Press-Republican

September 7, 2011

Historic artifact from Valcour Island now on display

Discovered artifact finds home at Historical Association

JEFF MEYERS
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — Lynn Washbourne Williams was a young woman when she and her family owned property on Valcour Island.

Back then — in the mid 1960s — the Williams family had three cabins they used as summer retreats. They were three of many cottages that dotted the shoreline from one end of Valcour to the other during an era before New York state took full ownership of the historic island.

unusual DISCOVERY

It was on one of Lynn's daily excursions in 1965 that she discovered a tiny iron mug somewhere near the northern tip of the island that she thought held a significant connection to Valcour's past.

That artifact, a little more than 3 inches high, remained in the family over the next 4½ decades.

But one recent Saturday morning at the Farmers and Crafters Market in Plattsburgh, Lynn and her brother, Bob Washbourne, handed it over to Pat Parker of Parker Sugar House, who's an active member of the Clinton County Historical Association.

"When they gave it to me, I told them I didn't have a right to take it," Parker said of the surprise she felt from seeing the tiny mug. "But I did say I could hand it over to the museum."

BALUSTER RESTORED

Further research identified the item as a baluster measure, which was used in taverns to measure alcoholic beverages from the cask. Soldiers and sailors often used the device for measuring rum while taking a break out on the field or water.

Lynn's father, John Washbourne, had sent the artifact out to be restored a few years after she discovered it.

"(So) we're not sure what it looked like when it was found," said Helen Nerska, president of the Historical Association.

"It's made of pewter but not a high-class pewter," she added, noting that the material was lead based.

TRACING ITS PAST

The Washbournes also gave the association copies of some letters between their father and the company that restored the artifact.

John Starvish from the Early American Pewter Co. of Hampton Falls, N.H., estimated the mug dated back to between 1720 and 1820 and felt it was a Scottish ball baluster measure, since the bar connecting the lid to the mug did not rise in a wedge shape, the way English balusters did.

"This tells us that this may be from early military activity," Nerska said. "We don't know how early it was made, but it was probably the later 1700s."

The Battle of Valcour, fought on the channel between the island and the New York shoreline, took place on Oct. 11, 1776, when American Commander Benedict Arnold outwitted a much larger British fleet and escaped south following the day-long battle.

DISPLAY UPDATE

The baluster is now on display at the Clinton County Museum.

Docents working at the Valcour Island Lighthouse are busy upgrading the interpretive displays in the lighthouse, and information on the artifact will also be included there.

"We want to tell the story of the island with our lighthouse display," Nerska said. "Some of the information we have there is starting to become a little weathered, so we want to upgrade that and make it more professional. We also want to add more information."

She hopes other former residents of Valcour Island who might have artifacts from the island might donate those items, to protect them and to allow everyone to enjoy the rich history that is Valcour.

Email Jeff Meyers at: jmeyers@pressrepublican.com