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Reflections of a North Country Girl At Heart

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.

“Resigned as Alderman…appointed City Treasurer.” —Albert David Cordwell, 317 Spring St., Dec. 31, 1925

So begins the first entry into my great grandfather’s diary for the year 1926. In a 2” X 4” brown leather pocket booklet, with 1926-The National Bank of Ogdensburg stamped in gold on the cover, Albert recorded both the mundane and the important moments of life in Ogdensburg in 1926. In precise cursive script, undoubtedly recorded with a fountain pen, he began the diary by filling in identification information, which included my grandfather’s name and address at 218 Ogden St. as the individual to contact in case of emergency and, under “easy to forget facts,” he recorded the size of his hat (6 ), gloves (10), collar (14 ), cuffs (9), the size of shirt (14 1/2/)) and shoes (8 1/2/), and his phone number (437M). Not only do we get a glimpse of his stature with these statistics, but we also have a glimpse of men’s appropriate attire of the day and a peak at what conveniences he could afford.

While the entire diary records the daily weather, key deaths and events in the community, and a look behind the scenes of politics and social life in Ogdensburg at the time, perhaps the most interesting information is recorded it the tight and tiny script of an accountant in the final 20 pages. Great-grandfather listed the expenditures he made during the year, by day, with monthly totals for tracking his budget. Among the most consistent daily expenditures recorded: daily cigar — 15 cents; bread — 10 cents; street car tickets—35 cents; laundry—20 cents; daily lunch—30 cents; and an occasional game of pool—10 cents. His total living expenses for January, 1926 — $123.16.

Some of the more interesting entries include:

Jan. 5: St. Lawrence County Utilities Inc. purchased Gregory Ed. Co. of Morristown for $70,067; property valued at $44,848.60.

Jan. 13: Started on City Treasurer books.

Jan 21: Opera House and Town Hall gutted by fire at 12:30 midnight. Temporary offices at R.S. Waterman.

Jan 27: Opened up vault in City Clerk office.Books intact. Moved to Ogdensburg Bank (where the City Treasurer’s office was housed temporarily.)

Jan 29: 26 degrees below zero.

Jan 30: D. Dinburg found murdered in his house Friday evening.

Most of the entries for February recorded the weather — cold, cloudy and snow — and the deaths and funerals of several friends. On Feb. 18, he notes a train wreck at Castorland, with two killed and 25 injured. Tragedy was again recorded on Feb. 25 with a report of a fire in the Plattsburgh business section that caused over $200,000 in damage.

On March 5, Albert records that he attended a get-together supper at the Masonic Temple, where 225 attended and over $1,500 was raised—a significant amount for that era. As many of Ogdensburg residents remember, the Masonic Temple, the Masons, and the auxiliary Rainbow Girls were important organizations for decades. My fondest memories of the old grey stone temple include being allowed to accompany my grandfather to the upstairs room, where the men gathered for cards and conversation—complete with brass spittoons on the floor and thick smoke from fragrant cigars hovering over the dark space.

On March 30, there was a town election on the purchase of the Opera House—the proposition carried: 591 yes, 90 no.

On a clear and cold windy day in March, Albert records that he had an accident 9 miles out on the Canton Road, noting that only the “fenders and the running board” were damaged, giving a hint at what the cars were like during that era. In another entry related to autos, he notes that Harrison (my grandfather) bought a “Chrysler” for $6! Later that month he notes that a public meeting was held at the Armory for the purpose of deciding on plans for a municipal building.

In keeping with the arrival of spring, there are entries that record the planting of tomatoes, the confirmation of 56 individuals at St. John’s, the celebration of the country’s Sesquicentennial in Philadelphia, PA, and the broadcast from Canton on the radio of the Ogdensburg Choral Program (which Albert evaluates as “fine”).

Mention of the radio appears frequently throughout the diary. Of particular note is the June 6th entry of the “radio from St. Lawrence University dedication of Gunnison Memorial Chapel. Dr. Eddy Sykes gave an inspiring address and the Irving Bachelor chimes played for the first time. Splendid performance.” (I found this entry particularly interesting since the Journal recently featured an article on the chapel, noting that the repairs from a recent fire would be complete by 2015).

In June of that year, Ogdensburg residents voted in a special tax election on a $385,000 bond issue for a new City Hall. Of the 1,115 votes that were cast, only 371 voted for approval. Allocating funds for this project was rejected.

The Cordwells were long-time Republicans, so it was no surprise that Albert recorded on July 7 that President Calvin Coolidge arrived at summer camp in the Adirondacks, just as he noted that Al Smith was elected governor on Sept. 2.References to national news were often included in the diary including an entry on July 10 that noted a “terrific explosion at U.S. Government powder works in New Jersey that was caused by lightening where 20 lives were lost and over $1 million in damage occurred. He also records the hurricane in Florida on Sept. 18 that took 1,500 lives and caused property damage of over $150 million in property damage, and the death of the emperor of Japan on Christmas Day.

On July 21, a fire at 8:00 pm destroyed Duvals Upholstery on Lake Street, and the next day “a four-year old child drowned in raceway on Main Street at about 4 p.m.”

As treasurer of the city, Albert was very involved in city expenditures. He notes that on August 3 a special election was held for paving New York Avenue and Catherine Street. The propositions carried!

Great-grandfather also enjoyed some of the recreational activities of the day. In addition to building a camp above Morristown, he records that he went to Cooper Falls for lunch and supper and played horseshoes, proudly recording that he and his partner won 22 games. In another entry he mentions that he left for Syracuse at about 1:30 in the afternoon, arriving at 5:30 (no route 81), and stayed for the evening.“Heard Billy Sunday—not very much impressed with him. Had a great time sight-seeing. Syracuse is some city. Keith’s Vaudeville in the afternoon, beautiful theatre. Arrived home at 10:30 p.m.”

He must have enjoyed theater,because a later entry indicates that he saw Variety at the Strand and it was a good picture (let’s keep in mind that the first talking film was The Jazz Singer, featuring Al Jolson in 1927). On Oct. 3, he recalls that he saw “The Sheik” at the Strand, probably one of the top classic films of the century.

Apparently the citizens of Ogdensburg were interested in moving along on reconstructing Town Hall as Albert records on Sept. 15 a special tax election was held on the purchase of a Town Hall site.

The proposition carried 4 to 1, and the amount to be paid was $209,400.

Significant sports events were also recorded. On Sept. 23, Tunney defeated Dempsey for the championship at Philadelphia—betting 3 to 1 on Dempsey— and on Sept. 24, St. Louis won the National League pennant. The next day, the New York Yankees won the American League pennant.As he tracked the series that year, he noted that on Oct. 6, Babe Ruth made three home runs, but St. Louis ultimately won the series with “Grover Cleveland Alexander the hero of the game.”

New Year’s Eve—1926—Only one comment “Radio no good.”

There are sprinkled among the yellowed pages many other notes about citizens of Ogdensburg, daily life and personal family members. My grandfather, Albert’s son, also kept similar diaries, as did his son, my Dad. These voices from the past capture the changing culture, the city’s and nation’s history, and remind us that as the years pass, the interests and concerns of humanity rarely change.

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