Today I am so excited to finally share the history of Danascara Place with you all! I feel like I have been teasing about its amazing history, but I have so much information from my research that I was unsure how best to share it. I think I settled on a medium approach — I gave you all the juicy stories and important bits while leaving out some of the more dull minutia (I hope!).
When we put our offer on this property on December 1, 2018, I almost immediately began to conduct research with the goal of writing a history of the original owners, house, and property for a draft nomination for the State and National Historic Registries. I will write more about that process in another post. Through a combination of help from our county History and Archives department, interviews with previous owners and neighbors, deed searches, newspaper archives, and old history books, I was able to find out a lot more than I expected about the family who built the house and the home’s evolution. I’ll walk through all the interesting bits below, and I’ll include a list of books where I found some of the information at the end.
Frederick Harman Visscher, whose family emigrated from Holland in 1649 and settled in Albany, NY, purchased the 1000 acres of land where Danascara Place is now located in January 1750. The family built a home on the property soon after the purchase (located just south of the current house).
His son, Frederick Visscher, born in 1741, built his own home south of his father’s home, where he resided with his wife. The younger Visscher was just 34 when the Revolution started, and was one of the first supporters of the cause, creating enmities with nearby neighbors like Col. John Butler and Sir John Johnson. Visscher received a Colonel’s commission to command the Third Regiment of the Tryon County Militia from the Continental Congress. Visscher’s brother’s were also members of the Militia — John, a captain and Harman, adjutant. The Visschers became well known as advocates of the popular cause, being a family of general influence.
There are many stories of Visscher’s time serving as Colonel in the war, some of which were amusing. It sounds like he was a very charismatic man.
Here are three little tales:
At a town meeting before the Revolution began, anti-Revolution speakers asked anyone who would support the Revolution to stand up. Visscher was the only man of 300 present to stand. Many of those present would join his side in the coming months and years.
In 1775, at the beginning of the war, Frederick Visscher had assembled his regiment for training when Sir John Johnson and his wife passed by. There was an argument between the two men, with Sir John arguing that the colonel should disband the regiment, which the colonel refused to do. Sir John threatened to “run him through” with his bayonet, and the Colonel basically dared him to do it. Members of the regiment threatened Sir John that he would meet the same fate if he harmed their Colonel — Sir John left, enraged and humiliated. It is no wonder that the Mohawk Valley raids of 1780, led by Sir John, razed a path through the Visscher property.
Later, Visscher’s militia fought in the Battle of Oriskany, where a piece of his braid was cut off by a musket ball that grazed his neck. After that battle, Visscher was appointed commissioner for disposing of confiscated property and elected a member of the state convention for appreciating currency, restraining extortion, regulating prices and similar duties. That sounds like too many jobs for one gentleman farmer!
As I mentioned above, Visscher’s family was attacked during the Mohawk Valley raids in May 1780. Visscher had sent his own family away days earlier as rumors of a raid had been rampant in the area for weeks. Sir John Johnson’s forces arrived just before dawn on May 21. They plundered Visscher’s own home, which was empty, and then moved on to the house of his father, where they killed his two brothers and struck his mother with the butt of a musket. His two sisters ran away and hid in the woods. Visscher himself was struck with a tomahawk, scalped, and his throat was cut (apparently prevented from killing him by his cravat) — he was left for dead when the enemy plundered the house and set it on fire.
Visscher regained consciousness in time to remove his brother’s body from the burning house. He also assisted his mother, seated on a burning chair, from the house (this chair was owned by the Visscher-DeGraff family for generations before it was gifted to a local museum). A slave named Tom helped Visscher by dragging him further from the house and bringing him water. Colonel Visscher was sent to Schenectady by canoe for medical attention.
He survived and wore a silver plate on his head for special occasions to cover the scar. In June 1782 Visscher dined with George Washington, who requested that Visscher should sit on his right hand side in recognition of his service.
The Colonel built a brick house just above his parents’ original home several years after the Revolution, which came to be known as Danascara Place, the Danascara Mansion, or the Visscher-DeGraff homestead. Danascara, also spelled Danoscara or Dadenoscara, literally means “bearded trees or trees with excrescences or tufts on them.” This is believed to refer to the hemlock and black ash that the nearby creek was originally surrounded by. The house shares the same name as the creek bordering the property. The current house is dated at 1795 based on county records, and was originally built as a one and a half story federal style house.
This drawing of the original house is printed in History of Schoharie County and Border Wars of New York, by Jeptha Root Simms, published in 1845.
Some years after the Revolution, the Mohawk Indian who had cut Visscher’s throat and scalped him came back through the area to see Visscher with his own eyes — he couldn’t believe he had survived. Visscher’s wife saw him coming and distracted her husband so that she could send the Indian away. After everything that had occurred, she wanted to avoid more conflict for her family.
Visscher died in 1809, leaving behind four sons and two daughters. His son, Frederick Herman Visscher, became the owner of the property and the farm. He and his wife died before their daughter, Gazena Catherine Visscher, was two. Once she grew up, she married Judge Jesse D. DeGraff of Schenectady. The DeGraffs moved to the inherited Danascara Place once he retired, and their son, Alfred DeGraff, occupied the mansion after his father’s death in 1868.
Alfred was responsible for taking on the reconstruction and enlargement of the house in the mid to late 1870s. He took the building from a one and a half story federal style house to a two and a half story mansion with an Italianate tower, adding Italianate features throughout.
The Italianate style home, along with the Gothic Revival style home, was popularized through the pattern books of architect Andrew Jackson Downing in the 1840s and 1850s.
The Italian Villa/Italianate style were part of the romantic and picturesque movements, which expressed a desire for more organic, asymmetrical forms that would complement the natural setting. Modeled after medieval farmhouses in the Italian countryside, the Italianate Villa was intended as a design for substantial country estates. The Danascara property was the perfect location for such a house, for a gentleman farmer in the countryside. The prime feature of the Italianate Villa style is the square tower with bracketed cornice, which Danascara displays. The arched windows with elaborate hoods, detailed pediments and roof brackets, and asymmetrical design all add to the Italianate Villa style.
This drawing of the house after its renovation is located in History Of Montgomery and Fulton Counties, in the chapter titled “The DeGraff Family,” written by Washington Frothingham in 1882.
In addition to the exterior reconstruction, DeGraff apparently adorned the interior with valuable pictures, other works of art, and a choice library. Among the relics and heirlooms preserved there was a silver dollar that had been in the family for over 100 years. Mr. DeGraff lived the life of a country gentleman and the management of his estate was his only business.
In the novel In the Valley by Harold Frederic, published in 1890 soon after the home’s reconstruction, the scenery around the Danascara Creek and the house itself are described. The views in the creek were said to be some of the most beautiful in the Mohawk Valley.
Alfred’s son, Howard DeGraff, inherited the house from his father. He installed the tennis court abutting the creek in 1929. Howard sold the property in 1949 following the early death of his son Alfred.
The house was sold to two men named DeWitt Dorn and Dudley Persse. According to the deed associated with the sale, the property then contained 314 acres of farmland and farm buildings. DeWitt Dorn sold the house and 2.5 acres of surrounding land in 1951 to Dudley Persse, keeping the farmland. The property with the house has not changed since that time.
The home was owned by members of the Wallace family from 1954-1974. During the 1950s, the house was split up into rudimentary “apartments.”
A local man named Charles Montano bought the building from the Wallace family in 1974 and undertook a large renovation in the 1980s. He added significant structural supports, tore down a timber-frame addition that had been on the back of the building housing the kitchen, and added a larger, new addition that served as a guest house. The kitchen was relocated inside the brick house.
Montano reconstructed the floor plan as closely as possible to what he could discern of the original floor plan, and kept original molding around the windows, original doors and the staircase. Montano is responsible for saving the house, in my opinion. Without the modern structural support, rewiring, replumbing and other care he put into it, it might not have been still standing today.
These photos show the house before its renovation in 1982 (when it was still unpainted brick), and afterwards in 1990.
You can see the original Dutch brickwork on the bottom half of the house — It looked like a cross pattern. The later 1870s brickwork is visible on the top. With the house painted, those brick patterns are no longer visible.
The original Visscher home, which was built in 1750 and burned in the 1780 Mohawk Valley raids, was located in what is now the front yard. The foundation lines from that structure were still visible at the time he purchased the property. The lawn has been re-graded, so those lines are no longer visible.
The property was sold in 1999 and changed hands a number of times, including two foreclosures, and culminating in the fire that destroyed the addition in 2011. Property such as doorknobs, light fixtures, staircase finial, an ornate gazebo, and the iron fence and gate in the front were either sold off or stolen during these years.
I will leave you with a few older real estate photos of the home after its 1980s renovation, when it was still beautiful and well cared for.
History of Montgomery and Fulton Counties, N.Y., 1878.
The Frontiersmen of New York, Volumes 1 and 2., 1882.
Hudson-Mohawk Genealogical and Family Memoirs, Vol. IV, 1911.
History of Schoharie County and Border Wars of New York by Jeptha Root Simms, 1845.
“Italianate Villa/Italianate Style 1840-1885” from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.