For several years before Watson was incorporated as its own town in 1821, Isaac Puffer and his family were its only inhabitants. Puffer tried farming, built a sawmill near Chase’s Lake and was accidentally shot by a friend in 1837.
The town of Watson was named after James T. Watson, who owned over 60,000 acres in Lewis and Herkimer counties. He was a wealthy merchant serving New York State in several important offices and dying in 1808. His only son, who spent summers in Watson, committed suicide with a razor in 1839 at age 50. The town of Watson was formed from Leyden in 1821. When the town was first organized there were 44 families. The first town supervisor was Caleb Lyon, and the first town meeting was held at the home of John Beach. At this time, Watson embraced all of Lewis County east of the Black River.
The only capital execution by hanging in Lewis County was Larry McCarthy of Watson for the axe slaying of his father-in-law. He was hung in 1839 in the court room at Martinsburg, which was then the county seat. In the same year, another Watson highlight occurred when James Rainey’s home was invaded by a panther and his year-old baby was snatched by it and panther and baby went through a window. Miraculously, the child was not seriously injured.
Access to Watson from Lowville is over Beaches Bridge. The first bridge built there was by Thomas Puffer in 1828. In 1851, the bridge was rebuilt, being named after Nelson Beach, a land surveyor and canal commissioner and appraiser. The state assumed the responsibility of building a new bridge in 1964 and then again in 2004.
At least six Watson schoolhouses still exist. The Pine Grove schoolhouse is now Lowville Academy property. The Lowville Masonic Fellowcraft Club still uses the schoolhouse at Passengers Pond for social activities. Three others are now private property on the Chase’s Lake Road, the Pine Grove Road and the corner of the Number Four Road and the Petrie Road. The little red brick building on the corner of the Number Four Road and the Snell Road was also a school.
There has never been a great deal of industry in Watson except for lumbering and sawmilling. The sandy soil is generally not good for farming, but potatoes were grown when the Black River Canal was operating and large amounts of potatoes were shipped to city markets by boat. There were several cheese factories in Watson in the latter part of the 19th century. Limburger cheese was still being made in the 1930s at a cheese factory at Petrie’s Corners. Between 1870 and 1960, there were a number of sawmills as well as a hemlock extract plant near Chase’s Lake and an excelsior mill at Petrie’s Corners. Sand and gravel operations continue to exist.
Because of its many streams and acres of woodland, Watson lent itself to resort development. The Fenton House at Number Four was built in 1826 and accommodated people who stayed all summer to relax, hunt and fish. It burned in 1965. A Boys Camp at Beaver Lake was started in 1946. On the same spot is now a popular Mennonite Christian camp. Chase’s Lake from the 1920s to the present has been a popular resort.
The water in some lakes and ponds in Watson has been known for its medicinal qualities. It is reported that a man with serious eye trouble spent time at Crystal Lake and the condition of his eye improved greatly. Also water was exported from Hitchings Pond to places all over the country. Along with fishing and hunting, snowmobiling and horseback riding are recreational attractions in Watson.
Some interesting churches have been built in Watson. A Seventh Day Baptist Church was established in 1841, burned in 1891, was rebuilt and then torn down around 1915. The “Plains” Methodist Episcopal Church was active for many years, only to become the Hope Mennonite Church. In 1895, the Union Church was built in Pine Grove. It has been used by Methodist and Mennonites and it is now in the hands of the Pine Grove Community Church Preservation Society, created in 2001 to preserve this very unique structure. Weddings and special services are being held there now. There were also Methodist churches in Sperryville and Petrie’s Corners, the latter being sold to the town of Watson in 2003.
Wherever people live, you find cemeteries, and there are at least eight of them in Watson – the Beaches Bridge cemetery, the Petrie’s Corners cemetery, the Campville (or Wetmore) cemetery, the Seventh Day Baptist cemetery, the Pine Grove (or Dunbar) cemetery, the Shaw (or Loson Rd. Extension) cemetery, the Number Four burial plot, and the Sperryville cemetery.
The population in of Watson in 1830 was 909, but by 1840 it was 1707; in 1880, it was 1470; and in 1930, it was 528, and it remained with low population numbers for years. It did not get back above a thousand until the 1970s; in 2000, it was 1,986; and today, it is about 1850.