From Here &  Back Again

By James Coufal

(Cazenovia, NY) I suspect most of us have complained about New York. We decry high taxes, a business unfriendly environment and a dysfunctional legislature. We also bitch about snow and cold, but after last year and Sandy, who knows what to expect? Then we mention the joy of four seasons, colorful autumns, minimal tornadoes hurricanes and earthquakes, great water, productive farms. So, it’s a mixed bag.

One thing we have is a rich, rich, rich history, and I think an often-unappreciated history. My intent here is to offer a few thoughts on Central New York history and some of the very colorful and important characters of our past, especially one.

Most of us, I think, are aware of Peterboro and the Underground Railroad so prominent across Central New York. Gerrit Smith and the Museum at Peterborough receive a lot of deserved attention. The marker nearby makes the plaque No. 5 of the Madison County history trail.

I think less are aware of the monument at 7 Sullivan St., almost “downtown” Cazenovia, marking the spot of the 1850 Cazenovia Fugitive Slave Law Convention, where Smith, Frederick Douglas and other prominent abolitionists gathered in one of the first such events in the country. The estimate is that it drew 2,000 people, including about 50 fugitive slaves.

The Lincklaen House plays a major role in educational and social activities in the Cazenovia area, like the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum does in the Chittenango area, and they are available for touring. I suspect fewer know about the Matilda Jocelyn Gage House in Fayetteville.

Sally Roesch Wagner, director of the Matilda Jocelyn Gage Foundation just won the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums highest award in recognition of the outstanding programs at the young museum. Gage deserves a much closer look; she has been called the “woman ahead of the women who were ahead of their time.”

A further tidbit is that she was the mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum, author of the “Wizard of Oz.”

The St. Marie Among the Iroquois site is near Onondaga Lake, and will soon be renamed and have additional educational features added. The Iroquois Confederacy played a large part in the Revolutionary Era of which Central New York was so prominent.

A little farther away is the home site of lesser-known Robert Green Ingersoll. He was another of the radicals – abolitionists, suffragettes, temperance proponents, freethinkers, socialists and even anarchists – of the late 1800s and early 1900s who came from Central New York. Ingersoll has been called “the premier orator and political speechmaker of post-Civil War America,” that being the time before Facebook and Twitter, blogs, radio, television and movies, when Americans gathered in theaters, museums, schools, outdoor stages, on the steps of city hall and in tents for education and entertainment.

Although Ingersoll was known as “The Great Agnostic,” he spoke on topics from reconstruction to Shakespeare but most especially on religion, humanism and free thought, which obviously created great controversy. He became known for pithy epigrams, one of his most famous being, “An honest god is the noblest work of man.”

Although he followed the conventions of his time in talking about “man,” he was for women’s rights and all human rights.

More than a great orator, Ingersoll was a hero of the Civil War, a nationally prominent attorney, a friend of great people such as Whitman, Edison, Carnegie and Margaret Sanger. Perhaps Ingersoll’s philosophy is captured by his statement that, “The time to be happy is now; the place to be happy is here; the way to be happy is to make others so.”

Being a bit of a radical myself, nowhere near the level of Ingersoll, I’ll share here two of my favorite thoughts from him.

First: “Everybody talks about the Bible and nobody reads it; that is the reason it is so generally believed.”

Research indicates that, even today, very few people read the Bible with any thoroughness.

Second: “I love liberty and I hate all persecutions in the name of God.”

While his words ring true, we haven’t learned much from them.

It’s worth noting that our local papers have history features in almost every issue. A quick and easy way to learn something about the place we call home.

Jim Coufal of Cazenovia is a part-time philosopher and full-time observer of global trends. He can be reached at

By martha

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