Tag Archives: Lake Champlain

The Champlain Memorial Lighthouse Centennial

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What follows is a guest essay by Thomas Hughes, Director of the Crown Point State Historic Site on Lake Champlain in Essex County, NY. The site includes two National Historic Landmarks: the ruins of French-built Fort St. Frédéric (1734-59) and the ruins of Crown Point’s British fort (1759-73).

Dedicated 100 years ago this month on July 5, 1912, and located at a prominent site that is steeped in history, the Champlain Memorial Lighthouse serves as a monument to the 1609 voyage on Lake Champlain by French explorer Samuel Champlain. Continue reading

New Concise History of the Battles of Plattsburgh

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Battle of PlattsburghLake Champlain was a corridor for warfare beginning with Samuel de Champlain’s exploration, but perhaps no moment in the Champlain Valley was as important as the Battle of Plattsburgh, something recognized by both Roosevelt and Churchill.

Although other, more famous, engagements of the War of 1812 were ruses meant to divert U.S. troops away from the prize – Plattsburgh. The Chesapeake Campaign for example, which included the British capture of Washington, DC, the bombardment of Fort McHenry captured in the National Anthem, was intended, as Donald Graves notes, “as a large raid to draw off American troops from the northern theatre of the war.” Continue reading

Pre-European Agriculture in the Champlain Valley

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When I set out to write From Forest to Fields: A History of Agriculture in New York’s Champlain Valley, I became discouraged by the mixed information coming from various authors.

While there is archeological evidence of Native settlements in Plattsburgh at Cumberland Bay, across Lake Champlain in Vermont and along the Hudson River and its tributaries, little information exists for the rest of the Adirondack Coast. Continue reading

Q&A: Douglas Cubbison on British General Burgoyne

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Douglas R. Cubbison is a military historian, who authored Burgoyne and the Saratoga Campaign: His Papers (2012, Arthur H. Clark Company), which presents the documents and letters of British General John Burgoyne.
 In 1777, Burgoyne began an attempt to divide the rebellious United States in the American Revolutionary War by moving south from the British Canada to gain control of the Hudson River Valley, separating the New England states from those to the south.

After Burgoyne’s early capture of Fort Ticonderoga, his campaign had become bogged down in difficulties and ended with surrender on October 17 of his entire army after the Battles of Saratoga.
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Chimney Point Historic Site Reopens

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The Chimney Point, Mount Independence, and Hubbardton Battlefield State Historic Sites have opened for the 2012 season. The Chimney Point State Historic Site on Lake Champlain in Addison has reopened to the public after two years of closure due to the Lake Champlain Bridge construction project. This location is one of the most strategic on the Lake, important to Native Americans, the early French, and early American settlement. Continue reading

New York’s Jehudi Ashmun, Founder of Liberia

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Thursday, April 21, marked the birthday of one of the most famous men you never heard of, and surely the least known of all North Country figures who once graced the world stage. It is also appropriate to recall his story at this time for two other reasons. It has ties to slavery and the Civil War as we mark the 150th anniversary of America’s darkest period. And, in relation to recent world news, it involves fighting for change in Africa.

If you’re well familiar with the work of Jehudi Ashmun, you’re in a very small minority. Even in his hometown, little has been done to mark his achievements other than a single roadside historical marker. And yet, if you look, you’ll find him in dozens of encyclopedias and reference books as an important part of African and Liberian history.

Jehudi Ashmun was born in Champlain, a small village in the northeastern corner of New York State, just a mile from the Canadian border. Early on, he proved capable of advanced learning, and after schooling in Champlain, he attended Middlebury College in Vermont at the age of 16, preparing for life as a Christian minister.

Ill health, a problem throughout his life, found Jehudi back home in Champlain during the War of 1812. On healthier days, despite his young age, he preached in the local church and organized a military company to protect the village from British attackers threatening from Canada.

After returning to schooling at Middlebury, he entered the University of Vermont. Graduating from UVM in August, 1816, Ashmun gave the salutatory address and presented “An English Oration upon the Philosophy of the Mind.”

Jehudi soon found employment as school principal and Professor of Classical Literature at the Maine Charity School, one of the first educational societies in the country. Guided by a strong Christian belief, he published extensively, including sermons, lectures, and essays.

Ashmun’s opinionated persona was not always well received, and six months after marrying Catherine Gray in October 1818, he resigned from the school and moved to Washington, D.C. There, he linked with the Episcopal Church for three years, studying religion, continuing to publish, and becoming alarmingly aware of the plight of slaves in nearby Virginia.

Christian doctrine deplored slavery, and the more Ashmun (a white northerner) learned, the more he felt compelled to act. He became an active participant in the American Colonization Society (ACS), a group that many supported with the best of intentions, but an organization that attracted a pro-slavery element as well.

To understand that dichotomy, it is necessary to at least somewhat grasp the situation in America around 1820. As a young nation proudly touting “all men are created equal,” the US was embarrassed by other countries pointing out in newspaper editorials the great hypocrisy of allowing slavery to exist for any reason within America’s borders.

By 1808, the importation of slaves had been strictly forbidden by federal law, but some southern states claimed the feds had overstepped their bounds. Still, a very powerful anti-slavery movement existed in America. The problem was—what constituted a solution?

Groups like the American Colonization Society faced an unusual number of arguments for and against their efforts. Many leaders, both black and white, believed all citizens should remain in the US and battle for full equal rights for all. Others, including many black leaders, felt that blacks would never be treated justly or be free of discrimination in America, and thus favored the establishment of a colony where they could flourish.

Some said that promoting colonization was simply a cover for the goal of ridding America of blacks. Others saw great promise in black colonists succeeding, and helping to spread the Christian faith across Africa. Many slave owners supported the society because they feared that freed blacks would urge those in slavery to rise together in rebellion. By sending them to colonies, the owners were removing rabble-rousers from their midst.

At the time, the idea of going to Africa did seem sensible to some blacks since that was their place of origin. However, by that time, many had been in America long enough to have children born here and had established roots. A great number preferred to stay in the US and face the devil they knew, rather than the uncertainties of life (the devil they didn’t know) in Africa.

At various times, plans were made for colonies in Canada, Mexico, Africa, the Caribbean, and in several Central American countries. Finally, a real effort to settle on Africa’s west coast was tried, but it failed. Another similar attempt was made within two years.

The second opportunity arose when the Georgia state legislature authorized its governor to sell about 40 slaves who had been brought to the state illegally. Money from the sale was destined for state coffers, but by law, before selling the slaves, the state had to allow anyone the opportunity to purchase freedom for the slaves or assume the expense of taking them to a colony.

In stepped the ACS, and it was 18 of those slaves who formed the bulk of the colonization effort in Africa. The leader of the expedition was Jehudi Ashmun, who avoided many debts by leaving the country, but whose devotion to the cause was beyond reproach. He also saw the opportunity to establish trade and perhaps find a way to pay his own financial commitments.

Throughout his life, Ashmun had been a deep thinker and an activist, but was frequently beset with periods of strong self-doubt. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine his thoughts when, arriving on Africa’s west coast on August 9, 1822, he found wretched living conditions and violent conflicts involving several regional tribes.

Adjacent to the British colony of Sierra Leone, he gained permission to land and establish a community. He managed interactions and informal agreements with several local tribes, but it soon became clear that they intended to set upon Ashmun’s group and destroy them.

Jehudi’s settlers were suffering badly from illness, and were certainly in no condition to defend themselves. Their position on the peninsula of Cape Montserado provided at least some natural protection, but their sickness was disabling, and the meager rations they shared were barely enough to sustain life. The future looked bleak for this fledgling enterprise.

Ashmun himself seemed near death at times, but feared more for his wife, who was dreadfully ill. She finally succumbed on September 15, barely a month after their arrival from America. Jehudi was devastated. There was great doubt that he could survive and carry on the mission.

Next week―the conclusion: A battle for the ages … twice! and one of the greatest all-time underdog stories.

Photos―Top: Jehudi Ashmun, native of Champlain, New York. Bottom: Ashmun’s Liberian settlement at Cape Montserado.

The Jehudi Ashmun story is one of 51 original North Country history pieces appearing in Adirondack Gold: 50+ New & True Stories You’re Sure to Love (352 pp.), a recent release by author Lawrence Gooley, owner of Bloated Toe Publishing.

Fort Ticonderoga’s War College of the Seven Years’ War

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Limited space is still available to attend Fort Ticonderoga’s Seventeenth Annual War College of the Seven Years’ War May 18-20, 2012. This annual seminar focuses on the French and Indian War in North America (1754-1763), bringing together a panel of distinguished historians from around the country and beyond. The War College takes place in the Deborah Clarke Mars Education Center and is open to the public; pre-registration is required.

Begun in 1996, the War College of the Seven Years’ War has become one of the premier seminars on the French & Indian War in the country. It features a mix of new and established scholars in an informal setting for a weekend of presentations related to the military, social, and cultural history of the French & Indian War. Speakers include:

De Witt Bailey, British author and 18th-century arms expert, on British weapons of the war.

Maria Alessandra Bollettino, Framingham State University, on slave revolts in the British Caribbean during the war.

Earl John Chapman, Canadian author and historian, on the experiences of James Thompson, a sergeant in the 78th Highlanders.

Christopher D. Fox, Fort Ticonderoga, on Colonel Abijah Willard’s Massachusetts Provincials in 1759.

Jean-François Lozier, Canadian Museum of Civilization, on the use of paints and cosmetics among Natives and Europeans.

Paul W. Mapp, College of William & Mary, on the role the vast western lands played in the battle for empire.

William P. Tatum III, David Library of the American Revolution, on the British military justice system, using ten courts-martial at Ticonderoga in 1759 as case studies.

Len Travers, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, on the “Lost Patrol of 1756” on Lake George. The weekend kicks of Friday evening with a presentation by Ticonderoga Town Historian William G. Dolback on “Historic Ticonderoga in Pictures.” Dolback is also President of the Ticonderoga Historical Society and leading local efforts to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the first settler in Ticonderoga in 1764.

Registration for the War College is $145 for the weekend ($125 for members of the Friends of Fort Ticonderoga). Registration forms can be downloaded from the Fort’s website under the “Explore and Learn” tab by selecting “Life Long Learning” on the drop down menu and then clicking on the War College. A printed copy is also available upon request by contacting Rich Strum, Director of Education, at 518-585-6370.

Forest to Fields: Champlain Valley Agriculture History

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A short booklet, From Forest to Fields: A History of Agriculture in new York’s Champlain Valley published by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Essex County and the Lake to Locks Passage Scenic Byway highlights the rich history of the Champlain Valley with a focus on the region’s farms and fields.

From Forests to Fields is authored by Anita Deming, who has more than 30 years experience as an agricultural extension agent with CCE, and Andrew Alberti, Program Manager for Lakes to Locks Passage since 2008 (where he focuses on 21st century technology applications and local and regional interpretation and planning) and a contributor here at New York History. Alberti is also editor for the Lakes to Locks Passage and National Geographic Geotourism website.

Chapters cover Native American agriculture, early explorers and settlements, the agricultural revolution, farming in the modern era and a short review of the architecture and use of farm buildings and a list of resources. The authors explain the impact of the 1807 Embargo Act, the influence of the opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823 on local farm trade, the grange movement, and changes in the local sheep and dairy industries, and more.

The booklet is 48 pages and profusely illustrated. You can request a copy by contacting Lakes to Locks Passage. There is a suggested $10 + S&H donation.

Quadricentennial Photo Exhibit Unveiled

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The Essex County Historical Society in Elizabethtown, recently announced an online commemoration of the 2009 Quadricentennial in Essex County. The Lake Champlain Quadricentennial 1609-1909 site has been designed to highlight photographs by Jack LaDuke acquired by the Essex County Historical Society in 2010. The site celebrates pride of place expressed through LaDuke’s photographs of the 2009 commemorative year, and features photographs and items from the Essex County Historical Society’s own collection from the 1909 Tercentenary and 1959 commemorations. The public is encouraged to contribute their own photographs to compliment items featured on the site.

Jack LaDuke was hired in 2009 to take photographs of the many significant events in the Champlain Valley region of New York State during the Quad year. LaDuke has forty years experience as a photographer, journalist and story-teller reporting on the Adirondacks and the North Country. He works for Mountain Lake PBS in Plattsburgh, New York as a contributing reporter after spending most of his career with WCAX in Burlington, Vermont.

Fort Ti to Host Conference on Lake George, Champlain

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Fort Ticonderoga will a conference on Lake George and Lake Champlain on August 11-12, 2012 that will explore the history, geography, culture, ecology, and current issues related to the Lake George and Lake Champlain region.

The conference will include sessions exploring the 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century history of Lake George-Lake Champlain region, examining the works of 19th- and 20th-century photographers, and detailing current issues of concern related to the ecological well-being of these two important lakes.

Programs include a history strand looking at the 1758 “Sunken Fleet” in Lake George by noted underwater archaeologist Joseph Zarzynski and the Steamer Ticonderoga that sailed on Lake Champlain from 1906-1953 by Curator Chip Stulen from Shelburne Museum. Chapman Museum Director Timothy Weidner will discuss the works of Seneca Ray Stoddard related to Lake Champlain while photographer Mark Bowie talks about the photographic works of his grandfather Richard Dean of Dean Color.

SUNY Plattsburgh geologist David Franzi will talk about how the glaciers of the last ice age formed today’s Lake Champlain Basin. Meg Modley, from the Lake Champlain Basin Program, provides an update on the current battle against invasive species in both lakes, and Emily DeBolt from the Lake George Association, talks about lake-friendly landscaping techniques.

Fort Ticonderoga recently received a grant from the South Lake Champlain Fund of the Vermont Community Foundation to support the conference and has also received programming support from the Lake George Association.

Registration for the conference is now open. A downloadable conference brochure is available online.

You can also receive a printed version by contacting Rich Strum, Director of Education, at Fort Ticonderoga, at rstrum@fort-ticonderoga.org or at 518-585-6370.

Lecture: Lake Champlain as Battleground, 1609-1815

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The Lake Champlain Basin Program will be hosting John Krueger, City Historian of Plattsburgh and executive director of the Kent-Delord House, for a presentation titled The Lake as Battleground: 1609-1815 on Thursday, March 1st at 6:30 p.m. in the LCBP office in Grand Isle, Vermont. This program is part of the LCBP’s Love the Lake speaker series.

John Krueger began promoting Lake Champlain’s history as a guide at Fort Ticonderoga in 1970. His talk will focus on Lake Champlain as a corridor for warfare, beginning with Samuel de Champlain’s exploration and the conflict of European powers for control of the corridor.
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Lake Champlain Indigenous Heritage Center Event

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The Lake Champlain Basin Program (LCBP) will be hosting Dr. Fred Wiseman, Chairperson, Department of Humanities, Johnson State College for a presentation titled Lake Champlain Indigenous Heritage Center: A Future Possibility tomorrow, Thursday, February 23rd at 6:30 p.m. in the LCBP office in Grand Isle, Vermont. This program is part of the LCBP’s Love the Lake speaker series. Continue reading

Wind Power Has A Long History in America

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Scores of gigantic wind turbines in the Adirondacks’ northeastern and southwestern foothills are a startling site amidst historically bucolic scenery. The landscape appears “citified,” with structures nearly 40 stories high where the largest buildings rarely top 3 stories. It is a dramatic change, and a far cry from simpler days when family farms were prevalent. Few realize that in those “simpler days” of dairy farms, windmills were actually quite common across the region.

Of course, the windmills once dotting the North Country’s landscape were nothing like today’s behemoths, which stand nearly 400 feet high from the ground to the tip of a skyward-pointing blade. And, the windmills of old weren’t always efficient machines.

Wind technology took a tremendous leap forward in the 1850s thanks to Daniel Halladay, a Connecticut machinist. Halladay’s windmill not only pumped water, but automatically turned to face into the wind as it changed directions. Almost as important, he devised a way to control the speed of the blades (windmills are prone to destruction from within when operating at high rpm levels). Halladay established the US Wind Engine & Pump Company, setting up shop in Illinois. From the start, the business flourished.

Though his sales were focused on the country’s expansion westward, New York State was also experiencing dramatic growth, particularly in the remote northern Adirondack foothills, where pioneers faced a harsh climate and difficult living conditions. Halladay’s invention eventually helped turn some of those weather negatives into positives by taking advantage of wind patterns across upper New York State.

In 1874, the railroad was expanding north from Whitehall towards Plattsburgh. Since steam engines require water, the line generally followed the shore of Lake Champlain. Tanks were constructed along the route where the rails approached the lakeshore. Steam pumps or windmills were used to fill the feeder tanks, which had a capacity of 33,000 gallons each.

As settlers moved north on both sides of the Adirondacks, windmill technology crept northward with them. Farming was necessary for survival, and the enormous workload was eased by mechanical devices like windmills. The description of one man’s operation about 18 miles south of Lowville was typical of the times: “… a beautiful farm of 280 acres, milks 35 cows, and is a model farm. House, barns, windmill pump, all systematically arranged.”

In situations like that, windmills often filled tanks placed on the upper floor of a barn. The water was then gravity-fed to the livestock below and piped to other locations as needed. The machine was also used to grind various grains. Early models were mounted on wooden frames, but many fell victim to the very power they were trying to harness, toppling before raging windstorms. Eventually, steel frames supported most windmills.

Wind power wasn’t just for individual homes and farms. In July 1879, H. H. Babcock & Sons of Watertown was hired to install a windmill at 1000 Islands State Park. Water was drawn from the St. Lawrence River to large tanks near the dining hall, and from there was conducted to the various cottages by galvanized iron pipe.

And at Hermon, a contract for $6,595 was signed with Daniel Halladay’s company to install a new waterworks system. Included were a wooden tank of 50,000-gallon capacity, a windmill with a wheel diameter of 20 feet, and more than a mile of piping. The frost-proof tank was 24 feet in diameter, 16 feet high, and 3 inches thick. It sat on a trestle 20 feet high, while the windmill stood on a trestle 80 feet high.

Many hotels, including the Whitney House in Norwood and the Turin House in Turin, used windmills to power their water systems. At Chazy, windmills pumped water from the quarries; at Port Henry, they filled water tanks for the trains; and at Saranac Lake, they fed the water supply of the Adirondack Sanitarium.

In 1889, George Baltz of Watertown handled the Halladay display at the Jefferson County Fair, demonstrating that windmills furnished cheaper power than steam engines and could run a feed mill, a circular saw for cutting wood, or pump water.

Though Halladay’s products were widely known, he did have competitors. Some added their own modifications, and some were “copycats.” And they weren’t all products from afar. In 1882, an advertisement touted a windmill “warranted to take care of itself in high winds, equal to the best western mills, and is sold for half the money. It is manufactured at Potsdam.” It featured a self-regulator, and appeared to be based on Halladay’s own successful model.

In the late 1890s, most of the windmills in the Ticonderoga and Lake George area were products of the Perkins Windmill Company, which had already installed more than 50 units across the lake in Vermont. Though windmills in the Midwest were primarily for irrigation, most of those in the North Country supplied water to homes, businesses, and farm animals.

Wind power did face competition from other sources. Gasoline engines became more and more common, offering a reliable alternative. However, they were expensive, noisy, and costly to run. An operator had to be present to start and stop a gas engine, while windmills employed a system of floats to start and stop filling the tanks automatically. A once-a-week oiling was the only required maintenance. The biggest problem at the time was that gas engines ran when you wanted them to, but windmills depended on the weather.

The giant turbines we see in northern New York today are not a new idea. In a peek at the future, Charles Brush of Cleveland, Ohio demonstrated in 1888 the first use of a large windmill to generate electricity. As early as 1895, observers noted that windmills were “destined to be much used for storing electricity. We predict an immense future for the windmill industry.”

In 1910, a farm in America’s Midwest employed windmills to charge a bank of batteries. Wind power provided electricity to light the farm and operate the equipment. When the wind didn’t blow, the farm ran on battery power for a few days.

By 1925, wind turbines had been used to run refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, and power tools. And in 1926, the NYS Fair urged farmers to purchase windmills, using a 12-foot-high model to show the benefits they might enjoy. It was an enticing glimpse at the potential of electricity. Ironically, the popularity of windmills soon became their undoing.

Though they were a wonderful source of cheap power, the main problem was intermittent operation. When the wind didn’t blow, the tools didn’t go. Battery storage systems were only good for brief periods, and people wanted power WHEN they wanted it. Soon, another overriding factor arose—the growing need for huge amounts of electricity.

By the late 1930s and 1940s, constantly flowing electricity was the goal, relegating wind power to the background of the energy battle. It was still used, and advancements were pursued, but success was limited. One notable effort was the huge Smith-Putnam windmill installed atop Grandpa’s Knob near Castleton and Rutland, Vermont, in 1941.

Though less than half the size of today’s models, it was still large, featuring a 16-ton, 175-foot steel rotor that turned at 28 RPM. Occasional use ended abruptly in 1945 when metal fatigue caused the blade to snap, hurling a huge section 1000 feet down the mountain.

In the North Country, windmills have returned after a long hiatus. They stand ten times taller than their predecessors (in 2012, the new ones will be 492 feet high), and now pump electricity instead of water. Where potato, hop, and dairy farms once dominated, the wind farms of today stand above all others.

Photos: Above, windmills 400 feet tall at Churubusco (and another under construction in the foreground). Middle Right: Typical use of windmill to fill railroad water tanks. Middle Left: Halladay windmills were offered by George Baltz of Watertown. Below, advertisement for Halladay’s company.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.

Fort Ticonderoga Grows Interpretive Department

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While other history sites around the state continue to face cutbacks and layoffs, Fort Ticonderoga seems to have turned a corner with it’s own economic struggles. The private not-for-profit historic site and museum o Lake Champlain is growing with two new additions to its year-round Interpretive Department staff. Joel Anderson, Artificer Supervisor, and Joseph Privott, Military Programs Supervisor, began their new positions at Fort Ticonderoga on January 3.

Stuart Lilie, Fort Ticonderoga’s Director of Interpretation, said “These two individuals bring practical 18th century period knowledge to Fort Ticonderoga’s strategic drive to bring day to day historic details to life at Fort Ticonderoga, one of America’s oldest and most significant historic sites in North America.” He noted their “Skills and leadership allow the Fort to create living history programs and events for visitors that are exciting and interesting. Equally important, the Interpretive Department is able to emphasize Fort Ticonderoga’s commitment to excellence and historical accuracy as we portray those soldiers who struggled and died on this ground.”

Joel Anderson comes to Fort Ticonderoga with twelve years living history experience, both as a re-enactor and museum profession. Joel has previously worked for Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark located in Charleston, SC, specializing in livestock, carriages, and military programming. In his own business, Anderson Tailoring, Joel hand-stitched, custom-fit Revolutionary War uniforms and civilian clothing. Joel studied at East Tennessee State University, pursuing his musical skills. An avid equestrian, researcher, and eighteenth century mechanic, Joel has already contributed a great deal to Fort Ticonderoga’s living history programs in 2011. Serving as Artificer Supervisor, Joel will lead the development of the Fort’s historic trade program in 2012 including shoemaking and military tailoring.

Joseph Privott, who studied at Lees-McCrae College, brings his own living history experience in re-enacting and museums. Joseph’s mechanical skills include fields diverse as blacksmithing, artillery, woodwork, and Native American crafts. The creator of an online database about Southeastern Native Americans in the 18th century, Joseph brought his extensive background in Native American material culture to his portrayal of a 1759 British Indian agent at the Fort in 2011. Previously a docent with the Southern Appalachian Historical Association and a volunteer at Fort Dobbs State Historic Site, Joseph’s commitment to educational excellence in living history programs at Fort Ticonderoga has already made its mark.

The two new year-round positions expand Fort Ticonderoga’s capacity to offer events throughout the year and increased school programming. These positions will also provide the cadre of leadership for an enlarged staff of costumed interpreters in the 2012 visitor season. Beth Hill, Executive Director, said “The addition of Joel Anderson and Joseph Privott to Fort Ticonderoga’s full-time staff represents an important step in Fort Ticonderoga reclaiming its place as the premier eighteenth century military site in North America.”

Photo: Joel Anderson, Artificer Supervisor, (left) and Joseph Privott, Military Supervisor, (right).

Lawrence Gooley: Missing Aunt Mary

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It has been a year now since the death of a friend and her burial on the last day of 2010. The friend, Mary (Pippo) Barber of Whitehall, was nearly four decades my senior, but acted so young that she made me feel old. I first met her around ten years ago when she came 100+ miles north to Plattsburgh with a friend and stood with us in line for three hours at a job fair. She was there as moral support, talking and joking all day long. I had no idea she was 84 at the time. As I would learn, she never looked anywhere near her age.

My partner, Jill, is from Whitehall (at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, where the barge canal begins). It is through her that I met “Aunt Mary,” a very important person in Jill’s life. On every visit to Whitehall during the past decade, Aunt Mary was on our schedule of stops. She was always nice, friendly, inquisitive, and fun to chat with … just a classy lady.

Her memory was as sharp as anyone’s, and our interest in history often prompted us to steer the conversation in that direction. As many of you know (but many of us neglect), elderly citizens provide an invaluable connection to the past. When we republished Whitehall’s pictorial history book several years ago, it was Aunt Mary who readily answered dozens of questions, helping us correctly label many buildings when we prepared the captions.

At one point in our conversations over the years, she mentioned that a movie had once been filmed in Whitehall. That was news to me and Jill, and we had to wonder if maybe she had made a mistake. It would have been easy to believe that she was a little mixed up—after all, she was about 90 then, and nobody else had ever mentioned a movie. Still, we just couldn’t believe she was wrong.

Jill’s faith in Aunt Mary drove her to keep digging, and much to her surprise, delight, and amazement, it was true! After much time and considerable research, she was able to uncover the entire story, a tale that may have been lost except for the teamwork of Jill and Aunt Mary.

It strengthened the already solid bond between them, and it didn’t stop there. A poster re-creation of the original movie advertisement is now an exhibit in the Whitehall museum, donated by Jill in Aunt Mary’s name.

Aunt Mary’s passing was certainly a sad loss, but it offered a reminder of the wonderful people and great historical resources that are often neglected—our elderly, whether they are relatives, friends, or nursing home residents. If you have considered talking to any of them and asking all kinds of questions, do it. They’ll enjoy it, and so will you. Don’t put it off and eventually live with painful regret.

We still miss her, and I’m certainly glad we asked Aunt Mary all those questions over the years, learning about her life and Whitehall’s history. It was not only a smart thing to do. It was respectful, educational, and just plain fun.

Photo: Above, Mary (Pippo) Barber, circa 1943; Below, Mary (Pippo) Barber, circa 2005.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.

Westport’s Historic Depot Theatre Looks to 2012

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The historic Depot Theatre in Westport on Lake Champlain will celebrate its 33rd year with a new managing director, a new volunteer guild and four shows for the 2012 season. The popular professional theatre company was founded in 1979 by Carol Buchanan, former President of the Westport Historical Society, which maintained stewardship over the historic Westport train station.

The Historical Society saw the potential for cultural activity in the partially renovated D & H Railroad station, and turned first to a Wednesday Night Bingo game to reach the goal. In 1985, the Depot Theatre stepped out from under the Historical Society’s umbrella to become its own separate not-for-profit entity (the theatre company turned professional in 1988 under an agreement with Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers. In 2006, the Depot Theatre also became a member of the Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for professional, non-profit theaters.

Since 1979, the Depot Theatre has produced over 170 plays in its handicap accessible, 136 seat performance space (the former D&H freight room, now fully air conditioned.) In 1995, the Depot Theatre was recognized with a Park Heritage Award from the Adirondack Council and in 2000 with an Adirondack Architectural Heritage Award which recognized major renovation and restoration work to the historical building.

Though Delaware and Hudson is no longer in operation, AMTRAK continues to service rail passengers on the Adirondack Line between NYC and Montreal. The Westport stop is a gateway to the Adirondack Park, and the train station and the Theatre have developed a unique partnership to keep this historical space maintained – the Depot Theatre serves as steward of the historical site.

The Depot has launched a national search to replace outgoing managing director Chris Casquilho who is moving to Ogden, Utah with his family to work for Weber State University.

The Board of Trustees has said it’s approaching this leadership transition as an opportunity to realign operations to focus on the Depot’s long range plan. “We’re looking for an individual who can help grow the operating budget in order to nurture our commitment to exploring new work alongside the canon of American Theatre,” explained Artistic Director Shami McCormick, whose involvement spans the organization’s history. The annual operating budget recently ranges between $300,000 and $350,000, but McCormick is says there is room and demand for growth.

“There’s something quite magical about being behind the scenes in a live theatre atmosphere,” said Kim Rielly, board trustee. “And in 2012, we plan to ramp up our Volunteer Guild, with new opportunities for community members to take a real hands-on role in the operation of our hometown Theatre, and earn some great perks to go along with it.”

The 2012 season will feature four main stage shows including a Country/Blues Love Story, a fast-paced comedy, a 1950‘s musical with classic favorites, a funny story of five full-figured women racing to meet nearly impossible production deadlines, plus a full season’s worth of mid-week and special events.

For more information, season subscriptions, tickets and a complete schedule, contact the Box Office at 518.962.4449 or visit depottheatre.org.

Atlatl Championship at Mount Independence

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Journey way back to the ancient past, before the invention of the bow and arrow, to experience how people the world over hunted big game by coming to the 16th Annual Northeast Open Atlatl Championship September 17 and 18, 2011, beginning at 10:30 AM on Saturday and 10:00 on Sunday, at the Mount Independence State Historic Site in Orwell, Vermont.

The competition is based on the ancient hunting technique of using an atlatl (spear thrower). Atlatlists of all skill levels are welcome. Demonstrations of flint knapping, bow making, hafting stone points, fletching atlatl darts, cordage making with natural materials, and other aspects of Native American life will take place on Saturday. Food will be available. Continue reading