Hey y’all. If you haven’t already, read this first, then give this a read. All of the photographs, besides the Shoen family, comes from Juli and Gary Strader. Much thanks for the photos and for the chat!
When I wrote about Stanford Strader’s sad demise last year on this blog, I knew I was taking a risk. Writing about a suicide, no matter how old, can dredge up painful memories, even if they are not first-hand.
Nineteenth-century maps of New York’s North Country have many of the same surnames you see on mailboxes and yearbook photos today. Family roots, once planted, stick around for generations. My father’s family has lived in Franklin County for over a century and we still have extended family just across the river in Quebec and Ontario. Although all of the information I used in my research came from readily accessible (although largely paywalled) resources, I was aware of the sensitivity of writing about a suicide, even thought it was almost a century ago.
When Juli Strader contacted me through WordPress, I was a little apprehensive and feared that I had opened a very old emotional wound. Instead, she was thrilled to learn more about her great-grandfather and shared some family information with me.
Let’s recap a bit: I worked on an archaeological project on Nichols Hill Island on the St. Lawrence River about a decade ago for a project sponsored by the New York Power Authority. Before the Moses-Saunders Power Dam was built in the late 1950s, Nichols Hill Island was just Nichols Hill and was home to a few farms, including the former Samuel Lawrence farm. Henry Stanford Strader moved in 1926 from near Morrisburg, Ontario, just across the river, to Louisville, NY, and eventually ended up renting the Lawrence farm in the summer of 1926. Henry faced an uphill battle before this, seemingly unique to his own experience: no one else in the family appeared to have struggled like he did. His first wife died and his second son ended up at the Montreal Hospital for Infantile Paralysis, a polio hospital later associated with McGill University. He bounced in and out of renting at least two other farms until he ended up at the Samuel Lawrence farm.
On Wednesday, December 12, 1926, Stanford walked away from a conversation with his brother-in-law, 18-year-old Leo Hume, lit a cigarette, and shot himself in the barn behind the house. His family moved his body back to Morrisburg where he was buried in a family plot.
I knew a little bit about what happened to his widow and their two daughters. Beatrice Strader ended up marrying a man named Orlon Shoen, presumably a descendant of an Irish family who previously owned that same farm. A photograph from a public family tree on Ancestry.com shows Orlon and his new wife, Beatrice, sitting with literal handfuls of kids. Orlon holds an infant, presumably a child of the new marriage, on his lap beneath his toothbrush moustache and round specs. The girls, Kathleen and Helen, were just toddlers when their father died, but in the photo, they appear to be just a few years older.
Approaching 50 if not older, the new family must have been a significant culture change for Orlon. In 1925, the New York State census listed Orlon on a farm on the same river road as the Straders, just six houses down the road to the west. About 47 years old at the time, he lived alone with his 87-year old father, tending to the dairy farm. Right next door to father and son Shoen: Leo Hume.
What really burned me as I researched Stanford’s family was how little I knew about Henry’s two sons. I wasn’t even really sure about their names, since most of Ancestry.com’s Canadian records are behind an additional paywall.
Juli was able to fill the gaps and provided information that gave me some new insight into documents I thought I already understood. Henry Stanford Strader and his first wife, Bessie, had two sons before she died: Raymond and Bertram, who family members and friends called “Mac.” Juli’s father, Gary (who also spoke on the phone with me), is Mac’s son. It was Raymond who contracted polio, but this occurred much later than I had thought. A 1921 Canadian census lists Bertram at an aunt and uncle’s house, just a couple years after his mother, Bessie, died in 1919. This family arrangement was not uncommon for the period when a father became widowed, and signals a sad turn of events for Stanford’s life.
Raymond appears in the 1925 census on the New York State side of the border, 9 years old and living with his new half-sisters, Kathleen and Helen. I had previously thought that Stanford came across the river after Raymond went to the Montreal polio hospital, but this suggests that Raymond contracted polio while in the United States. A ride today to Montreal from Louisville, NY, takes about two hours over 100 miles: you do the math to convert that to miles and minutes in 1926.
I was happy to learn that Raymond eventually made it out of the polio hospital, married, had kids, drove a taxi. Mac, Juli’s grandfather, went on to become “the top selling Chrysler salesman in Canada three years in a row in the late 60s,” quite a feat for a car salesman living in a town of just about 300 people. According to Juli, Mac Strader, at least, is still well known in that section. About a decade after he died, Juli cruised through Canadian customs just on her grandfather’s name recognition.
There is something about the magic of history and archaeology that is really hard to grasp and even harder to anticipate. For me, that magic doesn’t always come from a sexy artifact or textbook-altering discoveries. It comes from the unexpected emergence of past human experience, small everyday stories, rising to the top of an archaeological investigation or historical research and framing a new understanding of a place. These stories so often end up a footnote in a larger work or a cultural resource management (CRM) report, but they hint at the rare occasion to test the limits of what we believe to be unknowable about the past.
Learning about Stanford’s story was so ridiculously accidental, but it had a profound effect on how I experienced that place nearly a century after the fact. As archaeologists we strive to ask “questions that matter,” questions that seek to address relevant and timely research topics, but also include descendant communities and cultural stakeholders. The bottom line question for a CRM project is often whether or not a site meets the criteria for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
But, we can never really expect to know how someone else experienced a place, especially someone in the past. For Beatrice and her daughters—probably for many residents along the river road—the Samuel Lawrence farm was the saddest place in the world. Revisiting the island after I learned about Stanford’s death, it became something like the saddest place in the world for me, too, but it couldn’t match the family’s experience. For me it was haunted, and it became a very private place on my own mental and emotional map of the world. Sharing it with a broader audience was a difficult decision, but I am glad I did, because Juli and Gary Strader answered what became for me the only question that mattered: Who remembered Stanford Strader?