Horace Brown, perhaps the greatest horse trainer from the northern Adirondacks and foothills, attained fame and many trotting victories in America, Europe, and Russia. Of all his successes, none was more acclaimed than the marvelous season of 1882. Collectively, it was among the unlikeliest stories in sports, an early equivalent of the US hockey team’s stunning Olympic victory in 1980, when a group of fresh, largely untested amateurs came together and conquered the world’s best.
The 1882 story became legend and was often repeated, but the first couple of names involved aren’t absolutely certain. Bear with me briefly through the details, for the story will get better. By most accounts, the horse in question was bred by Jeff Brown of Dresden, on the western shore of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York. In the vicinity of Dresden, he sold it to Richard Brown (and now the names are certain,) who sold it to Lawrence Bogert, who sold it to Stewart L. Purdy of the town of Benton. Continue reading
One of the most popular stars of vaudeville more than a century ago was a native of Lewis County who capitalized on peoples’ love of laughing at themselves. An eloquent speaker with perfect diction, he rose to fame portraying simple farm folks and other characters. It was humor based close to home, for he was born and raised in Turin, a township whose population today remains under 800. While traveling the United States, he returned frequently to visit friends and family, while also performing in the North Country.
He was known to all as Neil Litchfield, but some sleuthing was necessary initially to uncover his story, for he at times went by the names Allen and Cornelius (the latter of which “Neil” was extracted from). They all proved to be one and the same person — Cornelius Allen Litchfield.
He was born in April 1855, educated in Lewis County schools, and attended Cornell University in Ithaca, about 100 miles south of his hometown. College opened up a world of possibilities, and it was there that Neil discovered and developed a deep interest in elocution, defined as “the skill of clear and expressive speech, especially of distinct pronunciation and articulation.” This became his passion, and during his college years, particularly as a junior and senior, he conducted numerous public readings in northern and central New York. Continue reading
One of my favorite people to visit when I was a child was my maternal grandfather, who owned a 100-acre farm in remote northwestern Clinton County. Ninety acres of the property were wooded (I loved exploring nature); he had cows, horses, and a dog (I loved animals); and he was an avid fisherman (I lived on the riverbank in Champlain and loved fishing). From my perspective, everything about my Grandpa Jim (Lagree) was cool (this was back in the ’60s, so “cool” is appropriate).
On the wall near his usual sitting area in the living room was a framed photo of a horse and sulky with the caption, “Dan Patch.” Since it was my grandfather’s picture, I knew it had to be something cool, and I was right. As he explained to me, Dan Patch was the greatest trotter ever. Trotting, as I learned, was once the most popular sport across Northern New York.
Within a general loop from Albany north to Glens Falls and Plattsburgh; west to Malone, Ogdensburg, Potsdam, and Watertown; south to Boonville; southeast back to Albany; and many stops in between, dozens of communities in the Adirondacks and foothills had trotting tracks of varying quality. Participants ranged from farmers to professional horsemen, all of them eager to put their horses’ abilities up against others for bragging rights, money prizes, and, of course, side bets. Continue reading
Balsam pillows, maple syrup, spruce gum, custom-made rustic furniture — they’re all products comprised of raw materials native to the Adirondacks. Other businesses, current or defunct, have similar roots, but occasionally in regional history we find homegrown livelihoods that seem an odd fit for the North Country. Among the unlikeliest of those is pearl harvesting — not in the St. Lawrence River or Lake Champlain, but in creeks and rivers of the Adirondacks and foothills.
Pearls, considered the oldest of the world’s gems, are deeply rooted in history dating back thousands of years. They were highly valued in ancient Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Roman, and Arabian cultures. Polynesia, Ceylon, and the Persian Gulf were the primary pearl sources, but as man is wont to due, excessive harvesting badly depleted the world supply. While the search continued for natural alternatives, the first cultured pearl (cultivated through a process that imitated nature) was developed in the 1890s. Patent battles to control the method continued until 1916, but in the meantime, many countries turned to harvesting pearls from fresh-water clams. Continue reading
“These are mere deserts on both sides of the river St. Lawrence, uninhabited by beast or bird on account of the severe colds which reign there.”—Samuel de Champlain.
“One cannot see a more savage country, and no part of the earth is more uninhabitable.” —Pierre Charlevoix, 1756. And about winters in the north: “It is then a melancholy thing not to be able to go out of doors, unless you are muffled up with furs like the bears…. What can anyone think, where the very bears dare not show their face to the weather for six months in the year!”
The last quotation (1767) is from John Mitchell, who cited the above comments by Charlevoix and Champlain in assessing New England, New York, and Quebec during discussions about the future of the American colonies. His writings at that time supported a solution Mitchell had proposed a decade earlier, one that would have drastically altered today’s map of the Americas and seriously revised the history of the Adirondack region. Continue reading
History is often said to repeat itself, or to come full circle, but the same is seldom said about technology, which by its very nature constantly improves and leaves old ways behind. But as a follow-up to last week’s piece on heroic telephone operator Ida Blanchard, here’s a look at an old way of doing things that has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts, buttressed by the capabilities of modern telecommunications. We’re talking here about telephone party lines.
Yes, they’ve become a thing again, which should come as quite a surprise if you were lucky enough to experience the original. Continue reading
Fire! … Please send help — there’s been a car accident! … We found our son in the pool … please help us! … We need an ambulance … I think my husband’s having a heart attack! … My wife can’t breathe and she’s turning blue! Many of us have experienced terrifying moments like those at one time or another. In modern times, amazingly quick responses are the norm from fire and EMS personnel directed by information received at county emergency service centers.
Until several decades ago, those positions were nearly all filled by men. But for much of the twentieth century, most rural areas lacked coordination of services. A vital cog in emergency situations back then was the local switchboard operator, who was nearly always a woman. In almost every instance where policemen and/or firemen were needed, the telephone operator was key to obtaining a good outcome. She was the de facto emergency services coordinator of yesteryear.
Her importance during times of crisis was often overlooked, with most of the glory going to policemen and firemen capturing criminals, rescuing victims, and saving lives. But emergency personnel and telephone-company executives were aware of the vital role operators played on a daily basis. Continue reading
North Country newspapers, the only media during the 1800s, were slow to come around and at times downright resistant to women’s rights. Their job was to report the news, but in order to maintain readership, they also had to cater to their customers — like the old adage says, “give ’em what they want.” That atmosphere made it difficult for new and progressive ideas, like women’s rights, to make headway.
The push for women’s rights exposed many inequities early on, but it was difficult to establish a foothold among other important stories of the day. The powerful anti-slavery movement of the 1800s presented an opportunity, for although women and slaves were at opposite ends of the spectrum in the popular imagination — women on a pedestal and slaves treated terribly — they sought many of te same goals: freedom to speak out on their own behalf, the right to vote, and equal pay for equal work. Women passionate about those subjects joined anti-slavery organizations to seek freedom and equal rights for all, regardless of race or sex. Continue reading
All this talk from me during the last two weeks about spruce-related subjects (Sprucelets and spruce beer) is linked to past conversations with my mom, a native of Churubusco in northern Clinton County. It’s officially known as the Town of Clinton, but to local folks, it’s just Busco — and about as country as it gets around here. Growing up there on a farm in the 1920s and ’30s, Mom partook in things that were once the norm, like drinking raw milk and chewing spruce gum.
Her repeated mention of loving to chew spruce gum intrigued me. But as a young boy, I made the mistake of thinking any old evergreen would do, so I tried white-pine sap, something I still regret to this day. Maybe it doesn’t actually taste terrible, but in my recollection, it was terribly terrible, like turpentine. To avoid steering anyone away from it based on an old memory, I confirmed through our state DEC website and others that white-pine resin can be used to make turpentine. And the higher the pitch level, the stronger the turpentine taste — so my memory is good that the taste of raw pine resin was awful. Continue reading
In keeping with last week’s spruce theme — Sprucelets: An Original Adirondack Medicine — is a look at one of the most common drinks in early Adirondack history: spruce beer. Like the aforementioned Sprucelets, it was believed to be of medicinal value due in part to its vitamin C content. Several evergreens share those same properties, and their use dates back centuries.
In one of the earliest mentions of evergreens used as a health aid in North America, there remains disagreement as to which tree along the St. Lawrence River (at today’s Quebec City) was used by Jacques Cartier in 1536 to cure scurvy. His voyage journal says that after learning nearby natives were quite ill with an unknown disease, Cartier quarantined his men on their ships, which were frozen in the ice.
As he noted, the precaution didn’t work. “Not withstanding these defences, the disease begun inside our group, in an unknown manner, as some of us were getting weak, their legs were becoming big and swollen, the nerves as black as coal. The sailors were dotted with drops of blood, and then the disease went to their hips, thighs, shoulders, arms and neck. Their mouths were so infected and rotten that all the flesh fell to the level of the roots of the teeth which had fallen out.” Continue reading