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Marking History

Local historian publishes chapbook of historic markers

June 29, 2008
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald

CHARLESTON - One local historian spins more than one kind of yarn.

Town Historian Lorraine R. Whiting likes to tell stories about the history of the area and also is an avid wool yarn spinner.

She said the town of Charleston once stretched to the shores of the Mohawk River.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Richard Nilsen
Charleston Town Historian Lorraine Whiting points out the grave marker of a former slave and subject of one of the historical markers she is responsible for erecting in the town June 18.

"In 1823, the town of Glen and part of the town of Root were created from the town of Charleston," Whiting said in her book, "A Baker's Dozen: The Historic Markers of the Town of Charleston, Montgomery County, NY," published last year.

She talked about her post in the little town where she said the activities of the historical society are often the "only show in town."

"I was appointed to the position of Charleston historian in 1994," she said. "I do not receive any pay for the work I do, although I have a budget. I do not have an office, although I have storage room [display cabinets and file cabinet] at the Charleston Town Hall. Until this past year, all my accumulated records were kept in my home, but this year, I have brought it all to the Town Hall."

Whiting said she used to receive quite a few calls for information about families that had lived in the town and history of the town, but with the advent of the Internet, those calls have become fewer.

"Of course, the minute I moved everything to the Town Hall, I received a number of calls and I was unable to give the immediate attention and answers that I had done in the past," she said.

Over the years, she's done several things of interest.

"And this is before the Internet, remember," she said. "I went to the state library and copied the town census records, both federal and state, from 1850 to 1880, I believe it was. That's a lot of copying, but very interesting reading. And many, many dimes [to make copies]."

The site of the Charleston Historical Society is the former First Baptist Church which was closed in 1955.

Restoration of the church was taken on by Edythe Meserand of Esperance who founded the Charleston Historical Society in 1978. They purchased the church from the American Baptist Convention for $1,500 and finished restoration, including rebuilding the shattered altar and an original choir chair, in June 1983.

"There were 10 retirees who had been trustees of the church who cleaned up the mess after thieves broke in and stole the church bell," she said. "In the process, the ceiling fell down."

She said it is still unknown who took the church bell.

Among the accomplishments Whiting lists are four historical markers in the town.

"The marker for former slave Margaret Houck was donated by former Governor George E. Pataki and has a special seal," she said.

Houck was found to be buried in the well-to-do area of the grave yard, showing the esteem with which she was held in a time when such a placement was unheard of, she said.

Houck is said to have nursed wounded at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778.

"At the time of her passing on Sept. 20, 1872, it is believed that the townspeople got together and purchased a marble marker which was placed on her grave site," Whiting said. "Margaret lived to be an incredible 106 years of age."

Whiting said Houck lived through huge changes in society, having lived through wars and the end of slavery.

As part of her work as an historian, Whiting put together a picture album of buildings, places and people.

"I had borrowed a light stand and with my trusty Canon AE-1 and a macro-lens, I was able to borrow family pictures, copy them, give the original and a copy back to the donor, and have a picture and negative for the town," she said. "This came in handy when the Montgomery County Historian put together her book, Images of America, Montgomery County. I was able to let her pick out some photos for her book."

Whiting said when she got the job as historian, she had a 1929 copy of the cemeteries of the town of Charleston, and a reprint of the History of Fulton and Montgomery counties.

"That was pretty much it," she said. "In the fall of 1994 and through 1995, I did a census of the Christian Church cemetery."

The census was done on weekends and after work. With the help of the 1929 census as a guide, she walked the entire cemetery, row by row and documented every stone that was visible.

"I happened across a lady one day, over in the western far corner of the cemetery, staring at a soldier's bronze grave marker, the kind you can get for a relative from the government," she said. "I struck up a conversation with her and she said the soldier was her father. She then pointed to a spot next to him and said that was her mother, but they had never gotten a marker for her. I got the information and added her mother to my census."

Whiting also visited and noted every other cemetery she could find that was still visible. There are 39 cemeteries in the town of Charleston.

"I've done a brief history of the Christian Church and got very interested in it when I was given a small book titled, 'A Faithful Pastor: Biographical Sketches of John Ross, printed in 1880,'" she said.

"This led to many hours taken off from work - I work for [New York State Department of Environmental Conservation] full time - to visit the state library, at first looking for books, and as the years passed, copying whole books from microfiche to CDs to take home; ferreting out information in the County Clerk's office, and eventually going to New Hampshire to visit a grave," she said.

She said she has also written articles for newspapers and collected information on the town, like the Anti-Rent Wars.

In an article by Nancy S. Cannon about the Anti-Rent Movement found at http://www.oneonta.edu/library/dailylife/protest/index.html, she wrote:

"From about 1839 to 1852 farmers in parts of Delaware, Albany, Rensselaer, Schoharie, Columbia, Greene, Ulster, Sullivan, Otsego, Montgomery, and Washington Counties staged a revolt against what they considered an unjust system of land tenure. Modeling themselves after the patriots who instigated the Boston Tea Party, they disguised themselves as "Indians" and caused much grief to law enforcement officials and landlords. The Anti-Renters communicated by blowing tin dinner horns, relaying the sound from farm to farm over the hills and valleys. They disrupted sales of property, tarred and feathered their opponents, and in August 1845 shot Delaware County Undersheriff Osman Steele at a farm sale organized by the authorities to collect money to pay back rent."

Whiting said the Anti-Rent Wars were responsible for burning much of the historical buildings in the town.

"In the early days, I had started a database of people that would be looking for families," she said. "When I got a match of people looking for the same families, I got them in touch with each other. Sort of doing what Rootsweb and Ancestry does now, but for free. Of course, I was also collecting information for the town, too."

Besides attending many workshops and conferences to keep up-to-date, Whiting has put together many seasonal exhibits in the Town Hall in the glass cabinet in the main meeting room, using pictures from her collection, stories, and artifacts.

"Then there are the historic markers," she said. "I've been able to establish four markers."

Whiting is also responsible for starting the Election Day Bake Sale at the Town Hall for the Charleston Historical Society, of which she is a trustee.

"This has turned into a major fund raiser for the Society and this year will be our third and biggest year," she said. "On top of that, the voters are now looking forward to be able to bring baked goods with them to home or office after they vote."

Whiting said the Society works very hard to keep the 1834 former Baptist Church building in good shape, as well as the cemetery behind it.

"We've enjoyed many good programs and events over the years, and have become a repository for US flags no longer suitable for use," she said. "Every June - and I believe I started this event, too - we have a flag retirement ceremony in the cemetery, including, over the years, the Boy Scouts, Tryon Militia, the Charleston Volunteer Fire Department and the Sheriff's Department."

Besides her work as a historian, Whiting said she loves to spin wool, card wool, read mysteries and has learned to play the autoharp.

"Sometimes I like to come to the historical society when there is no one there and play my harp or spin wool," she said. "It's so quiet and peaceful."

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be contacted at ga@leaderherald.com.

 
 

 

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