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Biographical Review: Greene, Schoharie and Schenectady Counties, New York
Hiram Rifenbark

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[This information is from pp. 253-255 of Biographical Review Volume XXXIII: Containing Life Sketches of Leading Citizens of Greene, Schoharie and Schenectady Counties, New York (Boston: Biographical Review Publishing Company, 1899). It is in the collection of the Grems-Doolittle Library of the Schenectady County Historical Society at 920 BIO.]

Portrait of Hiram Rifenbark

Portrait: Hiram Rifenbark

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Hiram Rifenbark, a representative citizen of the town of Summit, residing in the village of Charlotteville, was born in Summit on April 30, 1839 his parents being Aaron and Mary (Banks) Rifenbark.

The family is of German origin, and Mr. Rifenbark's great-grandfather spelled his name Rifenbarck. The grandfather, Henry Rifenbark, came from Columbia County in 1802 or near that date, and settled about two miles east of Summit village. There he owned a whiskey still, a store, and an inn or tavern. He was a man of influence and of considerable property, and his tavern was often the gathering-place of important assemblies. Town meetings were sometimes held there. His brother Peter was a clergyman of the Dutch Reformed church. Henry Rifenbark's wife was a daughter of Caleb Clark, who was captured by the British and Indians during the Revolution, and carried to Canada. There Mr. Clark was kept at Fort Niagara under guard, but was sent out every day with other captives under a guard of Indians to chop wood in the forest. The Indians, believing that it was impossible for them to escape, often left them alone during the day, returning for them at night. Mr. Clark and his fellow-prisoners, however, with sturdy pioneer determination, resolved to make an effort to regain their freedom. Accordingly, one morning after their captors had left them, they started on snow-shoes for the Mohawk River, carrying the food that had been measured out to them for their mid-day meal. For many days this was all the food they had. At length, at the end of a week, he and his companions came to a deserted and tumbledown hut in the Mohawk Valley, where they found some mice. These they were forced to eat to keep themselves from starving. They finally reached home in safety, but Mr. Clark always felt exceedingly bitter toward the British. Henry Rifenbark and his wife had seven children, three sons — Harry C., Aaron, and Ebenezer — and four daughters — Julia Ann, Hattie, Harriet, and Caroline. All of the boys became farmers.

Aaron Rifenbark, who was born in Summit in 1804, and died in 1883, was a leading citizen here and a prominent man in the Democratic party. He was twice married, the first time to Mary Banks and the second time to her sister Catharine. The first wife died in 1848 and the second in 1895. The six children — William H., John, who is deceased, Hiram, Ebenezer, Permelia, and Hettie — were the fruit of the first marriage. The first-named of these, who resides in Hobart, Ind., is a leading Republican there, and in 1897 and 1899 was a member of the Indiana legislature. He is prominent in business circles and as a Grand Army man. In the year 1898 he was engaged in building county roads. In 1893 he exhibited at the World's Fair steel neck yokes and whiffletrees manufactured by the company of which he was president. Ebenezer Rifenbark resides at Summit. He fought for the Union in the Civil War, and was wounded at Gettysburg. Permelia is the wife of Winthrop D. Gallup. Hattie married P. P. Gordon, M. D., of Hobart, Ind., and died in 1892.

Hiram Rifenbark received his education in the public schools of Summit and at Charlotteville Seminary. At the age of seventeen he engaged to work on a farm seven months for sixty-five dollars. Mr. H. Masters, his employer, who was away from home much of the time, told him one day to sow a piece of land to buckwheat, putting in two bushels of seed. This was new work to Rifenbark. He began sowing broadcast, and soon found that he had put half the seed on a quarter of the land. He then sowed the remainder of the seed more sparingly, making it cover the other three-fourths of the land. He watched the growth with interest, but before harvest time the cows got into the field and ate up the grain, thick and thin. He lost not a day in that seven months. In the winter he attended school, and the next seven months he worked for a farmer in Fulton, his only holiday being the Fourth of July, which he insisted on keeping. The next winter he taught school four months at ten dollars a month. April 1 of his nineteenth year found him engaged to a farmer in Summit seven months at eleven dollars a month. This summer there was not a day of lost time, the man for whom he worked giving him the Fourth of July. The following winter he again taught in the same district where he taught the first term, but with an increase of two dollars a month in his wages. He continued to teach school winters after this until he was married and settled on the farm, teaching one term in the winter, while on the farm, at two dollars a day. When twenty years old he worked seven months at Richmondville, driving team for the iron foundry at twelve dollars a month. The next spring he began working at carpentry, continuing for three summers under a boss, and after that time he took jobs for himself till he purchased his father's farm of ninety-six acres in 1868. Four years later he sold the farm, and bought the property, including the store now belonging to Levi J. Lincoln in Charlotteville, N. Y. After conducting a general merchandise business there for ten years, he sold the property, and, buying a vacant lot, built the residence he now occupies and the store across the street, where he conducted business for twelve years. He then sold the goods to Kingsley & Griffin, to whom he rented the store. Since that time he has been selling agricultural implements and fertilizers, and looking after business for himself and others. Mr. Rifenbark is a strong Democrat. He has shown a warm interest in political matters ever since he became a voter. He has been on the Town Committee a number of times, on the School Board several terms, in 1865 Town Clerk, and much of the time since 1870 Notary Public. He has also served two terms as a Justice of the Peace, and has done a large amount of business settling estates and drawing contracts. He has served as executor of a number of the wills filed in this town, as he is known to have an excellent knowledge of technical law points. From 1888 to 1890, inclusive, he was Supervisor of Summit. His record as Supervisor is marked primarily by a strong effort to secure an honest and economical expenditure of the public funds. Fearless and daring in his personal expression and effort when he believed himself laboring in a worthy cause, he met with some opposition, but in the main won a loyal recognition from his constituents. He broke up abuses in the county relating to the housing and feeding of vagrants, secured action by the governing board that caused the removal of all luxuries from the county prison, and worked hard for a reduction of expenses in every way. He served on the Committee on Sheriffs' Accounts, on public and other buildings, and on the Committee on Legislation.

Mr. Rifenbark married Amelia Burnett, daughter of Colonel George O. Burnett, who was prominent in the militia. Mrs. Rifenbark attended Charlotteville Seminary, and subsequently taught school for ten terms before her marriage. She is active in church work, and when the Good Templars and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union were in existence here was one of their earnest supporters. Mr. Rifenbark was also connected with the Good Templars, being Chief Templar. He has been clerk of the Baptist church at Summit, a member of the ministerial committee, trustee, and for years superintendent of the Sunday-school. He is the teacher of the Bible class. He is strictly temperate in all things. His early life taught him the value of money, and he then acquired the habits of industry and economy which are still characteristic of him. He is a liberal contributor to every good cause, but never upholds extravagance or waste.

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