Local News

October 31, 2009

Sampling St. Lawrence County history

Silas Wright museum houses plenty of local heritage

If you go

St. Lawrence County Historical Association at the Silas Wright House, 3 East Main St., Canton, NY 13617. (315) 386-8133.

We're always looking to learn more about the history of our neighboring counties.

A good place for exploring the heritage of St. Lawrence County is Silas Wright House in Canton, where the St. Lawrence County Historical Association operates a newly expanded museum.

Although the French built Fort La Presentation near present-day Ogdensburg as early as 1749, the first permanent European settler didn't arrive until 1791. Initially, St. Lawrence County was part of Clinton County. Distance from the county seat in Plattsburgh — and the absence of any easy travel route — led to the desire for division. Ogdensburg became the St. Lawrence County seat in 1802. The government was later moved to Canton due to fears of Ogdensburg's vulnerability during the War of 1812.


Agriculture was the early mainstay of the area. A flourishing cheese and butter industry began around 1850. At peak, there were almost 100 cheese factories in the county and 67 more devoted to butter. After 1910, milk supplanted cheese as the chief farm product. For much of the next century, St. Lawrence led all other early New York counties in milk production. Other agricultural income came from maple syrup, potatoes, flax and turkeys.

Potash represented one early cash product, but soon lumbering and mining became important. There was a paper mill at Waddington by the 1820s. Eventually there would be ironworks at Brasher, aluminum factories in Massena and Corning Glass in Canton. Museum artifacts include horseshoes from a 2,000-pound Clydesdale horse that pulled a log skidder, a bee swarm box and early wood taps. A mineral display at the Wright House shows off such St. Lawrence County resources as feldspar, zinc, graphite, marble and Potsdam sandstone.

The county also showed a knack for developing colleges, five in all. St. Lawrence University began as a Universalist Church Seminary in 1856 before its transition into a liberal arts college. Canton ATC, New York's first agricultural school, actually began its days on the St. Lawrence campus. SUNY Potsdam grew from roots as an academy established in 1816. Clarkson College (now Clarkson University) was founded in 1896. The Ranger School in Wanakena, part of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, also offers higher education.

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