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A visit to the Morristown Gateway Museum

Posted by Ian Lamont on

EasyGenie is on the road this week! We are taking our only vacation of the year in northern New York on the Canadian border, where Ian has family. For the past few years our vacations have been working vacations ... we even bring along a printer, postage supplies, and a limited inventory so we can continue to fulfill orders. This page shows what we are able to ship this week. 

The main focus of coming to this particular spot is to soak up the beautiful countryside and connect with family who are scattered along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. We've been doing this for years - Ian for 50, Nicole for 20, and the kids for about 15 years. Inevitably, there are opportunities to dig into genealogy, whether it's talking with older relatives, or visiting municipal archives to view vital records of ancestors long passed on.

This year, however, we made a discovery that really opened our eyes to our ancestors' day-to-day lives: the exhibits at the Morristown Gateway Museum.

Morristown museum

You may know of museums like this in your own hometown. Run by dedicated volunteers on shoestring budgets, they bring together the history and people of the local city, town, or countryside. You can find maps, vehicles, machinery, uniforms, and donated artifacts. Typed recollections, photographs, and posters from events or old advertisements often round out the collection. 

This museum has mockups of an old one-room schoolhouse and medical practice, local veterans' memorabilia, collections of sleds and farm equipment, and even a scale model of the town from the late 1800s: 

Morristown model

Local museums are gold mines of information for genealogy research. What you can find in local history museums goes far beyond what you can source on the Internet. Online databases give access to ancestors' names, dates, and places of birth/marriage/death. Museums show you the objects they handled, the events they attended, and the businesses that dominated the local economy. 

For instance, until we visited the museum and saw the scale model of the town, we did not know Morristown had its own railroad depot - the spur and station were torn up long ago. As Ian's great-grandfather was a railroad agent in the next town over, he no doubt had business at the depot. His father, an immigrant from Ireland, serviced locomotives in the same area, and may have also had business at the Morristown depot.

The prosperity of the town was driven by a number of factors, including local shipping along both sides of the St. Lawrence River, regular rail connections to New England and New York City for commerce and tourism, a strong farm economy, and the Comstock "pill factory" that made medicines of dubious quality (this was before the FDA and the development of the modern pharmaceutical industry): 

Comstock pills

Another local industry: Fishing. Native tribes including the Mohawks had valued the many types of fish that could be caught on the river. One of the largest species, sturgeon, was considered a worthless bottom feeder by the first European settlers. That is, until immigration from Central and Eastern Europe created a demand for the fish and its eggs. By the late 1800s, barrels of locally caught sturgeon and caviar were being shipped by rail to the markets and restaurants of New York City

The museum contains numerous displays relating to the sturgeon and other fish, including boats, lures, and a complicated eel trap that looks like it was based on a Native American design.

Morristown fishing museum

We also learned of a hotel on one of the islands situated between Morristown and Brockville, Ontario. This hotel was the setting for illicit activities such as cockfights until it burnt down under mysterious circumstances in 1912. We have gazed upon this island for decades and had no idea what took place on the island until talking with one of the volunteers at the museum last weekend. 

Another area of the museum that we enjoyed were the displays relating to social life. Parties, balls, receptions, parades, and other events took place throughout the year (some still do, such as Morristown's famous July 4 parade).  

People belonged to clubs or veteran's organizations. Some took up sports, or developed other passions. Several famous artists came from the area, including Frederick Remington and Charles S. Chapman. I was struck by the exhibit of Chapman's works, and was surprised to the notes from a lecture on Chapman that was presented by Ian's "Uncle Joe" - a beloved first cousin once removed - who knew the artist and his work. 

Charles S Chapman painter museum

The next time you go on a genealogy road trip to your hometown or an ancestral village, be sure to seek out and support museums like this. The history and memories of these places matters. And they can be a treasure trove of information about the lives your ancestors lived. 

We will also be sharing some more photos from the museum as part of our history mystery series. Stay tuned!


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