There aren’t many Quakers in Quaker Hill anymore. But in the late 17th and 18th centuries, this hamlet in the town of Pawling was one of the most thriving Quaker communities in the country. It would be romantic to think the early settlers came to this area because of some great spiritual awakening or metaphysical yearning. But what drew them here was far more prosaic: real estate. It’s still a pretty good story, though.
Back in the early 1700s, the colonies of New York and Connecticut were arguing about the exact location of their border. The surveys were inaccurate, and the colonies’ allocation of land was often in dispute. The issue was finally settled in 1731. Connecticut got the weird “panhandle” that juts into the southeast corner of New York. In return, New York was awarded an equivalent amount of land, two miles wide by 60 miles long, which ran along its eastern edge all the way up to Massachusetts. This patch of land was called the Oblong, a much cooler word than rectangle or parallelogram but basically the same thing.
At the time, the Oblong was unsettled wilderness. But it was special wilderness, for one particular reason. It really was wild. No one owned it. It was not included in any of the original Dutch patents, and therefore it immediately became the first New World land in a long time to go onto the open market.
One of the first to get in on the action was a surveyor named Nathan Birdsall. He was a member of the Religious Society of Friends — commonly known as Quakers — and had visited the area in 1728. “At the time the road ended at Danbury, so he had to cut through the forest to find it,” says Robert P. Reilly, the Town of Pawling historian. When the land became available for purchase, Birdsall sent word to Quaker communities in Long Island, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, and a few hardy souls bought 500-acre plots around what they quickly christened Quaker Hill. “It was kind of a land rush,” says Reilly.
The early homesteaders cleared the land, built roads and homes and farmed the fertile soil; and by 1740 there were 40 to 50 families, enough Friends of sufficient means to request permission from the Quaker Meeting in Purchase to establish a meeting of their own and to build a meetinghouse. The first Oblong Meeting House, as it came to be known, was finished in 1742. But the influx of Quakers and their progeny wasn’t, and over the next 20 years the community outgrew it. “By 1760 it was overpopulated,” says James Mandracchia, the librarian at Akin Free Library and Oblong Meeting House. “Each family had 10 to 14 kids, and some of them were already moving out to settle other towns in New York and Vermont.”
In 1763 the community petitioned the Quaker regional office to build a new brick building 45 feet long and 35 feet wide, but were told instead to construct “a framed house of timber, the dimensions to be 45 feet long, 40 feet wide and 15 feet stud to admit of galleries.” They completed the new meetinghouse in 1764, just north of the original site, where it still stands nearly 250 years later. And in 1767, the community did something else that will last even longer: They abolished slavery.
In the 1760s, the Quakers ceased doing business with slaveholders — substituting locally produced maple sugar for slave-trade cane sugar, for example. At the annual meeting of 1767, they discussed whether it was “consistent with the Christian spirit to hold a person in slavery at all,” and took the first unified action against it. It took nine years to fully resolve the question, but by 1776 the community decided that meetings would not accept financial contributions or receive services from any Friends holding slaves. “I love the brutally logical way they decided,” Reilly says. “They reasoned that God’s spirit is in every human, and you can’t enslave God, so slavery is inconsistent.” According to records, the last slave owned by a member of Oblong was freed in 1777 — almost 100 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Quakers also used that same logic to abstain from fighting in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars. Reilly says they were the “first conscientious objectors.” But even if they refused to go to war, the War for Independence nevertheless came to them. With some of Gen. George Washington’s soldiers encamped nearby during the fall and winter of 1778-79, the Continental Army commandeered the meetinghouse and used it as a hospital for soldiers injured at Pawling’s Purgatory Hill encampment. (No battles were fought in Pawling; Washington’s army only stopped there while he decided whether his next move should be to Canada, Boston, or Philadelphia.) Some of the soldiers who perished — either from accidental injuries or illness — are buried south of the meetinghouse. The Quakers, true to their pacifist beliefs, did not acknowledge the house during that period or help in the war effort, and they never mentioned these events in their meeting minutes. When the army left, they went back to their meetings as if nothing had happened.
The war couldn’t break the Quakers; they did that to themselves. In 1828 the Friends were rocked by a national religious schism that split the community in two: the conservative Orthodox and progressive Hicksite Societies of Friends. At Quaker Hill, the Hicksites used the meetinghouse, while the Orthodox members built their own meetinghouse in 1831, in what is now a private home.
While internal combustion started the Quakers’ decline, steam combustion sped it down the tracks. On December 31, 1848, the New York and Harlem Railroad reached Pawling. The area rapidly transformed from a quiet religious community into a hot spot for wealthy vacationers from the city. Two popular resorts, the Dutcher House and the Mizzentop Hotel (the latter marketed as the “Closest World Class Country and Mountain Resort to New York City”) led to an increase in both temporary and permanent non-Quaker residents.
Further, as the industrial revolution took hold, the agrarian Quakers found themselves losing membership and influence. In 1885, the Hicksite Meeting was “laid down” — “that means stopped in Quaker-ese,” says Reilly — and the Orthodox Meeting petered out about a decade later; in 1895, a nondenominational Sunday school became Christ Church. The reformation was complete.
Where did the Quakers go? Reilly has a theory. “They abolished slavery 100 years before Lincoln. They were conscientious objectors 200 years before Vietnam. They believed in women’s rights long before the suffragettes. I think they may be gone because they developed interstellar travel — they were so far ahead of their time.” Who’s to say he’s wrong?
The Quakers who remain on Earth still hold a Yearly Meeting at the Oblong, which has been owned by the Historical Society of Quaker Hill and Pawling since 1936.
And although there aren’t many Quakers in Quaker Hill anymore, the spirit of the Friends remains strong in Pawling. “The Akin Hall Association, organized in 1880 as an association of people concerned with religion, charity and benevolence, still exists,” Mandracchia says. Reilly adds that “Pawling has always been a very giving community. People here do not go for want. During World War II the school became a hospital, and people opened their homes to the wounded and their families. That has continued even through Hurricane Sandy. I have family that lost their home due to a generator fire, and the outpouring of help to this family is just phenomenal.”
Friends in need, friends indeed — whether Quaker Friends or not.