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                                    ECONOMIC CONDITIONS

The economic conditions that Henry Birdsall and his family experienced were at first controlled by nature, later by public policy, and in the end by economical depression that was the unintended consequence of a series of public policies.

Henry Birdsall moved his family to Greene about 1812, settled on the east side of the Chenango River and purchased the property on April 29, 1815 from Peter B. and Polly Garnsey.

(For documentation see Appendix G, Property Specific Records)


The economic conditions that the Henry Birdsall family encountered over the first few years were the results of their own productivity; however the economics were drastically effected by nature. Clearing enough ground to plant a few grain products/tubers and building shelter for the family and animals must have utilized all of Henry’s time. It would seem natural that the family would have had at least one gun that would help them harvest the abundant deer, turkey and bear. However, guns were not present on Henry’s itemized list of personal property upon his death.

Quite remarkably, among the items of personal property was listed a bible, but neither Henry or Henry [Jr.] could read. Does this combination of the absence of one item of survival, a gun, and the presence of one item of conspicuous religious beliefs, a bible, tell us more than what is on the surface? If Henry and his male heirs were pacifists, which this combination may point out, this ethnic trait may have placed self-limitations on the manner in which they approached various economic opportunities. This aspect of ethnicity, possibly Quakerism, which we will discuss in another section of this paper, could have wide ranging consequences on the micro-economy of the family.

At this point in the life of the Henry Birdsall weather conditions were synonymous with economic conditions. As mentioned in the section on Modes of Production Henry did raise rye, wheat, potatoes, and corn. He also tended to cows, calves and pigs. When the weather was playing to his favor the economic conditions were enough to survive.

In 1816 a phenomenon occurred that could terminate the Birdsall family for good.

“NOTE: The year 1816 has been known as the ‘year without a summer.’ It was the coldest year ever known, with frosts or snow each month of the year. No crops matured and prices of provisions soared. The average price of flour was $3 per barrel. People suffered with hunger and near famine resulted. Old seed corn from the 1815 crop sold in 1817 for $5 per bushel but, fortunately, bumper crops were harvested in 1817 – – -.” (See Appendix F, Greene History)

Some fresh game may have helped the family get through that winter because although they may not have owned a gun there were passenger pigeons. These pigeons would serve as food and as a product that could be sold in order to get them through these poor economic times.

“Netting [passenger] pigeons was a popular sport and the game birds were brought [to Binghamton] and sold. They were caught in nets fastened to two bent saplings which         were released at the right time to hold the catch. The merchant who did not have a large stock of dressed birds in barrels or strung by their bills on a string for display, was rare. They were considered excellent meat and townspeople bought four or five at a for pigeon pies.” 

(“Rafts to Railroads”, by Mildred English Cochrane, copyright 1967)

{Also;  See Map Section, “Pigeon Hill”, 1 mile south of Birdsall farm}

Henry had purchased the property for cash in 1815 as there was no mention of mortgage. If this is true then his harvest in 1815 was free and clear. This would not only have placed Henry in a good position for surviving but may have placed him in an advantageous one for making a high profit in 1817. One can not help but to wonder, though, if Henry would have thought first of high profits or thought first of helping a neighbor by giving him seed grain and then negotiating price at a later and less critical time in the year. (See previous section on “Mode of Production” regarding debts owed to Henry by relatives and neighbors)

The yellow fever epidemic of 1822, which killed 2,500 in New York, appears to have little effect on Henry Birdsall and his family. (See Appendix K, page K8, Making of America, “Historical Collections of New York State, Past and Present”, by John W. Barber, 1851, pub. by Clark, Austin & Co., Broadway)


Economic conditions in the 1830’s improved drastically with the advent of the Chenango Canal, a much debated subject during the late 1820s and 30s. Political action committees made up of prominent citizens along the Chenango River continued to press for the construction of the canal realizing that it would bring economic life to their areas. Short term economic advantages were available from the construction and long term economics were touted, expecting benefits from the continuing trade. The current New York State Governor at that time was Enos T. Throop. His concern over the exhausted condition of the general fund and his foresight with regards to the upkeep and short life of the canal would not make it feasible. Gov. Throop predicted that competition from railroads would drastically shorten the expected life of the canal. (See Appendix K, Making of America, “Lives of the Governors of the State of New York”, by John S. Jenkins, 1851, pub. by Derby and Miller, Auburn).

The approval for the canal was given after Governor Marcy was elected. Economic benefits that have been documented show the following influx of money to Henry Birdsall, his family and neighbors:  

Henry Birdsall           $30.00 for moving a barn from the path of the canal

                                  $133.31 for building a new fence

Thomas Tew *          $62.50 for building a sluice around lock #34

Gloudy Hamilton *   $464 for building a wooden culvert on a creek

                                    $212.62 for building a new fence

Chauncy Rogers *      $?/per day  as a workman on repair of a dam

 David D. Davis        $139.28 for constructing a sluice around lock #29

                                   $164.25 for constructing a new fence

TOTAL =    at least $1,206

* Henry Birdsall’s sons-in-law

Not taken into consideration is the money that Henry Birdsall, his family and his neighbors may have made for selling the real estate for canal right-of-way as it passed through their land.

An additional economic advantage that has not been quantified in the documentation is the amount of stone that was removed from the quarries. The first quarry (lower elevation) is 10 meters wide by 50 meters long. The depth varies but an average depth would be about 3 meters.  Calculations yield about 1,500 cubic meters of stone that have been removed. The second quarry (higher up the dug road) is 15 meters wide by 30 meters long consisting of three shelves, each being 3 meters deep. These calculations yield another estimated 2,250 cubic meters of stone.  Utilizing a 50% waste factor yields a total of over 1,800 cubic meters of stone, a sizable economic prize for Henry and the workers that extracted it, not to mention the money earned for cutting it to size and laying up the walls of the lock.

Multiply this by the number of locks and aqueducts located between Greene and Chenango Forks for an idea of how the canal affected the economy in this small area.

Regarding materials such as the raw stone from the quarries and what is listed above as a minor portion of what canal construction did for the immediate community, there is the following that depicts the additional lifting of the economy for those along the canal route:

“Most of the material used was purchased locally, but many immigrant laborers were employed to supplement local labor. Farmers with their teams welcomed the opportunity to earn $1.50 per day”   (See Appendix F, Greene History)

Henry Birdsall died in 1838, soon after the canal opened. His sons Henry and Horace continued to live on the farm as the canal boats eased on past their homes.

Economic opportunity continued to emanate from the repairs to the locks. Lumber and stone continued to be needed for these repairs. Horace died in 1850, 12 years after his father, and Henry [Jr.] lived until 1879.

Henry [Jr.] was able to see the total life of the canal as the economies tended to “Rise and Descend” just as the title of Michelle McFees book describes it. (See Appendix J, Miscellaneous Book Extracts)



In 1869 Maurice Birdsall (Grandson of Lt. Col. Benjamin Birdsall) as President of the Greene Railroad Company was engaged in a bitter dispute with the Smithville (Flats) Railroad company. Ethical misconduct and bribery by officers of the Smithville company almost cost Greene the loss of a railroad through their town.

Considering the deteriorating business state of the Chenango Canal, this would have been a blow to Greene’s economy. (See Appendix F, Greene History)

This particular public policy, based more on individualistic capitalism than on government action, brought the railroad to Greene. This was an economic boom to the village and rural families alike. A village rail station was built on the east side of the river and dairy stops were built between the village of Greene and Chenango Forks.

The bad news for Henry Birdsall’s descendants was that the railroad crossed to the other side of the river a mile north of them. The railroad served almost everyone in the Township of Greene except for the few families located on the southern 2 -3 miles of Stillwater Road.

This was an economic blow to the Birdsalls. Their canal transportation to Greene and Binghamton was gone and the railroad would not serve them. Their goods had to be transported by team four miles north or south; and then loaded onto the train.

Economic opportunity in the form of working for wages in the factories of Greene and Binghamton was not available on a daily basis. A trip to Binghamton would require them to find rental rooming for the week. Any wages made would be degraded by the cost of “room and board”.

Most likely it would be just as profitable to work the farm and raise a few animals. The new economy worked against the descendants of Henry Birdsall in this southeastern corner of Greene, however, it worked well for the descendants of Lt. Col. Benjamin Birdsall who lived in the village and did business there.

The economy of the Birdsall farm appears to have dwindled along with the dwindling number of small farms that were eking out a living during that period; to wit;

“Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth- Century Domestic Site Archaeology in New York State” edited by John P. Hart and Charles L. Fisher, Published by NYS Museum, 2000

“The Farmhouse View: The Porter Site, by Sean M. Rafferty

Page 128         [First paragraph under heading “Nineteenth-Century Farming”]

“The nineteenth century saw profound changes in the lives of New York farmers, as technological innovations sparked a shift toward industrial farming. This undercut the family-based rural farmers who had dominated agriculture until the mid-nineteenth century. Construction of the canal system and railroads made it easier and more profitable for farmers to get the products to urban markets (Barron 1984:3), but also resulted in a shift of agricultural production away from New York State. The growth of urban industrial production with wage-paying jobs stimulated a migration from rural areas to urban centers (Gibb 1994); many took the opportunity to escape from the routine of the family farm, while others remained to carry on the farming tradition. Some farmers were adversely affected by shifting markets,  while others actually saw an improvement in their economic situation (McMurry 1995). All were forced to make choices in order to adapt to changing circumstances, and these choices can be analyzed from their material consequences and from documentary evidence.

Epinetus Birdsall, grandson of Henry, died in Preston, NY in the year 1893. No known relatives lived in Preston. However, this is the home of the old “Chenango County Poorhouse” now operating as Preston Manor. Records of his death in this institution reflect a “Nathan” Birdsall. It has been proven through other records that Epinetus and Nathan are one and the same person.

Epinetus had been renamed by the state!

(THE Implications of Gender on Economics)

We will see from the last will and testament of Henry Birdsall that the women of the family inherited some nominal amount of money while the male heirs inherited the real estate. (See Appendix D, Surrogate Records)

By 1890 there were not many male descendants of Henry remaining. As noted above, Henry’s two sons Horace and Henry [Jr.] had died in 1850 and 1879 respectively. John (Henry [Jr.]s son) died in 1881. The remaining male descendent of Henry Birdsall who still carried the surname was Epinetus Birdsall. Epinetus had one son George McClellan Birdsall but he had died as a two year old infant in 1867.

The remaining members of the family were females who took on the husbands surname. Therefore, the remaining members of the family had surnames of Turner, Delamarter, and Burrows. The real estate shifted back and forth between these remaining members. Each shift included a division of the property or a repackaging of previous divisions. This continued on until 1929 when a tragedy occurred.

Three members of one family, the mother, father and a daughter all died within one week of each other. The property ownership shifted, once more removed to another level from the original Birdsalls. This occurred at a time when money was scarce and times were tough.


The depression and the devaluing of farm property that accompanied it placed the Birdsall property in a difficult position; not being able earn enough to pay for itself.

The oil rich City of Bradford, Pennsylvania dispatched a trustee, Jack Cleaves, who saw a potential value deep in the earth of Chenango County. This city, operating as a capitalistic entity, recognized a cluster of economically desperate people who had title to this potentially valuable land. The City of Bradford bought the property, withdrew the gas, oil and mineral rights {in perpetuity} and promptly sold the surface rights to a Broome County resident.

(For documentation on the above three paragraphs see Appendix G, Property Specific Records)


Lt. Col. Benjamin Birdsall continued to be an active agent in various capitalistic pursuits. For example; founding businesses that took advantage of the more stable economy based on the needs of the residents in the village; a clothing works and a grist mill on the Genegantslet River.

His descendants were active agents in getting approval for the canal and establishing the company that founded the railroad.

Activities, that may well have been planned around these transportation links include:

  • a bank,
  • a butter depot,
  • various real estate dealings
  • professional services

(See Appendices C & F, Newspapers and Greene History, respectively)


Henry Birdsall and his descendants worked within the economy that was given to them. Their economic condition was tied to their original modes of production: farming, quarrying, and miscellaneous labor intensive activities. They appear to have made a conscious decision to keep a continuity in their lifestyle and, in fact, struggled, economically, in order to maintain that lifestyle.

Lt. Col. Benjamin Birdsall and his descendants were active agents in transforming the economy around them, and thereby, transformed themselves, intentionally or not.

© Copyright – Waldo Tomosky