Remsen’s Welsh Descent

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on March 7, 2004

When they came, the land looked familiar—enough so that it seemed like home. And eventually it became home for several thousand people of Welsh descent.

“You can compare the landscape to that of Wales,” says Juanita Finn, committee member of Remsen’s Barn Festival of the Arts, explaining what drew the Welsh to New York’s Mohawk River Valley more than 200 years ago. “Everyone in the village claims some sort of Welsh heritage.”

In 1798, five Welsh families made their way to Steuben, N.Y., via Albany and the Mohawk River, where they established the town of Remsen (pop. 1,958). They wrote home, telling of cheap, arable land, and by the mid-1830s it was an almost entirely Welsh community. By 1860, the population was 2,670.

“They came here in overwhelming numbers,” says Leonard Wynne, past president of the Remsen/Steuben Historical Society. Given to large families, religion, and hard work, they laid the foundation of community spirit that still exists today.

Farmers were joined by tradesmen in this dairy farming area, among them, stonemasons. They built stone homes and chapels, one of which still stands, the Capel Cerrig, or Stone Meeting House, built in 1831. Seating 500, with eight plain windows along each side and wide, straight-back bench pews, it was the epitome of Calvinist-Methodist austerity.

They brought with them a rich tradition of music and poetry, celebrated in their annual native Eisteddfods, competitions between poets and musicians that date back to 1176. The Festival of the Arts, scheduled Sept. 25-26 this year, is a continuation of that long ago community spirit and includes one of the most Welsh traditions, the Gymanfa Ganu, the Festival of the Sacred Song, conducted by Robert Jones, the son of Welsh-born parents.

By the 1870s, all but two of the town’s residents were of Welsh descent, and Remsen was looked upon as a center of Welsh culture and influence. Welsh was spoken widely in the town until the 1950s.

With their history of speaking the oldest existing Celtic dialect, the Welsh have a well-earned reputation for literature, and myth. Myth has it that America was actually discovered by a Welsh prince in 1169, and is named for Richard Amerik, a Welshman. What is not myth, however, is that Rev. Robert Everett, an abolitionist, translated Uncle Tom’s Cabin into Welsh and published a Welsh language newspaper in Remsen, as well as more than 600 books that were distributed to Welsh communities worldwide. Today, visitors from Wales visit his grave regularly. “We probably have as many visitors from Wales as we do the local area,” Finn says of Everett’s gravesite.

And the town’s railroad history also is a solid part of its past. The convergence of three New York Central rail lines between the Adirondacks and the Great Lakes made Remsen Depot, for a time, the hub and central stopover for travelers in the northern part of the state. The decline in rail travel ended that, and the last train left Remsen’s station in 1965. It was razed, the turntable ripped out, and the land became a dumping ground.

Today, however, Remsen Depot stands again, a stop on the 50-mile Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Its restoration began as a discussion in 1998 between John Secor and a group of other Rotarians and, when presented to the town, it took on a life of its own.

“We built the canopy in time for our bicentennial,” Secor says. He adds with a laugh, “Then I opened my big mouth and said, ‘Now we’re going to do the station.’”

The replication of the depot was carried out with the same sense of community that was brought here from Wales 205 years ago, using mostly volunteer help. The community has since landscaped the site, put in a runaround track, and added a nearby 6-acre corn maze shaped like a Welsh dragon for fund-raising efforts.

“It’s put new heart back in the community,” Secor says of the revitalized depot. “There’s definitely a sense of pride here, and a lot of that is built on that Welsh heritage.”