The World War I veteran, his eyesight clouded due to being gassed in 1918 in the Verdon sector, took a pen decades later, and while looking upon his treasure trove of historical documents, carefully began to print letters to form his words, as if he knew cursive would one day go out of style and future generations may be unable to decipher what he had to say:
“I have several cartons that were stored in my father’s barn for 50 years or more — all are of war veterans … I could see these envelopes and old papers and records might be of value to someone. So I got new cartons and I was over two years sorting them out and putting in A to Z order … I sorted them in 1954,55-56 … They contain thousands of envelopes and old papers of veterans of 1812, 1814, Mexican wars, Civil War, Spanish war — books with the records of every man in the service.”
“Be of value to someone” would prove to be a vast understatement when those cartons, devotedly saved in a barn and later an attic, found their way to the Jefferson County Historical Society last month.
“There are no words,” said Historical Society Executive Director Toni Engleman. “It’s just amazing.”
The meat of the donation is about 20 boxes of letters from Civil War veterans who sought pensions or increases to their pensions relating to their service in putting down the rebellion. Engleman estimates there’s about 3,000 of those letters.
The collection also includes war relics such as gas masks, uniforms and things yet discovered. The donation is so vast that Engleman and society volunteers haven’t had time to go through everything.
The staff has been focusing on the reopening of the society after a 3 1/2 -year hiatus. That reopening happened Aug. 5 when about 100 guests arrived at the Paddock Mansion, 228 Washington St., to take in its renovations and fresh exhibits.
Among the new displays, only one of the donated Civil War-related envelopes is displayed. The rest of the donation is shelved in the boxes they arrived in. Some of the envelopes have up to a dozen papers inside. It’s all so tempting for Engleman and others at the society to suspend usual operations and to spend hours going through it all.
“We’ve been trying to concentrate on the opening,” Engleman said. “Every time we walk by it’s like, ‘Don’t look that way!’ We’re leaving it alone for now because we have to come up with a game plan.”
A ‘ZEALOUS’ ADVOCATE
The roots of the 3,000 letters in the collection go back to Watertown “prominent citizen” James A. Dolan. When he died in July 1903 at the age of 65, his obituary in the Watertown Daily Times had this subhead: “One of the Best Known Civil War Veterans in Northern New York — A Strong, Manly Nature.”
When the Civil War began in 1861, he went to Adams and enlisted in Co. G of the 35th New York Volunteer Infantry, in which he was made sergeant and later, quartermaster sergeant. He would then reenlist in Co. H, 13th New York Heavy Artillery. Later, he worked as an aide on the staff of Gen. Winfield S. Hancock. Dolan served until the close of the war in 1865.
He had a menagerie of careers. At 10, he learned stone masonry in Sackets Harbor. After being mustered out of the service, he was associated with Asa Lyons, a prominent Adams contractor who built lighthouses from New York to Florida.
Dolan later graduated from a business school in Poughkeepsie. He then began studies in New York City to become a physician. But an incident from his youth got in the way. At age 8, he was kicked in the head by a horse. “A farmhand sewed up the wound with a needle and thread, but did not extract the fragments of bone,” his obituary reads. The wound would bother Dolan all his life and would affect his eyesight, which caused him to drop medical studies.
Dolan then came to Watertown to work in the pension office of Edgar North. Dolan continued the business after North retired. When Dolan’s wife, Mary Rasay Dolan died in 1935, he was described as a Civil War veteran and “pension attorney in the Paddock Arcade.”
“Many veterans and their families throughout Northern New York owe it to his work that the country they served has recognized their service and their needs,” his obituary reads. “He was zealous and warmly sympathetic in his work, throwing his whole soul into it, as he did into everything that he found worthy of his effort.”
The results of much of that effort is now at the Paddock Mansion, home of the historical society. Dolan was apparently an intermediary — linking Civil War veterans and the commissioner of pensions at the Department of Interior in Washington, D.C.
“He gathered evidence for the cases is what I’m assuming,” Engleman said.
The envelopes not only contain letters from the Civil War veterans, but also affidavits from acquaintances of those veterans, highlighting everything from applicants’ character to medical conditions.
Engleman was asked to pull one of the letters out randomly and share it. Inside, there were five sheets of paper.
“On this 28th day of May, 1910, I did make a careful examination of the above applicant, Jacob H. Wilson,” Watertown physician O.O. Stowell began.
The applicant was Jacob H. Wilson of Brier Hill. He was shot in the head during the Civil War and had sought at least two increases to his pension. His envelope even contains a document from the Department of Interior, noting his “invalid pension” (No. 300661) was pending, but Wilson must “report himself for examination” to a doctor in Potsdam “upon any Wednesday within three months from the date hereof” — Jan. 12, 1883.
Wilson apparently did get that pension, but he later wrote letters seeking an increase to it. In December 1898, he wrote to Dolan: “Dear sir: I received a notice of rejection of any claim for an increase. Now I have made up my mind to appeal it. What is your advice as to an appeal? I am satisfied that I am entitled to a higher rate. Please let me know by return mail.”
The official document from the Department of the Interior, dated Nov. 26, 1898, that denied the increase is included in the envelope: “You are informed that the above-titled claim for increase of pension under the general law is rejected on the ground that the rate of pension, $20 per month, is fully commensurate with the degree of disability from pensioned cause.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator goes back to 1913. At that time, $20 was worth $624 in today’s dollars.
Wilson wrote again to Dolan in February 1903: “I have come to the conclusion to apply for an increase of pension and think I will come to Watertown and see if you are in the business yet … I know I am entitled to more than I am receiving.”
Wilson once again tried for an increase in 1910, which involved the examination by Dr. Stowell, who wrote in his typed affidavit:
“I find him suffering from the following diseased conditions: gunshot wound of head, right side, causing entire loss of hearing to right ear and affecting left ear very gradually until total deafness is eminent and only a matter of short time. Right eye is likewise effected very much and at times continuing for several hours … rheumatism general in character … a cardiac irregularity and valvular insufficiency.”
The doctor concluded, “The above diseased conditions are progressive and incurable, and by reason of them, independent of any disability he may have, he is totally unable to perform any kind of manual labor.”
The envelope contains no correspondence dated after the doctor’s letter.
‘SNAPSHOTS’ OF HISTORY
Other pension-related letters include ailments ranging from heart disease to epilepsy contracted in the service.
Engleman said the letters are “snapshots” of lives. “You know what his character was, like where one neighbor says, ‘He was a well-robust man and was very good for helping us.’ Some of these tell such good stories, especially when you look through them and there’s an affidavit from neighbors.”
But not all of these neighborly affidavits reflected positive characteristics.
“One lady wrote, ‘No! He hurt his back way before the Civil War,'” Engleman said. “So it kind of gives you like the character of the person too, because this guy is trying to claim that he hurt his back in the war, but then you have the neighbor chime in, ‘He’s been hurt for a long time.'”
The collection, Engleman said, is invaluable to historians and genealogists.
“For historians, it gives a snapshot of these peoples’ lives and what they were going through after the war,” she said. “For genealogists, some of these are affidavits from families, which tells who their mothers and fathers were. They did a lot of work just to get one pension.”
The letters were donated in cardboard boxes and alphabetized, with letters inscribed on the boxes. The World War I veteran who alphabetized the collection also, on several sheets of paper, wrote out a register of what names were in the lettered boxes. “He actually did a lot of work for us, which is pretty amazing,” Engleman said.
The museum director is still discovering treasures in the collection. Last week, during an interview with the Times, she noticed a collection of letters in a paper bag. They weren’t letters involving soldiers. They were letters from widows seeking pensions or pension increases. “I just need to resign my post and live here,” Engleman joked.
But as amazing as the collection is, how it was saved is also an amazing tale.
A GREAT SAVE
The person who assembled and organized the donated collection, World War 1 veteran Raymond C. Montrois, died at the age of 82 in Watertown in 1978. He served with Company M of the 23rd Infantry, part of the famed Second Division. He was wounded twice and gassed.
After the war, he was a U.S. postal carrier, a career he retired from. In his letter in which he explained the background of the collection, he wrote:
“These cartons were all broken and scattered in my father’s barn. My mother died while I was in France and my father married again and his second wife after his death, asked me to come over and clean out the barn and burn all the old papers and other junk.”
Montrois was the son of Peter B. and Alice Montrois. Alice died in 1918. Peter married Mary Kelso in 1920.
Peter, a native of Quebec, was a painting contractor in Watertown. He died in 1941 at the age of 79.
His obituary gives no indication of how he came about owning the collection, saved by his son, Raymond, and donated by his grandson, Edward C. Montrois, of Sandy Creek Valley Road, town of Watertown.
“All of this stuff was in his father’s big barn on Water Street,” Montrois, 92, said, explaining his father’s involvement. “The government had paid his father (Peter, father of Ray) five dollars a month to protect this stuff and keep it. The government decided it wasn’t worth keeping, so they stopped paying his father.”
Montrois said that his father had a house built in 1929 at 721 Lansing St.
“He took all of this stuff and put it in half of the attic,” Montrois said. “It was floored in and it was insulated. He would work at the post office, come home and go up in that attic. He was putting this stuff in alphabetical order. He was a fanatic on things being perfect. He just kept at it.”
Montrois served in the 17th Airborne Division and the 808th Military Police Company during the Korean War. “When I got out, my dad said, ‘I want you to take care of all this stuff when I die.'”
Montrois was employed by Jefferson County as a maintenance foreman from 1953 to 1957 and then by the Watertown Fire Department until 1986, when he retired as captain. When Montrois and his wife, Jane, who died in 2010, moved to different places, the collection moved with them. The last time they were moved by the couple was when they lived outside of Clayton.
“I told my wife at the time, ‘I know they’re valuable, but I can’t move them again,'” Montrois said. “So when I built this house on Sandy Creek Valley Road, I built a four-stall garage and I had a ladder going up to the attic. I carried all the boxes up there and covered everything.”
Montrois said his Syracuse-based lawyer had recommended he begin thinking about “unloading all these artifacts.” He began thinking of avenues that would allow that.
“I have a friend that’s a retired master sergeant from the Air Force,” Montrois said. “He’s very, very smart. He said, ‘Ed, the best thing to do is to find somebody who will take them.’ One day I was in the garage and I got thinking.”
Montrois recalled his father’s days as a letter carrier. His route included Washington Street.
“I remember when I was a kid, he talked about the historical society,” he said. “I picked up the phone in the garage where I had a phone book and called there and talked to a girl named Toni.”
But the collection was nearly dumped, literally. Before the call, Montrois had moved it to the ground floor of his garage.
“I had to move stuff to make room for them,” he said. “It was very inconvenient and I was tempted to take it right to the town of Watertown dump. They have a great big dumpster van. I came so close to putting it in my truck and taking it right out there. But I didn’t do it. And it was the same day that I called the historical society.”
After the historical society received the call, board of trustees member John Stano, who is also village of Dexter historian, told Engleman he’d take the short drive to the town of Watertown to see what Montrois had. When seeing it, he texted Engleman: “OMG!”
“My first thought was ‘It’s a real big pile of stuff,'” Stano said. “And once I opened an envelope or two just to kind of see what it was, I realized that for local historians and genealogists, this was a treasure trove. It was just priceless.”
Stano began transferring the collection to his Honda pickup truck. “It filled the bed of my truck, the back seats and part of the passenger side of my truck,” he said. “It was a lot of boxes.”
“There was also quite a bit of World War I memorabilia,” Stano said. “Ed’s father brought home quite a few souvenirs with him, apparently.”
The Watertown Daily Times reported on the World War I exploits of Raymond Montrois and also interviewed him when he was mustered out of the Army: “Private Montrois brought back enough relics to start a museum.”
Stano is glad he arrived at Montrois’s home when he did.
“He said if somebody doesn’t want them, maybe he’d just fire up the backhoe and bury them out back. That was another one of his options,” Stano said. “I said, ‘Please don’t do that.;”
ARCHIVAL BOXES SOUGHT
Now safely at the historical society, Engleman is plotting the next step. She’s glad that a new roof was part of the mansion’s renovations. “When this roof was leaking, every day, it was like, ‘What now?’ You’d come in and hope for the best. But we were lucky with the roof leak in that we didn’t have much damage to artifacts. We rest a lot easier these days knowing that it’s safe up here.”
Archival boxes will be needed for the letters, Engleman said. “We can’t keep them stored in cardboard and plastic wrap.”
The archival boxes, Engleman said, cost about $40 to $50. Smaller ones for the envelopes are cheaper. She said the society would gladly accept donations earmarked for the cause.
Engleman is appreciative of the perseverance of Raymond Montrois, who first saved the collection. “When he came home from World War I, the Civil War didn’t happen too long before that. He had the vision that ‘This is something important I need to save.’ He didn’t just listen to his stepmother to go out there and burn everything.”
The historical society would need an army of volunteers and thousands of hours to properly document the collection.
Every envelope, and every piece of paper in each envelope, will require its own unique accession number.
“So of the 3,000 letters in there, each one has up to a dozen papers inside,” Engleman said. “Each of those will have to be cataloged separately.”
But if that is done, the director would also like to have all the records digitized so they’ll be easily available to the public.
“We get so many research requests for things like this,” Engleman said. “Normally, we’d send them across the street to the genealogy department at the (city) library. If we had this digitized and put it in some semblance of order, people could go online. We want this to go to the public and for the public to be able to use it. It’s not something to hold under wraps. It’s something that needs to be shared.”
The historical society has fielded several requests from people who would like to help in the organization effort.
“We’re just not there yet,” Engleman said. “We’re not even sure how we’re going to tackle it. Right now, we’re focusing on getting fully reopened, because this,” she said, pausing and glancing appreciatively at the boxes — “this is going to be a project.”
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