A Warm Reception at Rockwell’s Mills
By Richard Palmer
It was a typical late winter day, that April 1, 1874. It had been bright throughout the day and the sun had turned the roads into deep mud, churning more than usual by the teams of horses and oxen which had been hauling logs to a local sawmill all day.
Along in the late afternoon dark clouds had appeared in the west, foretelling snow, and by late afternoon a sharp wind came up, bringing with it a later winter blizzard that froze the ruts into semi-soft mud, making roads practically impassable.
A dozen miles down on the New Berlin branch of the New York & Oswego Midland Railroad tracks at Rockwell's Mills in the town of Guilford in Chenango County the following incident took place. Thirty-five people fretted as they sat in a coach at Guilford Junction, waiting for the connecting through train to arrive so they could have a clear track. The through train was late and it was getting darker all the time, and snow was coming down in large flakes, filling the roads and piling up alarmingly on the tracks.
“Number 5” Overdue
As the passengers salted they begged the statlonmaster to allow the train proceed. But old Jim Foley refused to listen. Number 5 was overdue and might even be snowed in somewhere on the line. It was too dangerous. There was nothing to do but wait.
It was pitch dark when No. 5 came thundering by with sparks shooting from the stack and firebox of the wood burning locomotive. Snow was piled over the the pilot and smokebox. But id did not stop at the small station and disappeared into the night towards Sidney.
Then the regular train chuffed slowly back out onto the main line. But instead of picking up speed, it only crawled along unable to go more than a few miles an hour. Sometimes it almost stopped, but each time it managed to push any the barricades of snow and crawl painfully along, finally halting at the small station at Rockwell’s Mills, a small community in the Unadilla Valley. There the station agent came out waving his lantern.
The plow was working up ahead, and the train crew and passengers we’re told they would have to lay up there for several hours at that station.The passengers buttoned up their coats and settled back for a long wait in the fast-chilling coach.
In a large mansion-like house near the station, Chester Rockwell, owner of Rockwell’s Mills,a prosperous woolen factory, looked out the window. At his back a bright log fire lighted the room and two long tables were set, replete with silverware. In the kitchen several turkeys, large roasts of beef and lamb, gallons of oysters, huge pies, and pots of steaming coffee awaited the arrival of guests.
Chester Rockwell knew, as he looked out into the blizzard, no one would be foolish enough to venture out into such a night to attend a party at his home. Horses would break their legs in the frozen ruts, and the snow was rapidly piling up on the dark roads.
He had watched the train struggling pitifully up the valley and watched it as it halted at the depot behind his house. He saw the dimly-lighted coach, its windows frosted over. He knew that the cut a few miles north would be filled and no train could get through. Then he got an idea.
Pulling on his boots and heavy overcoat, Rockwell made his way to the depot. The passengers were still huddled in the single coach. Babies were crying and patience was wearing short. Going aboard he told the shivering passengers he had expected guests that night but no one was going to brave the storm to come to a party. So instead he invited the cold and hungry passengers, along with the train crew, to be his guests. It was a happy and cheery crowd which, a few moments later, waded through the fast-falling snow to the big house with the lights shining a welcome on the snow.
It is said that never in the history of Rockwell’s Mills and its large mansion had there been such a party. Maids brought in the turkeys, the steaming dishes of scalloped oysters, the pines and other food which filled both tables. Forgotten was the snow, the impatience and delay.
The guests, many of whom turned out to be “down-the-track” neighbors of the Rockwell’s, had a grand old time in lively conversation and singing.
It was long after midnight when the station agent came up and announced that the plow had cleared the track. By that time the skies had cleared and scattered clouds raced by a large “winter moon.” Continued singing and many “thank-yous” were made as the guests waded back to the station and on to the chilly coach.
Chester Rockwell watched the laughing guests as they approached the tiny station and climbed aboard the coach. Such is the way things once were in the early days of railroading. *
*The hamlet Rockwell’s Mills was the name of a post-office and station on the New York & Oswego Midland and later the New York, Ontario & Western Railroad. This branch was sold to the Unadilla Valley Railroad in 1941. The hamlet is about a mile north of Mt. Upton. The name comes from the mills of Chester W. Rockwell which were located there. The settlements of Rockwell’s Mills and Latham Corners were less than a half mile apart so it was treated as one community.
The hamlet was also called "Union" until 1895 when Urastus Rockwell bought the large mill. Howard Rockwell was the first postmaster in 1874 when the railroad came through.
The mill was burned in 1870 and rebuilt under the name of C.W.Rockwell & Co. The woolen mill was made partly of stone and partly of wood. Part of it remains today as "The Old Mill Restaurant.”