Folk hero: TAUNY founder receives national folklore award for lifetime achievement

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Jan. 16—CANTON — Growing up in the Adirondack foothill hamlet of Hopkinton, Varick A. Chittenden had a penchant for noticing things, fueled by his surroundings: the family's general store, taking in the nuts and bolts of everyday life shared by people who stopped by to shop or to simply chat.

"As a child, I was seeing all this activity. Small-town people in a very different age from ours, coming in and swapping stories, and talking about their daily work on the farms, the lumber woods and all that," Mr. Chittenden said. "I think that by growing up in such surroundings, in some ways an isolated environment, I was able to see up close and personal these things and I never thought about it."

The building that housed Chittenden's General Merchandise on Route 11B also contained a post office and town clerk's office. Mr. Chittenden and his brother sold the building decades ago. In 1975, their father closed the business, in the family since 1821, and didn't encourage its continuation. The former store is now the site of Wilber's Hardware.

The past few weeks have given Mr. Chittenden, founder of Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, pause to think about such roots. In late 2021, he received a prestigious national folklore award.

Each year, the Public Programs section of the American Folklore Society joins with its executive board to award the Benjamin A. Botkin Prize of $500 to an individual for significant lifetime achievement in public folklore. Mr. Chittenden shared the 2021 prize with Teresa Hollingsworth, senior program director of Film and Traditional Arts at South Arts, a regional arts organization based in Atlanta.

Mr. Botkin (1901-1975) had a major impact on the field of public folklore and on the public understanding of folklore. He was an eminent New Deal-era folklorist; national folklore editor of the Federal Writers' Project in 1938 and 1939; advocate for the public responsibilities of folklorists; author and compiler of many publications on American folklore for general audiences; and head of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress from 1942 to 1945.

TAUNY, founded in 1986, is a vibrant arts center based in Canton that offers folklore and folklife research, exhibitions, ongoing programming, collections, preservation and maintenance. Mr. Chittenden founded TAUNY 36 years ago to provide a record of living history to north country residents.

Among his innovations, the creation of two programs for public recognition of north country people and landmarks: The North Country Heritage Award and The Register of Very Special Places.

Mr. Chittenden has described folklore as skills and customs learned informally, not from books or in school, but by watching and listening. Those local traditions and skills range from decoy carving to old-time fiddling.

In good company

Past recipients of the Botkin prize include in 1999 Richard Kurin, now the Smithsonian's Distinguished Scholar and ambassador-at-large, the first person so designated in the 171-year history of the Washington, D.C., institution, and in 2007 Steve Zeitlin, director of City Lore, which documents, presents and advocates for New York City's grassroots cultures.

"I was shocked more than anybody," Mr. Chittenden said about receiving the Botkin award. "There's a whole nominating process that goes on. I had no idea that somebody was even thinking about it."

Mr. Chittenden spent 32 years as a professor at SUNY Canton and was awarded emeritus status in 2001. He received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1974 and the SUNY Canton Distinguished Faculty Award in 1991. In 2000, TAUNY received the Governor's Arts Award during a gala awards ceremony at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art for its commitments to preserving the traditions of the communities of Northern New York.

"All those things I was seeing as a young person here in the north country, I just sort of took for granted," Mr. Chittenden said. "That's one of the ways you can define folklore: things you just take for granted. I just never really understood it to be something that people actually studied until much later in my life."

Beyond the basics

Mr. Chittenden, son of the late Clark S. and Sara Chittenden, is a 1959 graduate of Parishville-Hopkinton Central School and was awarded the President's Scholarship at St. Lawrence University, Canton, from which he graduated in 1963. He earned a master's degree in education from SLU in 1966. Mr. Chittenden joined the English department faculty of Canton College in 1969 after teaching the subject for five years at Gouverneur Central School.

While in his mid-30s, Mr. Chittenden decided he wanted to go beyond his basic courses at SUNY Canton and have some sort of specialty. The ensuing sabbatical altered how he taught and planted the early roots for TAUNY.

"I found this program in the study of American folk culture that for me, turned out to be the perfect match," he recalled. "It brought all of my interests together into one."

The program, based in Cooperstown, Otsego County, is a public-private partnership between SUNY Oneonta and the New York State Historical Association. The Cooperstown Graduate Program, founded in 1964, is one of the oldest museum studies graduate programs in the country. Its first director was folklorist Bruce Buckley.

Mr. Chittenden, with a background in teaching literature, thought the program would be along the lines of oral traditions, legends, myths and such.

"But they had a whole different approach," Mr. Chittenden said — a holistic approach, with folk culture at the center.

"That meant that we were not only learning verbal traditions but also what's called social traditions — everything from customs, festivals and celebrations to musical festivals of all kinds," he said. "One of the things that really caught my attention was material culture; things like vernacular culture, commonplace architecture and folk art."

Students also received first-hand experience with field work, going out and talking to subjects and taking photos.

He applied what he learned during the sabbatical when he returned to SUNY Canton. In particular, he began two courses: a survey of American folklore and "Images of Rural America."

"Both of these were very popular courses I offered for 25-plus years," Mr. Chittenden said.

Part of the requirements for the courses included field work, with students interviewing family members or residents of their hometown communities.

"Through the years, I got some wonderful projects by students," Mr. Chittenden said. "I learned a lot more, not only about the north country, but wherever the kids were from. That had been the method I was taught in graduate school, and I decided to apply it to the undergraduate level. It didn't always work, but it worked well in some instances. That was the beginning."

Center established

Following a proposal by Mr. Chittenden, in 1977 the Center for the Study of North Country Folk Life was established at SUNY Canton, then Canton Agricultural and Technical College, with a goal of recording and preserving traditional folkways of Northern New York. He took advantage of the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act and hired and trained about 15 people to do field work. The center's first project was a yearlong study of active "tradition bearers," people who still practiced or recalled handed-down methods of doing things, from trapping to water witching.

The first Festival of North Country Folklife was held in the fall of 1978 on the SUNY Canton campus.

Part of the mission of the center also was to bring exhibits and lectures throughout the north country.

In 1986, the Center for the Study of North Country Folk Life was dissolved, and Mr. Chittenden founded TAUNY to showcase the living traditions and folk culture of our region. TAUNY's "north country" is the 14-county region north of the Mohawk River, from Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River to Lake Champlain, including the Adirondack Mountains.

Jill R. Breit, now TAUNY's executive director, in 1993 became the first staffer hired by Mr. Chittenden. She was hired as an administrative assistant and was intrigued by Mr. Chittenden's vision.

"He was taking the organization from being a conduit to projects he was doing through his roles as a professor at SUNY Canton and realizing there was potential to really have more public presence than just to channel money for a festival here and there, and instead to open a gallery and have a steady presence, offering exhibits, programs and so forth," Ms. Breit said.

Ms. Breit, a native of Long Island, graduated from SLU in 1986.

"My husband and I decided we really wanted to live in the north country, so we'd find a way to make a living here," she said.

After a few years at TAUNY, Ms. Breit earned a master's degree in folk studies from Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky.

"Varick has always had a great amount of enthusiasm for promoting this region," she said. "It's definitely one of the ways he got me to work with him."

Founding TAUNY, Ms. Breit said, is just one element of Mr. Chittenden's work reflected in the Botkin award.

"Equally important is he was very much part of some early advocacy efforts in our field of public folklore, to secure funding for the kind of work we do," she said. "He was part of a group that advocated to help establish the Folk Arts Program at the New York State Council on the Arts. He had a role in speaking up about the kind of work we do, and why it should have its own funding source. That's significant beyond the north country, for sure."

Mr. Chittenden was asked if he ever envisioned what TAUNY has grown into.

"I've been asked that before. I've always dreamed of something like that but never visualized it being something that specific," he said. "I'm thrilled the way it turned out. It's not, by any means, just my work. A lot of people through the years, including lots of volunteers, have helped to make that happen."

In 2011, those volunteers, donors and others helped TAUNY reach a major milestone when, after renovations and with a fundraising goal of $1.25 million in sight, it moved into its headquarters at 53 Main St., a former five-and-dime store in the village of Canton that TAUNY purchased in 2008. Its two previous gallery sites were rentals.

Ms. Breit became executive director after the building's purchase in 2008. Mr. Chittenden, now retired from TAUNY, moved into a transitional post overseeing a fundraising campaign to renovate the facility.

The TAUNY Center includes exhibit space; a North Country Folklore store; a kitchen, which before the pandemic, regularly hosted classes, such as learning how to make rhubarb crumble ice cream; a North Country Wall of Fame; and a permanent gallery of portraits of annual North Country Heritage Award recipients.

TAUNY's focus on traditional arts can be oral (stories or sayings), musical, customary (superstitions or holiday celebrations), or material (crafts, food or architecture). TAUNY exhibits have included topics from our mountains to our rivers and "Artists of the Forests," to "From Marshes to Mantels: Changing Aesthetics in St. Lawrence River Decoys."

In 2014, through a program funded by the Archie Green Fellowship from the Library of Congress, TAUNY presented an exhibit and variety of programs focusing on dairy farms in the north country. It featured photos from 15 farms taken by internationally renowned photographer Martha Cooper and excerpts from interviews from more than 20 farmers and workers.

For an exhibit scheduled to open in February, Ms. Breit and boat historian Hallie Bond have teamed up to develop "Hornbeck Boats," that will open at the TAUNY Center on Feb. 19.

Peter Hornbeck, founder of Hornbeck Boats Inc., died in December 2020 at the age of 77. Peter and his wife Ann Hornbeck created Hornbeck Boats on Trout Brook Road, Olmstedville, Essex County. The company builds and sells double-paddle ultralight custom pack canoes. Mr. Hornbeck started building boats in his garage in 1971. As part of the exhibit, TAUNY is seeking comments from those who have experienced Hornbeck boats.

'This is who we are'

Mr. Chittenden doesn't fret too much about this digital age, where hands may prefer a computer mouse or a game controller rather than boat-building implements.

"For me, one of the key definers of folklore and folk life is also the impact of community," he said. "These are things that are shared within groups."

Even groups that gather online, he said, may share certain customs and traditions.

"Some of these folk traditions have been very adaptable to new means of expression," Mr. Chittenden said. "Sure, we don't use ink wells anymore. But we have other ways to get the word out."

Some north country traditions just fade away, which make their historic documentation all the more important. For example, in 2004, TAUNY recognized the New Bremen Fire Department with a North Country Heritage Award for its annual ice harvest at Crystal Pond. But mainly due to manpower and the hard work required to harvest ice, the department hasn't done the task for the past seven years.

"My hope is that the organization stays loyal to the mission of looking at regional identity and looking at local culture and not necessarily being a booster, but more of an explainer," Mr. Chittenden said. "This is who we are. I've always felt that this is one of the least understood, and very underserved, parts of New York state."

Mr. Chittenden, although retired, is still heavily involved in TAUNY and writes scholarly and general interest articles. He'll continue using his roots and his skills to continue to advance and honor north country folklore and our history. He recalled the spark for that: the months he spent away from the north country while studying at Cooperstown.

"It was during that year I was away from this place where I always lived that I began to think, 'What have I learned that I could apply back here? What can I learn about the place I grew up in?'"

It turned out to be a lot.

"I didn't start out and say, 'This is going to be my life's work,'" he said. "But it turned out to be my life's work."

Times archive librarian Kelly Burdick contributed to this story.

About TAUNY

— WHAT IT IS: A nonprofit organization that explores, honors, and celebrates the diverse cultures, skills and crafts of everyday life in New York's north country.

— HEADQUARTERS: 53 Main St., Canton.

— HOURS: The TAUNY Center and its North Country Folkstore are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

— PROGRAMS & SERVICES: Exhibits, demonstrations and workshops, publications, recordings and other documentation, North Country Heritage Awards, Register of Very Special Places, Fork to Table project, radio productions in partnership with North Country Public Radio, educational resource material and archives.

— CONTACT: Phone 315-386-4289 or email info@tauny.org. Website: tauny.org

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