October 6, 2011

Couple aim to preserve history of 19th century quarry


WILLSBORO — For several years, Darcey and Bruce Hale have been passionately perusing, cataloging, transcribing, scanning and storing some 70,000 artifacts of the Solomon Clark family.

The Hales own property in Willsboro where the Clarks once operated Bluestone Quarry.

Many of the documents detail the daily lives and business ventures, as virtually every family member kept a diary and monetary transactions were noted in the minutest detail.


"Our concern is when you have something like this, what will happen in the future," Darcey said. "There are five buildings remaining on the property, and we have spent so much time living here and taking care of them. When people come here, they, too, feel the need to have this all preserved.

"We debated what to do for the future, such as have things housed in a museum, but have decided that it would be most appropriate to have a historical research museum, which would house all of the written materials and textiles."


Perhaps the showplace of the property is Scragwood, Solomon and Rhoda Clark's home, which derived its name from the rough cedarwood, replete with its scraggly branches, that framed the porch.

Bruce's dad purchased the Clarks' abode and business office in 1958, in its lived-in state, and it has remained virtually unchanged except for the upgrading of utilities. The Hales use the house from time to time, sitting at the table and eating off the 19th-century dishes of that bygone era.


"They were not a wealthy family; in fact, they were middle class who worked very hard," Bruce said.

A cursory examination supports this, as there was no opulence, and most items are of a utilitarian nature. Walls stacked with books and musical instruments indicate their penchant for having the family members, including the women, be well educated.

A separate bookshelf filled with Methodist tomes and hymnals indicates the religious fervency of the Clarks.

"I know Solomon and Rhoda from reading their diaries," Darcey said. "They were very well educated, though mostly self-taught, and were passionate readers.

"They climbed Whiteface and also traveled to the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia, and the Chicago Exposition."

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Scragwood is the piano, which was purchased around 1870 for $30. Not only is it an impressive centerpiece, but there is thorough documentation on the instrument itself, including where it was manufactured and how it was shipped.

coveted limestone

As Bruce explained during a walk through the quarry site, the blue limestone found here was harder and had fewer fissures than most limestones, which allowed for 5-foot-thick seams. It is also structurally sound for underwater applications and thus was utilized that way before the advent of concrete.

The quarry was started in 1823 by Solomon, who could speak French. He hired locals as well as skilled stone cutters from Montreal. The quarry supplied the so-called blue limestone for several renowned structures, such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the New York State Capitol building. Locally, the stone was used in building the Valcour Lighthouse in the Town of Peru and Fort Montgomery near Rouses Point.

$1 A DAY

In 1868, as many as five companies worked at the quarry at the same time, with about 300 employees. A small village was constructed to provide living quarters for the families.

Workers were generally paid $1 a day, usually in credit at the company store.

Solomon's brother, Lewis, was an engineer and naval architect who built Monitor-class boats. Before steamships became more prevalent, boats and barges were constructed on Willsboro Point, loaded and sent on a one-time journey to New York City. After they were unloaded, they were sold.

Lewis also built skiffs, as well as the General Grant, which was similar to 19th-century schooner replica the Lois McClure.

The Clarks also ran five farms and a woodlot that were instrumental in supporting the family.


Old Elm, a blue-limestone house, sits across the road from the quarry property. Orrin Clark, father to Solomon and Lewis, bartered $200 worth of lime to have it constructed.

Today, rotting floors make it uninhabitable, though the Hales recently had its exterior re-mortared.


The Hales are setting up a non-profit foundation to take over the Clark property. Their own roots are so embedded in the site that they have set aside a small plot for their burial so they can remain on the land.

"We have to save all of this somewhere and would prefer to have everything stay in Willsboro," said Bruce. "The documents and artifacts are the real treasures, much more so than the buildings. If we could only pick one thing (to preserve), it would be the documents."

An application is being made to create a Historic District.

Plans are also under way to register the garden — which the Hales have planted through information gleaned from records to replicate the Clarks' garden — with the Smithsonian Institution.

"Our long-term dream is to house the documents in a research center, which will be available to scholars and those interested in local history," Darcey said. "Perhaps it will be kept in the stone house (Old Elm). It will have a caretaker or curator.

"The collection is both scholarly but oh so human. There is nothing dull or dry about it. It's so alive."     &boldtext;E-mail Alvin Reiner at: