By CRAIG FREILICH
Life in the North Country has changed a lot since World War II, especially the experience at area colleges and the pattern of local business.
“There were still a lot of people in the 1940s who didn’t have electricity. And even into the 1950s, I remember people who lived on the back roads in Pierrepont had no electric, no telephone,” said Varick Chittenden, whose family has lived in St. Lawrence County for more than 200 years.
Personally, he saw the store his great-great-grandfather started in Hopkinton close as commerce moved from small local stores reached on foot or by horse to big-box stores with acres of parking lots for cars and trucks. When his mother moved from Hopkinton in 2002, that left Hopkinton without a Chittenden for the first time since Clark S. Chittenden arrived in 1821.
With a professional curiosity about North Country traditions, Chittenden has seen and made note of changes in the commercial, educational and social life in the greater Canton-Potsdam area since he was a boy.
Chittenden is the founder – “with a lot of help” -- of Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, TAUNY, which celebrates the lives, occupations and traditions of North Country people. He is now TAUNY Center Project Director, wrangling whatever is required to get their new quarters at 53 Main St. in Canton renovated and fully operational.
Turning Point After World War II
World War II was fought while he was a young boy, and “right after the war, historians say, was such a turning point, including the arrival of the new middle class. There was much more common use of automobiles, which probably led to the decline of my father’s store,” with the new ease of people traveling to larger nearby commercial centers like Potsdam and Malone for what they needed.
“It wasn’t until college that I went into a chain store for the first time, in part because they got such a bad rap from my father.” The store was Loblaw’s, a Canadian grocery chain that opened on Elm Street in Potsdam where the Big M is now.
He moved to Canton in 1959 when he started his studies at St. Lawrence University.
“I was obviously familiar with all these towns, but it was still a significant change for me,” he said.
“Both Potsdam and Canton had lots of commerce, lots of activity compared with Hopkinton. I was much more familiar with Potsdam and Malone, where my father did a lot of wholesale business.”
“Canton had four grocery stores and two hardware stores, all downtown. There was a pool hall, and four or five barbershops. The classic line was, ‘Nine bars and seven churches.’ There were shoe stores and clothing stores. There was Barbour’s, and J.J. Newberry’s was right here,” where TAUNY is now located.
Most of those stores were swept away with the advent of larger stores elsewhere.
Strict Rules at College
At SLU, there was strict segregation between men and women in the residence halls, “and strict rules of behavior, but within five years of my graduation in 1963 things really began to change.”
As he was working on his master’s degree in 1965 and 66, and acting as head resident, “there was a great debate about changing rules. I remember there was a decision that if a woman was visiting a man in his room, the door had to be left open four inches or something. Informally, if you left a tie on the doorknob, that indicated there was a woman in the room. We were quite perplexed about it all. We resident assistants didn’t want to be the police.”
He has watched as the ratios of men to women in the colleges changed from almost all men to “now 60/40 in favor of women, I’m told,” he said, “quite different than in my day.
“There was a lot more presence of students in town than now. Driving through Canton now, you would hardly know this is a college town.”
“Back then the drinking age was lower, so that made for more downtown activity. And the campuses are more self-contained now. I don’t know if that’s entirely a good thing, but I suppose there are good reasons. There have been efforts by business made to generate more interest for students downtown – several attempts over the years.”
Chittenden also said student behavior is different. “We had 8 a.m. classes, even 8 a.m. Saturday classes. My understanding is that there are fewer 8 a.m. classes now. Students were much more accustomed to having to get up.”
There are way more cars on campus these days, he says. “As a scholarship student, I wasn’t allowed to have a car anyway.” But not nearly as many students back then had cars as today’s students do.
Tuition at St. Lawrence was $1,000 a year.
Public School Changes
The public school scene has changed radically, with consolidations and long bus rides.
“I went to grade school in Hopkinton. The building that is now the fire department was the school building. There were two classrooms: grades one to three downstairs and grades four to six upstairs. When I was in fourth or fifth grade, they built a new grade school, and that is now the NuMed building.”
He went to high school at Parishville-Hopkinton School in Parishville, which had been built in 1940 and has been added onto several times.
“But you know, some things are very much the same,” he said.
“They’re a vanishing breed, those people whose families have been in these small towns a long time. But new people move in and adopt the traditions. If something happened, everyone would help.”
“When I was at my first teaching job in Gouverneur, I met a woman who told me about when she had just moved to Richville. There was a church dinner that had been going on for years and years, and she said, ‘I’d only been there a couple of weeks when there was a knock at the door.’ She opened the door and there was a representative of the church who asked if she would make a couple of pies for the church dinner. ‘I made them, and I’ve been making them ever since.’”
“We always said our family was Republicans since they were Whigs,” referring to the predecessor to the Republican Party. “In today’s terms they were moderates, but fiscally conservative. I want to believe that if Father were still here, he would be considered a moderate.”
His forebears, who served in many local and some state offices over the generations, instilled a sense of civic responsibility, he said. If he hadn’t voted on Election Day, his father, who served as chair of the county Board of Supervisors, would say, “Just get there, no matter how you vote.”
Roots Go Back Two Centuries
Chittenden’s North Country roots go back more than 200 years. The Chittendens arrived in St. Lawrence County in 1821 when his great-great grandfather Clark S. came from Vermont and settled in Hopkinton along with other Vermonters. But he traces his family roots in the area to 1803, when Elisha Risdon was among the first to settle in Hopkinton.
“His granddaughter married my great grandfather,” Varick explained.
Chittenden’s Store in Hopkinton goes back to when Clark “ran an ashery, collecting hardwood tree ash from farmers who were clearing land. Rather than let them go to waste, he would take in the ashes from burned felled logs.”
Clark made potash and pearlash, used in plaster, medicines, and other products. He took barrels of it to Plattsburgh and Montreal, from where it would be shipped to manufacturers.
“He would take orders from local people who might have wanted salt, tobacco, or sugar, and when he got back he would trade – it was all barter in those days – and that was the start of the general store in Hopkinton.”
Grew Up In General Store
“By the time I was born in 1941, the store was very well established. I grew up in the store.”
“As a general store, we had everything – woolen pants, patent medicine, veterinary medicines, lamp parts, fresh produce. Father cut meat in the store.”
Five generations of Chittendens ran the store. “My brother Jay and I were the fifth generation to operate the store. We took over from our father, another Clark S.”
Early on, his interest in local lore was piqued by the men who would swap stories when they gathered in the store, and he was steeped in family and local history – “My grandmother made sure I was,” he said.
“I got so interested in those guys’ stories that it influenced my career,” he said.
The hamlet of Hopkinton has had telephone service since 1901, when the Nicholville Telephone Company, now the parent company of Slic Network Solutions and other high-technology companies, was started.
“I remember our telephone number was 7F2, two rings. There was one in the store, but not in the house.”
Chittenden earned degrees in education and English, and in American folk culture. He taught in Gouverneur, and at SUNY Canton, where he started folklore classes.