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.

Tourism generated income for people and businesses hosting visitors seeking recreational opportunities in the Adirondacks and along the St. Lawrence River. Once upon a time, mineral springs at Massena drew a clientele, too.

One local favorite son was J. Henry Rushton, once among the nation's premier boat builders. Panels at the museum tell his life story, beginning with his birth in 1843 — "no bigger'n a pint of cider." Even at age 21, he barely topped 5 feet in height, while tipping the scales at 98 pounds.

He made a small canoe for himself while working in a shoe store. When someone offered to buy it, the unexpected purchase led Rushton to devote himself full time to the craft. For some of the boats, his wife sewed sails. By 1877, he had printed his first sales catalog.

The timing was auspicious. "Adirondack Murray's Adventures in the Wilderness" had recently been published, leading many sportsmen to head for the Adirondacks. In addition, the impact of the Industrial Revolution was ushering in a new growth of leisure time. In 1880, the American Canoeing Association was formed, popularizing boating further.

Writer George Washington Sears, known to his readers as "Nessmuk," planned a paddling trip through the Adirondacks. He came to Rushton seeking the lightest possible canoe for the journey. The result was the Sairy Gamp, 9 feet long and weighing a mere 10½ pounds. Sears's articles about his trip for the magazine Forest and Stream could not have been better publicity for Rushton.

The national craze for canoeing faded, when Americans became enamored of a newer fad, the bicycle. And Rushton never made much money from the enterprise, anyhow. His careful woodworking was simply too painstaking. But knowledgeable sportsmen continued to seek out him out for his canoes and rowboats until his death in 1906.

Photos, tools, a rowboat, a poster advertising the Rushton installation at Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition and a replica of the famed Nessmuk canoe are all on display.

Upstairs are tidbits of information on other St. Lawrence natives. One, Milton Freeman, served as chief engineer for construction of New York City's Holland Tunnel. Frederic Remington, the noted painter of the American West, grew up in Canton. There's a selection of his prints of sporting scenes to peruse.

Three rooms of period furnishings give a taste of mid-19th-century life. Among locally made goods are a cast-iron stove manufactured at the Brasher Iron Works and a piano made by the Badlam Piano Works in Ogdensburg.

The butternut-and-mahogany desk in the study brought our focus around to Silas Wright, former governor of New York, who owned this house from 1834 until his death in 1847. Little remembered today, Wright was once among America's best-known politicians.

Born in Amherst, Mass., he spent most of his formative years in Weybridge, Vt., where a monument to the man was dedicated in 1850. After graduating from Middlebury College, he studied law in Sandy Hill, N.Y. (now Hudson Falls). In 1819, he moved to Canton and became the village's first attorney.

Within a few years, he had become involved in politics. Elected as a state senator in 1823, he went on to serve in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington, D.C. In 1844, he defeated future President Millard Fillmore for the governorship of New York.

A humble man by reputation, Wright evinced no desire to gain power outside his home state. He turned down offers of the Supreme Court and the vice presidency. His name was even raised as a presidential candidate in 1844. Many speculated that, had he not died prematurely in 1847, he might have been the nominee in 1848.

We saw his walking cane, complete with deer-antler handle and a brass tip. There's also a $50 gold certificate featuring his image. His stovepipe hat atop the mantle can make one think of Abraham Lincoln. Others made the comparison between Wright and our 16th president — historian Arthur Schlesinger called him the "preliminary sketch for Abraham Lincoln."

Canton makes a good day-trip destination. Besides the Silas Wright House, one can find exhibits of North Country craftwork at Traditional Arts of Upper New York (TAUNY). There's usually a worthwhile exhibition at the Brush Art Gallery on the St. Lawrence University campus. Downtown offers shops and interesting restaurants.

No matter how you spend your time, end with a glance at Canton's beginnings. Many post offices in the state have impressive murals commissioned by art projects of the New Deal in the 1930s. In Canton, we found a relief bronze sculpture by Berta Margoulies entitled "Stillman Foote Acquires Homestead of John Harrington." It memorializes Vermont-born Foote, Canton's founder.

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