Chapter 4: The Clarkson Era in Potsdam

The 60 years the Levinus Clarkson family lived in Potsdam can be considered the Clarkson Era. Unlike John’s, Levinus’ family moved permanently to Potsdam. From 1840 until about 1855, there were weddings and births. From the 1870s, the youngest male, Thomas Streatfeild Clarkson, began to take a vigorous interest in developing industry in the township. To honor his exceptional leadership, Clarkson University was founded in 1896. However, by 1909, all but one of the Clarksons had departed. The last Clarkson, Emilie Vallete Clarkson Moore, was the great-granddaughter of Levinus and Ann Mary Van Horne Clarkson. Emilie forged a different trajectory for her life than the other women. She and her youngest aunt were the only two Clarksons both born and buried in Potsdam.

The Levinus Clarkson Family

The Growing Years — The 1840s

Four households bustled with Clarksons and their servants. Levinus and Ann Mary Van Horne lived in Holcroft House with their unmarried children, Lavinia and Levinus. Augustus lived alone in Woodstock Lodge and David L. lived alone at 30 Leroy Street. Elizabeth and T.S. lived in the Homestead at first with the four children who had been born in Manhattan: Ann Mary (9), Elizabeth (7), Levinus (5) and Thomas Streatfeild (3). In 1842, they celebrated the birth of Lavinia and, in 1846, of Frederica. When the children grew old enough, they attended St. Lawrence Academy and then had tutors at home (Chapman, 20).

In 1845, the first family funeral was held for the elder Levinus. He was buried in Trinity Cemetery in Manhattan, but his widow remained in Potsdam, living with their eldest daughter, Lavinia, in Holcroft. Both were very involved with the development of Potsdam’s Trinity Church and parish. In 1852, there were two weddings. Augustus married a woman from an important local family, Emily McVickar. Ann Mary, aged 21, married her cousin, named Thomas Streatfeild but called T. Streatfeild.

Potsdam now had three Thomas Streatfeild Clarksons. To help differentiate them, Ann Mary’s father went by T.S.; Ann Mary’s husband went by Streatfeild and Ann Mary’s brother went by Thomas. We do not have much information on what the older two of these Thomas Streatfeilds were doing, although we are told that “although independently wealthy, all of the Clarkson men learned a trade. One was proficient in carpentry, one in metal work and one practiced agriculture” (Chapman, 20). T.S. ran the sandstone quarry. When they were older, Thomas and his brother Levinus ran the 1000-acre Clarkson farm together (20).

Ann Mary’s marriage demonstrates the close relationship the Potsdam Clarksons maintained with the Manhattan Clarksons. Ann Mary’s father T.S. was siblings with T. Streatfeild’s mother, Elizabeth Streatfeild. So they would have participated in family gatherings at the siblings’ parental home at 33 Broadway, which was owned by Thomas Streatfeild and Elizabeth Van Horne Clarkson. The home next door belonged to Gerrit and Ann Margaret Clarkson Van Horne. A few blocks south was the home of T. Streatfeild’s paternal grandparents, Gen. Matthew and Sarah Cornell Clarkson, at Whitehall and Pearl Streets (Anon., “Vol. 2,” 149).

The Turning Point — The 1850s and 60s

Sometime soon after the birth of Augustus and Emily’s daughter Frances in 1853, Augustus discovered that he had tuberculosis. The family moved to Florida, where Augustus died of TB in 1855. At some point, Emily and the child moved back to Potsdam and took up residence again in Woodstock (Austin, 83).

In 1856, the elder Ann Mary died and the first great-granddaughter, Annie was born. Ann Mary’s daughter Lavinia then moved to the Homestead to join her sister Elizabeth and T.S.

Sometime in the 1850s (Chapman, 13) or 1880s (Broughton, 146), Ann Mary and T. Streatfeild and their daughters moved from the Homestead into Holcroft. Ann Mary’s husband, T. Streatfeild, added the Second Empire-style mansard roof (Chapman, 12-13), which allowed for a third story that housed the servants.

Then, in 1858, David L. married. However, rather than a source of celebration, he met with family disapproval. The woman he married was a much younger woman who, according to the 1850 census, appeared to have been keeping house for him. She had three younger siblings, all living at the house. They were orphans of Irish background from Canada. Later census data indicates that after the marriage, David adopted the siblings. In 1860, they moved to Utica (or Rome).

In 1863, Ann Mary and T. Streatfeild had a second child: Emilie Vallete.

Committing to Potsdam — The 1870s

By 1870, the younger Clarksons were aging without marriage prospects. Elizabeth was 37, the younger Lavinia, 28, and Frederica, 24. Their brothers Levinus, 35, and Thomas, 33, remained bachelors. Perhaps they were wary about marrying locally given the fate of their uncles. It was well known that the family disapproved of marriage outside the family (“Mrs”). Perhaps they were too countrified for their city cousins or were unwilling to leave the countryside. They were committed to remaining in Potsdam. The hill estate was lovely, and villagers were invited to drive through the grounds. There was a track for exercising the thoroughbred horses, which were stabled in mahogany stalls. There was also a barn for the quarry horses and a carriage house (Sisson). Under these buildings was an extensive network of cellars that gave rise to the rumor that the estate was used as a stop for the Underground Railroad (Broughton, 190). When the Clarksons left, many of their belongings were stored in the barns.

There was also a conservatory, a large house “completely furnished, which had a greenhouse attached. There were cabinets in the house filled with precious articles. Large concave and convex mirrors were placed where a door might be, with draperies over the top and sides. These made you look very tall and thin or very broad and fat.” Flowers from the conservatory delighted Trinity churchgoers at the Easter service (Chapman, 25).

According to Mary Aldritch Jones, the Clarksons were warm and hospitable. Helped by a butler named George, whose English accent and dour demeanor impressed the local boys charged with delivering telegrams (“Remembers”), they served up fabulous dinners and ensured that every one of the Clarkson employees got gifts at Christmas (“Notes”): twice it was a red leather diary and billfold set; once it was seal-skin caps to all the men. Once they gave a grandfather clock to a man whose house was not big enough to hold it. Great baskets of food were sent to economically disadvantaged families. The Clarksons hired local women for $5 per day, a princely sum then, to come to the Homestead to dress turkeys and chickens to put in the baskets (Chapman, 25). Elizabeth, called “Miss Libby,” was respected for her embroidery, and Frederica, “Miss Freddie,” for her cheerfulness. Miss Lavinia was deaf from a childhood bout with scarlet fever and became a bit of a recluse as she got older (Jones). Annie drove her horses herself and had a beloved beautiful white horse named Trick who got a gravestone when he died. Emilie, only 7, went to school at Mrs. Liberty Knowles house at the corner of Maple Street and Market, which became known as Ives House (“Emilie”).

Thomas S. Clarkson (1837-94): Village Leader, Industrialist, Philanthropist

Thomas and his older brother Levinus worked together to run the Clarkson farm. They also worked to raise over $1 million to support the Union Army during the Civil War. By all accounts, they were very close. When Levinus died suddenly in October 1876, Thomas abruptly gave up farming and turned his attention to various business enterprises. He not only developed new sandstone and marble quarries, but also owned factories on Fall Island for woodworking and developing dairy products. The dairy factory was the continuation of his partnership with Dr. Hervey Thatcher, who had invented the sanitary milk bottle (Chapman, 20-1). Through these ventures, he experimented with new industrial capacities that were continually developing during this time. He must have been interested in engineering, but part of his motivation was simply to provide work (22). For example, in 1889, a fire devastated all the mills on Fall Island. Thomas considered not rebuilding, but knowing that over 50 men relied on employment in his mills, he eventually did (“Great Fire”). A local newspaper in 1892 called him the most familiar on “the list of Northern New York’s favorite sons” (“Business Interests”).

Fall Island – 1853

Thomas’ relation with his employees can be summed up in one of his favorite biblical quotes: “a workman who needeth not be ashamed” (II Timothy 2:15). He understood work to be necessary for a person’s dignity. If those down on their luck came to him for help, he gave them work, rather than a handout (Broughton, 5).

To this end, he created a reading room with his brother-in-law, T. Streatfeild, where anyone could come to read the newspapers. (The building currently houses Jreck Subs.) For those who were illiterate, the Clarksons hired someone to read the newspapers aloud. This reading room became a lending library, as well as an evening school where Thomas arranged free evening classes in mechanical drawing (Chapman, 22). Understanding, however, that some people were unable to help themselves, Thomas was instrumental in establishing the Poor Farm in Canton and ensuring that it had all the modern amenities (21).

He was a trustee for the Village of Potsdam, where he helped organize and run the first electric plant in 1888, and he also led the organization of the first sewage infrastructure and fire department. Thomas’ name often appeared in the local newspapers. He was a member of committees tasked with looking into building a sandstone pillar bridge across the St. Lawrence at Waddington and welcoming then President Harrison (“President’s Visit”).

The Clarkson Quarries

Sandstone Quarry

Thomas’ father, T.S. Clarkson, had been running the family sandstone quarries and the Pine Street finishing yard. From the advertisement pictured, the addresses of the Manhattan office and yard are evident. Sandstone from Potsdam was shipped widely.

When Thomas began to expand his interests beyond farming in the 70s, he located a sandstone quarry in Hannawa Falls, the current site of the electric plant (Chapman, 20) and a marble quarry in Richville (“Business Interests”). He also promoted the ashlar masonry style that was coming into fashion after the Civil War (Carl, “Sandstone,” 15). The ashlar style involves laying sandstone blocks horizontally rather alternating in a slab-and-binder style. Ashlar is both sturdier and more expensive and, in addition, allowed a new rustic finish on the horizontal edge of the sandstone block. This rough chisel finish was used for the new façade for Trinity Church, funded by Thomas and his sisters (Chapman, 18). In the 1880s, Thomas opened a new quarry, had “a thriving business” and had contracts that employed over 100 workers (21).

Thomas Clarkson met with an untimely end. In 1894, while he was working at one of the quarries, a pump he was helping to move fell and crushed him. He was 57.

Excerpts from the diary of Potsdam resident, Josiah Brown, show the high regard the ordinary citizens of Potsdam had for Thomas (Chapman, 22-23):


Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1894. Thomas S. Clarkson was badly hurt at his quarry this forenoon. His leg was broken in two or three places and he is badly hurt otherwise. We all sympathize with him and hope he will recover. We cannot afford to lose such a man as Clarkson. He would be missed more than any other ten men we have got.

Thursday, Aug. 16. Mr. Clarkson is very low, and it is doubtful if he lives through the night. The Band Boys were to give a street concert and had their band stand out but owing to the low condition of Mr. Clarkson they did not play. Nobody feels like enjoying music tonight.

Friday, Aug. 17. Mr. Clarkson remains about the same, but there is more hope. It would be a sad thing for this village if he should die.

Saturday, Aug. 18. Mr. Clarkson is alive and hopes for his recovery grow stronger. They have telegraphed to Montreal for a doctor. I don’t know which one, but would not wonder if it was Dr. Armstrong. An answer from Montreal that the Dr. cannot come.

Sunday, Aug. 19. Everybody’s best friend is gone. Mr. Clarkson passed to eternal rest at 5 o’clock this morning. Mr. Clarkson has shown how much good a man can do who has a little money. He has used it to help the village. He employed many men. His men never struck. He never had any trouble. He was not a sharp business man. He did not do business so much to enrich himself as to help others. He sometimes continued business at a loss, in order to give his men work. We feel today sorrowful but out of our great sorrow some good may come. We may endeavor in our limited capacity to do as Mr. Clarkson has done, not live entirely for ourselves, but try to help others.

Thursday, Aug. 23. Mr. Clarkson’s funeral was held at Trinity Church at 10:30 this forenoon. All places of business were closed and nearly everybody attended the service. His workmen nearly filled the church. His pallbearers were selected from his farmhands. Mr. Clarkson was a man who respected his workmen and they all respected him.

Headline in Newspaper

In his memory, Potsdam Normal School offered a Thomas S. Clarkson memorial prize of $100 for the best thesis in the graduating class, on the topic of “Will the carrying out of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments be to the best interests of the United States?” (Chapman, 23).

On October 4, 1894, the Clarkson family gathered with local leaders at T. Streatfeild and Ann Mary’s house to pursue the idea of establishing a memorial school. Thomas himself had “considered founding a school to promote manual arts and technical education, industry, thrift, and good citizenship … for ambitious young men and young women who worked hard to better their station” (Broughton, 6). For the school’s name, the group chose the Thomas S. Clarkson Memorial School of Technology. Annie and Elizabeth (Thomas’ niece and sister, respectively) were active in selecting the site, designing the first building (Old Main) and visiting other schools to learn about their curriculum and organization (7). The school opened in 1896 with 17 students and seven faculty (10). In 1913, the name was changed to the Thomas S. Clarkson College of Technology in order to be permitted to grant degrees by New York state law (9). (Hereinafter, the college will be referred to as Clarkson College.)

Thomas S. Clarkson Memorial School of Technology

Devolving the Estate

After Thomas’ death, his brother-in-law T. Streatfeild was the only remaining male Clarkson in Potsdam. Thomas’ niece Annie took over some of the management of the quarries, and businesses were sold off. In 1902, T. Streatfeild died, leaving Annie alone in the house. The year before, Emilie, at the age of 38, had married William Moore, aged 40, a graduate of Union College, local businessman and son of a state senator (Carl, “Departure,” 3). The ceremony took place in Holcroft House with family attending and Rev. Augustus Vallete Clarkson, a relative from Croton-on-Hudson, officiating (Chapman,13). Lavinia, apparently against the marriage (Sisson, 2), did not attend (“Emilie”). Emilie and William spent their honeymoon in the Maritimes (Carl, “Departure,” 3). In 1903, the Moores left for a two-year trip to Europe and the Middle East. Annie moved to her apartment on Park Street in Manhattan, while remaining active in affairs related to Clarkson College. Emilie sold her share of Holcroft to Annie (3-4).

Elizabeth, Lavinia and Frederica remained at the Homestead. They became good friends with the director of Clarkson College, William Sleeper Aldritch, and his family. Then, in 1909, everything changed. Frederica died and was buried in Bayside Cemetery in April. Later in the year, the Homestead burned to the ground. The remaining elderly Misses Clarksons moved to their home on 101st Street in Manhattan (Carl, “Departure,” 4), essentially abandoning the estate.

In 1921, Rufus Sisson Jr., president of the Chamber of Commerce, approached the village about raising bonds to buy the Clarkson hill estate (Sisson, 1). Sisson had loved the wooded campus at his alma mater, Dartmouth, and wanted to explore the possibility of creating something similar in Potsdam (8). Although no deal was made, Sisson believed that the proposal gave the Clarksons an idea of what to do with the estate (2). In 1923, Annie donated land to the college for a sports field along what is now Route 11. In 1927, when Lavinia died, Annie inherited her entire estate. She immediately gave the 600 hilltop acres to the college. When Annie died in 1929, she left her entire estate worth over one million dollars to her sister Emilie. Probably by prior agreement, Emilie immediately passed that estate on to Clarkson College. Unfortunately, the estate was mostly in stocks and securities, so the stock market crash of 1929 devalued the bequest to about $300,000 (Carl, “Departure,” 11-12).

Because the bequest had lost so much value, the college had to table plans for a move to the hill. Buildings on the hill estate were used for student co-op housing and storage, but the priority of the trustees was to develop the campus downtown. It wasn’t until the 1970s that academic buildings began to be constructed on the hill (Broughton).

Emilie Vallete Clarkson Moore (1863-1946): The Last Clarkson

Miss E. V. Clarkson

Emilie was one of only two Clarksons to be born and to die in Potsdam. The other was her aunt, Frederica (1846-1909). As a young woman, Emilie spent most of her winters away from Potsdam, studying art in Manhattan and photography at Chautauqua. She became a well-known and respected photographer on the national and international stage, winning awards in the United States, Canada, England and India (Peterson, 400). After she married at the age of 38, she quit her career to travel extensively with her husband, William Moore, sometimes for years at a time. However, after her husband’s death in 1922, she retired to Potsdam, living alone for the last 20 years of her life. She resided at 8 Chestnut Street, where she was served faithfully by Henry Castle, chauffeur and caretaker, Mabel Brown, housekeeper, and Lulu Moore, business manager (“Emilie”).

Photography

Emilie’s photographs and slides are kept in the St. Lawrence University specialty collections in Canton, New York. A few representative pieces are reproduced here. In an interview, Emilie noted that even as a child, “I was always very fond of drawing and painting, especially figure subjects, but to accomplish anything in that direction a thorough course in drawing is necessary, also a certain degree of talent and genius which I soon discovered I did not possess, and rather than be a mere dauber I turned my attention to photography, for by its aid I found I could compose figure compositions, my specialty, without the necessary talent for drawing them” (Moore, 581).

Emilie attended the Chautauqua School of Photography and graduated in 1890, after which she devoted her time and attention to doing all aspects of the work herself. Her photos tended to belong to the genre fashionable at that time of idealized rural life and stylized models, influenced by European painting (Peterson, 33). She received as prizes a Steinheil group lens for best portrait work in a Chautauqua exhibition; seven prize cards from the Postal Photographic Club; a bronze medal for superiority of genre work at the exhibition of the Society of Amateur Photographers at the American Institute in 1891; and a diploma for lantern slides at a Boston exhibition in 1892 (Moore, 581). Her photo “Spinning” was printed in Alfred Stieglitz’s 1899 Camera Notes (Peterson, 32). In 1896, Emilie became the sole female founding life member of the New York Camera Club — a status indicative of both her support for the organization and her financial means, as this level of membership was expensive. She was also a member of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York and the Postal Photographic Club (Peterson, 32).

Philanthropy

Emilie was a generous and continuous benefactor to Clarkson College and the village; however, she preferred her philanthropy to remain anonymous. Known acts of her philanthropy include:

1920s — Developed Ives Park through land purchase, grading and general construction. Ives Park was for the village, as well as the home of the Tech hockey rink and, eventually, of The Clarkson Inn.

1922 — Gifted $30,000 to the Clarkson Endowment.

1929 — Gifted $1 million to Clarkson College, the sum Emilie received from Annie Clarkson’s will.

1929 — Remodeled and refurnished Woodstock and Holcroft for student housing.

1929 — Gifted $25,000 to the Potsdam Hospital building campaign. 

1936 — Was recognized in the Clarkson College year book as a friend of the college for her generosity to students. She regularly gave financial help to deserving students who couldn’t afford to stay.

1945 — Willed $100,000 to the Potsdam Hospital, $80,000 to St. Philips Church in Norwood and $20,000 to Bayside Cemetery.

Not dated —

  • Aided reconstruction of Trinity Church and gifted $16,000 for a new organ.
  • Contributed to churches in Norwood and Colton.
  • Equipped the kitchen and financed building soundproofing and grounds landscaping when the Potsdam Hospital was first built.
  • Provided a Hammond electric organ and public address system for the Civic Center.
  • Refitted her old Packard as a squad car for the fire department.
  • Donated heirlooms to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
  • Financed local businesses.

Controversy

Emilie was not a stranger to controversy. In 1918, she contested her aunt Elizabeth’s will, which left everything to Lavinia under the control of Annie as executrix. Emilie contested Lavinia’s mental competence, which Annie claimed was normal, though affected by her deafness and isolation (Carl, “Departure,” 7). In 1927, when Lavinia died, Emilie threatened to contest that will. Lavinia had left each niece $100,000, but then left the entire rest of the estate to Annie (11). Ultimately, however, instead of formally contesting the will, Emilie passed the amount she had received to Clarkson College during a meeting described as awkward by then trustee Rufus Sisson Jr. Sisson believed that Emilie’s move motivated Annie to gift the deed to the 600-acre hill estate to the college that same year (2). Two years later, Sisson described “a deathbed conciliation” (3) so that when Annie passed away, she left her financial estate, worth over a million dollars primarily in stocks and securities, to Emilie, who in turn gave it immediately to the college — “the stuff of congratulatory newspaper headlines throughout northern New York” (Carl, “Departure,” 12). 

Emilie’s own will also resulted in litigation in 1945. Before her death, Emilie had gifted $300,000 to her employees, Castle, Brown and Moore, so there was not enough money to fulfill the bequests she had left in her will to the hospital and church. Both entities sued in probate court. Another lawsuit was filed because her will stated she had no surviving relatives, yet over 16 Clarkson cousins, as well as six Moore nephews and nieces, survived her (”Litigation”). The two Clarksons who brought the suit, Anne and Maude of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the six Moores won $150,000. The final settlement required Castle, Brown and Moore to return some of their money to fulfill the bequests and family claims (Carl, “Departure,” 14-5).