MADRID — Walking through the two dozen structures at the St. Lawrence Power and Equipment Museum, similar remarks reverberate across the 115-acre outdoor museum property on any given day, “my dad had one just like that.”
With powerful antique — and many still-functioning — engines, hundreds of small mechanical tools, carriages, looms, anvils, school house desks and practically breathing artifacts, the museum is home to locally- and regionally-sourced equipment and wares, some dating back to the mid-1800s.
Unlike conventional indoor museums, the outdoor space is dotted with themed buildings — including an original Evans Mills school house, an equine pavilion, a carriage barn, saw and shingle mill, blacksmith shop, cobbler shop, textile building, antique tractor building and farmhouse. And importantly, Roger S. Austin told the Times this weekend, the shops are not dusty or vacant, the machines and tools never truly idle.
“Living history is a good way to explain it,” Mr. Austin, museum secretary and trustee, said.
Reopening to the public Saturday for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of New York in March, the museum has resumed its annual summer open houses, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the second and fourth Saturdays this month.
Masks and social distancing are required when visiting the museum, and volunteers are stationed at the property’s entrance, 1755 Route 345, to take temperature readings.
Storied items too large for most conventional museums — a Watertown-built steam engine, antique tractors and a surrey with fringe on top used in a local production of “Oklahoma!” for example — can more easily be maintained at the expansive farm-turned-museum, President Ronald E. Sheppard said.
“A lot of the older equipment is very well built,” he said, adding that members take pride in the continued functioning of the machines for regular demonstrations. “We now have this idea of a ‘throw-away society,’ but this equipment is not like that.”
Crop planting and harvesting demonstrations, weaving and spinning classes, blacksmith workshops, tractor maintenance, cobbling and dozens of classes are offered each year. Partnerships with the St. Lawrence County Maple Producers Association and the county Historical Association’s Civil War Reenactment Weekend, have further developed the museum, Mr. Sheppard said.
The annual reenactment, traditionally held at Robert Moses State Park in Massena, was set to take place in July at the in-progress fort being added to the museum, but was canceled out of concern for health and safety amid the pandemic. Construction of Fort Tribute, A Civil War-Era Historical Interpretive Center, continues this month and is expected to be completed by September. Fort Tribute, a permanent interactive exhibit and homage to the 6,000 St. Lawrence County residents who fought in the Civil War, is slated to open Sept. 5.
The museum’s history dates back to 1976, when 12 north country engine enthusiasts officially formed the St. Lawrence Gas and Steam Engine Association, hosting regular meetings and annual historical equipment shows across the county, later becoming incorporated as a nonprofit in 1983.
By 2004, the association had evolved, with its engine-enthusiast base growing to include lovers of local education history, textiles, fabrications and Northern New York living. That growth, Mr. Austin said, prompted members to develop a plan for permanent museum facilities.
“We decided we needed to have a home,” Mr. Austin said. “We started out focused on loving and appreciating power, and we still do. But we’ve really become a museum of the north country’s history.”
After a 30-month search of 19 different properties, the century-old Madrid farm on Route 345 was opened as the St. Lawrence Power and Equipment Museum in the summer of 2006.
Now, the museum’s collection and assets are valued at nearly $1.5 million, more than 700 members are part of the organization and some 200 volunteers work the museum’s two major annual shows, typically held in the spring and fall, Mr. Austin said. The museum does not have any paid staff, but community members continue to donate items and hours. With generational links and nostalgia keeping people interested, those “I remember my family using this on their farm” statements serve as the soundtrack for the site, as much as the gentle patter of a loom or the steady hum of an engine.
One of Mr. Austin’s favorite museum components is the Carriage Barn, built in 2012 by local Amish craftsmen with a traditional post, beam and peg design. More than 1,000 whittled pegs hold the 5,800 square-foot barn together, and as Mr. Austin puts it, “not a nail was used until we started hanging the exhibit.”
“There’s so much opportunity for sharing here, whether that’s teaching, learning or just appreciating,” Mr. Austin said. “You think shingles are fun to make? Well we’ve got a machine for you. The door’s open for anyone who wants to try something.”
Groups interested in touring the museum should call 315-344-7470 to make an appointment. The all-volunteer organization is always accepting donations, and more information about the museum is viewable online at slpowermuseum.com, and on Facebook, at St Lawrence Power and Equipment Museum. Updated information about the Fort Tribute opening ceremony and other fall events is forthcoming.