The History Martinsburg, NY



Martinsburg, founded by Gen. Walter Martin at the turn of the nineteenth century, stands hard against the Tug Hill Plateau on high ground at the western edge of the Black River Valley. From Martinsburg, the view of the surrounding country, especially towards the Black River below it on the east, is magnificent, presenting an expansive panorama across a changing tableau of graceful woodlands, well-groomed farmlands, and the green-clad Adirondacks. The first settlers – farmers, lumbermen and businessmen – came chiefly from places near Salem, New York and Westfield, Massachusetts. Later, Irish immigrants, having completed work on the Black River Canal and finding the land and climate to their liking, established homes through the adjoining area. Although located in a rural, sparsely populated region, Martinsburg was the seat of Lewis County until 1864, when the local railroad, wanting to avoid construction up a difficult climb to the village, built its tracks on lower ground near the river and bypassed the community.

In the meantime, James Bush, upon settling in Martinsburg ( a community of 210 people in 1855), opened a cabinet shop along Roaring Brook on the southwestern edge of town. Here he built cabinets and other home furnishings of wood taken from the nearby forests. He also made butter tubs and cheese boxes for dairy farmers in the area. In a two-story building that he owned on the corner of State Road (New York Route 26) and Cemetery Road which led west to the Martinsburg Cemetery, he rented space on the ground floor to J.H. Williams and L.M. Dunton, who operated a general merchandise store there for many years. On the second floor he may have operated for a brief time an “Undertaking Establishment”.

James and Caroline Bush resided on State Road adjacent to the store, in a home described in 1948 as “a smallish frame building with no architectural qualities”. In 1995, it was still occupied. Here Caroline Bush gave birth to nine children, three of whom died in infancy: James R., born February 10, 1847, died on March 30, 1848; Elizabeth, born December 6, 1851, died three days later; and Ella Amelia, born May 18, 1853, died August 15, 1854.

William H. Bush, born at his parents’ home in Martinsburg on October 28, 1849, was the second of nine children. The oldest of those who survived infancy, Will, as he was called, was four when his sister Emma Cornelia(the twin sister of Ella Amelia) was born in 1853. The others who reached adulthood were Harriet Northam (born in 1855) , Clarrisa Bell (born in 1858), Edwin Samuel (born in 1860) and Mary Katherine (born in 1866). All six of the children eventually moved west to live in Illinois, Missouri and California.

The children received what education the country school of Martinsburg offered. Will may have, in addition, briefly attended the state academy at Lowville, a few miles north of Martinsburg and after 1864 , the county seat, where he was to prepare himself for college. But, according to his daughter, he received little more than “a six grade education.” Nonetheless, his education emphasized classical literature, writing, mathematics, geography and spelling, with a heavy dose of western morality and virtue. It included a solid grounding in basic subjects standard at the time, and it imbued in him a love of reading “all good books no matter of what nature”.

Will’s father, James Bush, described as “very tall and thin with fair skin, light brown hair and twinkling blue eyes”, was popular among the Martinsburg boys. On several occasions, James took his sons and a few of their youthful companions on camping trips – “excursions” they were called – to Whetstone Gulf, a splendid camping site a few miles south of the village and near Houseville, Mr. Bush’s youthful home. Perhaps the King boys (Henry, Charles and Philo), sons of William King, who owned a hardware store in Martinsburg, went along and perhaps James convinced his brother Henry in Houseville to bring his sons (Guilford, Stanley, Charles and Herbert) on the trips.

Called “one of the most spectacular scenic vistas east of the Rocky Mountains”, Whetstone Gulf is a steep-walled, three-mile-long gorge cut by Whetstone Creek into the eastern edge of the Tug Hill Plateau. Here James Bush taught the boys to fish, trap, cook over an open fire and handle other responsibilities of camp life. They also enjoyed swimming in the creek and hunting and hiking in the gulf. Around an evening campfire deep within the gulf’s towering walls, James told stories and taught the boys songs.

The popular camping place is today part of the Whetstone Gulf State Park. A recreation area since the early 1800’s, the State Board of Park Commissioners purchased the 522 acre site in 1928. The State Conservation Department and the federal Civilian Conservation Corps developed the park in the 1930’s, planting thousands of trees, building roads and clearing brush. Red pines, spruce and maples make up the bulk of the parks trees. A trail, six miles in length, extends along both sides of the gulf and crosses the creek at the gulf’s upper end. The view from the rim of Whetstone Gulf is one of “wild and spectacular scenery”.

Will Bush must have enjoyed the trips to Whetstone Gulf, for he went with his father on several of them. He participated in many other recreational activities as well, including sledding on snow in the winter, skating on frozen ponds, hunting and trapping in the woods, fishing and swimming in the lakes and rivers in the summer and wrestling in any season of the year. When he was about eleven or twelve years old, according to his descendants, Will and an older cousin (perhaps Guilford, Stanley or Charles, from Houseville) walked sixty miles to Utica (south) sleeping in haystacks along the way, to see one of the early trains travel through upstate New York on tracks of the New York Central Railroad.

Closer to home, Will Bush enjoyed outings at Whitaker Falls. A 345 acre tract of woodlands and clearings bordered by Roaring Brook (a lively stream that breaks over a series of striking, pristine waterfalls that gave the place its name), Whitaker Falls was a popular place near Martinsburg for swimming, hiking and general community outings. Because Daniel Whitaker and his family made the place available to the public, villagers attracted by “the natural beauty of the falls, the terraces of limestone that wall its gorges, and the beautiful maple grove bordering the northern rim”, used it for picnics and camping from Martinsburg’s early days of settlement. Called “one of the region’s hidden jewels” Whitaker Park offers its visitors one of Lewis County’s best view of the sweeping Black River Valley and the majestic beauty of the Adirondack Mountains. Whitaker Falls was one of Bush’s favorite places as a youth; as an adult he saw to its preservation as public park land.









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