On Feb. 13, 1984, my cousin Melissa Spaven and her classmate Kim Kosielniak interviewed Betty Barron, who owned the Westmoreland Hardware Store with her husband, Ray.
Melissa was 10-years-old and liked skiing. Kim, who was a bit younger at 9 ½ collected stickers.
Betty told them that when she was their age, she liked to “catch frogs, find turtle eggs, play with dolls, and rollerskate.” She also liked “penny candy, chocolate boasters filled with peanut butter and licorice,” and that spelling had been her favorite subject in school.
It’s been thirty-six years since that interview. However, you can still read it in a small book entitled “Westmoreland: The Way It Was” that we have available at the Westmoreland Historical Society.
“I remember them coming to the house,” Betty Barron says three and a half decades later. “They were so sweet and nice. I thought afterward that I talked a lot about what we did as a child, but growing up, we were outdoors a lot.”
In its introduction, Jennifer Prevost, who at the time was a twelve-year-old sixth-grader, explains that the students began writing the twenty-page book in the fall of 1983. They were third, fourth, fifth, and sixth-graders in the Westmoreland Central School Gifted and Talented Program.
“First they learned about the history of Westmoreland and about the people and things they did in Westmoreland,” she wrote. “Then they had a photography mini-course and a journalism mini-course. They finished this up this program with a graphic arts mini-course.”
The whole thing was put together into a 20-page book with an orange cover decorated with hand-drawn pictures depicting historical artifacts such as a grandfather clock, a barber pole, a cigar store indian, and an oil lamp.
The articles inside are interviews of prominent people, most of whom are no longer with us.
Betty Barron remembers being pleased that it was my cousin Melissa (Spaven) who was assigned to interview her. She had a lifelong friendship with our great grandmother Ethel Spaven, and Ethel’s sister-in-law, Sarah Spaven, who taught third grade.
“I would correct her papers,” Betty laughed. “My mother and I would come for a visit, and she would hand me a bunch!”
My grandparents, Ken and Lucille Spaven, were also interviewed for the project. Jeff Coy, who wanted readers to know that he was 10 ½, lived in Clark Mills and that his father worked at Roux Wire Die Works co-authored the piece with Jason Tomaselli who was ten at the time and admitted that he didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up.
They titled their interview “Farming With The Spavens” and disclosed in the first paragraph that my grandpa Ken was English, Irish, and Dutch, and my grandmother, Lucille, was French Canadian, Swiss, Welsh, and English.
I sat on my mother, Denise Klopfanstein’s front porch, and asked her how the interview came about.
“In 1984, they were only in their fifties,” she said, reading the passage about her parents. “but they were part of families that had been in Westmoreland since the beginning.”
There is a lot of historical information about how the Spaven family farm shrunk in size from its 77-acre peak and how goods were transported with wagons, trucks, and trains.
I asked Jennifer Prevost (now Gonzales) what she remembered about the project. She told me how much she enjoyed the collaboration that took place among the students who ranged from third to sixth grade. They also enjoyed working with Mrs. Bradley, who was in charge of the journalism portion of the course and Mrs. Backey (who ran the photography mini-course) who taught the students how to make a camera from a cardboard box.
“Thinking about this again reminds me of the old ways,” Jennifer told me by phone. “What’s interesting is these last sixty days everything has slowed down again. It’s like it was in those old days that we learned about when people grew their gardens for food before they bought everything in stores.”
“Most of my life has been spent around Westmoreland,” Dennis Mokry told me. He was eleven years old when he wrote the dedication on the front page of the book. He is still good friends with Ed Smith, another of the students who worked on the project. As kids, they would explore local history on their bikes along with local kids like Sam Sparace and Gary Eisenbeck.
“We rode on the railroad tracks out behind our house on Eureka Road,” he told me. “We’d ride to places like the Bartlett Cemetery. We were interested in how our history tied in with Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany.”
In 1984 Eddie Seiselmeyer was a 9 ½-year-old stamp collector and an artist as well as a researcher. He wrote his entry, “Anna Patrick Scousky Remembers Mr. Maw,” all by himself and drew a candle and a butter churn to illustrate it. Seiselmeyer wrote two long columns recounting Mr. Scousky’s memories of her neighbor, the famous ironworker John Maw.
Scousky told Eddie how she used to watch Maw make his creations from raw iron and listen to his stories about England. She described how he would play instruments, and “the children would come up to his house, and they could get a good evening out of that.”
Eddie said that Mrs. Scousky described Mr. Maw as a very kind man, “everybody was always welcome, and he never said a mean to word to anybody.” Maw even taught the children how to speak some Polish and Chinese!
“If anybody wanted anything,” Eddie wrote, “[Maw] would have the child describe it and [he] would make what they wanted. For Easter, he once gave Mrs. Scousky a glass bunny full of jelly beans. For Christmas, each child got a gift.”
It must have been a bit intimidating for Mark Anania, who was 11 ¾-years-old and Ed Smith, who described himself as a sixth grader in Mrs. Froschauer’s class who wanted to be a chef, to interview Mr. Hill, the Elementary School Principal. But they extracted quite a bit of information about him.
“He was born in Oriskany Falls in 1928 and came to Westmoreland in 1951,” Anania and Smith wrote. “He has worked here for 33 years; six years teaching and 27 years as principal.”
They reported that his birthday was in December and that he was 55 at the time.
Myrtle Tudman, who was eighty-four at the time, was interviewed by Marta Mossler, then a sixth grader who wanted to be a teacher when she grew up, and a ten-year-old Jennifer Jachym who had her sights set on becoming an actress.
Tudman recalled life in Hecla Village when it had “two stores, a blacksmith shop, two restaurants, a sawmill, a chair factory, a park, houses with two stories, and a beautiful church that is still there.”
She also told the girls about how she had to walk a mile to school, which started at 9 a.m. and how “there would be eight classes with seven children in each class. Two people could sit at a desk, and the desks were placed around a potbelly stove in the middle of the room.”
John and Emma Jenkins also talked about Hecla when they were interviewed by Daniel Edic, an 8½-year-old whose favorite seasons were winter and summer, and Mark Jennings, a nine-year-old, said that red was his favorite color. The section on the Jennings notes that Hecla also had a wicker chair factory, a freight station, and a coal yard along the railroad.” They talk about how John was one of the people who build the Hecla Church in the early 1900s.
Tonia McCoy, who was in fifth grade at the time and wanted to be a cheerleader, and Bonnie Parent, a ten-year-old budding gymnast, interviewed Mr. and Mrs. Donald Masner. They talked about vanished businesses like “Storey’s Chevrolet Station,” and how “schools had a lot of discipline when he was a boy.” Masner recalled attending the Stucco School on the Village Green and insisted that “kids appreciated them then more than they do now.”
An entry entitled “Ye’ Old Dean House,” interviewed Julia Foster, who owned the house at the time with her husband.
She told Stacy Goff, who was eleven at the time and wanted to grow up to be an author, and Stacey Pabich also was also eleven but wanted to grow up to be a veterinarian, that the house was said to be haunted!
Apparently, Mrs. Foster’s grandson Chris had seen a man in the hayloft that walked through a wall. “At other times, doors would open, lights would go on, and walls would shake.” Someone had theorized that “the ghosts of the ancestors didn’t want changes done to the house [because] when the Fosters stopped redecorating the happenings stopped.”
The students learned more about our town’s founder, James Dean, from Joseph Coyne, who was 70-years-old at the time. He had lived in Westmoreland for 62 of those years, and worked at Westmoreland Malleable Iron Works for twenty-five of those years. He said that other than the 1961 fire that burned down the Masonic Temple, there “hasn’t been any big events in town.”
Coyne spoke to Matthew Lenahan and Mark Lisberg. Matt, at the time, was 9½-years-old and reported he had twin brothers, Mark was a 10½-year-old football card collector.
“Life for Joseph Coyne,” Lenahan and Lisberg wrote, “is very calm and peaceful in the town of Westmoreland.”
Oscar Law was also content with his life in Westmoreland back in 1984. He told Susan Bruce (8 1/2-years-old at the time) and Meredith Schaefer (9 ½-years-old) that he “enjoys living inthe area he is living in because the flowers come up in spring and he has nice green grass, the summers are not too hot, and the winters are not too cold.”
Mr. Law was born 117 years ago. He grew up in Bartlett in the same house where his father was born. I don’t know who lives there now, but I’m sure they are still enjoying the spring flowers. Some things in Westmoreland are still the way they were.
Westmoreland: The Way It Was is still available for purchase through the Westmoreland Historical Society. To order a copy, send a check for $20 to P.O. Box 200, Westmoreland, NY 13490. To see photos and excerpts from the book, visit Facebook.com/WestmorelandHistoricalSociety. Follow Ron Klopfanstein at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein.