For at least a dozen years before TAUNY's creation as an organization in 1986, I had been working on folk culture projects in the North Country. After finishing an MA in American Folk Culture from the Cooperstown Graduate Program in 1976, I returned to the Humanities Department at SUNY Canton to resume teaching English courses. My experience in Cooperstown had been life changing for me. With some of the best teachers in the field and the Farmers' Museum and Fenimore House Museum as convenient laboratories for us graduate students, everyone’s eyes were opened to new ways of looking at the simpler things of everyday life.
My own ancestors had been some of the pioneering settlers of several St. Lawrence County towns. I grew up with wonderful stories told at my dad’s general store, simple old songs and dances taught by my mother to young kids in local schools, and quilts and old family recipes from both my grandmothers. My friends were children of farmers and woodsmen and factory workers. As I learned later in life, many of these things we did would be called “folklore,” but everyone I knew took them for granted—that was just how things were done.
With an immersion in the scholarship on folk traditions from all parts of the country and an introduction to the techniques of good fieldwork, my time in Cooperstown began to inspire me to look homeward. What about the folklore of the North Country? What is it and how is it similar to or different from other places? Why hadn’t there ever been any systematic study of traditions and customs done before? Why not study the stories and songs, customs, beliefs, crafts, and arts of this place I knew best?
When I returned to teaching in the fall of that American Bicentennial year, I started a campaign to introduce a new course in our department, a Survey of American Folklore. One of my graduate professors had told me that teaching in a local junior college could be a huge advantage for me—many of the students live at home and remain close to their families and communities. They could do projects that would enlighten them about their own lives and produce interesting studies for others to appreciate as well. (Twenty-four years later, when I retired, I had had more than 1500 students in that course and some pretty remarkable results!)
Within the next several years, other opportunities arose. In 1977, as a faculty member at SUNY Canton, I created the Center for the Study of North Country Folklife to do research that supported my teaching. That same year, I took advantage of the old federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and hired and trained about 15 people to do fieldwork. Like the famed WPA projects of the 1930s, they then undertook a year-long survey of traditions and tradition bearers, but in St. Lawrence County. More than 6,000 local people were identified to us for their knowledge of things as common as making maple syrup and quilting and as unusual as making “bombagilia,” (balm of Gilead salve) and cockfighting. After months of plying the backroads and villages of the county, we decided that our way of showing appreciation to all those people who had contributed to our study was to have a celebration. Thus, the first Festival of North Country Folklife was held in the fall of 1978 on the SUNY Canton campus. It was a huge success, and people clamored for its return. The next year we did it with financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the first time we had recognition from outside our region. The festival lived on for many years at Robert Moses State Park on Barnhart Island, near Massena.
From these experiences and several others over the next few years, a vision for an organization that could support such activity throughout the North Country region began to develop. By that time, folklore had become a serious academic discipline around the world. But there was a growing movement in this country by some folklorists to put the research to use for the common good. Thus an interest in “applied folklore”—now called public folklore—became more common.
Locally, I pursued my own interests—folk art, vernacular architecture, oral traditions—and made projects of them when time from teaching allowed. I worked with several organizations in the region with gallery spaces to produce folk art exhibits, gave talks to service clubs and professional groups, and wrote articles for publication. I became involved in a statewide effort in the early 1980s to create a separate program at the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) to support folk and traditional arts and artists in the state. When that became a reality in 1985, I was fortunate to be asked to join some colleagues around the state to develop guidelines for the new program.
Once the Folk Arts Program was established and qualified organizations were eligible for public funds to support their work, Robert Baron, the first program director (and still there today) encouraged me to think about creating an organization to serve the North Country. It would not only fill an important cultural niche but would be eligible for grants from foundations and public agencies and charitable giving by supporters of its work. After careful thought and great help from a small group of friends who agreed to become the first board of directors, TAUNY was born.
Varick Chittenden, 2011
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