April 4, 2010

Take a walk through Willsboro


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As the weather turns warmer and frozen mountain trails begin their transition to mud, we find it a good time to wander some of the small communities in the region.

Every one offers some architecture to savor. With a bit of effort, one can usually find some interesting history. Consider the exercise a pleasant bonus.


When William Gilliland began his development of North Country lands in 1765, he gave his own name to Willsboro. That first settlement marked the farthest point of navigability from Lake Champlain on the Bouquet River. Although Gilliland had 20 buildings in his village within only a few years, none survived the American Revolution.

The "second settlement" of Willsboro dates to 1784. By 1800, the infant village had a recognizable downtown. Further building along today's Main Street during the 1830s and 1840s cemented the nucleus of the town.

Iron forges, then gristmills and pulp mills, denoted the beginning of industrial activity. Agricultural pursuits also flourished. The opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823, then the arrival of the railroad during the 1870s, further facilitated economic growth.

Now Willsboro is a quiet, scenic hamlet within the town of the same name along Route 22 in Essex County. During a walk sponsored by Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), bolstered by the encyclopedic knowledge of local historian Ron Bruno, I learned much more about this historic locale.

For your own early spring wanderings, begin at the new brick Visitor Center on Route 22. It's a replica of the schoolhouse that sat on the site as early as 1852. A historic marker commemorates Gilliland's founding of Willsboro in 1765.

We continued south to the Greek Revival parsonage built for the adjacent Methodist church in the 1830s. Susan Arena, the heritage organization's representative on our walk, pointed out the gable front and fluted entry columns, common features in local construction at the time.

The Gothic Revival-style church next door replaced the original 1840 structure in 1891. Pointed arch windows are a notable feature.

Next we passed the Grange Hall, built in 1911.

Granges were once a staple of rural agricultural communities. This one is composed of cast concrete block, a popular building material of the early 1900s designed to simulate cut stone. Nearby St. Philip's Catholic Church features the same construction. Look behind both buildings toward the river — once a large tannery stood near the water's edge.


To the left of the church sits an example of Craftsman architectural style. This home, dating to 1921, was ordered right from a Sears catalog, our guide said. The customer would, in the comfort of his or her home, have selected a house style, picked out various features, sent in an order, then just waited for all the components to arrive by rail.

Leisurely, we passed by other homes. Behind one there's a barn that served as a schoolhouse in the 1840s. Several houses boast steps cut at local quarries. A white house belonged to Major John Richardson, a veteran of the War of 1812.

A very attractive brick home at the village's southern edge was the residence of noted surgeon Lyman Barton, inventor of obstetrical forceps and a cervical traction device for broken necks. The smaller structure in front was once his office.

Two of Willsboro's most notable structures are located near the bridge over the Boquet River. One, built of stone and boasting an impressive columned entry, served as Champlain National Bank from 1921 until 1972. A marker in front denotes this as the site of Gen. John Burgoyne's encampment in 1777, where "treaty with Indians (was) made and proclamation issued." This now serves as home to the Willsboro Heritage Society's museum.

The handsome brick edifice next door is Paine Memorial Library. Finished in 1930, its design features include the pediment, corner pilasters, dentil work and an elliptical window. Eighty years after its dedication, the library continues to serve the public in our information age.

The former Willsboro High School, built in 1928 for a mere $150,000, awaits possible refurbishment as a senior assisted living center. Another landmark in the distance, beyond the salmon ladder, hopes to become another demonstration of effective recycling. This is the Ross Mill, built in 1845 to replace an earlier one that burned. Though parts of the roof are gone, the stone walls look sturdy. Plans call for turning it into a tearoom and bakery, a project that will be a nice addition to Willsboro.


Now we crossed over the Bouquet River bridge in the center of the village. This marks the fifth bridge since the original covered one was completed in 1790. Each has moved just a bit upstream. Houses across the water include one that once served as a millinery shop. Originally, the road to Peru continued north along the river.

Champlain Fiber Mill, a pulp producer in the 1880s, stood nearby. Multiple owners later ran the facility, among them Vanity Fair and finally Georgia Pacific, which closed the site in 1965. At one time, about 30 homes for mill workers filled the nearby area. As late as 1950, some of these were still rented to employees for $10 a month. Only a 1907 office building now survives from the mill complex.

A drugstore occupied the building just beyond the bridge for more than a century after its completion in 1884. Now it's the Turtle Island Café. Notice some examples of Vernacular architecture across the street — one was built as a wedding present in 1893, while another found use as an early telephone office.

Up the hill, find the United Church of Christ Congregational Church. Constructed of locally quarried limestone in 1834, this is Willsboro's oldest house of worship. Stylistically, the interior resembles early New England meetinghouses. Outside, one's attention is caught by pointed arched windows and the central tower.

A visit to Willsboro in summer offers additional opportunities. The Heritage Society's museum installs a new exhibit each year.

Out on Willsboro Point, there's the Adsit Log Cabin, built by Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Adsit in the 1790s. Family belongings are among the period artifacts on display. It's open to the public during summer weekends.

One can also pay homage to William Gilliland at his grave site in Lakeview Cemetery.

But don't wait for the busy season. Take a stroll now and prepare your muscles for longer treks in June, July and August.

E-mail Richard Frost at: