North Star Underground Railroad Museum celebrates 10th anniversary

AuSABLE CHASM — “Keeping the Lantern Lit” is Saturday’s theme for the 10th anniversary celebration, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at Ausable Chasm located at 1131 Mace Chasm Road.

Operated by the North Star Underground Railroad Historical Association, the museum’s tagline is “Lighting Freedom’s Road.”

“The North Star Underground Railroad Museum has been in existence for 10 years,” Bobbi Perez, development chair, said.

“We are celebrating the founders, Don and Vivian Papson, the board members that were there working with them to get this up and running, and all the supporters throughout the years.”

Takes a village

The program begins with a Libations Ceremony by Robin Caudell, trustee.

Celebration emcee, John Mitchell, 1st vice president, will give the welcome and closing comments.

“Traveling the Underground Railroad” will be presented by Jacqueline Madison, president.

Musical selections will be offered by the Voices of Faith — founder Bobbie Criss, manager Brett Carpenter, Nora Ray, Desiree Terrell and Janice Tobin.

Reminiscences will be shared by Helen Nerska, director of the Clinton Historical Association & Museum and first North Star Museum manager; and Peter Slocum, journalist, bus tour driver, volunteer.

A dedication will be given by Martha Swan, executive director of John Brown Lives!

“We are excited to share our vision with people, the vision to inspire everyone to rise above their differences and celebrate the importance of freedom to the survival of the human spirit,” Perez said excerpting the organization’s mission statement.

Area businesses contributing to Saturday’s event include Adirondack Hardware, Chasm Rock, Kevin A. Hall, Land Surveying, Livingston Farm, Loremans’, Morrisonville Septic LLC, Pepsico and Sweet Little Things Bakery Cafe.

Due to the recent rise of COVID in the area, masks are required both in the tent and in the museum. Free masks are available on site.

“The fact that people are coming out to be with us means a great deal to us, and we are honestly trying to be as safe as possible for everyone’s sake,” Perez said.

Union soldier’s home

The North Star Underground Railroad Museum is located in the Town of Chesterfield Heritage Center.

The museum’s grand opening was on May 21, 2011 and invited guests included descendants of Herbert Estes, who built the 19th century Potsdam sandstone dwelling. The Massachusetts native was a machinist, inventor, paper mill owner, church leader, Mason, AuSable Grange member and a Union soldier diarist.

Inside Estes’ former residence, the museum excavates the submerged history of the “Champlain Line” of the international Underground Railroad network.

Exhibits portray compelling stories of fugitives from slavery who passed through Northeastern New York and the Champlain Valley on their way to Canada East and Canada West.

“Ideal arrangement”

Key to the museum’s success was the support of the Town of Chesterfield Town Council and former Chesterfield town Supervisor Gerald Morrow as well as the strategic location of the museum adjacent to Ausable Chasm, according to Madison.

“If we were to give anybody a lot of credit it would have to be Jerry Morrow because he wrote the grant,” she said.

“The Town Council, they were actually able to pull it off. They didn’t do everything. Some funding did not come through, but we got the bulk of it. That to me is quite an accomplishment. We were nobody if you really think about it. They took a chance on us. That’s the probably the biggest thing to get that.”

A decade ago, the association was at the right crossroads at the right time.

“We had what at that time what was considered the ideal arrangement,” Madison said.

“Many museums own their buildings and they own their properties and they were struggling to maintain them. They didn’t have funding. Sometimes, they didn’t have enough staff.”

Museum professionals advocated sustainable management with support from a governmental entity coupled with private enterprises.

“We fell into that with Ausable Chasm as the business unit, and we had the Town of Chesterfield as the government unit, and we were the not-for-profit,” Madison said.

“That was considered an ideal arrangement to support museums. That was the other thing that was really good for us.”

Champlain line

The Champlain Line encompassed the Upper Hudson River, the Champlain Canal, and Lake Champlain, a “Gateway to Freedom,” according to the museum’s website.

The museum’s interpretative exhibits include a leg iron, found hidden in a nearby Quaker home, the centerpiece in the “Church Room.”

“We have phenomenal attendance by visitors,” Madison said.

“I thought the first year we would probably end up with a few hundred, but we ended up with thousands. The first year I think it was something like 4,500. At the peak we had nearly over 6,500 visitors. That’s in the span of about six months. That’s almost a 1,000 a month. So, that’s really good, especially when you look at other museums that are around.

Museum founder Don Papson oversaw the installation of the object theater, which tells the story of John Thomas, a freedom seeker who escaped from the Ezekiel Merrick Plantation in Queen Anne’s County Maryland. The Gerrit Smith land grantee sold his Franklin County lot and eventually owned more than 200 acres in Bloomingdale.

“That is perhaps our most popular exhibit, no doubt,” Madison said.

“And not just with adults, even with children.”

Owners since 2019

The Board of Trustees Officers are Madison, president; Mitchell, 1st vice president; James Kloiber, 2nd vice president; Barbara Criss, treasurer; and Kathleen Lavoie, secretary. Trustees include Julius Archibald, parliamentarian emeritus; Andrea Baer, Caudell, Margaret McGannon (Legal), LeGita Scott-Williams, Perez, Frank Perusse (emeritus) and Dick Ward.

The association received the deed to the building, signed off by the town of Chesterfield and the Ausable Chasm Co., in 2019.

“We now own our museum,” Madison said.

“We no longer have to worry as long as we do our job. We don’t have to worry about that maybe that being pulled from us if a new town council comes in and decides they want to do something else with the building.

“If you think about that to have the support of Ausable Chasm board and the town council to feel confident enough that they could actually turn that building over to us in eight years, that’s really impressive.”


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