The Heldeberg Workshop is located at the base of the Helderberg escarpment and consists of approximately 234 acres of land. It is a patchwork of woods, meadows, abandoned orchards, wetlands and streams. While the Workshop was established as an educational organization in 1961, the Land was used by many people in the past, first by native Americans, and later by colonial farmers and orchardists, and their descendants. This fieldtrip explores the artifacts left by people who lived on the Land in the 19th century. Bring your imagination along with you as we get a glimpse of life here almost 250 years ago.
Our hike begins to the left of the Pole Building at the entrance to the Blue Trail.
Look for the Blue Trail markers with the Workshop logo. The Blue Trail extends eastward for about ½ miles (0.8km) to the pond, and eventually turns southwest to the cemetery. Cross the bridge over a stream that rushes with water in the early Spring but is mostly dry later in the season.
The trail is wide and is flanked by trees, shrubs and vines on either side. It isn’t long before we spy an American Giant Millipede (Narceus americanus) slowly meandering across the path. It is the largest millipede in North America! It is dark brown in color with red stripes between each segment and reddish-pink legs. It looks scary because it is large, but it is harmless and nearly blind. It belongs to the phylum of animals called Arthropods that are characterized by a tough exterior, called an exoskeleton, and jointed appendages. The Arthropoda includes many organisms you are familiar with like shrimp, lobsters, insects and spiders. You may be surprised to learn that 80% of the world’s animals are found in this group!
Millipedes are often found under decaying logs and in moist leaf litter in soil and under rocks, and play an important role in decomposer food chains. Millipedes are able to break down hard-to-digest molecules like cellulose thereby returning nutrients to the soil so they can be absorbed by the roots of growing plants.
Look closely at the picture to see its rounded head with short antenna, and 56 segments, each of which has two pairs of reddish-pink legs. No wonder it is called a millipede, a word that literally means a “thousand feet”! While this millipede does not actually have 1,000 feet, it sure has a lot of legs! Can you use your math facts to calculate how many legs this millipede actually has?
Here’s a cool fact. Millipede-like animals are thought to be the oldest known land animals! Recently, an inch (2.5cm) long fossil of an organism called Kampecaris obaneneis was found in Scotland in a 425 million year old mudstone (very fine-grained sedimentary rock). Can you make out the fossil in the picture below? Click here to learn more about this ancient organism.
Now let’s continue our walk along the Blue Trail. Further along we see some interesting plants growing on the edge of the path.
This native vine is Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), and it can grow as tall as 100ft! It covers many of the trees along the trails of the Workshop. It is a member of the grape family, another remarkable climber, and has a compound leaf with 5 leaflets that radiate out from a central point. The outside edges of the leaflets are not smooth but are “toothed” instead. Can you see that in the picture? Because its leaflets are similar in size to Poison Ivy, people sometimes confuse these two plants. But while Virginia Creeper is harmless, Poison Ivy can cause a skin reaction that is very itchy and unpleasant. It would be good for you to learn how to recognize a real Poison Ivy plant.
Sure enough, a little further along the path, we spy some Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) plants. It is fairly common on the Workshop property.
At first glance these pretty plants may look like Virginia Creeper, but let’s examine one more closely. You may have heard the saying “Leaflets of three, let it be.” Poison Ivy has a compound leaf with three leaflets, not five as in Virginia Creeper. Now let’s examine the way the leaflets are growing. Poison Ivy has two leaflets that are directly attached to the stem in opposite directions at the bottom of the leaf, and a third leaflet that is attached to a longer stem and growing perpendicular to the lower ones. Do you see that? Now look at the margins of the leaflets for another clue; these are not evenly toothed as in Virginia Creeper, but are more irregularly notched. Check out this quiz to test how good you are at identifying poison ivy.
Further along the shady edge of the trail is a wildflower that flowers in May. It is False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum). This plant can grow 1 – 2 feet and has elliptical leaves with a parallel vein pattern that alternate along the stem in two rows. Can you see that in the picture below?
You may know that the scientific name of an organism has two parts, the genus name and the specific epithet. The genus of this plant comes from the Greek word Maios meaning May and anthemon meaning blossom. Tiny white flowers appear in a fluffy cluster at the end (or terminus) of the stem. These flowers form a terminal cluster of red berries in fall that are enjoyed by wildlife like birds and mice. Flower lovers often plant this native wildflower in their shady gardens.
Here’s two fun facts about Solomon’s Seal. First, it is classified as a member of the asparagus family. Second, it was given the common name “Solomon’s Seal” in the 17th century because people thought the stem scar seen on its root stock resembled the official seal of King
Let’s keep walking down the trail. Whoa! What do we have here? There are two large bones in the middle of our path. They were likely part of the leg of a White- Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), a common inhabitant of the Workshop property. Click here to learn more about this important mammal.
Look more closely at the bottom left edge of the broken bone.
Can you see the jagged edges and teeth marks where some small critters snacked on this bone? When animals die their bodies can become part of decomposer food chains. The calcium and potassium in these bones will help other creatures to survive.
Just ahead of us we see a clearing. We are at the pond! Walk around to the south side of the pond and you will see a sign that says: 1850s Cemetery!
This part of the Blue Trail is narrower and steeper than the wide path we were just on. It is used widely as a deer trail and we see evidence that a deer recently walked right along this path. Deer belong to a group of large mammals called ungulates that walk on their toes. Deer are even-toed ungulates that walk on two toes and produce a track that looks like an arrow that is split in half.
Let’s examine this deer track. This is probably an old print as there is some debris laying on top of it. If you look closely, you can see the demarcation between the two toes. Male deer, known as bucks, are heavier than female deer, known as does, so the separation between their two toes is more pronounced. Young fawn deer are lighter in weight than mature bucks and does, so the separation between their two toes is not pronounced. I wonder if this print was made by a young deer. What do you think?
Keep your eyes peeled! About 10 feet up the trail you will see a slight clearing off to your left. Let’s leave the trail and carefully explore this area. It is the site of an old farmstead. Not far off of the trail is a wide flat area that has several regular depressions. We are walking on land that may have been used as a dump. Beyond that the foundation of an old house is clearly visible.
The Workshop held Archeology Classes there in the 1990s and children made transects and excavated artifacts. One of the classes made this model of what the excavation site looked like. You should be able to see the square-shaped house foundation on the left. In the foreground is a long, rectangular transect dug to unearth artifacts.
This picture of children who explored the foundation of the old homestead was taken about 30 years ago.
But whose house was this? With the help of a local historian, Christopher Albright, we examined old records, and this is what we discovered. A man named Jacob Cooper was the first European to live here. He leased the land from the Van Rensselaer Estate, a Dutch patroonship that owned most of the land on both sides of the Hudson River. Jacob Cooper built this very house in 1776, right at the beginning of the American Revolution. That was a dangerous time, and many deserters from the British army roamed these parts. On the night of June 19, 1779, a group of Tory robbers tried to break into the house. Jacob Cooper shot and killed one of them. Two days later, all three members of the powerful Committee for Detecting Conspiracies left their Albany headquarters and held a special session at Jacob Cooper’s house. This was the one and only time the Commissioners ever met outside of Albany, so this house has special historical significance.
In the 15 or so years after Jacob Cooper’s death in 1799, the house and land was owned by many people. Initially, the property passed to Jacob’s sons, Tom and Obadiah Cooper. Obadiah sold his share (186 acres) to William DeFreest in 1809. In 1814, DeFreest passed it to John Hallenbake, who passed it to David Rufus Houghton in 1817.
Some members of the Houghton family lived at this farm for most of the 19th century. Let me tell you some things we know about them. David Rufus Houghton was born in 1778 in Groton, Massachusetts and died in Albany in
1836. He and his wife, Anna Bryant Houghton (1777 -1867), married in 1798 and they had 10 children, and these were their names:
Mary (Polly) 1798-1858
Lucy 1801 – 1881
John 1803 – 1859
Silas 1804 – 1848
Eli 1807 – 1862
Catherine 1811 – 1883
Smith 1814 – 1892
Sarah 1816 – 1876
Hannah 1821 – 1895
Jane Ann 1823 – 1863
When David Rufus Houghton died in 1836 the house was inherited by his son Eli who maintained a modest farm. The NYS census of 1855, for example, reported that Eli raised wheat and oats, and had 2 dairy cows as well as a mule. He produced 200 lbs. of butter that year! That’s a lot of butter. When Eli died in 1862 the house passed to his son John Houghton who lived here for 35 years. In 1897 the property left the Houghton family and had several owners over the next 10 years: Jacob Clute, Charles Livingston and Schuyler Crounse.
Various members of the Crounse Family lived on the property for the next 60 years. They abandoned the original Houghton house and built a newer house right on Picard Road. The main owners were Aaron Crounse (1899- 1985) and his sister Magdalena Hartt. Aaron established a 20-acre apple orchard which he called Hillsland Farms. He likely sold apples to the Mott’ s Apple Juice factory in Voorheesville until the plant closed in 1955. You may have noticed the old apple trees that line the main road leading to the Pole building. The Heldeberg Workshop has owned this property since 1968.
In the meantime, let’s go back to the Blue Trail and continue our hike up the hill to the cemetery. We wonder who is actually buried there.
A power line, now abandoned, bisects the trail and so allows in more light than the heavily wooded area below.
Looking ahead, we see that many Virginia Creeper plants are growing in this sunny region of the trail. We also notice that a tree has fallen across the path.
We inspect the fallen tree more closely, and are amazed to see several fruiting bodies of a colorful annual bracket fungus all along the tree. It is Pheasant’s Back Mushroom (Polyporus squamosus). If you look directly down at this fungus you can see why it got this common name. It is quite pretty and somewhat resembles the feather pattern of a pheasant.
Fungi are very important members of decomposer food chains and reproduce by spores. Even though some fungi superficially resemble plants, the fungi do not undergo photosynthesis. Instead, they feed off of organisms and their waste material, and help to decompose and recycle matter.
In the case of these Pheasant’s Back Mushrooms, spores entered the tree through some opening and grew into long thread-like structures called hyphae. These hyphae released digestive chemicals that broke down the tough xylem that makes up the tree’s interior. When they matured, they produce the external shelf-like structure we see today on the outside of this tree. Its purpose is to release spores into the air and thus continue the cycle of infection and decomposition of other trees.
While some say that the Pheasant’s Back Mushroom is edible, I wouldn’t eat any that I find in the woods. Many fungi are poisonous and can be fatal. Consider the saying: “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters. There are NO old, bold mushroom hunters!”
We continue up the trail and spy the turn off to the cemetery just ahead!
Before we turn into the cemetery, we stop to examine some of the beautiful ferns that are growing along the path.
Ferns are ancient plants which were abundant and super- sized during the Age of the Dinosaurs! Giant tree ferns, growing to 60 feet or more tall, still exist in the tropics today. The ferns in the Northeast, however, are much smaller, most less than 3 feet tall, and some only a
couple of inches tall.
This particular fern is an Evergreen Wood Fern (Dryopteris intermedia). The leaves of ferns are known as fronds. The dots on the underside of the fronds are called sori. Their characteristic shape and color are helpful for identifying ferns. Leaf shape and how segmented or divided the frond is also helps identify it. There are at least 18 species of ferns on the Workshop’s land but taking an in-depth look at ferns will be a lesson for another day.
But we have dawdled enough. Let’s enter the cemetery. Four large stones are off to the left and this is what they say:
Polly Phlipsey is the married name of Polly Houghton. She is buried here along with her husband, Joseph, her brother John Houghton and his wife Maria. With the help of historian Chris Albright, we have solved the mystery!
On the opposite side of the cemetery there are many small stones and one has the initials E.H. Some speculate that this stone marks the temporary resting place of Eli Houghton, brother of John and Polly. Eli’s body is now found in Prospect Hill Cemetery in Guilderland.
We hope you enjoyed hiking along the Blue Trail, and learning about the people who lived here over the past 250 years. Who knew the Houghton homestead was once the site of a Tory killing during the Revolutionary war, and that the powerful Committee for Defeating Conspiracies met at this house? Who knows what secrets lie in your own family history? It would be fun to ask the oldest person in your family to tell you about their life as a child, and that of their ancestors. Who knows what you’ll find out?
And you, yourself, are living in a special time in history right now. Have you ever thought about keeping your own diary of what is happening, and how you feel about it? And your journal could have pictures as well as words. It may help you to better understand what is going on. And maybe you can share it with your own children and grandchildren when you grow up.