To the Veeders, the Aikens, the DePeysters and anyone else who ever lived at Fort Johnson, Alessa Wylie is deeply indebted. Fortunately, no one ever felt the need to renovate.
As a result, Wylie, an Amsterdam native, is the museum director at one of the most authentic 18th century homes in the Mohawk Valley. Fort Johnson, owned and operated under the auspices of the Montgomery County Historical Society, was built back in 1749 by William Johnson. When Johnson, one of the most powerful men in Colonial America, moved to Johnson Hall in Johnstown in 1763, it was his son John who took up residence in the house just west of Amsterdam and remained there until the outbreak of the American Revolution.
Sharing the story of the Johnsons as well as other Montgomery County history is Wylie’s mission at Fort Johnson, which was purchased by John Watts DePeyster and given to the Montgomery County Historical Society back in 1905. An Amsterdam High graduate who also went to Fulton-Montgomery Community College and Union College where she earned her degree in history, Wylie has been at the fort since 2000.
The home is open for tours from May through Oct. 17, and in two weeks, Saturday, Sept. 10, Wylie and Fort Johnson site manager Scott Haefner will be holding their annual fundraising event from 5:30-8 p.m. that evening.
Q: When did you start getting interested in history?
A: My parents would always take us on various trips to historic sites, so I feel like I’ve always had an interest in history. Then, when I went to FMCC, I had a wonderful history professor there, Jonas Kover, and he really captured my imagination. That’s why I transferred to Union and got a history degree.
Q: What did you do after graduating from Union College?
A: I went to Maine, got married, and worked quite a few years up there. I was a real estate paralegal, which tied in very nice with history because I was researching properties and the history of those properties. It was a pretty good fit for me. I had a few other jobs, and then I joined a group called Greater Portland Landmarks, and I would spend my Wednesday afternoons volunteering as an observatory tour guide. I have fond memories of doing that, and then we headed back to Amsterdam and after doing some office work, I noticed this timely little ad for this position in the newspaper. I got an interview and I was hired.
Q: How do you see your mission at Fort Johnson?
A: We try not to focus only on William Johnson, but also on Montgomery County history in general, and we try to make it fun for people. We want people to enjoy their visit here, and Scott feels the same way. We have the same vision for the site and we’ve worked very well together making our history accessible to people. And he’s a real jewel. His knowledge is scary.
Q: William Johnson was an American hero for much of the 18th century, but if he hadn’t died in 1774, he very likely would have remained loyal to Great Britain and fought against independence. Do you agree?
A: Yes. I think he would have been a Loyalist and it would have changed how things happened in the Mohawk Valley. I’m not even sure if he would have fled. Things would have been different, and it’s great to contemplate how things would have changed. What we try to do is tell people what a unique individual he was. He was a renaissance man who was interested in all sorts of things, and he was very adept at fitting into whatever world he was in.
Q: What will visitors see at Fort Johnson?
A: One of the things that make the house so special is that it seems so untouched by time. There is so much of the original building still there, the original paneling, the original floor plan. You can go up into the attic and see the original beams. You get a real sense of the building and the way it was. On the first floor we concentrate on Johnson and his involvement in the French and Indian War, and on the second floor we have a couple of different collections from the historical society and a more general history of Amsterdam. Along with the main house, we have our visitor center where we have a library, a gift shop and our meeting room. It was originally a barn on the property which was turned into the caretaker’s house. And then we have our historic privy. A lot of sites like to say, ‘George Washington slept here.’ We like to say, ‘George Washington sat here.’ We know he stopped here for lunch on his tour of the Mohawk Valley in 1783, so maybe before he got back on his horse he visited our privy.
Q: What kind of fundraiser are you having?
A: This will be our third year now and it’s grown a lot just by word of mouth. We have 12 different local chefs who donate their time and culinary expertise. For a $20 fee, you get to sample all the soup you want, you get a commemorative cup to help you do it, and we also have homemade bread coming right out of the oven. We also have 10 different pies coming that people will be able to taste. We have limited seating so we ask people to call ahead for reservations, but it’s outside so people can just come and walk around, see our lovely garden, have something to eat and leave.
Q: What does your garden consist of?
A: We have a wonderful garden committee and it does an amazing job with our garden. All of the plants are 18th century period-correct, and they all have little tags on them that says what they are and what they were used for. We’ve had people who come here and will spend an hour just walking around the garden.
Q: Does Fort Johnson ever get confused with Johnson Hall?
A: Yes. When I first started working here we had a bus tour on our schedule, and I had all the workers and volunteers lined up waiting for the bus to arrive. Well, at the same time Wanda Burch was just about to close up Johnson Hall when she turned around and saw a busload of people coming at her. Some people do get confused, and Johnson Hall is a great place, too. We have a really good working relationship with them.