A Catskill Catalog: September 3, 2008
In the year 2000, the Village of Margaretville marked the 125th anniversary of the incorporation of the village with a celebration at the old Margaretville pavilion. I served as master of ceremonies, the first choice for the job having turned it down. My role was to make some introductory remarks and introduce the various dignitaries who would offer their own comments. We’d then enjoy some food, beverage, and neighborly conversation.
What do you talk about when trying to sum up 125 years of community life? Being a guy who likes to understand the history of things, I did a little research into the history of Margaretville. That’s when I discovered Dr. Orson M. Allaben, one of those people few remember but to whom many are indebted.
Orson Allaben was born on August 5, 1808 in what was then the Town of Delhi, today the Town of Hamden, on a farm in what is now the hamlet of DeLancey. When he was a year old, his father moved to a farm in the Town of Roxbury where little Orson attended the district school. He was a good student, and, evidently, a good farmhand, as well.
When Allaben was 16, he suffered an accident on the farm which made manual labor difficult for him. So, he became a schoolteacher, working for the next several years in one-room schoolhouses. When he was 19, Orson decided he wanted to be a doctor. He went to work in the office of Dr. Cowles in Roxbury. In those days of primitive medicine, an apprenticeship with a physician was an acceptable entry to the study of medicine and surgery. But young Orson wanted more: he wanted to go to medical school.
Medical school required a knowledge of Latin, a subject generally unavailable in the one-room grammar schools of the day. So, Allaben left Roxbury for Delhi where he attended the Delaware Academy until he had mastered enough Latin to qualify for medical school. He was accepted at the Waterville Medical College in Waterville, Maine. Off, he went.
When I started teaching in Margaretville in the early 1970s, I met a number of kids who had never been much out of the mountains. Imagine what it must have been for a kid born in DeLancey, raised in Roxbury, a farm boy for whom study in Delhi was an adventure, to go off to Maine, of all places, to become the doctor he dreamed of being. He arrived in Waterville in November 1827, pursued his studies there for four years, and got his MD in June 1831.
With Dr. Cowles, having the medical franchise in Roxbury, the new Dr. Allaben settled instead in the Town of Middletown, next door. He established his practice, and, in October 1832, married Thankful Dimmick, daughter of Noah Dimmick who owned the sawmill and tavern in what was then called Dean’s Corner’s. It was that tavern that gave Arkville its name. During an autumn flood – a “pumpkin freshet” - the low-lying ground filled with floodwaters, leaving Dimmick’s tavern on the hill the only dry spot. “Look at Noah’s ark, above the waters,” people said, and Arkville was born.
Dr. Allaben quickly became a respected member of his new, albeit very small, community. He was elected Supervisor of the Town of Middletown in 1839 as a Democrat. The following year he was elected to the state assembly. In 1843, Dr. and Mrs. Allaben moved to the place on the East Branch of the Delaware where the Binnekill branches out, the spot that is today the Village of Margaretville. At the time, there were only three buildings there.
In 1846, Allaben built his house, a house on the corner of present-day Main and Walnut Streets where he was to practice medicine for the next 45 years. The following year, he opened a store there, the first store in the new hamlet. In 1848, Dr. Allaben traveled to Washington at his own expense to petition for the establishment of a post office. He served several times as postmaster.
Orson M. Allaben served as Supervisor of the Town of Middletown for seven terms. He was a New York State Senator in 1864-65, established the first school in town, and on July 7, 1863 began publication of The Utilitarian, the first newspaper in town and a precursor of the Catskill Mountain News. In 1871, he procured the necessary legislation for the establishment of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad, just as, in 1840, he had procured the legislation for a turnpike from the Ulster County line to Delhi.
In 1875, Dr. Orson M. Allaben was a leader in the call for the incorporation of the Village of Margaretville, and served as the third president, or mayor, of the village. In 1876, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention that nominated for President New York governor Samuel Tilden.
He helped establish the old Margaretville Fair by purchasing 26 acres of land on what is today called Fair Street. In 1889, the Catskill Mountain Agricultural Society had its first fair in the last week of August, with O.M. Allaben serving as president.
Dr. Orson M. Allaben died in 1892, 61 years after he established his medical practice in the village that he, more than any other individual, helped create: Margaretville. He is buried on the hill in the old Margaretville Cemetery.