Major center of trade during the Revolutionary War
Seventeenth-century Dutch fur traders were the first Europeans to settle in Rensselaer County. Most of Rensselaer County was then under the patroonship of the Van Rensselaer family, for which the County was named. Due to its strategic location at juncture of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, the area continued to develop as a major center of trade, playing an important role during the Revolutionary War. During that war, Rensselaer County saw action in the Battle of Bennington, which was fought in the county hamlet of Walloomsac.
Rensselaer County was incorporated in 1791. During the War of 1812, Samuel “Uncle Sam” Wilson ran a meat packing business in Troy that provided beef for the American forces. The U.S. that was stamped on the barrels became known as “Uncle Sam’s” and before too long, “Uncle Sam” became a symbol of the United States. Mr. Wilson is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy.
Due to its ample water power, natural resources, and proximity to shipping, Rensselaer County and the City of Troy became one of the country’s major industrial centers, particularly in the iron, steel and clothing industries, a position they held for nearly a century. Meanwhile, the fertile fields and lush pastures of the local farming community kept the workers in Troy, Albany and New York City fed. Ice from Castleton and other parts of Rensselaer County kept produce cool in the days before refrigeration. Into the early twentieth century, industry played an important part of Rensselaer County’s history. The Arrow Collar was created in Troy. Reapers made by the Walter A. Wood Corp. from Hoosick Falls harvested many of the wheat fields in the mid-West and in Europe.
Education played a crucial role as well in Rensselaer County. Many public schools could be found throughout Rensselaer County. In 1821, Emma Willard first opened the Troy Female Seminary, which some time later was named after her. Stephen Van Rensselaer founded Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1824. By the middle of the nineteenth century several private schools had cropped up throughout Rensselaer County.
During the Civil War, Rensselaer County provided the means to win the war through the efforts of Burden Iron Works in South Troy. That factory provided such fundamental elements of war as horseshoes and such specialty metal work as the iron plates for the Monitor. Much of clothing also came from the textile mills that that dotted the countryside. Hundreds of soldiers from Rensselaer County, including the famous General Wool, fought in the Civil War. The county thrived industrially through the early 20th century but suffered along with the rest of the Northeast when industry began moving elsewhere.
Now the county is re-emerging as a center for the “high-tech” industrial revolution. Most of the large factories are gone or have been redeveloped into office buildings. Manufacturing is on a smaller scale than in the past. High tech products such as software, plastics, copper foil, laminates, testing equipment are now manufactured along with traditional industries such as publishing, foundries and lumber mills. The Rensselaer Technology Park and the University at Albany East Campus provide research facilities for bio-tech and computer companies. Insurance, telecommunications, government, education, health care and banking now are major employers in Rensselaer County. Agriculture has extended beyond the dairy industry to include a variety of field crops, livestock and nurseries.
Rensselaer County has two cities, fourteen towns and six villages. A majority of the population lives in or near the two cities in the western portion of the county. Although it may be considered by some to be a bedroom community for Albany, approximately half its residents work within its borders. A resurgence of interest in the Hudson River has poised the county as well as the city of Troy to re-emerge as a cultural, educational, and technological center in the 21st century.