Fall 1997

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The Glory Days of the

Munro Estate

Mary Munro Recalls
Life in her Grandfather's Day


Richard Palmer

Mary Munro grew up on a country estate, the great-granddaughter of Squire Munro, one of the first settlers in Elbridge village. She was the last of the Elbridge Munros, and her white hair, sparkling eyes, dignified bearing, and gentle manner reminded one that advancing years bring charms of their own.

Not the least of those charms was the ability to tell us something about our past. As a Munro, she was frequently consulted by historical researchers, but she modestly referred most queries to her more historically-minded cousins in Marcellus and Baldwinsville.

Yet Mary Munro herself, while she was a student at Columbia Teachers College, wrote a paper for a sociology class there that is a fascinating document of local history. Entitled Quarter Century with a Central New York Farmer: 1846 - 1871, the paper tells the story of life on her grandfather's 200-acre farm west of Elbridge.

The principal reference sources for the paper were farm journals kept by John Munro, the grandson of Squire Munro and the grandfather of Mary Munro.

This John Munro was the man who built the cobblestone house at the corner of what is now Route 5 and Hamilton Road. Listed in Architecture Worth Preserving in Onondaga County, and identified as "perhaps the most important Gothic Revival building in Onondaga County," it is described as follows:

This cobblestone Gothic Revival building, standing amid century-old hard maples on an expansive site, crowning a gentle rise with a skyline of gables and chimneys, is more than a farmhouse; it must be included with Whig Hill and Roosevelt Hall as one of three county country houses in the grand manner, the tradition of the great country estates.

In this still-magnificent home, now owned by Dr. and Mrs. William B. Drake, Mary Munro grew up.

Pondering her grandfather's reasons for building the 17-room house, Mary Munro wrote:

When one considers that…11 men were probably lodged and boarded, and that there were also, in all likelihood, two, or perhaps three hired girls, one can see why larger quarters were desirable. Evidently, also, grandfather had political ambitions, and perhaps felt the need of a more pretentious home as one fitting his position. His family was growing. Much entertaining was done, and he no doubt felt that this would increase as his children grew older…

The writer in Architecture Worth Preserving offers a different hypothesis: "Perhaps the reminisence of aristocratic English country life is less attributable to the pretentiousness of Yankee farmer John Munro than to the taste of English architect, Thomas Atkinson."

The late LeRoy Monro, Mary's brother, told Architecture Worth Preserving interviewers that he recalled his father telling that architect Atkinson lived with the family over the winter when the interiors were being completed. The home is a testament to Atkinson's skills.

The cobblestones were drawn from Lake Ontario by sleigh, according to Miss Munro, and the wood was all taken from the farm. The woodworking was done on the premises.

Unlike the other grand country estates in Onondaga County, the John Munro house was a working farm. John Munro was a "gentleman farmer," to be sure; he had hired men to do the farm work. But the Munros were not "idle rich. " John Munro kept busy attending to the many details of his large household and his many enterprises.

Miss Munro wrote that her grandfather spent a good deal of time making purchases in surrounding villages. "Evidently no one community was adequate for all needs" she wrote. "On the same day he frequently went to three different places for as many purchases, as on one day he went to Jordan for groceries, to Elbridge for the mail, and to Mottville for cultivator teeth."

John Munro also spent a good deal of time at the sawmill owned by him and his brother Daniel. "Collections and deliveries were necessary," she wrote, "and calls were made to notify people that their lumber was ready. Notes were paid, and money loaned to other neighbors…"

That is not to say that social life was neglected. "He and Eveline, his wife, would go to town for groceries but spend the afternoon visiting with some friend, perhaps 'staying for tea,'" she wrote."…very large parties were quite common, especially on anniversaries or special holidays…fifty or sixty people attended those gatherings, and grandfather states that they 'had a very enjoyable time.'"

John Munro was very active in church work. "Probably there is no one thing outside of this work which is mentioned oftener," Mary wrote. Besides attending services and prayer meetings, he devoted a great deal of time to soliciting and collecting, attending conventions, and making out reports. Miss Munro recorded many other activities of her grandfather: "…As trustee of the one-room school in 1858, he hired the teacher for $4.75, she agreeing to board herself…Then, too, there were miscellaneous tasks which claimed his attention—many of which today would be performed by a lawyer, or other specialist, if performed at all. He drew up deeds and mortgages, made contracts, and surveyed land. He went to Syracuse to see about revocation of a tavern license. He sat on a local jury when offenses were tried, a man being fined $800 for selling boys strong drink, and another man being declared incompetent because he was an "habitual drunkard…" Munro was also a member of the "Society for Detecting Horse Thieves" and once went to help look for a murderer. "As supervisor in 1860, he let the job of doctoring the poor… From 1860 to 1871, grandfather seemed to become more and more interested in public affairs…"

All of this was in addition to the household chores, which Munro evidently helped with: "putting down" hams and beef in salt, drying apples, boiling cider, making soap, gathering bark for coloring, helping with dyeing, having rugs woven, gathering herbs for medicine, dipping candles, doing the wash, making clothes, slaughtering livestock and making sausage, household repairs, tending the garden—all were chronicled in John Munro's farm journal.

The farm must have been a vast enterprise. Munro raised and sold grass seed, millet, flax, buckwheat, broomcorn, oats, barley, wheat, rye, and corn. Sheep were raised for wool. Large numbers of cows and hundreds of pigs were on the farm, as well as turkeys, geese, and chickens. In December, 1851, Munro recorded the sale of about 300 pounds of chickens and turkeys plus 31 geese. In 1856, he mentioned having 500 hogs.

Munro also tried some unusual crops. In 1864 the journal noted sugar cane was "cut and the juice extracted, there being three pails full which boiled down to four quarts of syrup. " He raised tobacco from 1851 on and "at one time he hired men to make his tobacco into cigars. " The farm hands gathered hickory nuts, black walnuts, butternuts, and chestnuts, and bees were kept for several years.

Miss Munro remarked on the low wages paid hired men: "In 1847 he paid $1.00, $8.00 and $10.00 a month to different men. The following year he paid $12.00 and $13.00. Even as late as 1900 we know men worked for $25.00"

She also noted that bartering was common. "[G]oods were seldom paid for by giving cash, and some of the exchanges seem very peculiar. In 1857, a harness bought at $32, was payable in wood at $3 a cord."

She quotes a notation about another exchange: "I have taken from Mr. Shanahan the pony which satisfied the judgment I obtained against him for damages by his hogs and cattle. I traded the pony for a two-horse wagon made from an old stage coach."

"Later he traded a pair of mules for a horse, thirty-seven pounds of salt, seventy-two pounds of candles, and one hundred thirty-two pounds of hard soap!" Miss Munro wrote.

John Munro died in 1900, having moved into the village of Elbridge. The year before he had turned the farm over to his son Frank, Mary's father. Mary, then 7, called that house home until 1963, when the farm was sold out of the family.

Miss Munro had a long career as a school teacher. She was graduated from Geneseo Normal School and spent several summer sessions at Columbia Teachers College in New York City. From about 1914 to 1918 she taught at the Hart Lot School; she spent the next four years teaching 5th, 6th, and 7th graders at Elbridge Elementary School.

Then she taught at Baldwinsville and finally she went to Cazenovia, where she taught for 17 years. She spent most summers at the Elbridge farm. After she retired from teaching in New York State, she went to Colorado where she taught for 12 years. Miss Munro remembered that there were about 30 students in a class and that "they were no particular trouble. "

Mary's brother, LeRoy, took the farm over from their father and raised purebred Holsteins. After the death of LeRoy's wife in 1962, Miss Munro moved home from Colorado to keep house for her brother.

In 1963, they sold the farm and moved up the road to a new little blue house. Miss Mary Munro died Dec. 20, 1981, at the age of 90.

© 1997, Richard Palmer
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