Civil War veteran was a popular local chef

Several years ago, I wrote about Surrey Herring, a prominent local Afro-American who served in the Civil War but couldn’t prove it to obtain his pension.

With the Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday almost here, it seems appropriate to recall another Afro-American, also a local Civil War veteran, Jeremiah “Jerry” Nutt, born Dec. 16 1843, at Lancaster, Va., who lived first in Glen, then Fultonville, and finally Johnstown. When he died in 1918, he was well known and acclaimed as an excellent banquet chef and restaurateur.

Almost always called “Jerry’ by local newspapers, Jeremiah Nutt enlisted in the 20th New York Colored Volunteers Regiment, Company E, in New York City on Dec. 15, 1863, mustering out Oct. 7, 1865, when the regiment disbanded. When and how he arrived in New York from Virginia is unknown.

The 20th New York mustered Feb. 9, 1864, camping and training on Riker’s Island. It received its colors in an impressive ceremony at Union Square March 19, 1864. Harper’s Weekly reported, “The day was soft and bright. The winds of March refused to blow; at 11 o’clock the regiment arrived and marched down 5th Avenue. Music of drums and bugles mingled with loud huzzas of the great crowd. The soldiers had handled their muskets but five days, but when they obeyed ‘order arms’ there was a solid, simultaneous ring upon the pavement. God bless the colonel, the officers, and the men of the 20th United States Colored Regiment.”

The 20th, according to the New York State Military Museum’s website, “Served in the Department of the East to March 1864; in the District of New Orleans to January 1865 and in the Southern Division of Louisiana until honorably discharged.” Deaths totaled 265, many from disease.

This article, however, mainly concerns Nutt’s postwar upstate New York career. He first appears in the 1870 U.S. Census as a day laborer residing in Glen with wife Alice, 29, and two children, Spencer, 8 months, and Matilda, 2. The Dec. 28, 1876, Canajoharie Radii humorously notes, “Jerry Nutt had a serious fall last week, but Jerry is too tough a nut to break.” The 1880 Census lists the family as residing in Fultonville, with an additional child, Mabel. In New York’s 1890 State Census of Civil War Soldiers, Sailors, and Widows, Nutt is recorded as residing in Johnstown, where he apparently remained. Johnstown’s 1897 Business Directory lists him operating the “Manhattan Restaurant,” 126 West Main Street.

Beyond the restaurant, most references portray Nutt as a highly sought-after caterer of winter banquets and summertime clambakes, and he sometimes spent summers cooking at various Adirondack hotels. The Aug. 3, 1905, Fulton County Republican warned citizens, “Several organizations that have announced clam bakes to be held next month with ‘Jerry’ Nutt as chef will be forced to change plans, as Jerry is engaged to chef at Sturgess’s Hotel at Lake Pleasant for the remainder of the season and has written friends he will be unable to attend to clam bakes here.” Actually, Jerry couldn’t write, but this didn’t hold him back.

Numerous testimonials to Nutt’s culinary abilities appear, starting in the late 1880s. One example is an Aug. 27, 1914, Morning Herald article describing a Knights of Pythias event. “The bake was in charge of Jerry Nutt whose skill along this line has too often been noted to require further comment, and Jeremiah showed that he could always come back with a first class feed.”

In spare hours, Nutt was an avid fisherman who guided prominent people on fishing expeditions. The June 10, 1898, Daily Republican observed, “T.E. Gilmore, prominent Johnstown dry goods merchant, came to Fonda on a fishing trip. Well-known clambake chef Jerry Nutt was his guide and oarsman. Of course, he had a good time.”

Unlike Surrey Herring, Jeremiah Nutt did receive his soldiers pension, granted in 1899, due to having acute asthma. It increased in March 1902, the Amsterdam Recorder reporting, “Jeremiah Nutt of Johnstown received an increase in pension of two dollars a month with back pay for one year.”

My thanks to Montgomery County Historian Kelly Farquhar for pointing out that both Nutt’s first wife, Alice Thompson, from whom he was divorced, and his second wife, Frances Peek, died in 1916. Nutt married Marie Hanson of Schenectady later that year. They resided at 20 W. Main St., Johnstown, at the time of his death.

However, I encountered a puzzle regarding Jerry Nutt’s death. When Fultonville Village Historian Ryan Bartlett kindly sent a photograph of Nutt’s grave marker, located in the town of Mohawk’s Evergreen Cemetery, the marker gave his death date as March 18, 1917, and his age as 74, but something wasn’t right. Nutt was only 73 in 1917, and besides, I had a Morning Herald article dated Aug. 2, 1917 – five months later – reporting Nutt very much alive and cooking for Johnstown’s Boy Scouts at Pine Lake.

This puzzle resolved itself when a later, Dec. 31, 1918, Morning Herald article summarizing Johnstown’s 1918 influenza epidemic deaths, headlined “Grim Reaper Claimed Total of 194 In Johnstown During Year 1918.”

This list proves that Jeremiah “Jerry” Nutt, Afro-American Civil War veteran and our area’s favorite chef, died of influenza, not on March 18, 1917, but on March 17, 1918. Someone accidently transposed the year and day dates when ordering his tombstone. He deserves a new, corrected veterans marker.

Peter Betz, a former Fulton County historian, lives in Fort Johnson.