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Hidden Heroes - Phoebe Brockway - Pioneer Era

In the 1880's, several residents of Union Springs were making national news. Champion rower Charles Courtney was flying across lake waters winning championships in his scull. Will Hoagland (check out his previous Hidden Heroes article) was outwalking other "pedestrians" at an unprecedented pace. Henry Carr was skating to headlines proclaiming him to be a world champion. Phoebe Brockway was also making news around the country as having been the "greatest natural curiosity of the times." Phoebe, who lived in Hamburg just a mile south of Union springs, lived to age 112, giving her the distinction of being the oldest resident of New York State and the country. The news of her death even warranted an extensive write up in the New York Times and countless other papers across the country.

Born in Saratoga County in 1772, Phoebe Collier Brockway came to this area with her parents when it was considered a western wild, inhabited mostly by Native Americans. Her husband, Gideon, died young, leaving her to live a life of hardship and privation. Endowed with a strong constitution, she lived to see her descendants of the fifth generation. During the Civil War, she lived with a daughter, Abigail Menzie, whose husband had enlisted and later died in Libby Prison. Their lot became a humble one, living in a small home in Hamburg. Upon her death, a correspondent for the St. Louis Globe wrote of his past meeting with Phoebe penning the following:

"The centenarian inhabited a portion of a small hut a stone's throw from the pale blue waters of Cayuga Lake, on the outskirts of the village, and when your correspondent visited her last, he found her seated in a dingy little armchair which looked almost as time worn as it occupant, her form bent toward the bright fire gleaming on the hearth, her lips tightly clasped about the stem of a clay pipe, from which she was slowly drawing whiff after whiff of tobacco smoke. She had been an inveterate smoker for more than half a century and ridicules the idea that tobacco was injurious to the healthy. Her face was very much wrinkled and her eyesight was almost gone. She became aware of the visitor's presence by means of hearing rather than by sight. Her hand shook incessantly when not occupied with her pipe. Her memory was fast failing her.

Mrs. Brockway had enjoyed remarkable good health up to half a dozen years ago. Even as late as three years ago she continued her habit of walking to the village for her supplies, and many a time in her extreme age she astonished the younger generations by carrying a sack of flour from the mill."

As recorded by the Union Springs Advertiser, she died "full of years.". Phoebe Brockway had four children, one of which died in infancy while the rest survived her. Lettie Whipple, Abigail Menzie and William Brockway. Her descendants occupied several homes in the Hamburg area, one of which today is the home of her Knapp descendants.


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