Today’s historic downtime may inspire new book about the Russell of yesterday

Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News

RUSSELL – What do you do to keep occupied during the COVID-19 downtime? Some turn to Netflix, knitting and long walks.

Best known as queen of fundraising Trivia Night which was sidelined by the virus, the ever-busy Connie Johnston decided the best way to use her spare time was to assemble and edit a book about growing up in Russell.

It’s not a history book, Johnston emphasized during a Monday Zoom meeting of the Russell & District Historical Society. The village and area already has one of those in the form of “From Swamp & Shanty” covering the period 1827-1987 written by former Russell County Registrar Wendell Stanley.

With no deadline and no format yet selected, what the book will be is a collection of reminiscences and anecdotes from mostly old-timers raised in Russell, Johnston said, adding that anyone with a good story to tell is welcome: “Don’t forget… the stories of today will become the history of tomorrow.”

While that book is underway, another one is being considered by the historical society, said president Harry Baker. It would be an illustrated children’s book describing the powerful role played by a horse-drawn steam-powered fire engine in saving much of the village core during the Great Fire of 1915.

The real-life engine — which still exists — and the drama of the event lend themselves perfectly to a story for kids, Baker said. The society is now looking for a graphic artist on a volunteer basis to illustrate the volume, as well as a writer to put the tale together in kid-friendly fashion.

To illustrate the importance of her book project, Johnston pointed out she was able to do a doorstep interview with Jim Sullivan, 87, just before he passed away early in January. Sullivan had been active in area service clubs and social groups for most of his life and had some reflections about those experiences.

Johnston is secretary of the historical society; her research partner in the project is her sister, Barbara Agar, society treasurer. While the book isn’t specifically sponsored by the society, it relies heavily on files located in the village museum.

A side benefit of the research is that the sisters have been “cleaning up” the files as they go along, Johnston told the Zoom meeting, trying to place documents in their proper places and identify photos with no references on them.

The project is already generating buzz on social media to which Johnston has turned seeking recollections and photos from area residents.

As an example, stories good and bad have been posted revolving around the long-gone former Canada Milk Products Plant built just north of the former New York Central Railway Station (near present day Mother Theresa Catholic School).

Betty Walsh recalled that when the building was being torn down, a young boy was sneaking around wanting to get close to the action. He was sent home only to return and perish after a wall fell on him.

Bea Gamble said she was always worried about kids playing in the foundation which remained following demolition. It was so cool inside that snow was preserved into the middle of summer: “Damp and creepy but a kids’ adventure,” Walsh added.

Even local cows liked it, somehow seeking shelter from high heat in the foundation’s frigid interior.

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