A breezy briefing on Wilmington’s history

Review: “Wilmington’s Story: The First 200 Years,” by Wilmington Historical Society

When I learned the town of Wilmington was publishing a history as part of its bicentennial commemoration, I imagined long lists of events, detailed sketches of people I hadn’t heard of, and lots of arcane references familiar to residents but not to an outsider like me.

What I got instead was a short and breezy volume, under 50 pages, written not in heavy prose but in the style of an anecdotal timeline. I sat down and went through the book in maybe an hour, enjoying every minute. The next day I read it again. There’s plenty of material here, and it’s easily absorbed.

Paul Thayer was the first settler in 1799, but it was a most intriguing man named Reuben Sanford who arrived soon after and got right to work. He built a sawmill, set up potash production, and then opened that other necessity, a distillery. Two distilleries, in fact.

Soon he led a battalion of 240 volunteers to fight in the Battle of Plattsburgh, bringing all the soldiers’ daily whiskey rations with him. He came home to run his businesses, and both fund and build the Methodist Church. Neighbors elected him to the New York Assembly and later the Senate.

Some people left. A few sought gold in California. One man even became governor of the Golden State. Another moved to Ohio and won fame for his patented covered bridge designs. Many more stayed. They built hotels, restaurants, churches, and stores, or became carpenters, plumbers and electricians.

Lumber, starch mills and an iron forge drove the economy for a while. In time, though, tourism became the primary generator of jobs. Julian Reiss, with Arto Monaco and Harold Fortune, created arguably the country’s first theme park, Santa’s Workshop, in 1949. Less well-publicized was his Reiss’ Santa Operation Toy Lift. Other attractions, like Old MacDonald’s Farm, Seminole Indian Village (complete with alligator wrestling), and a place named Mystery Spot Park were short-lived.

There’s also Whiteface Memorial Highway, for which Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the groundbreaking in 1929, and returned six years later, as president, for the dedication. Whiteface Ski Center, launched its first incarnation at Marble Mountain in 1949, and then the more successful version a decade later.

Local legends are honored. Fran Betters, unsurpassed fly tier and fisherman. Esther McComb, who at age 15 first climbed a nearby mountain that was named for her decades later. Jeanne Ashworth, Olympic medalist, local schoolteacher and town supervisor.

I’d never heard of Holiness Camp, its meeting grounds dating to 1905 and still active. Perhaps it’s best I didn’t know about Help Each Other (HEO) Club, started in 1928, but quickly urged out of existence after people learned it was a Ku Klux Klan endeavor.

Of course, there’s more. I haven’t discussed schools, or the Winter Olympics. Or that when the township first broke off from the town of Jay in 1822, it named itself Danville, switching to Wilmington a few months later. There must be a story behind that.

The book is easy to read, with crisp, clear layout and lots of photos. I found myself wanting those touch screen buttons labelled “want to learn more?” I’d also welcome a printed walking and driving tour, so I could roam around and find some of the locations mentioned.

Congratulations to the Wilmington Historical Society for their achievement. Let me warn them. I’m the type likely to stop by and ask questions.


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