Historical society brings past to life


WESTMORELAND — There’s been an on-going controversy over how the Town of Westmoreland got its name.

Several insist it has to do with the fact that the nation’s first president, George Washington, born in Westmoreland County, Va., spent time here during the Revolutionary War.

However, no one who knows more about the town and its history than Theresa McFadden, and she insists it was because Westmoreland was once the Westernmost part of Whitesboro. She has been a board member of the Westmoreland Historical Society since it began 44 years ago.

“In 1974 the town formed a Bicentennial Committee,” she remembered. “It was my first experience being on a committee with all men.”

After helping launch the historical society, Theresa went on the be the first woman elected to the Westmoreland Town Council.

In 1976, McFadden and the committee put on a
Bicentennial Parade and for years, towns called her for advice on planning their town celebrations. It also lead to the creation of a permanent historical society. By 1985 the group was granted a charter by the New York State Board of Regents and officially became the Westmoreland Historical Society. That was the year of the town’s bicentennial, and there was another unforgettable parade.

“That parade lasted an hour and a half,” Sandy Rolewicz, the society’s board secretary, recalled. “We had oxen, bag pipes, one of the floats was an old fashioned school house. Everybody went all out.”

Member Beverly Miller said she remembered her son being on the Huckleberry Finn schoolhouse float.

“He was on a float with cutoff jeans and red hair, wearing the dunce cap,” she said. “We even had Dimbleby’s funeral home with a horse-drawn hearse wagon with a coffin inside a glass carriage.”

“One float had a store, one had a barber shop... It was a town-wide celebration,” Betty Baron said. “The foundry (Westmoreland Malleable Iron) even produced special items.”

Denise Klopfanstein said she remembered touring Westmoreland Malleable Iron as part of the celebration. As a life-long resident of the town, she recalled walking by the foundry almost daily and wondering what went on inside.

“It was always such a mystery, these sooty men who sometimes catcalled us,” she laughed. “When I finally got to go inside during the bicentennial, it was amazing just walking through the doors. It was a dirt floor, very dark, and very cool. It was something that was always there. Even if you were parked across the road at Jerry’s Store, you would always hear them banging and clanging.”

Sharon Yager is a former school teacher from Westmoreland Elementary School who joined the Westmoreland Historical Society after spearheading a project to get a state Historical Marker for the foundry. In 1999 her fourth grade class worked with the society and James Dean Questers, an organization in the town that explores history through antiquing, to gather the research necessary for the sign to be awarded. They also raised money to pay for it though can and bottle drives, then had a ceremony when the sign was erected on Main Street.

Today Yager is retired from teaching, but part of her service to the historical society is hosting events in the group’s one-room schoolhouse.

“Those are my favorite days,” she wrote on the group’s Facebook page. “I get to dress up and play an early 1900s-era teacher. I salute the elementary school teachers for taking the time and effort to bring such enthusiastic and well-behaved children to visit us.”

Members of Westmoreland Historical Society said they are especially proud of that one-room schoolhouse. It originally stood on Dix Road and was built by a town resident named Beverly Zingerline, who had an enthusiasm for history and education.

In the 1980s she had it built and spent the next 20 years furnishing it with authentic antique items, including desks with inkwells, slates and chalk, tin lunchboxes, games, textbooks, maps, a dunce cap and even a 48-star American flag. Since the town had 17 known one-room schoolhouses between the late 1700s and the early 1900s, Zingerline affectionately named her creation, “Schoolhouse #18.”

After she died, her family donated it to the historical society and now “Schoolhouse #18” is the heart of the organization and the focus of the group’s annual Flag Day and Halloween event.

On Saturday, June 16, Westmoreland Historical Society will host, “The Schoolhouse Celebrates Flag Day,” from 1-4 p.m. The festivities include tours of the schoolhouse, music by local performers Ty James and Brian Mulkerne, games and activities for kids, and an ice cream social sponsored by Stewart’s Shops.

There will also be a discussion led by Sam Falvo, the state director of the Mutual UFO Network, on a mysterious plane crash that occurred in the town in 1954. It’s been speculated, and was reported in recently declassified Air Force “Operation Blue Book” reports, that the tragic event, known as the “Walesville Incident,” was caused by a hostile encounter with an unidentified flying object. The event is free with support from sponsors North Star Orchards, Whitestown Automotive, Snyder’s Flooring, Community Bank, Tents 4 U and Personal Graphics.

Long before the curious tragedy in the 1950s, Westmoreland’s history has been compelling and inspiring, according to several members of the historical society. The founder of the town was a man named James Dean, who earned his place in history by negotiating a peace treaty between the colonists and the Oneida Indians during the Revolutionary War.

At the commencement of the war, according to the book, “Westmoreland 200 Years,” Dean was “retained in the public service, with the rank of major in the staff, as agent for Indian affairs and interpreter. The selection was most fortunate.” It was so “fortunate” that the Oneidas granted him a patent of land, along what is now known as Dean’s Creek, where the town began.

“Nehemiah Jones, the town’s fourth American settler is someone I found very interesting,” said Betty Barron, who transcribed his letters. “He wrote often to his daughter. I got to know all about his daily life.”

For Nancy Pritchard, the Town of Westmoreland’s official historian, research is a way of life.

“I gather photos, read through old newspapers, look through websites. I get a lot of emails looking or genealogy,” she said. “I go out and take pictures of everything. I have a lot of postcards of Westmoreland, but I keep buying more.”

When Charlene Hartman moved to Westmoreland with her husband more than 50 years ago, she said she was surprised to learn about a family connection to the town — her grandfather had been born on Eureka Road.

“My family’s church was their church,” she said. “The history of Westmoreland is amazing.”

Westmoreland Historical Society continues to explore and celebrate history by hosting public events throughout the year, like the Flag Day celebration and the annual Halloween “Haunted Schoolhouse.” They also maintain the roadside state Historic Markers, open their historical society room to the public on 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.

“You don’t have to have a large number to have a good group,” McFadden said. “We are a very dedicated group.”

“This all began 44 years ago with that Bicentennial Committee,” said Barron. “There was a sub committee called Past, Present, and Future. Now I would say the Westmoreland Historical Society is the future.”

Anyone interested in Westmoreland history is invited to attend one of the group’s regular monthly meetings held on the first Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. in the Historical Society Room. The public is also invited to post questions, comments and suggestions, and to share their photos and memories of Westmoreland history on the group’s Facebook page at Facebook.com/WestmorelandHistoricalSociety.


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