By Peter Rae
With its many fine restaurants and shops and its overall charm, Rhinebeck is primary target for weekend day-trippers from all over the New York Metropolitan area. One of its busiest shops is Oblong Books and Music, an independent bookstore that never seems to lack for customers. Occasionally some of the more curious customers are prompted to ask, “What kind of a name is ‘Oblong’”?
What they learn is that the Rhinebeck facility is the second and newer of two Oblong bookstores. The first and older is in Millerton, in the Dutchess County Town of North East. Once a major commercial center where no less than five different railroads intersected, Millerton’s last remaining railroad, the Harlem Division of the Metro North Railroad, has long since been converted into part of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail.
Nevertheless, in 2007, Millerton was named “One of the Ten Coolest Small Towns in America” by Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine. The town features several fine antiques and specialty stores, some interesting restaurants, a good independent movie theater, and of course the original Oblong Books and Music. But again, why Oblong? The answer is because Millerton is located within a geographic area of New York State known as the “Oblong.”
The Oblong is a strip of land approximately 50 miles long and about 1.8 miles wide extending from the northern border of the Connecticut Panhandle (that area of Connecticut that juts into New York along the Long Island Sound and contains the towns of Greenwich and New Canaan, among others) north along the New York-Connecticut border to Massachusetts. It was created as part of the process the provinces, and later states, of New York and Connecticut went through to agree on a common border – a process that took nearly 250 years!
How the Oblong Came to Be
Soon after Hendrick Hudson sailed up the Hudson River in 1609, the Dutch granted a charter establishing the colony of Dutch New Netherlands and claiming the Connecticut River as its eastern border. However, after England took New Netherlands from the Dutch for the first time in 1664, the English King Charles II created a Connecticut colony that extended westward not only to the Hudson River, but all the way to the Pacific Ocean, as was the very generous custom of the day. Clearly, here was fuel for the fire of controversy. After 1674, when the Dutch, who had retaken what was now New York City, were ousted for the final time, the two colonies got down to business.
In an early attempt at settlement, Connecticut proposed a north-south border ten miles east of the Hudson River. This proved unacceptable to New York, especially because it would have required several large land patents in New York to be split between the two colonies.
So in 1684, the two colonies agreed on a line twenty miles east of the Hudson. But it was not that simple. The Long Island Sound towns of Greenwich and Stamford, which were west of the proposed line, had been settled by English colonists and wished to remain part of Connecticut. To allow for this, the colonies agreed to extend Connecticut’s jurisdiction west far enough to include these towns, thus creating the Connecticut “Panhandle”. The Panhandle was approximately 61,440 acres in size, and in compensation for it, the colonies also agreed to slice off an equivalent strip of land from inside Connecticut's western border and add it to New York. To equal 61,440 acres, the strip would be about 50 miles long and 1.8 miles wide. Known officially as the “Equivalent Lands”, this strip of land, because of its shape, soon became known as the “Oblong”.
Unfortunately, the dispute continued. The Hudson River, after all, does not flow in a straight north-south direction but tends to wander a bit. Further, the mapping technologies of the day were somewhat less exacting than those of today. So, nearly fifty years later, in 1731, after the completion of a new survey, the two sides reached a new agreement. Some adjustments were made, the land resurveyed, and the border was generally accepted. Well, almost accepted, as we shall see.
The Oblong in Westchester and Putnam
There were interesting results up and down the new Oblong. At the southern end, a group of citizens from Norwalk had in 1708 been granted a patent for land north of Norwalk that was named Ridgefield. But as part of the 1731 agreement, the western portion of Ridgefield became part of New York State. That land, now part of Westchester County, includes today’s villages of Pound Ridge, South Salem and North Salem, plus part of the community of Peach Lake.
Pretty much all of the land now comprising Putnam County belonged to Frederick Philipse, an early patent holder, but the additional land to the east of it was not added to it. Instead, it was sold in smaller parcels to farmers and subsequently became part of the communities of Southeast, Patterson, and Putnam Lake.
The Oblong and Pawling
The same thing happened north of Patterson, in what is now the southern Dutchess County Town of Pawling. One of the smaller Oblong parcels distributed was to a group of Quakers. In 1740 they formed the Oblong Friends Meeting House, which proved to be such a magnet for other Quakers that a larger version was built in 1764. Three years later the Oblong Friends were among the first colonists to discuss an opposition to slavery, and in 1775 announced they would not accept financial contributions or receive services from any Friends holding slaves.
Also in 1775, they announced they would not support either side in the Revolutionary War that was just beginning, and throughout the course of the war they remained neutral. (They did, however, provide medical support to wounded colonial soldiers hospitalized nearby).
The Oblong Friends Meeting House remains standing today. It’s located about two miles east of the village of Pawling, in an area known as Quaker Hill. This past September the Historical Society of Quaker Hill & Pawling hosted a 250th birthday celebration for the meeting house.
Along Route 22 about two miles north of Pawling, the Appalachian Trail crosses that highway as it winds its way from Georgia to Maine. The signage announcing the crossing is easy to miss, so look for the Native Landscapes Garden Center on the west side of Route 22 and you’ll find the “A.T.” Take the trail west from that point and it crosses a marshy area called the Great Swamp by means of a long, low wooden bridge. Then it winds its way up a high ridge and continues on, ultimately to Georgia. The entire area is filled with natural wonders preserved by many support groups, including the Oblong Land Conservancy and the Oblong Trail Association.
Amenia and the Oblong Valley
Further north on Route 22 are the Town and Village of Amenia. Here is the Oblong Valley, an area of rolling farmland approximately six miles long that is especially beautiful when seen from the various side roads winding through it. Among the valley’s farms are the Oblong Valley Stables and the Oblong Ridge Farm.
Northeast of Amenia is a hamlet called Hitchcock Corners. Originally part of Sharon, Connecticut, this crossroads was literally bisected as a result of the 1731 agreement. But even after that, disputes arose on account of the perceived inaccuracy of the survey on which the 1731 agreement was based. In 1855, the two states agreed to resurvey the entire borderline. This took more than two decades, but in 1880, a new agreement was announced that included some adjustments. One of them redrew the border through Hitchcock Corners so that the entire hamlet was now in New York State. That’s where you’ll find it today.
From Hitchcock Corners it’s a short ride north to Millerton, where Oblong Books is open for business. And if you’re with friends visiting either Millerton or Rhinebeck, you can now surprise them with an answer to their question: “What kind of a name is ‘Oblong?’”