He Made Fulton a Better Place

With summer fast approaching and school days coming to an end, kids will be spending a lot more time outdoors. In Fulton, youngsters will be visiting our city’s green spaces, including Recreation Park. New playground equipment at the park is being installed for older teens, ballfields await sports enthusiasts, and, of course, there’s our beloved Lake Neatahwanta. With the cleanup of the lake continuing and ongoing speculation about the reopening of swimming at the lake’s Stevenson Beach, I’ve been thinking about John Stevenson, a Fultonian who made Recreation Park possible.

I was not familiar with Mr. Stevenson and his role in the betterment of Fulton until I started working with our city library’s Memoir Project. The Project’s goal of helping people preserve their Fulton memories caught the interest of G. Ray Bodley High School’s English Department and a few years ago our Project coordinators were invited to attend one of their educational programs. What an interesting night it was.

Students of the high school’s English 10 Honors class had spent the 2014-15 school year working on a community project that addressed issues or concerns they had for their hometown. The class split into three groups to come up with “action plans” as possible solutions to the problems. One of these groups focused on creating awareness about Fulton’s history and a student in that group, Makhali Voss, mentioned John Stevenson in her presentation. Makhali described Mr. Stevenson as an inspirational Fulton citizen, mentioning a few of his accomplishments. Curious to learn more about him, I spoke with Makhali after the program and she agreed to join our Memoir Project.

A few weeks later, the Fulton Library’s director, Betty Mauté, and I met with Makhali and her mother to explain the Memoir Project and find out if Makhali would be interested in writing a more complete memoir of Mr. Stevenson. She readily agreed to do so, and the Memoir Project was happy to have its youngest memoirist. (Makhali was between her sophomore and junior years when she wrote for the library project.)

We met with Makhali a couple times over the summer months as she wrote her reflections on John Stevenson. Though she has known since her childhood years that she loves science (she’s planning a career in the medical field), Makhali also showed a talent in researching history. Here’s some of what she was able to find out about John Stevenson and why he was so important to Fulton:

“John William Stevenson was born in 1866. He was one of ten children and therefore experienced first-hand what it was like to have little money. That may have been a reason why he became such a generous man. Even before his years as mayor – 1920-1927 – he was well-known, mostly for his generosity, once donating a ton of coal to a family during a rough winter.

“As Fulton’s mayor, Mr. Stevenson started improving the city, having many new miles of streets paved; 26 miles to be exact. He constructed a new high school, which is still standing today. It served as Fulton’s Junior High for many years and is now Fulton’s Education Center. John did not stop there though; after the school was built, he enlarged the hospital. He implemented a garbage and ash collection system, with the cost of $1.25 a year. Before that, it was 20 cents a week. He made Saturday movies free to any child or an adult with a child.”

Makhali also found out that Stevenson did not spend his whole life as a politician. As she noted, he worked for many years at Fulton’s American Woolen Mills, which provided uniforms and other cloth-related supplies for the U.S. Army in both of the World Wars and also the Spanish American War. Makhali explained how he turned his work at the Mills into a major benefit for Fulton:

“After John Stevenson resigned from the Mills, he did not cease to have a say in their operations. He convinced them to buy 28 lakeside acres to turn it into a recreational park. The 1,500 employees of the Mills were welcome to enjoy the park, which featured a merry-go-round, auditorium, an open air dance pavilion, and an athletic field with grandstands. The auditorium stood three stories high and could seat 3,200 people. It was built mostly by the Mills’ workers. The park was very family-oriented and drew the city’s people in as well as many tourists. On the weekends there were baseball games for families to enjoy. There was also a Recreation Park Band that would play from time to time.”

Mr. Stevenson’s recreational contribution to Fulton flourished for many years, but eventually it became a financial burden. When the Mills shut down in the early 1950s, the park was neglected. Makhali explained what happened next:

“It took a while, but after four years, the Mill decided to lease or sell the park. In 1933, they sold this property to the Fulton Board of Education for $25,000. They, in turn, gave it to the city, but retained the right to use the park for school recreational purposes. In 1942, the buildings burned and the spot is now marked by a new War Memorial Building.”

What a pleasure it was to work with Makhali on the Memoir Project. Not only did she enlighten me about a Fultonian who did much to improve our city’s physical attributes and recreational opportunities, but she stood as an excellent example of today’s ambitious young people who are willing, when they are invited, to take part in capturing our city’s history.

 A postcard image of Stevenson Beach, once a recreation haven for young and old because of a Fultonian's dedication to our city.

A postcard image of Stevenson Beach, once a recreation haven for young and old because of a Fultonian's dedication to our city.

A Shining Musical Moment

Life in a small city like Fulton can often seem uneventful. We go about our routine of jobs or school, grocery shopping and getting to those chores around the house. It’s rare when something exciting happens that grabs the attention of our whole city. But when such an event does take place, Fulton responds. For example, the time our high school band earned an opportunity to travel to Europe.

It was 1971, and Richard Swierczek, the band director for G. Ray Bodley High School, had received an invitation for his group to participate in the International School Band Festival. The festival promotes excellence in music education and annually extends an invitation to fewer than two percent of U.S. school bands. Included in Swierczek’s invitation were details about the next festival, slated to take place in July 1972. The location: Vienna, Austria.

Austria. Exotic land of “The Sound of Music,” its Alps mountains and hills alive and surrounded by countries Fulton students had only ever seen in history books. Four thousand miles from home. It was an unbelievable opportunity for Fulton youth, many who’d never before traveled beyond New York state borders.

In 2013, when The Fulton Library’s Memoir Project was in its first year, we were looking for people willing to write about memorable Fulton events. I was a high school junior in 1972 and not a band member, but I had a vague memory of the Vienna excursion and thought it would make a good Project memoir. One of the students on the trip was local author Jo Ann Butler and we asked her if she’d be willing to share her Vienna memories. She immediately agreed.

In her memoir, Jo Ann covered all aspects of what it took to make the Vienna trip possible for the Bodley band’s seventy musicians, eight musical staff, and chaperones. Money, of course, was a major hurdle to overcome.

“With airfare, bus touring for three weeks, hotels, and meals,” Jo Ann remembered, “it will cost about $650 in 1972 dollars to send each of us to Europe. $50,000 is a lot of money in Fulton.”

It sure was. I used Google to find out what $50,000 equates to in 2018. Over $300,000. Almost a third of a million dollars. Raised in one year. In the small city of Fulton. But the people of Fulton know how to rally behind an exciting opportunity for its youth. Here’s how Jo Ann explained action taken by community leaders:

“Dick Swierczek sat down with the students and their parents. If we wanted to go to Europe, we must commit to a year of fundraising and dedicated practice. The vote was a resounding, ‘Yes!’ On June 10, band parents pledged $14,710 toward our $50K goal, and a couple weeks later the band played the first of many fundraiser concerts at the First Methodists’ Strawberry Festival.”

Along with parents’ efforts, a group first dubbed the “On to Vienna Committee,” and later renamed the “Bodley Band Boosters,” launched a full out fundraising plan. Committee members included Elon Rowlee, honorary chairman; Tom Bogaczyk, chairman; Shirlee Collins, co-chairman of the Fund Drive; Kenneth Woeller, treasurer; Laurna Hoffman, publicity chairman; Carrie Butler, secretary. Other members included William Camp, Joseph Campolieta, Merrill Hoffman, Roger Long, and Ernie and Mary Hamer.

Jo Ann spelled out the fundraising efforts: “Band members, along with friends and family, collected newspapers, aluminum and glass for recycling. Chocolate was popular in a city which boasted the first Nestlé plant, and band members sold 3,000 boxes of candy for a $1,100 profit. We sold tickets for raffles, including a VW Beetle donated by Fulton Volkswagen, a trash masher given by Angelo Mirabito and even a purebred poodle.”

Jo Ann admitted in her memoir that she would never be able to list everyone who contributed to the Vienna fund, but the months of fundraising efforts were all worth it. On June 21, 1972, with less than a month before the band was due to board a plane to Vienna, The Fulton Patriot headline read: “They Make it; $50,000!”

Jo Ann recalled the July 4 departure day: “At daybreak, a sizeable crowd gathered at the school to see us off. We were bused down to JFK airport, only to wait until after 10 p.m. to take to the air.” The group landed in Frankfurt, Germany, and got their first look at a whole new world when they spent their first night away from home in the medieval town of Rothenburg.

A week later, Jo Ann and her bandmates were performing, along with 200 bands from all over the world, at Vienna’s Schoenbrunn Palace. “We passed between giant stone sphinxes and granite columns topped with golden eagles, and found our place in the vast courtyard,” Jo Ann remembered. “The room could seat 1,800 people, but only the stage was brightly lit. The acoustics were amazing; the least accent or dynamic change was heard, but not echoed. Will our performance match this magnificent setting?

“We opened with Silver Quill, a brisk and brassy march, played with such brilliance that our performance was chosen to promote the 1973 festival. Incantation and Dance and Symphonic Movement were our group’s favorite pieces. Each is a fast-paced musical jigsaw puzzle which tests every player’s skill, and we attacked those pieces with gusto.”

The G. Ray Bodley band soon learned that they had earned a superior rating from the judges, putting them among the top performances. Dr. William Revelli, the festival director, congratulated Fulton on its “very stirring and virile performance … This organization is a great credit to its city, school and state. Congratulations to all.”

 

I hope you enjoyed revisiting Fulton High School’s glorious trip abroad. If you’d like to read Jo Ann’s full memoir about the trip to Vienna, contact the Fulton Public Library and ask if you can check out a copy of The Memoir Project’s first book, published in 2013, and titled Fulton: The Stories From Our Past That Inspire Our Future.

  The 1972 G. Ray Bodley High School Band prepares to embark on its memorable trip to Vienna, Austria.

The 1972 G. Ray Bodley High School Band prepares to embark on its memorable trip to Vienna, Austria.

Fulton's Own Poet Laureate

I’m not sure I would have ever discovered my interest in Fulton history if it weren’t for poetry. Though I never considered myself well-read when it came to poetry – I never found anything I could relate to in the classic poems of high school English – I did consider some of my favorite songs from the 1960s and ‘70s as poetic. Of course, singers like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Carole King and James Taylor had music to make their lyrics come to life, but they did help me see how words can stir our emotions.

I started writing poetry in the 1990s, which led to my first book of poems, Country Boy, a look back at my childhood growing up outside Fulton in farm country. That poetic collection led me to write a local history book, Of the Earth, which honors the muck farmers of Oswego County. These days I spend more time writing about local history than I do poetry, but it’s still true that nothing opens my heart like a poem.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to find out that, at one time, Fulton had its own Poet Laureate, an honorary position normally granted by a country or region. While visiting the Fulton Historical Society’s Pratt House, its Manager and Executive Secretary, Sue Lane, shared some history about this Fultonian, who, in 1975, was named our city’s Poet Laureate. The honored individual was E. Clayton Hazelwood, and his life story has a sort of poetry all its own.

Born in Walpole, Massachusetts in 1903, Clayton Hazelwood’s challenging medical conditions during his youth most certainly opened the door to his love of poetry. While other children were outside playing sports and games, Clayton was bedridden with polio, a frightening and, at the time, incurable disease. While recuperating from his illness, Clayton developed an interest in reading and writing.

Eventually, through determination and improved treatments for polio, Clayton was able to lead a normal life. When he moved to Fulton in 1920, the teenager found work at Arrowhead Mills, where he met Ruth Bennett. The two were married in 1923, and while starting and providing for a family, Clayton continued to pursue his interest in literature and history, developing his talents as a poet.

Word spread of the new Fultonian’s poetic abilities, and in honor of the village of Fulton’s centennial in 1935 (not to be confused with the city of Fulton’s centennial in 2002), Clayton was asked to compose a poem. His thirteen-stanza tribute to the area was a history lesson in itself. It began with a nod to the Oswego River, describing its peaceful shores as the birthplace of Native American folklore. The poem introduces us to Chief Taounyawatha, who, according to legend, slayed an evil serpent that sometimes churned calm river waters. Clayton’s poetry also paid homage to French and English settlers who cleared the area for Fulton, delighting his readers with a poem so rich in history.

In 1936, Clayton published his first book of poems, “Poetry Portraits,” which he explained were based on his experiences in Fulton and the personalities of friends he’d made here. (Thank you to the Fulton Public Library for tracking down a copy of the book for me to review.) When he donated a copy of his second book of poems, “Secrets,” to our library, he inscribed it with this handwritten note: “To the Fulton Public Library. No matter where you travel, o’er the world both up and down, there is no place quite as beautiful, as the little old hometown.”

I wanted to find out more about our Poet Laureate and Sue Lane directed me to Donna Terranova, who had recently donated a collection of Clayton’s poems and other creative endeavors to the Pratt House. I learned that Donna’s mother, Joan (Thompson) Terranova, was also a poet; she’d contributed her writing to local papers from the 1940s through the early ‘80s. As a fellow poet, Joan had a special interest in Clayton Hazelwood.

“My mother followed Mr. Hazelwood’s career,” Donna explained. “His poetry was widely read in our area, including in our city’s Fulton Patriot. He also had a weekly poetry program on a Syracuse radio station.”

Donna then mentioned an interesting turn that Mr. Hazelwood’s career took: “At some point in his life, he started writing lyrics for country & western songs, some of which were recorded by Nashville singers. When he was accepted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Mr. Hazelwood left the Fulton area, eventually retiring in Florida. My mother and he kept in contact for many years.”

Toward the end of his life, Clayton was again challenged by a physical affliction. Over time, he lost his eyesight, but persisted with his writing, not only in correspondence with friends like Mrs. Terranova, but also his music lyrics and poetry. Many Fultonians never forgot Hazelwood’s contributions to our city and to the creative arts.  It was the bright memory of this man that convinced our city leaders that he should be honored.

In the 1975 proclamation naming Hazelwood Fulton’s Poet Laureate, read by then-mayor Percy Patrick, it was noted that “E. Clayton Hazelwood was one of those giving citizens, who despite his own personal adversity was able to communicate inner strength and hope to others through his poetry, his radio work, his songwriting, and books of verse.”

Though Mr. Hazelwood is no longer with us, in the wonderful way that words keep memories alive, a love for Fulton can be found  in his poetry. Though he never mentions his onetime hometown in the poem “Song of the Poet,” I believe he is describing Fulton with these words:

“Give me the light of the moon for my lamp;

Give me the ground for my chair;

Give me the lanes and the woods to tramp;

The flower-scented cool summer air.

 

Give me the love of old mother earth;

She’s ever so true and so kind.

Give me her rivers, her songbirds of mirth,

And leave all the false love behind.”

 In 1975, this headline appeared as a Fulton newspaper.

In 1975, this headline appeared as a Fulton newspaper.