“History is really important because it makes life what it is today,” third-grader Alison Amir told me as we sat in the lobby of the Westmoreland Town Hall across from a showcase celebrating her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, James Dean.
Alison is an unusually intelligent and articulate girl who had come to visit our town with her grandmother, “Deany” Merritt Wood. They both live in Hamilton and were the guests of honor at the Westmoreland Historical Society’s “James Dean Day” event.
“Deany” is the great great great great great-granddaughter of James Dean (hence the nickname.) She had approached us a year ago about donating several artifacts and papers from the Dean Estate. We worked closely with her to develop Sunday’s well-attended event which culminated with Alison removing the green felt shrouding a deerskin box owned by their illustrious relative.
I asked her what it felt like to be the one to do the big reveal.
“There were no words to describe how proud I felt!” she enthused.
Alison and her grandmother, and all of us in Westmoreland are right to be proud of our founder. James Dean was both a Revolutionary War hero and a man of peace. He was a missionary, a minister, a farmer, a spy, a judge, a politician, and the founder of our town. Dean was also a man who bridged two entire cultures, he was both our James Dean, and Alaquadeeha an adopted son of the Oneida Indians.
He went to live with the Oneidas when he was age 9 (or 12, the documentation isn’t clear on that) along with a missionary named Mosley. After being adopted by an Indian squaw who had lost her own son, he proved so adept at learning their language that his speech was indistinguishable from that of a native speaker.
This unique skill would eventually prove so useful during the period of time leading up to the Revolutionary War that he was tasked by the Continental Congress with what the Annals of Oneida County describe as “ascertaining the sentiments” of the Indian population in regard to the “portending contest.”
Last year, Alison gave a presentation in her second-grade class on her seven times great grandfather and how he used his unique position and abilities to become a trusted advisor to the Oneidas in their dealings with the early Americans. She was particularly impressed with how he was able to bridge the language and culture gaps in such a way that benefitted the colonists during the war, and the Native Americans thereafter.
“I thought what was most interesting is that he learned their language and lived among them,” she told her classmates. “He intertwined cultures. That made a big difference, a huge difference in history!”
David Halpin who is running for Mayor of Rome came to learn more about his neighbors down Route 233. I introduced him to people in our town who could give him an idea of how special Westmoreland’s history and how we are all, in a way, the sons and daughters of James Dean.
“This was wonderful and very informative,” he said. “I didn’t know that James Dean had such an interesting life prior to coming to Central New York. I learned a lot about our past and look forward to coming to more Historical Society events.”
“James Dean Day” was an occasion for learning more about our town’s founder by making connections with the past and with people from near and far and of all age groups.
Another special guest at the event was Martin Allen Brown who is 100-years-old and is the widower of Nancy Jean Judson, another direct descendant of James Dean. He recalled riding on a float with his wife and Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation in Westmoreland’s Bicentennial Parade in 1983.
“The story that was always related to me was what an active man James Dean was,” Martin said while he looked at a history book that mentioned he and his wife by name. Later that day during a tour of the Dean Homestead, Martin and his sons were happy to reconnect with the branch of the family represented by “Deany” Merritt Wood.
Our community is extremely lucky that Harold and Lee Heintz are the current owners of the Dean Homestead. They have been faithful in their restoration and ardent in their respect for its history. The Heintz’s are also extremely hospitable and have many times generously opened the home to tours.
Lee spoke at “James Dean Day” about her home and invited participants to come and see it for themselves.
“This is like a living breathing entity that we’re preserving,” Lee said.
“There’s almost a spiritual connection,” Harold added. When he and Lee bought the house in 1990, they were only the third owners. Until the 1950s it had been in the Dean family.
“Sometimes I just think about the fact that we’re in the home on the tract of land that the Oneidas actually gave him,” Lee emphasized.
“He was a son and trusted advisor to the Oneidas, and they influenced the outcome of the Revolutionary War,” Harold said and remarked on the fact that the Oneidas are still surviving today, and after generations of oppression and marginalization are beginning to reestablish themselves.
“We both feel strongly that the preservation of the environment and history are important and that they go hand in hand,” Lee told me.
“For me, the history of this house isn’t just with this house,” Harold pointed out. “If you walk up and down Deans Creek there is history all around if you look for it. All that put together makes the story of James Dean bigger than the land or the house.”
There is a room in the Heintz’s home that they call the piano room. It has a beautiful fireplace, antique furniture, walls painted in historically accurate color, and it faces out to a beautifully manicured yard.
I told Alison that I imagined her ancestor sitting in that room receiving important guests, reading important papers, and thinking important thoughts.
“I feel really proud that my family’s heritage had so much to do to with the way the world is today,” she said.
When you’re inside the Heintz’s house and if you’re in a historical frame of mind, as we were that day, it’s almost like you can feel him there with you. History comes closer when you’re at a Westmoreland Historical Society event, or when you’re talking to Harold and Lee Heintz.
“I’d like to think that that there are spirits in this house,” Lee said. “And that they are looking at us with a happy smile on their face saying, ‘Isn’t this nice.’”
Last Sunday during “James Dean Day,” I believe they were.
The artifacts donated by the Dean family are on display when the Westmoreland Historical Society is open Mondays from 3-5 p.m., and during our regular meetings on the first Thursday of each month at 7 p.m.
They will also be featured at our Flag Day celebration, Saturday, June 15 at 1 p.m.
For more information like our page on Facebook, email WestmorelandHistoricalSociety@gmail.com or call Ron Klopfanstein at 315-886-2665.
Ron Klopfanstein is the president of the Westmoreland Historical Society, like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo