Press-Republican

September 15, 2013

Vagabonding: chronicles of North Country origins

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

ELIZABETHTOWN — Lines in a handwritten letter dash across pages consumed quickly by their measure.

Words and phrases pressed in ink trace tight-woven paragraphs as crisp and tangible as homespun cloth.

In bright cursive, historian and journalist Marjorie Lansing Porter described to her daughter, Betty Millington McNamera, the early chores of building the Adirondack Center Museum here.

Her “rooms” were laid out in the vacant high school closed a few years before.

Porter, then 64, was Essex County’s historian and, at last, her collection of newspapers, manuscripts, recordings, hand tools, farm implements, wagons, quilts, sleds, pots, pans and the myriad stories she wrote of early frontier life had a home.

Margaret Gibbs, the museum’s director and current Essex County historian, read a few sections of Porter’s letter out loud.

She couldn’t help but smile at the piquant voice packed in a small charge of words.

“And so it goes,” the letter closed.

‘UP TO ME’

Other letters described Porter’s ongoing work to build a museum, a task she took on with support from local beneficiaries.

“Writing dozens of letters in connection with plans for the Adirondack History Center at E’town, as actual working out of plans seems to be up to me,” Porter wrote to her daughter.

“Heat is turned on in building, plaster repairs (where water leaked in) are supposed to be done this week, and I have set a work meeting for April 2.

“We will paint cupboards, walls of halls on first floor, etc. I have set up plans for four exhibit rooms on the first floor, which is all we can do this season, besides put auditorium in order for special programs and put up art and crafts exhibit in hallways. 

“Next step will be to choose colors for halls and Room 4, which will be used for my newspaper file, and heavy wallboard panels, painted bright colors will be set on chalk trays of blackboards on two sides of room, for photo mounting.

“Room 1 will feature the land with exhibits by mining companies, etc.; Room 2 will feature Indian occupation and our forests; Room 3 will tell the story of early settlement, with walls of log cabin (old logs) set up and my farmer’s museum stuff to furnish it …”

Porter had finally begun to sort her vast collection.

“This must be Room 4,” Gibbs mused, sitting in the room that has since become the Brewster Research Library.

VOLUMES

This dispatch from 1955 is just a fragment of untold volumes written by Porter, the mother of five children who became a roving journalist, historian, editor, tea room hostess, library worker, Frontier Town player, log-cabin builder, chronicler and folk collector through the early and mid-19th century Adirondacks.

She had already spent years serving as historian for both the City of Plattsburgh and Clinton County by the time she came to settle again in Essex County.

Historian Morris F. Glenn of Westport has been researching the myriad of Porter’s written work, scattered as it is through weekly editions of at least 10 newspapers and magazines and across two counties that transect the Adirondack’s drop to Lake Champlain. 

She wrote for an early version of the Press-Republican and for the Essex County Republican, Plattsburgh Sentinel, North Countryman, Valley News and the Chateaugay Record, among others.

Her work likely appeared as early as 1929 in unnamed stories, though Glenn says Porter claimed her entrance to journalism in 1940.

By then, she would have been nearly 50 years old.

MEATY CHUNKS OF LIFE

Glenn first dug into 26 boxes full of Porter’s written work several years ago.  Along with hundreds of recorded folk songs and spoken stories, the papers are housed at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Feinberg Library.

Another several boxes of Porter’s work remained in Elizabethtown.

A member of the Adirondack History Center Museum Board of Directors, Glenn set about sorting.

“It was like a hyper-explosion,” Glenn said of the first adventure into Porter’s work.

“My first time through, I walked away kind of wondering what I had just read.”

In an overview he published in 2010, Glenn captured the essence of Porter’s work in her own words, planned originally as a book she tentatively titled “Adirondack Portfolio.”

“How can all the remembering be told — that laying out in words, as if on platter, meaty sections of life, great chunks of experience, held together by the tendons of association with other times — other places, other people?” Porter asked in January 1968, introducing an “Old Timers” series in the Essex County Republican.

How can all the remembering be told?

It’s the question that founded what is now known as the Adirondack History Center Museum.

JOURNALIST AT HEART

Among Porter’s papers, Glenn found that the devoted mother of five was, first and foremost, a newspaper reporter.

“And all of her collection reflects that fact,” he wrote in his overview.

Her debut was heralded officially in 13 short lines placed at the top of the Essex County Republican on Feb. 23, 1945.

Helen Margarette “Marjorie” Lansing Porter had taken the helm as editor of the newspaper that her great-grandfather Wendell Lansing founded in 1839 — 105 years prior.

Born in Port Henry in August 1891, Marjorie Porter was 53 when she took the lead role at the paper. 

Her father, grandfather and great-grandfather all toiled with ink and presses. (Their actual machine is at the History Center Museum).

And Porter’s mother, Helen Prescott Lansing, ran a newspaper in Keeseville after her husband, Charles, had come home injured from gassing in World War I.

Gibbs suspects that Porter fell in love early with the world of stories, the pounding presses and smell of freshly printed news.

But it was Marjorie Porter who expanded the family penchant for storytelling beyond the printed page.

FOLK-SONG COLLECTION

The volumes of Porter’s written work have been largely upstaged by her collection of SoundScriber Dictaphone recordings of folk songs and oral history gathered from meetings around the North Country.

She recorded more than 450 Adirondack ballads, logging songs, miner songs, sordid and tall tales from Adirondack farmers, miners, lumberjacks and jills and any rural folk she found who wanted to talk along the way.

In an interview with the Press-Republican in Dec. 22, 1964, Porter described the recording device as “wartime equipment.”

Her antiquated blueish-green vinyl discs were to be copied at that time onto tapes with support from the Newport Folk Foundation.

“My recorder transcribed the songs on plastic discs. It was wartime equipment, and the fidelity wasn’t very good,” she told the reporter in 1964.

SPECIAL COLLECTION

Originally part of the Adirondack Center Museum collection, the recordings were conveyed later to Feinberg Library at SUNY Plattsburgh, Porter’s alma mater.

Debra Kimok, Special Collections librarian, said Porter’s 245 SoundScriber discs were digitized by SUNY Plattsburgh communications professor Dr. Tim Clukey, beginning in 2009.

Kimok couldn’t find evidence in Feinberg’s files of any grant from the Newport Folk Foundation.

“But there is some correspondence that indicates two sets of reel-to-reel tapes were made,” she said in an email.

One set was made from the original discs by the Library of Congress in 1981. 

“They sent the tapes to our Special Collections and also kept a set in the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture,” Kimok said.

The recordings captured Adirondack voices for nearly two decades, from 1941 to 1960.

WPA WORK

Porter’s early folk research likely began, Glenn says, with a project she took on for the Work Projects Administration Federal Writer’s Project, which offered grant funding between 1935 and 1943.

Porter won one of those grants.

“It seems obvious that this one two-year project exerted a major influence on her later writings and sharpened the focus of her research more directly on ... folk history,” Glenn wrote.

VAGABONDING

As Porter’s collection of newspapers and artifacts blossomed between 1935 and 1954, Glenn says, “it became too large and bulky to store as a single entity in either of her (Red Barn) museums, office or her log cabin (on Rugar Street) in Plattsburgh. 

“It seems that she saw an opportunity to store and bring some order to her large and varied collection at the new Adirondack Center Museum, which was in 1954 under her management with its ‘yawning’ empty classrooms, closets and even an auditorium.”

The complete set of her family’s newspaper archives moved there, along with original manuscripts of history books and volumes published in series. 

Historians have known that for nearly 60 years now, the quiet of Porter’s folk collection continues to capture public interest, drawing perhaps from the rampant sense of adventure that she labeled “vagabonding.”

“A lot of what did come here was all in her Red Barn museum in Keene,” Gibbs explained of the Elizabethtown museum’s founding collection.

“Vagabonding, she called it,” Gibbs laughed. “She would get in her car and drive around and see what she could find.”

Lee Knight, a folk musician originally from Saranac Lake, was friends with Porter through the last four years of her life.

A letter she sent to him in 1971 reveals the tenacity of her curiosity.

“This is vagabonding season (autumn) in the Adirondacks,” Porter wrote to Knight.

“When sunny days come, I feel I must get out here ‘n there, combining business calls with just meandering to favorite spots: Tahawus, Lake George, Route 3 to Saranac Lake, Loon Lake, Owls Head, Keene Valley.”

GRAVESTONE PROSE

In spring of 1973, Porter had planned a folk-music concert with Knight. But the octogenarian newswoman died at Elizabethtown Community Hospital on April 14 that year, at age 82.

Obituaries mention that Porter donated her body to science at the University of Vermont Medical School.

Her gravestone at Evergreen Cemetery, in Keeseville, Clinton County, is carved with prose:

“I shall put off this Girth / Go Glad and Free / Earth to my Mother Earth / Spirit to Thee.”

It was Porter’s instinctual ability to collect and curate the fragile human story that pulled centuries of frontier life into focus. 

But it was her love of the everyday that built a history museum in Elizabethtown, Gibbs said.

And that story is still being told.

Email Kim Smith Dedam:kdedam@pressrepublican.com

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TO LEARN MORE

Adirondack History Center Museum Director Margaret Gibbs and historian Morris Glenn created a program based on Marjorie Porter's written work, in cooperation with the music series produced this summer by the Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY), based in Canton.

TAUNY's "Songs to Keep" project has brought Porter's music collection back to life through live folk performance.

The final two performance events happen next weekend.

"Vagabonding"

The museum in Elizabethtown is hosting an evening of music and storytelling with folk musician Lee Knight, Keeseville musician Speedy Arnold, and family members of Marjorie Porter's five children.

The event will also feature stories by longtime Adirondack newsman Jack LaDuke and others who were inspired by Porter's work.

Vagabonding: Reminiscences, Songs, Stories and Poems of Marjorie Lansing Porter takes place on Friday, Sept. 20 at 6 p.m.

The ticket price $5 for museum members, $8 non-members. The museum is free and open to the public before the concert to view the Marjorie Lansing Porter traveling exhibit on Court Street in Elizabethtown.

For reservations, contact the museum at 518-873-6466.

"Songs to Keep"

Arranged by TAUNY, "Songs to Keep" will have a final summer performance at Giltz Theatre, in Hawkins Hall, at SUNY Plattsburgh on Sept. 21, starting at 7 p.m.

The evening of folk music features songs Marjorie Porter preserved in her recordings.

The will be performed by several folk artists, including her granddaughter June Millington, Dave Ruch, Jamie Savage and Sue Grimm, Dan Berggren, Colleen Cleveland and Lee Knight.

Tickets are $10 and available at Angell College Center and at the door.