Dresser/Mt. Riga cover sheet
Interviewee: Jim Dresser
File #:22, 23
Place of Interview: Mt. Riga
Date of Interview:Sept. 21, 2012
Summary of talk: Talks about the original homes left on Mt. Riga: Wentworth 1756, Castinook Camp 1807, the general store run by a Pettee brother, and the Frink house built around 1800 which Jim has owned since 1968.
Dresser Interview on Mt. Riga
This is Jean McMillen interviewing Jim Dresser on Mt. Riga. The date is Sept. 21, 2012. He is going to talk a little bit about Wentworth House and Castinook Camp.
We’re standing on the lawn of Wentworth which was built in 1756 according to the sign on the side of the building. I think it is the oldest of the three remaining original houses on Mt. Riga.
We are looking across the lower lake dam to Castinook which was the iron master’s home, Joseph Pettee. He lived there from approximately 1807 or 1808 because the furnace was under construction. It was eventually commissioned in 1809, and he could look right down on the furnace from his front porch. It is quite a grand house. Evidently the entire upstairs was a ball room and was used for dances to celebrate the successful inspection of the product of the furnace by government inspectors.
The government was the major customer as they were making cannon and anchors and parts of the chain that was put across the Hudson River to keep the British ships from going up to Albany in the War of 1812. They would have a huge tripod, I think about 30 feet high from descriptions I have seen; the inspectors would randomly choose an anchor or cannon and they would hoist it up and drop it to the ground. They would test several pieces of the output, and if they all passed, then they would all go to the ballroom and celebrate.
We are also looking over the site of the general store that was at the end toward Wentworth part of the dam. We don’t know its exact physical size but we do have reports from Julia Pettee who I was lucky enough to interview when I was a student at Salisbury School 50 years ago and was writing my history papers about Mt. Riga. She was the granddaughter of Joseph Pettee and she was in her 90’s. She said that they had 4 full time clerks; the store was run by Joseph Pettee’s brother. I don’t know his first name, so it was obviously somewhat of a company town, and a company store. Evidently Jenny Lind, the famous singer, used to come up here and buy her Italian silks. She evidently did one or more concerts at Castinook, probably as a part of those celebrations that I mentioned. That is basically what I know about Castinook. My cousin Steve Griggs his family lived there from 1902 to 1947. He is going to talk with Jean later about the house and his family.
This is a continuation of Mr. Dresser’s talk. We are now in the Frink house. He is going to talk about this house and how he acquired it.
To start with the house is the third of the three remaining original dwellings from the iron making period of Mt. Riga. It was built around 1800; I have never researched it exactly but I have seen it on maps of 1810 but not on maps of 1790. So I just say that it was built around 1800. It is not a fancy house; it was clearly an iron worker house. It was not the iron master’s house, like Castinook. It is a simple post and beam house. It is the only house on the south side of the plateau. Looking down to the south we are lucky enough to have beautiful views of Red Mountain in Lakeville and on into Sharon and Goshen and points south. We are looking at the Briscoe fields off Rt.112 on the side of Red mountain with Hotchkiss to the right and Lime Rock to the left. I know quite a bit about the history of the house because I was lucky enough to know Katy Pelton Burrell who lived here as a summer resident from her youth from 1907 to 1927. She has told me about the original set up of the house. As so many of these houses used to have, it has a formal front door which entered into a parlor. The fireplace used to be centered like a center colonial fireplace which we use both for heating the parlor and also for cooking in the kitchen which is now the dining room. That was removed many years ago with a chimney in a different place.
We’ll wander upstairs; the most interesting feature of the house is the original bones and structure of the house. If you look in the bedrooms upstairs, you see oak boards that are as much as 22 inches wide and 2 inches thick. I know this because I have taken up one or two of them. Back when you could fell a tree and use the inside of it for incredible floor boards and other decorative structural building and use the rest of it for charcoal or home heating which is of course why we had the furnace on Mt. Riga in the first place. There are three bedrooms left upstairs left as they were originally on the second floor.
Why would you build a furnace at 1800 feet above the 500 foot town of Salisbury? The answer was they cut over the whole valley so there was no wood available for charcoal. It takes 30 cords of firewood to make enough charcoal for one load of the furnace so huge amounts of firewood were required. We also have the water power thanks to Mr. Ball’s damming of the lower lake. So that is why it was the last furnace built in the area in 1809.
Mt. Riga used to own all the houses that were here including some newer ones, as well as the three original houses one of which is this house, the Frink house. We started renting it in 1933; we had previously shared the Castinook with the Griggs’ cousins. My parents were in France for about ten years prior to 1933 where my grandmother had a school for American boys in Pau, France, down near the Pyrenees. They came back in 1933; this house had been vacant. I mentioned Katy Pelton lived here until 1927. Evidently an animal got into the well which was the main source of drinking water which we still have. Therefore the house was not inhabitable; they didn’t use it for the next 8 years. But by 1933 the well had cleared by natural process; they were again able to start renting it. We rented it until 1968 when Mt Riga decided to sell the building. It was too much trouble to keep them up and therefore they decided to sell them to people who had been renting them. We purchased the house in 1968. We still don’t own the land. Most people up here do not own the land under their houses.
JM: So this is not a free hold.
JM: You own the house, but not the land under it.
JD: We have leases from the Mt. Riga Corporation all of us for the land so its attempt to keep it in unitary control so you don’t end up with a house every 50 feet along the lake like some of the lakes in our area. That is a good thing. We have owned it since then.