History of Columbia

Town Historian: 

Donna Rubin (315) 822-0031





The Town of Columbia, which comprises some 22,000 acres, is located in the extreme southern end of Herkimer County. Its southern side borders Otsego County. The northeast corner of the town is approximately four miles south of the Mohawk River.

The 1824 Gazetteer of New York describes this area of the state as a "surface handsomely undulated by arable hills, and rich and fertile valleys". Its elevation at nearly a 1,000 feet above the Mohawk Valley may, in part, account for fierce winter winds and fabled snow drifts. Along with its long, hard winters, the town has been known for its rich, fertile, clay loam soil, and its plentiful game.


Archaeological evidence reveals a human presence in central New York following the last Ice Age. It may have been the opportunities for hunting and fishing which first attracted native Americans, and the Iroquois were here when the first European trappers and traders (French, Dutch, and English) appeared late in the sixteenth century. Although this was Iroquois territory, it appears that the area within which Columbia is located belonged neither to the Mohawks to the east, or the Oneidas to the west, but was shared hunting ground. Both tribes were members of the great Iroquois League or Confederacy formed around 1560, and in all likelihood they co-existed peacefully. There is no evidence of a permanent Indian settlement here. Closest would have been the well known Mohawk Indian settlement, Indian Castle, found to the east in the Mohawk Valley.


Although there were no Indian villages here, legend has it that an Indian trail ran from the upper Mohawk to Canadarago Lake through Columbia. Most historians are sure that Adam Helmer's famous run, made to warn settlers of approaching danger during the American Revolution, passed through part of the town. It is assumed that he used the old Indian trail to travel through the forest. It is also said that Indians (Oneidas?) traveled north from the Susquehanna River in canoes by way of Canadarago Lake to Mink Creek in the South Columbia area. To this day arrow and spearheads are found in the high ground near Columbia's "1000 acre cedar swamp", and old-timers repeat a story told of an old Indian meeting site at the edge of the swamp.


The first permanent European settlers in Columbia were Palatine Germans fleeing oppression in Europe and seeking farmland and a new life. The date 1765 is usually given for when six families came from the valley (German Flatts) to settle in the area now known as Orendorf's Corners. Some early family names were: Frank, Fulmer, Lighthall, Moyer, Christian, and Orendorf. The first name of Conrad Orendorf probably gave the settlement the name Conradstown, or "Coonrodstown". Early town hamlets, including South Columbia, are said to have been settled before the American Revolution, as was Millers Mills, founded by Andrew Miller and family in 1790.


Columbia's brush with history took place during the American Revolution. Upstate New York became an important part of the overall strategy to the extent that General Washington diverted troops desperately needed in the east to the region. This was done to counter effective Tory-Indian raids on settlements in what was then the western frontier, upstate New York. The British had built strong alliances with the Iroquois (the Oneidas and the Tuscaroras sided with the Americans) and their raids at Cherry Valley, Andrustown (in Warren), Canajoharie, and German Flatts among others, were threatening the whole region. It was to warn the settlers in and around German Flatts of Joseph Brant's (the feared Mohawk Chief) approach that sent John Adam Helmer on a heroic marathon. On September 17, 1778, escaping pursuing warriors, Helmer ran through the forest from the Unadilla River to the Flatts. It is said that he veered into what is now Columbia Center (down the Jordanville Road to Petrie's Corner where he turned north) specifically to warn his sister who lived nearby, before continuing on to the valley.


The area's involvement in the early history of the country is made evident by a visit to the old cemetery near Columbia Center. Conradsville, the first real community in the town, had the first church. This was a Dutch Reformed Church, organized in July, 1798, which had met over the previous five years in Conrad Orendorf's barn. Unfortunately, this picturesque church from the nineteenth century was torn down some years ago, but the historic cemetery remains. In it are the graves of 20 Revolutionary War soldiers, a vacant plot beside the resting widow of Major Denis Clapsadle, who is buried at the Oriskany Battlefield, and the graves of 22 veterans of the War of 1812.


Columbia is made up of Staley's Second Tract, a small piece of Henderson's Patent (along with some other odd pieces) that was originally part of the Town of Warren. Proudly boasting 200 families, Columbia was officially formed on June 8, 1812. It is noted that the first town meeting took place on March 2, 1813 at Daniel J. Petrie's house. How the name Columbia was finally decided upon for the town, like much else in the early history of the area, is told in conflicting stories. One tale says the name Conradstown was rejected because it was too often pronounced Coonrodstown, and residents didn't like its sound. Another says residents who migrated from the county of Columbia in New York State suggested the name. Others say the town was simply named in honor of Columbus, or alternatively for Columbia, which was a poetic name for America, and was a popular, patriotic name widely used throughout the nineteenth century.


During the nineteenth century the Town of Columbia thrived on agriculture and took on its appearance of cleared land, farms, and pastures that we recognize today. A way of life based on the limited technology of the era fostered settlement in the flourishing hamlets of Conradstown, South Columbia, Columbia Center, Spinnerville, and Millers Mills. Today what were once bustling little towns are merely crossroads with few houses.

The 1824 New York State Gazetteer reported Columbia's population as 2,051, which was more than it is today (in 2000 U.S. census figures for Columbia listed 1,630 residents, and in 1875 1,589). The 1824 Gazetteer goes on to note that there were 1,876 cattle, 5,005 sheep, 4 grist mills, 1 cotton and woolen factory, and 1 ashery in town. There were 12 school districts (school was held for eight months out of the year), and public tax monies received in 1821 totaled $288.80.


In 1869, on the sixteenth of June, the Herkimer County Board of Supervisors had a special committee visit the township. The committee's report on Columbia reads: "a dairying town, land being well adapted to dairy purposes - the surface is uneven, and a large swamp traverses the southwest part of the town. Columbia Center, it noted had 200 inhabitants. Located in the town were one tannery, and several prosperous cheese factories. Two thousand cows were being milked.


Except during the war years a timeless quality of life has existed in the Town of Columbia. For much of its almost exclusively agricultural history, the seasons and the weather marked time and the activities of the residents. Improvements in technology have now changed farm life, making farms bigger, and the number of farmers fewer. The coming of the automobile in the thirties made it possible for residents of the town to hold jobs other than farming, and a majority of residents now commute to work.



  1.  Indian Camping Ground are located a little northwest of what is now South Columbia at the spring near the headwaters of Mink Creek. In 1872 a tailrace below a sawmill site was excavated or enlarged, and a large number of musket balls were found that had reportedly been buried by Indians.


  1.  Indian Trail is a trail between the Upper Mohawk and Schuyler Lake that passed through the town from the northwest to southeast.


  1.  Orendorf Corners is the area first settled in the Town of Columbia. Settled in 1765 by German settlers, it was known as Conradstown, for the Conrads, but was changed to Orendorf because the Orendorf family outlived the others and changed the name.


Orendorf Corners was the center for town events for the Town of Warren and later for the Town of Columbia; for example, July 4th was celebrated after the Revolutionary War with horseshoe competitions, etc. 


The first tavern and house were owned by Conrad Orendorf, and the house was later enlarged by Dr. O. C. Orendorf. The first store was opened by D. W. Golden and Benjamin Mix. David Golden, an early merchant and tavern keeper, later became Justice of the Court of Common Pleas for Herkimer County. 


Orendorf Corners had a church, the first frame house, and first school (German - Phillip Ausman 1796). The first English school, which opened in 1796, was a log school, with Mr. Joel Phillips as its teacher. The oldest church in Orendorf Corners was the Reformed Church of Columbia, built on July 8, 1798. The Reformed Protestant Church of Warren met at Conradt Orendorf's house from 1803 until 1840, when a new building was erected on what was called the East/West Road between Columbia Center and Orendorf Corners.


4. South Columbia was a station on the Utica, Chenango & Susquehanna Railroad. South Columbia was settled by the Lighthalls before the Revolution, and George

Lighthall is remembered for having hid in the woods in October 1779 during an Indian attack.


Richard Woolever was the first settler to arrive after the Revolution. He was sent by the Henrich Staring Co. from Ft. Herkimer to overtake Joseph Brant (the Mohawk Indian leader) and to rescue prisoners taken at Andrustown (in the Jordanville area) during an attack on settlers there. He took several survivors to Ft. Herkimer, and was later injured in 1778 in a battle with Indians. Richard Woolever is buried at the Old Reformed Church.

Ashel Freeman built grist and saw mills in South Columbia in 1800. The first hotel was built in South Columbia in 1808.


5. Getman Corners is a small hamlet on the Mohawk/Richfield Springs road (Rt 28). The headwaters of Steele Creek arise on the north side of town.


6. Elizabeth Town is located near the north borderline of the Town of Columbia on Steele Creek. It was named for Elizabeth Campbell, who had inherited 1000 acres of the best land in the area.

In 1878 the town had a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, a tannery, and twenty houses. Abraham House built the first brick house in Elizabeth Town.


7. Cedarville lies in the three towns of Columbia, Litchfield and Winfield.

In 1878 Cedarville had 150 inhabitants, a cabinet shop, blacksmith shop, a store,

twenty houses, and a post office.

Abijah Beckwith, an original resident, died August 8, 1874. He was born in Chetam,

Columbia County in 1784, and was a member of the legislature in 1817. He advocated abolition of slavery, the construction of the Erie Canal, and worked for common schools. In 1835 he was elected to the State Senate, was a Presidential Elector for Lincoln, and was well respected in the state.


8. Millers Mills is located in the southwest part of town, one-quarter mile north of the former site of the Utica, Chenango & Susquehanna Railroad station.

In 1878 Millers Mills had 150 inhabitants, one church, a grist mill, saw mill, machine shop, cheese factory, box factory, a blacksmith/wagon shop, and a general dry goods and grocery store. Its post office was established in 1809.

Andrew Miller and George Bell, who built and operated a gristmill, settled Millers Mills in 1790.

The First Free Baptist Church was constructed November 4, 1879.

Captain W. Gorsline owned a large house on the pond, where ice cutting is still done. The first Irish settler, Constantine O'Rourke, who came from County Leitrim in

northwest Ireland, and established a farm in Millers Mills, was a merchant in Herkimer. The family helped start St. John's Church in Utica in 1819.


9. Historic Industries of the Town of Columbia

Quarries located in the northern part of town.

Farming - hay, barley, hops, potatoes, apples, maple sugar, eggs.

Cheese factories Utica, Chenango & Susquehanna Railroad, with stations at Millers Mills, Young’s Crossing, and South Columbia.


10. Historic Markers

Seven historic markers were erected in the Town in the 1920’s by the State

Education Department (see map in attachments). The markers read:

A. “Masonic Lodge. Built by D.V.W. Golden 1812 for Warren Lodge No. 155.

Organized March 4, 1807. Ceased paying dues 1818.”

B. “Orendorf Barn. First building where religious service was held. Bodies were

buried until 1803 at northeast corner.”

C. “Petrie’s Corners. On route of scout Adam F. Helmer’s famous run to warn

settlers of German Flatts of approach of Brant’s Indians September 17, 1778.”

D. “Pioneer Home of Col. Jacob D. Petrie, who with six sons founded Petrie’s

E. “Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, organized July 8, 1798. Cemetery dedicated 1803. Has 20 Revolutionary Veterans and 22 soldiers of War of 1812.”

F. “Site of first store and house built by David V.W. Golden before 1798, who was first Judge of Court held at Whitestown.”

G. “Site of pioneer home of Andrew Miller and 6 sons who founded Miller’s Mills about 1790. Built sawmill and gristmill.”

More historic information for the Town of Columbia is available through the website www.herkimer.nygenweb.net/columbia.html. The site contains a wide variety of information to include early Town history, vital records, Civil War Soldiers, farm and business descriptions, etc.