2018 was an exciting year for the Westmoreland Historical Society. We broke attendance records at our Flag Day and Halloween events, welcomed a VIP guest to our town and took him on a private tour of our little schoolhouse, helped some new friends from out-of-town explore their Westmoreland roots, and had some fun exploring an out-of-this-world mystery of our own.
In February, the Westmoreland Town Hall was standing room only for “The Walesville Incident: An Afternoon of Discussion and Inquiry into the Historic Events of July 1954.” This event was co-hosted with the Clark Mills Historical Society.
Deborah Rehm shared news clips and historical research regarding the crash, while I spoke about the alleged UFO mystery surrounding it.
At the gathering one of the members of the audience talked about how her father had been an eyewitness to that UFO and how he had grown up to join the state police, hoping to investigate mysterious incidences and perhaps someday make sense of what he had seen. Sadly, he died before the Air Force declassified Operation Blue Book, which validated his recollection of that day.
Before that presentation in February, I had done my best to track down a thick folder about the incident stuffed with research that Westmoreland resident Tom Wilcox spent years compiling. It had been intended for our historical archives but never made it to our office. We finally concluded that the file was itself lost to history. However, by the time we gathered for our meeting in March, the file had appeared on our desk, inside our locked office, and to the best of our knowledge, no one in our group had let anyone in to drop it off.
We put the entire file on display in June when we hosted more than 150 guests for our second annual Flag Day celebration. We observed the holiday with traditional activities such as an ice cream social, sack races and horseshoes on the lawn. For a unique crowd-pleasing twist, our guest speaker was Sam Falvo, the state director of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON.)
Country musician Ty James put on a cowboy hat, strapped on his guitar and opened the Westmoreland Historical Society’s Flag Day celebration with a stirring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.
“I had a great time and truly appreciated the warm, favorable reception,” James told me afterward. “Seeing the folks, especially those slightly older, getting into my kind of country was a rewarding treat and gratifying experience.”
Every chair was filled for Sam’s presentation on the mysterious Walesville plane crash of July 2, 1954. Attendees heard the intriguing story of how an Air Force jet’s hot pursuit of an unidentified flying object resulted in a tragic crash that has puzzled residents to this day.
“My presentation was met with great enthusiasm by the crowd, and all seemed to have some personal knowledge of the crash,” Falvo told me after his talk.
He said he was especially pleased to have the chance to meet the great granddaughter of Mary Peck, whose house caught fire after being hit by pieces of the jet. “It actually helped me with my personal research — her recollections of the crash.”
Life-long Westmoreland resident Joyce Clinch told me she especially enjoyed the speaker because of his interesting approach to the topic.
“And the ice cream was also good,” she added.
In what’s become an annual tradition for the Westmoreland Historical Society, we invited this year’s reigning Oneida County Dairy Princess, Kathleen Gallagher, to serve up the sundaes. It was also an opportunity for her to promote the state and local dairy industry during Oneida County Dairy Month.
Westmoreland Town Historian Nancy Pritchard said she believes that is an important part of our annual celebration.
“There used to be many dairy farms in town,” Pritchard said. “The Oneida County Dairy Princess does a good job representing that by serving the ice cream.”
My friend Steve Keblish who came all the way from Utica said, “It was a delight to meet people from all over the area, and to see the schoolhouse.”
Steve is one of the most patriotic people I know. He served in the Army in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Qatar, and is now a Captain in the Army National Guard. He said he appreciated that Westmoreland was observing the holiday and enjoyed the “great history, music and camaraderie.”
The center of our celebration was our famous “Schoolhouse #18.” This one-room replica was donated to us by the family of Beverly Zingerline who had it built outside her home on Dix Road. We call it “Schoolhouse #18” because there were 17 known one-room school houses in Westmoreland, which makes this scrupulously authentic recreation our unofficial eighteenth.
“So many people came to see inside the schoolhouse for the first time, and even more came back to visit it again,” said Sandy Rolewicz, who along with Sharon Yager, conducted tours in period costume.
Our historical society offers a room full of books, archives, exhibits, and photos and written records that can be used for research. Earlier this year that information was put to good use by visitors from the South who came to research the life of one of Westmoreland’s more remarkable citizens, Eleazer Beckwith.
Last summer I spent an afternoon with Chuck, his wife Grace, and his stepson Derick Ward Beckwith, who is the great-great-great-great grandson of Eleazer. They traveled all the way from South Carolina to research Derick’s lineage and as part of their exploration, they visited with me in the Westmoreland Historical Society. After that, I accompanied them to see the family grave and then to the house where Eleazer lived in town.
Derick compared his quest to find out more about his Westmoreland forefathers as something “like putting together a big puzzle.”
For his stepdad, Chuck, it was about answering the question of how children who experience tremendous emotional upheaval can survive with the help of their community. One of the ways Eleazer overcame his staggering loss was by creating a family of his own, both personally and professionally.
“Eleazer grew up to be a family guy, who loved his boys as much as his father and grandfather loved him,” Chuck surmised. Despite being orphaned at age 14, he was a dentist by the time he was 22 and he opened an office on what is now Route 233 (in the house between the high school and the middle school.) By 1854, his home was filled with a wife, her sister, one of his employees, and a son of his own named James Preston. In 1854, his second son Ward Beckwith was born, it was he who is Derick’s great-great-great grandfather.
Eleazer lived in Westmoreland until his death. Historical records say that he sung at the Congregationalist Church’s 75th anniversary celebration in the late 1890s. Chuck believes that involvement with his church and Masonic organization that operated within it’s walls helped Eleazer grow into a successful man and pillar of the community, “He was a master mason, and his grandsons were as well. He put faith and family first and he accomplished his dreams.”
For the Bolins and their son Derick Beckwith, their visit to Westmoreland capped off a journey that took them hundreds of miles from their home to our town.
“The Westmoreland Historical Society had maps that gave us lots of information and reinforced the fact that Derick’s legacy was something to celebrate,” Chuck said. “Rodney Vanbenscoten who lives in the Beckwith house was so gracious to entertain questions, invite us in and show us the original timbers.”
They were also really impressed by the work of Tom Wilcox, who maintains the Westmoreland Union Cemetery and answered questions for them. “The cemetery was so well maintained. We very much appreciated the respect shown for the dead,” Chuck said.
“I was very impressed by the friendliness of your town,” Grace Bolin told me. “We were surprised by such a warm welcome being out-of-towners and we appreciate all the time all of you spent with us.”
Considering his time in our town and the information he found about the remarkable Beckwith family Chuck sums up the experience. “The Westmoreland story shows me the importance of family, unconditional love, community involvement,” he said. “When you have all that you can be truly fulfilled and make the most of your life.”
The Westmoreland Historical Society made some history of its own last fall when Libertarian candidate for New York governor Larry Sharpe came to tour our historical room and one-room school house.
“I’m impressed how such a small town has such a rich history,” Sharpe said signing the Historical Society guest book. “That means that the people in this town care. The Westmoreland Historical Society is cultivating a good culture, a respect for the town, and a respect for its history. That’s amazing.”
Town Historian Pritchard and Tami Aylesworth, the senior clerk for the Westmoreland Reading Center, joined in welcoming him to town.
“Culture is what matters, it makes you want to do the right thing,” Sharpe said. “It makes you want to care about your neighbor, that’s why I’m here at the Westmoreland Historical Society.”
On the tour of the one-room schoolhouse, Sharpe expressed admiration for the detail and the care in which the authentic 19th and early 20th century furnishings were gathered and displayed. While the building itself is a replica, the contents are completely authentic.
The desks in the front are tiny, while those in back rows are big enough for high school students. Everyone was educated under one roof, using the simple supplies; books, slates, a real bird’s nest, maps, stones of diverse geological origin, and pens with inkwells.
“The small-town stuff matters tremendously,” Sharpe said. “We need to foster small-town environments like you have here in Westmoreland.”
The Historical Society places state Historical Markers seen at significant locations throughout the town. They tell worthwhile stories about places or people and are a testament to the research and scholarship that goes into markers being awarded to a town.
Theresa McFadden is a founding board member of the Historical Society, and the first woman elected to the Westmoreland Town Council. While doing research on the town she came across the fact that her uncle, the Rev. Urban Newman, at 16 years, was the longest serving town supervisor.
“No one else has ever served that long,” McFadden said. “Back then if you were a town supervisor you were also on the county board of supervisors, which was a forerunner to the Oneida County Board of Legislators.”
The Rev. Newman served as board chairman. In his first term he had already appointed 39 committees and attended all committee meetings and the monthly meetings of the board.
In 1944 a column titled “People Worth Knowing,” Alberta J. Dickinson writing for the Syracuse Herald American said, “Newman brings to his office as varied and colorful background as one might imagine.“
His background included military service during World War I followed by work as a Christian missionary to China. When he returned from the East he began 40 years of service as the minister of the Walesville Baptist Church.
“One day a layman of the Vernon Baptist Church came to me and asked if I would help him by giving the Sunday service now and then at Walesville,” he told the Utica Observer-Dispatch in 1972. “I agreed. After about a year I became a regular and took charge in 1932.”
The Rev. Newman knew so much about the community in part because he also served as the town postmaster from 1954-69. He was in office when the current post office was built and dedicated in 1963.
Over 50 people attended the unveiling of his marker. One of his granddaughters came all the way from Arizona. After a brief introduction from his niece Theresa McFadden and thank-you to the non-profit William J. Pomeroy Foundation whose Historic Roadside Marker Program funds the plaques, the tarp was removed, and the marker was revealed.
“The Newman Home,” it read. “Rev. Urban Newman 1896-1981 WWI Veteran, Minister, Dairy Farmer, Postmaster, County Supervisor, and Co-Founder of the County Airport Lived Here.”
One of the attendees was Dave Gordon, from Utica who said, “Rev. Newman’s greatest achievement above and beyond his own service was his ability to inspire others to be active in their communities. I hope those who pass by this plaque stop and read it and become inspired to do great things for their communities.”
“I like Westmoreland,” Musician Ty James told me while surveying the Flag Day crowd. “So many fine local folks have come out in support of their country, flag, community and historical society. Small-town Americana is how I grew up, identify, prefer it and always will, and it was a pleasure to be a part of the Westmoreland community for this great, patriotic event.”
“I like the fact that the community comes together,” Betty Barron said. “It shows that we appreciate our history. We are a community that thinks of each other and enjoys celebrating together.”
The Westmoreland Historical Society hosts public events throughout the year-including our annual Halloween “Haunted Schoolhouse” and “The Schoolhouse Celebrates Flag Day,” we maintain the roadside state Historic Markers, open our Historical Society room to the public Mondays from 3-5 p.m. (and by appointment) and present a unique historical display each month in the showcase at the entrance to the Westmoreland Town Hall.
Anyone interested in Westmoreland history is invited to attend one of our regular monthly meetings held on the first Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. in our Historical Society Room. We also invite the public to post questions, comments and suggestions, and to share their photos and memories of Westmoreland history on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/WestmorelandHistoricalSociety/
Ron Klopfanstein is the president of the Westmoreland Historical Society, Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and Follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo.