February 6, 2011

Finding history close to home


---- — A day away need not be a long excursion.

In fact, on this particular weekend, we only drove across town to the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base. One of the wonderful outgrowths of base redevelopment has been the museum campus there that also includes the Battle of Plattsburgh Museum and Lake Champlain Transportation Museum.

This time we sampled what the Clinton County Historical Association has to offer.

Six galleries comprise the museum. Not surprisingly, the first concentrates on the strategic waterway that determined so much of our area's early history.

Panels tell the story of Samuel de Champlain and his discovery of the lake that came to bear his name. No portraits of him exist, so any renditions reflect the artists' imaginations as much as anything else. A picture of him with sword and suit of armor may project more of a military bearing than he would have wanted. Biographer David Hackett Fisher describes him as an explorer and colonizer who sought peace and a good relationship with native peoples.

Wars did follow in the Champlain Valley. These stories are told through artifacts and an impressive diorama. The latter, created by the legendary Arto Monaco for the Bicentennial Celebration of 1976, served as my first introduction to local history upon moving here some three decades ago. Unfortunately, it no longer functions as a sound-and-light show about the Battles of Valcour and Plattsburgh. Still, it's a tribute to Monaco's craftsmanship.

The finest artifacts on display relate to the War of 1812. Elaborately designed presentation swords given to Major Gen. Benjamin Mooers and Gen. Alexander Macomb are among the real treasures of Clinton County history. There's also one of 17 rifles presented to the teenage Aiken's Volunteers who served during the Battle of Plattsburgh.


I referred to the next area as the Music Room, but Director Carol Blakeslee-Collin suggests a better name — "iPods of Yesteryear." Along with the Estey Reed Organ and a rosewood-veneered melodeon — both commonly found in 19th-century homes — there's a home-made dulcimer with strings stretched across pine boards.

Two music boxes brought melodies into the home via ingenious — and intricate — slotted discs. Victrolas and radios displaced these as entertainment sources, though I suspect their tones were purer than that of early scratchy records.

I've always wished this museum did more to showcase products made or manufactured in Clinton County. On this particular visit, I was disappointed not to find a Plattsburgh-made Baird clock on the wall. A tall wooden Indian served as a reminder that the city once had a vibrant cigar manufacturing history.

However, the next room featured an excellent installation on Redford glass. This firm thrived along the Saranac River from 1821 until 1851. The company specialized in window glass; examples of those bulls-eye panes are here. So are some decorative bowls and pitchers, and a large cloche. Experts credit local sandstone for the alluring light-blue tinge that makes Redford so distinct.

One upstairs room highlights the Civil War. The 150th anniversary of the beginning of that conflict will be a continuing theme at the museum during the next year. Enlistment papers, camp stools and uniforms are among items in the glass cases. Information details the various regiments that included soldiers from our region.

A sampling of the museum's more than 1,000 textiles is also here. There are women's fans, a couple of antique gowns and the actual jet beads depicted in a portrait of early resident Eliza Platt. My favorite selection is the Friendship Quilt. It can be traced back to Methodist camp meetings along the Little Ausable River in Peru during the summers of 1851 and 1852. Amidst its colorful pieces are signatures of some 105 women who participated in its creation.


Another second-story gallery centers on "People and Places." Portraits of Clinton County pioneers are featured. There's a painting of Pliny Moore, first settler in Champlain, and another of Nathaniel Platt, who with his two brothers and nine other men founded the town named after his family. The picture of Peter Sailly was drawn from life via use of a physiognotrace machine that copied his facial features.

I'm partial to the history of travel, so I spent extra time looking at an exhibit dedicated to Hotel Champlain. This elegant resort, built in 1890, attracted the rich and famous to our area. When it burned in 1910, its owners, the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, quickly rebuilt. That second hotel, not only fireproof but sturdy enough to stand more than a century, is now home for Clinton Community College.

Photographs give a sense of the luxury offered to the wealthy patrons of the place. Dishes are emblazoned with the hotel's crest. A bottle of spring water came from the hotel's own bottling plant.

I finished in the basement gallery, now featuring an exhibit on the Cold War. Interspersed among facts on communist incursions into Central and Eastern Europe, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the development of a Civil Defense system, are details on how international politics affected us right here at home.

Establishment of Plattsburgh Air Force Base with its Strategic Air Command dates to this time period. So does the building of a dozen Atlas missile silos within 50 miles of Plattsburgh.

Pilot helmets and jumpsuits are displayed, as are canned rations appropriate for fallout shelters, and a hand-cranked transceiver. And there's a telephone book. Because of its military significance, our area was felt to be at heightened risk for a nuclear attack. How many people knew that among the phone book's pages was a detailed evacuation map for the vicinity?

All through the museum are other small treasures: an alcove with antique medical equipment, a case of shoemaking tools, maps, vintage postcards (check out the private park along the Saranac River owned by business and political leader Smith Weed during the late 1800s).

I'm a firm believer in the need to understand our history if we're to be good citizens. History helps ground us in the well-being of our community.

Observation of Cold War information reminds me that history is an ever continuing pageant. What we experience at one time in our lives will be seen as history not that many years later. Time at a local historical museum, perhaps in the company of someone a generation or two older or younger, will certainly bring home that point.

The Clinton County Historical Association is at 98 Ohio Avenue, Plattsburgh. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and by appointment. Handicapped access is available to all three floors. Admission is free to members and otherwise $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and $2 for ages 12 and younger. Organized school and other youth groups are free (call at least two weeks ahead). 561-0340 or go to: clinton

E-mail Richard Frost at: