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.”