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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Tentanda Via Est
An Episode of Yankee Ingenuity in Lewis County History

By Mitchell D. Fidler

“The way must be tried, or, in the Latin, “tentanda via est” is a phrase no doubt familiar to people who have faced the challenge of transforming nature’s resources to meet a particular human need. One could envision a Roman engineer uttering it while designing one of their magnificent public buildings; or even Edison as he experimented with over a hundred substances to find a suitable filament for the light bulb. Tentanda via est also appears on the coat of arms of the Family Wetmore. Residents of Northern New York may connect this family name to Lafayette Wetmore, one of its most industrious citizens. Time and time again, Mr. Wetmore applied his motto “tentanda via est” to dozens of enterprises during the economic development of nineteenth century Lewis County.

Before settling in the hamlet of Crystaldale in New Bremen Township, the Wetmore family lived in Hartford, Connecticut since the seventeenth century. Perhaps it was amidst this environment where the family acquired its sense of mechanical inquisitiveness that produced other notable New England inventors such as Eli Whitney, John Deere and Eliphalet Remington. Lafayette displayed his interest in mechanics at a young age. He turned his mother’s kitchen stove into a forge as a teenager. He helped erect a Baptist church in town before his twentieth birthday. He also demonstrated his level of industry as a young man. He obtained a thrashing machine and hired himself out in season. In the eighteen eighties he had built his own blacksmith shop in Crystaldale. His thrashing business created the opportunity to obtain his first patent in 1886. This document gave him complete control over the manufacture and sale of a “sheaf table and stand for thrashers”. This device allowed a person to stand on the machine safely and guide its operation and certified him as an inventor. At his shop in Crystaldale he also produced a portable sawmill. This structure was taken to Moose River Settlement in 1888 to construct the “Wooden Legged Railroad” to Minnehaha, near Old Forge. This enterprise was unique in so far as the 20-mile line was made entirely of wood. Lafayette Wetmore sawed the ties and rail from local forest products. There were many who believed an operation constructed in this fashion would not be successful, but it served the region for five years making two trips a day, one hundred fifty days per season. Surely, in this matter, Wetmore contemplated his family motto: “the way must be tried.”

Also in the 1880’s, Wetmore married, had children, became widowed and married again. Additionally, he changed his occupation from blacksmith to sawyer and moved his family to the Tug Hill town of Martinsburg. The blossoming of his business enterprises marked this period in his life. Between 1880 and 1902 Wetmore became a successful lumberman, eventually owning over 2,000 acres of forestland. Wetmore specialized in sawing barn beams. He maintained three logging camps and employed over ten men at his sawmill. In the nineties, as a mill town sprang up around his enterprises, Wetmore applied to Washington DC to have a post office erected thereby officially establishing the hamlet of Wetmore, NY. The next year he brought phone service to Wetmore when his workmen set poles and strung wire over the ten miles distance from Lowville. This certainly must have had an expediting effect on his business.

In the last few years of his time in Martinsburg, Lafayette developed perhaps his most crowning achievement. The Wetmore Electric Company was created in early 1898 when he purchased a coal-fired electrical generating facility near Lowville. Wetmore quickly realized that harnessing hydro power or white coal from the regions swift running rivers would be a far more efficient method of producing electricity. To that end, he built the Belfort Hydro-Electric Plant in the township of Croghan. This was the first hydroelectric facility in northern New York. Wetmore built a field stone powerhouse on the bank of the Beaver River in the hamlet of Belfort in which he placed a turbine capable of generating 400 kilowatts per hour. He then set poles and strung wires a distance of fourteen mile to Lowville where he was under contract to supply the village with electricity to operate their street lights. This transmission line was labeled the longest in the world for about one year. The field stone powerhouse is still in use and the original turbines were used until the nineteen forties. Wetmore’s son Deane managed this and the other power plants in the area for many years’ afterwards. Since then twelve other electricity-generating facilities have established along the Beaver River; imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

In 1902 after his electric company reached a solid footing, Wetmore moved his family to Lowville to engage in other business enterprises more closely associated with the development of forest products. While a son-in-law ran the sawmill in Martinsburg, Wetmore partnered with Steven Nevin to establish an iron works and to manufacture steel wood pulp machinery, slab barkers, centrifugal pumps and, his ever-famous Deer River Plow. To utilize wood products from his timberlands, Lafayette began another business in Lowville in 1905 by manufacturing what would be known as the Wetmore Folding Table. These were a compact but sturdy piece of furniture similar to a card table and included patentable features. They became very popular and, due to a contract with the S&H Green Stamp Company, were sold in every state in the U.S and overseas. To expand production and to overcome transportation difficulties, Wetmore built a new factory in Glenfield in 1907. The Glenfield and Western Railroad connected his sawmill in Martinsburg to the New York Central at Glenfield as there was no rail service from Martinsburg to Lowville. The same year he built the Otter Creek Power facility to provide electricity to his new Glenfield Manufacturing Company and the residents of Glenfield. The new plant was able to expand it production to include more variety of tables, furniture dowels and knitting mill bobbins. Wetmore moved his family into a new house at Glenfield in 1909, but he would not enjoy life there for a significant time as he died of pernicious anemia while doctoring in New York City in January 1910.

Most people would agree that at age 53 an inventive person had many more cards to play—many more “ways to be tried”. One of Wetmore’s ideas that never came to fruition was the construction of a monorail connecting the villages of Croghan to Lowville. Despite a shortened life, Lafayette Wetmore’s prolific inventiveness earns him a special place in the annals of Lewis County. As the region’s economy transforms itself in the 21st Century, entrepreneurs would be well advised to consider the Wetmore family maxim “tentanda via est”.

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