WARRENSBURG — Before oil, before coal, before steam, water was the power source of choice for industry. It’s what put Warrensburg on the map.
Warrensburg sits on a section of the Schroon River that quickly drops 70 feet in elevation. This creates a strong current, which can be used to power everything from saw and grist mills to shirt factories.
According to Warrensburg Museum of Local History Director Steve Parisi, this drop in elevation is the reason the town exists.
“What brought people here was lumber, and saw mills were water powered,” Parisi said.
The history of Warrensburg industry is the subject of a new exhibit that opened earlier this month at the Warrensburg museum.
Parisi said the town of Warrensburg began to take shape thanks to the logging industry in the late 1700s and into the 1800s. The river made the industry efficient and lucrative.
“That made it very convenient, you could just float the logs right into your saw mill,” Parisi said.
Jonathon Vowers built the first saw mill in what is now Warrensburg in 1794. The logging industry would continue to be a major source of income for the town until the 1960s.
In the 1830s, another industry came to the area in the form of tanning. Parisi explained once again Warrensburg was a prime location for the industry.
Parisi said the tanning process at the time required a lot of water, so the river once again proved its worth. The acid needed for the tanning was also derived from hemlock trees, of which the area had an abundance.
“A great many fortunes were made in the Adirondacks in tanning,” he said.
The 1880s brought with them the arrival of the wool and paper industries in Warrensburg. Parisi said the exhibit shines a light on what living in the town at this time of prosperity was like.
People were coming north for jobs in the various mills and factories. “There were literally thousands of factory jobs right here in Warrensburg,” Parisi said.
The trolley used to run through Warrensburg from places like Glens Falls, he said. Today, people commute south for work, but he said people then commuted north.
“They weren’t paid a lot but in those days, having a job that paid regularly was what was important.”
Other exhibits in the museum show just what this age of prosperity brought to the town. One display covers the large, elegant houses that were built during the town’s heyday. While some have been dismantled, many can still be seen today.
The new exhibit also shows how Warrensburg’s prosperity carried over into surrounding areas. Factories that manufactured clothing would often pay women on farms to sew from their homes. The factory would give them the materials and then pick up the finished products.
Parisi said the new exhibit is not the first nod the town has made to industry’s role in its history. He said a few years ago, the museum hosted an event that brought residents who had worked in Warrensburg factories to the museum to discuss their memories.
“We had 50 or 60 people in here who just wanted to talk about their experiences,” he said.
Today, most of the mills and factories that once stood by the river in Warrensburg are closed.
The tanning industry came to end when the area ran out of hemlock trees around 1885. The wool industry lasted until the 1940s and the shirt factory closed in the 1960s, along with the saw mills. The paper industry lasted into the ‘70s, when the companies could no longer afford to upgrade and modernize equipment and slowly faded away.
Parisi said today there a few companies left in the area, but Warrensburg’s best industry is nature tourism.
The museum is open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and from 1 to 3 p.m. Sundays.
The museum is closed Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.