North Country “Folkstores” Offer One-of-a-Kind Gift Options

Chocolate is drained from a mold to create a shell for carmel filling at Sweet Picken’s in Heuvelton.

BY: Neal Burdick
With the holiday shopping season upon us, the big question of modern times rears its stubborn head – do I go to stores, or buy online? If the former, do I patronize the Big Boxes, or find little one-of-a-kind shops here and there?

    Online shopping has its advantages, especially if you don’t want to go stumbling into a lake-effect blizzard, but you’re likely to end up with a cookie-cutter product made of plastic in some foreign country. How much more satisfying to stay in the area, examine what you’re thinking to purchase, and boost the local economy.

    So-called “folkstores” are one place where you can find products that you won’t see on Amazon, most of them made right here in the North Country. Two of those, about fifteen miles apart, can be visited on one swing through central St. Lawrence County. Pickens General Store in Heuvelton and the Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY) Folkstore on the main drag in Canton both offer gift ideas you won’t find in Best Buy or Target.

    Pickens General Store resides near the Oswegatchie River bridge in downtown Heuvelton. It’s the first floor of the restored Pickens Hall, a sturdy three-story community hub that was constructed in 1858 and was recently rescued from the wrecking ball by a group of concerned citizens working through the local historical society. Heuvelton is in the heart of one of the Amish enclaves in “the big county,” and so perforce a lot of the merchandise is Amish-themed and/or Amish-made. You can find wooden furniture and baskets and toys, tea towels, straw hats and quilted linen bonnets, potholders, aprons, placemats and napkins, all locally sourced and made by men, women and perhaps even children in some of the farmhouses you drove past to get there. There are dolls, without facial features in deference to the Amish belief against graven images. And the cheese curd – you don’t want to miss out on that mildly salty, squeaky delight. Be quick, though – it comes in on Wednesdays and is usually sold out by the weekend.

    When you’re ready for a change of scenery, go up one flight of stairs to the museum, which has artifacts from the old days of Heuvelton. There you will learn by perusing a fragile old timetable that not only did the tiny village have train service 100 years ago; it had no fewer than twelve passenger trains a day running between DeKalb Jct. and Ogdensburg. Now, not only are there no trains; there are no tracks, but the depot, a block or so away, remains, a classic example of turn-of-the-twentieth-century railroad architecture.

    Go up another flight and you can examine the splendidly restored opera house, where local acting companies like the Grasse River Players and local musical groups and soloists perform regularly. With its hardwood floor and decorative wallpaper, it’s like going through a time warp into an era when entertainment came in the form of live people in the same room with you, not out of a screen full of plastic and wires. In an adjacent room, an immense wooden pulley reveals how heavy set pieces and props were hauled up to the third floor in Vaudeville days.

    The TAUNY store in Canton has similar Amish-made products, but plenty more as well. A scan of the shelves reveals fruit and berry jams, maple derivatives like barbecue sauce and vinaigrette (do I need to say they carry regular syrup too?), beeswax candles, leather belts, pottery, driftwood art, jewelry, postcards, birdhouses, perfumes and lip balms – the list goes on, articles made by talented, resourceful North Country folk.

    Then there are books and music. Shelves are laden with children’s books, cookbooks, novels, waterfall guidebooks and so on, all by local authors and often about local topics in local settings. If you’re interested in regional traditional music, the Folkstore has tapes and CDs, as well as a couple of books on this subject, both published by TAUNY. “Songs to Keep: Traditional Adirondack North Country Songs, Words and Music” preserves highlights of the collection of the late Champlain Valley folklorist Marjorie Lansing Porter. They are presented just as they were sung by the likes of Grandma Lily Delorme, who Porter described as a “slight, wiry mountain woman” who sang ballads, hymns and the like without adornment or accompaniment, as they were passed down through her family – in other words, authentic folk songs. Scores and lyrics allow you to sing them yourself.

    In a similar vein, but set in the western part of the region, is Robert Bethke’s new book, “One Rough Life / Ted Ashlaw: Adirondack Lumber Camp and Barroom Singer.” The book is the first volume in TAUNY’s projected Publications in Regional Folkways series. Ashlaw (1905-1987), a logger in the northern Adirondacks, survived a near-fatal entanglement with a high-power electrical line as well as several marriages. Like the singers in the Porter collection, he was not a show; he just sang, a cappella, where listeners gathered (see the subtitle), with no formal training and no fancy studio, just a clunky tape recorder when Bethke preserved his repertoire in the 1970s. You can hear him on the two included CDs. But the book is about more than just music; it’s about a man who, typical of many in the North Country, worked hard in unforgiving conditions, cobbled together a living, and did the best he could for his family while finding free and simple entertainment in his own vocal cords.

    TAUNY during the shopping season expands its store with its Holiday Showcase, which TAUNY Executive Director Jill Breit says is “an opportunity for regional artisans and producers to (offer) a greater variety from which to choose.” She mentions ornaments as one example, and wreaths made by noted crafter Jane Desotelle of Franklin County. And while you’re in the building after TAUNY’s Holiday Open House on December 1, peruse their famous gingerbread house display. I dare you to find one of those in Walmart.