Warren County Historical Society Presents …
October 16, 2014
John Thurman, was an early entrepreneur in what would become Warren County.
Perhaps one of the most important and enterprising men to settle in Warren County was John Thurman. A successful businessman from New York City, Thurman purchased what eventually amounted to over 109,000 acres of wilderness in upstate New York. He was one of the largest private landowners in New York State. It was here that he established a settlement and introduced industry to the area. On September 13, 2014, the Johnsburg Historical Society dedicated an historic marker commemorating John Thurman and his impact on the area.
Program cover form the September 13, 2014 historical marker dedication.
In this Rewind, we present two important articles on John Thurman: First, we present some biographical information on this important man, and second, a speech that Dr. Van Dyke gave on the Legacy of Thurman in Warren County.
John Thurman, 18th Century Warren County
Land Developer and Entrepreneur
In the late 1700s, the Adirondack North Country was a challenge to those wishing to come to this part of the country. John Thurman was a man of vision as he promoted migration to what is now Warren County.
Thurman was born in New York City in 1730. His father, John Thurman, Sr., was a baker, and his mother, Elizabeth Wessels, was related to the Roosevelts. John Jr. was the youngest of 5 children. He had two brothers and two sisters. He was baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church, and by 1760, at thirty years old, Thurman was well established in business on Wall Street. He remained neutral during the Revolutionary War and had associations on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1789, Thurman purchased 800 square miles of land, some 50,000 acres in the Hyde Township and the Totten and Crossfield Purchase, which is virtually all of the land of Warren County today. He created a settlement called Elm Hill and settled on Beaver Creek. With a forward thinking Master Plan involving agricultural and industrial development, Thurman created a community of 100 inhabitants in what is now Johnsburg.
On September 13, 2014, the Johnsburg Historical Society dedicated an historical marker to John Thurman at ‘Elm Hill,’ Thurman’s home.
The census of 1790 shows Thurman as the owner of one slave. In the 1790s and 1800s he built a sawmill and a grist mill which were powered by water from Beaver Creek. Next there was a cotton factory and a calico printing mill, believed to be the first of its kind in America. A potash factory and distilleries rounded out his businesses.
Thurman built his own homestead, Elm Hill Farm with a big house, a barn, stables, a shed and a smaller house. For years, this region west of the Hudson and north of Athol was simply called “Elm Hill” and Thurman himself was nicknamed “Dr. Hill.”
On his trips to New York City to recruit settlers as they came to America from England, Ireland and Scotland Thurman showed the prospective settlers beechnuts and samples of buckwheat raised on his farm.
A sketch of the area around John Thurman’s home, Elm Hill.
Thurman’s land dealings put him in touch with Philip Schuyler who was interested in building a canal to connect the Hudson to Lake Champlain through Wood Creek, north of Fort Edward. With Schuyler, Thurman became a principal officer of the Northern Inland Navigation Company, the precursor of the Erie and Champlain Canals.
The grounds around Elm Hill.
Thurman was a man of diverse interests and knew how to promote the region in which he established his businesses. Unfortunately, at age 79, he met an untimely death when a bull he was trying to subdue on property he owned in Bolton Landing gored him. He is buried in the Wevertown Cemetery at the intersection of Route 8 and 28. John Thurman never married and his vast land holdings went to two nephews and a niece.
Dr. Marilyn Van Dyke prepared this biographical information on John Thurman.
Dr. Marilyn Van Dyke presented the following speech at the dedication of the historical marker the Johnsburg Historical Society installed honoring John Thurman. The marker stands off South Johnsburg Road at Stratton Hill Road, the site of “Elm Hill,” Thurman’s home.
The Legacy of John Thurman in Warren County
By Dr. Marilyn Van Dyke
It is fitting today that we honor John Thurman with a permanent historic marker and take time to reflect on his legacy in Warren County.
Thurman was a man with diversified interests along with a vision of opportunities that he brought to the wilderness of the Adirondacks in the late 1700s. A man of means, he was thus enabled to purchase large tracts of land for future development. Seeing agriculture and industrial possibilities, he ventured to the docks of NY City and recruited immigrants from England, Scotland and France to populate workers for his business ventures.
His dream for Elm Hill produced an active community of 100 people with thriving businesses needed in his time – saw and grist mills, a cotton factory and calico printing mill, a potash factory and distilleries.
Thurman never married, leaving his estate to two nephews upon his untimely death. It was not long before Elm Hill died out, failing to prosper without leadership from Thurman who was a driving force in this area during his lifetime.
We now must ask ourselves, what impact did Thurman have on the development of Warren County as it is today?
Thurman first established himself in business in New York City. His success in business there enabled him to purchase large land holdings in the North Country. He then opened the extensive lands of what would become Warren County for purchase and development at reasonable rates.
Thurman showed that communities like Elm Hill could establish businesses and industries which could do well in the mountainous environment taking advantage of farming land, lumber, minerals, and water resources. As Immigrants pushed west from western New England, the mountainous region of the Adirondacks offered means of survival for some to consider, and they did settle here in small numbers whose families remain today along with some later settlers.
In chapter 15 of the new history of Warren County (Warren County (NewYork) Its People and Their History Over Time) author Ruth Lamb provides a lengthy study of how the quiet seasonal towns, as she calls them, of Hague, Horicon, Chester, Johnsburg, Thurman, Stony
Creek, Warrensburg and Bolton have evolved with farming, lumbering,
mills, mining, tanning, small businesses, tourism and recreation. Theirs
is a story of an area hemmed in by mountains cut north to south by the
Hudson and Schroon Rivers, west to Lake George. It is here that
neighborhoods have come to matter as hamlets, villages and towns
grew with subsistence farming where people lived off the land which
provided a living from produce, Christmas trees, maple sugar and ice
Later as economies and demands changed, a variety of new
ways to earn a living came into being and the quiet towns evolved with town halls, churches, fire departments, senior clubs, historical societies, libraries, stores and post offices.
Population figures for this area tell an interesting story of limited growth and slumps from 1940 to 2000. At the same time that growth was slowed, the population has also aged. Now there are less young children in the schools but there is, however, an influx of retirees who have built second homes and come to expect more services along with social and recreational activities. They enjoy living here and offer a cadre of volunteers to support community activities. They also show a concern for the environment of the mountain region and speak out on behalf of this.
The independence once established by John Thurman has evolved into an interdependence among the quiet communities. There is a cooperation among schools, health care, work and shopping which will hopefully ensure their long term existence as they are linked to the outside by the Northway. John Thurman, who came to this wilderness by oxen and wagon, would be truly amazed.
© October 16 2014, Warren County Historical Society