions and photos and information are welcome. Contact Richard Palmer at Railroad@twcny.rr. com. This is an on-going project.
Did cobblestone masons come from the Erie Canal?
By David Hanna (PhD)*
This claim has been been made and repeated often since the 1960s. While it would seem to fit more or less time-wise, it actually doesn’t really hold water in terms of a skill set or job opportunities available in their field.
Building cobblestone houses is undoubtedly a very special skill set, even an art form. One would classify it as "folk art" really, but still a very sophisticated type of folk art. Just the skill and imagination required to select and arrange rounded stones in the various decorative arrangements as these master craftsmen did, required both incredible talent and much imagination. They must have been the cream of the crop in terms of the building crafts. It is incredibly fussy work, a true art form.
A canal stone mason is someone completely different. He is part of an early industrial craft where there was much demand for canal locks, aqueducts and viaducts in the nascent transportation industry, not to mention giant stone factories and shop buildings. This skill set involved a chain of craftsmen working on major projects : a stone block cutter, a stone block trimmer, and a stone block mason, using limestone exclusively. The latter craftsmen used cranes and pulleys, engineering drawings and supervision, and of course hydraulic cement in the case of canal locks.
There simply is no connection between the two skill sets, other than the fact that they were masons. Most likely, these stone masons would have gone on to other transportation and industrial projects elsewhere, such as the plentiful factory buildings that resulted from the Erie Canal building, or more logically the surge of canal lock building that went on in New York State’s branch canal system or the Pennsylvania’s Main Line canal in the 1830s and 1840s, amongst others, even into the 1850s. In other words, these canal masons had more than enough work to do after 1825 in their field of expertise.
This brings up the second powerful argument against the transfer of canal stone masons to cobblestone building masons is that the 1830s and 1840s represent the peak of cobblestone building. This period also represents the peak of New York State branch canal stone masonry work, followed by the huge doubling and lengthening of locks, plus big aqueduct construction on the Erie Canal in the 1840s and 1850s. How could these so-called same stone masons be employed on two major local fronts simultaneously, focussing on specific canal projects while scattered across hill and dale in the surrounding countryside? The canal to house transfer theory simply does not hold water at all if one thinks about it a bit. The canal stone masons had more canal work than they could handle from 1825 to 1860, a full lifetime career in fact.
One is tempted to be facetious here and suggest that if you approached an Erie Canal stone mason in 1825, showed him a pile of nice cobblestones and asked him to build you a house with them, he would probably have picked up a few cobbles and thrown them at you along with a few choice swear words. It is time to definitively jettison this bad theory for once and for all. It has been mindlessly repeated far too long already. Let’s bury it under a cobblestone grave monument !
'Native' and 'Immigration' Theories
So where did the cobblestone masons come from then? Two more probable theories suggest themselves to us. We could call one the Native theory and the other the Immigrant theory.
The Native theory, held by many and yet to be proven, is that native-born house masons from New England, New Jersey or Pennsylvania, all census-proven sources for migrants to Upstate New York in the early 19th century, areas where fieldstone houses were abundant, somehow became interested in the plentiful cobblestones found in heaps of glacial till in Upstate New York (where the continental glaciers halted 20,000 years ago); and the even more perfectly rounded cobblestones found along the southern shores of Lake Ontario.
Intrigued by the plentiful source, these native-born fieldstone artisanal house builders experimented with the cobblestones and learned how to master this new technique using the smaller more rounded stones. But it would have been a skill set that developed locally because of the plentiful availability of the resource (well-rounded cobbles). This theory at least is plausible. Only a census tracking of the known cobblestone masons to these migration sources might lend this theory some credibility.
The Immigration theory is not really known, but refers to the origin of cobblestone building in England. This is a regional vernacular masonry technique germane to the Essex and Sussex regions in south-east England. These people had been practicing this skill for centuries (same source : glacial till at the edge of the continental ice sheet full of rounded stones). It is also known from the census research that after the War of 1812 (starting in 1815), there was a surge of migration from England to the US and Canada, many arriving directly, others crossing the very permeable border along the St. Lawrence River. In other words, British immigrants were encouraged to come to Canada, especially in light of the War of 1812, but once arrived, you couldn’t stop them from passing into the United States where economic opportunities were far greater, especially in neighboring New York. This immigration leakage is well documented in Canadian migration literature.
This theory also has yet to be proven and can only be run to ground by detailed census work proving that known cobblestone builders in New York were from England, via Canada or not. Of course, the truth could be a combination of the two, where perhaps some English masons started applying the technique and native-born masons quickly picked it up and pushed the technique beyond what had been done in England. Only pure research (a great thesis project suggests itself here) can run this theory to ground definitively. For now, they will serve as the most plausible sources for such a unique regional skill.
What is undeniable is that cobblestone houses of the sophistication and development level found in this very localized part of New York State (Niagara to Utica, but mostly around Rochester area), is unique. It is a testament as to what an incredible place Upstate New York must have been in the 1810-1860 period and beyond. Besides those unique cobblestone houses, one also finds the best Greek Revival houses and the best Italian Villas (especially the Tuscan villa type) ever seen anywhere, and in huge quantity. And let's not forget that other unique building type, the octagon houses, which are almost exclusively from Upstate New York as well. These remarkable houses are a testament to the prosperity and dynamism of Upstate New York due largely to the success of the Erie Canal (1825) and the great railroad network established by all the inter-linked ancestors of the New York Central Railroad in 1841 (Boston and New York to Buffalo and beyond by the 1850s).
The amazing house builders of New York State, during the 1815-1890 period deserve special recognition and perhaps none more so than the cobblestone masons of 1815-1860. This is a very precious heritage and every remaining cobblestone building, whether a house, barn, school, church, tavern, shop, hops dryer, railroad pumphouse, cemetery mausoleum or monument deserves special recognition and treatment. This blog, along with all the published work done on cobblestones since the 1960s, help this process along.
*Professor Hanna is a specialist in heritage studies, vernacular architecture and transportation history at the University of Quebec at Montreal.
Early Version of Cobblestone Masonry
The ruins of the medieval Thetford Priory in England are among the earliest evidence of the use of cobblestone construction. They show flint cobbles and mortar through the whole depth of the wall. The Priory of Our Lady of Thetford was one of the largest and most important monasteries in medieval East Anglia. Founded in the early 12th century, for 400 years it was the burial place of the Earls and Dukes of Norfolk, and enjoyed their powerful protection. It was because of this that Thetford was one of the last monasteries to be suppressed when it surrendered to Henry VIII's commissioners in 1540. The extensive surviving remains include the lower walls of the church and cloister, together with the impressive shell of the prior's lodging and an almost complete 14th century gatehouse.
This cobblestone town house at 19 Sun Street, Lewes District, East Sussex, England. It is mid-19th century with painted brick quoins and window dressings. It has a slate roof and a painted fan light over the doorway. It is on the local historic buildings registry.
Another house of "flint" cobblestone construction in Aylsham, Norfolk, England
17th century partial cobblestone barn converted to home near Meeth, Upper Devon, England. From: BBC series "Escape to the Country: North Devon."
Beckwith House, 4573 Route 92, Cazenovia
Brief History of Cobblestone Architecture
By Richard F. Palmer
Ancient history tells us that the use of cobblestones dates back to the third century when the Romans used them to construct coastal fortifications. Waterborne flint cobblestones were found in abundance in the English countryside. Natural lime mortars were perfected, but the stones were not laid in defined courses as was done in later periods.
During the 11th century the Normans and Saxons built walls of flint cobbles or "flint heads") in rough courses. During the Middle Ages came cobblestone streets, houses and outbuildings. Hundreds of years late American craftsmen, using the European precedent, refined and improved cobblestone building techniques that incorporated coursed, uncoursed, dual courses and heringbone patterns. Cobblestone houses and other structures have long been a source of curiosity in central and western New York. for decades. There are more than 700 throughout New York State, ranging from Madison to Orleans counties. Cobblestone architecture is unique among the varied architectural styles to be found in this region. Records preserved by the Cobblestone Society of Childs, New York indicate that 90 percent of all cobblestone buildings are found within a 100-mile radius of Rochester. The late Carl Schmidt of Scottsville was the foremost authority on cobblestone construction, authoring many books and articles dating back to the 1930s.
In his definitive book, "Cobblestone Masonry," Schmidt noted that because of innovative methods used by masons in this region, there developed a cobblestone masonry which distinguishes it from "all previous small-stone masonry."This includes European methods, as well as those used locally."
A frequent question asked by the initiated has been "Why are these old buildings confined to this region, who built them, how and when?" Generally the golden years of the cobblestone era were from about about 1825, when the Erie Canal was opened, to the 1860s. There are, however, examples from a later period scattered here and there including Vermont, Canada and the Midwest. It is not known where or when the first cobblestone houses were built. The earliest date stone found so far is 1832.
Why cobblestones? First, because they were plentiful. They had been rolled, rounded and left by the glacier that had passed over the region, As settlers came and cleared land for homes and fields, the glacier-carried stones had to be reckoned with. Along with using them to build miles of dry-stone wall fences, some were incorporated into building foundations and they gradually applied to above-ground construction.
The rough field stones were used at first. As the skill and artistry of the masons developed, water-washed stones were gathered from gravel pits. Then the builders looked to the shoreline of Lake Ontario where nearly 100 miles of washed stones of every form could be collected. We have dismissed the notion that many masons came into the region to work on the Erie Canal. It is an entirely different craft. Some records indicate the masons came from England.
Each mason developed an individual style and technique, preparing his own mortar. The real secret of a good cobblestone wall depended on the quality of mortar used. Whether fact or fancy, it has been said that often if a visitor came around, a mason would stop everything and wait for them to pass so as not have his special skills observed. The average mason was paid between $1 and $1.25 per day, plus board, for a 10-to-12-hour day. The work was tedious and exacting, more so as cobblestone structures became more elaborate. Only the more wealthy landowners could afford them.
The more that one studies the cobblestone era, the more interesting it becomes. Just driving around to difference sections to look at the variety of buildings and note their special architectural features can develop into an interesting pastime. There are more than 700 cobblestone structures in New York State, chiefly in 25 counties. Wayne County holds the record of more than 150 Monroe, Ontario and Orleans counties have about 100 each and the remaining counties from 20 to 50 each. The best reference sources include Cobblestone Quest: Road Tours of New York's Historic Buildings by Rich Freeman; andCobblestone Landmarks of New York State by Gerda Peterich. Unfortunately these are out of print but are available through some rare book dealers as well as on the Internet. Also they are on the shelves at many libraries in upstate New York. The Cobblestone Society has a museum and resource center on Route 104 in Childs, N.Y. Their website, which offers a wealth of information, is https://www.cobblestonemuseum.org. Many local historical societies have published booklets and brochures offering self-guided tours of historic homes that include cobblestone houses. This blog is a random look at cobblestone structures around the region, giving their specific locations. It is a "work in progress."
Of the 1,000 cobblestone buildings remaining, approximately 90% are within 75 miles of Rochester, New York. But, if you have the chance to inspect a cobblestone in Chicago, Minneapolis, or wherever, be prepared to enjoy yourself because these beautiful buildings are a testimony to the ingenuity of our forefathers.
The Civil War generally marked the end of cobblestone construction in the northeast. Modern wood balloon framing was gaining in popularity. Modern bricks were being mass produced and Portland cement would dry much faster than natural lime mortar. A cobblestone building simply became too costly and time consuming to construct.
Residents of these historic buildings generally are pleased when their houses are admired from the exterior, but the right to privacy of the occupants should be respected when viewing these structures.
Tentative List of Existing Cobblestone Structures by County
Albany - 3
Cayuga - 23
Chemung - 1
Chenango - 1
Cortland - 2
Genesee - 22
Herkimer - 6
Livingston - 21
Madison - 6
Massachusetts - 1
Monroe - 106
Montgomery - 1
Niagara - 47
Oneida - 5
Onondaga - 12
Ontario - 101
Orleans - 98
Oswego - 5
Otsego - 1
Saratoga - 1
Seneca - 20
Steuben - 2
Wayne - 170
Wyoming - 11
Yates - 9
Other known "true" Cobblestone Buildings in North America
Canada - 14
Colorado - 1
Illinois - 2
Michigan - 43
New Mexico - 1
Ohio - 1
Vermont - 3
Wisconsin - 36
Journal Register, Medina, N.Y.
July 6, 1990
Bethinking of Old Orleans
Cary W. Lattin County Historian
Vol. XII No. 27
Cobblestone Folk Tales Fact or Fancy
If a man is sufficiently imaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie he might just as well speak the truth at once. Oscar Wilde.
It’s often much more difficult to write about something than to do it. Anybody can make history! But to write about it so that it is accurate, takes great skill. Old stories, myths and legends although intriguing, inventing and sometimes amusing, can be quite misleading. So it is with cobblestone buildings which were erected in our area during the second quarter of the 19th century.
The first published research on this subject did not occur locally until 1916 in an article by Marc Cole which appeared in the Country Gentleman. It was too late as he was not able to get first hand information from a cobblestone mason as they were dead. Rather, hr took second and third hand information. When more serious research began in the 1940s it was in the form of looking at the existing cobblestone buildings. In visual terms they produced evidence, yet in audible terms remained silent. In more recent years researchers have found diaries, ledgers, account books and articles from periodicals dating to the 1840s and 50s, that now give us more factual information on cobblestone buildings.
In his first book on the subject in 1944, Carl F. Schmidt spoke of these structures as Cobblestone Architecture. When he published his second book in 1966 he referred to these structures as Cobblestone Masonry. Indeed, he recognized his first terminology was erroneous. Actually, cobblestone buildings were built in various architectural styles including: Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, and some were simply utilitarian or lacking a specific style. In other words, without knowing it, we sometimes create our own myths. Therefore, to be correct, it’s cobblestone masonry, not architecture.
But the myths go on. For instance, “Ox blood was used to color the mortar.” Fact or fancy? Well, it’s fancy! Cobblestone masons did not to our knowledge color their mortar with ox blood. The mortar was simply locally burned lime mix with sand. Originally many cobblestone masonry buildings would have appeared with very light, almost white colored mortar when new. As the lime in the mortar eroded, the color of the sand has become more predominate. if colorants were ever used, researched has not yet proved what.
Cobblestone masons were secretive about their mortar mixes.” Fact or Fancy? Well this is fancy also! It was no secret how to make soft line mortar. Brick and quarried stone buildings used the same kind of mortar. In 1838 The Genesee Farmer and Gardner’s Journal published the recipe.
“Cobblestone masons were masons were secretive about how they laid up their walls.” Fact or fancy. This, too, is fancy! This myth began because cobblestone masons covered up their work temporarily, not to keep people from seeing what they were doing, but so the sun wouldn’t dry out the mortar too quickly. People going by obviously just didn’t understand there was a pragmatic reason for this and assumed otherwise.
“The pointed horizontal mortar moldings between the rows of stone were put on to deflect Indian arrows.” Fact or fancy? This one is total fabrication! What few Indians who traveled through this area during the early years of cobblestone construction, were peaceable. Various designs in the mortar were simply aesthetics.
“All cobblestone buildings are made of stones picked up at the lakeshore.” Fact or fancy? This is false! Most all of the early cobblestone structures made use of field stone in their entirety except quarried trim. However, most of the later cobblestone buildings used lake-washed stone for outer or exterior veneer with the inner thick rubble wall made of fieldstone or perhaps in a few cases quarried stoned.
“Having such thick masonry walls must really insulate.” Fact or fancy? This common remark is totally inaccurate. A twenty-inch stone wall, although solid has practically zero insulate quality. Indeed, stone houses are cooler in the summer only because of dampness. But get a warm spell for two weeks and the cob bluestone house is just as hot as any other. In the winter they stay cold.
“Cobblestone masons built several cobblestone buildings in an area at the same time so they could go from one to another because the mortar didn’t set up so quickly.” Fact or fancy? Although this sounds quite plausible, it’s necessarily true. Actually the mortar sets up quite quickly. We do know that approximately four rows for tones could be laid up at a time. Otherwise, it would squish out. With careful observation of a cobblestone building, you can see the overlap of joints, usually about four rows above one another. In constructing the cobblestone church at Childs, the building was begun in April and completed in October, all in the fair weather season of 1834. These mason just were not dilly-dallying around at other locations.
And finally, “Cobblestone buildings were built by masons who worked on the canal.” Fact or fancy? Once again, this is fancy. It makes a nice story but other than hearing or even reading this misnamed, no one has been able to prove its legitimacy. Some cobblestone masons who were in their twenties during then 1840s were just too young to have worked on the canal which was completed in 1825. This also carries over to “the Irish who dug the canal and then built these structures.”
Legends such as these die hard. Not to belittle the Irish, as indeed, they did work on the canal when it was widened and deepened beginning in 1836. Immigration records begin to show an influx of people from Ireland starting in this decade. Perhaps that’s when the legend began. For the most part, cobblestone buildings were built by local Yankee or English-descended masons. Many were professional contractors.
Legends, myths, folk tales and fabrications, for whatever reason, add color to our own local heritage. In many cases, that’s all we have. But before we assume that all these tales are completely true, we must continue to delve into our past. If anyone can prove any of the so-called legends mentioned herein, please respond to the Cobblestone Resource Center. It is anxious to acquire documented information in the form of old letters, ledges, diaries or publications from the 1830’s, 40’s and 50’s or any written proof. But please, no hearsay. The folk tales, although charming, are not there documented evidence we need.