Franklin Chthonics is in the Town of Franklin, in Delaware County, New York. Although this area is part of what geologists refer to as the Allegheny Plateau region of the Appalachian Mountains, it is hill country that many people think of as an extension of the Catskills. The geological history of these hills is stunningly complex and can be traced as far back as the formation of the supercontinent Pangea almost 500 million years ago. (The Appalachians “sister” range is the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, its former neighbor in Pangea). In relatively recent days, Delaware County, like almost all of New York State, was crushed beneath a glacier of continental dimensions, a sheet of ice more than a mile thick in places. All the watercourses and all the life forms larger than a microbe present today have only been here for a few thousands of years. The geology of this place is among the oldest in the world but the living environment is actually one of the Earth’s newest. The three major rivers of southern New York, the Hudson, the Delaware and the Susquehanna repeatedly re-organized their drainage of the last melting glaciers until the current arrangement was arrived at, and Delaware County is (appropriately) defined by two branches of the Delaware River that neatly trisect it from northeast to southwest. Franklin Chthonics’ creek actually drains north to the Susquehanna, which originates at Lake Otsego (Cooperstown) and eventually meanders to Chesapeake Bay.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, upper Delaware valleys seem to have been a border region traveled by Lenape tribes from the south and Iroquois tribes based to the north, but not belonging to either. As described in slightly more detail in the text on Woods, the pre-colonial forest was proportionally far less composed of hardwood trees than the woods of today, containing great expanses of hemlock and white pine that were cleared by the loggers and farmers, never to re-emerge with the forest’s second growth. But, as noted elsewhere, neither did the Indians leave the environment and landscape undisrupted. They hunted all the larger Ice Age mammals to extinction and regularly set uncontrolled fires on the forest floor to clear vegetation and facilitate their hunting and mobility.
Delaware County, Ny:
The counties of New York State have more distinct, divergent identities than is often recognized. Delaware County has a strikingly different history and character from Sullivan County to its south, or Greene and Ulster Counties to its east; all of which are often just interchangeable parts of “Upstate” from the perspective of New York City.
The central Catskills and the Hudson Valley were both integrated into a hierarchical Dutch and English economy and society, including their connections to New York City and Albany, that did not extend into Delaware County as it was settled and developed in the first half of the 19th century. The independent, fully American yeoman farmers who cleared the land in Delaware County were not generally accompanied there by the mercantile and aristocratic classes that dominated the Hudson, and its villages and countryside remain almost empty of the legacy of old estates, manor houses and mansions that one sees in those other parts of the state.
The one dramatic exception to the egalitarian character of early Delaware County was the persistence of an odd, semi-feudal land tenure system established in the 17th century that required farmers to rent their land from the heirs of Dutch patroons. The Anti-Rent War of the 1840’s, centered in Delaware County, was an agrarian rebellion of limited violence that ended this anomalous state of affairs and finally allowed residents to own their farms.
Almost immediately after establishing a nearly Jeffersonian vision of agrarian democracy, this society of family farms began to decline, experiencing a gradual deterioration of confidence and coherence that is only perhaps just now coming to an end. The facts are that Delaware County has poor soils, very little flat land, and a short growing season. (“Two stones for every dirt” is the traditional description of this farmland). After the Civil War, farms dwindled in number from decade to decade and the enormous pride still visible in the Greek Revival houses, elegant churches and trim villages of early Delaware County wore down as well.
Although poverty in Delaware County rarely has the aspect of “classic” Appalachian poverty, it was and remains statistically the poorest county in the state after the Bronx. Again, one reason why the average income in Delaware County is so low is the historic and remarkable absence of a significant upper class whose presence would effectively raise this average.
The formative experiences of the county extended through the 20th century with a persistence that seems surprising. Delaware County never developed any urban centers larger than a village, nor did it develop a significant vacation industry like that in Sullivan County, or, until quite recently, accommodate “country” home ownership as seen in the Catskills proper. Second homes, when they did become more common in the 1970’s, were largely bought or constructed by downstate hunters, including a fair number of retired police and firemen. Our sort, however you might label or describe us, did not become a significant factor in Delaware County until the 90’s, and even then to a limited degree with most city people going to the Andes/Bovina and Delhi areas in the eastern half of the county.
The Town of Franklin:
Franklin Chthonics is in the Town of Franklin about three miles from a village with the same name. [In New York, towns are merely the geographical subdivisions of a county. The Town of Franklin actually contains a second interesting village, Treadwell]. Franklin’s main street was a section of the original Susquehanna Turnpike (later renamed the Catskill Turnpike), the first improved road extending from the Hudson Valley across the Catskills to western parts of New York State. [The turnpike was a toll road chartered by the state for one hundred years starting in 1804 and it collected tolls for its shareholders into the 20th century]. A fine row of mostly Italianate-style post-Civil War homes, including a couple of former turnpike inns, graces this street. A good number of village houses have small barns in their yards, and some of these yards extend into hay fields and farmland beyond. Several old cemeteries are oddly salted around the village edge, including a rather grand, landscaped cemetery with magnificent Peevee hydrangeas that is still accepting new clients. Franklin has more impressive public buildings than its size would seem to require, including (of course) several fine 19th century churches, a imposing colonnaded former VFW Hall, a very old stone schoolhouse built for the education of native Americans, a concise, handsome 1940’s central school for grades 1 through 12, a graceful Greek Revival public library, and a new, dignified, rather vast structure for the Franklin Railroad and Community Museum (open one day per month or by appointment).
In recent years Franklin has evolved to become one of the more cosmopolitan places in this area, with a weekly farmers market that seems to provide more opportunities for socializing than buying stuff, an ambitious theater company that performs during the summer in the old VFW hall, an extraordinary vintage clothing store with inexhaustibly interesting inventory, a Turkish-American restaurant operated by a local community of Sufis, and a impressively maintained left-leaning quarterly newspaper.
The City of Oneonta:
Our local place to get stuff is Oneonta, a classic but unusual small city. Oneonta is about 15 miles north of FC, lying just across the Susquehanna River in Otsego County. Oneonta is an old railroad town on the route than connects Albany to Binghamton, the same route that Interstate 88 uses today. Although train traffic continues through Oneonta, this industry is, of course, no longer an important employer or anchor for the local economy. But Oneonta has none of the downcast look of so many rust belt and upstate New York cities. The major reason for this is the presence of two colleges; Oneonta University (SUNY) has 6000 undergraduates and Hartwick College adds another 1600 students to the local population during the academic year. The city’s official population is only around 14,000, so these schools are an important foundation for Oneonta’s stability and relative prosperity. Another factor sustaining Oneonta is its role as a regional retail hub, which is made possible by its location on I-88 midway between its termini. After the K-Mart closed several years ago, things looked grim for Oneonta’s Southside malls, but Wal-Mart remained, and gradually the vacant stores were rented and new construction has recently followed. At the same time, Oneonta’s traditional main street has maintained much of its early 20th century character and sustains a decent level of activity, with no derelict buildings and few storefront vacancies. The weird thing about Oneonta is that, in spite of the large number of students college faculty, very few of the ancillary amenities that one might expect in a major college town, sophisticated cafes, restaurants, shops and the like, have ever been established there. Oneonta has dozens of mediocre pizzerias, one hippie restaurant, one of the least interesting barbecue pits in the country, a very tepid Thai restaurant and that’s about it. Nevertheless, Oneonta is a pretty solid place. It developed around the bases of several steep, largely mountains, and most of its neighborhoods are set in corridors that radiate from the town’s center. These neighborhoods are comprised of middle and working class vernacular homes from many periods, an almost entirely unappreciated cultural achievement of American democracy.