Shakespeare in Fulton

Our city has always offered a variety of leisure activities for its residents. Sports enthusiasts enjoy golf courses, basketball leagues, the Pathfinder Fish & Game Club or gardening. Community-minded organizations like Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary continue to find meaningful ways to support our city. But until recently I never knew that for over one hundred years Fulton was home to a group of women devoted to the work of William Shakespeare.

Founded in 1909, Fulton’s Shakespeare Club was the brainchild of Mrs. William Sylvester. According to Club paperwork loaned to me, Mrs. Sylvester sought to provide culture for women in our city and she began by suggesting to members of her First Baptist Church that they form a group to discuss Shakespeare’s writings.

The club’s format was established in its first few years, with the women meeting on a weekday afternoon to read a Shakespearean play aloud. During its first year, the club devoted its attention to “Romeo & Juliet.” Spending an entire year on one author, let alone one play, seemed extraordinary to me, but a newspaper article about the club noted that in the early 1900s reading Shakespeare was a cultural fad.

I learned more about the club’s meetings. When roll call was taken, each member answered with a quotation from the book or play being read. In later years, members responded by naming a Native American tribe or a landmark in New York State.

As the group gained popularity, more women wanted to join. Early on in the club’s existence it was determined that a membership of 20 women would be maintained. When a new person was invited, she needed the approval of all other members before being allowed to join. Daughters often followed their mothers into the club, which was the case for Darle DeLorme, whose mother, Jane Shaver, invited her to become a member. Recently, Darle shared her memories of the group:

“Meetings were held in the homes of members. Every month, one woman would act as hostess.  Tables were set beautifully. Table clothes were ironed, silver was polished, and candlesticks were placed. Favorite desserts were baked; tea and coffee were served.  The tradition of a turn-of-the-century tea party became the hallmark of the Shakespeare meeting.”

As Darle explained, after refreshments, the club president would thank the hostess, and the meeting was called to order.  Each month a different member presented a program of her choice. Among the club paperwork I reviewed was a scrapbook covering highlights of the group’s ten decades. Inside the book’s front cover I found a folded map of “Shakespeare’s Britain,” a colorful illustration of the villages and points of interest mentioned in his many plays.

By the 1930s, club minutes noted that the group had read 16 plays in its first 25 years.  As the club matured, it ventured from Shakespeare’s writings to include reviews on other authors or destinations of interest for travelers. There were even discussions on Broadway plays, artists and musicians. In 1934, club members decided to begin each meeting with ten minutes of current event discussion.

The variety of topics enjoyed by the Shakespeare Club is evident in the overview of their 1934-35 year. Its October program explored the effect of geological conditions on the Settlement of New York. A month later, the club discussed Women Sculptors of America. January 1935’s meeting covered current politics with “The New Deal: Is it Proving a Benefit to the Nation?” Local history was a worthy topic, too, when a club member presented her paper on “Fulton from 1800 to the Present Time.”

Three decades later, a summary of the 1964-65 year included a study of South America’s plants, birds and animals; a review of Milton Eisenhower’s book, The Wine is Bitter,” about Vice President Richard Nixon; and a talk by young Alan Drohan, an American Foreign Exchange student who’d spent a semester in Denmark.

The group even took outings, including, in the 1930s, visits to the Oswego Country Club, Fayetteville’s The Carolina, and Green Gate in Camillus. In November of 1980, two carloads traveled to the Syracuse Stage for a production of “The Comedy of Errors.” Shakespeare’s play was favorably critiqued by the 11 club members in attendance and the trip’s organizer even managed to get the group backstage to meet the play’s leading man!

The Shakespeare Club occasionally donated books of historical interest to the Fulton Public Library, often in memory of a recently deceased member. In 1990, the group chose The Irish Novel: A Critical History, by James Cahalan, in memory of Rita Rowland. “She was proud of her Irish ancestry and was a talented amateur writer and poet,” club member Janice Fay noted in a newspaper article.

Janice was also a writer, as is evident by her 1961 “Sketch of Sally,” an obituary of sorts for her friend and fellow Shakespeare Club member Sarah Schulz McCarty Smith Stacy. Here’s some of what Janice wrote about Sarah:

“Her adult life was full of much happiness, but she bore more than her share of tragedy. Three times she was widowed, yet she remained outwardly a blithe spirit. Her philosophy may be found in some words of counsel she gave about a dear friend who died suddenly. Mourn in private, was her advice; grief is apt to leave others nonplussed if one displays large quantities of it.”

By the new millennium, women’s lives were vastly different from those of one hundred years before. Many women were working outside the home and a free afternoon was rare. In 2017, members of the Shakespeare Club voted to dissolve, and, as Darle noted, “the last official meeting was held in May of 2018.  Fond relationships within the group blossomed and became dear through the years.  Though literature was the focus, friendships were woven into the fiber of the 1909 Shakespeare Club.”

For more than 100 years, a group of Fulton women gathered to discuss the works of William Shakespeare and other topics, as shown in this 1965 photo.

For more than 100 years, a group of Fulton women gathered to discuss the works of William Shakespeare and other topics, as shown in this 1965 photo.

History in a Fulton Cemetery

While doing research for my Nestlé book, I learned about the Swiss chocolate makers who immigrated to Fulton to start our candy factory. Some of those chocolatiers became permanent residents of our city and were buried in the Mt. Adnah Cemetery. Since my parents and grandparents are laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery, I’d never been to Mt. Adnah, so, on a warm summer evening in 2017, I made my first visit there, hoping to locate the burial plots of those early Nestlé founders.

Pulling into Mt. Adnah, I noticed how different I felt being on the cemetery grounds after driving Fulton’s busy streets. Aside from knowing that I was in a sacred space, there was something about Adnah’s abundant shade trees and roadways curving up and down hills. It felt like I was following a country lane back in history.

Those feelings were confirmed after I read the book “Historic Overview of Mt. Adnah Cemetery.” (Copies of the book are available at the Fulton Library.) The work by historian Christine Lozner, published in 1991 and recently reprinted, tells the story of how Mt. Adnah came to be.  Ms. Lozner’s thorough review takes us back a century and a half to the founding of Fulton’s first cemetery.

The year was 1851, and Mt. Adnah was about to become one of America’s few “rural cemeteries.” This new type of burial ground was a result of large cities forming in our rapidly-expanding United States. Crowded urban conditions meant families no longer had large backyards, farm fields or rural churchyards to lay their loved ones to rest, but people still wanted a peaceful setting to remember them. Rural cemeteries, established on the outskirts of those cities, were the answer.  When Fulton-area residents decided to create Mt. Adnah, it became the first such cemetery in Central New York, founded before Oswego’s Riverside Cemetery (1855) and Syracuse’s Oakwood Cemetery (1859).

In the mid-1800s, Fulton was not yet a city—that would happen fifty years later—but the two towns of Fulton and Oswego Falls that would one day merge were already home to five Protestant and one Roman Catholic church. When it began, Adnah offered burial sites to everyone, no matter their religion. (When St. Mary’s Cemetery opened in 1873, Catholics began being laid to rest there.)

Ms. Lozner’s book points out the warm welcome Mt Adnah planners received. She noted that community support recorded in the Cemetery Association’s minutes included fundraising efforts by “the Ladies of Fulton and a community band that provided a concert for the benefit of the Mt. Adnah Cemetery.” Once money was raised, the Association “resolved to purchase from James L. Voorhees 36½ acres of land on the southeast edge of the village.”

Work on the cemetery began in 1853, when surveyor Peter Schenck laid out 12 acres of the property. (An additional eight acres were cleared and added soon after.) Schenck was already familiar with the Fulton area, having created the first comprehensive map of the two towns in 1848. After visiting other rural cemeteries, Schenck included what he considered their “essential elements” in his Mt. Adnah plans. Perhaps most important, as Ms. Lozner pointed out, was what the Christian caretakers of Adnah wanted for their cemetery: “Nature was healthful, wholesome and salubrious…it was the environment closest to God and therefore capable of teaching moral lessons about life.”

Ms. Lozner also uncovered the origins of the cemetery’s unique name: “Adnah is a Syriac word meaning ‘rest’ or ‘repose.’ The cemetery thus became ‘The Mount of Repose,’ a peaceful, beautiful dormitory where friends and relatives rested from their labors, and the terrors of death were minimized.”

As I read Mt. Adnah’s founding principles I began to understand why driving through the cemetery stirred my emotions. Mr. Schenck planned Adnah so that “hillsides climbed over the tops of others, the route through the grounds provided the visitor with a surprising and captivating sequence of internal views.” Ms. Lozner noted that the cemetery had a small lake and fountain to reflect the beautiful property. (It was later filled in when more space was needed.) Even the abundant shade trees I had noticed were intentional: Schenck suggested pine and red and white oaks, as well as ornamental shrubs and plants.

In 1854, a fence was deemed necessary to protect the cemetery from cattle wandering into the property from nearby farms. Adnah’s original bylaws stated that hitching posts be provided so horses would not be tied to trees. A cedar picket fence was constructed in 1855 and a more permanent gate in 1866. By the turn of the century, a cast iron arch welcomed visitors. It greets us today.

All those efforts helped maintain the beauty of Mt. Adnah, but it was in the design of headstones, monuments and mausoleums that the cemetery’s intentions were raised to an art form. One shining example of this was a chapel built in 1909 as a protected space for religious services. Built of Gouverneur granite with copper lanterns, pinnacles and trim, the Gothic style building stands in the form of a Greek cross. Its heavy oak doors feature copper knobs and iron hinges. The chapel’s interior is detailed with a mosaic floor of Italian tile and walls of pressed brick. Stained glass windows let sunlight in.

As Fulton grew, additional burial space was added, bringing Mt. Adnah to its current 44 acres. Today it welcomes many visitors, not only those attending to a loved one’s burial site, but also by people looking for a quiet setting to reflect.

Like all of Fulton’s history, Mt. Adnah requires care and attention, and its board of directors is dedicated to preserving this gem. If you’d like to help, you can make a donation to “Mt. Adnah Cemetery Association,” 706 E. Broadway, Fulton, NY 13069. As one board member reflected, “Mt. Adnah will always be a jewel in the fabric of Fulton.”

Mt. Adnah Cemetery.jpg

The Richness of a Free Library

In my last history blog, I wrote about the unique bookplate found inside every Fulton Library book. The plate proudly displays images that connect our city to the Native American tribes who considered this area sacred. Researching the origins of that bookplate got me thinking about the history of our library, still one of the few places in town that doesn’t cost a penny to visit.

That’s exactly what Andrew Carnegie had in mind when he began funding the construction of libraries throughout the United States. One of the wealthiest people in our country’s history, Carnegie never forgot his humble beginnings. After emigrating from Scotland with his family in 1848, he worked his way up the ranks of the railroad business, aggressively amassing a 200 million dollar (worth 5.8 billion dollars today) fortune. Amazingly, Carnegie sold his successful enterprises and spent the rest of his life giving that wealth away. He did so most impressively by founding over 2,500 libraries in the late 1800s and early 1900s, one of them right here in Fulton.

Carnegie had a personal reason for establishing those libraries. When he arrived in America eager to learn, he found that a library’s accessibility offered him the resources necessary to educate himself and develop a successful business plan. Carnegie believed anyone should be able to do as he did, including immigrants, who needed to acquire cultural knowledge of their adopted country. Libraries could provide that information.

Those of us benefiting from our library in 2019 weren’t around when Fulton received Andrew Carnegie’s kindness. But Joyce Cook, who was Fulton Library’s director from 1987 until 2001, has researched those early years. Joyce shared it with us when she contributed to The Fulton Memoir Project in 2014. Her memoir also covered the library’s history before Mr. Carnegie’s philanthropy came our way. As Joyce explained, there already was a library in Fulton, though it was humble compared to the one Carnegie helped us build:

 “The first Fulton Public Library was in a long, narrow upstairs room over one of the stores on ‘The Dizzy Block,’ at 7 South First Street. The Library received its charter from the state government in 1895 and, by 1901, had about 4,000 books in that second floor reading room.  Those books were donated from the high school library and the library of Falley Seminary, a local private school.  Helen Emens was the librarian for many years.” 

Joyce explained that the first library board was composed of Fulton industry leaders and school administrators. After a few years, the board got word that Andrew Carnegie’s foundation was offering money for library construction. Hopes were high that patrons would soon have a brand new library until its board members learned they did not qualify for funding. Only established cities could apply for Carnegie’s support and in 1901 the area we call Fulton was still two towns separated by the Oswego River. A year later, the towns merged and one of the city of Fulton’s first major accomplishments was receiving $15,000 (over $430,000 today) by The Carnegie Foundation. Joyce described the location for the new library:

“The site was part of the old portage road, where boats off-loaded their cargo to get around the falls, then loaded it back on further down the Oswego River, north of the city.  Some of the stone was salvaged from a building onsite that housed canal workers and was used in the library’s foundation.  Marble, brick, and native stone were used for the walls and door and window surrounds.  The roof was slate. Inside were quartered-oak floors and woodwork, as is evident even today.”

By summer 1905, the city had laid the library’s cornerstone. The following spring, Mrs. Emens, still in charge of the library, oversaw the transfer of materials to the new building. A few weeks later, the first patrons walked through its doors.  They were welcomed to a spacious main floor, with a children’s section behind the main desk and a basement area used for storage and large group programs. (The upper floor—the mezzanine—was added in the early 1960s.) 

 After rereading Joyce’s memories of the library, I wanted to bring myself up to date on our city’s important resource. As a frequent visitor to the library, I know that today the children’s area takes up the entire basement (other than a small conference room) and the two main floors hold over 34,000 works of fiction, non-fiction and reference materials. The area behind the front desk is now devoted to computers. Along with newspapers and periodicals, a CD and DVD collection expand how we learn and are entertained by library materials.

 A visit to the library’s website turned up more: Under the heading “Services,” you’ll find copy and faxing information, as well as notices on new e-books. You’ll also find out that the Fulton branch is now part of a North Country Library System, which includes 65 other libraries in upstate New York. This vastly expands the number of books and other resources available to check out. We’ll never run out of good books to read!

 Elsewhere on the Library’s website you’ll learn about new classes being offered, its monthly newsletter, and links to other websites with Fulton history information. Patrons who stop in can spend hours browsing for just the right book or book-on-tape or a movie to enjoy on DVD. The newspapers and magazines are waiting to be read. All this, of course, without any cost.

Don’t you think Andrew Carnegie would be smiling down on the good use being made of his generous gift?

The Fulton Public Library’s main entrance first began welcoming us in 1906.

The Fulton Public Library’s main entrance first began welcoming us in 1906.