State history group honors Carol Fagnan
ROCHESTER--Carol and Bill Fagnan, residents of Alpine, recently went to Rochester for dinner. After dinner, New York State Historian Devin Lander awarded Carol Fagnan the prestigious Franklin Delano Roosevelt Local Government Historian's Professional Achievement award. The longtime historian for the town of Catharine, who is also known to many as a world-class quiltmaker, Fagnan has lived in the same house in Alpine since moving into the area in the mid- 1960s, when she began teaching in the Watkins Glen School district. And she's always taken a lively interest in the area around her.
People talk to Fagnan. Her interest was sparked when as a young teacher, new to the area, helpful neighbors shared their scrapbooks of clippings detailing town happenings through the years. They shared some of the ordinary stuff of history, like the information that the farm across the road from hers had once been a thriving hops farm; and where the industrial sites had been, like the area's former saw mill. They remembered forgotten apple orchards and old gossip and tragedies. Fortunately, she was a good person to confide in. "Discretion is part of the job description," she says now. "I found out some things the family members don't know! So my lips are sealed."
She was appointed town of Catharine Historian in May, 1989. And because people trusted her, they gave her scrapbooks and genealogies and old photographs--so many they had to be moved out of her house to the town hall. She organized family histories alphabetically, photos and town history by roads, and she's been able to use those to help others. "Through my genealogy work, I was able to sometimes connect families who didn't know they were related," she says. "That was really something very exciting, and having people come out to see where their families lived, and visit grave sites--that's part of the satisfaction."
The story of a town is a larger history shown through the lens of those people who live it every day. When Fagnan first moved to Alpine, many of her neighbors were small farmers, raising crops and dairy herds on what would now be considered modest acreage. Some of her neighbors had formerly lived on--and had been forced to leave--what is now the Connecticut Hill wildlife management area. "One of the things I'm very happy I did was to contact people who had lived on Connecticut Hill," she says now. "That was quite a story. Quite a number relocated to Catharine. I went and interviewed a lot of people." She wrote down these oral histories, then checked them for accuracy with her interviewees.
This partly resulted in her history of the town of Catharine, published in 2003. An earlier book written by Mary Louise Catlin Cleaver and published in 1945 was a partial history of the town, but by the time Fagnan wrote her "Town of Catharine History" much had changed. Fagnan included 22 maps in her history, and was able to explain who lived in each of the houses located on the maps in the different years those maps were published. "And I try to tell something about the families [who lived there]. Some people I interviewed knew these people and knew about their ancestors and could make a lot of good connections."
Fagnan traces her own love of history to early in her life, when her own fifth grade teacher read aloud from the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Those personal accounts, combined with some well-written textbooks, brought those earlier times alive. When she became a teacher, Fagnan continued the practice, reading to her classes from those same books.
Last year she stretched her historical and writing skills in an entirely different direction. She'd held a memorable summer job during college vacations and beyond working as a "pillow-puncher"--a chambermaid--for a former resort called Karamac in the Delaware Water Gap. Employees were expected to work hard, she says, but once the workday was over, the workers enjoyed the same privileges at the resort's guests. For 50 years, she and some of her fellow workers remained in touch, sharing stories about their time at the resort, commenting that "this stuff should be written down." Eight of them penned their memories, which were collected into a booklet published and presented in a book signing in Belvedere, New Jersey.