Election fraud! It makes headlines, and it has many faces. When I was a young boy growing up in Clinton County near the Canadian border, I overheard stories from adults talking about election fraud in nearby towns. With a wink, it was mentioned that so-and-so, an annual candidate, would once again be standing by the door at the polls all day long to greet the electorate―that’s just how dedicated he was to representing the interests of locals. He was, it was said, “greeting” them with $5 bills.
I never forgot the image that placed in my head―votes for sale at five bucks a pop. Years later, when I neared voting age, I assumed those stories were exaggerations, but as it turned out, they were right on the money (an excellent choice of terms, as we’ll see). Continue reading
A popular way for politicians to demonstrate their altruistic intentions is to invoke “our children and our grandchildren.” The phrase should be worn out by now, but politicians see it differently: if it worked before, it’ll work again, no matter how long it’s been around. Their concern for the future is much more poignant and meaningful when it’s “for the kids.” The term is used so often, it should be considered child-phrase abuse.
It always sounds well intentioned to be against spending with impunity, but history suggests it’s merely the position of the party not currently in control of the nation’s purse strings. The party in power rarely expresses any worry about “our children and grandchildren.” Continue reading
When modern media is used to brand a product, it routinely addresses the subject matter directly, trying to draw attention immediately to the product. The advertisements found in old newspapers sometimes achieved the same goal in quite different fashion, using unusual or outrageous lines in large print to trick the reader. The blaring lead demands attention, and is followed quickly with odd or unexpected segues to information on a product.
Archived North Country newspapers contain plenty of examples of the old bait-and-switch, often executed with subtle humor. A number of stores advertised wallpaper by simply stating what was available, but a Watertown firm used the catch-line “Odd Things for Walls”. Continue reading
George Chahoon, a man who lived in the North Country for 60 years, mostly in Ausable Forks, was the focus of two of the most remarkable incidents in the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War.
When the South seceded, it had named Richmond, Virginia, as its capital city. During the post-war years, appointees chosen by the military were placed in power to guide the recovery. Then in 1868 George Chahoon, a native of Chenango County, but a Virginia resident for most of his 28 years, was installed as mayor of Richmond, replacing a popular leader who had served in the position for 15 years. Continue reading
It’s not often that a person is the focus of a sculptor’s attention. In the mid-1920s, a North Country woman found herself in just that position. The sculptor’s name was Pompeo Coppini, a noted artist who won several awards and whose works were featured from coast to coast. Many of his 128 principal creations are prominent in the state of Texas, including The Spirit of Sacrifice, the large monument at the Alamo honoring those who died within the fort’s walls. It has been viewed by millions.
Coppini sculpted many historical figures of great accomplishment, including Robert E. Lee, Woodrow Wilson, Stonewall Jackson, Sam Houston, and George Washington. Add to that list Mrs. Ethel Dale, chosen as a sculpture subject for her great achievement in the field of … well, doing nothing. Continue reading
A few weeks ago, I wrote here about Joel Aldrich Matteson, a Watertown native who became governor of Illinois―and among other things, established a level of corruption perhaps matched by recent governor/inmate Rod Blagojevich.
To balance the scale, here’s a look at another Watertown native who, during Matteson’s tenure, served as governor of Illinois’ neighbor to the north, Wisconsin. Though there was plenty of corruption in Wisconsin’s government during that time, the governor was not believed to be directly involved.
At worst, the wrongdoings of others may have soiled his good reputation, but he left plenty of accomplishments behind as well. He also became tied to a pair of signature events in American history. Continue reading
What you see here is one of the most recognizable trademarks ever, a logo that has been used by many companies around the world. The dog in the image is not fictional. His name was Nipper, and a few years after his death, Nipper’s owner sold a modified painting of his dog to a recording company. The rest is history, and part of that history includes a heretofore unknown North Country native.
From humble beginnings, he became famous for his wide-ranging knowledge of recording and his ability to invent. Perhaps most important of all, he traveled the world and was the first person to record the music of a number of countries, saving it for posterity. Continue reading
If one were researching the careers of highly accomplished New York natives, you might encounter the glowing, capsulized review of Joel Aldrich Matteson’s life as offered on a website titled, “National Governors Association: The Collective Voice of the Nation’s Governors.” Matteson was born in Watertown, New York, in 1803. As the website notes, he “taught school in New York, and built railroads in the South.”
After moving to Illinois, he “established a career as a heavy contractor on the Illinois and Michigan Canal [the canal connection will be key to this story], and opened a successful woolen mill.”
After attaining financial success through business endeavors and the sale of land to the state, Matteson became an Illinois state senator in 1842. After a decade in the senate, he took office as governor in 1853. Continue reading
Many famous ships can be linked in one way or another to Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain in northern Clinton County. There was the Philadelphia under Benedict Arnold’s command in the Battle of Valcour, and the Saratoga under Thomas Macdonough, hero of the Battle of Plattsburgh. There were steamers, like the Vermont, the Chateaugay, and the Ticonderoga. And as noted here in the past, Plattsburgh also owns an unusual link to the largest seagoing vessel of its time, the Titanic.
There is yet another tied not only to Plattsburgh, but to the entire Champlain Valley, and from Whitehall to Albany as well. And like the Titanic, its name became synonymous with disaster. Continue reading
Water-skiing was invented in Minnesota in 1922, coinciding generally with the surging popularity of motorboats; Wakeboarding, around 1980. But eight years before the birth of water-skiing, a sport strongly reminiscent of wakeboarding took the nation’s watery playgrounds by storm.
With hundreds of lakes and thousands of summer visitors wealthy enough to own motorboats, the Adirondack region did much to popularize the new sport.
Aquaplaning is sometimes cited as beginning around 1920, but it was a common component of boat shows in the US a decade earlier. In 1909 and 1910, participants attempted to ride a toboggan or an ironing-board-shaped plank, usually about five feet long and two feet wide, towed behind a boat. The boards often resembled the average house door. Continue reading
In a tragic story compounded further by a shocking turn of events, a North Country woman once buried her husband twice in less than thirty days. Admittedly, that seems impossible without some sort of extramarital shenanigans going on, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, there were actually three burials in the story within that short span of time, capping a series of highly unlikely occurrences. To complicate matters even further, the woman actually had only one husband.
Before reading further, if you like solving puzzles, read that paragraph again and try playing detective. How could all that be true? At this point, everyone should be sufficiently confused and anxious for an explanation. And here it is. Continue reading
Charlotte Smith of St. Lawrence County was a women’s rights activist with few equals. From the 1870s through the turn of the century, she was among the most famous and visible women in America, battling endlessly for anything and everything that might improve the status of women. No matter what the issue―unemployment, unfair treatment in hiring, deadbeat dads, the plight of single mothers―Charlotte was on the front lines, fearlessly facing down politicians at all levels.
In the 1890s, she also staked out some positions that appeared difficult to defend, but Smith’s single-mindedness gave her the impetus to continue. The bane of women in America held her attention for years, but in modern times, it’s unlikely that any of us would guess its identity based on Charlotte’s description. Continue reading
In the world of women’s rights, there has been great progress across many issues that are still being debated. A North Country native stands at the forefront of the ongoing battle, taking on a number of concerns: jobs for single mothers; equal pay for equal work; the negative effects of drugs and cigarettes on young women; the horrors of trafficking in women for sexual purposes; food labeling; the restriction of food additives; the rights to patented and copyrighted works; women’s ability to serve in the military; and the issues faced by families of soldiers serving overseas.
If you follow the news, you’ll recognize most of those topics from current or recent headlines. They are the very same issues that were current between 1880 and 1900, when St. Lawrence County’s Charlotte Smith was American’s groundbreaking and leading reformer in the fight for women’s rights. Continue reading
Benjamin Franklin Taylor is regarded as one of the greatest poets, writers, and lecturers in North Country history. Born in Lowville (Lewis County) in 1819, Taylor was a precocious child whose writing abilities were evident at a young age. He attended Lowville Academy (his father, Stephen William Taylor, also attended LA and later became principal), and then entered Madison University in Hamilton, New York (where his father was a mathematics professor and would later become college president). Madison was renamed Colgate University in 1890.
Completion of college ended Taylor’s following in his father’s footsteps. Benjamin graduated at a young age (about 19) and served as principal of Norwich Academy in Chenango County. He married in early 1839, and six years later moved to Illinois, finding employment with the Chicago Evening Journal. His efforts there formed the core of an outstanding literary career. Continue reading
The recent exploits of Nik Wallenda at the Grand Canyon (the video might make you weak in the knees) call to mind a North Country man who once performed daredevil stunts and amazing feats more than a century ago. The most famous effort by Robert Emmet Odlum, a St. Lawrence County native, earned him footnote status in the lore of a famous American landmark.
While Odlum’s origins (he was born August 31, 1851) have been reported as Washington, DC, and Memphis, Tennessee, he was born in St. Lawrence County, New York. That information is in stone, literally―Ogdensburg as his birthplace is carved into the obelisk atop Odlum’s grave. (He was buried in Washington, which may account for some of the confusion.)
Robert’s entire life was linked to water, beginning with the St. Lawrence River, where it is said he learned to swim as a very young child. That information comes from his mother, who wrote Robert’s life story after he died. Continue reading
On a recent drive in Clinton County, I was reminded of a story told to me by my grandfather, James Lagree. Jim was a Churubusco farmer near the Canadian border in Clinton County, but he also worked other jobs, including road construction. We both loved fishing, and in my pre-teen years, he took me to all his secret places, including Bradley Pond near Lyon Mountain. It happened to be that he had worked on construction of the Bradley Pond Road.
The conversation that day drifted to other roads, and that’s when he told me the story of a truck losing its brakes on Dannemora Mountain. It was hilarious the way he told it (he was great with jokes and embellishments), but not long ago, I learned just how true the story was. Continue reading
Slavery nearly destroyed this country. We now mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which many consider to have been a battle over slavery. But in the big picture, the battle over slavery has been ongoing since this nation was formed. In our infancy, it was outlawed in some states but not in others. With great gall and to our utter embarrassment, we called ourselves the Land of the Free. In fact, when Francis Scott Key wrote those words in 1814, about half of the states allowed slavery.
There were still plenty of lynchings 150 years later when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. That time is now 50 years past, yet there’s still plenty of bigotry and racism to go around. Judging by where we stand today, it’s shameful to suggest that we’ve come far. More than two centuries, and this is the best we can do? Continue reading
If you like horses (and who doesn’t?) and some funny grammatical errors, check out these two sentence segments from regional newspapers. From 1927: “Mounted on his favorite and favored horse wearing a white broad-brimmed hat … ; and from 1980: “Fans hurled confetti at third baseman George Brett, who was atop a horse wearing a grey cowboy hat.” Both excerpts contain misplaced modifiers: it’s a pretty safe bet that neither horse was wearing a hat.
But as silly as it sounds, it’s an idea that was actually once in vogue. About a century ago, many of northern New York’s horses were sporting the latest craze―hats for horses.
In parts of Europe and the West Indies, it had long been a practice for operators of hacks―horse-drawn taxis, carriages, and the like―to bedeck their horses with hats, which minimized the wearing effects of the hot sun during long days of strolling the streets. Continue reading
I enjoy all kinds of stories, and true “Oops!” moments are among them. Like the time my dad, always a do-it-yourselfer (and a good one), was working on the house, and with hammer in hand, instinctively tried to shoo away a nuisance bee buzzing around his head. The result? Let’s just say an empty hand would have worked much better. Or when a friend of mine, a nice guy who didn’t always think things through, made the surprise announcement that he had bought a jeep from a buddy. I knew he couldn’t afford it, but he loved the open-air concept of the Wrangler.
As it turned out, during the tryout phase, he decided to cut some old trees for firewood, and yes, he managed to drop a tree on the jeep. You break it, you bought it.
I’ve collected a few North Country Oops! stories over the years. Here are some involving dynamite, leaving behind few injuries but plenty of red faces. Continue reading
While reviewing some Civil War materials, I encountered mention of the New York City Draft Riots, which reminded me of my own experience with the draft back in the late 1960s. Whether there was a war or not, I had no interest in joining the military, but it was out of my hands. Vietnam was getting worse instead of better, and more troops were being sent. When I became eligible to go, America switched to the draft lottery.
While I was still in high school, my number (based on birthdays) came up in the 200s, so I didn’t have to go unless I enlisted. That wasn’t the case for men aged 18–45 during the Civil War. They had options, and not being drafted was one of them.
Few people realize that a draft of sorts was used even in the 1700s, a century before the Civil War, and that it was very similar in nature. The call for troops emanated from a central authority, whether it was the Continental Congress, or later, the President (or the Secretary of War). Continue reading