'What We've Lost' stirs the ghosts of Chester's past

Chester. The Chester Historical Society's new exhibit at the Erie Station Museum is a tour through the businesses, schools, and homes that once graced the local landscape.

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  • An open carriage in front of Lord’s blacksmith shop during the 100th Hambletonian Anniversary Parade on May 5, 1949. Lord's shop occupied the site where Main Street Pizza is now located. You can also see, on the right, part of the building that now houses Lorgan's Hair Design. (Photo courtesy of the Chester Historical Society)

  • The Tuthill family home, which was near the present-day Chester Academy (Photo courtesy of the Chester Historical Society)

  • Fire destroys the Chester Academy on April 9, 1906 (Photo courtesy of the Chester Historical Society)

  • An old map of the village

  • Lord's blacksmith shop (Photo courtesy of the Chester Historical Society)

  • Visitors enjoy the exhibit on opening day

Curator Leslie Smith wants to protect what remains

The idea for the Chester Historical Society's new exhibit came from its curator, Leslie Smith, who executed it with the assistance of Clif Patrick. She explains the inspiration for her idea:
"The 'What We’ve Lost' exhibit is the result of my lifelong interest and work in historic structures and their preservation. The exhibit was prompted in 2017 by the very real possibility that the remainder of a local historic streetscape, property once owned by W.A. Lawrence, where the manufacture of neufchatel and cream cheese took place and standing between Lawrence’s former residence and Orange Trust Bank (a thoughtful, adaptive repurposing), would be forever changed. Advance Auto proposed a large corporate design building on this Brookside Avenue site. It was not built, but current zoning would still allow such a project.
"I have many years of hands-on experience in the restoration of historic structures. They can be appreciated on many levels. Not all are finely crafted or of exceptional beauty, or historically significant, but many are, and Chester has lost some great ones.
"These structures are evidence of how we evolved as a village and a community. If we are not reminded every once in a while of what we no longer have, we tend to forget. So it’s time to consider what we've lost — some through fire, some through demolition, and some just through ignorance or lack of care. Take a look at what we still have. It’s time to consider how to protect those we value and do not want to lose."

"What We've Lost," the Chester Historical Society's new exhibit at the 1915 Erie Station Museum, open a window on bygone buildings that once stood in Chester but still live in memory, with the aid of photographs, documents, and other artifacts.

Perusing the exhibit, the visitor can overlay the faraway past on the familiar present.

On the site where CVS is now, for example, the original Chester Academy once stood. It was destroyed by fire in 1906. A photo shows the school ablaze as the bell tower falls into the flames. That very bell is now in the vestibule of the present Chester Academy on Hambletonian Avenue.

The moment was captured forever by James Razey, a professional photographer who lived in Chester and had a tiny studio, long gone, on Main Street, between the corner antiques store — formerly Durland's general store — and the Yelverton Inn.

Now a private residence, the Yelverton Inn existed before the American Revolution. The Yelverton family did much for the area. George Washington did not sleep there, but he took a meal there with some of his officers. Washington was careful to document his expenses for reimbursement, and a receipt exists for his meal at Yelverton's. This historic inn still stands but has fallen into disrepair.

The Patriot who blocked the British

Perhaps the most egregious loss is the Peter Townsend house, which was razed in the 1990s. Its last incarnation was as a beauty parlor, in house on a rise behind today’s Main Street Pizza.

It was the home of a man very important to the American Revolution, Peter Townsend, who owned the Sterling Iron Works with his partner, William Noble. Knowing that Townsend sympathized with the Patriots, George Washington sent two emissaries, including Secretary of War Timothy Pickering, to his home in Chester. There a contract was signed on Feb. 2, 1778, for Townsend's ironworks to supply links for the "Great Chain," which was extended across the Hudson River at West Point to block the British from making further incursions upriver. An earlier chain strung at Fort Montgomery had broken, enabling the British to sail upriver and burn Kingston.

The dairy farmer who nourished the city

Other exhibits show lovely private homes that are no more. The substantial home of the wealthy Tuthill family once stood on land now occupied by the Chester Academy.

The Gregory/King house, later occupied by the deSchauensee family, once stood on a rise overlooking Route 94, where the Meadow Hill apartments now stand. The early Gregory and King families made their mark on Chester. Philo Gregory helped put Chester on the map when he started shipping milk on the Erie Railroad from his farm to New York City. Suddenly, city people had access to fresh milk. Soon farmers throughout Orange County were also shipping milk, bringing a new level of prosperity to the area.

The exhibit also includes photos of bygone businesses. The Chester (Imperial) Meatpacking plant operated on a site now occupied by the Lowe's Home Improvement store. Cattle were brought in by train at the Erie Station and driven through the streets to the slaughterhouse.

Ananias B. Lord's blacksmith shop once was where the current Main Street Pizza now stands. After the Chester Academy burned down, some classes were temporarily held on an upper story of the blacksmith shop — the kind of place that today would be considered too hazardous for groups of children.

Opening day was also the occasion of a slide presentation by railroad historian Bob McCue on local train lines. He gave an excellent talk full of interesting facts that intrigued the audience.

So come down to the Erie Station Museum on Winkler Place any Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for an appreciation of local history — not only what we've lost, but what we still have, and want to protect.

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