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Bluegrass bands volunteer for Stone Mills Museum fundraiser

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Led by the rhythm of plucked guitars and banjos, songs with nostalgic lyrics about life on the farm filled the Ramada Inn in Watertown Sunday at a bluegrass fundraising event hosted for the first time by the Northern New York Agricultural Historical Society of Stone Mills.

Organized to raise funds for the Stone Mills Museum in LaFargeville, five bluegrass bands with members from across the north country and Canada volunteered to play music all day long to make the festival possible. Proceeds will pay for operating costs at the museum, which opens for the season on May 19.

The historical society, which has about 200 members, always has had strong support from bluegrass musicians and fans, said Patty J. Drake, chairperson of the Friends of the Museum Committee. Attendees also partook in a hearty country-style buffet dinner while enjoying the show.

“When we announced we were going to do this, the bands volunteered right away,” said Mrs. Drake, a bluegrass enthusiast who bought a fifth-wheeler last year to travel to festivals across the country. “This music coincides with our mission at the museum” to preserve the farming heritage in the north country.

Bluegrass music has its origins in the 1700s, when families found innovative ways to make their own music, Mrs. Drake said. As bluegrass evolved in the north country, it was influenced by country, folk and Celtic music traditions.

“In the generations before us, families weren’t able to get out and socialize as much with other farmers because of the distance barrier,” she said. “So families made instruments to create their own music back then, sometimes using washboards with thimbles and spoons.”

Shelene A. Atkinson of Harrisville picked her guitar on stage with four family members Sunday. The group has been playing together for 14 years.

“My great uncle helped start the museum in Stone Mills during the 1800s,” she said, adding that bluegrass music was popular at that time. “The bluegrass community has always been close-knit here.”

Hearkening back to that era, lyrics in the band’s songs speak of the hardships and rewards experienced by family farms that carved out a living. “Silo Stands Alone,” for example, “talks about the disappearance of farms in the north country,” Mrs. Atkinson said.

Numerous members from the Thousand Islands Bluegrass Preservation Society, which will host its annual Bluegrass Festival at Stone Mills Museum June 1-3, attended the festival. Dick A. Bartlett, president of the society, came with his seven-member Rivergrass Band to entertain Sunday’s crowd.

“This provides a home base for bluegrass people to get together, and we hope it will be an annual event,” said Mr. Bartlett, who’s played bluegrass music for more than 50 years. “The music is an important part of our history, and our goal is to see this go on forever.”

Plus, the music is easy for newcomers to learn, he said. The Preservation Society hosts bluegrass “jam sessions” Wednesday nights at Stone Mills Museum in which anyone can pick up an instrument and play.

But, Mr. Bartlett laughed, attending too many bluegrass festivals has consequences.

“You’re going to eventually get hooked,” he said.

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