For years now, Norm Bollen has made an annual trip to America's Historic Triangle in Virginia where he immerses himself into our country's past in places like Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown.
A Fort Plain native and Amsterdam resident, Bollen also enjoys his history at home where he sees the Mohawk Valley offering that same sort of magical appeal to those interested in Colonial America, particularly the American Revolution.
"People know that the Mohawk Valley has a lot of wonderful history and they understand how it played a huge role in America's past, but they've never had a real good reason to come here," said Bollen, chairman of the board at the Fort Plain Museum and Historical Park and also president of a new association, Mohawk Country, whose goal is to enhance the area's tourism trade through its history. "What we want to do is to pull people into this area from around the country. How do you get that guy in Ohio to throw his family in the car and drive here? That's what we're working on doing."
Bollen isn't just talking. He's producing results. The American Revolution Round Table-Hudson/Mohawk Valleys, an arm of the Fort Plain Museum, has been teaming with Siena College to produce a series of presentations once every two months on the American Revolution, and in June at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, the Fort Plain Museum held its fourth annual American Revolution Conference. The conference had around 200 people from 17 different states attend the four-day event, including a large contingent from Canada. Also, the conference quickly sold out two bus tours of the valley and surrounding area on the first day of the event.
"I actually do have that guy from Ohio who has loaded his kids in the car the past three years and shown up at our conference," said Bollen. "We want to keep him coming, and we want others to come and see what a wonderful, beautiful place we live in, loaded with history. We're marketing the American Revolution, but we also overlap with the French and Indian War and Native American history. We want to see people come to our sites more and more throughout the year."
Mohawk Country was organized two years ago by Bollen, Brian Mack and others at the Fort Plain Museum. The group got a $10,000 grant from the William G. Pomery Foundation of Syracuse and a $15,000 grant from Montgomery County. The other sites in the association, all small non-profits located along the Mohawk River in Montgomery County, include Fort Klock in St. Johnsville and Old Fort Johnson just west of Amsterdam.
"We got $15,000 from Montgomery County so we're going to focus on the county right now," said Bollen. "The money is going into marketing for all of our sites, and we want to help them put on special events, modernize any exhibit they might have, and help them with the cost of staffing to make sure our visitors have a good experience when they're here."
Eventually, Bollen hopes to join forces with neighboring counties, particularly Schenectady County on the east and Herkimer County on the west. In Rotterdam Junction, just a short distance from the Montgomery County line, the Schenectady County Historical Society owns and operates the Mabee Farm, an early 18th century home on the southern banks of the Mohawk. And over to the west in Herkimer County, that area has huge American Revolution draws in the Herkimer Home State Historic Site in Little Falls and the Oriskany Battlefield a bit further west along the New York State Thruway.
Joining forces to make the Mohawk Valley a real destination for tourists sounds like a good idea to Robert Weible, president of the Schenectady County Historical Society.
"We have an incredible history in Schenectady, from the Native Americans to General Electric, and few places can talk about the American Revolution like we can in the Mohawk Valley," said Weible, who retired as the State Historian of New York in 2015. "When you look at all that has gone on in this area, we should be emphasizing our history even more, and getting all these small groups to work together is a good idea."
Another group working in concert with Mohawk Country is the Mohawk Valley Historic Tourism Center, a group started earlier this year by Randall Hogue, the former mayor of Canajoharie and currently director of SACC-TV. Along with Dance Heacock of the Tribes Hill Heritage Center, the two groups have a presence in Viaport Rotterdam where history buffs can go and see what the region has to offer.
"We have Norm and the people from Fort Plain setting up a display, and a lot of other groups are starting to come in, too," said Hogue. "We're getting little museums and societies from all over the Mohawk Valley who want to have a presence here. I've been promoting historic tourism since I was mayor back in the 1990s because I've felt it was an important to do."
The Tribes Hill Heritage Center was hoping to begin working on a new museum in the town of Florida, but with that project stalled, Heacock is focusing on maintaining a significant presence at the Rotterdam Mall. The exhibit space is open Friday's from 5-9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
"We take up half the space with our exhibits, and we have a large number of other groups who are represented here," she said. "There are museums, historic sites moving things in, and we have other Native American groups with a presence here, including Tom Porter's Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community. If you want to learn a little bit about all of the historic sites in our area, you can come here and see a small part of their collection first."
According to Erika Sanger, director of the Museum Association of New York, museums and historic sites have a tremendous impact on the state's economy.
"The museums and historic sites in our state are very important as economic engines," she said, "and the interesting thing about the Mohawk Valley is that it was the farthest point of Dutch settlement. They came up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany and then headed west through the Mohawk Valley at the time of European settlement. That really separates the Mohawk Valley from the rest of the state, and then you have the Haudenosaunee [Iroquois] nation and the Revolutionary War. It's amazing what the Mohawk Valley has to offer in terms of history, art and culture. It's a very unique region."
A new rest stop on the New York State Thruway westbound between Fultonville and Canajoharie, the Mohawk Valley Welcome Center, is also bringing attention to the area's rich history.
"Whenever I leave Albany and head west that's my first stop," said Sanger. "They have exhibits there, a great look at the canal and the river. It's a nice little stop."
History, Sanger tells us, is up there with apples, maple syrup and wine as one of New York's top products. According to statistics provided by MANY, historic tourism is responsible for 61,000 jobs in the state, $1.4 billion in tax revenue and $5.4 billiion in economic impact. Bollen can see those numbers rising.
"Along with the great sites in Montgomery County, Schenectady has the Stockade and some great history, Johnstown in Fulton County has Johnson Hall and a number of terrific historic homes you can visit, and our bus tour for the conference went down into Schoharie County to see Rev War sites in Cobleskill and Cherry Valley. We filled up two 55-seat buses and we're already working on next year's event."
This is Mohawk Country
Montgomery County sites
- Old Fort Johnson, the limestone home of Sir William Johnson built in 1749, is owned by the Montgomery County Historical Society, a non-profit group established in 1905. Open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sunday 1-5 p.m.
- Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in Fort Hunter, celebrates Erie Canal and Native American history, is owned by the state. It is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday from 1-5 p.m.
- The Old Palatine Church, located between Nelliston and St. Johnsville on Route 5, was built in 1770 and is owned by the Palatine Society, a non-profit group incorporated in 1938 to preserve the history of Palatine German immigrants. Open most days, tours by appointment. The site will have a reenactment of the wedding of Gil and Lana, two characters from the Walter Edmonds novel, "Drums Along the Mohawk," on Saturday, July 21.
- The Nellis Homestead Tavern, just east of St. Johnsville on Route 5, was built in 1747 and is owned by the Palatine Settlement Society, a non-profit group incorporated in 1978. Open Sunday 1-4 p.m.
- Fort Klock, on the northern side of the Mohawk River about two miles east of St. Johnsville, is a non-profit group owned by Fort Klock Historic Restoration. Tours are available Friday through Monday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Re-enactors will be on the site on July 4.
- The Van Alstyne Homestead, on Moyer Street in Canajoharie, is a non-profit group owned by the Van Alstyne Homestead Society and Museum. Open Saturday from noon-4 p.m.
- The Stone Arabia Dutch Church, a non-profit owned by the Stone Arabia Preservation Society, was built in 1788. It is on Route 10 north of Canajoharie. It is open most days in the summer from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tours by appointment.
- The Isaac Paris House, home to the Fort Plain chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, was the biggest building west of Schenectady when it was built in 1786. Open by appointment.
- Saint Kateri Shrine Museum, on Route 5 just west of the village of Fonda, is owned by the Franciscan Friars. It is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily May through October.
- The Fort Plain Museum and Historical Park, located on Route 5S in Fort Plain, is a non-profit group originally formed in 1961. It is open daily during July and August from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.