St Lawrence County

On the Banks of the Grasse River

May 2021

It was no ordinary picnic. For one thing, I had to drive over four hours to get there. For another, I was going to be seated among those living and those who had left us long ago.  

I headed north until I reached our state’s largest county by land mass, perched at the tip of New York State, leaning toward the border into Ontario, Canada.

I had the option to enjoy a panoramic view while dining on a popular restaurant’s waterfront patio, but that is not what I did. Rain or shine, my mind was set on attending a picnic on the banks of the Grasse River.

For over two hundred miles, I drove in a mix of sun and showers on winding roads through the Adirondacks, past small villages and bodies of water with names like Big Brook, Long Lake, and Clear Pond. The highways rose and fell in the shadows of towering trees. There was not much traffic, but cars filled the trailhead parking areas and canoe access points, while wild turkeys strutted alongside the roads.  

At six-thirty in the evening, our group of four met in the town of Canton and carpooled. Our guide had worked in county government and knew the route and the local history.

County Farm Road/CR 32 took us to our destination. When we arrived we saw that all that remained were vast fields and woodlands. Across the street, a contemporary home was stationed where the old county home once stood. The circular road that surrounded the prior poorhouse campus, and a tall, round building that had been used for storage long ago, were still on-site.   

We drove across the field until we came to a majestic grove of old maple trees.  Just beyond, rows of grave markers—one hundred and eleven uneven stones—peeked out of the ground. Five hundred and ninety-six people are believed to be buried on this land.  Here along the banks of the Grasse River is their final resting place. Aside from our small group, the area was deserted until two fishermen arrived in pursuit of bass rather than the land’s hidden stories.

Photo by author May 2021

I first read about the site in news articles describing the archeological dig in 2015-2017 that focused on the graves of people who had once lived at the county poorhouse.

The Almshouse burial grounds are on the site of the former St. Lawrence County Farm. The County Home was built in 1869 and demolished in 1978. The large stone building housed local men, women, and children…  immigrants, and those with mental illness. It is estimated that collectively two thousand people spent time living at the poorhouse. A local theater group once performed an original play—Spirit Whispers on the Grasse—that tells the history of the home.

In 2015, bones were discovered along the riverbank, and fear spread that human remains were being washed into the river. Dr. Mindy Pitre, assistant professor of anthropology at St. Lawrence University, identified the bones as having belonged to an animal. She took a deep interest in the history of the poorhouse and proposed a plan to exhume the bodies, examine them in a laboratory, and then rebury the remains on a safer portion of the cemetery site outside the village. The bodies would be studied by students and then reburied in the spring when the ground was no longer frozen. By examining bones, researchers intended to determine a person’s age, gender, genetic origin, height, and sometimes how they may have died.

The counties of Erie, Monroe, and Oneida had found burial grounds from their county poorhouses during construction and moved some of the remains to area cemeteries. Unfortunately, in St. Lawrence County, the researchers found only a few artifacts and human remains that had deteriorated such that there were no bones to be studied and the project ended.

While not everyone in the burial ground has been identified, many names are listed in the county archives.

This evening, as the sun sets, we greeted the past with open hearts. We had a simple picnic among the departed, aware that while we worked in social services and they were among those that received government assistance, we were, that night, sharing the same space and a sense of community.

Sheila Harrigan

© June 2021


(all URLs accessed June 2021.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close