Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Seymour Union & William Seymour

Our student union is named after two men, William and James Seymour. James, the elder brother, was a co-founder of Brockport with Hiel Brockway, but James moved on from Brockport in the early years after its founding. William however remained, and lived an extraordinarily long and successful life here in the village.

He had started in the mercantile business with his brother James, and then in the 1840s became involved in a foundry business in town (Brockport, like many canal towns of that era, was quite a hub of industry compared to the college town and commercial center of today.

This foundry produced the first batch of Cyrus McCormick's recently patented reaper (a major advance in agricultural machinery) in 1846. Subsequent disagreements over fees led to McCormick moving his operations elsewhere, and Seymour collaborated with local businessman Dayton Morgan (of the Morgan Manning House)to launch their own reaper business, based on Seymour's "New York Reaper." This business move, while successful, also brought on a long patent battle with McCormick.

In addition to his business career, William Seymour was active in civic affairs, especially in education, perhaps in part because his wife, Nancy, was one of the first school teachers in Brockport. He served on the board of the Brockport Collegiate Institute for a number of years, and played a crucial role in the "Normal School Wars" of the late 1860s.

In brief, there came an opportunity to reposition the private collegiate institute as a state Normal School, a move which would ensure the continued presence of higher education in the village, where otherwise the institute was facing closure due to financial circumstances. This opportunity created tremendous controversy over the financing required of the local community to refurbish and expand the local building to meet state requirements. The move to raise the money via a tax on residents of Brockport and Sweden was naturally a matter of great debate, and William Seymour was a leading figure among the supporters of the tax, as the only way to maintain a school of this level in the community. Without the efforts of Seymour and others the old collegiate institute would have closed, and there would be no comprehensive college here today.

Born in Litchfield Connecticut in 1802, Seymour lived to see the early 20th century, dying at the age of 101 in 1903. Retiring in his 70s, he remained active until the end of his life, making several trips to Europe in his 80s with his daughter and son in law, and visiting the Chicago Exposition in 1893. He loved to read, and could quote from memory long passages from Shakespeare. He also enjoyed playing billards with his friends in his billiards room on the top floor of his house, the building that today houses the village offices and the Brockport Museum. The painting shown here is of William Seymour in his old age, done by his niece Helen Hastings, who was later the founder of the Brockport Museum in what had been the family home. This painting hangs today in the Seymour Public Library, and was photographed by retired Brockport graphic designer Norm Frisch, who is active in local history these days.

There are some documents online in the Digital Commons local history collection about Seymour and the reaper industry, and a book was written in recent years by a scholar of agricultural history, Gordon Winder, based in part on his research at Brockport where we have materials from the Seymour & Morgan Company. (The American reaper : harvesting networks and technology, 1830-1910.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Old Neighborhood: the campus in 1902

This platmap shows the campus and its neighbors in 1902. The wing jutting out at the north end of the building was the campus school wing added in 1900, the cornerstone of which was recently discovered buried by Hartwell Hall. Notice all the homes around the school, many of which were acquired by the state in the 1950s and 1960s as the school expanded post WWII. (As another point of reference, note today's Alumni House, at the bottom end of the image, the south end of campus. By 1902 this formerly private residence had become the offical home for the principals, later presidents, of the school. Dr. Donald Tower was the last president to live in the house. After he left in 1964 the new president, Albert Brown, lived in a private home, and then the college purchased the current president's house on Holley Street.)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

1900 Cornerstone Discovered!

This past week, construction workers made a fascinating discovery at Hartwell Hall. They were digging by the center steps and found a cornerstone of a previous building placed carefully in the ground against Hartwell's foundation! The stone is marked "1900" on two sides, and it is the cornerstone from the last major addition to the old building complex. That older complex was demolished in sections and replaced by today's Hartwell Hall in the years between 1938-1941.

This cornerstone is from a wing that was on the north (Monroe Avenue) side of the old campus. The wing was built circa 1900 and housed both the "Training School," as the Campus School was then called, and a new auditorium for the school. There is a 1902 special report on the dedication of the building in our Digital Commons. Also in the Digital Commons are some historic photos of the old building, including a color postcard view clearing showing the "new" addition.

The addition joined a complex whose center portion was the original building of 1835, rebuilt after a fire in the 1850s, and two wings added in the 1860s. In addition to this long-gone complex, there were a number of private homes on what is now the lawn of Hartwell, along Utica and Monroe.

The workers the archivist spoke to said that, in the course of their work this year, they have run across a number of former building sites and parts buried in the ground, Medina sandstone window lintels, concrete steps, house foundations and so forth. They said that while digging a trench parallel to Hartwell, about 10' or so out, they found the line of the foundation of the old building complex, which at its base was 5' thick of cut stone.

Plans are not yet decided for the rediscovered cornerstone, but it will be preserved for the future, as part of Brockport's ongoing story.