Watertown author steps up, goes long with 'Walk Through Time' history book

·13 min read

Aug. 27—WATERTOWN — The plan for Randy L. McIntyre was modest.

He was thinking of creating a "small book" in 2019 — a little something to commemorate Watertown's 150th anniversary of becoming a city, perhaps using some of the many postcards he's collected over the years.

But earlier this month at the offices of the Watertown Daily Times, three years after those original thoughts and as he flipped through what became his 3-pound, 500-page, self-published magnum opus, "A Walk Through Time: A History of Watertown," Mr. McIntyre paused, followed by a reaction that others have experienced when first encountering his historic tour de force.

"I'm just amazed at the stuff I found," he said. "It was unreal. I didn't really think much about it until I got it together and said, 'Wow!' I couldn't believe what I put together."

What he has created is a well-researched book on the history of Watertown, from its pioneers, what made it grow and what made it special — from its people, factories, buildings, events, natural disasters — and what it could have been as he explores its lost architecture.

About 1,400 photos, drawings and illustrations help to guide the reader through Mr. McIntyre's "Walk Through Time." He has just started to publicize the book, but it has attracted attention as he walks about with the tome of time. For example, he went to the Watertown post office to mail one out. There, he sold one to the postal clerk who was impressed by it.

The next customer in line was Ronald J. Backus of Miller Road, Brownville, who, when he got to the counter, briefly paged through the clerk's purchase.

"My jaw dropped," Mr. Backus said when asked of his first reaction to the book. "He did a great job."

After his postal transaction, Mr. Backus hurried out to the parking lot and was glad to see that Mr. McIntyre was still there. But the author told him he didn't have any more copies of the book on him.

"I followed him home and bought two copies," Mr. Backus said. "For my wife, and for my sister who lives in Rochester."

Mary G. Hermann, of Calcium, said she heard about the book from Mr. McIntyre's mother-in-law.

"So I went down and bought one from him," she said. "It just brought back so many memories of all the old buildings and things. I also bought one for my cousin who lives in Florida and who is originally from Watertown. I mailed it to her. She called me and said, 'I can't put it down. It just brings back so many nice memories.'"

She added, "I would recommend it to anybody who is somewhat familiar with the area, or to even look through and see all the big, beautiful buildings that we had and don't have anymore."

Mrs. Hermann has bought a total of seven copies of "A Walk Through Time."

"Some of these are being held for Christmas," she said. "He's done a wonderful, beautiful job."

"I've already sold 40 books without doing anything," Mr. McIntyre said. "It's just word of mouth."

Early appreciation of history

Mr. McIntyre, 66, retired last year as office manager of finance at Salmon Run Mall. He attended Watertown High School from 1969 to 1972 and graduated in 1974 from General Brown Central. He recalled as a child walking around downtown Watertown with his dad, Robert McIntyre, a big movie buff, who died in 2014 at the age of 82.

"My father and I used to go to the movies and we would walk Public Square," Mr. McIntyre said, who notes in his book that the Square once housed seven theaters. "I remember going down the tunnel at the Hotel Woodruff and going through the Paddock Arcade and various things like that."

After high school, Mr. McIntyre went on to earn two associate degrees in accounting and business administration, both from Jefferson Community College. He then earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and management from Empire State College.

He's a long-time member of the Gen. Jacob Brown Historical Society, where he's been a two-term president and is the society's current vice president. But his interest in history goes back to when he was a young boy. He was especially enamored and inspired by the tales of Alex T. Duffy, who died at the age of 99 in 1999. The city's fairgrounds are named in honor of the local legend.

On the day of his 90th birthday testimonial, Mr. Duffy told those gathered, "You name it, I've seen it," as he cited events of the "most exciting century," from the advent of automobiles and airplanes to movies, radio, television, space travel and technical and medical advances.

Mr. McIntyre recalled that Mr. Duffy visited his elementary classrooms a few times, and later, he spoke at the Gen. Jacob Brown Historical Society. "He was a fantastic storyteller."

For an essay contest sponsored by the city's Centennial Committee in 1969, Mr. McIntyre wrote about Watertown's founders. His interest in historic buildings also began at a young age. As a youth, he stood in the shadows of the Henry Keep Home on Washington Street a few years before it was demolished in 1970. The three-story Gothic-style "Home" was built by the late Emma Keep Schley in memory of her husband, Wall Street financier Henry Keep, who went from rags to riches. Its doors opened Dec. 31, 1883, when it was described as a facility that could "provide a home and support for destitute and homeless men and women," according to Watertown Daily Times files.

"Before they tore down the Henry Keep mansion, I went around and took pictures in case anything would happen to some of these buildings," Mr. McIntyre said. "They weren't good pictures, but at least I had something that I could keep for myself."

He documented other buildings with his photographs, such as the Woolworth building. He still has those photos.

Over the years, Mr. McIntyre collected postcards of local buildings and sites, many purchased on eBay. He thought of publishing them in a book.

"But I just didn't want to put in postcards and pictures," he said. "I wanted to explain what things were. So, I got researching and 2019 came and went. Now, it's four years later. I was thinking 200, maybe 300 pages. When I got done, I looked at it and went, 'I can't cut any of this out. This is all important stuff.' So, I paid the extra money to have the larger book and went with it."

Help along the way

Mr. McIntyre's "A Walk Through Time" begins with the treks of early explorers and how the Watertown area was acquired after the Revolutionary War by New York state through a treaty with the indigenous Oneida Nation.

In one example of the details in his book, Mr. McIntyre notes the rough beginning those pioneers faced in this passage:

"The founders of this new settlement came in the fall of 1799 to visit the site they purchased. They came back in early 1800 with their families to settle into their new home. Henry Coffeen, age 39, was the first to arrive with his family by oxen team. He brought some of his furnishings along, but most of it was broken by the time they arrived. The tree limbs along the trail grabbed the furniture hanging over the sides of the sled, breaking it in pieces."

Mr. McIntyre referenced decades-old Jefferson County history books in his research by "Hough, Emerson, Childs, Oaks, and Durant and Pierce."

He also used Harry F. Landon's book, "150 Years of Watertown," published in 1950 and Ernest C. Gould's book, "Centennial History of Watertown, New York: A Proud Heritage, A Bright Future," published in 1969.

He also found information at Flower Memorial Library, the city historian's office, Jefferson County Historical Society, Zoo New York, the Watertown International Airport, the city's fire department and schools.

But Mr. McIntyre said his most valuable resource was the archives of the Watertown Daily Times. He was assisted by former WDT archive librarian Kelly Burdick.

"Ms. Burdick let me stay longer," Mr. McIntyre said. "I'd ask her questions and she'd show me about where things were. I got the folders out and copied, took photographs of them. You have a tremendous resource here."

He dedicated his book to Debra McIntyre, his high school sweetheart and wife of 45 years. The book, he said, would not have been possible without her.

"You can say she was my editor," Mr. McIntyre said. "There's some of these chapters she read nine, 10, 11 times to get the flow right, because I kind of write the way I speak and she smoothed it out for me, helped me organize where the pictures should be and what chapters should be in what order. We worked a year on just layout — getting it smooth, where the chapters should be."

There are 25 chapters in the book, from "In the Beginning" to "Nostalgia." In between, chapters include "Industrial Development," "Our Worship Community," "Public Square," "Modes of Transport," "Law Enforcement," "Fire Department," "Sports and Social Activities" and "The Cemeteries."

But Mr. McIntyre's favorite subject to write about was the city's industrial heritage. "We were a powerhouse of industry," he said.

From potash to powerhouse

Mr. McIntyre's book details how industrialists were attracted to Watertown because of the power provided by the Black River. Those industrialists built beautiful homes in the city.

"And those who made the money, turned around and gave back to the community," Mr. McIntyre said. "And even today with people like Tom and (the late) Mabel Walker giving to the community — that aspect has always impressed me too."

Potash was the city's first cash product, Mr. McIntyre writes in his book, bringing pioneers about $25 a barrel. Potash, created by the burning of trees, was used in the manufacture of fertilizer, gun powder and explosives. The need for potash created a need for barrels. "This created two copper shops in the city," he added.

In addition to well-known Watertown businesses such as Car-Freshner, New York Air Brake and Knowlton Brothers, Mr. McIntyre highlights a dizzying array of other firms that made everything from lamps to steam engines. In addition to paper mills, he notes the city also had mills for cotton, wool and a knitting company was known for its long underwear. Henry H. Babcock began his company by making windmills. He then switched to pumps, flouring mill machines and finally to motor carriages and carriage parts.

Mr. McIntyre gathered several photographs to document the industrial heritage, from "The interior of Bagley & Seawall" to "The Hitchcock Lamp Co. Workforce, 1887."

Along the way, the author dug up historical tidbits in his book. For example, an 1870s ad for the Hitchcock bicycle lamp, with reversible oil tank, noted the product cost $4 and was likely available at one of the city's 13 bicycle dealers. Meanwhile, the Davis Sewing Machine Co. once received an order from a company in Paris for 1,400 machines, which was filled in three months. And, some Gotham Street trivia: It was named for John Gotham, a member of the militia that defended Sackets Harbor in the War of 1812.

remembrance and renewal

As he traversed the city researching the book and taking photos for it, Mr. McIntyre was surprised by some of his discoveries. One was at the "Poorhouse/Almshouse Jefferson County Home Cemetery," which he said goes by the Jefferson County Cemetery today. It was established when the poorhouse was built in the 1830s. It's on outer West Main Street, on the south side, marked by a monument that reads, "In Memory of Deceased Residents of the Jefferson County Home."

But previously unknown to Mr. McIntyre, the site is also a cemetery. He realized there are graves at the site, marked by flat headstones, numbered, with no names. He counted 139 of the stones, which are disappearing from history.

"They're just sinking into the ground," he said. "And God, there's a lot of names there."

In his book, he writes: "I wish a community group could help bring this cemetery back and recognition to everyone who is buried there."

While driving down a road at Thompson Park one day near the Academy Street extension, he noticed a large rock with a plaque on it. It reads: "The Men's Garden Club, Watertown, N.Y., dedicated this plot to all those from this area who gave their lives to keep us free. 1946."

"I asked myself, 'What's that?'" Mr. McIntyre said. "They did a whole ceremony (June 10, 1946) and everything. It was quite impressive."

In the book, he explains that the plot was designed to be a "living memorial" and the plaque was made by New York Air Brake and attached to native stone. "The boulder was surrounded by flowers, evergreens, peonies and other shrubs and perennials. Standing near the garden is a flag pole. Today, there is no longer a garden surrounding it."

But it's not just gardens that have disappeared. Mr. McIntyre said the section on urban renewal (in the chapter "Fire, Floods, Urban Renewal") was "tough" for him to write. "I didn't want to slam anybody, but I gave the facts as much as possible."

He lists the several buildings that went the way of the wrecking ball in Watertown due to Urban Renewal, a federal economic development program that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s and changed city landscapes. Watertown buildings that disappeared included the New York State Armory, old City Hall, Avon Theater and the large T.H. Bradley Hardware business block.

Those structures are now phantoms in photographs in "A Walk Through Time." But they're part of the message that Mr. McIntyre hopes readers will get from his book.

"I want them to see what they have, and know why the city was so important," he said. "It was industry, the beautiful buildings and whatnot."

And, with Urban Renewal in mind, Mr. McIntyre, at the end of his interview, added a comment for the ages: "Don't tear anything down until you have something to put up."

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The details

WHAT: "A Walk Through Time: A History of Watertown" by Randy L. McIntyre. Self-published through Gatekeeper Press.

WHERE AVAILABLE: At online sites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

COST: $30.

SIGNINGS: Mr. McIntyre is scheduled to have book signings from noon to 3 p.m. today (Aug. 27) and on Saturday, Sept. 10, near the food court at Watertown's Salmon Run Mall. At 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 5, he is scheduled to speak at Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library in Watertown. He will also be one of the speakers at the History and Genealogy Fair at the Jefferson County Historical Society on Sept. 17. The author said anyone who misses his book signings and wants to purchase books may contact him at rmcintyre188@hotmail.com.