May 1, 2013

Some famous people born in North Country

By SUSAN TOBIAS, Pinch of Time

---- — It’s no secret that I’m from Franklin County and I love my hometown of Westville. Malone is high on my list of favorite places, too.

Secretly, I’ve always been a little jealous of how wonderfully Clinton County and Plattsburgh, in particular, have promoted their history. The Battle of Plattsburgh, museums and reenactments are wonderful, living historical textbooks, and we need them.

As president of the Westville Historical Organization (yes, that’s the WHO), I have uncovered some very surprising history about the people who lived in my hometown, in Malone and in Franklin County, and I’m here to brag.

In recent years, much celebration has been given to the fact that William Almon Wheeler was born in Malone and served as vice president to Rutherford B. Hayes. This quiet, generous and noble man is buried at Morningside Cemetery in Malone, along with his wife and family.

Many other men from Franklin County made their mark on the political world. Serving in Congress was William Hogan, 22nd Congress (1831), who purchased Township 1, including Bombay and Hogansburg; James B. Spencer, 25th Congress (1837), Fort Covington; and Sidney Lawrence, 30th Congress (1847). Actually, William A. Wheeler got his start in Washington, D.C., at the 37th Congress, 1861, and again in consecutive Congress from 1869 to 1877. Quite impressive, wouldn’t you say?

I have been on the trail of lesser-known men, though, and the list is just as impressive.

Maurice D. O’Connell was born in Constable in 1839, attended Franklin Academy and taught school. During the Civil War, O’Connell worked in the Washington, D.C., Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and studied law at Columbia University. In 1869, he moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa, was district attorney for the Eleventh Judicial District and was appointed solicitor of the treasury in 1897. He died in 1922 in Washington, D.C., from injuries sustained in a streetcar accident and is buried in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Alexander Duane was born in Malone in 1858 and died in 1926. He served with the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War and World War I. He was an ophthalmologist who is remembered for advancing studies of the eye and vision, including refraction, accommodation and squint. He translated Austrian ophthalmologist Ernst Fushs’ textbook into English in 1903, and his name is attached to medical diagnosis such as Duane’s parallax test, Duane’s retraction syndrome and Duane’s prism test for latent squint. He is included in the Ophthalmology Hall of Fame.

John Martin Thomas entered this world in 1869 in Fort Covington. He attended Middlebury College and Union Theological Seminary. He served as a pastor at the Presbyterian Church in East Orange, N.J. He was appointed president of Middlebury College, Vt., in 1908; Pennsylvania State College in 1921; and Rutgers University in 1925. He resigned from Rutgers, due to private-public issues at the college; was named vice president of National Life Insurance Co. in Montpelier, Vt.; and president of Norwich University in Vermont  in 1939. He died in Rutland, Vt., in 1952.

Frank Tolan, 1854 to 1899, was born in Malone and spent much of his early life as a farmer. He enlisted in the U.S. Army. As a private, serving with the 7th U.S. Cavalry during the Great Sioux War of 1876 to 1877, he was one of 22 soldiers who received the Medal of Honor for gallantry, volunteering to carry water to wounded soldiers on Reno Hill at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

I am convinced of the old saying, “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” meaning one might be born in a small North Country town, but hard work and persistence can take you anywhere you dream you can go.

Space limits more revelations of small-town boys — and girls — who made it good in the world, so I will save some for another column.

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