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Delaware County NY Genealogy and History Site

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A CENTENNIAL HISTORY OF STAMFORD
by Daisy R. Desilva and Anne Willis 1970
Sponsored by Stamford Centennial, Inc
Stamford, NY 12167

Frontier and Revolution

In 1804, Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, passed through Stamford on his way from Catskill to the Susquehanna. The area was an almost primeval wilderness and he reported, "I can scarcely conceive that an agreeable residence will ever be found here."

At that time settlers had been struggling for forty years to make an "agreeable residence" at the Head of the Delaware, as Stamford was called for many years. This north-west corner of the great Hardenburgh Patent was surveyed for settlement in 1764 by men from Stamford, Connecticut, and lots and streets were laid out in what is now Township. Thirty men took up lots. Since very few of them ever came to "New Stamford", it is possible that they bought the land rather for speculation than for settlement.

Not until about 1773 did real settlers come. David Brown and Daniel and Abijah Bennett came from Stamford, Conn.; several men - Dr. Stewart, John and Alexander More, and James Rose - came from Scotland. In Oct. 1773 a ship carrying 280 Scottish immigrants arrived in New York. A number of them settled on the Kortright Patent and along the Charlotte River, as well as in Stamford.

They found a few families already established in Kortright and Harpersfield, but otherwise they found a wilderness. Although the Indians had camped and hunted at the Head of the Delaware for several thousand years, according to archaeological evidence, they had few villages within some miles. The area around Lake Utsayantha (traditionally named for a tragic Indian maid, and said to mean "Beautiful Spring, Clear and Cold") was a no-man's land, the lake being a sort of cornerstone where the territory of various tribes joined. The major Indian trail from the Schoharie to the Susquehanna passed by the lake and through what is now the village of Stamford.

The New Stamford settlers had hardly begun to clear their ground when the Revolution burst upon them. Col. John Harper, founder of Harpersfield, called together all who shared his political views to sign the Articles of Association, pledging allegiance to the patriot cause. Many of the settlers, however, being fresh from Great Britain, naturally remained loyal to the Crown. John More of New Stamford chose to throw in his lot with the Revolutionaries.

The Patriots were greatly concerned about the Indians. Which side would they take? Joseph Brant, the leader of the Mohawks, was an educated man and a friend of Harper. On the other hand, his sister was married to Sir William Johnson, a staunch Tory. The Provincial Congress sent Harper to the village of Oquaga down the Susquehanna to beg the Indians at least to remain neutral, which at that time they promised to do. Harper submitted a bill of expenses incurred on his mission - 29 pounds, 1 shilling and sixpence - to the Congress.

About this time, a son, James, was born to the William Stewarts, the first child born in Stamford. Few were born for several years after. Doubtful of the Indians' neutrality, many families abandoned their homesteads, and returned to the comparative security of the Hudson and Mohawk valleys. They had reason for fear.

Distrust on both sides led to incidents that drove the Indians into the Tory camp. In October, 1778, Col. William Butler and a command of 250 marched out of the Patriot Middle Fort (Middleburg) determined to destroy the Indian settlement at Oquaga. In the rain they trudged along the rough trail past Lake Utsayantha and through the wooded slopes where Stamford now stands, reaching a cabin below Hobart at the end of the second day. They found Oquaga hastily abandoned and burned it and the Indian town of Unadilla. Mindful of the enraged Indians hiding in the woods, the Patriots did not even try to take much plunder, but scurried back to the Middle Fort, half-starved and rain-soaked. In revenge, the Mohawks, aided by two hundred Tories, destroyed Cherry Valley.

The Patriots harried the Loyalist families, driving them off to Canada. Indians and Tories roamed the frontier, burning out Patriot settlers. They came in the night to the McKee homestead near Odell Lake; they killed all the family but a teenage girl, Annie, who was carried off to Canada in her nightdress. They came in the night to the John More farm in New Stamford. But Joseph Brant, who could not forget old friendships, went on ahead and warned the Mores. They threw a few provisions on horses and fled over the mountains to Catskill. The Indians sometimes camped for the night, with prisoners from destroyed settlements, at Lake Utsayantha. The unhappy captives must have felt that they were deep in the wilderness, and that our high, misty hills were indeed an unlikely place for "an agreeable residence."

By this time few people remained in Delaware County. A group of men from Schoharie came to Harpersfield in the Spring of 1780 to collect sap and make maple sugar. A party of Tories and Indians came upon them, killing several and capturing the others. Some - Capt. Alex Harper, Freegift and Isaac Patchin, and Ezra Thorp - were able to return to Harpersfleld after the war.The Battle of Lake Utsayantha in May 1781, was actually scarcely more than a skirmish. Joseph Brant and his marauders, after an attack on Schoharie, camped near the lake. The Patriots - Capt. Hager, Capt. Hale, Timothy Murphy, and about eighty men - caught up with them in the vicinity of where Dr. Martin Smith's house now stands. Brant's outfit opened fire and Capt. Hale and his men fled. Capt. Hager and Murphy headed Hale off and turned him back with their guns, Hager exclaiming, "Attempt to run another step and you are a dead man!" But, by the time the Patriots re-formed at the lake, the enemy had melted into the dense forest. The Patriots gathered up their one wounded and two dead and returned to Schoharie. (There is an account of bones being dug up at the lake much later.) An ironic note -; this skirmish took place one month after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

It was about this time that the famous Indian fighter, Timothy Murphy, is said to have killed his last Indian - in the swamp near Lake Utsayantha.

Settling In

With the United States' independence established, the warfare on the frontier subsided and the settlers began to return. The Harpers were among the first to appear in 1783, and soon had a girst mill in operation so that the farmers no longer had to plod all the way to Schoharie over rough trails to have their grain ground. They were quickly followed by others who had taken up land in HarperstIeld before the war. Sonic were able to recover kettles and other valuables hastily buried when they fled. John More, who had escaped from the Town Plot in New Stamford, returned in 1786 but settled at the head of the cast branch of the Delaware, founding Moresville, now Grand Gorge.

Eager to make travel easier and to encourage new settlers, the Harpersfield men worked to improve the trail to Schoharie by cutting away brush. Moving into the wilderness was still a strenuous chore. Wagons could rarely survive the strain, and most people came with their goods piled on horses or on ox-drawn sleds which could slide over the roots and rocks. People usually traveled only by day, for fear of missing the trails in the darkness or of being attacked, by the fierce and plentiful wolves.

By 1787 there were increasing numbers of families along the valley of the Delaware and in Harpersfield, Township and along Roses Brook but few in the hopeful town of New Stamford. That was the year of the Great Pumpkin Flood. In the Fall a tremendous flood swept down the Delaware, carrying away crops and buildings on the flats. Pumpkins by the bushel bobbed away down the river. It was a discouraging beginning - many people suffered until the next year's crop was ready.

In 1788 the people began to clear roads from the Head of the Delaware down to Walton and also from the Head of the Delaware over to Unadilla on the Susquehanna. People from the lower Hudson could come here over a fairly passable road along the Esopus creek to near Margaretville. It is said that those coming from Stamford, Conn. came by that route, crossing Mt. Utsayantha from Roxbury.

In 1790 the population in Stamford was increasing. Men had come whose names are still found in Stamford - Stewart, Grant, Churchill, Griffin, Beers, Gilbert, Foote, Taylor. The first United States census was taken in 1790, and recorded 443 heads of families in the Delaware County area, with 1394 males and 1113 females, more than half of whom lived in Harpersfield.

The Town Plot in New Stamford was ambitiously laid out - with streets (one of which is the road past Jay Wickham's farmhouse), a parade ground on which no parades were ever held, and a church lot on which no church was ever built, but it never became a village. Probably the main reason is that the major roads through the area passed elsewhere. The Catskill turnpike, finally completed in 1802, came through Windham, Grand Gorge and the present village of Stamford, and naturally business establishments would open as near the highway as possible.

Nearness to the river was another necessity for those businesses depending upon water power. About 1791, St. Leger Cowley returned to Stamford and built a grist mill on the Delaware. His was the first will recorded in Delaware County. (Miles Stanley, a miller, married Mary Cowley and in 1860 built the house now occupied by Mrs. Newell Baird and Miss Carrie Stanley, his granddaughters.)

Here and there appeared a house in what is now the village of Stamford. The first is said to have been built about 1790 by Daniel Clark, on the north side of Main Street near where the railroad crossing is. Clark is also said to have kept the first tavern, presumably in the sense of taking into his home people "benighted" on the road, and keeping whiskey and rum for sale. (Distilleries like grist mills, were early started on every frontier.) Also about this time, there was a house on what is now South Delaware Street, across from the present Methodist parsonage. On the other side of the Delaware was a house on the site of the Westhoim where in 1823 was born Edward Z. C. Judson, the well-known Ned Buntline, promoter of Buffalo Bill.

About 1792 Dr. Philander Smith settled on land near the present Presbyterian Church. He was the first physician in Stamford, perhaps treating animals as well as humans. And as with most pioneer doctors, lawyers and ministers, he probably raised his own crops and livestock.

Having put a bit of a roof over their heads and some seed in the ground, the settlers were ready to establish the other necessities of civilization. A religious environment was vital to them; as early as 1789 a log church was built in Harpersfield, and a year later a Presbyterian Church was established in Kortright. The St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Hobart was founded in 1794, people from the whole township attending. The Methodists did not have a church building so early, but in 1794 the Delaware Circuit, served by circuit riders, was established. This circuit was vast, including most of Delaware County. John Bangs, who came to Stamford with his father in 1794, was later a famous rider on this circuit.

Schools were also considered vital to people who believed that a citizen, in order to vote intelligently, should be able to read and write. The first little school house in the village was said to stand on the east side of South Delaware Street, (approximately No. 9 South Delaware.)

The people of Stamford were also thinking in terms of local government. In 1793 the first town meeting was held at the home of Peter Knapp; most of the resolutions passed concerned the establishment of roads, but they also discussed laws controlling livestock. In 1797 evaluations for tax assessments were set; for example - one pound sterling for an acre that produced wheat, six pounds sterling for a sound horse, three pounds for a sound cow.

Now the settlers had the principal elements for their ideal of the good life. They were established and looked forward with pioneer optimism to unlimited growth and prosperity.

The Good American Life

The first quarter-century of homesteading at the Head of the River was rugged, but those who lived through it looked back upon it with nostalgia. Taming a harsh wilderness into subdued, productive, and pleasant landscape was to them the height of accomplishment, and the pioneers watched it develop with great satisfaction and pride.

Though many men also had a trade or specialty (among the settlers were blacksmiths, coopers, saddlers, carpenters and millers), nearly everyone was a farmer at first. The first homes in the village of Stamford were small farms along the turnpike. An example of these village farms is the Floyd Hayner property at 42 Main Street, with its house near the highway, a large barn behind, the acreage which originally went up the slope toward the hilltop.

The first buildings were log cabins and crude barns which gave the livestock only minimal protection from the Catskill winters. Paint was a luxury mostly reserved for public buildings until about 1830. Interiors of the cabins were typical of all frontier American homes: a few pieces of simple,functional furniture, an open hearth for cooking, dishes of wood and pewter, and simple, functional table manners - often each member of the family was handed a spoon and they ate together out of one large dish in the center of the table. Tea and coffee were scarce, and water was usually the drink served with meals; a couple of basins of it would be set on the table, and one drank from the nearest basin.

With so many things having to be done at once, it often was some time before a farmer got his land fenced. Livestock were belled and roamed rather freely. Besides being a nuisance in many ways (everyone fenced his yard and kitchen garden as protection from stock) the animals were in constant danger from predators. By 1820 there was a $25 bounty for wolves and panthers (locally called painters). There were many more sheep than farmers keep now; not being able to run down to Kingston for every new pair of stockings or shirt, the people must produce their own wool and flax, and weave their own cloth.

Almost complete independence from the city merchants was satisfying, but few farmers were able to do without help from their neighbors. Certain activities called for a number of people WORKING together and a "bee" was always an excuse for socializing. Besides the well-known quilting bees and corn-husking bees, there were "stone" bees to lay up walls, house-raisings, log-burning bees and even apple bees, during which a harvest of apples was peeled, sliced and strung for drying. Sheep-dipping bees were hard, cold work, but frequent applications of rum and whiskey prevented the men from taking colds.

When the work which had called the people together was done, the fiddles were brought out and the workers still had the strength to dance most of the night. Moses Pendle was a fiddler much in demand. Bagpipes brought by the Scottish immigrants were also used, but it would be some years before there were pianos.

At first, carriages were non-existent and even wagons were few. Most travel was on foot or by horseback. If one was in no hurry, one could ride in an ox-drawn cart. Wagons had no springs, but one could do like the couple who rode to church sitting on rush-bottom chairs set in their wagon, then used the chairs for their seats in the church.

The opening of the Catskill Turnpike added tremendous color to the lives of the people at the Head of the Delaware. A person with the fare and considerable stamina could be rushed in a stagecoach down to the Hudson River in only about twenty-four hours. The daily stages sweeping into the village were endlessly exciting to small boys, and so were the stage drivers, an elite corps who expected to be called "Mister" by everyone. The stage usually traveled at a bone-jarring clip, especially if a race were possible. Just to the east of Stamford, the stage route through Blenheim joined the Catskill turnpike. From South Gilboa ridge, the stage driver could look down on the turnpike; if he saw the Catskill stage coming up the road, his honor urged him to whip up the horses and try to get to the forks of the road first - while the terrified passengers held on, tooth and claw.

Stamford was so situated as to become a natural stopping place for the night. In the 1790's Lemuel Lamb built a small red tavern where the Delaware Inn now is, the property simply referred to as the Tavern Stand, until Thomas Montgomery bought it and called it the Delaware House in the 1820's. When Philo Baldwin bought it in 1813 the wagon house stood where the street now is, the road then circling the tavern buildings.

Soon after 1800 another tavern was built, where there is now a vacant lot between the Delaware Pharmacy and Davids' Laundromat. From about 1834 to the late '60s it was owned by Selar Stevens. It is said that the term "Devil's Half-Acre" was applied to the tavern area because unscrupulous innkeepers charged outrageous prices. Other versions say it was the result of the behavior of the rough men who traveled the turnpike on business, enjoying the tavern barrooms while stopping for the night.

Some of these were raftsmen returning from riding hemlock rafts down the Delaware to be sold. Many were drovers. Stages could carry mail, passengers, and packages but there was no way to get livestock to market except to herd them down the turnpike to markets on the Hudson. (One shudders, imagining the scene when a down-traveling flock of sheep met an upcoming stage.) Occasionally even flocks of turkeys were herded through Stamford on their way to market, along the narrow road, foot-deep in dust.

Just east of the village stood a toll-gate with its pole barring the way until the proper fare was paid. This toll-gate house may now be seen at the Delaware County Historical Museum near Delhi. Another one stood at the top of Harpersfield hill, until torn down in 1936.

An important function of the stage was to carry the mail. Banking was also often done by stage; a convenient bank being in Catskill, the money was sent through the mail. People generally felt safe in using this method - the mail from Stamford to Catskill was sent in a locked pouch, only the postmasters at each end having keys.

For many years there was no postoffice building. The mail was kept wherever the current postmaster resided, sometimes in a home, a store, or the Delaware House. As the stage swung into the village the driver gave a blast on his horn, a signal for the postmaster to come from his field or business to receive the mail pouch. The first real postoffice building was the one now occupied by Armstrong's Beauty-and-Barber Shop at the corner of Main and Church Streets, first used as such in 1885.

Taking care of the requirements of horses was an industry in itself. A good deal of the Devil's Half-Acre where the taverns were located was occupied by barns and stables; the Delaware House barns stretched along Main Street from the corner of the inn to the present Ben Franklin store. Just off Main Street on what is now Railroad Avenue, stood a series of wagon shops, barns, blacksmith shops, and harness-maker's shops. It has been said that on occasion as many as 100 horses were stabled at once in what is now the business district near the Delaware House. And of course most citizens had one or several horses. Even in the village most homes usually had a stable or barn, many of which still stand today. On the west end of town were more blacksmiths and wagon shops. The Chapman "carriage shop and repository"stood across from the present school.

The stores were also clustered in two groups, one near the Delaware House and the other in Brooklyn, where the Delaware River separates the townships of Stamford and Harpersfleld. Stores were few at first. The 1840 New York State Gazeteer lists for Stamford 1 church, 2 taverns, 2 stores, and 20 houses. But by 1869 the Delaware County Atlas shows about 60 homes, 3 churches, and about 14 stores.

Prominent on the 1869 map are the buildings of the Stamford Seminary, for years a well-known boarding academy. Originally there was a village school, already mentioned. In 1834 the amount of public money apportioned to the school was $20.46. A rule required that each father should provide one cord of firewood for each child entered. In 1840 a school library was assembled and in 1841 a new schoolhouse was built across from the present Methodist Church. The apportioned public funds were $62.29, there were 68 pupils, and 145 books in the library.

But some men felt that the little school could not provide the advanced education they wanted for their children. A Prof. John Murphy, who kept a select (or private) school on the second floor of the building where the Ben Franklin store now stands, urged the citizens to raise the money for a proper academy, which was opened about 1850, approximately on the site of the present postoffice. The school prospered, bringing fame to Stamford, and boarding pupils for some distance. An advertisement for 1870 showed that the fees, including room, board, washing, and tuition, came to about $85. The advertisement promised the parents the best of care for their children, "Stamford being free from the immoral tendencies which could lead a young man to ruin."

In 1866 Stephen E. Churchill bought the Seminary and began buying land around it to enlarge the grounds. He wanted the ground next door on which stood the village school; after some dickering he purchased the land and moved the little schoolhouse to the top of Church St. With the coming of the railroad in 1872, Mr. Churchill took an opportunity to sell the Seminary for a good price. The people of Stamford built a new Seminary up on the newly opened Prospect Street. The position of Principal was offered to Mr. Churchill, but he said, "I've had enough", and he went off to study medicine.

As mentioned before, in 1869 there were three churches in the village. In the early years religious services were held in the schoolhouse. Then in 1832 money was raised by subscription to build a Union church for the joint use of all the denominations (no one denomination to use it more than one-fourth of the time). This church stood on the site of the present Methodist Church. One by one the different denominations were able to build their own houses of worship (the Presbyterians in 1854 and the Baptists in 1863) until only the Methodists were left occupying the Union Church. In 1884 they replaced it with the present building. The Catholics built their edifice in 1870.

The community prospered and grew. Log huts were replaced by frame houses; an example of the type is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Chrisp at 25 Lake St., built in 1820. By 1850 mere solid comfort would not do. The people of Stamford had become prosperous enough and worldly enough to crave quality and elegance as well as comfort. Merchants and professional men erected the fashionable square white mansions which can still be seen throughout the village. Judge Francis R. Gilbert built the two next to the Delaware Inn about 1857. Those and several houses from there to Liberty Street are examples of the classic style of the 1850s.

The general pattern of this life lasted until after the Civil War. The people considered the life good and looked back upon it as the "heyday" of Stamford's history. But changes were coming, which would catapult the village not only into a great spurt of growth, but would also bring them into a new world. The Pioneer-Agriculturist era was ending. Stamford was about to enter the Mechanical Age.

A New War and a New Age

The War Between the States disturbed even this remote corner of the mountains, not with armies rumbling across the cornfields, as in the South, but principally because of the demand for young men to serve in the army. But Stamford was a rural area, and needed nearly every able young man on the farms. Some volunteered, but as the war continued, a draft call was issued. The people of Stamford decided to try to buy off their young men. In December, 1863, the Town voted to pay S350 to each volunteer mustered into the service in place of a draftee, thereby filling the Town's draft quota.

About seventy-five men went from the Township. Of these, seventeen died. Among those killed were Hector and Charles Cowley, whose ancestor, St. Leger Cowley, fought in the Revolution and then returned to Stamford with his old musket.

The veterans returned home to find the air full of railroad talk. This wasn't really new in the area; in 1853 the people of Delaware County had been agog to have a railroad put through; surveys for routes had been made and meetings held, but it had all faded away.

Now the interest had revived. Prominent men held meetings in various country towns, talking routes, financing, and stock companies. Many were in favor of the railroad crossing the county to Delhi. Naturally the Stamford people pressed for it to come through their community, urging that the proposed route through Roxbury, Grand Gorge and Stamford was 3 4/5 miles shorter than the Delhi route and would also be easier to grade. The Stamford route won. By the Spring of 1870, the Irish laborers had graded the road as far as Stamford, and the excited citizens were preparing for a new era of prosperity and new prestige for the village.

Application was made for incorporation of the village in April, 1870, and it was granted in May. The first election of village officers took place at the Delaware House. Isaac H. Maynard was elected president; Richard Van Dyke, assessor; J.C. Van Dyke, treasurer; Wm. Fisher, collector; Charles Griffin and Jacob Van Housen, trustees, long term; John Maynard and Epenetus Churchill, trustees; short term; H.S. Wood, clerk.

The first ordinance laid plans for several new streets, hopefully looking forward to new growth. A fire department was also established. By-laws prohibited blocking sidewalks, damaging shade trees, leaving dead carcasses about, playing ball or coasting on public streets, or allowing livestock to roam free in the streets.

Building flourished. As the newspaper said, "The sound of the hammer may be heard throughout the village". New stores and homes went up. New people came in, looking for good business investments. Simon B. Champion, the editor of the Bloomville Mirror, hurried to erect a new publishing plant in Stamford (now 79 Main St.), and before long changed the name of his paper to the Stamford Mirror.

It was not until 1872 that the first trains were running to Stamford, and for some years that was as far as they ran. Originally the line had been designed to run to Oneonta, but it would be another thirty years before it was completed.

The telegraph line was also completed to Stamford in 1872. Now the outside world was only a step away. News came quickly; passengers, milk, and cattle cnuld be rushed to the city in a few hours. But though the people expected the railroad to add to their prosperity, they hadn't yet realized how greatly the ease of reaching Stamford from New York would make the beautiful setting of the village their biggest selling product.

The Next Hundred Years Quickly Glimpsed

Dr. Stephen Churchill is credited with starting the Big Boarding House Boom. When selling the Stamford Seminary, he retained the Ladies' Boarding Hall for himself and his family. In 1872 he advertised for a few summer guests. Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and a group of thirty clergymen and their wives came for an outing, excellent advertising for Stamford. Churchill's boardinghouse flourished, and in 1883 the first section of Churchill Hall was built.

Everyone wanted to get in on the boarding business. Large summer hotels rose above the trees in every part of the village. Many homes, both within and outside the village, took in "summer boarders". New homes were built - bigger and more Gothic - such as the Chateau. Entertainments became more sophisticated and pretentious. This was the era of charity balls at the Chateau (with lighted fountains and a "melon patch" arranged on the billiard table), musicales, Pink Teas, croquet tournaments, and 8-course dinner menus at the hotels. Going to the top of Mt. Utsayantha was in vogue; in 1882 Col. Rulif Ruliffson built a road to the top of the mountain and erected an observation tower. Later the property came into the hands of Dr. Churchill, who bequeathed it to the village to be maintained as a park.

When the Opera House, which stook back of the old National Bank Building, was built in 1900, a new area of cultural entertainment became available. Lectures, concerts, plays with local talent, minstrel shows, and even light opera were presented on its stage. The Devil's Half-Acre had become the Queen of the Catskills.

The new century brought the automobile and new splendor to the hotels. Some maintained their own orchestras. Others built swimming pools; the Rexmere offered water shows with bathing beauty contests, Jacky Ott the Wonder Boy, and the famous Johnny Weissmuller. Fashion shows, golf, bowling, and movies were new forms of entertainment. Many summer people came from as far away as Latin America, bringing entourages of large families and several maids to stay most of the summer.

In the meantime, the local people tended their stores and farms, enjoying both the prosperity and entertainment brought by the summer visitors, and the fullness of community life after they had returned to the city.

The boardinghouse era lasted for nearly sixty years. The end came with World War II. The depression started the decline, the war crippled it, and cars and motels struck the final blow. One by one the big, deserted hotels were taken down, or turned to other purposes. Stamford began marking time, experimenting, with considerable help from such men as Fred P. Murphy and Avery Robinson, with the possibilities of small factories and the new winter sports industry. It appears that the tourist business, in a different form, may still be a source of prosperity - or it may be that the next great success as a community will come from an unexpected direction, as the boarding-house business did in 1870.

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Suggested Reading :

History of Delaware County, 1797-1880 - W.W. Munsell
Centennial History of Delaware County - David Murray - 1898
Chapters in the History of Delaware County - John D. Monroe - 1949
Stamford Mirror
Stamford Mirror-Recorder
A Memorial History of Stamford - Charles Griffin - ca.1885
The Don MacPherson Papers

All of these may be found in the Stamford Village Library.

prepared for this website by Tamara Sanford - posted here May 24, 2005



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