Lyon Mountain is mourning the loss of an important community member, one who also meant very much personally to me and my wife, Jill Jones. Rita Kwetcian, 85, passed away late last Thursday. Recently, when caring for her home became too difficult, she moved to 260 Lake Street: A Senior Resort Community in Rouses Point. Otherwise, her entire life was spent in Lyon Mountain, which happens to be the subject of my first book published through our new company twelve years ago.
Back in 1980, I had interviewed more than a dozen Lyon Mountain residents, most of them former iron miners, including Rita’s father, Al Pageau. The plan was to cover the village’s history, specifically the century-long period (roughly 1867 to 1967) when Lyon Mountain’s mines supplied America with the highest-grade iron ore in the world. Iron production was key to all war efforts during that period, and Lyon Mountain’s iron also produced high-quality steel that was used in the cables supporting many of the country’s suspension bridges, including the George Washington Bridge in New York City and the Golden Gate in California. Those and other remarkable facts, combined with the tough life in an iron town, the frequent accidents and deaths underground, and the many immigrant factions in the village made for an excellent story.
For several reasons, I wasn’t able to publish that book until late 2004, after first spending nearly a year collecting more information and pertinent photos. Among my first contacts was Rita Kwetcian, who kindly agreed to help—which laid the groundwork for a memorable moment. We had set up a meeting, but I recalled it as a less than firm commitment, which I soon learned was a mistake. While working at my desk, I answered a phone call with the usual “Hello.” A woman’s voice asked, “Where are you?” It struck me as a rather odd question, since she had called me. But it was Rita, so I politely replied, “At home.” Her response: “And where are you supposed to be?” Seldom had I ever heard someone convey so much while using just ten words—and her accentuation of the word “supposed” was priceless. It was like a mother correcting a child, and I certainly deserved it.
After my apology, we made a firm appointment, and I have to admit, I absolutely loved her sort of smart-alecky response (“And where are you supposed to be?”), how succinct and direct it was. Jill and I both thought it was hilarious how she had handled me so easily before we ever met in person. It was the beginning of a very special relationship. She was forthright, candid, and practical, all of which we admired, and one of the nicest people we’ve ever met. Over the course of several visits, Rita shared a huge collection of historical photographs with us and talked at length about Pete, her late husband, who had died a few years earlier. That she missed him dearly was evident in the fact that his name came up in virtually every conversation we had over the next 13 years.
Our company’s first book was Lyon Mountain: The Tragedy of a Mining Town. I had trepidations about being a village outsider who had written their history, but when Rita gave the book her seal of approval, we knew we’d be fine. We took 60-plus pre-orders shortly before the book’s release, and when copies arrived, Rita offered her porch as the pickup point, leading to one of the very best days of my entire life.
Her house was situated near the end of a short dead-end street (Pete’s Street, named after her husband). We were novices in the book business and didn’t know what to expect, but what a day it was. For hours, cars lined the street and people strolled up to visit with us and everyone else, and to buy books. As a bonus for me, my oldest son happened to be visiting at the time, so he witnessed everything on that memorable day.
My concerns about acceptance by Lyon Mountain folks were unfounded. Instead it was like a visit to Mayberry, with everyone gathering around for a good time. And it was all thanks to Rita, something we reminded her of more than once since then. It also launched us into the world of books, and we’re still at it more than a decade later.
Her kindness and interest in preserving history were not only important to our business success, but to the entire community. Through dedication and hard work, she and other volunteers formed the Friends of Lyon Mountain, which in turn founded the Lyon Mountain Mining & Railroad Museum. They chose a location, applied for grants, refurbished the building, repeatedly held fundraisers, created exhibits, and continue to operate the facility today.
The museum was very important to Rita right up to her final days. Nearly every year at her request, we appear on opening weekend, which is usually Museum Days Weekend, when Clinton County offers free admission to a wide selection of museums (16 of them in 2015). If you haven’t visited Lyon Mountain’s museum, it’s definitely worth it. There’s no guilt here for promoting it while addressing the passing of a great friend. Rita was such a giving, generous person, and so involved in the museum, she’d be happy if commentary about her life helped bring visitors to her beloved home village.
We met with Rita countless times, often at her home, and regularly at a nursing home in Plattsburgh where she made weekly visits to a relative. But the unusual habit that developed between us was phone calls that somehow became marathon sessions, often lasting well over an hour. They usually began with “a quick question,” but in time I learned that when Rita’s number showed up on the caller ID, just grab a bottle of water and get comfortable. Her knowledge, insight, and memory were amazing. She’d cover local stories and national news, but mostly talked about folks around town or people she knew, digressing to their relatives and all sorts of connections, sometimes dating back for decades. Even when I didn’t actually know the people involved, it was always fascinating. I seldom use the phone unless it’s necessary (email for business stuff allows much more flexibility when you’re busy), but Rita was the one rock-solid exception. I’ll surely miss those calls.
Lyon Mountain has no village government, but many of us who receive queries about the area’s genealogy or history routinely referred people to Rita, the unofficial village historian because she knew so much and was always willing to help. Most communities have leaders like Rita who are important to many folks. While they’re still around, let them know you appreciate them. We’re sure glad we did with Rita. We loved her and we’ll miss her, as will so many others in Lyon Mountain village.
Photos: Lyon Mountain Mining & Railroad Museum, part of Rita Kwetcian’s legacy; sign on museum