Gustav Schwab VTranscript of a taped interview
Narrator: Gustav Schwab V
Tape #: 52A
Date: September 29, 1986
Place of interview: Mr. Schwab’s house on Main St., Sharon, Connecticut Interviewer: Jodie Stone
Mt. Riga, a part of Salisbury’s history, is also legendary, a source of many tales and myths. Mr. Schwab’s family is one of the three who purchased the land which is now the Mt. Riga Association. He explains the functions of the Association and details some of Mt. Riga’s change from a thriving village to a ghost town.
Mr. Schwab’s family were residents of Sharon, and he includes a bit of that town’s history.
In closing, he explains how a person can buy a little place on Mt. Riga.
Property of the Oral History Project
Salisbury Association at the Scoville Memorial Library
Salisbury, Connecticut 06068
This is Jodie Stone on the 29th of September 1986 interviewing Gustav Schwab V in his home on Main Street in Sharon, Connecticut.
JS: Gus, as we were saying, how did you know about this area?
GS: Well, for many, many years my father came up here. He was an asthmatic, and he found one place in the world where the asthma didn’t bother him, and that was in Sharon and Mt. Riga. I would be brought up here as a kid, nine or ten years old, and my mother and father would go up the mountain to their camp up there on Mt. Riga, and I’d be left with my Aunt [Great Aunt. Ed.] Laura Wheeler, who had been a resident for many, many years, where I would play in the apple blossoms of her place which is known as home lot 22 which was later bought by Jim Buckley. It’s the brick house across from Weatherstone on South Main Street. [Next door to Weatherstone Ed.] Next door neighbor was my Aunt [Great Aunt. Ed.] Emmy Wheeler who was very close. Both were maiden aunts. They built the clock tower. You may notice it’s dedicated to “our beloved mother” who was my great-great-grandmother.
Their name was Wheeler. My grandmother’s name was Wheeler, also. This is where I come into the whole story. She married my grandfather, and their son was my father and also it was a sister of my father’s named Amelia Kirk who lived on Herrick Road. Anyway, I’d be left with Aunt [Great Aunt. Ed.] Laura who was a wonderful old lady. She looked a little bit like General MacArthur, and she was a maiden aunt and so was Aunt [Great Aunt. Ed.] Emmy. I would be left to play with them and be tutored by them while they were up the mountain enjoying themselves. This was when I was very much of a youngster in Sharon. It dates way back because there was another brother named William Ogden Wheeler who was a bachelor. I seem to have a whole lot of bachelors and maiden aunts in my background. William Ogden Wheeler was a great friend of Judge Warner’s, and at one time Judge Warner had discovered that the bank in Salisbury had tax liens from the Ball Mountain Iron Works which was defunct. He bought up the entire acreage of five thousand acres up on the mountain for tax liens along with a Major Tomlison Wells from Litchfield, so there were three partners originally on Mt. Riga.
JS: Gus, Judge who Warner?
GS: Judge Donald Warner.
JS: He’s the great-grandfather of our present Don?
GS: Right. He was grandfather, not great-grandfather. This was back about 1896. Judge Warner, whom everybody revered, was a member of the state legislature. He was a very prominent citizen in Salisbury, and he noticed, as I just told you, that the Ball Mountain Iron Works was out of business, and the bank held tax liens for this five thousand acres, and Judge Warner, with the help of Uncle Will Wheeler and Major Wells, picked up this acreage for a very insignificant sum.
JS: Do you have any idea what that sum was?
GS: No. But Don tells me that it was about ten cents an acre. Well, it
was right for that particular time. The mountain at the time was practically denuded, because to try to go back a bit in history, the wood on the five thousand acres was made into charcoal to fuel the blast furnace which is still in existence up there on the mountain, and this they used for charcoal. As you go through the woods you can see innumerable old charcoal hearths. Our camp up there on the mountain, in fact, exists on one of them, and these charcoal hearths were manned on a twenty-four hour day basis.
JS: Gus, what is that word you’re using? Charcoal what?
GS: Charcoal hearths. H-e-a-r-t-h. In making charcoal they have to have these enormous things, about the size of this house, and for weeks on end they burn out the moisture and the various ingredients they don’t want out of the wood and end up with pure charcoal which burns at a very high heat which is used in melting iron which is what the whole purpose of it was.
To give you a little idea about the name Riga, these charcoal burners came from Latvia, and they were here primarily to work off their indentures which were their passage across the ocean from Latvia. They stayed in the woods, as I say, for twenty-four hours a day, two weeks, three weeks at a time, to make the charcoal, and then they were paid, and in this way they were able to pay off their debts of their passage across the ocean. This goes quite far back, and going even further back, the mountain had quite a history and before the Revolution they were making iron up here, not in this particular furnace because it is much more modern than it was then during the Revolutionary War. They had a bootleg nail splitter up there because the British had a monopoly on making nails (and matches which is another story). He would cut his own nails and people who wanted to build a house would go up there and buy these smuggled-in nails, or hand manufactured nails. The area grew because of the water power and because of the availability of labor, and because there was a place to pasture cattle, goats, sheep and other things. You can still see the markings of the various householdings, I guess you might call them, where the stone walls would delineate the property that each one of them had.
In the Revolutionary War they made some wonderful things – the anchors for the frigate Constitution were made up there. Some of the chain that went across the Hudson as all the iron-making areas around here made some of the links that went across the Hudson River. All this was done with just mostly manual labor. Then along came the building of the main furnace which was around 1830, and for this particular edifice they used the water power from the lake and they built the dam which is up there now. It provided the water power that worked the big bellows which produced the oxygen which went into the furnace. The charcoal burners were still busy. The town had about a thousand people at one time up the main street. Their cellar holes are still evident. Around those cellar holes you’ll find lilacs and rhubarb which was something they planted for food and for decoration and for protection. All through the whole area you’ll find cellar holes because the water power provided the energy for grist mills and for all sorts of gun manufacturers there. They made what
is now called Kentucky rifles that were made in that Wachocastinook Brook area where there were lots of dams all the way down the mountain. Most of ’em have been washed out.
The furnace prospered for about six years, from 1830 to 1836. The thing worked beautifully. The ore was brought up from the mines around Lakeville and Salisbury, and the charcoal provided the fuel. The ore was necessary. The limestone came from Canaan, and the mixture provided the finest type of iron ore. The trip hammer that was also operated up there is now situated right in front of what was the old town hall in Salisbury. This was also operated by water power. There was a trestle from the top of the present furnace (which has been restored but is there now) over to the hill nearby, and the oxygen went back in the charcoal, limestone and ore and dumped it into the top of the furnace, and then the resultant ore would be drawn out in a great big ladle. The slag was dumped over the side of this hill and there’s still plenty of slag all over the mountain. They reuse it now for making roads for it’s very good road-making material.
So it prospered for about five to six years. Miss Julia Pettee was with us when we erected that historical stone commemorating this furnace, and her house, the house of the ironmaster, is still in existence and is known as Castinook. It overlooks the furnace and was nearby just like being a brewmaster. In making a beer you have to have an ironmaster [brewmaster. Ed.] who knows how to mix the various ingredients. As I say, it was well known, they say you could hear the roar of that furnace five miles away, because the oxygen was being poured into it with the charcoal. It must have looked like Pittsburgh.
As I say, there were a thousand people up there. My mother used to say that the first silk dress ever seen in the state of Connecticut was up there. They had military balls. It was a gay place. Right now, of course, it’s nothing but cellar holes.
JS: What I’d like to know, among other things, for instance, the Chapmans. Was she a Wells? Is that how, the connection?
GS: No, Jim Chapman. He was executive vice president of the Albany bank which Frank McCabe was president of, or chairman of the board. They were great friends. The McCabes have an area at the very top of the mountain where they have their own houses, McCabe complex, where Barbara Griggs is, where Jim Chapman is, all McCabe land. Jim is on a piece of Frank McCabe’s.
JS: So, other than the Warners, the McCabes, the Wells, that’s it.
GS: The Schwabs.
JS: Schwabs. What about Harris?
GS: Harris? Which Harris?
JS: Rees Harris’s.
GS: They’re tenants. They’re in Castinook now. Rees Harris’s son, Bill, owns Castinook. We own the land under it. Our policy has always been to own land under a tenant’s camp. Then he has to maintain it. We don’t’ have anything to do with maintenance of camps, thank goodness. This was Frank McCabe’s idea, and it has worked well. We can’t go around maintaining camps. We don’t have the staff to do it, we don’t have the ability to do it, and so we just collect ground rent.
JS: You’re like Baltimore, Maryland. You pay ground rent.
GS: I don’t know about Baltimore, but yes.
JS: When did people first start going up there-for camps?
GS: Well, as I say it dates back to when Judge Warner…. Well, there were some people up there. They would sort of farm what is now the Collins camp. He had a couple of cows. His name was Vicini. He was a Swiss guy. And before him I don’t know who it was. But there were several old characters like Ostrander and Jones, Davy Jones was him name, and Ostrander, he was still hanging in there, and I think his name was Davy Jones. He used to grow a beard during the winter. In summer he didn’t have a beard. No, it was the other way around. In the summer he had a beard and in the winter he didn’t. My mother said, “Dave, why do you shave off that beard during the winter?” He says, “Freezes up. Can’t spit.”
JS: When you first started going up there as a child, was the store still there? Were there a lot of people still there?
GS: There was no store. Vicini was there. I do remember meeting Ostrander when I was a kid. Most everybody had moved out. The remnants of the town where people became inbred, and they married their cousins and aunts, and they got a little kind of crazy, and they were known as Raggies, and if anybody came up from down off, say Salisbury or Lakeville, they’d flee into the woods and hide. They were very strange people. They’re all gone now.
JS: But their descendants certainly live on the way up.
GS: Everybody’s proud to be known as a Raggie. I think of Bud Brazee, very happy to be called a Raggie, and so’s Teddy Brazee. These are descendants, as I understand it, of the original Raggies.
When I used to go up there, there was only just, Vicini was the only one around. We used to stay at my father’s camp which he built and started in about 1902 when he was in college. Finished up about 1910, and then is when my mother came along and insisted on a road being put through.
JS: How did you get there before that?
GS: Well, Dad got in by rowboat. From the dam. They would row down the lake and bring the lumber in that way, food and everything else. Road was a little bit rougher than it is now.
JS: When you are up there, you can take a path through the woods and you come out on a cliff that looks down over the valley north of Millerton on to Route 22.
GS:, Yeah, that’s what we call the Western Lookout, and when we were kids we used to go up there on moonlight nights and sit and watch the trains come down the Harlem Division of the New York Central. Steam, of course, steam locomotives. The engineer would blow the whistle when he came to a crossing which was the proper thing to do, of course. We’d see the steam go up and then we’d count because it would take so long for the sound to get to us up on the top of Western Lookout.
JS: Was there a problem at one point about people buying the Kaye Sisters’ farm, and perhaps having access to come up to…?
GS: That was interesting. That goes way back. That was, I guess it was, yes, it was under contention between New York State and Connecticut. Way back, and there was a strip of land that was never decided which state owned it, a part of Boston Corners. And this is historic, this is where the various miscreants and thieves and robbers and anybody that was being chased by the law could hide because neither state had jurisdiction in that particular area. Anyway, this might go down as something interesting. Connecticut and New York decided to make a settlement, so for that strip of land which is mostly scrub oak and ledges. There’s nothing up there at all. It’s the edge of the mountain overlooking the Harlem Valley. They decided to make a swap, so Connecticut got what is now Greenwich and parts of Fairfield County. New York State got that scrub. Connecticut obviously came out way ahead. And that’s where that little spur of Connecticut goes down into Greenwich and that area came from. Anyway, that became available to Mr. Kaye some years ago and he put a road up in there, and we used to know it as the enemy road because of this fight between the Connecticut and New York people, they were known as the enemy. Kind of really shouldn’t continue that because they’re all good friends now.
JS: Did it originally go right up to the top, the road?
GS: Yeah. The Kaye road still goes, and is still being used by the people over there on the New York State side. Come up from the Kaye Ranch and drive up that road, and it ends at the upper lake. We call it Mt. Riga Lake where some people have recently bought it in the last few years by the name of Liebskind. They have a camp up there. They bought that piece from the Kaye Estate.
JS: So, the only way you can get in would be to know the people who bought the Kaye Ranch.
GS: That’s right, because they have it gated off.
JS: And isn’t there, or wasn’t there a very, very well-known surgeon down at P&S?
GS: Sure, sure. Doc Schlesinger. Ed Schlesinger. He has a camp at the end of the lake and his own land, too. At the end of our lake, which is the lower lake.
JS: But that’s not Riga land?
GS: No, we don’t own that, his place, because he has his own, but we own some land around there.
JS: How many people now have camps up there, or how many camps are there?
GS: We have sixteen tenants altogether.
JS: That’s all?
GS: That’s enough. They’re tenants. We own the land.
JS: I’m counting in my mind just around where the Blackburn’s road is ..
GS: That was part of Frank McCabe’s land.
JS: That whole area?
GS: Yeah. We provided, because we had two acre zoning in the Town of Salisbury in order to make it legal for him to have a camp we rented him another acre which he added to an acre which Frank got, sold him or gave him. I don’t know what the story was. Anyway, sure, we have to maintain roads, we have a security force, Teddy Brazee who goes up there and takes care of things. He works hard, and he is our caretaker. So we do need some income to pay the taxes and do maintenance of the roads and pay the security. A little while ago we were lucky enough to sell portions of, well, on each side on the Appalachian Trail from the Massachusetts line to Lion’s Head to the Federal government which netted us a tidy sum with which we were then able to fix up the dam which the State of Connecticut and the Federal government Corps of Engineers decided was a hazardous dam. So we fixed that up and it just recently passed inspection, so I think we’re okay. Never has washed out. It’s held since 1830 when it was built. We had a very serious hurricane in 1955. The water was going over the top of that dam eight inches deep, clear across one end to the other and washed out everything down below, but the dam held. So, I think we’re okay. We have to maintain that dam in the event of what the Corps of Engineers and the State call a Noah’s flood, and this is apparently what we’ve been able to do.
JS: Anything else of particular interest about Riga? You’ve done a great job.
GS: Well, yeah, I might pass on to your readers or listeners or whatever they are. We’ve always had a lot of people who say, “Can’t I have a little
little placecemetery hassome land tolittle place
on Mt. Riga?” So, we have extended the cemetery. The townbeen up there for a couple hundred years. We’ve arranged forgo below it where you can get buried, and if somebody wants aon Mt. Riga we can sell them a sixteen by eight foot plot.