April 18, 2012

Obits can be sad or informative

SUSAN TOBIAS, Pinch of Time

---- — Winter is when I spend time researching family genealogy and local history. I am never bored with either pastime.

One of the most helpful resources I have is "Obituaries: Franklin County, New York, 71 Years, 1887-1958," by Clyde M. Rabideau. With nearly 700 pages, Clyde has gleaned obituaries from several Franklin County papers and other publications. I have discovered family obits that I might never have found otherwise.

Along with family information, this book contains interesting death accounts that boggle the mind. Tragedy was not absent for the "romantic" life we think our ancestors led. One account is of 7-month-old John Noel Richer, son of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Richer of Bombay, who fell from a bed into a pail of Clorox water and drowned. The account states the child had been left on the bed only momentarily while his mother went outdoors. What a tragedy. How does a family recover from such pain?

Not all obits are horrible like dear little John. Some tell us of native sons who go out into the world and make a name for themselves, in a good way. Take Thomas Parker, born in 1838 in Quebec, on the St. Lawrence River near Fort Covington. His family crossed the international border and settled in Fort Covington where Thomas attended school. In early adulthood, he bought a flour mill in Helena, near Massena, sold it and went to California, came back to Fort Covington and married Melissa Costello, and moved to Kansas in 1883.

He purchased several hundred acres of Kansas soil and went into the creamery and produce business in 1891.

"With his exceptional energy and great powers of organization he developed the business until it was at one time the largest in the world. Thomas Parker was known as the 'Creamery King' of Kansas," the book documents.

Imagine that — from little old Fort Covington came such a great success.

In 1917, death revealed a complicated Civil War story for William Brown, alias Daniel Mulligan.

"In connection with this man there has undoubtedly been a sad miscarriage of justice and error on the part of the United States Government in discontinuing a pension that was surely earned if ever an old soldier was deserving of one. We say this because of affidavits which we have read from old officers and comrades … the single fact that he was a survivor of Andersonville Prison should have entitled him to a pension. The fact that he answered to a deserter's name after being turned down by a medical examiner, showed courage and a desire to serve. He got a pension for some time in the above names and then it suddenly stopped and no part of it was renewed. Trickery is commonly supposed to have played an important role in this man's life." Enough said.

Then there was "Old Billy Spinner," Malone's widely known weather prophet, who died at 94. It seems Old Billy was so accurate that he made the headlines in the newspaper repeatedly. He predicted a mild winter until March, then a rip-roaring month to follow, and it came true. Seems this happened several times, based on a very unique weather-forecasting commodity, hog melt: "A long, thin melt foretold a mild winter; a short thick one meant a hard winter; while the lumps in the melt represented storms the dates of their coming he could read quite closely. But while Billy always said the hog melt was the most reliable barometer, he was nonetheless a literate pupil of nature, and studied her workings closely, such as observing the foliage on the trees, the peel on vegetables, the weight of coats on fur-bearing animals, the height of ears on corn stalks and such like, and these observations he used in making his forecasts."

No Sky Tracker 5000, no satellites, just a little hog fat. Are you listening, Tom Messner?

One last thought, as always, please be kind to each other. The world needs more kindness.

Susan Tobias lives in Plattsburgh with her husband, Toby. She has been a Press-Republican newsroom employee since 1977. The Tobiases have six children, 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They enjoy traveling to Maine and Colorado, and in her spare time, Susan loves to research local history and genealogy. Reach her by email at