We spoke with Delaware County historian Bill Birns about the legacy of “Hobart’s greatest” (albeit largely forgotten) son, John Davenport Clarke: farmer, forester, and congressman.
Catskill Historical Views is a collaboration between Catskill Tri-County Historical Views, the Zadock Pratt Museum, and Silver Hollow Audio. Thanks to Humanities New York for their support of this series.
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Welcome to cats cast, a biweekly podcast delivering interviews, arts, culture and history from New York's Catskill Mountains. This week, the first in a new series called Catskill historical views and audio companion to Catskill Tri County Historical views published by the guilbeau Museum and juried History Center. This is Episode One. JOHN Davenport Clark, farmer, Forester, Congressman, an interview with Bill Burns, who wrote about john D. Clark in Volume One issue two of Catskill Tri County Historical views. You can find a copy at Catskill tri county.org Davenport called Delaware County home, and so does Bill Burns. Well, my name is Bill Burns, I have lived in Delaware County for 49 years next year will be my 50th anniversary as a Delaware County guy. I've always been active in politics in Delaware County. In fact, I could point out that there have only been three successful county wide democratic candidacies in Delaware County, in the last well since 1933. And I managed to have them I've always been attracted to political campaigns. And that I think, is what attracted me to john D. Clark, who was a progressive republican back in the early part of the 20th century and really a remarkable guy. You say that Clarke is Hobart's greatest son. Give us a sense of who he is where he came from his father, being a sheriff and a civil war hero. What's interesting about john D Clarke as Hobart's favorite son is the people of Hobart don't remember him. When I started my research and the article I went to Hobart and walked up and down the street and spoke to various people in bookshops because Hobart is the book village of the Catskills. And they'd never heard of john D. Clarke. But john lamport, who is one of the few farmers remaining in Hobart, he didn't know john D. Clarke was specifically but he knew the family. The Clark family came to Delaware County in the 18th century, most of us are familiar with the hardenberg patent, the huge million acre land grant that was given by Queen Anne to a consortium of about eight or nine guys took the name of one of them yohannes hardenberg. And that pretty much covered most of the Catskills but not all and there was something called the brat patent era dt, which was granted to Philip Livingston, Livingston or all over the Catskills in the Hudson Valley, and also to the Clark family. Now, my guess is that maybe the Clark family were the people who were actually going to come and settle the land and try to develop it. And Philip Livingston was probably the money behind the land most of us are aware, many people are aware anyway, of the fact that so much of the Catskills was rented land for a great deal of time until the 1840s. So the Brad patent included, the Clark family was about a I think about a 40,000 acre patent of land. And William Clark, who was john D, Clark's father, and he actually went to Kansas with john Brown, and fought in what's known as Bleeding Kansas, folks may remember that from their high school history studies, where there was a terrible clash, pre civil war between those people who wanted Kansas to be a free state without slavery. And those people many of whom were coming over the borders from Missouri, which was a slave state, who were hoping to make it into a slave state and ended up in a really bloody mess and john Brown, who of course, became famous later for the Harpers Ferry raid, one of the things that really helped bring on the Civil War and heat up the tension between the slaveholders and those who believed in freedom. So when the Republican Party was founded in 1854, it was founded with a coalition of a Whigs who are largely folks who are interested in commercial activity, as opposed to land based activity and abolitionists, as well as people who had various views on what to do about the slave question. And William Clark was right there. You know, his boat a few days as an anti slavery man, we're pretty strong. A survived Bleeding Kansas not everybody did. Came back to Delaware County and was elected Sheriff of the county. So when john de Klerk was born, he was born to a fairly prominent family, and certainly a very republican family. And people have to remember that in the time of john D. Clark's birth, the Republican Party was what we would term the progressive party today. And the Democratic Party, which was the party of the South, was seen as the party of of slavery. Both Northerners who sympathized for some reason with Southern slaveholders, and the southerners so he was in the right place in terms of where I think most of us today would want to see somebody at that time. So then john Davenport Clark, his son, he went to the local schools. Yeah, think about, you know, he went to the common School, which was common. The common schools were the one room schoolhouse that we think of today. They were throughout the state of New York. And in Delaware County, there were many, many, many common schools because they covered an area that allowed people to walk to school. Both he and his sister Eleanor, were outstanding students in the common school. And then Hobart didn't have a high school at that time. It's interesting that the Hobart school is today in Hobart, it's the Civic building, and people are justly proud of their high school which closed I think 1973 something like that, when a merger occurred with the South Korean trade school, but that hadn't been thought of in john D. Clark's day. And so the place to go to school was like 20 miles down the river down the road, route 10. Today to Delaware Academy. Delaware Academy, I believe is the second oldest school in Delaware County with Franklin literary Institute being the first and they're a Delaware Academy, john Davenport. Clark was a star. We just think about that boy or girl today who, you know, plays the sports and is in the band and gets straight A's. That was john D. Clark. He was kind of the all around outstanding student at Delaware Academy, and was a very good baseball player as well. He ran the 440 and 52 seconds, which I you know, is pretty respectable even today. So this was a great athlete, a great student, and really somebody that you know, kind of think of the all American boy somebody who other people were very much drawn to. Did you go to college? He did. He went to Lafayette, which is a very good school. today. Lafayette continues in Bethlehem Pennsylvania, and at Lafayette College, he again excelled in sports. He was an outstanding pitcher at Delaware Academy and at Lafayette he was an outstanding track star. He was an outstanding student. And when he graduated in something like 1896 somewhere around there, I believe he won the graduation award as the outstanding athlete in in the school and then he goes on to work at US Steel well before that actually, he went out to the Colorado School of Mines today you know many of our of our listeners remember the battles over fracking locally here in the Catskills. You know, we have come to the point where we realized that the some of the extraction that we've done in the earth has had some serious environmental problems. But in the late 1800s, early 19 hundred's mining and Mining Engineering was sort of the cutting edge of certainly of engineering education. So he went to the Colorado School of Mines in order to study Mining Engineering. Interestingly enough, Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer and made his original reputation that way. So it was really a hot field. It would be kind of being a digital engineer today. Perhaps he had one more year of eligibility if they were county eligibility in those days. And therefore he was able to pitch for the Colorado School of Mines as well. So he continued his athletics in graduate school. And then in 1901, he got a job with JP Morgan. And what Morgan did was he had already purchased a number of steel companies but the major steel producer in America and in the world was Carnegie Steel, Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, of course, is responsible for many of the libraries around our Catskills gave money to build libraries. Connie was not particularly interested in selling I don't believe so JP Morgan asked him what price he would want for Carnegie Steel. The story is that Carnegie wrote a very large figure wouldn't be particularly large for a corporation today, but very large for 1901. figuring this guy's never going to give me this kind of money. And JP Morgan did. He founded US Steel, which at that time was the biggest Corporation in the world. And john D Clark. He got a job with you. STL m rose to the position of Director of mines, the thing that made us steel, such an important company was the same thing that made the Rockefeller Standard Oil important. It was vertically integrated. So right from the mining of the call the creation of coke, the mining of ores, they did everything from the very beginning of the process, before they ended up with manufactured steel. And so being the director of mines was a big job. And he probably made a lot of money. It seems like a plus job, but then he decided, for some reason to go to law school. Yeah, yeah, I think 1908 he'd been with us steel for seven years. By that point, he had risen to a pretty prominent position as a mentioned in the company. And yet he decided to go to law school. Now, he may have been whelming going to law school at night. It was Brooklyn law. And he did get his law degree sometime around 1911. And he did go into the practice of law at that point. I think he had his eye on a political career Early. It was not traditional necessarily for people to come out of the corporations. US Steel being so big might not have been so popular and probably put him in a better position as an attorney, but he ended up practicing law in New York City in a firm that he and a partner had established. And then like other notable Catskill kids like john Burroughs, he comes back up here and buys a Delaware County Farm where he practices sustainable agriculture. Yeah, and not only did he buy a Delaware County Farm, he sort of bought the Delaware County Farm, Arbor Hill. today. It's on Arbor Hill Road. At that time, there was a long bridge going across the West Branch of Delaware out to what we call today, route 10. It was a farm. So we had several 100 acres. And it was a place where political leaders from Delaware County had lived at Arbor Hill. So it's pretty clear to me that when he bought Arbor Hill, he had a political career in mind. But you're right. His goal in Arbor Hill was what we call today sustainable agriculture. He established a model farm. This was a place that it was expected that other farmers would be able to to observe the way his farm was run as a way to improve agriculture throughout the county. And he also got very interested in forestry. Another thing that was huge in the early part of the 20th century that we don't think about as much today, most of the forests had been cut down in Delaware County, certainly for farming. But in Ulster County, a lot of it was for timber. So reforestation was the major environmental issue. Did he see a relationship between the importance of forests and farms? I think he did. I think he saw forestry as another resource for the farmer for the country. The whole forestry movement was based upon the wise use of the forest in 1882, the cat's ghost forest had been declared forever wild. And we're certainly glad of that we have all these wonderful hiking trails and forest here, but his brand of forestry was to manage a forest so that the wood both for lumber and timber and for fuel could be used and then but used in a way that that remains sustainable. And he called himself he said, i'm john D. Clarke, a farmer and a forester, and a congressman which came next which came next and that came in 1920. He threw his hat in the ring for the United States Congress. In that time in the 1920s. a congressional districts were built around county lines. So the district was Delaware County. I'd sego county up where Oneonta is shenango County that's where Norwich is. And Broome County where Binghamton is one of the things that really fascinated me about john D. Clark. He's in a way the last Delaware County guy to represent us in Congress since I've lived in Delaware County. I've been represented by Howard w Robeson and in Binghamton by Matt McHugh from Ithaca, Sherwood boehlert, from Utica, Antonio Delgado from Rhinebeck. You know, it's always people who are from outside of our county. So he's really the last major national political figure who was a Delaware County guy. So he was elected in 1920. Again in 1922. Yeah. And then, in 1924, the forestry interest comes back in in a political way, when he introduces the Clark mcnary act and that allocates public money for reforestation of private lands. What was that all about? Well, imagine, again, that we live in a world in which the major environmental issue is reforestation. There are many people, particularly progressive republicans in I would say progressive Democrats, who were pushing for the Fed. Government to take action just like people push for the federal government to take action today on the major environmental issue, which I would say is climate change. But the federal government didn't see that constitutionally, there was way to do that. Well, before john D. Clarke got to Congress, the week's Act passed in 1911, in the week's act allowed for the reforestation of River drainage areas, the valleys of rivers in order to improve navigation. So what they were doing was they were, they really wanted to do some reforestation, but the constitution doesn't allow for that. But the constitution allows for the federal government be involved in interstate commerce. navigation of rivers is interstate commerce. So that was the point. It didn't really do the job. So in 1924, Clarke introduced into the house, john D. Clark did, and Senator mcnary from Oregon in the Senate, a bill that would set up a public private partnership, in which for the first time, the federal government could go on private land, and most of the deforested land was private land, large tracts that have been deforested by the timber companies. So this allowed the federal government to go into private land in a public private partnership. And today we see public private partnerships is a regular thing and a boon to to the country to get things done. But at that time, it was fairly rare that allowed for the federal government to establish a reforestation program. And it was there that the nurseries were established that the free distribution of tree seedlings really got underway. So those who, you know who value the forest here in the Catskills and elsewhere, and there are so many of us, we really owe a debt of gratitude to congressman Clark and Senator mcnary. Is that act still on the books it is to view the Clark mcnary act is still the law of the land, and memorializes his name, certainly. And then, shoes and alcohol seemed to have undid him in a way leading up to the next election. 1924 1924 john D. Clark is challenged in a primary and his Mr. tolley, Harold tolley, who went on to become the mayor of being implemented don't think he was at that point runs against them. The big issue is being lumped in as a shoe town and Broome County's shoe County. So Johnson City is is it's a factory town like Chester was years ago. But it's factory town with like 40,000 workers and several other Endicott shoe, several other shoe companies there. Well, in the post World War One World imports began to pour into the country, Italian shoes, shoes from other European countries. And it really put a dent in the American shoe industry. And Tali ran on defending the shoe industry. The other issue was temperance, particularly in Delaware County. And I remember the women's Christian Temperance union having a table at the Delaware County Fair every year, the women's Christian Temperance union and other temperance organizations, the anti saloon League, which by the way, john burrows was a dues paying member, year in and year out, these organizations were fighting against what they saw as the scourge of alcohol. And that was really much of a women's issue. What many people saw was that men would get their paycheck and drink it up before they got home to buy milk and eggs and bacon. And Clark wasn't strong on that issue, to the thinking of the women's temperance Christian Union. But he ended up losing I think it was 242 votes, a very close, weak or primary that hurt. And he came back two years later. And was he a bit hypocritical in terms of alcohol supporting the temperance movement in some ways, but also being a drinker himself? Exactly. JOHN D. Clark was known as number of politicians were as one who voted dry, but drank wet. I think really, the people began to say that about him after the 26 when he when he ran against Tallinn in the primary and beat him and became the Republican candidate won his seat back, because I'm not sure that he spent much time on the temperance issue, you know, before that, but he was very careful to vote dry after the loss. Although he did drink wet, john D. Clark, became a real expert in the shoe, tariff business, pay a lot of attention to the to the shoe trade as well as to the dairy farmer that was a district that was built on milk and leather, milk and shoes. And so he was reelected. 28 and reelected and 30 and reelected in the landslide of Franklin rose. Built in in 1932. Election Day rolls around in 1933. Election Day is going to be two days later. And Clark gets in his automobile and leaves Arbor Hill and drives down into Dell. Hi, Arbor Hill is in Frazier's a stone's throw from Dell high. Today it's where the big milk plant is today in Clark industries. And he drives home and as he's coming up the rise just before you get to the Clark industries establishment on the right hand side of the road, and another car with a family in it is coming the other way and they Sideswipe and that throws Clark's car. Off course he goes across the road, and there's a guardrail there, but there's a gap in the guardrail and he just happens to hit that gap in the guardrail. And it's a 30 foot drop down there. And today, it's all forested. But if you get out of your car, and you look, you can see that's a drop down there. People stopped, they went down to him. And he ended up dying in the arms of a stranger. It was a really a tragic, tragic death. He was 60 years old. He had a really a remarkable career. He was he was a joiner. He was a member of every organization, you know, back slapper. I mean, a hail fellow well met kind of guy, and everybody liked him. I think the funeral was the next Wednesday, the day after election day was held in Dell high at what I think now is the union church up there. And 1500 people pack the funeral. Then his wife Mary and fills out the remainder of his term. Was there a special election or did she just step up and say I'm going to fill the term now there's always a special election for the Congress. Governor if for example, if a senator leaves office for any reason the governor of that state can appoint somebody to fill out his term but the House of Representatives is the people's house, and only elected representatives are allowed to be there. Their republican county chairs got together from shenango Broome, Delaware and sego counties, and they chose Marion Williams Clarke, who was john D. Clark's wife, he had met her at the Colorado School of Mines. He's about five years younger than he so he would have been about 55 years old when she received the nomination to run in a special election, which would have been held probably in February or March of 1934. And filled out the remainder of his term chose not to run for reelection in the November 1934. Race. Since 1934. There has not been a single person from Delaware County, representing the people of a congressional district, including Delaware County, in the Congress. So john D. and Marian were the last and john D. Clarke left one other legacy which is a camp. He certainly did you know, my my two sons and my stepson they all attended camp shank tank. I think particularly many of our Delaware County listeners are either went to camp shank dunk, or had their children attend that camp camp shank and dunk is a forage camp, very affordable. And that was created by john Davenport Clark, who split up his model farm and Model Forest by taking his swimming pool and several 100 acres and forest and fields and turn it over to the four h to create this camp. So it's a real legacy that he's left for, particularly for the people of Delaware County. But I think for for everybody in the Catskills. Anything else that struck you about your research into john D. Clarke, I would just like to point out that, you know, what a impressive historical figure. He was a Roosevelt Republican, a teddy roosevelt Republican, somebody who is really on the cutting edge of the environmental movement. Although the issues that faced the conservation movement, as they called it, then were different than the issues it faces now. I believe that if john D. Clarke were alive now he'd be in the forefront of trying to solve some of the environmental concerns that we have today. And also somebody who was very much of his constituency of the community in a way that you know, I think we all see as valuable. What originally alerted you to this figure to know enough to even research him and write about him. I had heard of him and really, you know, knew about him, except that, you know, we had this congressman who died in a really nasty car crash when the Tri County Historical Review was established. You know, the question came up, what would I want to write? You know, I was kind of immersed in john Burroughs at that point. And I'm kind of fascinated with these local guys who rise to a national reputation and yet remain local. That's one of the things I love about john Burroughs, the naturalist and essay writer is that he became one of the most important writers in America really. I'm just fascinated by the people who are country people. Who are Catskill mountain people who are Delaware County, people who are not urbane but yet are able to become major figures in the larger world. And the research was great, because his papers are at the New York State Historical Society now the Fenimore Museum in Cooperstown and so I was able to go up there and spend days and the librarians would wheel out a cart with five or six boxes and you open up those boxes and it's like, you're entering john D. Clark's world because he saved everything. He also subscribed to a clipping service which today is unnecessary because of the internet but the clipping service was you would hire a company and they would scour the newspapers and every time your name was mentioned in an article, they would clip it out. And then his wife, I believe it was Marian who would then paste those clippings into scrapbooks. So in in Cooperstown, there are 19 boxes, of scrapbooks and all this ephemera, all this stuff. And that really gives one the opportunity to know this guy and to know what he was like and that was that was fascinating. Thank you very much, Bill. Thank you, Brett. I appreciate it. Our thanks to Bill Burns, Catskill mountain, educator, author and thinker. Bill was named by the Catskill center as one of the 50 stewards of the Catskills. Catskill historical views as an audio companion to Catskill Tri County Historical views published by the guilbeau Museum and juried History Center. Subscribe for home delivery at Catskill tri county.org. This series is also supported by the Zadek prep Museum in prattville, New York, and online at Zadek prep. museum.org. Piano rag thanks to Tony corretto thanks to humanity's New York for their financial support. Next time on cats cast, The Nutcracker orfeome dance program and an online performance this year. reserve your spot now at the Catskill mountain foundation. That's Catskill, empty n.org Join us for the backstory in two weeks. Right here on cats cast. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening.
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