-by Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar, Montgomery County Historian/RMO - Mar, 2008
How many of you remember the cast iron skillets that your grandmother used in her kitchen? No, she used them for cooking not for whacking you on the head when you misbehaved (you probably would have ended up with a concussion), although that may have been a good disciplinary tactic for some. I remember my grandmother had a cast iron griddle that she used to make pancakes. Grandma’s pancakes came out slightly darker than those that Mom made in her electric skillet but there was just something about them that had a great flavor and brings back wonderful childhood memories. I have never been able to make pancakes quite like them for my family, especially on my non-stick electric griddle.
The topic of cast iron cookware arose recently when someone came into the Department of History & Archives in search of a company who manufactured these household items in our area on the south side of the Mohawk River in Fultonville. A couple of skillets were for sale at a local auction and this individual wanted to know more about them and the company that cast them.
Cast iron cookware has been used in kitchens for centuries. Colonial hearths always had a cast iron Dutch oven hanging on a hook over the fire. For many individuals, their cast iron cookware was highly valued and often listed specifically in estate inventories or bequests. As cooking vessels, cast iron can withstand high temperatures and diffuses heat evenly. Over time, they become “seasoned” allowing victuals to be easily removed and can be used for a large variety of foods. Even today, cast iron cookware is highly touted by all of the famous cooking gurus – Rachael Ray and Emeril have their own lines of cast iron pots and skillets.
During the first quarter of the twentieth century, Fultonville was home to a manufactory firm known as Ritch & Pidge that made cast iron cookware among other household items. Ritch & Pidge were also known for their manufacture of the Peerless clothesline pulley sets.
Samuel Whitcomb Pidge, a native of Providence, Rhode Island, came to Upstate New York after the turn of the century to work for General Electric in Schenectady. While there he partnered with Connecticut native Winfield S. Ritch in 1914 to manufacture household items. The partnership conducted business under the name of Ritch & Pidge Manufacturing Company, Inc. and five years after inception, in 1919, moved up the Mohawk River to the Montgomery County village of Fultonville.
At the time of the move, despite the closing of the Erie Canal, Fultonville remained a bustling hub. Both the Pidge and Ritch families took up residence and the manufacturing operations on Broad Street with the Fultonville National Bank on the corner of Broad and Main streets and the lumber company, Glen Mohawk Creamery, and White Mop Wringer just a few hundred feet to the west.
Pidge’s partner, Winfield Scott Ritch, lived with his wife, Johanah (Schumann) and son in “The Cobblestone.” Also known as “Cobblestone Hall,” the area’s unique example of Gothic Revival architecture was constructed in 1840 by the noted historical author, Jeptha R. Simms. With high peaked gables adorned with carved wooden “gingerbread” features, the edifice was built using smooth, rounded cobblestones. Simms used a hole in a board to select stones of the same size.
John H. Starin took ownership of “Cobblestone Hall” in the later nineteenth century, turning the residence into a village library. Under the aegis of the Starin Benevolent Association, he added two large wings that became an Industrial School for educating women with sewing and vocational classes so they could work in his silk mill.
By the 1920s, the former Industrial School was transformed into Ritch & Pidge’s machine shop and the foundry was located behind “Cobblestone Hall”. According to records on the website for the U.S. Patent Office, Ritch & Pidge obtained a patent in 1925, possibly for the Peerless clothesline pulley. No other records indicate how the business fared or even when it dissolved.
Sometime around 1926, Samuel W. Pidge, wife Gertrude, and family left the Fultonville area. They show up in Pheonix, Arizona on the 1930 census. He owned and operated a pattern making business where he lived out the remainder of his life. Pidge died on October 14, 1956 and is buried in Pheonix.
By 1928, the Fultonville directory lists Winfield S. Ritch as the president of Ritch & Pidge Mfg. Co. and Thomas Brookman as the vice-president. Ritch’s wife, Johanah, was the company’s secretary-treasurer.
Members of the Methodist Church, the Ritch family remained in Fultonville until their deaths. They continued living in the Cobblestone, although it is not sure when operations for the foundry and pulley manufacturing ceased. Mr. Ritch, sixty-six years old at the time of his death on August 1, 1945, was employed by Beech-Nut in Canajoharie. His wife, fifteen years his senior, survived him. Funeral services were held at the home on Broad Street.
Winfield Schumann Ritch, the couple’s son, assisted his parents with the family business. Born in Brooklyn in 1906, his obituary appeared in the Amsterdam Evening Recorder on April 1, 1946, just eight short months after his father. The body of the junior Ritch was discovered hanging in the cellar of the “Cobblestone.” The son, described in his obituary as a “foundry worker by trade,” had been stationed in the United States Air Force at Barksdale Field, Louisiana, and received an honorable discharge in September, 1945.
Cast iron cookware seems to have made a comeback, not only for its versatility but possibly also due to health concerns surrounding other types of cookware. We do know that the cast iron skillets mentioned earlier in this article, manufactured by Ritch & Pidge, brought in close to $100 a piece at the auction. Any further information on either of these families or the Ritch & Pidge firm is welcomed.
~ by Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar, Montgomery County Historian/RMO March, 2008