I Can Still Remember: The Old Saint Lawrence Valley

Kenneth Cook remembers a time when the Saint Lawrence Valley was a much simpler place, full of lush, fertile fields and farms. He hopes of a future that will restore the land to what it once was.

| July/August 1978

  • Fotolio_LK
    The Saint Lawrence River Valley of Kenneth Cook's childhood was fertile and full of farms. Many industrial changes have left the area vacant and unlike it was before.

  • Fotolio_LK

I was raised in the heart of the Saint Lawrence River Valley, probably the most fertile farming region in all of New York State. Although I've yet to meet a visitor — even today — who has not been filled with awe by the valley's beauty, I can't help wishing that everyone could see it as it once was. 

I'm not an old man, but I can still remember when the horse was a necessity on every farm and the countryside was dotted with small herds of cattle grazing contentedly behind rail fences. 

Ah, but prosperity must come to all and so it came to us in the form of the great Saint Lawrence Seaway. Yes, I'm aware of the waterway's "benefits" to the rest of the country, but I still curse the man who spawned the idea of that huge monstrosity. (May its oil — now coating our river — seep into his grave, and his sleep be forever disturbed by the roar of the giant diesel tractors that replaced our horses.) 

I can vividly recall the first major blow I saw prosperity deal to our valley. It was a warm summer morning and I — a clerk in a small country store — was waiting on half a dozen tobacco-chewing farmers. They were discussing the probabilities of a good crop that year and telling the same stories they'd told every Saturday morning since I could remember. I believe we were just in the middle of the Three-Legged Pig yarn when the first hard-hatted construction worker walked in and asked if I could cash his paycheck — "Sure," says I (we were used to cashing the farmers' milk checks, and we always had some extra money on hand). And then I turned the piece of paper over and read the amount: $357.20. An instant hush fell across the room, save for the choking sound made by one of the farmers who'd just swallowed his tobacco. 

There were six farms for sale in our neighborhood the next morning, and the trend soon swept the valley. Those that couldn't be sold easily were just abandoned as their owners made their way to the nearest union hall. Month by month and year by year, those of us who stayed watched the hayfields around us turn into untended jungles of thorn bushes, tag alder and birch. Our biggest export had changed from milk to manpower as the valley's young men left the land and moved to the cities to seek their fortunes. 

The decades rolled past, and this exodus — if anything — only accelerated. Finally, even I began to accept the death of the old way of life I'd loved and enjoyed.  And then — just a few years ago — I happened upon a group of back-to-the-landers at a local auction. 

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