A Graves Situation

by Annie Stoltie | February 2020

Circa 1870s architectural rendering of Graves Mansion courtesy of the Au Sable Heritage Museum and town of Jay historian Sharron Hewston

For the love of local landmarks

resident Grover Cleveland stood on the second-floor veranda of Henry and Kate Graves’s mansion in Au Sable Forks and likely told the crowd, waving hand-sized American flags on the lawn below, that company towns like theirs were the pride of the nation.

That August day must have been one to remember—the elegant three-story Victorian as backdrop for the 22nd Commander in Chief and his new bride, 21-year-old Frances Folsom. This was a social stop on the couple’s journey to Saranac Inn for a month-long summer vacation. According to an 1886 New York Times article, the president would fish and “transact the least possible amount of official business.”

The Graves showpiece on Rome Street was unlike the region’s other grand estates—often twiggy, antler-clad marvels of lakeside architecture, out of sight to all except the wealthy elite who owned them and the locals who served the owners. But the Graves built in town, surrounded by the modest dwellings of J. & J. Rogers Company employees and a couple blocks walk to the iron foundry’s company store and office, where Henry Graves was treasurer.

Now, 135 years after President Cleveland’s visit and a half-century after the Rogers mill closed down, the Graves Mansion remains, though its only residents are pigeons that squeeze through crumbling roofs and cracks in the verandas. The house sags with neglect, its floors buckling and windows broken. It’s a stop on haunted-house tours, target for vandals’ treasure hunts and an eyesore that leaves locals like Sharron Hewston shaking their heads. Hewston’s among the last of the Forks’ “mill kids,” and remembers the “Victorian Lady,” as she calls the mansion, back when this hamlet was “a place out of a Norman Rockwell painting.”

She’s also the town of Jay historian, charged with preserving all things past for the town’s three hamlets—Au Sable Forks, Jay and Upper Jay. As a sixth-generation Au Sabler, Hewston’s knowledge of local events is so comprehensive, a Forks drive-along with her is one history lesson after the next: The place where lodgers at a boardinghouse were swept away during the Ausable flood of 1856. The quarry on Pigeon Hill where a six-ton chunk of granite was cut for the base of abolitionist John Brown’s statue at his North Elba grave. The confectionery on Main Street where a fire broke out in 1925 and ravaged half the hamlet.

And then there’s the Graves Mansion.

Hewston spends a good amount of time debunking myths. No, there isn’t an Underground Railroad tunnel to the river. Henry Graves never bludgeoned anyone. The place isn’t haunted, nobody died of lead poisoning—the Graves lived into old age. And the icehouse in their backyard, a replica of nearby St. James church, wasn’t a dig at the religious establishment, but a nod to it.

The truth is that Henry Graves asked James Rogers, owner of J. & J. Rogers, for his daughter Mary’s hand in marriage. He was denied, as she was younger than her eligible sister Kate. So “over-achieving” Henry, explains Hewston, tapping at the Graves portraits in one of her photo albums as if pointing out old friends, married Kate and commissioned a 32-­room home for her. It featured hummingbirds—her favorite creature—on brass door handles and hinges and included nine marble fireplaces and intricate wall carvings, parquet floors and ceilings. Also true is that Henry Graves used J. & J. Rogers’s money to fund his project. (It was embezzlement, but Hewston uses softer language, that he “borrowed some money and forgot to pay it back.”)

After years of neglect, in 2001 the Graves Mansion was purchased by a “hometown boy.” Celebratory newspaper articles gave hope. But that ended badly. Today—despite the bank’s padlocks on the mansion’s doors—books, bellows, the conservatory’s marble fireplace, and most of the house’s ornate brass hardware have been stolen. (A quick eBay search reveals a Graves-like hummingbird doorknob and its plates, selling for $400.) A neighbor says he calls the police when he sees trespassers on the property. He fears the mansion will soon collapse, a blow to the morale in his already struggling community.

Adirondack Great Camps are sometimes saved by wealthy investors who use them as private getaways like their Gilded-Age predecessors. But a mansion in the heart of an old mill town? That’s trickier. Adirondack Architectural Heritage rehabbed Keeseville’s Ausable Horse Nail Factory’s company office into its headquarters. Witherbee & Sherman’s mining office is Moriah’s Town Hall. Hewston envisions the Graves Mansion as a museum, where she can spread her Au Sable Heritage Museum exhibits beyond the cramped girls’ locker room in the town’s former school, now its community center. She still believes. 

And maybe, in this moment, that’s what matters. As pieces of the past fall, people like Hewston rise to remind us who came before. “You have to tell their stories,” she says, holding back tears. “This is our home, our roots.”    

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