Thursday, August 12, 2010

History from the Shores of Onondaga Lake

Yesterday my kids and I visited two of the Liverpool areas's more noteworthy historical locations. One goes back in time about a hundred and fifty years, the other more than three hundred! I'm referring of course to the Salt Museum and the 17th Century Jesuit mission St. Marie Among the Iroquois. Both are "donation-only" facilities, with no set price of admission, and provided us with a full afternoon of fun and education for very little money.

We started with Saint Marie, a beautiful facility perched high on the hills overlooking Onondaga Lake - once a primary source of food and transportation for the Onondaga nation of American Indians. In the mid-1600s, a group of Frenchmen traveled down the St. Lawrence from Montreal, into Lake Ontario, and then south to the shores of Onondaga Lake.

Saint Marie is a little hit-or-miss in some ways. Figuring out when it's open can be a challenge. I had a brochure that seemed reliable and gave me the impression that it was open daily at 9 AM. Turns out it was open at 10 AM Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Whew - good thing we decided to go when we did! Likewise, sometimes there are volunteers acting as guides and serving to re-enact the living-history French Fort on the upper hill. I have absolutely no clue when those folks are on-site, but they weren't there today. Which was fine - the museum is very accessible unguided and I had a pretty good grasp of what we were seeing up in the Mission.

Plus, one of the staff-members graciously spent about a half-hour with us in the first gallery, explaining some of the Haudenosaunee mythology and history, and quizzing the kids on their knowledge of Iroquois traditions. To my great delight, they were all over it, especially my older son who was a font of local Native American lore and local history, reciting back confidently all he'd learned about the five Haudenosaunee tribes, the Peace-maker, the Great Tree of Peace with the weapons of the five nations buried beneath its roots, the long-houses with their usual thirteen families, and on and on. My daughter occasionally slipped in a factoid of her own and even my youngest has evidently been well-taught by his older brother. If he can remember it all for a while, he'll be in great shape when he hits third grade.

We wandered through the various galleries, looking at the artifacts, feeling the furs and examining the reproductions of objects like French sabots (wooden shoes) and Iroquois hunting huts. We spent about an hour in there, and then it was out to the authentic, period French Mission. The mission is totally cool. It has a tall wooden palisade all around the outside. Inside are three buildings, all of rough-hewn wood: the chapel, the refectory, and a long facility that housed the smithy, the woodshop, and the sleeping quarters. These would have been very cool to explore when populated by experienced re-enactors, but all the kids had was old dad, so I was on-stage.

We started with the smithy. It had a functional forge, and I showed the kids everything from the working of the huge bellows to where the charcoal was burned to make the hot fire. I showed them the hammers, the tongs, and, of course, the anvil. We talked about the forging process, of heating the metal in the forge, then hammering it on the anvil to draw out the metal or to shape it as desired. My daughter was tall enough to reach the bellows handle, and everyone could see the big tub of water for quenching the hot metal. Though, now that I think on it, it could also have been linseed oil - I didn't think to check.

Where did I learn about the smithy, you might wonder? Well, as much as I know about it came from the History Channel and from watching the demonstrations in the Carriage Museum at the New York State Fair. My expertise is by no means complete - I'd surely be a terrible blacksmith if I had to fire up the forge on my own, but I don't think I mislead my kids too grievously.

Next stop - the wood-working shop! I felt if anything more confident about my knowledge in this room, thanks in no small part to listening to Nick Nichols "Tool Chest" lecture outside the State Fair's Agricultural Museum. Yeah, I'm a geek for that stuff - I just think it's cool. Like the working forge in the smithy, the wood shop had a very unique piece of equipment that I hadn't encountered before. The treadle - a foot-operated lathe - was attached by a leather thong to a long sapling laid across the beams overhead. This provided the spring-like force to counter against the force of your foot on the pedal. You'd push down, the sapling would pull back up. In the middle, the leather strip wrapped around the wood would rotate it around so you could take your chisel to the piece. It was an ingenious implementation of physics meeting nature.

Again, I was able to show the kids the shave horse, the draw knife, the saws, and even a fro (used to split logs along their grain, especially for making roof shingles). There were chisels, mallets and planes galore. I showed them the wrought-iron hooks driven into the walls, clearly forged in the next room. We talked about how the different tools worked and why you'd use one rather than another. Then it was off to the living quarters.

In the living quarters we saw beds and blankets, a large fireplace, lanterns, benches and stools. There was a set of wooden rosary beads hanging over one bed, and I described how the Jesuit missionaries - tbe Black Robes - would wear those long strings of beads as a belt, with the cross dangling before them. But hands-down the coolest thing in the room was a small metal clamp with a box on one end. I asked the kids to guess what it was, and they were pretty creative. One of them thought it was a can-opener, so we talked about wooden barrels and whether cans had been invented yet. I don't remember the other guesses, but they weren't quite in the ball-park, no pun intended. Because making balls was what it was all about.

Minié balls, to be exact - the ammunition for the primitive rifles of the day. The clamp had a small piece on the top that rotated to both hold the clamp closed as well as to provide a funnel at the open end. Next to the clamp on the table was an iron ladle with a pour-spout on each side, beside some ingots of (presumably) lead (which I wouldn't let them touch on the off-chance that it really was lead. No sense taking chances). I demonstrated how the lead would be melted in the ladle over a fire, then poured in through the funnel. Inside the clamp was the impression of a minié ball. Swinging aside the rotating piece both allowed the clamp to open and, in the process, cut off any flash that would otherwise make the bottom of the round uneven. Now, granted, the minié ball is a mid-19th-century invention and the French Mission was supposed to have been from the late 1600s, but it was cool enough to see the device that I didn't quibble. Besides, right next to it on the table was another similar device for making round musket balls, which was certainly right for the period.

We finished our tour with the chapel, where I showed the kids the function and usage of a censer in the Catholic mass (well, I described it anyway - none of us felt up to sitting through a whole mass just for an object lesson and I don't really think I could do one from memory, anyway) and the refectory, where the most fascinating part was finding the trap door that led down to the root cellar. The whole experience was highly entertaining and, I think, plenty educational for the kids.

There's a lot less to say about the Salt Museum, as it's really just one medium-sized room beside the long row of antique salt-boiling bowls. Still, it's remarkable that people took the time to assemble the array of artifacts stored there, as it represents a relatively brief and yet undoubtedly critical period in the history of Central New York. Syracuse's role as the "salt city" played an important part in local commerce, growth patterns, industry, and even the Civil War, where the jobs of the salt-producers were considered so critical to the war effort that the men were exempted from the draft. At one time, wooden pump-houses, a warren of wooden pipes, and numerous buildings for boiling the brine down to salt would have crowded along the shore of Onondaga Lake - now only the museum remains. Particularly fascinating to me was that I finally made some connections regarding Solvay Process.

I rode past that old Soda Ash factory practically every day of my young life, as we lived just up the street from it when my parents' home was in Solvay. I remember asking my father repeatedly to explain what they did there, and I remember him telling me that soda ash was used to make glass and other stuff, but I never really got it. I knew that the Jamesville Quarry played an important role, and that there had once been a series of bins suspended from cables running overhead between Jamesville and Solvay - I'd even hiked, twice, through the tunnel cut in the side of one of Solvay's many hills where those cable-borne bins once passed. But I'd never really gotten it. Well, it turns out that to use the "Solvay Process" to make soda ash, you needed large amounts of limestone (from Jamesville) and salt (from the shores of Onondaga Lake, where ancient seas in the days of Pangea had evaporated, leaving behind only their salt as reminders that they had once been). It took almost forty years to finally understand what was going on in that great factory alongside Milton Ave., but It finally makes sense to me.

And that's what these museums do so very well - they help us make sense of the past. Because no matter how often my dad tried to tell me about that factory, it took standing in the remains of a salt-production plant, seeing charts and pictures on the walls, for me to really understand it. Hopefully, my kids will understand a few new concepts on their very first try, thanks to the first-hand exposure they received from these slices of local history.

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