Saturday, February 13, 2016

Romance Wyatt

The Last of the Brothertown Indians in the area, Romance Wyatt, who died in 1907, was described as a kindhearted gentleman who had a sense of humor, laughed often and enjoyed a good joke. But to appreciate his story, it's necessary to understand a little of the history of the Brothertowns.

Around 1774, the remnants of once-mighty tribes, reduced in numbers and driven from their homes in New England, New Jersey and Long Island, united to form a new tribe at the encouragement of the Oneida Indians, part of the "Six Nations" in New York State. The Oneidas were land-rich at that time, and deeded them land about 10 miles square around the present Town of Marshall, extending from the foot of Sanger Hill northward along the Brothertown Road, across Forge Hollow, along the east side of the Deansboro Valley and up to the Dugway at Franklin Springs.  Because so many tribes had joined together to make a family, and because they were intent on following a path of peace, they decided on the name Brothertown.  Due to the fact they had no common language, they adopted the English language. Among the tribes represented were the Pequot, Narragansett, Natnick, Mohegan and Montauk. Romance Wyatt, by all accounts, was a Montauk.

Romance Wyatt, commonly called Matt, was born in 1826 in the Town of Marshall. Here accounts of his very early life differ. Some sources tell us that at the age of 6 months his parents gave him to Cynthia Dick to raise; others state his parents died when he was 6 months of age and he was adopted; and others assert that, although he had no memory of his mother, he was seven years old when his father died. However he came to live with  Cynthia Dick of Dicksville, the fact remains that she nurtured and cared for him, making sure he attended  the Dicksville school, until he was 12 or 13 years old.

After that time, he worked for farmers in the area, but decided to travel to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where many  of his fellow tribesmen, including Cynthia Dick, had emigrated due to the increasing demand for the Brothertown land by the whites.  At one time there were around 500 members of the tribe who were said to be industrious farmers, but they could not withstand the influence of the white settlers who often got the better of them in land deals. Therefore, gradually they gave up and moved. Wyatt, however, stayed in the northwest only a few years, and came back to live in the Town of Marshall, where he went to work on the Chenango Canal which opened in 1837. He was at first a driver and then was promoted to steersman, at which position he worked for over thirty seasons.  In those days a canaller had to fight his way along the towpath and at the locks. It is said that young Wyatt never picked a fight, but when forced into one he always came out on top; when he had a black eye the other fellow had two.

Romance Wyatt, commonly called Matt Wyatt,  lived for a time in Hamilton, and it was there he got involved with the case of Jared Comstock and his wife Clarissa in 1858. Wyatt was frequently called to the home of the Comstocks to protect them from the murderous threats and attacks of their drunken son William. On the night Mr. and Mrs. Comstock were actually murdered by their son, Wyatt was unable to go to their home at their request due to a previous engagement; however, he was part of the search party who found William Comstock, the murderer, in the woods "secreted behind a log."  He visited the prisoner, who escaped being lynched on the spot, many times while he was in prison in Morrisville, and was a witness for the prosecution at the trial. An aside: William Comstock was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter in the first degree by reason of insanity, and was sent to Auburn prison where he presumably lived out his life sentence.  He was said to have been a model prisoner.

When the Civil War broke out Wyatt traveled to Utica to enlist in Co. K, 26th Regiment, and when that company was mustered out after about six months, he re-enlisted in the 83d Infantry, part of Company K and later in Company A. He was in the first battle of Fredericksburg, where he was wounded in his left thigh, and also in the battles  of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.  At Gettysburg he was in the thick of the fight at Little Round Top. He was shot in the right ankle, which left him with a slight limp, and on July 6, 1865, was honorably discharged with a pension of $4.  Wyatt was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, and while in the South he secured leave of absence long enough to come back to his home and vote for him.

In conjunction with voting, the story goes that as he entered the polling place, a man came up to Wyatt and said to him, "You know what side your bread is buttered on, don't you?" and gave him a $5.00 bill. A few minutes later another man asked the same question and gave him $1.00. Said Romance Wyatt, "Neither one of them asked me as to how I intended to vote, and I went ahead and cast my ballot as I had expected to. I had always known which side my bread was buttered on, but I had never expected to be paid merely for possessing that knowledge."

Romance Wyatt's House on Route 12B
After the war, Romance Wyatt returned to the Town of Marshall, having developed a strong attachment for this valley and  its inhabitants. He bought a house in 1866 on the road from Deansboro to Oriskany Falls (Route 12B). It is no longer there, but was directly across from where the Signal Trailer Park in Deansboro is now located.  In 1867 he  married Eunice Ann Beach, a white woman, by whom he had one daughter, Hattie.  Wyatt worked on the canal  and Mrs. Wyatt found a ready market for her spruce gum, which she sold to the nearby school children for a penny. It was made from the resin Mr. Wyatt gathered from the trees in the Nile Mile Swamp. The gum was a rather hard, brown substance with a sweetish, pungent flavor.

In 1881, Hattie Wyatt died of pneumonia at the age of 15, and a hydrangea tree was planted to mark her gravesite on the east slope of the Deansboro cemetery. Despite the considerable grief at the loss of their daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Wyatt carried on. Wyatt, when he found the time in the winter, wove baskets of white ash, and also produced and sold chair seats; and his wife, besides supplying the gum, was the creator of fancy work for the people of the village. Romance Wyatt was elected game constable in the Town of Marshall in 1877. It was hoped, an article in the Waterville Times stated, that Wyatt's fondness for fishing would encourage him to enforce the fishing and gaming laws, which he did.

Mrs. Wyatt died in 1893, and Romance Wyatt was left alone once again. Lewis Kindness, another Indian, lived with him for a while, but he eventually went west. Wyatt  always enjoyed hard cider, and during one of his "sprees" during this time, he attended a revival meeting at the Congregational (Stone) church in Oriskany Falls. He listened to the appeals of the minister, but could not make up his mind to covert until he had one last drink. He did, and told the bar tender, "This is my last drink."  He signed a pledge, which he kept faithfully to the end, not to indulge in any more "firewater." Wyatt went back to the Congregational church, became a member, and even worked for some years there as janitor. It is said that every Sunday he walked from his home in Deansboro to Oriskany Falls to attend church, and hardly ever missed a service.

Wyatt, who elected not to leave the banks of the Chenago Canal, died in 1907, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of his house on the Deansboro-Oriskany Falls Road. Reportedly, he had been in feeble health, so his death was not unexpected. He was buried in the Deansboro  cemetery next to his wife and daughter. Although there is a population of Brothertown Indians in Wisconsin, no more are left in this area. Hence, Romance (Matt) Wyatt is referred to as "The Last of the Brothertowns."

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Maccabee Hall

Many citizens of the Town of Marshall have fond memories of the Maccabee Hall, which was located on the west side of Route 315 approximately where The Boro is. Built in 1897 by the Knights of the Maccabees #514, it was quite a structure. It featured a steel ceiling manufactured in West Virginia and a flagstone path (a rarity in those days) installed in front.  Practically every carpenter in Deansboro was employed to work day and night at 7 1/2 center an hour. There was a stage, a balcony and plenty of room. The opening and dedication of the building in 1898 was a gala affair, marred only by "a most disagreeable storm," which meant that some of the attendees were unable to leave the building with the result that they were served breakfast in addition to a 5 pm and midnight dinner.

            The Maccabees are a fraternal society formed in 1878 in Canada, which sponsored financial aid and insurance to members and homes for the aged. At its zenith, the worldwide membership in the organization reached over 300,000; by the 1970s membership was down to about 10,000. The local Maccabee Society, which was called the Brothertown Tent, was quite active in Deansboro until about a little after the turn of the century. Electricity was installed in 1906. The Maccabees never actually owned the building, however; it was owned by a group of investors in the building which called itself  the Deansboro Hall Association. The Association rented the hall to the Maccabees and the building was used as a community center.  Prominent speakers, meetings, concerts, banquets, plays, talent shows and all kinds of celebrations were held in the Maccabee Hall. The Men's Club rented the Hall for many years, and sponsored an active Shuffleboard (Shovelboard) team.

            When the school in Deansboro burned in 1931, some classes were held in Maccabee Hall. The high school pupils  occupied the main part of the Hall with Prof. A. J. Smith and Miss Kathryn Cornell as teachers until the new school was ready for occupancy in 1932. However, Mrs. Powell, former historian of the Town of Marshall related that the furnace in the Hall was very old and put all sorts of noxious gases in the building which built up over the course of the day, so nobody was kept in after school much in those days. Movies were held there, but the eels from Oriskany Creek used to get around the water wheel which generated the electricity. The movie would come to a stop and someone would have to go out to remove the eel.  Esther Skerritt Sander accompanied the silent movies on the piano.

            Plays were put on for the public. Clifford Small, whose father was a charter member of the Maccabees, remembered Chautauqua performances in which five plays were presented in a season for $2.00 a season ticket. In 1945, Benjamin Smith temporarily moved his barber shop to the Maccabee Hall from the business block which was torn down by Claude Hinman in order to build the brick building which stands at the corner of Routes 315 and 12B today. Balls and dances were held in the Maccabee Hall to the music of Brownie Moyer's orchestra; I remember square dancing there in the 1950s and 1960s. Some have recalled dance lessons, Girl Scout and  Boy Scout meetings, and participating in a talent show. Basketball games were played in the Hall. Voting was held there, and town business was conducted. The firemen held their first ham dinner there.

            One special occasion was in September, 1946 when a public dinner was held to honor the returning veterans from World War Two, co-chaired by Gardener Hart and Frank Seelow.  90 people attended the steak dinner with all the trimmings and sang  patriotic songs.  Three years later, in the year 1949 the Barton Hose Company bought the Maccabee Hall, which later became a burden to the firemen, so they sold it to the Town of Marshall in 1956. In 1959, the town was looking to sell it, according to a Waterville Times article, so the hall, although still used for community functions, began to deteriorate. But who can forget ice skating on the rink which was maintained in the parking lot  next to the hall?

            In the 1970s, the structure that was originally Maccabee Hall was turned into a night spot, first called Peter's Little Cellar, operated by Jim Harrison and Peter Zuccaro; and lastly it was known as JR's Tavern. The building was then owned by A.R. D'Agostino of Clinton and operated by James Clements and Ronald Haskins of Oriskany Falls. The Bicentennial Ball was held there in 1976.

            In February 1981, an explosion sparked a fire which destroyed the tavern - and the hall. When the firemen arrived at the scene the fire was fully involved and there was no saving the building. There ends the story of an 84-year-old building that was The Place to Be for much of its history.

Play at Maccabee Hall

Maccabee Hall in the 1960s