Symbol of North Country history stands in Fort Drum

PHOTO BY DAWN DALY DAVIS The majestic LeRay Mansion, located on the Fort Drum grounds, is used for special events and to host distinguished guests.

“The years by themselves do not make a place historic. It is the men who give the color of history to a place by their deeds there or by merely having lived there.”

- Simon Strunsky [1879-1948]

* * *

These words in a simple fashion describe the North Country’s LeRay Mansion, a centerpiece in the area’s history and an early symbol of the deep roots the country of France played in our quest for independence. After centuries of various ownership, the property’s management and care have been, since 1942, under Fort Drum’ Directorate of Community Activities.

Today the 1800s mansion is in pristine condition, transformed under the auspices of the U.S. Army into a historic site with adaptable uses. A recent Deferiet Senior Citizens tour of Fort Drum included a visit to this important attraction that played a major role in settlement of this area.

Back in the 1990s, this writer visited the LeRay mansion on a tour sponsored by the 4 River Valleys Historical Society. At that time there was evidence of numerous restoration projects underway and then the home was occupied by a high-ranking Army office. That earlier visit did not include a tour of the grounds, which we assumed had yet to be restored.

Today work continues, as our guide reported, on outer buildings, most of which are constructed, like the main house, or graystone. On the walking tour, various sites were visited, such as a wooded area where several logs from another time had been bored out and intended as water pipes to the mansion.

During the tour, one interesting item we learned was that there is evidence that workers from the “Town of Champion” had been involved. Other structures that are part of the historic district include a farm manager’s cottage, a chapel, slave quarters and the land office.

The story begins in 1725 when Jacques-Donatien LeRay de Chaumont was born in Nantes, France. He would later become known as the “French Father of the American Revolution.”

His family was not considered nobility, but Jacques became a very successful and rich man building a shipping empire. Because of his position in commercial trade he was allowed to add the “de” to the family name. His achievements included purchasing the estate of Chateau de Chaumont-sur-Loire in Loire Valley, France.

After our July 4th Declaration of Independence, America sent emissaries to France seeking financial and military assistance. Among that delegation was Benjamin Franklin, who became very close to the LeRay de Chaumont family.

Chaumont suffered financial ruin in 1778 but was rescued by friends in the royal government. Then there was the matter of his “Catholic divorce.” The elder Chaumont’s son, James, came to the rescue.

James came to America in 1785, staying until 1790 attempting to collect outstanding bills from the Congress for his father’s support of our revolution. While here, James married Grace Cox of Sidney, New Jersey and became an American citizen in 1788. Two sons, Vincent and Alexander, and a daughter, Therese, were born to the couple.

It was James LeRay de Chaumont who would become known as the Father of the North Country. He acquired 350,000 acres from the Castorland and Antwerp land companies. That land attracted upper class French families fleeing from the tribulation of the French Revolution.

- - D H - -

In 1897, James commissioned the construction of a home new LeRaysville. In 1808 his family moved into the dwelling. The household also included salves and laborers. That home was destroyed by fire in 1822 and by 1825 had been rebuilt.

James played a major role in our history. One sale of land was in 1815 to Joseph Bonaparte, exiled King of Spain. Through the years the mansion hosted numerous famous people such as President James Monroe, DeWitt Clinton, Robert Livingston and Madame Deferiet.

James was one of the original backers of the St. Lawrence Turnpike, a roadway that connected Sackets Harbor with Plattsburg. During the War of 1812, it was used to transport military arms and supplies.

The grounds also served as a demonstration farm to aid new immigrants in farming techniques of this area. James established and was the first president of the Jefferson County Agriculture Society, which sponsored the first Jefferson County Fair.

In 1816, on a return trip from France, James was accompanied by his only daughter, Therese, and her husband. With them was a baby daughter, Clotilde, who died at the mansion. She was only 14 months old and is buried on the grounds. On the walking tour we visited her gravesite.

Close by is a bell suspended from a tree. Visitors to the mansion would ring the bell to alert the household that company had arrived. Several of our group took the opportunity to ring the bell.

The gravesite is near a heart-shaped reflecting pool that, due to the heavy rains, was at high level. There is evidence there were other pools on the grounds.

The ownership history of the property is somewhat uncertain, but through the years family names such as Payen, Phelps, Anderson and Remington appear on various legal documents. These are all before the federal government acquired the land and mansion in 1940.

- - D H - -

On a tour of the house, it was noted everything on the upper floors was in pristine condition. In one glass-enclosed dinnerware cabinet were pieces of gilt porcelain brought from France by Therese de Gouvello.

Several cooking fireplaces were located in the basement level, where the servants [slaves] worked and lived. The mansion is now outfitted with modern-day heating and cooling equipment to maintain proper conditions in the principal areas.

The North Country is filled with evidence of the French influence. In Cape Vincent is the Stone House, constructed between 1815 and 1817 for Vincent LeRay, son and property manager of James Donatien LeRay de Chaumont. Also there were several Jefferson Country communities whose names are from that early time.

- - D H - -

Addenda to Revolutionary War gravesite dedication ceremony at Hillside Cemetery outside Champion-

After the program, a reception and light lunch was served at the Champion Grange Hall where discussion continues on what an unusual day it had been. Nothing like conversation among history buffs.

We also learned from a Thousand Islands SOAR member that a grant application has been submitted for signage to be placed along Route 126 directing attention to this unique historical burial ground.

- - D H - -

There is still time to order those mum plants from the Carthage Area Hospital Auxiliary. Call Evelyn Peckham at 315-493-1223. Colors are yellow, orange, violet and burgundy. The mums are 9-inch plants for $6 each.

- - D H - -

August is quickly drawing to a close but there is still time to enjoy local entertainment offerings. Tonight, Aug. 24, Grit N Grace will be at the Carthage Farmers Market pavilion from 6 to 8 p.m. Next Thursday, Aug. 31, it will be “movie night” at the West Carthage gazebo; starting time 6:30 p.m.

And don’t forget, on Wednesdays the “cruise-ins” continue from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Rite Aid parking lot.

- - D H - -

Donna Hansen is the former managing editor of the Carthage Republican Tribune and retains the title of “editor emeritus.” She is a resident of the village of Carthage and remains active in various social organizations.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.