John D. Rockefeller's Birthplace
For more than half of my life I've lived less than 30 miles from John D. Rockefeller's birthplace in Richford, NY. Actually in the early 1840s, the family moved to Moravia, NY. They lived there until 1850. Moravia is only 10 miles from where I grew up.
I didn't know that fact until recently.
These places aren't New York City, or even big towns. These are very small rural towns in upstate New York. Currently I live in a smaller nearby rural town. I've always joked that there are more cows and cornfields in these places than people. So you wouldn't expect this environment to produce the man who'd become the richest person in history.
This past Saturday I was passing by Richford, NY. I heard that the Rockefeller house, located in Michigan Hill State Forest, is no longer standing, but one can see the foundation of the house and a sign marking the spot. I was curious to check it out.
Armed with the below maps, there rarely is cell phone service in these areas, I sought out this forgotten place.
After a short 35 minute drive from my house, I found the sign marked Rockefeller Road. I turned down the seasonal dirt road - yes, not even a paved road - and made my way down the hill into a dense forest. The only sign of civilization was a telephone line going down the path.
I kept my eye out for any sign of the homestead. Aside from the street sign named after the man, there weren't any signs on the road directing one to the spot. I almost missed it. I had to back track after seeing some car tracks on the side of the road.
As you can see below, the site is tucked behind a thicket of trees and overgrown with weeds. It looks as if no one takes care of the site. Car tracks are the only thing visible from the road. Maybe a few people a year check out the site.
I got out of my car and read the bullet hole riddled sign.
“John D. Rockefeller Birthplace
In a small house on this site, John D. Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1839. It was a simple story-and-a-half wood frame house, built on a homestead of 50 acres, purchased by his father in 1835.
It is said that Godfrey Rockefeller, John’s Grandfather together with other family members were on their way to Michigan in the early 1830’s, when they decided to settle in this place, from which comes the name Michigan Hill. The grandparents, Godfrey and Lucy Rockefeller with ten children, including John’s father, William Avery Rockefeller, had settled on a homestead about a half-mile east on this road.
A log schoolhouse stood on a site about one-quarter mile east of here on a plot sold to Tioga County School District #10 by William Avery Rockefeller in 1845. The schoolhose also served as a religious center for the pioneer settlers of Michigan Hill.
On a small stream flowing through this valley, about one-half mile north-west of here, William Avery Rockefeller operated a sawmill in 1836 to make lumber form the white pine and hemlock trees that grew on these hills. One can still see the form of an earthen dam which stored water to provide power for the sawmill.
These forested hills were cleared for farming by the early settlers but the this, rocky soil was too poor to sustain permanent agriculture. The land was reverted to forest as you see it now. This birthplace site is dedicated to the memory of the early settlers of Michigan Hill, and to John D. Rockefeller, pioneer American Industrialist and philanthropist.
Date: February 7, 1980”
This is what the house looked like in the 1800s.
Much more than 100 years later, the same picture looks like this.
Time surely does change a place.
The story behind John D. Rockefeller's early upbringing was interesting. It was there that John D. Rockefeller lived until age 3. His father, William Rockefeller, was a traveling huckster and was often gone from the home for months on end. That left John's mother Eliza in charge of taking care of the family in his absence. Included was taking care of William's mistress and housekeeper Nancy Brown and her two illegitimate children with her husband.
Read more on the family's early struggles at the homestead here.
The foundation of the house, as you can imagine, is hidden under weeds. Below was the only picture I got that showed the rock foundation, which went about 4.5 feet into the ground.
Thomas Shannon, who provided an in-depth look into the site and Rockefeller family history here, got a much better photo in the winter time when all of the weeds were dead.
John D. Rockefeller thought highly of his boyhood years and the places where he grew up. He would make annual pilgrimages to this site and his other childhood homes in Moravia and Owego, NY from 1894 to 1928. He'd call upon old acquaintances, take them for rides, and recall much of his youth with them.
On one of his last trips to the old homestead in 1928, Rockefeller was interested in a nearby stone wall. He said:
"My grandmother laid that stone wall with her own hands. She was a remarkable woman, strong and vigorous and virile, with the true spirit of the American pioneers."
Life on the homestead, and in Moravia and Owego, NY, was where Rockefeller learned his habits of thrift and industry. Rockefeller recalled the school of hard knocks:
"Into the woods as a boy of nine, I saw a turkey hen stealing away. For days I hunted her nest. When I found it mother said I might have the hen and chicks for my own. She fed them curds from milk and kitchen scraps. One of my life's hardest tasks was keeping those chicks from drowning in heavy rains, but that fall I sold them in the Moravia market, earned my first money and put it in a china dish on the mantle as the start toward independence. Finding the turkey hen taught me first lessons in recovering property which otherwise would have gone to waste and nursing it along into a paying profit."
Whatever happened to Rockefeller's house? Did it burn down? Did it fall over due to neglect? No, and no.
The house was actually well taken care of and frequently visited before 1930.
In 1930 Sara S. Dennen, secretary of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce in Brooklyn, New York, bought the land and dismantled the clapboard house. Dennen wanted to cash in on the Rockefeller name by transporting the house to Coney Island and charging admission to tour the house. Rockefeller caught wind of the scheme and ordered his lawyers to get an injunction restraining Mrs. Dennen from use of the building for such purposes. The family got the injunction. The house made it as far as Binghamton, NY, 30 miles south of the homestead and was put in John B. Southee's warehouse. Dennen had to give up the project.
Dennen eventually lost the Rockefeller property because she didn't pay $47.25 in delinquent taxes. The land was put up on auction and received no bids. That is how Tioga County received the land, which with the later donation of the surrounding 248 acres from John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1980, created the Michigan Hill State Forest.
What happened to the dismantled house? The Rockfeller family, in 1973, hauled the pile of lumber out of the warehouse. Not keen on memorializing themselves, the family hasn't done anything with the remnents.
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