Settlement preserved on Historic Huguenot Street
By Mary Ann Ebner
With a career anchored in the banking industry, Mary Etta Schneider fits right in on Wall Street. But she’s found her true home on Huguenot Street, where her lineage links her to more than 300 years of heritage. As president and board chair of Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) in New Paltz, Schneider is a descendant of the Huguenots and Walloons, French-speaking Protestants who fled Northern France beginning in the mid-17th century.
A dozen men purchased land from the Esopus Indians and established a village of stone houses on the east bank of the Wallkill River in what was at the time a Dutch-controlled colony. Along with descendants and friends of HHS, Schneider sustains the early French settlement and recently received the 2013 Martha Washington Woman of History Award for contributions to historic preservation.
“There are so few places that have the French and the Dutch heritage that we find on Huguenot Street,” Schneider said. “It’s fascinating to learn how this evolved. Part of what we’re doing here is bringing the senses into the experience of visiting. We want visitors to experience what would have been happening in the early years through the scents of food and the sounds of music and voices in the houses.”
HHS maintains an extensive collection of rotating art and heirloom artifacts that help illustrate three centuries of life in the community. Director of Visitor Services Rebecca Mackey leads guided tours at the 10-acre National Historic Landmark that showcases seven stone house museums, a reconstructed 1717 French church and an early burial ground. “The stone houses were not the first houses on Huguenot Street,” Mackey said. “They initially had pithouses and then earthfast houses built with crudely cut timber. All along, we believe the settlers were gathering stones to build their houses.”
The original stone houses were positioned with their sides facing the main street. The homes were constructed with locally sourced stone, designed with Dutch traditions including double chimneys and basement kitchens.
Historic Huguenot Street Executive Director Tracy McNally said there were seven primary surnames (Bevier, Crispell, Deyo, DuBois, Freer, Hasbrouck and LeFevre) associated with the initial settlers. McNally traces her lineage to the first settlers and shares a familial connection with Schneider and scores of descendants. McNally and Schneider, cousins of sorts, continue to meet distant relatives.
Allan Deyo DuBois recently toured Huguenot Street with his first cousin Charles Henke. The cousins were pleased to find vibrancy on Huguenot Street. “I always remember these port holes (gun ports),” Henke said as he looked through one of the loopholes of the DuBois Fort, currently housing the visitor center and gift shop. “It looks just like it did when I was here as a kid.”
Though much of Huguenot Street remains unchanged, the organization continues to receive historical documents and heirlooms from descendants, and materials are continuously documented for their collection. Additionally, Schneider said that HHS is particularly focused on gleaning more information from letters and other family papers to embellish the role that women and African American slaves played in the settlement’s history.
“So much of history has been recorded through letters,” Schneider said. “We don’t know the entire history of the women here, but they were very powerful in their own right. For years, people denied that there were slaves on Huguenot Street, but slowly, over the past 50 years, it’s been acknowledged that slaves were here. We’ve been working with scholars from SUNY New Paltz to further our research.”
Susan Stessin-Cohn, HHS director of education, said that a tradition of slavery existed on Huguenot Street and it can be assumed that slave labor was used to build the stone houses.
“Every house had slaves,” Stessin-Cohn said. “Part of what we’re working on here is the genealogy of the black Huguenots. We’ve been tracking the families and we’re finding LeFevres, Hasbroucks, all the same names as the white Huguenots.”
A modest pallet on the floor of the recently reinterpreted Abraham Hasbrouck House represents the probable sleeping arrangements for Huguenot Street slaves. The home also includes typical elements of colonial Dutch architecture, a jambless fireplace and curtained box bed. Maria Deyo, widow of Abraham Hasbrouck, oversaw construction of the home with her son, Daniel. HHS believes that Deyo would approve of the pristine condition of the house today and the museum pieces that perpetuate her family story.
“We want to make Huguenot Street relevant for young people to see history and touch it,” Schneider said.
Collections at the site change periodically and range from an original basket made of sea grass owned by the DuBois family to delicate textiles created by Huguenot family members. The reclamation and restoration of The Deyo House tells a story in itself of survival and sustenance.
The historic site, 32 miles from Cold Spring, is located at 81 Huguenot St., New Paltz. The HHS calendar includes a variety of programs. Guided tours are $16 with discounted rates for families, students, military, seniors, AAA members and groups of 15 or more. Free for children under 7. Allow time to explore the nearby Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, which boasts 12-plus miles of walking, hiking and biking trails. New Paltz also offers a mix of shops and dining outlets within a few blocks of HHS. For more information, visit huguenotstreet.org or call 845-255-1889 or 1660.
Open November through April for special tours and events
Dubois Fort Visitor Center open May 18 & 19 and May 25 & 26
Primary season: June 1 – Oct. 27
Monday, Thursday, Friday
DuBois Fort Visitor Center hours: 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. weekends
10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday
Guided tours: 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m.
Closed Tuesday and Wednesday
Private tours and special events may be booked throughout the year
Grounds open to the public 365 days/year
Wear comfortable walking shoes.
Parking located onsite/Broadhead Avenue.
Limited accessibility in some historic buildings. Please call ahead for special accommodations.
Allow up to two hours for guided tour and self-guided stroll through grounds and visitor center exhibits.
Photos by M.E. Ebner