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.)

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