Eugene Michalenko: Susan B. Anthony's lesson was perseverance in the face of failure
Editor's note: This is the third piece in a three-part series on women's rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony and the influence Adams and surrounding towns had on her life. The first ran on Jan. 29, and the second ran on Feb. 8.
ADAMS — Susan B. Anthony's oft-quoted line "Failure is impossible" has an ironic ring, since success was never a guaranteed outcome in her family history.
When Quakers put down roots in the Hoosac Valley, they anticipated adequate, if not abundant, crops. The valley, however, is too narrow, the mountains too tall, and the sunshine never plentiful enough to make a farmer prosperous. Within two decades of settling here, a group of 15 families moved on, trading their 100-acre lots in East Hoosuck for 1,000-acre lots in upstate New York. The town where they settled, Farmington, 25 miles southeast of Rochester, is said to have been called after its counterpart in Connecticut, but the name clearly expresses the emigres' intent to make their living by farming.
Those who remained in the Hoosac Valley needed to find a solution to the economic problem it posed. Some grew flax, pressed the seed for oil, and then sold it as a wood and leather preservative to shipping towns along the Hudson River. Flaxseed meal was good feed for livestock, and the fibrous plant could be woven into linen. Other farmers raised sheep for their wool. Local entrepreneurs understood that to keep wool and linen manufacturing nearby required both machines and a source of power to generate them.
A power source was readily available in the valley. Water cascaded off Greylock and the Hoosac mountains. All that was needed was a simple turbine to convert its force into energy. Men like Susan B. Anthony's father, Daniel, her uncle Isaac Hoxie and great-uncle David Anthony risked their futures on industrialized textile production. Daniel and Isaac built a mill, with a 36-foot overshot water wheel, on the Tophet Brook, near Susan's birthplace on East Road. Six farmers' daughters — once a liability but now an asset — worked there, boarding in the attic of the Anthony house. They produced fabric and yarn from raw cotton that had been transported by ox cart over the Taconic Range from a port on the Hudson River. The finished product was returned to Hudson River towns for sale.
In the decade after Susan's birth, the number of textile mills in Adams nearly doubled, increasing from 10 to 19. Adams' industrialization progressed at a steady pace. The success of Daniel's enterprise attracted the attention of a mill owner who recruited him to manage a mill in Battenville, N.Y. The new job drew Daniel, his wife, Lucy, and their children Guelma, Susan, Hannah, and Daniel, out of Adams in 1826.
Startups are financially risky. A spring flood might wash a factory down the river. Creditors were nervous and quick to call in loans. Bankruptcies were common, and their consequences brutal. After Daniel left Adams, Uncle Isaac Hoxie partnered with Uncle David Anthony; their textile business failed in 1834. Executions brought against Isaac demanded that, until the notes were paid, "his body be imprisoned in the gaol at Lenox."
Daniel Anthony did not escape economic difficulties by moving to New York. The Panic of 1837 bankrupted him, and all the family's possessions were sold at auction. Daniel's brother-in-law Joshua Read traveled from Massachusetts to bid on his sister Lucy's cherished family items. The humiliating business failure and the ensuing poverty tested the family's strength. But they endured. Only in his later years was Daniel able to make a comfortable living as an employee of the New York State Life Insurance Co.
Susan B. Anthony, too, was overwhelmed with debt in the wake of a business failure. She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton published The Revolution in New York City between 1868 and 1872. The paper accepted articles expressing a range of opinions concerning the advancement of women's rights. Susan didn't accept lucrative advertisements for patent medicines, because, as she knew, they were laden with alcohol and morphine. Initially, the paper had a financial backer, but he had been imprisoned in England for aiding Irish rebels. Susan borrowed to keep the paper afloat, but the deficit reached $10,000, equal to $212,000 today. Anthony and Stanton had to abandon publication. Susan spent the next six years traveling the lecture circuit to pay off the debt.
Although Susan B. Anthony was acquainted with failure, her approach to life was that failure is only possible if you give up, which was never an option. Fourteen years after her death, the amendment granting women the right to vote was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. She had guided her people toward self-determination, but, like the prophetic leader Moses, she never reached the promised land.
Eugene Michalenko is president of the Adams Historical Society.
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