WHAT CHEER HALL
Founder of Newport, NY
Benjamin Bowen: Founder of Newport, New York
The primary significance of What Cheer Hall is derived from the historical and architectural importance of its role in the establishment of an early 19th century village of central New York state. The building was built for the founder of Newport (originally called Bowen settlement) Benjamin Bowen and his wife, Ruth Watson Bowen. Bowen ( 1760?-1824 ) originally came from Newport, Rhode Island and bought the waterpower and the land for the village from Daniel Campbell of New York City in 1788 and 1789. His financial backers for this acquisition were his brothers, William and Ephraim, of Rhode Island. In 1793 Bowen built a dam and a saw mill on the West Canada Creek and a year later a grist mill was constructed, later a distillery and an oil mill, and finally the Newport Cotton Manufacturing Company.
In 1810 the Bowens had a daughter, Lydia (1810-1902) and the house was completed by 1812. The first town meeting was held in 1807 in Bowen's original house built in 1792, and in 1800 Bowen was appointed County Court judge and remained one for five years. He was elected to the state legislature in 1798. Financial disaster, probably the cost of transporting cotton to the mill, plagued Bowen about 1815 and he moved alone to Tennessee where he aided his son, Benjamin Jr., in the development of a distillery. In 1824 Benjamin Bowen died in Tennessee. Subsequent to the "financial disaster" the house was sold to Ezra Pearce of Baltimore, Maryland although the sale thereof was not recorded. Shortly after Ruth Bowen's death in 1829, daughter Lydia became the second wife of Col. Standish Barry, Ezra Pearce's son-in-law. Standish Barry came into the possession of What Cheer Hall following the death of his oldest son who had inherited the property from his grandfather, Ezra Pearce.
Standish Barry (1797-1866) was a prominent citizen of New York. In 1833 he became the first president of Herkimer County Bank which had just been incorporated. 1846 found Barry elected county clerk and again in 1849. In 1861 Standish Barry became the first Assistant Treasurer of the United States, appointed by Francis Spinner of Herkimer, then Treasurer of the U.S.A. Barry served at this post until his death in l866.
The house passed to Addie Shaw, granddaughter of Standish Barry from his first wife, Matilda Pearce in 1888. Mrs. Shaw sold the house in 1915 to her son, Standish Shaw, but continued to reside there until her death. In 1944 Standish Shaw sold the house to Jackson Fenner, principal of Little Falls Academy, who in turn sold it in 1953. Three other families owned it before it was purchased in 1985 by the James A. Fishers, the current owners and proprietors.
The Architecture of What Cheer Hall
This historic home is the oldest remaining structure that has not been moved or incorporated into a larger structure still standing in the village of Newport. It is surrounded by homes that were built later in the 19th century when New England pioneers moved into the Kuyahoora valley area beginning in 1787. The first shelter built for Benjamin Bowen, builder and owner of What Cheer Hall, was a log cabin built by Christopher Hawkins for B. Bowen by 1807. That cabin was incorporated into the larger house of the Waterman estate. It was in this log cabin that the first town meeting was held in 1807. Benjamin Bowen ( 1760?-1824 ) originally came from Newport, Rhode Island and settled in 1787 in the Town of Fairfield. A year later Bowen purchased the water power and 25+ acres of land for the future village of Newport with his brothers, William, a doctor of Providence, Rhode Island, and Ephraim, a lawyer of Warwick, Rhode Island from David Campbell of New York City. In 1793 Bowen built a dam and a saw mill on the West Canada Creek and a year later a grist mill was built. By 1810 the Newport Cotton Manufacturing Co. had been built by Bowen on the east side of the creek.
The architect of What Cheer Hall is unknown. Its design is Georgian four-square of native limestone; possibly B. Bowen used Mappa Hall (1806) in Barneveld as an example for building What Cheer Hall, although Mappa Hall is much larger in scale and more ornate in decoration of the woodwork. The west side (front) of the house is dressed limestone while the north, east, and south sides of the house are field limestone. The Rhode Island influence is seen in the two Adam style Mantles and the "rising sun" transom windows over the front and rear doors on the ground floor. The name of the house, "What cheer!", was a favorite expression of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, when he showed forth his enthusiasm. The builder is also unknown, but must have been a skilled mason.
Since What Cheer Hall was built in 1812 in the federal Georgian style, there have been few structural changes, principally because the building was constructed of native limestone. In the mid-to-late 1800s, the six-over-six glass pane windows were replaced with four-over-four clear glass window paned windows. When roof repairs were needed, the original slate roof (slates were found in the attic), was replaced by a roof of asphalt shingles. At some time the house went through some "cosmetic" changes to add Victorian elements to it. Louvered shutters were added to the windows. A wider Victorian porch was added to the front of the house. During a fierce storm of 1970 the porch was damaged and replaced by an original federal-style porch. When building this smaller porch, the original footings of the earliest porch were uncovered within inches of the architect's plans for the replacement porch.
During the 19th century there were various outbuildings positioned on the original 25+ acre property to house farm animals, businesses, etc. Of these only one outbuilding remains, a limestone smokehouse now used as a gardening shed which is located on the remaining 1.3 acre parcel.
Adjacent to the northerly boundary and easily visible from What Cheer Hall is the Methodist Church parsonage and the rear wing of the church and its barn built circa 1893. The land for the parsonage was sold to the church February 4, 1893 and the land for the parking lot was sold January 26, 1915 by the owners of What Cheer Hall. It is specified in these deeds that the church "will always erect and maintain a fence along the boundary of said lands".
Also northerly are the rear property lines and tree lines of neighboring homes built circa post Civil War. Southerly along the macadam driveway is the 2 bedroom ranch house built in 1950s on the lot of the Universalist Church built in 1842. The church burned in September 1941 after being unused as a church since 1932.
The house is listed as one of the area's historic homes by Munson Williams Proctor Institute of Utica and was included on a tour of the Society of Architectural Historians in the summer of 1975. Again the house was open for a house tour of the Herkimer County Historical Association in September of 1988.
Early History of the Village of Newport and the Surrounding Area
The village of Newport is located in the Kuyahoora valley of Herkimer County. The West Canada Creek bisects the village nestled southwest of the Adirondack Park and northeast of the city of Utica. Benjamin Bowen began selling lots to Yankee immigrants in the hamlet after he had established his businesses along the creek. The lots were based on surveys done by Elijah Ketchem in 1806 and 1809 ( not available ). Many of the early settlers belonged to the Federal Party and held a majority until 1819. A major problem for these settlers was farm animals roaming at large, hence the establishment of a commons in the center of the village to pen the animals. The surrounding countryside was dotted with small farms. Newport was connected to the outside world by plank roads to the Erie Canal at Mohawk and to the Central Railroad at Herkimer. As the Kuyahoora Valley attracted more Yankees and Irish settlers after the Erie Canal was completed, the village of Newport prospered and grew to 671 persons in 1857 when the village was incorporated (1990 census enumerated 676 persons). The stone bridge which spans the West Canada Creek at the village center was constructed in 1853 at the cost of $4000. The stone arched bridge is the only structure in the village which is on historic registry. After the Civil War other industries were brought into the area including a knit underwear factory, a tannery, a tool factory and the condensary. During the 20th century a shoe factory, telephone company, and the Bordens coffee company were established; today only the Newport Telephone Company remains.
Newport was a cheese center for Herkimer County in the mid-late 1800s. At the Chicago World's Fair, Herkimer county cheese won first prize and a gold medal. Thus Herkimer County cheese became world famous, Newport remains a dairying community, and now serves as a bedroom community to the greater Utica area.
By 1800 central New York was no longer frontier and many residents of Newport had the time, the money, and the opportunity to build fine homes, many of which have been changed little and remain in use today. The village is a microcosm of the architectural trends of the 1800s. A tour of the village can give a first class overview of the styles indigenous to the area.
Beers, F.G. History of Herkimer County. New York: F. W. Beers and Co., 1879.
Benton, Nathaniel. History of Herkimer County. Albany: J. Munsell, 1856.
United States Census, 1820 and 1825 and Records, Herkimer County Clerks Office, Herkimer, NY.
Central New York Abstract Co., Title Search of What Cheer Hall, Herkimer, NY: James A. and Phyllis S. Fisher, June 14, 1985.
Graves, Justice George S., Biography of Newport Pioneer Families, History of the Town of Newport 1806 to 1906: A series of History Articles compiled and written in commemoration of the Centennial of the Town of Newport, NY., Newport, NY: L. B. Tuttle.
Hardin, George A. History of Herkimer County. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason and Co., 1893.
Herkimer County Historical Society, Legacy, Vol. III, No. 2. Mohawk, NY: Herkimer Print Shop, 1988.
Herkimer County Trust Company brochure, Little Falls, NY. 1983.
Kelly, Virginia B. and Merrilyn R. O'Connell, Stephen S. Olney, Johanna R. Reig. Wood and Stone - Landmarks of the Upper Mohawk Region. Utica, NY: Central New York Community Arts Council, 1972.
Newport Bicentennial Committee and residents of Newport, Newport Bicentennial History 1976, Utica, NY: Dodge Graphic Press Inc.
Newport Historical Center, A Glimpse in Passing, Holland Patent, NY: Steffin Publishing, 1991.
This information was abstracted from Phyllis and James Fisher's more detailed essay on the history of their home. More info about What Cheer Hall and its accommodations, and other photographs of this early period home, were on the Fisher's home page in 1997. This site appears to be defunct in 2016.
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