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Home is where the history is

By Tina Traster

April 26, 2012 -- For seven years on and off, I’ve been doing a genealogy project — but instead of investigating my family’s roots, I’m entangled in another family’s ancestry and the history of my house. When exactly was my circa 1870s home built? Who built it? And who lived in it all those years until my family and five cats moved in?

I began by finding out more about the Garrabrants, an old Dutch family who settled in the Hudson Valley in the late 1700s. I knew that part of the family had ended up living on my road and farming on the mountain, which in the mid-1800s was called Garrabrant Mountain

Snyder Cemetery is five minutes from my house. It’s where I began digging for the Garrabrants, so to speak. It’s a neglected grassy knoll of 146 stone grave sites dating back to 1773. On the Web site for the cemetery, it states that the patriarch, John P. Garrabrant (1832-1920), who is buried alongside his wife, Martha W., grew vegetables and fruits shipped by ferry to New York City’s Fulton Market. The family lived in several homes along my mountain road.

I’ve rooted around on Ancestry.com and perused US census records and digitized newspaper clippings. Brian Jennings, Nyack Library’s historian, helped me find a map from the 1876 Atlas of Rockland County. It shows a series of small black rectangles with corresponding homeowners’ names along my road. “Garrabrant” is right at the bend where my house stands.

I contacted historical societies, but no one knew which Garrabrant lived where. I called every Garrabrant in the Rockland phone book and tried Facebook but got nowhere.

Next, I went to the county administration building to look up deeds. Starting with my own from 2005, I traced the history of the house’s ownership using digitized records back to 1930, and then went even further back, looking through big dusty books I needed help lifting. It appeared — and I say “appeared” because there were certain gaps in the handwritten deed books prior to 1930 — the Garrabrants held the deed.

But that still didn’t tell me when my house was built or which Garrabrants lived here. Then, coincidentally, my local newspaper ran a story about five generations of Garrabrant firefighters in my hamlet.

It began with William A., a charter member and builder of the original firehouse on Lake Road (where the current one stands). William A. was the father of Edward. Edward had a son, Eddie. Eddie, who is deceased, has a son, Keith. Keith is a local cop, and his son, Ryan, is also a firefighter. I called Keith at the police department. He didn’t know anything about his ancestors who predated his grandfather, Edward. But just as we were about to hang up, he told me his sister’s husband, Steve, had done a family tree.

Steve was a fount of genealogical information, though neither he nor his wife had stories about their forebears or their lives on the mountain. But his family tree revealed that patriarch John P. had a brother, William M., and that William M. had a son, William A., the firefighter.

My final stop was the county archives building. By searching town tax rolls from the mid-1800s on microfilm, I found that John P. had been paying taxes on the land as early as 1850. Then — eureka! — I discovered an H&L (house and lot) entry in 1870 with the name William M. Garrabrant. (H&L shows when a house first appeared on the land, or at least when the town started collecting taxes on it.)

One can surmise that John P. either sold or gave his brother the land, and that William M., age 30 at the time, built the first stages of the house I live in. Circling back to census data, I discovered that William M. lived there with his wife, Emily, and their three children.

According to the tax rolls, the house’s value in 1870s was $125, and he paid $1.48 in taxes. William M. did not have a dog, for if he did, it would have been recorded and he would have paid a tax of 50 cents.

The other day, I went to visit Snyder Cemetery. John P. and Martha have a tall granite grave marker, one of only a few grand monuments. The rest are stone, some belonging to Garrabrants. Many are broken, knocked down or have weather-eroded letters.

The Garrabrants are not my ancestors, but they’ve passed something along something precious. I join them in the chain of title that began with Garrabrant Mountain. And I’m happy to know a little more about them.

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