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October 24, 2016

Bicentennial Honors Women in County History

OSWEGO COUNTY - The Oswego County Legislature continues to mark the county's bicentennial with a "History Moment" presentation at its monthly meeting. One such discussion highlighted the women of Oswego County and their contributions to home, work and school.

"As we re-examine our history through the more progressive eyes of the 21st century, we see clearly the strength and character of the women who have helped to shape and guide our communities," said Oswego County Legislator Shawn Doyle, District 3, chairman of the Oswego County Bicentennial committee and historian for the town of Richland. "Throughout our history, their responsibilities not only included maintaining the home, but often managing the farms and businesses when their husbands were called away."

During the War of 1812, many men were called to Sackets Harbor and Oswego to defend the region from British attack, while the women stayed behind to manage the farms and tend to the children. At the county's founding in 1816, a time that became known as "the year without a summer," many men left their ruined farms to work in areas around what is now Rome and Syracuse; leaving the women to feed their families with what little could be saved from their frost-bitten gardens. Even during the Civil War, many wives and mothers were left behind as Oswego County sent thousands of men into battle.

Doyle said, "One interesting story that was passed down by Fannie Ripsom Seachrist of Selkirk involves the arrival British ships at the mouth of the Salmon River in 1814. The ladies of the small community were frightened about a potential landing while the men were away. Mrs. Seachrist recorded that her grandmother and several other women collected all their tin cans, kettles and some instruments. They gathered on the east side of the sand dunes that separated the community from the lake and began playing loudly to give the impression of a large force of men assembled. The tactic worked and the British vessels moved on."

Between 1847 and 1920, thousands of Irish, Italian, German and Polish immigrants arrived in the cities of Fulton and Oswego. The women in these groups were particularly industrious as evidenced by a study of the census rolls, which showed a diversity of professions from working in match and starch factories, to tobacco mills, to schools. While Oswego Normal School, now known as SUNY Oswego, was founded by Edwin Austin Sheldon, a vast majority of the early accredited teachers he trained were women.

Some names rise to the top of the long list of prominent women in Oswego County's history, including Dr. Mary Walker of Oswego Town. She was a pioneer medical doctor who fearlessly followed the Union Army and administered life-saving care and aid during the Civil War. She was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her service; the only woman to receive the honor.

Elmina Keeler Spencer of Mexico went to the battlefront with her husband during the Civil War. She was recognized by New York State and credentialed to serve as unit nurse before rising to the appointment of First Matron of the First Division. Later, she was in charge of the Agencies for Relief for sick and disabled Union soldiers and answered only to the Surgeon General of the Army. Wounded by shrapnel only once, she lived until 1921 and attended many Gettysburg reunions. Today, there is a memorial sculpture of her carved into the wall of the New York State Capitol building in Albany.

Oswego County's enterprising women include Helen Lamb Clark of Pulaski who succeeded her husband James as president of the Pulaski National Bank in 1887; one of the earliest such roles for a woman. She was re-elected for several terms before her own death in 1893. Grandma Lulu Brown of Mexico developed a wholesome baked bean recipe during the Great Depression that became a regional treasure. Founded in 1938, Grandma Brown's Baked Beans is still headquartered in Mexico, N.Y.

Some of the Oswego County women who have held public office include Frances Taylor Sullivan of Volney, a former social service worker, academic counselor and probation officer who went on to serve in the New York State Assembly from 1991 to 2002, the first woman from this region to do so.

Published author and former schoolteacher Doris Brown Allen, was elected to the Oswego Common Council in 1952. She later served in the Oswego County Legislature and fought for quality public housing which lead to the development of Hamilton Homes. In 1976, she attended the inauguration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Other Oswego County Legislature alumns include Roslyn Hastings of Hannibal, a published novelist and successful grant writer who served from 1981 to 1989 and Barbara Holst Brown, a steadfast advocate for the farming community, who served from 1991 to 2011, rising to a leadership role in the New York State Association of Counties.

"The list of ladies who have had impacted our communities with their civic contributions goes on; from former Fulton Mayor Muriel Allerton who was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in 2002, to Carolyn Higgins Rush, who was the first female administrator of Oswego County," said Doyle. "Even today, Legislator Linda Lockwood serves as the first female vice chairman of the Legislature and also was the first female acting chairman when she stepped in to open our December meeting last year.

"It has been a pleasure to serve with her as well as our other women legislators: Margaret Kastler, Marie Schadd and Heather DelConte, who all bring a much-needed and different perspective to many of our debates."

To learn more about the Oswego County's bicentennial, find Oswego County on Facebook or visit http://visitoswegocounty.com/historical-info/bicentennial-of-oswego-county/.

WOMEN IN HISTORY - Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was born in the town of Oswego in 1832. She served as a surgeon in the Civil War before being captured crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians. She was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her valor; the only woman in history to receive the distinction. She devoted her life to social causes, becoming a prominent writer and lecturer and advocating for the abolition of slavery as well as promoting women's suffrage and dress reform. Image courtesy of the Matthew Brady Collection of Civil War Photographs in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

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