Susan B. Anthony's home in Washington County, NY, might finally get its due
State vows $700,000 in repairs for moldy house where women's rights advocate once lived
BATTENVILLE, N.Y. — Throughout her childhood, historian Debi Craig remembers driving past Susan B. Anthony's house with her father. And every time, he said the same thing.
"Don't forget Susan B. Anthony lived there. She's part of the reason you can vote," recalled Craig, the immediate past president of the Washington County Historical Society. "He did it my entire childhood and adulthood. It became a joke."
Yet, even as a child, she wondered why the childhood home of one of America's most stalwart leaders in the cause for women's rights wasn't a museum. As Craig watched a series of private owners, separated by long stretches of abandonment, come and go over the years, she became passionate about saving the house that Anthony's father built in 1833.
"I want to see the house preserved so people can come and visit," said Craig, a Greenwich-Easton Historical Association member.
She knows it will be a challenge, as the large brick house where Anthony lived from age 6 to 19 is in a weakened state. The house, backed against a ridge where rain runs off and pools in and around the foundation, has been inundated with water for years.
"There is fungus growing out of the floors and walls," said Craig, a retired Saratoga Springs school music teacher. "There is an issue of black mold. There is a major problem with moisture in the house."
Craig was hopeful when the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation bought the foreclosed property in 2006 at auction for $1. But, since then, the state has done little — until now. Commissioner Erik Kulleseid said the agency is prepared to put $700,000 into the house this year.
"A stabilization will take place," Kulleseid said. "In some ways, it's fortunate timing."
Indeed, it is. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote, Anthony's signature issue. It also is the 200th anniversary of Anthony's birth.
Alane Ball Chinian, the parks agency's Saratoga-Capital District regional director, said the money will go into drainage improvements, roof repairs, mold abatement and work on chimneys, one of which was struck by lightning.
A substantial portion of the money was secured by state Sen. Betty Little ($150,000) and state Assembly member Carrie Woerner ($250,000), who both believe that the house is worth preserving and could be a major attraction in the coming years for rural Washington County.
"I'm happy to see it happening," Little said. "It's a significant building, and we can't let it sit there and get dilapidated. We have to take pride in it."
Woerner agreed, adding that the state talked of razing the home and simply putting up a plaque to mark the spot, something she and Craig resisted.
"It's not going to happen," Woerner said. "We care too much about the history of the home. And if we don't do anything, it will continue to deteriorate."
No easy life
Anthony was born Feb. 20, 1820, in Adams, Mass., and came to Battenville, a hamlet of Greenwich, when her father, Daniel Anthony, was offered a job managing its cotton mill in 1826. The house he built, casting the bricks on-site, was Greek Revival style and, conveniently for him, overlooked the mill on the Battenkill River.
In addition to housing his wife, Lucy, their six children and his in-laws, the Reads, Daniel Anthony's home also added and opened a school inside the house for his children and those of workers from the mill to attend. He opened the school after he learned that the teacher across the river in the one-room schoolhouse in Jackson would not instruct his daughter in long division.
"The teacher told her she needed to learn needlework," Craig said. "Susan told her teacher she was cold, stood by the stove and listened to the lesson. She learned long division."
Things were going well for the family until the Panic of 1837, a nationwide financial crisis that saw sharp drops in prices, including for cotton. Anthony's father wrote to his brother at the time, "my goods at present will not sell at the actual cost of manufacturing."
"They lost everything they owned," Craig said. "He lost his job at the mill. They lost their house. They sold the sugar out of their pantry, their eyeglasses, their underwear, everything personal had to go."
They moved 2 miles down the road, to a former inn and tavern in what was then known as Hardscrabble, which Daniel Anthony soon renamed Center Falls, as the former name was unseemly, Craig said. There, he tried managing another mill and starting a lumber and logging business, both of which were unsuccessful. Defeated, the family moved to Rochester in 1845.
Chinian said that part of the problem with the history of Susan B. Anthony in Greenwich, aside from the house, is "there is no material culture," he said, referring to objects from the home. Even their Center Falls home has been demolished.
But, she added, the Anthonys having to sell everything "is an interesting part of the story. It made her who she was."
So, too, said Craig, was the influence of her father, a Quaker. When he managed the mill, he would not buy cotton from the South. The Greenwich Journal also noted that her father formed a temperance (anti-alcohol) society in Battenville, composed mainly of his employees.
Not surprisingly, some of Anthony's first organizing efforts centered on temperance and abolition.
Anthony, who started teaching at age 17, might, too, have been frustrated by her salary. When she taught at Reid's Corner, now North Greenwich, she was paid $1.50 a week. Her predecessor, a man, had been paid $10 a week.
She also taught in Easton, Fort Edward and Cambridge, earning $2 to $2.50 per week with board, the Greenwich Journal reported.
Despite the family relocation, Anthony returned to Washington County often, both to visit two of her sisters who married local men (one of whom Anthony reportedly was in love with) and to speak at the area's political equality clubs.
Historian Ted Corbett wrote in the book "A Home in the Battenville Valley" that she spoke at the Congregational Church in Greenwich in 1854. That same year, she organized the first women's rights convention in Saratoga Springs, a practice she repeated in 1855 and 1856. Over the holiday season of 1874 to 1875, she spoke in Granville and Center Falls.
In 1894, Anthony, along with her friend Mary Hubbard, hosted a suffrage convention at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge. Craig also said she lectured at suffrage rallies at Burton Hall in Easton.
Corbett wrote that she continued to visit frequently, with her last visit being in 1905, at age 85. At that stay, she oversaw the placement of a monument to her grandfather, Daniel Read, in the Battenville Cemetery. She died a year later.
Though the stone is encrusted with moss and hard to read, the monument remains standing among the gravestones of many members of Anthony's extended family.
Battenville a 'crucible'
Parks Commissioner Kulleseid said that it's clear that Anthony's Battenville years were formative.
"As a kid, she learned things about the world that she carried out to Rochester," Kulleseid said. "It's the crucible for where all this is coming from."
Historians, parks officials and state politicians all acknowledge that the Anthony home poses challenges as a state historic site that go beyond the drainage. For one thing, the house sits on a dangerous curve on Route 29. For another, it has little land.
"I don't know if it would ever work as a museum because of the location," Craig said. "Parking would be difficult. There is only room for three or four cars. When we did tours of the house, people parked across the street and we hired a crossing guard."
Kulleseid said he would like to find a nonprofit to move and manage the site "so that people in the region can benefit from the exposure to this leading figure" in the women's suffrage movement. He also expects to be able to announce more good news for the house this spring.
Woerner is pressing for a resident curator who would simultaneously live there and restore the house. She imagines a 40-year lease, with the state eventually getting the house back. She said resident curator programs have worked in other states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and Virginia.
"I think it would work well," Woerner said. "It would have to be a special category of people — someone who loved old houses and would spend the time finding just the right wood or other materials to restore the house."
Craig thinks the region is ideal for an international research center or library on women's rights, which would attract smaller groups of scholars as opposed to larger groups of tourists.
She also is thinking beyond Greenwich and wants to create a Susan B. Anthony trail, starting in Adams, with stops in Battenville, Center Falls and Johnstown, where Anthony's good friend and associate Elizabeth Cady Stanton lived.
The trail also would hit Canajoharie, where she taught; Seneca Falls, where the women's movement was born; and end in Rochester, at the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House.
"You could make an entire week's vacation in New York state with stops in towns like Greenwich, which have a great history," Craig said. "That's what I'd like to see, even if the house doesn't become a museum."
Craig also has applied for a William G. Pomeroy Foundation grant for a historic cast-iron sign. Right now, the home simply is marked by a sign its neighbors put up. Her main concern, though, is preventing further decline.
"I don't care what happens to the house, as long as it's saved," she said.
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