After two generations that left very little mark on the world, Charles Edward Colburn (1852-1916) seems to have arrived bursting with energy. He became a successful hop farmer and cattle-breeder.
Three generations of Colburn had farmed in the valley of the Unadilla River. Charles moved his family over the hills east to the valley of the Susquehanna, which was both larger and commercially more central, at least after 1869 when a railroad began running along the river. Charles maintained large houses both in the railroad depot town Milford and at his Hillside Stock Farm, within Milford township above the southern hamlet of Portlandville.
A year after his father Elijah died, the 1880 census shows Charles living with his mother Susan, youngest brother Starr, wife Charlotte ("Lottie") and two young children (Jay and Lena).
A photograph taken a few years later, annotated in Lena's adult hand, shows the family in front of a farmhouse. This may have been another rented property.
The younger woman seated left, next to the children, is probably Charlotte. The older woman at center is likely Elijah's widow Susan (if so, this is the only known photograph of her.) An annotation in the adult Lena's hand identifying the woman seated center as Charlotte is probably in error. She looks to be more of a grandmotherly age.
This undated picture shows young men their twenties. Charles was 23 when he married, so this may be a wedding picture.
Though Charles's ambitions as a farmer focused on cattle-breeding, for much of his career he also grew hops. The seed cone of the hop vine, hops have been used since the Middle Ages as the chief flavoring and stabilizing agent in beer. Otsego and other “hop belt” counties of central New York led the nation in hop production through much of the 19th century and early 20th centuries. This success made Charles’ lifetime the high point of prosperity for Otsego County.
Hop production began to decline after a blight (downy mildew) appeared in 1909. An attack of aphids in 1914 and increasing competition from hop farms in the Pacific Northwest nearly destroyed hop-growing in New York. By the time Prohibition killed the market for hops entirely in 1920, Otsego farmers had shifted to dairying and growing grain.
An Otsego County atlas published in 1903 includes write-ups of "Some of the Most Valuable and Productive Farms" in the county. The names of these selected farms, which probably belong to farmers who agreed to buy an atlas in advance, appear in red on maps dedicated to each Otsego County town. Charles was apparently among the buyers.
Though the name C.E. Colburn appears twice on the map, next to farms labelled "Fairview" and "Hillside Stock Farm," only Hillside Stock Farm is written up in the Appendix.
By the mid-1890s, Charles was engaged in cattle breeding, a type of farming that carries a certain prestige. According to a boosterish article by an anonymous "correspondent" in an 1898 edition of Breeder's Gazette about his hometown Milford, he was one of several farmers there specializing in particular breeds:
An Otsego County Stock Center
The town of Milford, Otsego Co., N.Y., is fast becoming famous for being the home of the largest number of herds of pure-bred cattle of any town in the United States...
A visit to the Hillside Stock and Hop Farm will introduce the first and only herd of registered Canadian cattle in the United States. The proprietor, Mr. C.E. Colburn, imported this herd from Canada, some of the individuals composing it originally coming from Normandy, France. They are the best to be obtained. In addition to stock-raising Mr. Colburn is one of the largest hop-growers of the town...
Other Milford stock farms specialized in such breeds as Ayreshires, Holstein-Friesians, Jerseys, Brown Swiss, and Dutch-Belted.
In the Northern part of the town we find at the Brookside Stock Farm the fine herd of Ayrshires owned by E.H. and C.S. Barney... Mr. C.S. Barney is Vice-President of the New York State Agricultural Society.Five years later, in 1903, Brookside Stock Farm was owned by Charles’ eldest son, Jay. The farm was still breeding Ayreshires.
The cover of another magazine for farmers, American Agriculturalist, featured one of Charles' bulls:
French Canadian Bull Owned by C. E. Coburn (sic) of New York
Farmers in northern climates are interested in hardy breeds of dairy cattle. The growth in dairying calls for a cow adapted to the somewhat rigorous conditions of countries as distant as northwest Canada. Why not look up the merits of the French Canadian cattle? They are small, rugged, inured to the long, cold winters of Quebec and northern New York, are persistent milkers, producing 5000 to 6000 pounds a year, give excellent returns for the feed consumed, are the very best of foragers, their chief weak point being lack of size. The illustration is of a French Canadian bull considered a good specimen of the breed.
For several years around the turn of the 20th century, Charles and his herd swept the French Canadian category of the annual Cattle Show and Fair of the New York State Agricultural Society.
In the 1899 show for example, held at Syracuse September 4-9, he won prizes for best Exhibitor’s Herd, best Breeder’s Young Herd, and two prizes each for best Bull and best Cow. The six prizes of $15 and $20 netted him a total of $100, which in 1899 had the purchasing power of about $2900 in 2014.
Many of the charming names Charles gave his cattle, preserved in the list of prizes and once again available through the Internet, reflected their Quebecois origins. The bull "Denis Jewel" was named for Arsene Denis, a Quebecois breeder from whom Charles bought cattle, and the cow "La Countesse St. Norbert" for St. Norbert, the village near Trois Rivieres P.Q. where Denis lived.
His French Canadians were also discussed in a 1900 book about breeds of American cattle, sheep and pigs.
Charles won prizes further afield than Syracuse, as well. In 1895 he won two bronze medals at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. According to his granddaughter Charlotte Colburn Gasperini, he took along his nine-year-old son Legrand, to whom he gave the medals.
The Exposition Awards Committee examined about 6000 exhibits, and awarded 634 gold medals, 444 silver, and 495 bronze. A site for collectors of exposition medals describes the medal as follows:
6mm thick, 57 mm diameter. On obverse ‘Atlanta Georgia USA’, Columbia in long chiton, holding a cornucopia filled with fruit in right arm, standing to left: in front of her, a winged wheel, and a small winged genius bearing a tablet inscribed INDUSTRY; in background to the left is the Fine Arts Building. Singed ‘PH MARTINY SC NY’, this medal is notable as the sole signed work of metallic art by famous sculpture artist Philip Martiny 1858-1927 whose baby-like winged cherub has become the emblem of generations. “With its exuberant allegorical design and lovely modeling, Martin’s Cotton States Exposition medal exemplifies the high Beaux-Arts style of decorative sculpture.”
The reverse has a palm leaf, the American eagle, a cotton plant and the legend ‘COTTON STATES AND INTERNATIONAL EXPOSITION AWARDED TO [C.E. Colburn] ATLANTA GEORGIA USA MDCCCXCV’. The medals were executed upon a design prepared under the supervision of Mr. Horace Bradley, Chief of the Department of Fine Arts, and were delivered in the Summer of 1896, while the World’s Columbian medals, awarded two years earlier, were being delivered. Ref
For his prize-winning cattle, Charles built an "up-to-date barn," according to a 1908 book about barn architecture. Another book about New York barns, written a century later, summarized the Colburn barn as follows:
At the beginning of the twentieth century...new barns in New York had stone foundations, wood frames, and wood cladding. "An Up-to-Date New York Barn" singled out in a book of barn plans was praised for its cement floors, a recent innovation. The rest of the sizable building, owned by C.E. Colburn of Portlandville, was very traditional in its use of materials...The foundation was fieldstone, and the principal components of the frame were heavy timbers, which were held together with mortise and tenon joints. The exterior was clad in vertical wooden boards, and the gambled roof was finished with wood shingles. The two round silos were constructed from wooden staves held in place with iron bands. Coburn's Hillside Stock Farm was "up-to-date" in terms of its facilities for efficient feeding, breeding and processing, but its concrete floor with mangers and manure gutters was the owner's primary foray into modern materials. Ref
The barn still exists in 2014, though in a deteriorated condition.
In her 2012 study of New York barns, Cynthia Falk says:
When built, the barn at Hillside Stock Farm cost about $6000 and was touted as handy, comfortable, and up-to-date. Today, high maintenance costs and lack of use have jeopardized the integrity of the structure.$6000 in 1901 dollars had the purchasing power of about $174,000 today.
These are radically different structures. Though houses can of course change over such a long period, the position of chimneys rarely does. Though both photos look upslope toward the house, only in the modern image does a barn appear in the background.
One possible explanation for this discrepancy can be found in the 1903 atlas cited earlier. The name C.E. Colburn appears twice on the Milford page: by the red label “Hillside Stock Farm,” and further to the north, by another named farm, “Fairview.” The house and barn labeled “Fairview” no longer exist; only cornfields appeared at that location in 2014. Perhaps Hillside Stock Farm extended all the way across the creek to “Fairview,” and Charles had buildings at both ends. The larger farmhouse might have once been at the northern, “Fairview” end, which is much nearer to Edson’s Corners. The smaller house near the big barn at the southern end might have housed workers or other family members.
Charles maintained at least two houses - one at the farm, and one "downtown" in Milford village. His ledger from 1913 (see below) includes entries for one domestic and a modest number of hired farm laborers, and does not include any rental income. It seems unlikely that he had a second house on the hill by that year. Alas, at this point there may be no-one alive who could clarify.
The 1900 census shows Charles at 48, living with Charlotte, 44. She is listed as the mother of six, five of whom survive and live with them. All can read and write. Jay, 23, listed as "farm laborer," is apparently not yet owner of the farm he will have in 1903. There is a mortgage on Charles' property.
From The Otsego Farmer, January 15 1909:
Charlotte L. Chase, wife of Charles E. Colburn, died at her home in Milford early Saturday morning, aged fifty-three years, Death, which was very sudden, resulted from heart disease. She was a woman of many lovely and estimable qualities that gave her a high place in the regard of all who knew her.
Mrs. Colburn is survived by her husband and five Children, two sons and three daughters; Jay L., of Milford, LeGrand, at home, Mrs. A.W. Barr, Berkshire, and Misses Lena and May, also at home; one sister, mrs. J.H. Bennett, of Milford and two brothers, the Rev. F.J. Chase, of Buffalo and Will N. Chase, of Portlandville. The funeral was held at the residence in Milford village, Tuesday, at 2 p.m., the Rev. E.R.D. Briggs officiating. Interment in Milford cemetery.
FUNERAL OF MRS.CHARLES E.COLBURN
Milford, Jan. 12 The funeral of Mrs. Charles E.Coburn was held from her late home at 2 o'clock today and,in spite of the heavy snowstorm, the spacious home was filled to overflowing with sorrowing relatives and friends. Rev. E.R.D.Briggs, the officiating clergyman, read selections from Psalm xe. and from I.Corinthians, xvi, and upon them based a disclosure that was full of comfort and hope. A quartette composed of Mrs. Kent Barney, Mrs. W.R.Seeber, Claude Hall and Fred Teal, with Miss Grace Luther at the piano, sung favorite selections. The floral tributes were many and beautiful, coming from outside friends, the church, Sunday school and fraternal societies with which the family are affiliated. Letters were also recieved from distant friends, expressing their tenderest love and sympathy for the sorrowing family.
The 1910 census shows Charles at 58, newly married to his second wife Kathryn, 53. It is a second marriage for both. Charles owns the house on South Main Street, Milford Village, and a “general farm.”
Charles' ledger for 1913 has survived. By that year he seems to have shifted the focus of his farm from stock breeding to dairying. Improvements in transportation, refrigeration and pasteurization, along with population growth in New York City, made dairy farming a more profitable business in central New York. Receipts divide almost evenly between the sale of hops and of milk. No expenses or receipts appear to be associated with cattle breeding or trading.
Charles seems to have met with limited success in promoting his chosen breed (aside from sweeping cattle show prizes in a category for which there may have been no other entrants.) About the same time he began promoting it further south, the “Canadienne" breed began to decline in its country of origin. From Wikipedia:
Canadienne cattle...originated in the 16th century, when French settlers brought cattle over for foundation stock to settle Canada. Canadiennes were the most common breed of domestic cattle in Canada until the late 19th century, when other breeds began to displace them... The Canadienne, though still found on farms and ranches across the nation, is now comparatively rare except in certain portions of northern Quebec Province.
Entries in the ledger display the tight interconnections of small town life. Charles lists purchases of:
-groceries from his son-in-law Harley Beames
-rake teeth and a pump from James E. Smith, father of his new daughter-in-law Mildred Smith Colburn
-hardware from Millard Hawver, also a relative of Mildred’s.
A sense of his daily life can be traced in the full 1913 ledger. Charles buys cigars, goes to church suppers and county fairs, throws holiday parties, pays farm workers, reads newspapers, pays taxes, and takes trips to nearby towns.
From The Otsego Farmer, January 21, 1916:
Charles E. Colburn died at his home in Milford, Saturday evening last, after several weeks' illness with vavular heart disease. He was a man held in the highest respect by everyone and his death has cast a gloom over the entire village.
Mr. Colburn was born in the town of Pittsfield in 1851 and in in 1872 was married to Miss Charlotte Chase of Laurens. A few years later they came to this town and purchased a farm about three miles from the village where they resided until about fourteen years ago when they purchased a residence in this village. Seven years ago Mrs. Colburn died and later Mr. Colburn was married to Mrs. Kathryn Braley of Morris, who survives him.
Mr. Colburn has been a member of the village board of trustees for several years and one of its most earnest workers. He was also a member of the Milford Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
Besides the wife mentioned, he is survived by three daughtes and two sons, Mrs. Allen Barr, Berkshire; Mrs. E.H. Rider, Mrs. H.J. Beams, Legrand Colburn of Milford and Jay L. Colburn of Oneonta.
The funeral was held at his late residence, Tuesday afternoon at 2 o'clock, the Rev. E.R.D. Briggs of the methodist Episcopal church, Portlandville, officiating. Interment in the family plot in the Milford cemetery.
This chronicle of the Colburns ends, for the time being, in the early years of the 20th century, beside the tomb of Charles and Charlotte.
In writing the history of the first twelve generations, the challenge has often been to tease out what few bits of information can be found in the historical record. Writing the history of the 20th and 21st century generations will present a very different challenge: paring down and making sense of voluminous source material. How much of this I ever get to myself remains to be seen.
Perhaps when many more generations have passed, and most of the CD-ROMs and servers we current generations rely on for our records have one way or another failed, some future Colburn descendant will find this website in some obscure archive, and be inspired to troll the digital archives to assemble from the pieces that survive a narrative of what came next. Whoever and whenever you are, more power to you.
The names, birthdates and place of birth of Charles and Charlotte's grandchildren and great-grandchildren appear below, as entered in the family Bible by Lena Colburn Rider.