In The Beginning...

From the February 2000 Newsletter

by Donna B. Ryan


In the last two newsletters, we have looked at the life of the late John Reynolds, author, historian, local politician, entrepreneur, civic leader, family man, friend, and his impact on our community.  The publication of his book, The Almond Story, in 1962 was a catalyst in lighting a fire within local people to do something to preserve local history.  Many of us can still remember the excitement that stirred by his tales about Steven Major and "the old stone house," Indian Fighter Moses Van Campen's daring expeditions, and the courage of the Rev. Andrew Gray and a small band of early settlers who made their way from Pennsylvania up through Lincoln's Notch into the virgin territory now known as Karr Valley.  John's easy writing style brought Almond's history to life by connecting the current residents and the pioneer families and providing vivid descriptions of where events occurred.  People wanted to know more about what happened "way back then..."

A friendly, likable man who was respected by everyone, John continued to encourage folks to become active in the preservation of local history.  As I dug through reams of his notes and letters in the archives at Hagadorn House and talked with folks who knew John, it became apparent that he was not content until his passion for the preservation of local history had motivated others to join him in the establishment of a local historical society.  However, he knew this would require a handful of leaders who would put forth the energy, effort and commitment necessary to pull an organization together.  He recognized this zeal in the women of the 20th Century Club, who had worked tirelessly throughout the century to organize, build, and maintain the local library in town.

They responded to the challenge, and at their annual President's Day Dinner held May 14, 1963, the late Mrs. Howard (Agnes) Fritz announced plans for the 20th Century Club to sponsor an historical room in the library. According to the Evening Tribune article, she was quoted:  "The room will house items based on the history of Almond which otherwise might be lost or destroyed."  She further noted that an old and valuable portrait of Nettie Davis, an early settler from Almond and previous donor to the library, had been presented for the room.  "In the original proposal, the trustees of the library, the librarian, and a committee from the community will be authorized to proceed with the possibility of such an historical collection and arrange space for it, accepting only those items which are deemed suitable and valuable enough to preserve in a public institution," she continued.

Letters went out on May 21, 1963, signed by Mrs. Fritz, to a group of individuals:  "You have been selected as an initial member of the soon-to-be organized Almond Historical Committee to function under the auspices of the 20th Century Club.  It was our purpose to select people of the community who would have an interest in early Almond history, and those who could lead assistance and advice to such a project.  I feel that being a member of such a committee would be of mutual benefit as certainly there are many things of interest to discover and the results can be of lasting benefit.  You will be hearing more about this soon."

The initial committee to develop the collection included the board of trustees of the library, the librarian (Mrs. Clinton Hamlin), Attorney Mary Karr Jackson and Mrs. Harold Robertson as honorary members, Mrs. Ruth Sission, Mrs. Elizabeth Karr, Mrs. Elizabeth Greene, Miss Hazel Stewart, Miss Mary Lockart, Mrs. Fred Bayless, Mrs. Glenn Biehl, Mrs. Kenneth Crusen, Milton Baker, Richard Braack, Harold Colburn, Linn Phelan, Rev. Jesse Howat, Wayne Kellogg and John Reynolds.  While John was no doubt encouraged at the response he was receiving, he must have really appreciated a letter found in the archives from Mrs. Sue Turner, president of the Club trustees:  "I hope you realize how much we all appreciate the effort and time you are so willing to donate to this worthwhile project.  Because we all do!"

In the meantime, John continued his extensive letter-writing campaign to the State Education Department, as well as a multitude of curators, historical societies, and related organizations, gathering information on how to organize an historical society.  The committee continued to correspond and consult, obtaining sample statements of purpose, constitutions and bylaws, in preparation for a public meeting.  John wanted to secure a well-known speaker, hoping to attract a large crowd.  He even contacted Arch Merrill, author of the New York State historical books so collectible today.  Merrill's letter to John, found in the archives, states that he did no public speaking at all, although he warmly wished the group well. Wellsville native Lois O'Connor, author and feature writer with the Ithaca Journal, agreed to speak at all the much-anticipated organizational meetings held at AACS on October 2, 1964.

We can only imagine John's excitement when he addressed the crowd of seventy thus:  

"Some time ago a committee was appointed to study the possibility of organizing a local historical society.  On behalf of that committee, I welcome you here this evening.  At the same time I would like to express our great pleasure and appreciation for having so many here with us.  We hope we can interpret this evidence that there does exist considerable interest in local history and a desire to preserve materials associated with it, from which we and those who follow us, may learn about their heritage.  Your presence here this evening lends encouragement for this endeavor.

As temporary chairman of this committee, I would like to take a few moments to explain briefly why we are here this evening.  As you may have concluded, the primary reason is to ascertain if enough interest and enthusiasm does exist to proceed further with the organization of an historical society in our community.  At the conclusion of our program this evening, you will be given an opportunity to express your wishes.

Quite naturally you will ask, 'Why is it necessary or desirable to organize such a society here?' I think the question can be best answered by relating this little story.  During the late 1890's and for a few years after the turn of the century, Stephen Major Coleman wrote several articles for local newspapers about a subject dear to his heart - the history of the Almond community.  This he was well qualified to do, because having been born in the old stone house in Karr Valley, he spent his entire life in that area. He had known many of the original settlers personally and had listened to some of the tales they told.  And because he took the time to pass this information on to us, we are much indebted to this man.

In one of his articles, he told of an old contract that had been entered into between Joseph A. Rathbun, our first schoolmaster, and those of the neighbors who had children of school age.  It was dated the 21st day of June A.D. 1802, and was a lengthy document and written by Rathbun in beautiful script that had been described to have been like copper plate.  In his newspaper article, Coleman quoted an old contract in its entirety, which was most fortunate.  It stated that he, Rathbun, professioning science in orthography, arithmetic and English grammar, would teach a regular arithmetic school for the benefit of the children or the subscribers themselves if they so desired. As compensation for his services, he was to receive specified quantities of wheat, corn or flax at market prices from each of his subscribers for each child and for each quarter.  The contract also authorized Rathbun to administer discipline as and when necessary to those of his pupils who became unruly.

From some source, possibly Rathbun family who were his neighbors, Mr. Coleman had acquired the original contract. On February 17, 1900, at Union School parents' meeting, Mr. Coleman, then a very old man, talked about early schools.  At the conclusion of his talk, he presented the original contract to the school, that it may be, and I quote, 'suitably encased, placed in the school library, and preserved as a historical document for all time to come, its value increasing each passing year'.

Today, sixty-four years later, the priceless old document has disappeared, nobody knows where.  What happened in this case can happen again.  Unless an enduring depository is provided for such valuable documents, important and interesting materials will disappear just like the old contract.

"We know there still remains in our community much material of historic interest stored away in attics or other out-of-the-way places where it faces constant danger of destruction or loss.  Two years ago when the Union of Churches celebrated its sesquicentennial, a display of old historical items was arranged.  It was amazing to see the quantity and variety that was loaned for the occasion.  It was a most interesting exhibit.  Unless steps are taken to safeguard and preserve these items, how many will be here sixty years from now?

The thought of organizing a local historical society is not new. We have been aware of the need to have responsible organization to reach and preserve such important historical materials, but nothing has been done about it.  It is known that much material, illustrative of Almond's past, has been given away, sold at auctions, lost, or destroyed by someone ignorant of their value.  Had a responsible organization then existed, there is no question that much would have been saved and retained in the library.

The proposal to organize such a group was recently advanced to the 20th Century Club.  The club voted to study the proposition, and in the event that a society was organized, graciously offered the use of one of the rooms in the library where historical items could be displayed and preserved as far as the facilities would permit.  As a further incentive-and a most important one-a certain party who wishes to remain anonymous-offered to donate up to a maximum of $500 to help finance the new society providing that the sum was matched dollar for dollar by them. It is not required that the full amount be matched at once, but in sums of $50 or more as the organization proceeds toward its objectives and needs arise.

The basic purpose of this group, if organized, will be to discover, collect and preserve historical materials that will explain or illustrate the settlement of the community, its growth and progress during all the years of its existence.  It will be dedicated to the task of collecting printed materials such as histories, genealogies, biographies, gazetteers, directories, newspapers, etc. Also manuscript materials such as letters, diaries, account books, journals, etc. and museum materials such as pictures, photographs, paintings and portraits, aboriginal relics and other materials illustrative of live, conditions and events of the past, and of the present, for today's happenings in tomorrow's history.

Such a worthwhile project can be accomplished only through community cooperation and enthusiasm.  To all of us interested in the history of our community, participation in such an organization will be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, and a source of endless gratitude of those who follow us."

The persons attending the meeting gave their unanimous support, and John, as temporary chairman, appointed the following organizational committee:  Linn Phelan, Glenn Leathersich, Harold MacMichael, Ruth Sisson, Hazel Stewart, Gladys Witter, Milton Baker, Lawrence Perry, and himself. By November 6, 1964, a constitution and by-laws were presented and adopted at a pre-organizational meeting and officers were selected.  Joining John as president were Dick Braack, vice president; Mrs. Glenn Leathersich as secretary; and Wayne Kellogg, treasurer.  Incidentally, Wayne once again is serving as treasurer thirty-five years later!

That year the membership committe, composed of Hazel Stewart, Agnes Fritz, and Max Marvin, enrolled a total of 153 members under a dues structure of $1 for individuals.  Envelopes saved in the archives show us that postage was only 4 cents per letter in those days!  Two tours of historical interest were conducted:  One to Villa Belvidere, ancestral home of the Philip Church family, and the other to three sites in the Village:  Ruth Kellogg's museum, the Kenneth Hagadorn home, and the Donald Lindeman home. The following September, the application for incorporation was approved by the Board of Regents and the provisional charter was proudly accepted in March, 1965.

From that original organizational committee, only Glenn Leathershich and Lawrence ("Bus") Perry are still living.  Glenn remembers it this way:  

"The Society was started through the efforts of John Reynolds and Hazel Stewart.  She was a powerhouse-writing to everyone she had ever known, asking for their support.  She was a very forceful woman and recruited members far and wide as well as locally, getting around two to three hundred members to join. She was also very outspoken, and folks listened when she spoke.  John was a great historian and gave the Society a good start.  They were the driving forces behind starting the Historical Society.

We were meeting at the Library and were trying to raise money to buy land on which to build a meeting place and museum. There was some interest in a lot owned by the late Ruth Sisson, located between Dick Braack's present house and the creek (on Main Street)."

Then a surprising thing happened: "I had succeeded John Reynolds as president and when Ken Hagadorn died, it came out in the paper that he had left the house and lot to the Historical Society.  Hazel Stewart was as much surprised as anyone.   She said that earlier Ken has made the remark to her, 'I have no heirs.  What will I do with my property when I die?'  Hazel had replied, off hand, 'Leave it to the Historical Society.' Little did she think it would happen.

The contents of the house were left to two sisters of Ken's wife, Marie, who lived in Toronto.  They contacted me that they would come to Almond by bus to take care of the necessary details.  I made an appointment with them to meet them at the house to discuss how they might take care of their inheritance. As they both lived in small apartments, they said they would only have need for a few things and asked for suggestions as to how to dispose of the rest of the contents of the house.

I said that I would contact the executive committee of the Historical Society to see if they would be willing to purchase the contents which the sisters did not want.  This idea appealed to them as they wanted to get things done quickly. We offered them a sum for the contents, which they happily accepted. They chose a few items to take back with them. This gift provided us with a read-made museum of items that ranged from the early 1800's to the present.

To dispose of the items which were not of historical interest, we held an auction.  Much time was spent restoring some of the furniture for use and display.  Dick Braack and others furnished a great amount of service to keep the house in good repair.  Later, Wayne Kellogg and Chub Lockwood took over much of this work. It was interesting to find things in the house such as a couple of antique quilts under the mattresses of several of the beds.  The dishes included many early pieces.  The desk was from the early Post Office and had been given to Ken when he retired as postmaster and rural mail carrier.

Items continue to be gifted to the Society for placement in the museum.  One time we got notice in the mail that the Historical Society had a package insured for $1000 at the Post Office.  It contained a pitcher which appears to be Tucker pottery, one of the first American firms to make art-type pottery.  It had belonged to a local family - and she wanted to return it to the Society.

The Lockhart donations were very valuable additions to the house.  They included several oriental rugs, 19th century furniture, and several crocks, one of which had been painted with black paint and used to hold flowers on the porch.   I took the paint off with paint remover and what emerged was a squirrel in blue as a design - making it very valuable.  Also donated by the Lockart family was the priceless fireman's bucket belonging to Moses VanCampen, frontiersman, surveyor, civic leader, judge and politician, who came to Almond in 1796.  (The Lockhart home was located on Chapel Street "hill" and is now owned by Dave and Connie Dobson.)"

Glenn tells a story about his concern for these items during the flood of 1972:  "People from the community gathered at AACS when their homes were in danger.  Our family joined them for one night when the creek was flowing like a river on both sides of the house. The next day, however, we returned home and asked Don and Bernice Burdett to come over from the school so that they might sleep in a bed.

The following day, Mr. Burdett got permission to go into Almond where the road was closed to traffic to get his auto which he had parked up by Max Marvin's and pick up medication at his house.  I rode with him, wanting to get to the Hagadorn House to see what conditions were there. I found several inches of water still pouring down Karr Valley against the back garage door.  I got the door open to rescue some pieces of antique furniture that had been given to the Society by the Lockhart estate.

A large chest of drawers with sandwich glass knobs was sitting in about a foot of mud and water. I attempted to pick it up to set it up onto a dry spot.  I succeeded in lifting it up after removing the drawer but when I tried to make a step forward to set it down, I found my feet were stuck in the silt.  I thought I would have to drop the chest in the water as my feet were beginning to pull out of my high-top arctics. However, with a long steady pull, I finally got my foot loose and deposited the chest at a safe level. After later cleaning the chest, I found that it suffered no damage.

The cellar of the house was full of water, but luckily nothing of value had been stored there.  Silt was about six inches deep all around the property and in the garage it took many men several days to clean up the mess, " he reminisced.

That same year, a serious stroke took John Reynolds out of active service in the community.  His ability to pass his dream on to others, however, had resulted in strong leadership in the Society. Glenn, who with his wife, Frances, were among those willing and able to carry on, spoke of the enormous work of Linn and Helene Phelan.  "Linn had many ideas about how the Hagadorn House museum should be curated and how records should be kept. He had very definite ideas, and was respected for his knowledge.  He was good at organizing, and was interested in the preservation aspects of the work of the Society, " he said.

A busy man, Linn was a well known  professional artist who also taught art at AACS. His unique personalized wedding plates were coveted by hundreds of his students. "Helene was so pleased when Linn was interested in the Historical Society," Glenn remembers.  "The Hagadorn House gave him a community service outlet, where he served as president and curator for many years."

The discovery of the Hagadorn diaries covering a period from the early 1800's to the early 1900's, motivated Helene to write the first of her many books, If This Earthly House Dissolve.   These historical novels, along with several monographs which she put together, created much interest in life among Almond's early people.  "Helene and Linn worked well together, " Glenn related, recognizing her for her tremendous work in establishing the archives room and preserving the costume collection.

Over the course of the thirty-five years existence of the Historical Society, countless men and women have left their mark in one way or another. The archives reveal newspaper articles, minutes of meetings, and newsletter stories recounting the labors of a countless number of folks, a majority of whom are no longer with us. In this issue, we have named only a handful and told just a few stories about their contributions.  Even though it is fun to look back and remember, we must ask ourselves: Are we passing the responsibility for the stewardship of our historical heritage on - and are we developing strong leaders for the future?  If we are not doing this, what will be the story thirty-five years from now?