History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

by Edwin N. Cotter, Jr.

Edwin N. Cotter Jr. was the director of the John Brown Farm Historic Site from the 1960s until the onset of the 21st century.  “Mr. Cotter,” as I always referred to him, was a devoted John Brown enthusiast and the leading authority on John Brown’s Adirondack story and the black settlements in Essex and Franklin Counties.  Although he was not a scholar, Mr. Cotter was a tireless researcher and a kind supporter of others doing work on the John Brown theme, including this blogger.  In his home, Mr. Cotter kept a room exclusively for his John Brown collection which he fondly called “John’s Room.”  He died in 2001 and his collection is now archived in the library of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He wrote the following article in the early 1980s.--LD

Edwin N. Cotter Jr.  (Photo by
L. DeCaro Jr., 2000)
On July 30, 1981, the John Brown Memorial Association held their annual pilgrimage to the John Brown Farm in North Elba (Lake Placid), N.Y., culminating fifty-nine years of honoring the abolitionist, John Brown, who in 1859 gave his life so others might be free.

The John Brown Memorial Association's roots go back to 1922 and to Dr. Jesse Max Barber,  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Barber was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  In 1922, Barber and Dr. Thomas Spotuas Burwell were sent by the NAACP, in representation of all African Americans, to the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid to lay a wreath on John Brown's grave on May 9, his birthday.

These two pilgrims were welcomed at the train by a committee of the Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce and were informed that the local school had been cancelled so that the children could be at the ceremonies. The local newspapers carried the story of the first of many years of pilgrimages to the John Brown Farm.

Barber quickly saw the significance in the ceremony, and the following year he formed a pilgrimage committee, and thus was born the nucleus of the John Brown Memorial Association with Barber serving as first president.  The first chapter of the association was appropriately from Philadelphia and named for Shields Green, the black warrior and escaped slave who was executed for his part in John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859.  Shortly others, especially the Frederick Douglass chapter of New York City, and the George Washington Carver chapter of Brooklyn, N.Y, joined this group.

In the early years, the pilgrims travelled to Lake Placid by automobile—the Philadelphia group joining the others in Saratoga, New York. In these years, the automobile trip from Philadelphia took two full days.

One of the first objectives of the association was to collect funds for a suitable monument to John Brown, and by the late 1920s, that dream was well on its way to realization. The Great Depression slowed, but did not stop, the momentum of the association and their dedication towards their goal.

In the early years of the pilgrimages, schools in Lake Placid closed on May 9; school children would march out to the John Brown farm, the school band would play, services were held, and a wreath laid on the gravesites of Brown and his men.  In the evening there would be speeches in the Community Church and musical recitals in the town hall.  During these years too, many nationally known figures spoke at these meetings, among these being Clarence Darrow and Oswald Garrison Villard.

During the hardest years of the Depression, the association never lost sight of their dream to erect a monument to John Brown, and $5000 was collected in culmination of their dream in 1934. The noted sculptor, Joseph P. Pollia, of New York City, ultimately was commissioned to design a bronze memorial in memory of the abolitionist.  Pollia's model, showing John Brown with his arm around a black youth, was immediately accepted and plans were started for a suitable location at the farm.  Permission to erect the statue was given by New York State and the Civilian Conservation Corps started work on the location.

On May 9, 1935, John Brown's 135th birthday, the Association's dream was realized when the 8-foot-high bronze statue was unveiled by Lyman Eppes, an aged African American who not only knew John Brown in his youth, but was the lone survivor of the free black community that had formed in Essex County in the 1840s.  This was a poignant moment since Eppes’ father and mother were close friends with the Brown family; the Eppes family also sang at his funeral on December 8, 1859. Over 2000 people attended the dedication ceremony in 1935.  The Lake Placid school band provided the music and the Lincoln University Quartet also performed.  Following Barber’s dedication address, Alexander C. Flick, a New York State historian, gave the main address.

The Association continued to collect funds for projects at the farm. In 1941, they placed a bronze and glass enclosure over the gravestone of John Brown. This protected it from the elements and the ever-present souvenir hunter, who in previous years had chipped pieces from it.  Plans were started for a plaque honoring the women of the John Brown family, but the shortage of bronze during World War II curtailed this project.

Even during the war years, when travel was restricted, pilgrimages to the John Brown farm slowed but never stopped; members came by train from Philadelphia and New York City to meet at the farm with the Lake Placid group.  On July 4, 1946, the plaque honoring the Brown women was finally unveiled at the gravesite culminating a quarter-century of effort dedicated to the memory of John Brown, his family, and his followers.  Shortly after this achievement, Barber resigned as president of the association, marking the end of an era.  

The work of the Association continued with a new president and members, and during this period the name of the Lake Placid chapter was renamed after Harry Wade Hicks, a local white resident who had given himself unselfishly to advance the Association's goals over the decades. Throughout the later years of the Association its emphasis was increasingly focused upon educating young people.  A scholarship fund was set up to help deserving students, white and black, and scores of young people were assisted in this manner.

By the early 1980s there were over 500 members in four chapters: the founding Shields Green chapter of Philadelphia, the Frederick Douglass chapter of New York City, the George Washington Carver chapter of Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Harry Wade Hicks chapter of Lake Placid, N.Y.

On July 30, 1981, the Association gathered once again at the grave of John Brown, and led by their national president, Frances B. Bryant, the Adirondack Mountains echoed as their voices sang, "God Bless America" and "John Brown's Body." Although more than a half-century had passed since J. Max Barber and T. Spotuas Burwell had placed a wreath on the grave of the abolitionist, the Association's enthusiasm had not diminished, nor had their dedication to John Brown declined.

Edwin N. Cotter, Jr., ca. 1981
The John Brown Memorial Association has since disbanded, bringing an end to its annual pilgrimages and programs at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid.  With recent budget cuts by the state, even the general accessibility of this precious site has been threatened. 

Perhaps it is time to revive the John Brown Memorial Association!

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