Rust & Roadsides Trip # 5 Canajoharie & Little Falls, NY

After our last brutal trip along the shores of lake Erie we were heading to the Albany airport enjoying views of the Erie Canal and Mowhawk Valley when we caught a glimpse of the old Beechnut factory in Cananjoharie. Pulling off the highway we discovered a mill town intact: an aspect of the project we had not explored.
We decided then and there to return.

A year later we were back.

Canajoharie is the Mowhawk word for “Pot that washes itself”, describing a natural whirlpool below the falls on Canajoharie Creek. Mill Street follows the creek. The houses and mills still standing along the street were in a state of arrested decay giving us a good glimpse into its past and rich material for our brushes.

The cluster of old houses at the end of the road we affectionately termed ‘the fishbowl’ was a beehive of continuous activity with old men mumbling to themselves, young adults drinking beer and playing basketball. Weaving through all of it a kinetic stream of jelly-faced kids on razors, bikes and little tikes bright plastic vehicles.
-Very Dr. Suess.

Day one we were treated to a tour of the Arkell Museum by Sue Friedlander (of Collections) who gave us some history on the town and of the museums chief benefactor and Beechnut visionary Bartlett Arkell.
We spent the next five days painting along the creek being informed and entertained by folks who grew up and worked there.

The powder coating factory (once a creamery) also canned deer meat for the locals during the depression. The mill where the first flat bottom paper bag was produced. The school where Susan B. Anthony taught. The generations who worked at “the Beechnut”.

Cosby and me on the bridge over the Canajoharie

Cosby and me on the bridge over the Canajoharie

The Canajoharie Creek. The stone walls everywhere trying to corral and contain the creek and the paramount importance of that waterway in the lives of so many.

The physically broken men still at work: former dock builder now grateful to have a maintenance job. The weary, hunched, soot blackened man who passed me each evening from the coating company with a smile at days end.

The wholesale kindness and curiosity of the people, and genuine surprise that we’d chosen to document the town they loved.

Sometimes unknowingly reminding them of their everyday beauty.

A text note we received from our new friend “Captain Crunch” says it all:

“Yo b….! Checking
u out on
hubba bubba
nice…. so happy I
got to share a
little life with u
two men….. Sorry
you have to share
“the man”
trophy…. low
I am in awe how
when I look at
streets everyday
not much
happens then
looking at your
paintings is like
instant memory
lane in living
color yes on the
canvas but
inside my
therapy… OK so I have scared you
don’t be … I was
at a point I
something to feel
alive…funny Joe
and john made
me realize How
much I love this
town and that I
am very much
thank you
guys…..oh ya
look in the
mirrors and say I
am one cool dude…u deserve
it…love capt

So thank you Canajoharie & Captain Crunch

LITTLE FALLS — Water and Stone

Another mill town built up around water – the Mohawk River and Erie Canal flow through it.
Massive stone walls dominate everywhere. Stone workers were lured from Carrara Italy specifically to serve the need. Massive blocks stacked, fitted and pinned with iron, stretch almost across the river and have the forever feeling of Roman ruins. Everything is on a God scale.
The message is lasting — permanence and prosperity.
However, in it’s present sleepy state, it takes imagination to give scale to it’s former power.

The mills produced Flour, Paper, Textiles, Batting, Tools and much more but the town has lost half its population since 1950.

At Canal Street, a bridge crosses the Mohawk River. There we were treated to a view of a pair of brick buildings stacked on stone foundations which were stacked on river bedrock. The Bedrock forms were wild and free form. We both realized that this was an iconic image and spent the next three days working on large canvases; John a view from the bridge and me working upriver on a concrete pad near the old hydro-electric plant. It was an unseasonable 83 degrees with brutal humidity.

John at Little Falls

John painting view from bridge, photo by Dave Warner

While I was left in blissful silence to work on a secluded concrete pad under the trees John was baking in full sun on the bridge and visible to all passers-by including scads of jelly-faced children and couple of folks who were bent on bringing him closer to God.

From a safe vantage point I viewed the delightful pantomime with a guilty pleasure.
In this case the road less traveled was indeed the best choice.

Joe at Little Falls

Joe looking way too serious during interview, photo by Dave Warner

The following day we painted from the 167 bridge with a great view of the Erie canal looking down on the old South side neighborhood. This was primarily where the Italian stonecutters lived.

The bridge rocked under our feet as lumber trucks rumbled by and curious joggers slowed down to get a look. One, a man who ran the local art association by the name of Kevin Milhaly stopped and was curious about the R2 logo on our work shirts and keenly interested in the project. We later had a beer together and he arranged a couple of interviews. These from the Little Falls Times as well as the Art in the Adirondacks (including a podcast) can be found here:

Art in the Adirondacks article: We get moments when we’re scared, then the gift of a lifetime, by Dave Warner

Art in the Adirondacks podcast: Interview with artists John Cosby and Joe Paquet, by Dave Warner

Courier-Standard-Enterprise article: Canajoharie on canvas, Visiting artists use local scenes as their subjects, by Joshua Thomas (download PDF)

Little Falls Times article: Pair of nationally known artists visit Little Falls for project

We ended with a visit to Alan and Linda Vincent who lived in one of the brick buildings we had painted. Alan, a third generation mill owner, was handing the business to his son. The old photos and conversation were a fitting way to end our visit and tie together past and present.

The great weather made it possible for us to work relentlessly and add greatly to the project. We rented a 200-year-old farmhouse just outside of Canajoharie and enjoyed a commanding view of the Mohawk Valley.

While breathing in lilac and a budding world we grilled meat, laughed, had the occasional martini and reviewed the days work.

Paleo Plein Air.
If work gets better, I’d like to know about it.

Special thanks to our host Diane, Sue, Kevin, Alan, Linda and all of the folks who welcomed and informed us — bringing us one step closer to telling this American story.

Railroad Liftbridge, Ashtabula, Ohio

Painting Trip #4 – Days 1&2

Cornwall New York to Erie Pennsylvania

Day 1, April 28
It all started so well, a beautiful spring day. Drove first to Scranton PA to see what was left of the railroad & mining there. Most everything was either modernized or being reused which was a good thing for the town — it seemed healthier than most. Not much left to paint and after three hours of nosing around, we made the long pull for Erie, arriving at 10:30pm and began organizing paint boxes and panels, both chomping at the bit to get started.

Day 2, April 29
The Scouting, God — all the scouting

I awoke and immediately peeked through the shades and was shocked to see the stoplight signals blowing horizontally in the 60mph gusts. After the initial cursing died away, we decided to load up our gear and scout the areas we had researched via Goggle Earth.

Our first stop in Erie was an old factory bar with a covered Bocce court attached with a steel plant behind. Finally, some roadside subject matter to paint. In all of the cities we have painted it has been challenging to find restaurants & watering holes which served the industrial workers. The neighborhoods looked promising, but in many cases were too dangerous to take a chance on.

This has been one of our challenges with the project. Often the only safe option is to paint in close proximity to one another. Spending a great deal of time in such places definitely heightens one’s intuition (i.e. shit detector) and we have both learned to pay close attention to it.

We continued NE toward Buffalo through Ripley – a one road town, another wonderful, sad collection of empty buildings.

Had lunch in the town of Westfield, then a short walk through town and saw a video/sundry store where the foreclosed owner simply left town and with everything still on the shelves.

Continued North until we overlapped our tracks from our last trip to Buffalo. We turned South to the town of Dunkirk and spoke with a young woman who said, “It’s all closing – everything is closing” and recommended we check out what was once a very large steel plant now with a handful of cars in the parking lot. We drove around the huge footprint of the property, ending up at the back gate and its empty Human Resources building.

Perhaps it was the sum total effect of what we had already seen that day, but I was hit by an oppressive wave of sadness, unfortunately a familiar one: Easton, Bethlehem, Allentown, Superior and so on. These towns are such thin shadows of what they once were.

Driving away on the cracked concrete streets I would catch glimpses of a mother and kids playing in their yard, an old man raking and wonder how so many bewildered people redefine their lives after generations of being able to count on something — it breaks your heart.

Conneaut was our next stop and we located a wonderful, large old port facility once part of Andrew Carnegie’s “Vertical Empire.” All the machinery there is on a God scale – everything seemed monstrously large.

We tried to speak to the port Manager and were denied any access to the site. Only the view from the parking lot above was available to us. 9/11 changed everything – getting access anywhere has become all but impossible.

It was late in the day by the time we headed to our final scouting location — Ashtabula and found a wealth of possibilities. The old neighborhoods were still intact, the port was still in operation.

We stopped into the Ashtabula Maritime Museum and old man by the name of Jack Perskari, a self-proclaimed “harbor brat”who grew up in town, as a child swam around sunken wooden ships and worked in the engine room on a lake freighter for four years.

When Jack was a child, his Grandfather, the local blacksmith, warned the family to stay away from the area in the summer months. Bridge Street, he said, at the time was one of the most dangerous places on  the planet: ‘Anyone who wanted a fight could find one.’ Hard to believe now with it’s trendy coffee house and artesian chocolate shop. He told us too about the gigantic, prehistoric – looking Huletts (ore-loading machines), each weighing 950 tons which lined the harbor for loading and unloading ore. When ships began to have self-loading capabilities, the Huletts were cut up for scrap and the harbor lost 600 jobs.

When I asked him how things have changed, he said ‘There was a time when you could have job for as long as you needed one. People weren’t just a piece of meat…’

Hundreds of miles, many towns – so many stories, so much history.
When you are on the road you can’t waste time.
It’s very difficult to process so much loss in one day.

It is clear to me how much bigger the project is than us — and how important it is to tell the story.