VERMONTVILLE - When Franklin County was founded, almost the entire population lived in the northern part of the county. Originally, almost all of what is now Franklin County was included in the then-Clinton County town of Chateaugay, according to Frederick J. Seaver, author of the 1918 book "Historical sketches of Franklin County and its several towns."
Malone was founded in 1805, under the name Hanson, reducing Chateaugay to include two townships in Clinton County plus Burke, Bellmont, Franklin and St. Armand. Franklin County was created in 1808, St. Armand went to Essex County in 1822, and the town of Bellmont was split off in 1833, including the territory that is the town of Franklin now. Franklin became its own town in 1836. Henry B. Hatch was the town's first supervisor, according to town historian Teresa Eshelman; the first town board meeting was held at his home on July 1, 1836.
Fewer than 200 people lived in Franklin when the town was formed. The first permanent settlers were Isaac McLenathan and William Wells, who came from Jay in Essex County in 1827 and built a saw mill and iron forge at what is Franklin Falls today but was McLenathan Falls until 1851. The first child born in the town of Franklin, Sanford Hough, was born here in 1840. The settlement grew to include a large store, a school and a hotel. Seaver wrote that their businesses never did well, as all lumber and iron products had to be hauled 34 miles to Port Kent to be sold.
This picture of children standing outside a small schoolhouse in Vermontville was taken in the late 1890s.
(Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Research Room, Saranac Lake Free Library)
All 23 dwellings in McLenathan Falls and every other structure except a small shack was completely destroyed by a fire in 1852.
"So rapidly and fiercely did the flames spread that fowls, dogs and cattle perished in the streets, and the inhabitants themselves barely escaped with their lives," Seaver wrote. "Household goods, merchandise in the store, large quantities of lumber, and even the unsubmerged parts of wagons that had been hauled into the river were all destroyed."
Peter Comstock rebuilt the area somewhat and reopened the mills, and for 14 years a major lumbering operation under the direction of Christopher F. Norton of Plattsburgh was centered there, but they were closed again by the 20th century. There were other mills in Franklin, but never one as big. Only two were running by 1918. The hotel also reopened, changing hands a number of times, but it was never as big or bustling as it was before the fire.
Among the early settlers of Franklin were some African-Americans, former slaves brought to the Adirondacks by noted abolitionist, friend of John Brown and former gubernatorial candidate Gerrit Smith. Smith bought some land in North Elba and Franklin in the 1840s, and gave homesteads to the freed slaves and to some poor whites recruited from the cities also.
Merrillsville was settled in 1829 by Lamsons, Cates and Merrills. Settlement of Vermontville started in the early 1800s, with most of the pioneers coming from Vermont. Teresa R. Eshelman wrote in the local series "They Told Me So" that Irish and English emigrants hired in the 1840s to cut timber ended up clearing much of Vermontville and as far as Sugar Bush and Alder Brook. Settlers from Vermont, Clinton and Essex counties came, attracted by the cheap land. By 1918, Seaver wrote, Vermontville was the town's largest hamlet. It had no industries except farming; a foundry built in 1861 had apparently closed by then, as had a sawmill built in 1848.
The Delaware and Hudson and New York Central railroads came through the town in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Both lines had stops at Lake Kushaqua, Onchiota and Loon Lake; D&H stopped in Vermontville, too.
Onchiota was one of the later-settled parts of the town. A mill was built there after the railroads came through town, and most of the men and boys who settled around it worked there, wrote Hayden Tormey in the first volume of "They Told Me So." When the wood ran out, boarding houses sprang up, and wealthy city people came in to hunt and fish. Some stayed and built camps.
The only non-residential building in Onchiota in the early 20th century was the general store, which had the only telephone. You could catch a train out every half-hour, but a trip to Vermontville or Bloomingdale overland could take a half-day. Onchiota became a bit busier during Prohibition, as the rum-runners loved the back roads there and used to tear down them, shooting it out with pursuing federal agents.
Tormey wrote that Onchiota started to lose its remote character after World War II.
"Our general store changed, too; no people, no business," Tormey wrote "What to do, advertise? Yes; our slogan 'Off the beaten path.' Federal help programs came, then the Olympics of 1980. New paved roads replaced our once two-wheel rut roads. Progress..."
The Chateaugay branch of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, which ran through Franklin, discontinued stopping at its Onchiota and Vermontville stations in 1940, although it continued to stop at Loon Lake until 1946. New York Central ended its passenger service from Lake Clear to Malone in 1957, although some freight service continued into the 1960s. Attempts to bring the railroad back for the Olympics were unsuccessful.
The highway department
The town of Franklin had 1,197 inhabitants according to the 2000 census, making it the 13th-most populous out of the county's 19 towns. Its area, however, is 180 square miles, making it the third-largest in the county.
"The story is told that one of the early supervisors, journeying to Malone to attend his first session of the board, after having driven all day, arrived at a primitive hotel, inquired what town he was in, and was amazed to learn that he had not yet wholly traversed his own," Seaver wrote. "The anecdote is illuminative of Franklin's broad reaches, and not less of the horrible highways that used to characterize it."
The Port Kent-Hopkinton turnpike was built between 1829 and 1832. It was the town's main highway in the early days, and it was lined with rustic inns offering travelers meals and lodging for next to nothing. Today, it is county Route 26, and it isn't always plowed beyond Loon Lake in the winter.
Franklin has 70.3 miles of town roads today. Highway maintenance has always been one of the town's greatest expenses.
"As early as 1851, the Town was divided into districts under the supervision of a Commissioner of Highways, who was Thomas Goldsmith," Eshelman wrote. "Each district was headed by its own Overseer of Highways serving under the Commissioner." The highway districts assessed the inhabitants for the manpower to repair the roads.
The highway department's 2009-10 budget is for $1,024,994 - about 65 percent of the town's total spending. The highway superintendent is a much more important, and sometimes controversial, figure in Franklin than in other towns, and a large part of town board meetings is spent on the highway superintendent's report and on questions for him.
The earliest records of schooling available are from 1878, Fran Oliver wrote in "They Told Me So." In this year, the town had one school, in Vermontville across state Route 3 from where the town garage is today. Seventy-six out of the town's residents between the ages of five and 21 went to school that year; an average of 26 showed up any given day. Later, there would be at least 12 schools, although they weren't all operational at the same time.
These schools only taught through primary grades; parents who wanted a high school education for their children, in the early days, had to pay to send them elsewhere and pay their room and board as well, according to Raymond Tuthill in "They Told Me So."
Betty Goff Wilson wrote abut her memories of attending primary school in a two-room schoolhouse in Vermontville in the 1950s that is the Franklin town hall today. Grades one through three were in one room, four through six in the other.
"Each day started with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer," Wilson wrote in They Told Me So. "On Monday mornings we each got a new drinking cup and had 'inspection,' which meant the teacher went up and down the aisles checking each student's fingernails, etc."
A cafeteria had recently been added to the school, and Wilson remembers helping the cook set the tables, dish up dessert and arrange condiments on the tables while in sixth grade.
The Sugarbush and Vermontville school districts voted to send their high schoolers to Saranac Lake High School by bus in 1934, and Merrillsville, Loon Lake, Onchiota and Franklin Falls later did the same. Private contractors brought the high school children to and from Saranac Lake until these little districts throughout the town centralized with Saranac Lake in 1968. At the same time, the one-room schoolhouses closed and the younger children started to go to Saranac Lake as well. Some of these buildings were sold to private owners; others fell into disrepair or were destroyed by vandalism or fire.
One article can only scratch the surface of the rich history of the town of Franklin. Its inhabitants, many of whom are descendants of the town's first settlers, have recorded its history painstakingly. It is a town of many separate hamlets, each with its own story to tell.
Contact Nathan Brown at 891-2600 ext. 26 or email@example.com.