The Darwin Exception

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The History of Malone: The Potash Years 1805-1812

Posted by thedarwinexception on March 4, 2007

So is Malone a dying town? Will there one day be no residents left, as older inhabitants die off and young people continually move away seeking better opportunities and areas more prepared to offer them a brighter financial future? How did an area so naturally beautiful and ripe with potential become such a decrepit and run down area, with such a bleak outlook for those seeking employment? Was it always this way? Did the influx of the prisons cause the downward spiral, or simply make an already bad situation worse? Did the railroad leaving the area begin the cycle, or was it already on its downward course long before then, and was the railroad departure an indicator of bad times ahead? Is there any way to swing the pendulum back to one of economic promise, or is the course set?

If I am going to be a resident of this area, I need to know the answers to all of these questions. And one way to discover the answers is to look at the past, and see where Malone has come from, and maybe plot the downfall of the area, looking to see if there is any hope of it ever becoming the “Star of the North” again, as it was once called.

Malone was once a bustling town, it’s Main Street filled with shops and merchants. Why now do we have boarded up empty buildings, run down roads and bridges and people filled with malaise and a sense of entitlement? These are not the hardy pioneers that settled the area, so how did they become so hopeless and shiftless?

The Town of Malone was officially erected in 1805 and its first town meeting was held in that year at the home of Jonathan Hapgood, which stood on land still owned by descendents on the Malone-Constable Town Line Road. At the time the first settlers arrived, the Malone area was a part of the Town of Chateaugay, which had been created in 1799. The first settlers were believed to be Mr. Hapgood himself, along with his relative Christopher “Kit” Austin, from Milton, Vermont.

These original settlers were described as poor in worldly goods for the most part, but strong in courage and staunch in their faith in God, When the first regular religious services were held at the home of John Mazuzam in the vicinity of the Rockland and West Main Street corner, the dwelling could not accommodate the large attendance and the families went outdoors where the services were conducted against a forest backdrop.

In the early years, most of the homes of the original pioneers in the area were made of logs. Some contained a single room with a plank floor, heated by a chimneyless fireplace at one end from which the smoke found its way out through an opening in the rough hewn roof.

An early resident, who years ago recalled the pioneer days said:

“Though our community was composed almost wholly of poor people – many of them young and just married – a common spirit of helpfulness seemed to pervade all hearts. If one lost a cow, his neighbors contributed to help him buy another. If one were sick, we watched with him and took care of him. If he were unable to put in his crops, his friends put them in for him. If a road needed repairing, a bee was made to do it, or a subscription was raised to have it done.”

But did they have industry? Was there work for those who needed it, and industry or export to support the townspeople? The answer is yes. With the natural resources available to the early settlers, they found a way to exploit these resources and build a crude industry – the making of vegetable potash. This was a laborious process in which the trees were felled and burned, the resulting ashes leached, and the lye boiled down in pots. The product found its way to European markets through Fort Covington, then known as French Mills and down the St. Lawrence River.

It was really a by product of the land clearing and it brought to the wilderness community the little currency it knew in its early days. A ton of potash brought prices fluctuating between $60 and $100 per ton in those years. About 180 cords of wood were needed to produce a ton of the product.

Until the rough farms hacked out of the forest were smoothed by cultivation, oxen were used almost exclusively to till the soil. The clothes of the pioneers were made, for the most part, from cloth spun from flax  grown on their farms. Corn and wheat were ground at crude  grist mills. One of these, started by John Wood and Completed by Hiram Horton, still stands in the middle of downtown, now a historic building recognized by the State of New York in 1975,  and now the subject of a restoration project initiated by the Franklin Historical Society.

Iron ore was dug from a shallow mine plant about three miles west of the village and one of the town’s early industries was an iron works in what is now the Lower Park Street area, then known as “Whiskey Hollow” because of the presence there of a distillery.

A tannery was established in 1807 to convert hides into leather.

The community was virtually self sustaining, being it was almost completely cut off from the rest of the world, and the townspeople found themselves with almost no money. Community spirit and cooperation were borne during these times, with buildings being erected through “bees” which doubled as social gatherings, and labor and what implements that might be owned were shared.

And things went along this way quite nicely until the war of 1812 came and disrupted the peaceful lives of our stalwart little community.


3 Responses to “The History of Malone: The Potash Years 1805-1812”

  1. Charlie Pearce said

    And I thought all bees were good for was making honey…

  2. Marc Gendron said

    Please give us more on the history of Malone, NY, my birthplace. This is inredible.Marc

  3. Julianne Horton said

    I am releted to Hiram Horton…any other information about him and his brother Harry Horton in Malone history?

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