Hoping to maintain a community’s identity in Clarksville

— Photo from Sandy Slingerland
The Onesquethaw Fire Company will give tours of its fire trucks and the rescue squad will give demonstrations at the Clarksville Heritage Day on Saturday, Aug. 3, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Clarksville Community Church. Vendors will sell their wares, and food, including ice cream, will be available. Several raffles will provide prizes. Perry Ground, a member of the Onondaga tribe’s Turtle Clan will tell stories.

NEW SCOTLAND — The 14th annual Clarksville Heritage Day will be taking place this Saturday, Aug. 3, at the Clarksville Community Church.

The goal of the event is simple: To bring the community together.

The event, which runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., “is a celebration of our local, Clarksville heritage,” said Susan Dee, president of the Clarksville Historical Society, who along with the Clarksville Community Church are sponsors of the event.

Other service organizations in Clarksville are involved with the event as well, Dee said. The Onesquethaw Volunteer Fire Company, for example, has organized a rescue challenge, where the goal is to try to crawl out of a small-space maze. “I think it’s mostly for kids, but that doesn’t preclude adults,” she quipped.

The fire company’s ambulance rescue squad will be making a competition of who can breathe life into a rescue manikin the quickest, Dee added. 

One of Heritage Day’s best-attended exhibits is the Reptile Adventure, Dee said. Many of the reptiles — however, not all — are available for the public to interact with, she added. 

Last year, Dee and the representative from the sheriff’s office — who was “not the fondest snakes,” according to Dee — “petted” her first snakes. The encounter was not what she was expecting, Dee said; she expected the snake to be either slimey or leathery. “They are so silky soft,” she noted.

Dee continued, “It was actually a very wonderful experience. I felt like I had definitely achieved a milestone.”

Perry Ground, a member of the Onondaga Turtle Clan, will be telling stories at 10:30 a.m., and again 1 p.m.

“And Perry tells me he never knows what stories they’re going to be until he opens his mouth,” said Dee.

Clarksville had been part of the Mohawk Nation, and Dee said that the Onondaga and Mohawk are two of the five nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, often called Iroquois by European descendents.

For the past few years, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office has participated. Dee said, “Sheriff Apple’s office has been very supportive.” This year, organizers are trying to get the sheriff’s office to bring a detection dog — for demonstration purposes only, Dee points out. 

Heritage Day has also been the annual fundraiser for the Clarksville Historical Society.

On Saturday, there will be a silent auction, a 50/50 drawing, and a raffle. Last year, Dee said, the Clarksville Community Church was also in need of funds, so it joined as an event co-sponsor. Dee said that the church ran the 50/50 raffle, adding “they did a fabulous job” with the silent auction.

Over 50 gifts were donated and subsequently bid on, she said; among the prizes were: gift certificates to local restaurants, flowers, and one church member even made an Adirondack chair. 

“The big one is our annual raffle,” she said. First prize is $1,000 in cash; second prize is a 3,600-watt portable generator; third prize is a pair of wooden-slat rocking chairs; fourth prize is a Yeti-brand cooler; and fifth prize is a $100 Visa gift card. 

New Scotlands’ hamlets with their ill-defined borders and lower populations, don’t receive the attention that, say, Voorheesville does, Dee said, which is one reason for wanting to hold a heritage-day event. When Martha Pofit was elected New Scotland’s supervisor in 1999, she started the tradition of holding a festival in each of the town’s hamlets; none but Clarksville have continued on with the tradition.

The event has lasted so long, Dee said, because, not only does it bring attention to clarksville but it brings the Clarksville community together.

Dee said that a researcher friend of hers estimated the population of Clarksville to be around 1,000 residents. 


Clarksville’s heritage

The town of New Scotland was founded in 1832.

Just a year later, according to the Clarksville Historical Society, by order of the Postmaster General, the village of Bethlehem’s post office was changed to the village of Clarksville post office, which “was done to eliminate the confusion of delivering the mail to the remaining part of the town of Bethlehem.”

Clarksville was named in honor of Adam A. Clark, who had been the village of Bethlehem’s postmaster as well as an innkeeper and veteran of the War of 1812. Throughout the 19th Century, Dee said, Clarksville was a thriving community; healthy enough to support four hotels. 

Then the train came to town. 

Well, to the hamlet to be precise.  

At first, the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad began running through the hamlet in 1863, which “changed the economic lives of these rural families by providing a quicker and cheaper means of getting their crops to market,” according to a guide of the village archives.

Then, in 1889, a passenger depot was constructed, which made Voorheesville a stop for tourists on their way to visit the Helderbergs. That, in turn, paved the way for two hotels to be built as well as the grocery stores and taverns in Voorheesville.

In 1900, a freight depot was built that it still in use to this day. 

Over time, Dee said, the accumulation of visitors, produce, and industrial goods allowed Voorheesville to grow at a faster rate than the hamlets in New Scotland. 

Which is not to say Clarksville was hurting. 

“This was a very strong community,” Dee said; at one point, into the 1940s, there were four car dealerships in the hamlet.

It was around the 1950s, she said, that Clarksville began to transition into what we now know as a bedroom community. Local businesses — where the owners lived above their shops — were not able to compete with the first mall in the area, Westgate Plaza, Dee said.

The transition into a bedroom community brought other changes as well. 


A group and a community’s identity

“This no longer the 1940s or ’50s, when people joined these kinds of organizations,” Dee said of groups like the Clarksville Historical Society, or fraternal and service organizations, like the Elks or Masons, which have been losing membership for decades

Nowadays, people have so many other options, she said, that it has become very hard to keep organizations like the Clarksville Historical Society going. Dee said that it took a “passionate group of folks” to set up the historical society’s first board of trustees, noting that many have moved on to other interests or are raising families. 

“It’s very common for organizations like the Clarksville Historical Society to be in a constant search for new members,” she said. Many of the group’s members are over the age of 65, she said, and the society is unlikely to draw many younger members unless they also happen to be history teachers. 

The Clarksville Historical Society was founded in May 2004. There is also the New Scotland Historical Association in town, which has been around for decades

Dee said that there were artifacts specific to Clarksville that the owners wanted saved closer to home, and they didn’t want to just give them to a museum or historical association in New Scotland. “They wanted something that really reflected Clarksville,” she said. 

Dee had never been a member of the New Scotland Historical Association, she said; however, she has been president of the Clarksville Historical Society for nearly nine years. Her term is up in 2020, at which point the group will need a new leader; bylaws dictate no person can be president for more than nine consecutive years. 

She jokes that, since she can’t trace her family back five generations in Clarksville, living in the hamlet for just 34 years still makes her a “newbie.” 

But she cares deeply about her community, she said, she was brought up with the mindset that a person is supposed to be involved in her community. It’s why she got involved when residents pushed to bring water to Clarksville, it’s why she joined the historical society, and it’s why she joined the unsuccessful fight against closing down Clarksville Elementary School. The daughter of union organizers, she said, “I’m an activist, let’s put it that way.” 


Defining Clarksville’s identity 

It’s difficult to identify a unifying force in the hamlet today, Dee said, but she pointed to the Onesquethaw Volunteer Fire Company and to the Clarksville Community Church — once the unifying body of a community — as examples. However, it wasn’t that long ago when it was easy to point to such an institution.

In 2003, Bethlehem voters approved a $93 million bond issue to address increasing enrollment in the district by expanding Clarksville Elementary as well as building a new school. According to a 2010 long-range planning study conducted by the Bethlehem School District, there was an 83 percent chance that residential development would occur in Clarksville by 2015  — the highest chance for the district’s six elementary schools.

In March 2011, as enrollment was actually increasing in the area served by Clarksville Elementary but declining elsewhere in the district, the Bethlehem School Board, in a split vote and against the recommendation of the superintendent at the time, decided to close the school that had served as the center of the rural hamlet since 1948. 

Board members who voted in favor of the closure said it would save $900,000, helping to close that year’s $1 million budget gap. At the time, Bethlehem had six elementary schools; the other five are all in the town of Bethlehem while Clarksville served students who lived in the town of New Scotland.

The closing of Clarksville Elementary was a blow to the community, Dee said, because, in a hamlet without defined borders or a local government body, Clarksville’s identity was deeply enmeshed with the school. 

“Take away the school, what are we?” she asked, “We have five ZIP codes.”

Then, the federal government tried to take that away. 

In August 2011, the United States Postal Service announced that it would close the rural hamlet’s post office. The late Peter Henner, a local lawyer, then filed a petition on behalf of himself, more than 30 people, and six businesses. With about a one in 10 chance, Clarksville, thanks to Henner, was able to keep its post office. 

“Can you imagine?” Dee asked rhetorically had the federal government been successful in closing the post office. “There would be no Clarksville. There would be no Clarksville ZIP code.” 

If the plan had been seen through to its final conclusion, Clarskville, which had been in existence since 1833, would have become Feura Bush, she said. 

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