Chateaugay Days

by Margaret Looby

Margaret Looby - 1939

Margaret Looby - 1939

Around the turn of the 20th century, David and Helen Dwyer raised a family on a farm in Chateaugay, New York. This page presents some recollections of that family by Margaret Looby. Most of these stories happened before Margaret was born in 1922, so she must have heard them from her mother and grandmother.

David and Helen were Margaret's grandparents on her mother's side. Her mother was Nellie Dwyer and her father was Bernard Looby. Nellie was James Dwyer’s sister, so Margaret was the cousin of Jim's children Bill, Bob and Betty Dwyer. Margaret lived in the Chateaugay area for most of her life until she moved to Florida in 1992.

Margaret’s grandmother Helen was also called Ellen, Nellie and Nell; her maiden name was Sheehan. Helen’s mother (Margaret’s great-grandmother) was Julia Breen and her father was Jeremiah Sheehan.

Margaret's grandfather, David Dwyer, was the son of John Dwyer and Johanna Dee. Margaret refers to her great-grandmother Johanna as "Julia" and "Judy." 

Margaret's recollections have been transcribed from her letter, rearranged chronologically, and supplemented with some explanatory information in brackets.


[Julia Breen was born in Ireland in 1823.]


Our great-grandmother was Julia Breen. She was not on the passenger list of the ship’s cargo by reason of illegally boarding. There were so many children on the ship that [the] captain never counted. They brought their own food and supplies aboard to last for 3 months. Her older sister [had] recently married and [her] husband must have sold all their belongings for [the] price of a ticket.

Julia Breen’s father had died and her mother remarried. Julia was only 9 years old and didn’t like the stepfather and cried and begged her sister and future brother-in-law to take her with them. As I understand the story, they rolled her in blankets and into a barrel marked “Flour.” The story is they were married in Ireland and in another story they were married in Montreal when the ship landed.

Julia Breen Sheehan

Julia Breen Sheehan

Back: Jack Dwyer and his mother Helen; Front: baby David (Jack's son) and Helen's mother Julia

Back: Jack Dwyer and his mother Helen; Front: baby David (Jack's son) and Helen's mother Julia

[The] ship was rotten and started to leak so feather ticks were stuffed into the holes as feathers absorb water. They barely made it here. You could look up marriage records in Catholic Church in Montreal. [Julia's] sister’s name was Anne and [the husband was] John McCarty. She stayed with them as they headed for [the] USA until she married an older man (Sheehan) at a very young age.

When Julia Breen married [Jeremiah] Sheehan … they had a tiny amount of money. [They] looked for cheap land to build a log cabin. Up in Ellenburg land was selling for $1.00 per acre. Great-grandfather Sheehan bought forest area a few miles from Chateaugay Lake, slowly clearing the land – felling trees by axe one by one, burning them to get potash from the ashes and building a cabin with neighbors who were all doing same thing. When it came spring all the men started walking through the wilderness with bags of potash on their backs – slashing and blazing trees and trying to avoid getting lost in swamps and rocky terrain – to Fort Covington, a very small town 40 miles away [on] a river that was trading post. Much hard bargaining was done for flour, tea, and needles and thread – and not much else. [The potash] was loaded on small boats that traveled to Montreal, by the French traders. Everything [purchased] was carried on their backs on the way home. All those men must have been gone nearly a week.

Potatoes were planted around the base of the trees[, a practice] [that] had been brought from Ireland, [plus*] seeds were traded amongst themselves. Indians showed them how to tap maple trees, boil the sap into syrup so had sugar supplies for the long winter months. Log cabins were built with [the] kitchen and bedroom downstairs and a loft for the children as they arrived on the scene. Pioneers quickly learned what plants were of medicinal quality when anyone got sick. Log cabins were very warm, some had dirt floors while others began to have wooden floors as someone started a sawmill on Chateaugay Lake in later years. Federal troops built a road from Plattsburg to Malone over 40 miles named Military Turnpike. Oxen were bought gradually – castrated steers yoked together to haul rocks and make stone walls and build roads. Stone boats were made from huge logs to carry boulders long distances as it was not possible to do otherwise. In the summer, berries were picked and dried and as times improved were canned in jars.


The Sheehans decided to build a two story frame house a short ways from the log cabin. It had a big stove in [the] kitchen.

[The Sheehan’s first child, Mary, was born in 1845, followed by James, Alice, Jeremiah and Matthew. Their sixth child, Helen, was born June 8, 1858.]

[Helen] attended school in [a] one room schoolhouse for about 4 or 5 years. She always wrote us in later years and she never used a period. We all adored her letters at 90 years of age. We would start to read them and have to back up and start all over again. Grandma [Helen] told me in disgust that she would go to a dance and ride home in [a] horse and cutter (sleigh) in winter time and by [the] time she got [her] outer clothes off her inner clothes were frozen to her so she slid under all the bed blankets to thaw out and go to sleep.

Alice Sheehan Rovelle

Alice Sheehan Rovelle

James Sheehan

James Sheehan


One of Grandma Dwyer’s brothers [James Sheehan] went to a school meeting and was stabbed and died a few weeks later in agony from peritonitis in [the] abdomen where he was wounded. Leaving a wife and two small children. School meetings were very dangerous places years ago. Usually over hiring a teacher.

[Margaret's recollection about the school meeting seems to have been faulty as newspapers report that the stabbing took place at a logging bee; however, the reason for the stabbing may have involved a school building. Read more ....]


[John Dwyer was born in Ireland around 1800. Johanna Dee was born in August 1814. They were married around February 11, 1833. They had nine children before emigrating to the United States in 1850. Their last child, David Dee Dwyer, was born on August 25, 1854.]

The other great-grandmother was Julia Dee. She had titian hair and was a beauty with an unhappy disposition. She had at least 6 boys and two girls. There is a Scottish river named Dee. All the boys went west except David Dee Dwyer and his older brother.

Helen Dwyer - 1914

Helen Dwyer - 1914



David went to Leadville, Colorado and saved [$1,000*] which in those days was MONEY. He came home and looked for a wife – went to a dance and asked Jim Sheehan who the girl in the pink dress was? That’s my sister said Uncle Jim Sheehan. He took her out for buggy rides a couple of times. Says he, “Well, I want a wife and you can say yes or no right now!” They were married in January! [January 9, 1883]. She told mother they moved in with her family and fought over whether District #7 where she resided or District #5 where he lived was best. To save the marriage she agreed with everything he said.

He bought a small farm and raised potatoes. He and Grandma worked hard even with young children and paid off [the] mortgage in a few years. He assumed a mortgage on [a] large farm (around $11,000) and borrowed $1,000 from his mother. Grandpa Dave made one mistake when he borrowed money ($1,000) from his mother as down payment on larger farm. She reminded him every day of his life what she did for him even though he rapidly paid her off.

Grandpa Dave had 2 sisters – Kate and Bridget, who was called Aunt Bid. Katherine went west and worked and sent a postcard saying she was going to Australia. [I] never heard another word so felt the ship sank or she became ill and died. Aunt Bid married a man named Leonard and lived in Vermont.


[Julia Breen Sheehan] had 11 children and nearly died at every baby’s birth due to bone formation. [This bone formation] was handed down to Grandma Dwyer and my own mother. Our beloved Grandma Dwyer had 6 children – [she] almost died on the 1st one and [the] last one had to be beheaded to save Grandma’s life. It was a boy. Grandma had a beloved sister Annie, who married and died in childbirth. Alice Fahey (Ada) had [the] same problem and lost her baby girl, Helen, and was in bed for 2 weeks afterwards, while Grandma nursed her back to health at 19 years of age. This sounds rather morbid but felt you wanted history! Alice Sheehan Rovelle had no problem giving birth to 5 girls and one boy – one girl baby died. Two of her daughters lived to be over 90 years of age.


[Nellie was born in 1883, Jack in 1885, James in 1887, Alice in 1890, and Katherine in 1894.]


Every farmer had milk cows to supplement their income and in the spring an inspector came to test the big containers of butter stored in the cellar. Her mother-in-law [Johanna Dee] would go downstairs and tell Grandma the butter tubs were stinking. Finally the man came and with an auger bored down and brought it up and tested it. He tasted it and said it was best butter and would fetch a good price! Grandma had so many rosaries and prayers to thank the Lord she was busy for weeks afterwards.

The Irish people were regarded as white trash by older Yankee settlers. Across the road were a man and wife and little girl and the man’s brother. Grandpa Dwyer was gone one day and the brother came and offered [Grandma] $5.00 to sleep with him. She took a tea kettle of boiling water and he went flying out the door. Never did she tell Grandpa about that episode. He would have beaten him up.

David Dwyer's Family - about 1911

David Dwyer's Family - about 1911

Back: Kate, Jim, Helen Sheehan Dwyer
Front: Nellie, Jack, Alice

David and Francis Dwyer - about 1920

David and Francis Dwyer - about 1920

Sons of Jack Dwyer and Nellie Toohill


Jack and Jim were cute boys and were anxious to cross the roads. Grandma forbid them to do so and had excuses to the [ladies*] who wanted them to visit. They [snuck downstairs at*] times and Grandma went after them. She seldom laid a hand on them but they learned. Another time Uncle Jack decided he was being abused as he wasn’t allowed to do something – about 6 years old – [he] went upstairs and packed his satchel (tiny suitcase) and [went] down the stairs and walked down the tracks of [the] railroad. Poor Grandma ran to get Dave at the barn and they crouched behind bushes. Grandma cried into her apron until her husband said, “Nell, both mail train and milk train have passed by and he is not in danger. I promise you if he walks a mile I will hitch up a horse and go get him!” After about ½ mile he [the boy] began to look back but no one was coming for him. Finally he turned around and slowly came back. Grandma was getting supper and Grandpa Dave was at table reading the paper. He told his father he was going to stay for supper and his father agreed it would be a good idea as it was getting darker. The father felt the boy needed a little lesson while Grandma wanted to run down the rail tracks after him. Isn’t it strange that a stern man would adore his wife and family? He did say he never understood his oldest daughter as she sat quietly and listened to his advice and smiled and then went ahead and did what she felt was [the] right thing to do!

Jack and Jim went up in the storeroom (on Route [11*]) to play one day and had a disaster occur. [They] hid behind storm windows [and] in [a] scuffle tipped every one of them over, breaking all of them. Grandpa decided one day in October that, since [the] weather was calm, he would take several men from the barn and field and have them put on the windows that day. He was a very busy man and [so] Grandma would have help to wash the windows on the large farm house. [He] [came] down from [the] storage room and said, “Why in hell didn’t they tell me,” in the mildest of voices. [He] had to pick up glass, remove all the putty from about 30 windows, measure each pane of glass, and chip out [the] rest of [the] glass, hitch up horses and go get panes of glass from the store. Since his boys were the ones who did it he simmered down. Anyone else would have been fired on the spot! He could become very irritated at little small upsets but [was] calm in calamities.

I believe I told you that my mother [Nellie] was around 10 years old when Kate was born [in 1894] and she cried and sobbed for days over Aunt Kate stealing her birthday in October [the 13th]. About 3 weeks later they took Kate in to be baptized at the church. [The] priest asked what [was] the date of the child’s birth. Grandma was stunned when Grandpa said 12th of October. Says he afterwards, “Ellen, I will not stand for Nell crying her eyes out over [her October] 13th birth date.” It was up to Grandma to explain and not to ever tell anyone! Years later Aunt Kate came up to help me out when mother was so ill. She comes out in [the] kitchen one day and tells me Nellie’s mind is slipping and I asked her why she thought so. “She tells me we were born on the same day 11 years apart.” I choked with laughter and said it was true! It was a family secret! “I can’t believe it – My sister did that to me! All my diplomas and marriage certificate have [the] wrong date of birth.” Every few days Aunt Kate would say to me – “I can’t believe it.” [The parish records still say that Kate was born on October 12th.]

Kate and Nellie Dwyer - 1914

Kate and Nellie Dwyer - 1914

Dwyer Family - about 1915

Dwyer Family - about 1915

Jack, Nellie, Jim, Mother (Helen), Kate, Alice (standing)

When he [Grandpa Dave] was on [a] smaller farm which was located near “Half Way Store” – and now known as “Half Way House” because it was located an even distance between Chateaugay and Chateaugay Lake – the children were allowed to walk from their home in the field to get groceries and charge them but for candy one had to have a penny. Every year the grocer sent Mr. Dwyer a full length bill – [and] while Grandpa and Grandma compared notes, Mother [Nellie] just about died of embarrassment as every so often a hair ribbon was read out loud! She knew her parents were working very hard to pay for the small farm. Harvesting potatoes, milking cows, making ends meet. No one said a word to her but at eleven years old she was taught a lesson she never forgot!

When summer came all [the] girls and boys went to “catechism” to St. Patrick’s Church in Chateaugay. It must have been 5 or 6 miles of walking along dusty roads and across fields. Everyone walked barefoot as shoes were very expensive. Shoes were tied around their necks by shoelaces. As soon as they arrived at Boardman’s Brook above Chateaugay everyone washed their feet and hands and put on socks and shoes. Very neat children arrived at St. Patrick’s Church. [The] priest read [the] list of names to be accounted at the lessons. Heaven help the child who played hooky. It was understood that boys were needed to harvest crops and girls got sick or had to help mama. Afterwards [the] priest would notify parents that some unfortunate child was not present for religious instruction. A very much wiser child showed up regularly from then until school started! When the children got out of catechism they walked to Boardman’s Brook, removed [their] shoes and socks and found their way home again.

Alice Dwyer - 1913

Alice Dwyer - 1913

Kate Dwyer - about 1913

Kate Dwyer - about 1913


Another time bees were kept in hives in [an] orchard on the big farm. Grandma decided she wanted some honey from the hives. She was given instructions about taking [a] big hat and putting [a] veil over it and knotting it in place. She had watched Dave do it. [She had to] cover [her] hands with thick gloves and [a] long sleeved jacket. Evidently, Jack and Jim happened to be walking in [a] meadow near the orchard – a couple of teenagers – who Grandma never saw. She was running at a good speed, stripping off [her] petticoat, corset, and underwear and [was] naked by time she arrived at the house with bees following her. Years afterwards they did tell her about it. They debated about picking up the discarded items but wisely decided to let Grandpa do it. It would have required a lengthy explanation to their father about where they [had] found them.

Alice (Ada) had a temper and boys would tease her and she would pound up the stairs and clean all the bedrooms. Grandma asked Jim and Jack why they did that and they said she [Grandma] wouldn’t have to clean upstairs for a week! She [Alice] rolled the beds around and cleaned under them making lots of noise.

Kate was called Pointer as she was so slender and was introduced to her brothers’ friends in that way – [as] a teenager. Grandma and Alice and Nellie were trying to soothe her hurt feelings every so often.


[Around 1900]

[Johanna Dee and her son] … Dave were barely on speaking terms at the table. One day Grandma Dwyer was baking bread and Judy Dee told her she didn’t want her grandchildren playing with French trash down the road. She was up in [her] late 80s and had [a] bedroom downstairs and had broken her hip, which didn’t heal correctly. Grandma was taking baked bread out of the tins and threw one of the loaves at her. It missed her as it banged against the door. Finally Grandpa Dave wrote to his sister in Vermont and she said she would be glad to take her [mother]. They drove to Vermont – a long, slow journey to a nice farmhouse. Bid informed Dave that he didn’t understand his mother! [Also,] she told Grandma that her mother was good person. In 2 months he got a letter asking him to come and get his mother. Her marriage was on [the] point of collapse if she didn’t leave! He asked Aunt Alice Sheehan Rovelle to room and board her so she agreed. She [Alice Rovelle] was Grandma’s sister.

[According to the 1900 Census, Johanna was living with Mary Sheehan (Helen’s other sister), and her husband Michael Spellman, on a farm at 37 East Main Street in Chateaugay.]

Dave and [Helen] went to visit her quite often, not pleasant but duty comes first and Alice Rovelle was paid for it. Grandma helped nurse Judy Dee with Alice Rovelle during her last illness. She finally died there after a few years.

Grandma Ellen (Nellie) Dwyer had such a sweet personality [yet] people in town blamed her for most of it. She never told anyone that Dave and his mother were barely on speaking terms. To her dying day Grandma could not forgive herself for throwing a loaf of bread at her mother-in-law in utter exasperation.

Nellie Dwyer and Bernard Looby - 1918

Nellie Dwyer and Bernard Looby - 1918



[In March, David fell ill. The newspaper report of March 25th said: “David D. Dwyer, our well-known townsman and member of the town board, is seriously ill, and grave fears are expressed for his recovery.” His son Jack returned home on March 24 from Colorado, and his daughter Nellie returned on the 19th from Brooklyn. David died on March 31st. He was buried on April 2nd in St. Patrick’s cemetery. The newspaper reported that “David D. Dwyer, one of the best-known and most respected citizens of Chateaugay, died at his home in that town last week. His death is mourned by a large circle of friends and acquaintances.”]

He died at 56 years of age of “Brights Disease,” nowadays nephritis. [The] doctor told him it was not an inherited illness.

Margaret Looby - 1940

Margaret Looby - 1940

I do feel I have given you quite a bit of family information.


                                                                    Margaret Looby

Margaret Looby died in Deland, FL, on December 20, 2002. She reportedly attended daily mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Deland and served as a volunteer tutor to disadvantaged youth. She was “an avid writer of detailed letters; ... one who showed deep concern for the problems of others; ... good company and possessed of a ready sense of humor, a person with a near perfect memory for people and events long ago; ... and ... one who loved the North Country and the people of Churubusco and Chateaugay."**


* Unclear in original.

** Plattsburgh Press-Republican, Jan. 29, 2003.

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