Zadock Pratt's Tannery      

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Prattsville's Master Tanner
- The Catskills - Spring 1974      

The Mountain Top area of the Catskills owes much to the enterprising tanners who, taking advantage of the hemlock covered hills and valleys, not only brought employees to the area but cleared the land for settlers and farming.  Foresters have estimated that the tanneries built in Hunter and Prattsville during their twenty year existence each probably used up over 1,500,000 hemlocks.

Col. William Edwards established his tannery in Hunter in 1817.   Zadock Pratt Jr., later Col. Pratt, established his tannery in Prattsville in 1824, but many people do not realize that Zadock Pratt Senior was probably the first tanner in the area.  He had moved with his family from Middleburgh in Schoharie County to what is now Jewett Heights, then Windham, in 1802.  It was there that he built a small tannery where we know young Zadock helped his father who was also probably assisted by his sons Ezra and Bennett.

To better understand the man that young Zadock became we should know more about his family background and his childhood.  Few of us now realize the unending labor that farming was to the whole family up until only a generation or two ago.   Imagine what it was like to move onto uncleared land, to build a cabin and to clear and plant the land as an early settler.

Zadock Pratt marker at the Prattsville cemetery The Pratts emigrated from England to Massachusetts in 1623.  They moved to Saybrook, Connecticut in 1636.  Zadock Sr. was a tanner, shoemaker, and a veteran of the American War for Independence.  I do not know when Zadock Sr. moved to Stephentown in Rensselaer County, New York or when he married Hannah Pickett.  We do know that their second son, Zadock Jr. was born in Stephentown, October 20, 1790.  As part of the family Zadock Jr. shared in whatever work he could perform.  His first money came from berry picking.  In '97 the family moved to Middleburgh and when Zadock was ten he helped his father clear ten acres of land and in the fall helped thresh the wheat and carried it to market.

When he was eleven, Zadock Jr. moved with the family as one of the pioneer settlers of Jewett Heights where other families from Connecticut had already settled.   In addition to helping on the farm and in the tannery young Zadock also made leather mittens and whip lashes.  His education had been very rudimentary.  He and learned to read and write and basic arithmetic.  His father imbued him with a deep sense of patriotism, honesty and devotion to duty.  His mother instilled in him the principles of her Christian faith and of ethical duty and responsibility.  These principles were so deeply engrained that when his only son, George, was old enough to read he had mottoes printed for him to follow such as: "Be just and fear not," "Do well and doubt not," "Begin and go along," "Do one thing at a time," "Honesty is the best policy."  From his earliest recollections he had become thoroughly familiar with the Bible, probably through church and family readings.  He highly venerated it and never allowed any other book to be placed on top of it.

At age nineteen he apparently wanted to prove to himself what he could do.   He made improvement in the type of pump used to pump the tanning liquor from vat to vat - he also swam to test his endurance until he had to break the ice to do so - and walked forty miles in one day without food or drink.

When he was twenty he was apprenticed to a saddle maker in Durham and often worked into the night to learn the trade.  As a reward he was given the raw materials to make a saddle.  He made it and bartered it for his first watch, a silver watch.

He completed his apprenticeship when he became 21.  His father and brother hired him as a journeyman saddler at $10.00 a month.  Saving most of his wages, the next year he went into business for himself with a capital of $100.00.   His store was in one of his father's hemlock bark sheds.  There he worked 14 to 16 hours a day as a saddle and harness maker.

During all this time he kept precise records, an inventory yearly and current debit and credit accounts.  Soon he had enough money to build a store of his own, paint it red, and to save money - slept under the counter.  His first year's profits were $500.00, then $1,200.00 and $1,400.00  He was on his way.

The War of 1812, however, had been in progress.  In 1814 young Zadock enlisted and was made Steward of a company stationed at Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn.   His scrupulous honesty and fair dealing with the troops commissary earned him a well deserved reputation.  But he was alert to every possibility.  He ordered 100,000 ash oars to be made in the Catskills, transported them to New York, and sold them at a profit.

By 1815 the war was over.  Zadock sold all his store's stock in trade before the post-war recession had taken effect.  With his earnings he was now able to go into partnership with his brothers Ezra and Bennett.  Zadock's keen marketing sense helped the business prosper.

When Zadock was 28 he married Beda Dickerman of Hamden, Connecticut who died seven months later of what we now believe was tuberculosis.  To shake off his grief he made his first sea voyage to Charleston, South Carolina where he spent Christmas.   This was his first encounter with plantation life.

In 1821, he married his first wife's sister, Esther, only to have her die two and a half years later, also of tuberculosis.  Shaken by this double tragedy, Zadock concentrated on his business affairs.  It was during his second marriage that Zadock again became active in the local militia, and that the tannery burned with no insurance coverage.

His strong personality and personal appeal drew Zadock into local government and military life.  He was voted Justice of the Peace of Lexington and was appointed Foreman of the Grand Jury of Greene County.  In the militia he had risen from Sergeant in Captain Stone's Cavalry Company to Captain of the 5th Regiment of New York State Artillery and then to Colonel of the 116th Regiment of Infantry of the State of New York.

It was while Captain of Artillery that he obtained the cannon which, now dismounted, lies in concrete before the Pratt Museum in Prattsville.

1824 was an eventful year for Zadock.  His wife died, he took part in local government.  He was present at the landing of General LaFayette in New York, he dissolved his business partnership with his brother Ezra and refought the Battle of Lodi at Windham.  There is a painting of wood of this event in the Pratt Museum but it badly needs restoration.  Zadock arranged the whole mock battle, provided the band instruments and the powder.  The memory of Napoleon was till strong in everyone's mind.  I assume that Zadock played the part of Napoleon in capturing and holding the bridge.  As a memento he gave all the participating officers a silk sash.

After Zadock had settled all his accounts he found he had $14,000.00 with which to go into business on his own.  It would be a tannery, but where?  He tramped all over Delaware, Greene, Sullivan and Ulster Counties that Summer looking for a site.  His first choice was Devasego Falls on Schoharie Creek where a previous tannery had burned down the year before, but the deal fell through.  Though offered a site at Pine Hill, Zadock rejected it and chose instead the site where Prattsville now stands, then known as Scoharie Kill.

Before the Revolution, the valley had been sparsely settled by Palatines.   Known pioneers were: John Laraway, and his four sons John, Jonas, Derrick and Martinus; Isaac Van Olsten; two Van Loan brothers; Henry Becker and the Shoemaker family.   Martinis Laraway established the first inn shortly after the Revolution and he and his brother John built the first grist mill.  These two brothers gave the land for Prattsville's first cemetery, that of the Dutch Reformed Church in the District of Scoharie Kill.  The church itself was not built until 1804 but had been organized inn 1798.  Later in 1834 Zadock helped rebuild it and even later gave it its bell.   The church was repaired and restored in 1972 through a generous grant from the O'Connor Foundation and celebrated its 150th anniversary in September, 1973.

It was to this basically Dutch settlement that Zadock came, a settlement surrounded by hemlock forests with tree 60 to 100 feet high and four feet in diameters.   On October 24 he drove to the junction of the Batavia Kill and the Scoharie to take possession of the valley he had bought for $1,300.00.

After taking possession Zadock told the residents that he had "come to live with them, not on them."  He spent the winter building a store and collecting materials for this tannery.  Serving as his own surveyor and architect, in March of 1825 Zadock started planning the foundation of the tannery.  It was completed in June, 170 feet long by 43 feet wide.  He had planned it so that it could be enlarged if needed.  He later extended it to 550 feet long by 43 feet wide.   The largest tannery of the time.

Before the tannery was built, the main road through Scoharie Kill ran alongside the creek and was owned by the Little Delaware Turnpike Company.  Zadock had surveyed the area and planned a 60 foot wide main street with lots for houses and stores on both sides with space for the tannery near the creek.  He donated this new street to the Turnpike Company and paid them $150.00 to make the change.  He planted trees throughout his village and built over 100 houses which were sold on liberal terms to attract the workers he needed.  His was possibly one of the first individually planned communities in the United States.

By 1829 he had moved into his own house, now the Pratt Museum, and on January 12 married his third wife, Abigail P. Watson of Rensselaerville.  Zadock realized that to have a really successful village he should have supporting industries and businesses in the town.

Visit Pratt Museum Consequently, through partnerships with various individuals he established a saw mill, a grist mill, a cabinet shop, a machine shop, a hat factory, 3 woolen mills, a match factory, a mitten and glove factory, an oilcloth factory and a chair factory, as well as an iron foundry.  Though he sometimes consumed alcoholic beverages, especially in his later years, Zadock stressed temperance among his laborers.  It is consequently doubtful that he had anything to do with the construction of a distillery on Washington Street.  Whisky and rum then sold for 25 cents a gallon.  Zadock founded the town newspaper and printing plant and built a covered bridge across the Schoharie.                              Go to Top  

In the village itself there were six well stocked stores, a jeweler, 2 saddle and harness makers, 2 wagon shops, 2 turning shops, 2 tailors, 12 seamstresses, many boot and shoe makers, a cooperage that made vats, butter tubs, casks and firkins, a drug store, a dentist, 2 doctors, 3 lawyers and 2 churches.

While the village was beginning to boom, Zadock's only son was born on April 18, 1831 and was named George Watson Pratt.  On January 26, 1834 a daughter Julia P. Pratt was born.  On February 5, 1834 Zadock's third wife died in her twenty eighth year.

Meanwhile Zadock had applied to the legislature to have a new Township set apart from Windham to be called Prattsville.  This occurred on March 8, 1833 so Abigail at least lived to the town named after her husband.  Zadock's energies extended beyond Prattsville.  He became a partner in a number of other New York State tanneries such as in Windham, Big Hollow, Palenville, Westkill and Samsonville as well as in Aldenville, Pennsylvania.  As the hauling of hemlock bark became more difficult it became apparent that a ten mile radius was the furthest out any one tannery could economically reach for bark.

Zadock was elected to Congress on two separate occasions.  His terms of office were 1837-39 and 1843-45.  During his five years of service as a Congressmen he supposedly never missed a roll call.  In 1839 when a flood swept away a part of the Prattsville tannery he was notified and sent back word that hew was in Washington on public business and could not leave for personal business.  "You must do the best you can". He was very far sighted - he proposed a mission to Korea and Japan as well as a trans-continental railroad to the Pacific.  He reduced postal rates and proposed the establishment of a Bureau of Statistics.

In 1843 Zadock established the Prattsville Bank and printed his own currency.  In 1844 he increased its capital to $100,000.00 and reportedly his bills were the only ones in New York State that were redeemable on Wall Street at par.

Meanwhile, George and Julia were growing up.  We do not know where they went to grammar school, perhaps, they were tutored.  We do know they both went to high school in Poughkeepsie.  In March of '47 Zadock took George for a tour of the South and West to see how different it was from the North.  During the summer of 1847 George and a friend traveled up Lake Superior and westward towards the Rockies.  In April of '48, George then not yet 17 made the grand tour of Europe, Egypt and the Holy Land.  While in the Middle East he mastered Arabic as well as other languages.   In March of 1850 George was made cashier of the Prattsville Bank and his signature appeared on their bank notes along with that of Zadock as well as Zadock's picture.   In April George and Julia went to Europe from which they returned 17 months later in September of '51.  George had obtained an honorary Doctoral degree from the University of Mecklenburgh awarded because of his thesis on the Scandinavian language.   George had promised his father he would obtain a degree if he was not compelled to attend college.                  Go to Top

The Prattsville Bank was closed by Zadock in November, 1852.  The Prattsville tannery had been closed in 1846.  During the nine years of the banks existence it had handled about eight million dollars.  In 1853 Zadock gave George and Julia each $50,000.00 and a half interest In a tannery - George in the Samsonville tannery and Julia in the Aldenville.

In October of the same year Julia married the Hon. Colin M. Ingersoll of New Haven, Conn.  In May, 1855 George married Anna Tibbits of Albany.  He had become active following his fathers example in the New York State Militia. 

In November, 1857 he was elected to Congress representing the 10th Senatorial District.   That same year Zadock received a bounty land warrant of 160 acres as a reward for his services in the War of 1812, forty five years before.  This he made over to his infant grandson, George, who never lived to use it.

Zadock was not the kind of man who could stay unmarried too long.   Some time after Abigail's death he married her sister, Mary.  She must not have had an easy time of it because Zadock traveled a great deal, to Europe, South America, several times to the West Indies and also to the South.  No mention is made of her travelling with him.  While in Washington Zadock had made many southern friends, yet as far back as 1837 he noted in his diary that slavery sooner or later would cut the country in two.

Zadock Pratt

When the Civil War started, Col. George W. Pratt commanded the 20th New York Militia which left Kingston in May of 1861.  In it were 189 men from Greene County.  George was wounded at the second battle of Manasas or Bull Run which took place August 28 to September 1.  The Union Army involved lost 14,000 men.   George was evacuated to Albany where he died, Sept 11th.  This was probably the most cruel blow Zadock had to survive.  George had mastered 16 languages and accumulated a formidable library of over a thousand volumes.  These were saved by the family until they were finally sold at auction in  Paris in June 1927.

In 1866 Zadock again visited his friends in the South for three months observing the desolation and mourning cause by the war.  New York had 448,500 soldiers, sailors and marines in the Union Forces, more than any other state.  Over ten percent were lost.  Prattsville with a population of 1,500 had sent 184 men.

Zadock's fourth wife, Mary, died July 17, 1868.  On October 16, 1869 he married Susie A. Grimm of Brooklyn in Grace Episcopal Church, Prattsville.  Zadock had given the land and half the money to build it.  She remained with him, taking care of him.  Apparently while they were visiting relatives in Bergen New Jersey Zadock was taken ill with a fever.  While recovering he fell downstairs, broke his thigh and died in consequence.

Greene County owes much to Zadock Pratt.  Prattsville even more.  All of its churches were built or rebuilt through his help.  During his lifetime it enjoyed a prosperity never achieved since.

Pratt Rocks which he deeded to the village are a lasting memorial to his character and success as well as to his son's memory.

The Zadock Pratt Museum, a non profit organization was started in 1959 by the late Brayton Tompkins and the Prattsville Chamber of Commerce.  In 1962 it moved into the Pratt Homestead.  All lovers of the Catskills can take pride in Zadock Pratt's contribution to the area and will want to become members of and visitors to the Museum.

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Updated on:
21 February, 2019

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