How can a community have two bicentennials within 17 years? Easy, if that community is Skenesborough. And how can a museum have two dedications within that period? Again, easy if it is Skenesborough Museum.
Skenesborough Museum was created 17 years ago during the town’s bicentennial year, for it was founded in 1959. This celebration coincided with the 350th anniversary of the discovery of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. This year, 1976, the birthday of the nation, a wing was added to the museum and dedicated to the memory of Judge John J. O’Brien who among other community services helped in alerting the legislature to the fact that Whitehall is the Birthplace of the United States Navy.
Whitehall’s participation in the 1959 event was initiated in three organizations, the Historical Society of Whitehall, the town board, and the chamber of commerce. At-tending the first state meeting in Albany as representatives were the late Supervisor Jerome Campbell, chamber of commerce member the late Alfred Washburn, Marion Guerin and Doris Morton of the Historical society.
From reports of these delegates, whose organizations had been talking for several years about the 200th birthday. The celebration idea caught fire and grew into a great community project. The chamber of commerce appointed Francis Layden chairman of the event; Governor Averill E. Harriman appointed James Roche Washington county chairman. The late Miss Eva Johnson became secretary, and Mrs. Thyrza Kinner, treasurer.
The Canal Terminal building, a reinforced concrete structure built in 1917, had been slated for demolition by the State of New York. Letters from Whitehall’s or-ganizations urging permission to use it as museum were recognized. It was dedicated 28 June 1959, with Miss Catharine Potter, daughter of Rear Admiral William Potter, cutting the ribbon. The following year 1960 through the efforts of the town board and the late Judge O’Brien the town received permission to use the building as long as it was used as a museum.
Following discontinuance of the building in 1932 as a canal building, it had been used as a town shed for many years. Under the leadership of Russell Terry a great corps of men and women dug tar from the floor, cleaned the walls and painted the exterior. A contest was held for a name and 29 names out of the 40 entered produced the name Skenesborough Museum.
The chairman of the Museum committee requested exhibits from organizations to fill the long building. Displays were arranged by the Grange, Sportsman’s club, Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company, the American Legion, the seventh and eighth grade art and industrial classes, the Historical society and the D&H Railway Company. Rearranged and augmented, these are still a part of the museum.
In 1958 the New York State (Legislature enacted a proclamation that Whitehall is the Birthplace of the United States Navy, a copy of which hangs in the museum. For a navy display the late Edward G. Farmer, U.S. Navy Retired, from Orwell, Vt., affectionately known as “Captain”, produced a detailed model of the Skenesborough harbor and shipyard of 1776, with models of the ships built in it. As a “labor of love”, Captain Farmer constructed this model in a period covering Jan. 4 to a June 29, 1959. It is still the main attraction of the museum, now in the Navy room of the Judge John J.O’Brien Memorial Wing.
Over its 17 years of existence Skenesborough Museum has grown slowly but steadily in acquisitions from its friends. Finances, in a low key, have been derived fromthe annual letter to Friends of the Museum and the community calendar. The smalladmission fee maintains the services. Visitors, world wide, increase in numbers eachseason and are enthusiastic in their praise of what they term a “unique” museum.
Over the years “curators” have been loyal in their labor and interest. Longest in terms of years has been Mrs. Catherine Senecal. Floyd a Coleman was a dedicated member for many years, with his knowledge of local history, his interest in detail, and the care of the physical structure. Others for shorter terms have been James Keenan, Claribel Snody, Margery Coppins, Elaine Senecal and Linda Beckwith. The present “curators” are George Greenough and Frank Brown.
The original museum committee of five members has served since 1959: Chairman Doris Morton, Vice Chairman James Roche, Treasurer Thyrza Kinner, Attorney E. Francis Layden and Marion Guerin. Over the years were added Floyd Coleman, George Greenough, Carol Greenough and Frank Brown. With a change structure and method the total membership has been increased to 11 with, Evelyn Benjamin, Robert Kana and Horace Scott, Jr.
Several years ago a suggested plan for an addition was drawn up by George Greenough. This became reality, through the town board and the Judge John J O’Brien Memorial committee. Whitehall has obtained its Horizon part of the National slogan Heritage Festival and Horizon.” The addition parallels the acquisition of the museum 17 years ago. Skenesborough Museum is not just another museum. It is one that is worthy of Whitehall’s history and one that receives the admiration of the visiting public.
Doris B. Morton, Town Historian – The Whitehall Times – July, 1, 1976