Park Perspectives: An Adirondack Iron Age

The Penfield Homestead in the heart of Ironville. Photo by Seth Lang
The Penfield Homestead in the heart of Ironville.
Photo by Seth Lang

ON ONE OF the first warm days of May, Penfield Homestead Museum President Joan Hunsdon and her colleagues were cheerily undertaking some spring cleaning in advance of opening for the summer.

Leaves required raking, photos had to return to their places on the walls of the entry parlor, and virtually every room of the house needed an exorcism of the ghosts, ghouls, and unfortunate corpses that occupied them. These creatures were the eerie props of a Halloween Haunted Homestead fundraiser. They had been biding their time through winter, waiting for someone to restore the 1828 home to its authentic condition.

The museum is the centerpiece of the hamlet of Ironville in the town of Crown Point. It sits on the shore of Penfield Pond, created to serve an iron forge and other mills. The Museum centers on the home of the Penfield family, who with the Hammond family, developed the nearby iron mines and the forges that operated here from 1828 to the end of the nineteenth century, creating wealth for the owners and a hardscrabble living for many workers.

It also encompasses barns and farmland, a nineteenth- century Congregational Church and parsonage and five hundred acres of woods in addition to the pond. It’s an earnest, hometown project, run by volunteers and funded by pancake breakfasts, apple festivals, and other community gatherings. Several hundred visitors a year peer at the artifacts and stroll the grounds.

“Not nearly enough,” says Joan.

More than textbook history is kept alive here. It’s the legacy of the families who have persevered in this area for generations. And, Joan worries, it’s at risk of being lost unless they can reach the young people. “It’s scary,” she says of that danger.

Joan’s family has been in Crown Point for five generations, and she and her husband raise Hereford cattle on an eighty-acre farm that has been in the family since 1850.

Among those several hundred visitors are childhood friends returning after long stays elsewhere.

“It’s such a homecoming feeling. Someone’s always coming in and saying ‘I grew up here.’ I usually remember them.”

Her work for the museum honors in a way the local teacher that inspired her. “I’ve always loved history. When I was in Crown Point Central School I had the most marvelous history teacher named Carroll Lonergan who would take his class not just to the forts but out to the woods to show us the route that Rogers’ Rangers followed. He made history alive for us.”

Behind the trim charm of the white clapboard buildings there’s an important, difficult, and sometimes tragic history of communities whose well-being rose and fell with the fortunes of the Adirondack iron industry. Workers came to Crown Point from afar to pull ore out of holes in the ground, process it, and load it onto a narrow-gauge rail line that carried it to the pier on Lake Champlain. There was a de facto division of labor with different nationalities specializing in their own parts of the industry: the Irish worked on the railroad; the French labored in the forest, supplying charcoal for the furnaces; a lot of the miners were Scandinavian.

Crown Point now has about two thousand residents. At the height of its iron industry in the years before the Civil War, it was home to six thousand. Ironville lays claim to being the “Birthplace of the Electrical Age,” because the Penfield works introduced an electromagnet in 1831 to separate iron from crushed stone.

“These woods were full of little farms and teamsters that would hire out to the iron companies,” Joan says. “There was logging. Hammondville, three miles to the west, was a thriving town where the mines are.”

The region’s high-purity iron supplied the Union army with the raw material for cannon and armaments. Hammondville ore became the iron cladding on the warship Monitor.

Iron wasn’t Crown Point’s only contribution to the war effort. Men from these hills formed an entire infantry company, the 34th New York Infantry. Others, including James Penfield, entered the cavalry. All told 290 Crown Pointers went into the war.

Penfield Museum President Joan Hunsdon tells the tragic story of a flag carried in the Civil War. Photo by Seth Lang
Penfield Museum President Joan Hunsdon tells the tragic story of a flag carried in the Civil War.
Photo by Seth Lang

Joan points out a frayed flag in the museum’s Civil War room. When the infantry gathered in Ironville ready to march away, she says, the ladies had made this flag for them. Mrs. Rhodes gave it to her son Chester, saying “‘Carry it bravely forward, never turn from the enemy.’ It was patriotic, but not very motherly if you ask me.” At the battle of Antietam Chester was carrying the flag as the company retreated. He turned to face the enemy and was killed.  The 34th was decimated at Antietam, and by the end of the war more than eighty of the Crown Point men who had marched off to war were dead. Many more were wounded. Penfield suffered a saber wound to the head and spent two years as a prisoner of war. He never took over the business his father had founded. The Homestead Museum has the diary Penfield kept while imprisoned in Confederate prison camps and displays many Civil War artifacts. Penfield’s horse, Billy, is buried on the grounds.

Following the Civil War the fortunes of the Crown Point iron industry slid as ore became more and more expensive to mine. By the dawn of the twentieth century, competition from cheaper pit mines in the Midwest spelled the end.
Museum volunteer Nancy Burris’s father was born in Hammondville and her grandfather worked on the train that ran between Lake Champlain and the mines. She has been researching the archives of the Ticonderoga Sentinel from the period.

“Reading it you can actually see Hammondville dying,” Joan said. “These people are moving. Those people are moving.”

“My family were the last to leave,” Nancy said.

Of Hammondville all that remains are holes in the ground that were foundations for buildings and larger holes that were the mines. And, Nancy points out, a lilac bush and myrtle plants where the church stood.

 

The Penfield Homestead Museum is open weekends from early June through Columbus Day.
Visitors who want to make arrangements to come during the week can call Joan Hunsdon at 518-597-3863.
The museum has scheduled the following events:
Heritage Day: August 17
Applefolkfest: October 13
Haunted Homestead: Halloween weekend

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