April 2013

Our Towns: Whallonsburg

Whallonsburg Grange Hall photograph by Gary Francois

In 1813 Reuben Whallon found a remote spot in eastern Essex County to buff up his tarnished reputation. The New York assemblyman had been called out for taking loans from a colleague who was using the state’s education fund as a personal piggy bank. It was a minor scrape with disgrace, and soon mended—Whallon became one of the region’s leading citizens, holding the posts of Essex town supervisor, county judge and, in 1832, congressman.

As he was rebuilding himself he was also building up a bustling mill town on the banks of the Boquet River. Or, rather, he was delegating the building. (Sticking near the shoreline of Lake Champlain, Reuben Whallon never lived in the hamlet that now bears his name.) Within decades the place had grown into an industrial hub with a cluster of mills, an iron forge, a sash factory and a plaster factory that, according to historian H. P. Smith, “throve mightily.”

Business boomed on the surrounding farms, too—during the Civil War barges heaped with local hay earmarked for the Union Army crowded the Champlain Canal. Sheep dominated the scene: by the mid-19th century woolly residents of the town of Essex outnumbered people five to one. Eventually cattle and dairying took precedence, and in the early 1900s Whallonsburg creameries were processing more than a million gallons of milk in a year.

Thriving farms and factories have faded from the landscape, but the Whallonsburg Grange Hall—established in 1903 as a rural rec center—still stands at the community’s heart, offering dances and dinners and a tangible link to the hamlet’s fertile past.

You can find Whallonsburg on Route 22, in Essex County.  —Niki Kourofsky