Without a doubt, one of the Historical Society’s most successful and satisfying events each year is our “Home for the Holidays Festival.” We’ve been doing it a very long time, so we should know!
Orchestrated with the help of dozens of volunteers, community members and sponsors, this free, multi-day spectacular kicks off the holiday season at the Temple, home of the Lewis County Historical Society. Come see the beautiful historic Christmas decorations, our magnificent festival of the trees, a ginger bread house display, silent auctions of decorated Christmas trees and wreaths, as well as raffles and sales on gift shop items. It is truly a wonderful way to kick off the Christmas season.
As always, we are open on multiple dates (November 17-18, November 24-25 and December 1-2 from 10 am through 5 pm), when you can come into the Temple and experience the beauty of Christmas. We will also have a wonderful Holiday Concert by the Adirondack Community Chorus on Thursday, November 30, at 7 pm. And, or course, Santa will come for the kids on Friday, December 1, from 6 to 8 pm. We’ve already got it on our calendar — so it’s definitely something you should put on yours!
The Lanphere collection represents one man’s passion – that of noted biblical instrument archeologist and professor of music, Lewis County’s own Charles Nathan Lanphere.
This exhibit, on display at the Lewis County Historical Society during the summer of 2023, included musical instruments made by Charles N. Lanphere around 1900 to illustrate two of his widely-acclaimed lectures and concerts – “The First Ten Thousand Years of Music” and “Music of the Bible.”
Born June 15, 1869 in the town of Harrisburg just outside Copenhagen, Prof. Lanphere’s formative years were spent on the family farm on the Alexander Rd., within a stone’s throw of Deer River. He came from a devout Methodist New England family. By the age of four, he had heard many of the beautiful stories of the Bible from his mother and he could recite them from memory. Along with his early interest in the Bible, he also developed a keen interest in music, building his first violin at age 10 (against the wishes of his father initially, who feared he would use it to play dance tunes). Strongly devote, however, the young Lanphere quickly turned his interests to the ancient music of biblical times.
Schooled initially at a small common school on the Wood Battle Rd. outside of Copenhagen, he was soon accepted for study at Lowville Academy, where he would hone his interest in music and ultimately graduate. He then took secondary music courses at the Potsdam Normal School (where he met his future wife, Harriet Ellis, a Potsdam native). But quite quickly he returned to Lowville, where he was awarded his first professorship, serving as Professor of Music at Lowville Academy – and to earn a little extra money, he taught music lessons on the side.
Known throughout his life as a dapper dresser, with a pronounced handlebar mustache, Prof. Lanphere could be seen on the streets of Lowville wearing a long black cape and silk top hat – often stopping to spread his cape, tip his hat and curtsey in the European style when meeting someone along his way. He and his wife, who also taught music in Lowville, would stay in the village until the mid-1890s, when they chose to leave the area so Prof. Lanphere could pursue and obtain additional music degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music and the Virgil Piano School of Chicago.
Fascinated by the development of music from its very beginnings, Prof. Lanphere would later travel to Europe and study in London, Paris and Dresden. During that time, he wrote and delivered two widely acclaimed lectures, “The First Ten Thousand Years of Music” and “Music of the Bible.” The instruments in this exhibit were made by Prof. Lanphere around 1900 to illustrate these lectures.
Among his instruments, the exhibit contained: the actual violin he made at age 10; a Nabel (an Assyrian harp of ten strings); a Psaltery (a Middle Ages forerunner of the modern piano); a Toph (an Egypto-Israeli hand drum); a Crotalum (an Egyptian percussion clapper); a Tambourine (from the Egyptian-Hebraic period); a Nebel (a Harp of the Hebrews); a Lefre (an Egyptian Horsehead Lyre); a Psanterin (from the book of David); a Nofre (Egyptian Lute); a Kinnor (the first stringed instrument mentioned in the Old Testament); and a Sebaca (a Harp described in the Bible).
After years of world travel, Prof. Lanphere returned to the North Country, settling in his wife’s hometown of Potsdam, where he began teaching piano at the Crane department of music at the Potsdam Normal School (later to become Potsdam Teachers College and eventually the State University of New York at Potsdam). By all accounts, he was beloved locally as a teacher and a person. He died in 1940, and he and his wife are buried in Potsdam’s Bayside Cemetery.
The instruments in this collection were donated to the Potsdam Public Museum, which generously made some of them available to the Lewis County Historical Society for this exhibit. Special thanks are due the Potsdam Public Museum, Mimi VanDeusen and Mary Gilbert for having made this exhibit possible.
A big thank you to the Cloudsplitter Foundation for supporting our Collections Care & Share Project! This multifaceted project aims to help the Historical Society in modernizing our computer-based collections management system to better document and organize our extensive collections, and to position us to share Lewis County history with our communities, neighbors and friends through both in-person research and online history-telling. Due to the generosity of the Cloudsplitter Foundation, we have been able to take steps to achieve these objectives.
If you are interested in volunteering to help us work on our Care & Share project, our collections organization or our online history-telling, or even if you would like to donate to those efforts, please reach out to us to volunteer or donate. But make no mistake, we simply would not have be able to move forward with this project without the steadfast support of organizations like the Cloudsplitter Foundation. So once again, we say Thank You.
Caleb Lyon, Jr., youngest son to Lyon family patriarch, Caleb Sr. – whose progeny have long been tied to the Lyons Falls community – was born up the Moose River in Lyonsdale in 1822.
Widely known over his lifetime as a poet, lecturer, traveler, and politician, he might fairly be looked on historically as the black sheep of the family. Notorious for feuding with his older brother Lyman, who it fell upon to run the family’s extensive businesses throughout the North Country, Caleb instead followed his fancies as an immensely talented, albeit somewhat disreputable, tumbleweed. And some would certainly call him much worse than that. But his poetry, written from his earliest days to his last, is first-rate.
By the time he was 25 he had secured an appointment as US Consul to Shanghai, although he never actually made it to China, choosing instead to use his official credentials to travel to South America and then California. And once in California, he quickly championed statehood, was appointed a member of the 1849 California Constitutional Convention, and even managed to be credited (somewhat questionably as it turns out) with designing California’s Great Seal.
Lyon’s restless feet soon brought him back to Lewis County, where he was quickly elected to the NYS Assembly and US Congress. But wanderlust again prevailed, and so he wrangled an appointment from Abraham Lincoln to be Governor of the Idaho Territory. The poetry-writing “Lyon of Lyonsdale,” as he often chose to call himself, was rather conspicuous in the roughshod wild west and not a popular Governor. His critics called him “Cale of the Dale” and while his negotiations with the indigenous Shoshone people are viewed as rather progressive in hindsight, they certainly did not go down well with Idaho miners and land prospectors at the time, who were pressing to attack and wipe out indigenous settlements. His unilateral decision to move the territory’s capital to Boise and his promotion of speculative diamond mining ventures that “ruined many a better man,” led the Idaho Stateman to once write that only a “military escort could prevent him from violence or death.”
So at risk was his life from the good folks of Idaho, Lyon ultimately chose to flee for the East Coast, pursued by allegations that he had stolen $42,000 that he was to deliver to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (for his part, he claimed some unknown thief had stolen the money as he slept on a train departing Idaho).
His last years were mostly spent at Lyon Castle, a large home he acquired and renamed, which had been built to replicate Windsor Castle in the Rossville section of Staten Island. He lived there with his sister while amassing a considerable art collection and awaiting possible indictment. He did manage to return to the North County briefly (to secretly exhume the bodies of his parents from their island burial crypt in Lyonsdale and have them reburied in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn), but that’s story for another day. No charges were ever brought against the Lyon of Lyonsdale, as he managed to drag the criminal investigation out for years until his death finally mooted it.
Regardless of what one might otherwise think of the Lyon, his poems are still to be admired and always worth reading, although they often are hard to find today. Around these parts, he is perhaps best known for three of his early poems, “The Thousand Islands,” “Stanzas,” and “Lewis County in the Olden Time” (click image to expand).
The Trial of Horatio Hough (pronounce “huff”) is a short, but enlightening documentary film that follows a group of cavers in 2014 as they search for Hough’s Cave, a stop on the Underground Railroad on Route 26 just south of the hamlet of Martinsburg in rural Lewis County in upstate New York. Intercut with their search for the cave is the story of Horatio Hough, a farmer and resolute abolitionist who defied the status quo of his church, his community, and a nation under slavery in 1840’s America.
The film was done by Clarkson University Professor Stephen Farina, who originally screened it at the Annual Underground Railroad Public History Conference at Russell Sage College in April 2016 and has since been shown in various settings, but is currently available online at this link: vimeo.com/125483102.
This project was undertaken at the behest the Lewis County Historical Society and the Martinsburg Historical Society in an effort to preserve this story before all physical evidence of the cave and its significance was lost. Without such actions, local legends (like that of Hough’s Cave) all too quickly are forgotten or relegated to the dustbins of history.
In 1926, the State of New York began an historic roadside marker program. The first of those markers placed in Lewis County was to memorial the location of Hough’s Cave. And it still stands there today.
Recently, the Lewis County Historical Society was fortunate to receive a donation from the Christian “Earl” Yousey family of a Civil War-era Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle, which had been owned and used during the Civil War by prominent Lowville and Lewis County man Van Rensselaer Lansing Waters.
Every year, new artifacts are added to our collections through the generosity of individuals, families, businesses and other organizations. Donations of artifacts are the main way in which our collections grow; they are one of the few ways you can help preserve and leave a legacy to the history of Lewis County; and they truly help the Historical Society in fulfilling its mission as interpreters and promoters of Lewis County’s history. So let us say right up front, thank you to the Yousey family.
And now to Lansing Waters, who was quite a well-known and accomplished figure around Lowville for many years. He was born in 1843 in Trenton Falls, NY to the Rev. Van Rensselaer Lansing Waters and his wife, Belinda Burr, but the family soon moved to Constableville, NY, where young Lansing’s boyhood days were spent. He attended the common schools around Constableville, but subsequently would move north to board at and attend Lowville Academy.
For those who might not know, Waters would later go into business with prominent Lowville merchants Dewitt Clinton West and Frank Easton, ultimately taking over their businesses and becoming renowned as one of the largest and best known dry goods merchants in the North Country. His business occupied three floors in downtown Lowville; his merchandize was varied, with different lines grouped separately; and essentially he ran what was Lowville’s first department store. A prominent member of the Lowville community, known for his intelligence, honesty and fine judgement, he was active in most every movement for the upbuilding of Lowville and the extension of its influence in the business world.
Beyond his own dry goods store, he was also a director of the Asbestos Burial Casket Factory, one of Lowville’s most valuable industries at the time; he was instrumental in organizing and the first president of the Fulton Machine and Vice Company, another major Lowville business; he was one of the principal organizers of the Lowville and Beaver River Railroad; and he played a prominent role in securing the splendid water system that Lowville continues to use to this day, serving as Lowville’s water commissioner for years. He was a high priest in the Lowville chapter of the Masonic Order, a vestryman at Trinity Church, and a long-time trustee of Lowville Academy.
Waters Terrace in Lowville take its name Lansing Waters, not only because of his stature in the community, but because he lived for much of his life in the house on the corner of that street, known today as the 1812 House. Indeed, he built much of the back half of the 1812 House while he lived there. And if you have the good fortune to visit or stay at the lovely house, you will find that Chris and Shelia Buckingham, who operate the 1812 House, have named one of their rooms after him.
But as much as Lansing Waters is known as one of Lowville’s foremost citizens, he was also known as a soldier. At the time of the Civil War, Waters was fresh out of Lowville Academy, barely 17 and working as a clerk in the store of Col. Seth Miller in Constableville. But when Fort Sumter’s guns resounded through the land in 1861, Lansing Waters was one of those who stepped forward to answer Lincoln’s call and stake his life on the issue then involved.
He enlisted out of Turin in Co. K, 5th New York Heavy Artillery (at the time called Co. B, 3rd Battalion, Black River Artillery). Notwithstanding his youth, he was elected sergeant of his Company, and though he was mustered into service at Sackets Harbor, he and his Company were soon sent south. He proved an exceptional soldier, and was quickly promoted to second and then first lieutenant before he was twenty. He served within the defenses of Washington, and commanded a mortar battery on Maryland Heights when it was besieged by General Jubell Early during his raid on Washington. He was subsequently appointed assistant provost marshal on the staff of General Stevenson, where he would go on to distinguish himself in the lengthy engagements at Harper’s Ferry and Shenandoah Valley.
Upon enlistment, Lansing Waters had been given this Enfield rifle, which he carried with him throughout the war, and he was allowed to retain it upon his discharge. The gun is a Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. And put simply, it is one of the most important firearms of the 19th century. It is a rifled musket (replacing the older smoothbore muskets of the time); it was produced in England and issued to British regulars and colonial troops around the globe.
These guns were chambered to fire a Minie ball, which was a relatively new type of ammunition that replaced musket balls with lead .58 caliber bullet-shaped projectiles. The Enfield was also among the first military rifles to be fitted with sights as standard (previously muskets had been inaccurate, due to their smoothbore barrel and round musket ball, could only shoot an effective range of 200 yards, and sights were unnecessary) and was considered a “sharpshooters rifle.” The Pattern 1853 Enfield used an adjustable ladder sight, with a second, flip up sight for distances up to 1,250 yards. Both the North and the South purchased Enfield’s from the British in great numbers during the War; it was the most popular firearm used by the South and the second most used by the North (which also used the Union .58 Springfield).
Lansing Waters kept this rifle throughout his life, often taking it to events long after the Civil War. He took a deep interest in Grand Army affairs; he was one of the oldest members of the Guilford D. Bailey Post, G.A.R, and held the office of commander at the time of his death. He was active in organizing annual reunions of veterans of the Third Battalion, Fifth New York Heavy Artillery, and served as president of that organization. In 1913, a year before his death, Waters even visited Gettysburg on the 50th Anniversary of that battle to make peace and shake hands with former Confederate officers. And, of course, where he went, so too often did his Enfield rifle.
After his death in 1914, his Enfield rifle became available at an estate sale and was purchased for $2 by Earl Yousey, who also received a bayonet, the original ammo pouch, and a belt buckle and brass uniform buttons with his purchase. Kept by that family all these years, it was recently donated to our collection.
Just outside Lowville on outer Stowe Street used to stand one of Lewis County’s great old historic buildings, or set of buildings, now unfortunately long gone: the Lewis County Almshouse (or Poorhouse) – or what in later years came to be called the “County Home.”
In 1824, New York passed the County Poorhouse Act, which was designed to help disadvantaged citizens by authorizing county governments to open houses to place and take care of people that were unable to care for themselves, including the poor, elderly, sick, and disabled. As a result, almshouses began to pop up all over the state. They were funded by taxpayers and managed by county governments, thus alleviating local towns of the responsibility for the poor that they had born prior to the 1824 Act. At the time, Lewis County was ranked 46th in the state for pauperism.
As a result, some of Lewis County’s most distinguished and respected men at the time, Judge Jonathan Collins, Charles Morse, and Stephen Hart, were given responsibility for finding a suitable location to erect a county almshouse, which they promptly did – choosing the former farm of Major David Cobb, some 60-acres located just west of Lowville. Initially, the Cobb family farmhouse and buildings were repurposed for use as the first Lewis County Almshouse.
A Superintendent of the Poor was appointed to be responsible for managing the social welfare of the county’s impoverished. Some of the first appointed officials to occupy the role were men of distinction: Judge Nathaniel Merriam (one of the county’s earliest county judges and patriarch of Leyden’s Merriam family); Philo Rockwell (Gen. Walter Martin’s son-in-law); Stephen Leonard (prominent Lowville businessman); and Paul Abbott (merchant tailor and builder of Lowville’s 1812 House).
The Superintendent, in turn, would appoint the Keeper of the Almshouse, and the Keeper and his wife (often called Matron of the House) would both live and work at the facility, although as time passed a separate brick house was later built for them further down Stowe Street. The Keeper and his wife were responsible for running the Almshouse and attending to the safety and comfort of its residents. They would manage the grounds, including the 60 acre farm, supervise the residents while they worked, and help supply all resources needed by those at the facility, like food and medicine. The first Keeper of the House on record was Samuel S. Raine of Lowville.
This County Home facility went through several renovations over time, the first of which was prompted by a visit from Dorothea Dix, the 19th century social reform advocate for the indigent and mentally ill. Dix traveled all across the eastern United States, visiting poorhouses, jails, and asylums and kept a detailed record of her visits in a journal. In 1844, she toured Upstate New York, where she found the conditions of the Lewis County Almshouse to be poor, primarily because she found the size of the facility too small and smell of the place disagreeable. However, she did believe that the Keepers of the House did the best they could for what they had, and thought the residents were generally treated well. These remarks were a welcomed relief to the alternative, as Dix was well-known for exposing any abuse happening at an almshouse, which often was the unfortunate case at other locations in the state. Still, it was clear that reform was needed in order to comfortably accommodate the increasing numbers of people that were seeking relief in Lewis County. To that end, Dix, who was also a philanthropist, donated some of her own wealth towards the efforts of a new and improved County Home.
A two-story limestone building, 40 by 60 feet, was promptly erected on the property, which improved conditions dramatically. The needs of the County’s impoverished and mentally ill continued to grow, however, and within 25 years, even more space was required. By the late 1860s, the stone building had been replaced by a much larger, quite magnificent three-story brick structure (at a construction cost at the time of $11,500), and shortly thereafter a separate two-story brick building to house “a lunatic asylum” was also erected (at a construction cost of $8,000). When control over supposed “insane” patients was later transferred to state control in the 1890s, 33 residents were relocated at the time to the state mental asylum in Ogdensburg.
By the early 1900s, the Lewis County Almshouse had its own hospital. It owned and operated its own farm, with barns and outbuildings, the proceeds of which went to help defray the costs of operating the Almshouse. And it maintained its own cemetery for the indigent, which still sits just across the street, is marked by a large white cross, and contains over 150 internments.
At its height, the Almshouse could house upwards of 100 people, and typically averaged between 30 and 60 a year. It became home to people who could not care for themselves for any number of reasons: the poor; widowed mothers; immigrants; the sick and injured; those who were deaf or blind; and those with other special needs. Those who were more able-bodied worked on the farm and performed other duties in exchange for being able to live there and receive care. Despite the negative associations that poorhouses often carry, the Almshouse was home to many people for many years; many residents spent the majority of their lives there; and a number of them are still interred on the property.
The County Home, as it came to be called, operated as an almshouse well into the 20th century, and prided itself on providing clean and comfortable relief for all who stayed there. By the 1950s, however, the county began to explore other ways to help battle poverty: the Keeper’s position was abolished in 1954; the farm’s machinery and livestock were auctioned off in 1957; and the County Home came to be used primarily as offices for the Lewis County Welfare Department by 1960. Sadly, the historic brick buildings making up the County Home complex were demolished by the county in 1986, only to be replaced by a handful of county buildings lacking the architectural and historical significance of the buildings that once stood there.
Who doesn’t love an old barn? And, for those of you around Lewis County who find historic barns worthy of your time and attention, New York State has just adopted a 25 percent state tax credit for restoration of barns built before 1945 either to productive use or as places for small businesses such as event spaces, craft breweries, and the like.
Many see historic preservation as a pivotal strategy for rural revitalization – we certainly applaud it here at the Lewis County Historical Society. And with this new Historic Barn Rehabilitation Tax Credit, the State is taking a step to make it more affordable to save beloved old barns from disrepair while exploring new uses in agritourism, arts and culture. Time, of course, will tell, but the State’s incentive may help preserve many an historic old barn across our rural North Country communities.
According to the NYS Preservation League, “the renewal of the barn tax credit will provide a much-needed resource, [for] the historic barns that dot our landscape [not only] provide a tangible link to our state’s agricultural past, but they also represent opportunities to revitalize communities — either through adaptive reuse or reinvestment in agricultural uses.”
There are two words we seem to use more than any others when speaking about these good folks, and they are “Thank You.”
And we use them again here to note what this wonderful foundation has meant to the Lewis County Historical Society this past year and through the pandemic.
For almost one hundred years, the Northern New York Community Foundation (NNYCF) has been making history by improving the quality of life for communities in St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Lewis Counties through grants and scholarships. They have been a steadfast supporter of many Lewis County Historical Society projects and deserve a particularly heartfelt “thank you” for their support of our new website through the Michael Brown Fund – we could not have done it without them!
The NNYCF’s mission is to inspire and celebrate giving, steward resources honorably, and foster vibrant North Country communities. They do that by inspiring a spirit of philanthropy, developing relationships, acting respectfully, and honoring stewardship – all values that the Lewis County Historical Society shares.
We encourage you to take some time and explore our new website – Historically Lewis. There is new information and resources for those who want to learn more about the history of this county we call home, those who want to know where their family came from, and those who are thinking about moving here and contributing to the continuum of our local history. We hope you enjoy learning about the history of Lewis County as much as we enjoy sharing it. And once again, please join us in thanking the NNYCF for making it possible.
History is oft said to be what historians have the vision to find, shape and memorialize so that we may better understand and learn from our past. And in many ways, the history of Lewis County is as much about our historians as it is about our history: the Houghs; Byron Bowen; Art Einhorn; George Davis; the Van Arnums; Louis Mihalyi; George Cataldo…and on and on.
One who certainly belongs in that discussion is Dr. Jerry Perrin, the long-time curator and office manager of the Lewis County Historical Society. We must first confess, however, that writing anything about Jerry in this fashion is nothing we ever wanted to do: certainly not during a pandemic when friends and colleagues cannot get together to talk or grieve; and frankly, as a piece in memoriam, not ever.
Sadly, however, during Christmas week in the waning days of the godawful year that was 2020, the Historical Society lost an irreplaceable colleague and friend, and the County lost a fine historian, when Jerry passed away. Hopefully he’s at peace, but here at the Historical Society, even long afterwards, we remain heartbroken.
For those of you who had the pleasure of getting to know Jerry over the years, you will understand the depth of this loss. In many ways, Jerry had been the life blood of our Society for much of the past two decades, our heart and soul, and at times the very glue that held us all together.
He was a gentle spirit, a friendly voice, a tireless volunteer, a gifted historian, a thoughtful and curious mind, a driving force behind the restoration of Greystone (the General Walter Martin House), and a lover of historic buildings and cemeteries and glassware and flatware and coins and old books…my goodness, he had a list of interests that seemed endlessly to grow.
Always generous with his time; routinely going out of his way to help anyone with a question of genealogy or local history; patience was his strength whether someone needed a hand or an ear; and should anyone ever do anything for him, no matter how small, he was one of the most appreciative people you were ever likely to meet.
He was continually pulling some item out of his personal collection of antiques and giving it to a visitor, a friend or someone who showed him a kindness – because, well, that’s just the way he was.
So too is it worth a moment to speak about the intersection between Jerry the person and Jerry the historian; for Jerry actually came to history later in life. Many do not know this about him – and he did not often talk about it – but he was a gifted chemical engineer in his early years. He came out of Edwards in St. Lawrence County, where he graduated valedictorian. He would then go on to Syracuse University, where he graduated, magna cum laude, as the top student in chemical engineering. Following that, he got both a masters and then a PhD in chemical engineering, which turned him into “Dr.” Jerry Perrin. He would then go on to work in high-tech industrial development, where he was a highly-regarded member of many academic and professional organizations, filed for and held multiple patents in his own name, and published a number of scholarly articles.
Jerry spent a good bit of his life on the east coast outside Boston and the west coast in Seattle, but at some point, his interests turned to what he would call “old stuff.” He returned to northern New York, ultimately settling in Talcottville, buying the historic 200-year old Munn family house, opening an antiques business and, much to the community’s good fortune, volunteering at the Lewis County Historical Society. And what a volunteer he was.
His tireless dedication over the years would lead to service as both an officer and director of the Society, the chair at one time or another of most every committee we have, and ultimately the Society’s curator and office manager. And when periodically we would float the idea of making him “Executive Director,” he would turn it down as too lofty a title. Did we mention his humble nature and humility?
While you would think his hands were full within the walls of the our Society, he would also join and become an active member of both the Martinsburg Historical Society and the Lyons Falls History Association; he was historian for the town of Leyden; he served on the board of the Talcottville cemetery; he would regularly liaise with other historians, societies and museums around the County, sharing information and trying to be of help as he did; he was deeply involved in the North Country’s tri-county historians association, both attending and sponsoring events; he was an active member of the Professional Historians of New York State; he worked with any number of people to get historic places in Lewis County listed on the National Register; and when the Historical Society itself went through a tough patch a decade or so ago and much of its leadership disappeared, it’s fair to say that the Society might not have survived without Jerry’s presence and perseverance to hold everything together.
Some knew, but most did not, of the illnesses that followed his leukemia diagnosis a couple of years ago, graft vs host disease and myasthenia gravis. But while it certainly slowed him down, it did not diminish his interest in trying to help anyone looking for information or who came to the Historical Society. When his illness robbed him of the use of his legs for a period, he literally would crawl up flights of stairs to retrieve an artifact for someone. When his eyesight declined, he would look for information in a document or book with a big magnifying glass, or have a colleague read it to him – just so he could answer a question for someone. Even in his last days, on those occasions when he was strong enough to talk at length, he still loved to talk about history and the Historical Society and what was going on with all of us. His close friendships sustained him, but he was always insistent that we get back to people to tell them how much he valued the help, attention and love that others had shown for him through his long illness. Even someone’s quick note deserved a response, he would say.
Our words only but scratch the surface of who Jerry Perrin was and what he has meant to the Historical Society and the North Country community. Perhaps better are some of the many notes we received after his passing: “he was the absolute best”; “we have lost one of the greatest”; “a true gentleman”; “one of the nicest people I ever met”; “always friendly and helpful”; “a champion of preserving local history”; “really liked his kind and gentle manner”; “have been trying to find the right words – the very soul of the Historical Society”; “he was my friend”; “a very gifted historian”; “such a kind man and always brought me an antique thimble for Christmas”; “what a great, knowledgeable person”; “will always remember the cooperative spirit that was his”; “such a kind soul”; “his quiet, gentle spirit with his sparkling blue eyes always impressed me”; “generous with his time and intellect”; “never lacked in caring for the Society, it collections and community”; “a Lewis County treasure.” Hopefully their words give some sense of who this good man was. Jerry Perrin: a dedicated historian; a genuinely good and decent human being; our friend. We will miss him greatly.
You wouldn’t know it today, but in the latter part of the 1800s, one of the top tourist attractions in Lewis County was the Lowville Mineral Springs House – located a mile west of the village along what today is Route 12 (including most everything north of that road from All Seasons Landscaping to the Gordon Road, and all the way over to Mill Creek).
At the time this restorative resort was built, “taking the waters” was part of the emergence of a medical and public health industry evolving away from bloodletting, blistering and purgatives as the principal treatments for many ailments. Lowville, of course, was not alone in this emergence, as various New York locations were thought to have beneficial health properties due to the existence of “healing mineral springs.” And these locations began to flourish as people increasingly looked to them not only as places of healing, but as high society and entertainment venues.
The most well-known of these was the famous Saratoga Springs resort outside Albany, but there were others around the state – and the Lowville Mineral Springs House quickly took its place among those. Over a period of thirty years or so, people increasingly would travel to Lowville to enjoy its healing mineral springs at a fine hotel amidst beautiful scenery.
The original hotel, known as the “Grove House,” was constructed in 1872 by Dr. Horatio S. Hendee, not only a respected local physician, but a well-known investor in building projects around the county. Quite quickly, Hendee sold off interests in the hotel as it began to develop. Ultimately, the entire estate was purchased by Lowville’s John O’Donnell, who not only was the publisher of The Lowville Times newspaper and the builder of The Times Block in downtown Lowville, but he had served as the area’s Assemblyman and State Senator and ultimately ended up as the State’s Railroad Commissioner – a position of extreme political importance at the time. Not surprisingly, O’Donnell used his many influences to promote the Mineral Springs House.
While the main portion of the hotel burned in the 1880s, the O’Donnells built it back bigger and better. And at its height, the Mineral Springs House resort encompassed several hundred acres of land, and the rebuilt Grove House was considered one of the finest buildings in the state. With its extensive wrap-around porches and wide verandas, the hotel sat amidst a beautiful grove of 150 maple trees and could accommodate upwards of 100 guests at a time. And due to demand, additional cottages were built around the estate to accommodate a growing guest list.
The hotel itself boasted a large performance stage, and entertainment acts from as far away as New York City were regularly booked to perform there throughout the season. Dedicated carriages ferried guests back and forth to Lowville and its train station. Telegraph (and later telephone) services were available to all guests, as were complete laundry services. The rooms were large, well-furnished and well-ventilated. And the hotel was heated by the then modern “Dead Air Cell System,” which had been developed and patented by O’Donnell and was regarded by architects and engineers at the time as both “effectual and inexpensive.”
The house had a fine kitchen and dining room to which guests were granted complete access, and its food operations were largely self-sufficient. The estate operated its own “Maple Grove” dairy farm to provide its guests with fresh, high quality milk, cream, and butter. The farm had a herd of “fine blooded” Jerseys, a hennery to provide fresh eggs, livestock for meats, and extensive vegetable gardens and greenhouses. And every spring, sap was collected from the maple trees on the estate and maple syrup, candies and butters were produced.
The estate also had lavish grounds, and its gardens were known for their serene beauty. There was lawn tennis, a track for horseback riding and driving, a great revolving swing (quite like a Ferris Wheel), and croquet. Guests could swim in its manicured ponds and freely wander the beautiful grounds and miles of trails, which included access to the nearby Mill Creek gorge, euphemistically called “the Lowville Glen.”
But the big draw, of course, were the springs. And there were at least five natural mineral springs on the estate: three were pure water (one of which was known as the silver springs); one was white sulphur; and the last was iron. Doctors at the time recommended such springs to heal a variety of ailments, ranging from “impurities of the blood,” rheumatism, neuralgia, bronchitis, pleurisy, and liver problems to insomnia and depression.
Guests would drink the silver and white sulphur spring water, with doctors deeming it perfectly safe and beneficial. The iron water was also consumed, but doctors only recommended certain amounts for specific ailments. The white sulphur water in particular was said to have “proved a wonderful remedy for a large class of diseases. It acts directly upon the liver and kidneys, and, unlike all other sulphur water, is not disagreeable to the taste. When slightly charged, it is clear and more sparkling that Apollinaris, and is the king of all table waters.”
Spring water was not only popular for drinking, but also for bathing, in both cold and hot baths. The estate erected two large bathhouses, one for men and the other for women. Water from the white sulphur and iron springs were brought to the bathhouses and heated for the comfort of guests.
The Lowville Mineral Springs House handled hundreds of visitors each season, which typically began in late spring and ran all summer into mid-fall. Borders paid $2-3 a day or $6 a week (local non-boarders could also enjoy the springs’ benefits, as jugs of spring water were bottled and brought to the village of Lowville to be sold for $0.20 per jug).
More than just a health resort, the grounds were used as a center for entertainment, meetings, and community events. Perhaps due to O’Donnell’s stature and political influence, a wide variety of political candidates from across New York state would regularly come to the Lowville Mineral Springs to plan their campaigns, while taking advantage of the quiet, relaxing, and revitalizing atmosphere and environment. The O’Donnells prided themselves on their hospitality and, for a number of years, lived right on the grounds. They developed a reputation for treating every guest as if they were family and regularly received guest testimonials praising the estate for its exceedingly kind owners, its healing waters, and beautiful scenery.
And yet, despite all its luxury, success and acclaim, the venture was relatively short-lived. By the early 1900s, John O’Donnell had died, the business had largely shut down and parts of the resort thereafter either burned, withered away from neglect or were plowed under by local farmers.
Sadly, nothing remains of the resort or its lavish grounds today.
This is a tale of the rise and demise of the Harrisburg Glass Factory. We offer it up because every time its existence is mentioned, most folks profess surprise that the small town of Harrisburg ever had such an enterprise. But it’s true: there once was a small glassworks east of the Cobb Rd. and just off the Widener Rd. – in the midst of today’s windmill county, on what was the old John Rice farm – and it produced some of the most beautiful early American aquamarine Lilypad glassware one can imagine.
The enterprise did not last long, beginning in 1841 and ending a year or two later due to the “irregular habits” (an 1800s euphemism for alcoholism) of the business’s master glassblower, Irishman Matt Johnson. What little is known of the short-lived operation, however, provides a colorful story:
In 1841, John Rice, a Harrisburg landowner living on the Widener Rd., made the acquaintance of Matt Johnson, a young talented glassblower from Ireland who had come to Boston in the early 1830s. Not much is documented of Johnson’s formative experiences in Beantown, but he apparently worked at the Boston Glass Manufactory, where he met master glassman John Foster. Foster would go on to oversee various glass factories in Vermont and New York, before finally setting up his own newly formed glass factory in Redwood in Jefferson County in 1833. And Johnson, in turn, would follow Forster to the wilds of Upstate New York, joining his new Redwood operation in 1834 with several other glass blowers.
While the Redwood factory was constructed to make window glass, it’s probably best remembered for the fancy and rare decorative pieces (bowls, paperweights, canes and the like) that were made by Johnson and the other glass workers in their spare time – pieces that typically had an aquamarine tint due to their original formula for mixing the ingredients. Yet Johnson, whose skills and creativity were undeniable, had begun to develop a bit of a problem with “the wine-cup,” as historian Franklin B. Hough would say, and his drinking would ultimately lead to his departure.
By 1839, hearing rumors that a 20-year old Canadian entrepreneur, Amasa Mallory, was keen to finance a new glass operation in Mallorytown, Ontario, Johnson headed there to become the first (and ultimately only) glassblower for the new Canadian glass works. And while the Mallorytown factory soon began to generate small amounts of Johnson’s aquamarine tableware, bottles and whimsies, its operations did not last more than a year or two. Stated reason for its closure: “Matt kept showing up for work in an inebriated state or just didn’t show up at all, and finally Amasa Mallory decided he’d had enough.”
Enter Harrisburg and John Rice. While no one quite knows how their introduction came about, Rice’s granddaughter, Mrs. Della Curtis, would some years later write the following:
“In the year of 1841 my grandfather, John Rice, who lived in Harrisburg (Cobb District), became acquainted with a man by the name of Johnson, a skilled glass blower by trade. They agreed to start a glass factory, Mr. Rice to furnish the capital, Mr. Johnson to do the work. Early that fall Mr. Rice built a log factory a short distance west of his home. A brick oven was constructed in the glass house. The sand was drawn from Dexter, a distance of about 30 miles. Mr. Rice took Mr. Johnson and his family, consisting of his wife and two children, into his home and boarded them, as he did also one, and sometimes two, hired to work in the factory.”
And so it began. Johnson was left to create glassware for sale as he saw fit, blowing the pieces he loved: pitchers, sugar bowls, jugs, sauce dishes, and similar tableware. These were of the bluish aquamarine color he had become known for, often resplendent with Lilypads and other decorative flourishes. Occasionally, he would place a three-cent piece in the knobs of some of his sugar bowls.
All of this glassware was made for local sale, and a good share of it was easily disposed of by Mr. Rice in his travels to Watertown, Dexter and Lowville. And, as Johnson’s work quickly developed a growing reputation, many a visitor made their way to the Widener Rd. factory to purchase his glassware directly. But then, once again “due to irregular habits” of the master glassblower, fortunes began to change. As Mrs. Curtis would later say:
“It was a paying project at first but in a short time Johnson would make an excuse that the blowpipes or other tools needed fixing in a nearby blacksmith shop and would wind up in a hotel near the shop where he would become intoxicated, leaving glass material that had been placed in the oven to burn. [Rice would return] with materials for the works and provisions for both families expecting to find quantities of glass ready for market only to find Johnson had been on a spree and the glass in the ovens ruined.”
As financial loses increasingly began to mount, Rice would threaten to close the operation, Mrs. Rice would plead that Johnson be given another chance for the sake of his wife and children, and Johnson would promise to do better. And with each reprieve, Johnson would briefly perform better, only to later slip away to some local watering hole, where he’d pay for his liquor with pieces of glass. You can guess the rest of the story: after several such trials, Rice ultimately gave Johnson the boot and the days of the Harrisburg Glass Factory came to an end.
Unfortunately, the exact location of the factory remains a mystery – if it could be located, suffice it to say that the Lewis County Historical Society would endeavor to undertake an analysis of any remains. And its glassware gets harder and harder to find – most is in the hands of collectors, but a few pieces are available for viewing at places like the Corning Museum of Glass, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Bayou Bend and the Adirondack Experience.
Sadly, the Lewis County Historical Society has none of Johnson’s Harrisburg glassware – which is truly unfortunate, as there ought to be some of this important glassware preserved in Lewis County for future generations to see (hint, hint, for anyone who’d like to donate a piece to the Historical Society).