I walk for hours. Sometimes my hip would end up hurting from the unevenness of the trek, one foot on the shore, the other in the water. I have learned to wear an old pair of sneakers tied tight so rocks don’t get in my shoes. My hair is now long enough to pull back out of my face when the breeze blows. I have become my favorite animal, the red tailed hawk, able to spot even the smallest bit of colored glass in large expanses of wet stones. I grew up in a little town on Lake Ontario. My sisters and I used to gather beach glass after swimming. Our collection is long gone, seen as just a foolish child pastime. Our jar of precious gems has been thrown away.
At age eighteen, I left Western New York to start college but I have returned from time to time to walk the Ontario shore to reclaim the lovely smooth glass pieces weathered down by 20 to 30 years of wave action. My travels have taken me even deeper into uncharted territory, to a new exotic place called Barcelona, New York on Lake Erie. The beach glass is abundant there because over the course of history, 2000 shipwrecks have found a resting place below its cold waters.
I have jars of glass but I love the search. Walking on the beach is a kind of meditation nicely interrupted by the excitement of seeing the sparkle of green, brown, or blue treasures among the pebbles. I have found rare red glass, four pieces to be exact. Red is the ultimate prize for all who roam the shore. Even having achieved this, I still go back and I know there are many beachcombers who would understand.
I decided to stay a week in Barcelona in early September. I considered my continuum of comfort and my budget. Should I tent? The campsite I usually stayed at sometimes had high winds that in the past have blown over my equipment. At the other end of the spectrum was the option of a hotel room but that would have been expensive. I compromised and chose to rent a little barebones cabin at a KOA campsite. It would be economical and sturdy enough to shelter me from any type of weather.
I drove across the state on the NYS Thruway to the campsite I stopped once to get a cup of coffee and use the restrooms. I glanced at the large posters on the walls that gave historical information about the area. I knew some of the history of my state. I had gone to Seneca Falls to the Women’s Right Museum and sitting on Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s porch, I silently thanked her for all she did in 1847 to help females get the vote. I took art classes at The Chautauqua Institute which was established in 1874 as a church camp and later turned into an educational center. I knew Frederick Douglass frequented this part of the state and that John Brown, the abolitionist, was buried in Lake Placid. The Underground Railroad had a passage through New York and after Harriet Tubman helped so many slaves escape to freedom she settled in Auburn, NY. I had heard once about the strange Oneida Community founded in 1848 which offered a system of free love to all its members. In Lily Dale, the spiritualist community that has been in existence since 1848, I listened with a bit of skepticism to claims about contacting and communicating with the dead.
I noticed the words “The Burned-Over District” on a poster directly in front of me as I drank my coffee. It explained that this was the label given Western and Central New York in the early 1800’s. What? I had never heard that phrase before. Was there a fire? Maybe a very big explosion that had scorched the area? A book was mentioned, The Burned-Out District, published in 1950 by a professor named Whitney R. Cross and before I got to my campsite I had bought it for my Kindle.
Every morning at my little cabin, I would start a fire, make my coffee and read for hours.
Social science was my major in college and still peaks my interest as I have come to realize nothing in life or history is one dimensional. Mr. Cross’s book confirmed this as I read through the clues that explained the dynamics of the antebellum era of my Western New York home. I soon learned that this area had been a hotbed of reform. All my life there were hints around me but, in my school, history was only presented in dates and battles. I have come to realize that the true story is one of flesh and blood and actual things that happened, life events bumping and pushing around in one big motion that goes on and on and touches us today. In the early 1800’s, our new nation was already looking for ways to expand. People in The East wanted more farmland and space. The Appalachian Mountains running from the south to The Adirondacks were a difficult wall to cross. But there was a way to get through, The Mohawk River. Using this natural waterway, the Erie Canal was started on July 4, 1817 and completed when it reached Buffalo on May 17,1825. Transportation was easier for the new frontier on this much shorter route to The Atlantic as compared with the route to the ocean down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
Because of the sudden rapid progress at this time at least thirty spiritual movements, cults, utopian communities or religions sprang up in New York state. The Shakers, Mormons, the Oneida Community, and the Spiritualists are the best known. And there were many more divergent groups that are now gone and not as well know.
Joscelyn Godwin in his book, Upstate Cauldron, states “the whole phenomenon, with its concentration in time and space, is without parallel in social or religious history.” The forming of the Burned Over District itself that got its name from the emotional experiences of revival meetings lit the fire of new ways of thinking all over the countryside. Charles Finney was instrumental in this evangelist movement. I had no idea he moved and preached throughout my county and got his ministerial training from a mentor in Adams, New York.
As Mr. Godwin points out the progressiveness of this area was due to “the mass emigration of New Englanders cut loose from their home churches, the mushrooming of towns along the Erie Canal and the opening to the West, with its sense of a new world dawning, and the growing disgust with institutional racial and gender injustice.” The passion of the revival meetings pushed many to action. The temperance movement gained strength and the crusade for women’s right to vote took off. The Liberty Party founded in 1839 in Warsaw, New York was dedicated to the freedom of slaves and had followers all over the state, including in my village in The North Country. Churches in almost every town worked for the abolitionist cause.
All these revelations about my home, the places that I thought knew but never really did, overwhelmed me. People in my state once banned together to help others. Why wasn’t I taught more about this? Has too much history passed for us to remember the good that was done? Has the turmoil of The Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and The Civil Rights protests moved us away from the original goals of fairness and inclusion?
My little cabin faced a small creek and I spent some peaceful moments just thinking. I thought of the present, my existence in a world with so much conflict. I wondered if I would have been happy two hundred years ago in my little town in Burned-Out District. At least there wouldn’t be any internet. But would it matter? We are all on this continuum called history and each one of us must find our place in all the pushing and pulling. The people of Western New York did the best they could. Can we do better? Maybe our salvation as a society will come when we stop slipping so close to the extremes and realize that over two hundred years later we are, still, all in this together.
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