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Nearly 100 community members took in a century of North Country knowledge Nov. 14 during the Historic Villages of Fort Drum Tour. Hosted by the Fort Drum Environmental Division’s Cultural Resources Program, this was the first history tour since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Above: Dr. Laurie Rush, Fort Drum Cultural Resources Program manager, shares some “Lost Villages” history. Left: Community members consult a schematic of the Lewisburg Iron Furnace. (Photos by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)

After two-year hiatus, villages tour at Fort Drum connects community members with ‘lost’ history

Mike Strasser

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs 

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Nov. 15, 2022) – With more than a dozen stops across the Fort Drum training area and cantonment, nearly 100 community members took in a century of North Country knowledge Nov. 14 during the Historic Villages of Fort Drum Tour.

Hosted by the Fort Drum Environmental Division’s Cultural Resources Program, this was the first history tour since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and registration nearly filled after the first week it was announced.

“All the groups we’ve had before on the tours have been lovely, but this group today has been especially wonderful,” said Dr. Laurie Rush, Cultural Resources Program manager. “I think it was the excitement of having the chance to be part of this tour, after such a long time of not being able to see any of this. Even at the end of the day, people did not seem tired of walking around and sharing stories. Just the general enthusiasm and interest in what we do made this so special.”

Re-establishing the tour after a two-year hiatus, Rush and her team wanted to try something a little different this time.

“For one reason or another, we had never gone to all five Lost Villages on one tour,” she said. “So we thought if we are going to have another Lost Villages tour then, by golly, let’s go to all of them!”

As attendees stood in the middle of a barren crossroads, one might imagine what Sterlingville must have been like decades ago – a village bustling with residents shopping at the local grocery, attending church services and walking children to the schoolhouse.

But by 1941, Sterlingville and some of the surrounding villages were all but gone – 500 families and more than 2,000 people displaced – when their lands were purchased so the Army could expand the Pine Camp training post.  

Richard Roderick, from Carthage, brought pictures with him on the tour. One of them was of his father and grandfather, who owned a moving and storage business.

“They helped move the families off these lands – to Adams, to Carthage, to Watertown – when the government took over the Pine Plains area,” he said. “I had registered for one of these tours before, but I was unable to make it. I think it’s great, seeing the history of this area. I knew people from Sterlingville that lived in Carthage.”

Rush said what makes the tour rewarding for members of the Cultural Resources team is meeting with people whose families have history in the Lost Villages.

“As much as we love sharing the history of the Lost Villages with people on the tour, it is wonderful when they bring some of the history back to us,” she said. “We have members of the Pierce family on the tour, and they lost a big farm during the Pine Camp expansion. One of the earliest conversations I had with Mark (Pierce), who I’ve known for a long time, was about the heartbreak of his aunts when they moved. They would sneak back onto the farm to harvest from the nut trees. Hearing about their loss helps us remember the sacrifices made by those villages to get to where we are today.”

The tour also featured a stop at Gates Cemetery, where Sterlingville founder James Sterling was buried in 1863. 

“James Sterling was known affectionately in history books as ‘Big Jim’ Sterling, and it was said he weighed 396 pounds and that he carried a four-pound note in his pocket to make him an even 400 pounds,” said Heather Wagner, Fort Drum Environmental Division education and outreach coordinator.

Sterling was also known as the “Iron King” of the North Country, and Wagner said he was beloved for his kindness and good nature.

“James Sterling was said to have felt bad after riding his horse for a long time,” she said. “He would walk the horse because he didn’t want the horse to suffer underneath his weight. If children in the communities needed food or anything, he would put everything in his carriage and make multiple stops along the way to make sure families had what they needed.”

Attendees also toured, for the first time, an expanded section of Leraysville inside Remington Park, with markers indicating where former businesses were located.

“This land used to be so overgrown that you could never appreciate what we were trying to show,” Rush said. “So now you can actually see some of the foundations really well, and we can thank Public Works for the job they did clearing the area. You can walk around the path and see where there was a hotel, Truman Cool’s farm and Felt’s mansion.”

Attendees also visited Lewisburg and its cemetery, Alpina, and Quarry Pond, which is “Home of the Original Crystal Cave.”  The calcite cave was unique for the size and quality of the crystals found there. In 1909, New York State Museum staff removed and packed the contents of the caverns over a six-week period, requiring 80 barrels, 14 kegs and 22 boxes. The crystals were placed on display at the museum, and the “Sterlingbush Calcite Cave” reconstruction was said to be one of the most popular exhibits for many years.

Sandra LaClair was among a few guests who collected some rocks at Quarry Pond as keepsakes of the history tour.

“I had such a great time on this tour that I wish my kids had come. I won’t remember all of this,” she said. “It’s really cool to learn some of this history that you wouldn’t normally think about.”

During the pandemic, Wagner posted history videos on the Cultural Resources’ YouTube page to help fill the void of a cancelled tour schedule. She said it is always preferable to present this information in person, and to a large group of people who genuinely care about the history.

“I really like seeing folks who have come on the tours before to share their stories, and they came specifically on today’s tour to tell me other ones that they remembered,” she said. “There’s such a synergy that happens when you, as the storyteller, become the story keeper, as you hear others tell their stories and collect them. Not all of us are history buffs like I am, but today was like having a bus full of people who have the same interest as you, and I really enjoyed the excitement and energy that everyone brought throughout the day.”