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Clair Wilkins: Reading’s a way of life

June 2, 2010
By CAPERTON?TISSOT, Special to the Enterprise

Clair Wilkins has watched and benefited from the amazing advances in technology, which have occurred in the years since she was a child growing up on a rural sustenance farm.

Today, however, despite the availability of instant on-line knowledge, she questions whether it has really led to an improvement in education.

"I was raised with books," said Clair, who is a member of a book club and continues to be a ferocious reader. "We read all the time. Education was of primary importance. It doesn't seem to be that way anymore."

Article Photos

Clair Wilkins
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)

Clair was raised by hard-working grandparents who owned a 300-acre farm in Childwold. Their home was filled with books, so much so that her husband later referred to it as the "public library."

Reading was a way of life. Her grandfather attended "blab school" (still there at Sevey's Corners) where studies were read aloud. As a result, her grandparents, who read daily, continued to do so out loud; to themselves, to each other and to the children. She also heard stories from her Uncle Ham Fisher, a well-known North Country storyteller. These family traditions stimulated Clair's love of books and knowledge.

Though her grandparents had attended school only through the 5th grade, they nevertheless determined that their own children and grandchildren should become well educated.

"They would have given up anything in the world to make sure that happened," Clair said.

Clair's family roots reach deep into the land of farming, rural life and education. In 1906, her grandfather, James Ferry, accompanied by his wife Olive McCuen and his daughter Lena, bought a 20-year-old farmhouse in the hamlet of Childwold.

Lena (Clair's mother) was born in 1895. She grew up to become a teacher, boarding and working in distant Colton. The winter walk to this school followed a snowy path that was packed down by a horse dragging a large, iron kettle (used for boiling pigs). To return home for holidays, she had to drive a horse and cutter at night, by herself, on the 20-mile solitary road to Childwold. She, like all the women in this family, was strong and fearless.

In 1916, Lena married Tom Liady, from New York City, who had moved north to become a lumberjack (after seeing his own father die from "the bends" while digging New York's underground tunnels). However, WWI interfered with plans. Tom went into the service and Lena, now with a baby, moved back to live with the grandparents.

In 1918, her husband returned from the service and they moved to a house in Tupper Lake. Tragically, their first baby died. Then, in 1920, three days after Clair was born, her mother, suffering from flu and a throat infection, also died. Once more, the grandparents took in family, this time it was Clair who they raised along with another child they had adopted. Growing up in her grandparents' home was like living two generations back. There was neither electricity nor running water.

Her grandfather was a lumberman and caretaker at the Hollywood Club. Her grandmother ran the farm, usually with the help of a hired man. Along with pigs, chickens, sheep and a large garden, she took care of 15 dairy cows, milking them twice daily. When not working or reading, she took the children for woods walks, teaching them how to know and use wild plants for food and healing.

Each summer, her grandfather, a lay preacher, packed up his family and, with grandmother driving (he never learned how), made the long trip to church-camp meetings in Wilmington, where they stayed several days in a cabin. Many people attended and all brought farm produce to be cooked and served in a central dining area. For Clair, it was the most exciting event of the year. Not only was it very social but this was her chance to meet boys.

Another of Clair's favorite recollections was of snuggling under blankets on piles of hay in the back of a truck which her grandmother drove, taking the children on annual Christmas shopping trips to the big "city" of Tupper Lake. This gave the kids a welcome break from their chores which included churning butter, washing clothes with a washboard, caring for the animals, making butter and cottage cheese, curing meat and canning garden vegetables.

Clair was educated in a one-room schoolhouse (where the Leather Shop is now) before attending high school. She continued on to SUNY Potsdam, graduating in 1940. Just twenty years old, she took a job teaching 16 five-to-15-year-old students, (one of them "mentally disabled") in a one-room school for kindergarten through eighth grades in Yaleville outside Norwood. She boarded with a nearby family, sharing a bed with the daughter - a standard custom in those days. That fall she met Bernard Wilkins, an employee in the Massena Alcoa plant. They fell in love, married in 1941, and moved to Syracuse where Bernard worked for the Maytag Company before entering the military service.

In 1945, after her grandmother had died and Bernard had returned from WWII, Clair and the family moved back to the farmhouse to live with her grandfather. She had a well dug and indoor plumbing installed but it was still a rustic life. Lacking refrigeration she would cool the baby bottles by hanging them inside the well.

During those postwar years, Bernard was ill and often bedridden with bronchiectasis, thought at the time to be TB for which he received six months treatment at Sunmount.

It was left to Clair to support the family, which had grown to include three children: Bill, Cindy and Tommy. She courageously went back to teaching; one year in Childwold, fifteen years at a two-room school in Conifer and finally nine years in Tupper Lake. Evenings spent caring for the family and the house were as busy as her days. It was a tough life but optimism and good humor carried her through. She and Bernard lived on the family farm until his unfortunate death in 1977. She remained there until moving to Will Rogers in 2008.

It has been lonely at times, over the many years since Bernard's death, but Clair is self-reliant and used to looking after herself. She has done her share of tearing up and replacing floors, residing the house, splitting firewood and a multitude of other tasks. Once retired, however, she treated herself by traveling extensively in the U.S. and Canada, as well as to Russia, Europe, Greece, and Africa. Having left most of her possessions to her children, she now leads a peaceful life at Will Rogers. "I never saw a U-Haul following a hearse," she declares, "who needs all those things to be happy?"

Clair certainly does not, for she still finds true joy in reading and continuing to learn.


Based on an interview with Clair Wilkins. Caperton Tissot can be reached at



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