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Varick Chittenden’s TAUNY

Varick Chittenden founded the non-profit organization, TAUNY (Traditional Arts in Upstate New York), 25 years ago. Although no longer responsible for day-to-day operations, he is still actively engaged in TAUNY’s mission of “helping people understand and appreciate the folk traditions and local culture of everyday life – present and past – in the North Country.”

As the capstone to TAUNY’s 25th year celebration, September 17, 2011 will mark the grand opening of the TAUNY Center in a renovated two-story, brick building in Canton, NY. For about 70 years, the building housed the former J J Newbury’s five and dime store, one of 565 such stores once found across the USA. Perhaps appropriately, the now defunct chain itself was part of the folk tradition and local culture of America.  And certainly appropriately, the TAUNY Center grand opening will showcase a major exhibit curated by Varick Chittenden, Kindred Pursuits: Folk Art in North Country Life. The exhibit features about 80 examples of visual folk art, from quilts to weathervanes to whimsical sculptures.

Varick was born and raised in Hopkinton, NY, just 20 miles south of the St. Lawrence River. He graduated from St. Lawrence University with both a BA in English and a Masters in Education and is now Professor Emeritus of English and Folklore at SUNY Canton. He taught there for 30 years, during which time he earned an additional MA in American Folk Culture at SUNY’s Cooperstown, NY program.

The 1976 Cooperstown experience greatly influenced the rest of his life: “…everyone’s eyes were opened to new ways of looking at the simpler things of everyday life” he states. 

One year later, he created the Center for the Study of North Country Folklife, and the following year he organized the first Festival of North Country Folklife.

He was a pioneer in the movement of focusing on the folklore of one’s own area. In 1979 he wrote that one of the goals of the Center is to foster this new movement – “to collect and record the experiences and folk traditions of the North Country; not just for future generations, but for the enjoyment and enrichment of those living here now.”

When time from teaching allowed, Varick pursued his special interests – folk art, vernacular architecture, oral traditions. His passion for local folk culture and living traditions coupled with his zeal for preserving and showcasing them in the North Country were fused together in the 1986 founding of TAUNY.

TAUNY – Mission and Major Programs

How does TAUNY fulfill its mission of showcasing the folk culture and living traditions of the region? It collects, preserves, interprets, and presents, through its archives, exhibits, and programs, managed by the staff of full and part-time professionals.

TAUNY’s sophisticated website further explains: “TAUNY celebrates the diversity of living traditions inherited from the past, maintained in the present, and passed on to the future.” By nurturing a greater appreciation and understanding of the region’s folk culture and traditions, TAUNY “contributes to enhanced regional pride, increased economic vitality, affirmation of regional values and traditions, and encouragement of the stewardship of these customs and traditions for posterity.” [see]

TAUNY has two major recognition programs founded and guided by Varick Chittenden to honor appropriate activities, as well as to enhance awareness of the importance of folk lore and traditions.

The North Country Heritage Award recognizes individuals, families, or community groups who have mastered traditional arts or customs identified with the region and remain committed to passing them on to future generations. Each fall the Salute to North Country Legends honors the year’s Heritage Award recipients with a ceremony that includes audiovisual presentations featuring awardees.

Each year, approximately three persons are so honored. Past River oriented recipients have included: the late Jim Kinkaid for creating carefully detailed models of local boats noted for their authenticity and beauty; and three St. Lawrence River guides, Jim Brabant, Clay Ferguson, and the late Bill Massey.

Cultural Landmarks – TAUNY’s Register of Very Special Places (RVSP). RVSP identifies places in the North Country that are special and important to local people. Varick Chittenden explains: “These are places that have been around for some time, where important events have occurred and about which there are all kinds of local stories – places that would be sorely missed if they were suddenly gone. For a place to be named to RVSP, historians and others document important details about the architecture, social and cultural history, and current vitality of the site.”

Along the River there are two such TAUNY designated cultural landmarks: the Vivekananda Cottage in Thousand Island Park, Wellesley Island, NY and the Zenda Farm Preserve in Clayton, NY.

Regarding the Vivekananda Cottage, TAUNY explains that this is the Victorian cottage owned originally by Elizabeth Dutcher. In 1895, she invited the revered Hindu Swami Vivekananda for a seven-week summer visit. The property was purchased by The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in 1947 as a spiritual retreat. The cottage continues to be used as a summer retreat for Vivekananda’s successor and his followers from around the world.

The other River cultural landmark, so designated this past June, is the Zenda Farm Preserve, owned and conserved by the Thousand Islands Land Trust (TILT). According to the RVSP documentation description:  The 405-acre farm just outside the village of Clayton is a symbol of the agricultural heritage of the North Country and a community focal point for social, artistic, interpretive, and recreational activities.

Businessman Merle Youngs acquired the land in the late 1930’s and developed it as a dairy farm showplace. Because Youngs had a commitment to state-of-the-art agriculture, he built ten Jamesway farm buildings, noted for their high-quality design and polished steel appearance. As the decades passed, the dairy operation was abandoned and the buildings and immediate grounds deteriorated; 600 of the original 700+ acres were sold. In 1997, the buildings and remaining 100+ acres were donated to TILT.

Since then, TILT has renovated the buildings and over a six-year period acquired 300+ acres of the original farm property. A farmer grazes cattle on the pastures and - observing precautions to protect the grassland nesting birds -  cuts the hay from the meadows.

Uses of Zenda include a community garden, TILT’s annual community picnic attended by 350+ persons, university-directed aquatic ecology research, and TILT’s interpretive programs for children. The most popular feature is the just-opened 1½ mile walking trail, featuring beautiful views of open meadows and pastures. The trail is named in honor of the persons who donated the Farm to TILT: Lois Jean and the late John MacFarlane.

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The story of Varick Chittenden’s TAUNY is itself as intriguing and important as any of those chronicled by the organization he founded and led. His many accomplishments were formally recognized by his alma mater, St Lawrence University, with their 2004 Alumni Citation. At that time, the University stated that Varick Chittenden had dedicated his life and career “to uncovering the hidden wonders of the North Country, the oddities and uniquenesses that give it its distinctive character, and to making them known to the rest of us.”

By Ted Mascott

Ted Mascott, a retired business executive, formerly was a seasonal island resident and a year-round resident, and most recently is a seasonal resident of Clayton. He continues to be involved in River community activities and is a past President of the Thousand Islands Land Trust and a former Board member of Save The River. Ted holds an MBA from Columbia University and is a Dartmouth College Graduate where he majored in history, with an emphasis on the social history of the United States. Following Dartmouth, he worked in public radio at WGBH, Boston, specializing in environmental, political, and social reporting. He is married to Mary McDonald Mascott, a native of Jefferson County, and one equally involved in community organizations.

Editor’s note:  We thank Ted Mascott for this special recognition of TAUNY.  We recommend a visit to both the building in Canton, NY, and on line!  Their particular website section entitled: Tales of ‘The River’ provides a collection of stories from St. Lawrence River Communities.  There are few web pages that are as rich in history as these.  You will find stories about Folklore Home ~ Foreword to River Stories Akwesasne ~ Alexandria Bay ~ Cape Vincent ~ Clayton~ Massena ~ Morristown ~ Ogdensburg ~ Waddington.

In addition, as the immediate past president of TILT, I want to express my personal appreciation to TAUNY for recognizing the Zenda Farm Preserve and to thank the many community members who support our efforts to preserve this very special place. 

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Prudence Matthews
Comment by: Prudence Matthews ( )
Left at: 2:18 PM Thursday, September 15, 2011
Varick...what a talented,inovated creative man and at the same time very humble !!!! kudos to you for all you've done for the North Country.....great article.....Prudence Matthews
Peter Charron
Comment by: Peter Charron ( )
Left at: 4:41 AM Tuesday, October 11, 2011
In so many ways Varick's work accomplishes so much. Recycling a landmark. Revitalizing the downtown. Educating us about the North Country and most importantly providing a venue for some very talented people.

When we return to the river every summer trips to TAUNY are always planned. Our cottage and Piedmont home have many wonderful things from the gallery. We're especially proud of a rustic yet elaborate and meticulously made game table that is the centerpiece of my study in California. The gallery is also great place to find books of local interest.

I feel a special connection. My mother was an art teacher in the area and she and fellow local artists had few venues for their work. Also, my dad worked for J.J. Newberrys for 42 years and managed the store in Ogdensburg for 20 years.