“You can’t go home again” is an adage based on the title of a Thomas Wolfe book, but with a different meaning from Wolfe’s original intent. The adage suggests we can’t relive our youth, and in a wider sense can’t recapture what once was. If that’s true, I recently came as close as one can by visiting my hometown for a book-related event. The result was a Mayberry-like evening with a roomful of nice people, and a close-up look at the accomplishments of a dedicated historian seeking to preserve our heritage.
I was raised in the northeast corner of New York State in the village of Champlain, representative of small-town America in the 1950s and 60s. The Champlain Literary Club recently asked me to speak about my books and the milestones our business has achieved during ten years in business as of October 2014.
In a sense, of course, you can’t go home, as many of us learn when we visit such places and discover substantial changes—old and familiar buildings gone, businesses closed, large trees replaced by modern plantings, and things like that.
The event was held in one of the old buildings that thankfully remain, a two-story former bank built of solid stone, and now the home of the Samuel de Champlain History Center. The visionary owner is Champlain native Celine Paquette, a highly accomplished woman who purchased the building in 2003 and saw her museum plans through to fruition.
Every small town should have a similar facility, preserving not only the area’s general historical background, but addressing everyday life by featuring movie posters, indoor and outdoor photographs of old businesses, and a range of other items that bring back cherished memories and tug at the heartstrings.
One example of this in the Champlain History Center: projector equipment, rolls of tickets, and photos from the long-defunct Northway Drive-In Theater that was once a main component of social life in the area. The display rekindled so many memories—of families arriving with children dressed in pajamas, of sitting under the stars while watching movies on the giant screen, of gathering at the concession stand to load up with snacks during intermission—just a lot of good-old-fashioned fun.
And the book event itself? Well, in a smaller venue like the old bank building, I had relatively low expectations for the turnout. But just as we often hear the call to support local (as in stores and businesses), people came out. Many were strangers until we met that night, but they were all very kind and great fun to visit with, which I did at length.
There were also some old friends, and a few relatives, too. Melissa Gooley, one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet (and married to my 2nd cousin, Bob) was there with Emma and Logan, two-thirds of her 12-year-old triplets—which means the ages of the attendees spanned about 80 years. Both children were as kind and attentive as anyone else in the room. It’s refreshing and reassuring to know that the future of preserving our history is in such smart and capable hands.
From Plattsburgh, a rainy, 20-mile drive away, came my cousin Geri Favreau, who is deeply involved in area history. With her was a contingent from the Clinton County Historical Association. The travel and weather could have dissuaded them, but I have to say it felt great to see them in the audience.
I presented an image-laden PowerPoint program that seemed to keep everyone wide awake, a sure sign of success. Normally I would address historical topics, and while the program did touch on many history books, the subject was our first decade in business, so there was some risk that it wouldn’t hold everyone’s interest.
In our line of business, we often work for weeks and months in a vacuum, not certain that a particular book or project will succeed. It’s a struggle, but so rewarding when events are successful like the one at Champlain. The community-type gathering that followed for nearly two hours will stay with me for a long time, as will the support offered by all who attended.
I’m certain that respect and warm feelings for the building’s owner were the main reasons for a good turnout. Celine Paquette has been a community leader for decades, aided by a matter-of-fact, get-it-done attitude rooted in the life of a North Country farm girl. In similar fashion to how our business works, she took the risk of working, spending, and planning, in hopes that public support for the museum would materialize, which it has.
If you’re ever up north of Plattsburgh, you’ll find Champlain within a mile of the Canadian border. Check out the museum’s website and perhaps pay them a visit. It’s great what they’re doing to preserve history, and a fine example of what all towns, big and small, should do.
Photos: The Samuel de Champlain History Center; part of the crowd at our event