Fourth Coast Entertainment -

By R O Donnell
FCE Staff 



Last updated 12/3/2015 at 5:30am | View PDF

Pickens Hall

Every now and then you happen upon a place that is truly magical. A place right out of the pages of one of your favorite fantasy novels. You know, the one book that you read over and over, trying to imagine all the quaint and curious places depicted throughout its enchanting plot? Pickens Hall, nestled in the picturesque village of Heuvelton in St. Lawrence County, alongside the magnificent Oswegatchie River, is such a place.

As if it appeared suddenly one lazy afternoon, champagne colored clouds departing to reveal a structure right out of early Americana that sparkles in the sunlight and twinkles under starry skies, Pickens Hall has all the allure of an adventurous daydream. The first floor windows reveal fine and handsome handmade furniture amidst a theme of whatever season wisps about: presently, autumn has come to visit with her apple cider kisses and fragrant pumpkin-spiced bouquets. There are Jack O' Lanterns grimacing with candles flickering behind cutaway eyes, a witch's striped stockings sporting Victorian shoes, and delicate signs announcing handmade quilts and local honey among multicolored leaves scattered about the many nooks and crannies of the display. The Italianate-style molding that frames the storefront windows and doorways is mysterious, too, in a settlement comprising of a mere block-long downtown, it suggests a skilled cabinet maker's eye for elegant detail.

After inquiries, it was revealed that Pickens Hall (65 feet wide and 74 feet deep) was built in 1858. The first floor has always housed retail businesses such as Pickens General Store, Pickens and Sons, and Pickens Brothers. The second floor had everything from a dentist Office to an undertaker. The third floor was a music hall, and among the first performers to grace her spanking new grand hall were identical twin girls, granddaughters to its proprietor John Pickens. An opera singing duo, the twins were billed simply as "The Abbot Sisters." Bessie and Jessie had quite a showcase for their fledgling talents, but only Bessie would achieve International fame. Bessie Abott (she dropped the "B" later in her career) played everywhere from the Opéra de Paris to the Metropolitan Opera and even recorded many of the Italian and French operas of the Romantic Period.

So not only was Pickens a popular general store and market place, but a once flourishing vaudeville venue. Vaudeville, quite prevalent in the late 1880's to the 1930's, was a variety lineup of entertainers that often performed in the ornate opera houses and hefty theaters throughout the United States. Its popularity spawned the Provincial Circuit which was created for the smaller cities, towns and villages that peppered the states, and a typical evening's bill of acts might consist of a bawdy comic, juggler, acrobat, musician, dancer, magician, female impersonator, animal act, and the occasional melodrama or one act play. The regional vaudeville houses, such as Pickens Grand Hall would include popular "lowbrow" acts such as Joseph Pujol, who made a handsome living by drawing in and expelling air from his buttocks to the more "highbrow" acts such as the revered opera vocalists Margret Carrington and other such classical musicians. The New York central Railroad line that once ran between Ogdensburg and DeKalb Jct. would have brought the acts to town tucked comfortably inside their fancy Pullman sleeper cars.

Talking with cloth and quilting expert Debbie Kingsley, I learned what most local folks already know about the appealing and wondrous landmark. How it had undergone expensive, extensive, and exhaustive restoration, returning the first and second floors to their original splendor. That a small and mighty staff have poured their talents and their time into the building's care such as basket and furniture maker Linda Johnson Wood, town and store historian Linda J. Marshall, web writer, sign painter Betsy Hebert, wood craftsman and official storyteller David Kingsley among many other volunteers. That most of the goods sold in the general store are Amish-made including baskets, quilts, hats, furniture, kitchen items and cheese curd to name a few of their wares plus local, and national entertainment such as Blues, folk and Jazz which graces the meeting hall situated on the middle level. Pickens Hall is indeed a busy Beehive of creative activity. Yet among all her goings-on, it was the alluring third floor that was calling out to me. A ghost of a whisper that, given it was the month of pumpkins, shadowy lore, and black cats (yes, they have one named Mister Pickens), seemed appropriate and preferred.

It also seems my arrival was perfectly timed. Restoration volunteer and village Mayor Barbara A. Lashua had accidently revealed something under the many layers of wallpaper. A pristine illustrated Lady Liberty, best-guessed circa 1860s, pre-Civil War. Debbie graciously allowed me to peek in on the once grand hall and their newfound treasure just before it was shut down to the public for another lengthy restoration period. With Mister Pickens swirling around my wobbly ankles, I ascended the stout yet steep stairway covered with the thin dust of age. Everywhere I looked I could see the building's architectural skeletons. And I would be lying if I didn't say that the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up several times in respect of the eerie ambiance. For this was really thrilling. This was better than watching the best paranormal reality TV show. I was really kind-of spooked.

As I finally stood on the third floor, my back to the stairs that just led me to this point, out of the corner of my eye I could see this massive wooden wheel. It looked like something from a mill and was stuffed inside this tiny closeted area. I was instantly alarmed. It was intimidating. It suggested a time when machinery was still dangerous an unpredictable. And even though it was majestic in a way, I was still going to ignore it and the room it was housed in until after I saw the grand hall.

I felt like I was exploring the Titanic. Even though there wasn't any dark accounts (that I knew of) associated with the place, the past and all her ghosts were still, nevertheless, echoing all around the crumbling walls and floorboards. I whisked through the tainted double doors and was finally standing in the middle of the once great hall of Heuvelton. After a quick glance around, I wasted no time to view the newly exposed artwork tucked away in the far corner of the room. It, too, was glorious at seven feet tall. I could almost hear "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" resonating in the distance as I stood in awe for several seconds, until I finally decided to exhale. I had been holding my breath for who knows how long?

There was an old upright pump pedal organ covered with soot and the floorboards buckled here and there. The wallpaper, hand stenciled with what appeared to be oil paint and gold-leaf, suggested that, in this tiny Northern farming village, this room was as grand as any from New York City to San Francisco. To see the hall before its scheduled facelift was certainly an honor, and I couldn't believe how lucky I was to experience the hall in all her faded glory. In the quiet, I could still hear the hearty laughter, the honky-tonk of the ivories and the roar of the applause. This room entertained hundreds, maybe thousands over the years, and like the tobacco smoke that stained the ceiling, the energy of that occurrence still permeated the atmosphere.

Before I left, I did visit the unnerving wheel room. It still gave me butterflies in the stomach as it was quite ominous, a real monster of an invention, but I still spent quite a bit of time with it after all. I knew I might be one of the last people to do that unaccompanied, so I thought it would be a good idea, in spite of my trepidations. Later, Debbie Kingsley explained it was used as a pulley to lift heavy objects onto the second and third floors. It made sense and yet the thought of that chilled me even more.

Some places call out to you. A soft song somewhere deep inside your consciousness that beckons you to visit. For reasons unknown it was important to see Pickens Grand Hall in its natural state. To see the faded interior before it was reimagined for these contemporary times. Maybe it was to see the seven foot tall Lady Liberty as she was over 150 years ago, maybe it was to see the wallpaper still hanging as if that, too, might jar a few memories from my enigmatic soul. Or maybe, just maybe it was all about the wheel room after all, another story buried deep inside me where my imagination settles. Maybe. All I know is that Pickens Hall is a magical place indeed and that we're all so fortunate to have the dedicated Heuvelton Historical Association and friends protecting, nurturing and preserving her spirit for countless generations to enjoy.

Pickens Hall (and General Store) is aptly listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To date, the Heuvelton Historical Association and friends have raised $2.25 million dollars for their restoration project.

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