Marion Van Ness

December 19, 1988

Village of Chatham, NY


Marcella Beigel

Marcella Beigel


Marian’s Mother died when she was four years old and her younger brother was two years old. Her father’s side of the family were the Gilliards and her mother’s side the Van Burens. The Van Burens took in “the sparrows”, (Marion and her brother) although this angered her father. As a result, he rarely participated or contributed in raising his children. Her mother had five children but died either in childbirth or from an abortion. When Marion was older and worked for Mrs. Park, she began to learn more about her mother.  

Her father, Mr. Gillard was from South Carolina and worked on the Railroad for 42 years. His extended family, the Gilliards, lived on River Street in Chatham. Marion only saw them in church. Grandma Gilliard was brown skinned (like Marion) but her Great Grandfather Miller was white and lived up Rock City Road in Chatham.  Grandma Gilliard’s parents were The Millers in Chatham Center.

Marion’s maternal relatives were her Grandmother Sarah and Grandpa Jim Van Buren. Grandma Van Buren had been a Demray who had lived along Railroad Avenue in Chatham. Grandpa worked in Buckleyville as a farmer. The family was brought up on the farm with five children. Jim’s brother Henry also had five children. The brothers served in the Army during the Civil War and were buried in the Rural Cemetery in Chatham. All of her relatives are buried there. Marion said when her time comes, she will be buried in the North Chatham Cemetery, where her husband Rob is also laid to rest. 

Her grandfather received a small pension for his service in the Civil War. Afterward he returned to Chatham. He worked for the Whites as their gardener and maintained their boiler in winter. He brought their washing home to his wife to launder.

After her grandmother died, Rosa Brainard took Marion when she was eight years old to wash dishes, etc. Marion went to school, had good food, had clothes made, and they tried to teach her the piano or the organ. They had a daughter Ethel who was like a sister to Marion. Marion took care of them when they became old and ill. 

One summer day Marion went to the Columbia County “Chatham” Fair along with Mrs. Rosa Brainard. There she was introduced to Mrs. Park, a friend of Mrs. Brainard.  The two women arranged for Marion to come work for Mrs. Park, who lived across the Hudson River. At eleven years old Marion would go back and forth from the Parks to the Brainards until October. When it started to get cold they all decided, Marion included, that she would live with Mrs. Park.  With the Parks she had the best Christmas, getting lots of gifts. Gifts were clothes that she needed and books. Marion had a lovely room and ate in the dining room with the family.

Mrs. Park did all the cooking until she thought it was time to teach Marion to cook in preparation for marriage. The biggest meal was at twelve o’clock and six pm for supper. On Saturdays Mrs. Park made a cake with butter, eggs, sugar, and flour in a bowl. Marion had to whip it. Every month she learned something new. She was not expected to clean, but run errands for Mrs. Park. She was given a bag, money and a list and sent to the street at 9:30 AM.  She purchased thread and bindings, went to the post office for mail, stopped at Hesse’s Corner for meat, and then went back home.  Following the noon meal, she would wash the dishes and sometimes the windows. 

The Park’s had running water and a bathroom. Mrs. Park taught Marion to make old-fashioned soap. Both wearing big hats with a veil, and long gloves in case of lye spatters, they stirred the slurry until it got like coal. It was divided up, with some portions getting rose glycerin added for bath soap. It was left overnight and the next day cut up. The crumbles went into a bucket with water. This slurry was put into a shaker next to the sink for washing dishes. Every Monday was washing day and Emma Kittle came in to work as a laundry lady. 

When milk was delivered they’d skim the cream for coffee. They would leave a bit to mix into the milk to give to the children. They had chickens for eggs and every third morning they had a boiled egg for breakfast. Otherwise they had oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, Wheatena and a mix of Cream of wheat with Wheatena. 

Dr. Park was a dentist doing most of his work in New York City. He would leave by train on Sunday nights and come home on Friday nights. He was only in Chatham on weekends. There were five children in the family, including Marion. They ate good hearty food with plenty of soup and good meat. Marion was given twenty-five cents a week when she went to school and fifty cents for holidays. Mrs. Park took good care of Marion when she was sick. She made sure that Marion had shoes, and when the dressmaker came for Mrs. Park, she had some clothes made for Marion too. Marion called her Mother Park, because she was so good to her.

Marion’s husband Rob was a farmer who grew corn, buckwheat, oat, timothy hay and alfalfa. Later on they had cows, pigs, some chickens, and a garden that produced enough for canning.  They lived together on the farm in Chatham Center for 53 years. Marion made sausage, sauerkraut, head cheese, and canned tomatoes, corn, and fruit. They had work horses on the farm and Marion learned to drive a horse and wagon. Billy Coon had a livery Stable and allowed them to hitch their horse and wagon there. They had lamps and a wood fire and an outhouse, but no running water.

Rob would sew while Marion would read to him. They had lamps, wood fire, no running water, an outhouse. Rob never left the farm. He worked for the Bollans for 11 years.  After marriage he never came to Chatham town and never went to social functions; instead he went to the Methodist Church. Rob eventually had a Model-T Ford but Marion never learned to drive a car.

They moved to Spangler Road in Chatham and her old house is still standing. Their new house had electric, running water, and bathroom storm windows. 

They had two boys, Robbie and Jim, 14 and half years apart in age. She was married in 1919 and Rob was born March 17, 1919. Harold Groves and Mr. Goold helped get Jim into the Boy Scouts. Jim went to Mary E. Smith nursery School in Chatham and graduated from there. Jim died at 21 after graduating from Ithaca College. He was hired to teach at Ockawamick School but died before he got there. Robbie worked for NYS for over 35 years. 

There was a big flood that took all the bridges in the area in 1945. They brought all their stuff to the 2nd floor because of the flood. Marion belongs to Payne AME church, which is 139 yrs old. She remembers when the brick foundation broke away and was then repaired.

Interviewer Bio:

Marcella Beigel

Marcella Mary Kane Schneider Beigel (Marcella Beigel) was the RSVP Director and originator of the BLACC Oral History Project. She moved to the Columbia County area at the age of 60 and was involved in many civic projects in Columbia County. She believed in the importance of the area’s black history and enlisted seniors to cull old newspapers as well as interview local residents in order to gather information on this history. She also was instrumental in creating a curriculum guide for local schools of the history that gathered in this collection.

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