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  • Writer's pictureDoug Neckers

Clymer - My Home Town

I’m an admitted history nut and have been for as long as I can remember. So I was delighted when a few persons in my hometown, Clymer, began a historical center. These persons were generous with their skills, money and time, and by now have built a place, Haverkamp Huis, to focus on the Clymer of the past.

Recently they hosted an almost local, Bemus Point’s Scott Lewellen, to talk about his other’s paternal family. Everybody in Chautauqua County knows his mother the late Winnie Lewellen. Good Clymer mothers when I was a child stayed home with their kid. But my Mom must have had enough early on and called on Winnie to straighten out her already misbehavin’ son. Few knew she was my first babysitter. Winnie must have learned well by keeping me in order - because years she became the hostess of Chautauqua Institution caring for everyone from Barbara Bush to Bella Abzug. For Mark Russell, Winnie was Chautauqua’s mother superior. Scott focused his report on his mother’s father - Clarence Rhebergen.

The Rhebergen’s immigrated in 1880, later than most of the other Dutch families that came to Clymer. They came with 2 children and had 5 more in more in Clymer. That immigrant family brought us to name a few - in later generation off-spring - Winnie, the late Dr. Randall Swanson, Lucille Rickers for years the longest living alumna of the University of Rochester, and Janette Gravink Sullivan- from Fredonia now, who introduced me to my late wife, Suzanne Evans in Bemus Point in the 1950’s.

Clarence was a WWI veteran and leading community citizen for the extent of his adult life. His list of community contributions was impressive; Scouting recognized him as the prototype of what a Boy Scout leader should be. But what made Scott’s story even more compelling was his grandfather’s WWI diary, found by accident, in a flea market in Jackson, Michigan. The diary found its way back to Clymer via the hands of Suzanne Renskers Rhebergen - who got it to Clarence’s family. That was 15 years or more ago but it still speaks - 100 years + later.

Clarence was a wagoner, or teamster in the Army, because he had a way with horses I remember his diary saying. So he spent many days on the battle field taking things to and from the front lines. Mustard gas was only one of the awful chemical weapons used by both sides in World War II. Clarence encountered mustard gas several times in the Argonne forest battles in France in the fall, 1918. Clarence died suddenly 30+ years after he came home from the battle fields - a sudden heart attack in August, 1952. Later day scientists like me wondered if the gassing had anything to do with it. But the record is silent.

The local history of Clymer is colorful and compelling. First settlers were Revolutionary War veterans who were given land for their service in the Colonial Armies. A few came trying to run from debt faults in New England. Among these were Zacchaeus and Mary Woodburn Greeley who managed the 600 + miles from East Poultney, Vermont by the Erie Canal and a wagon from Buffalo. Son Horace came later - but his brother and 3 sisters took the trip with their parents. When Mary Woodburn Greeley got south of Clymer - the place picked out to be here home - she was said to cry on and on given what she found there… a lean to in a woods full of wolves. But they managed and later became the first to be buried in the Clymer Cemetery, As near as I can tell, Horace Greeley, dead 3 weeks after he lost the Presidential election of 1872, still owns their cemetery lots.

Two families of Dutch came in 1844. Immigrants followed year after year up to and including the years just before WWII. Governor Patterson the Holland Land Company’s agent in Westfield is quoted as saying the original settlers of Clymer weren’t doing all that well so they needed the help of the hard working Dutch to make the area all it could be. That most assuredly happened,

Why did the dutch come? Because they had no land, or opportunity and weren’t part of those that could succeed in the old country. Many came from the town of Winterswijk in Gelderland, near the German border. This village in the acherhoek, is literally translated ‘out in the sticks’ Some had enough schooling that they could read and write Dutch, but they were poor. They came to live the promise of the American Dream.

But unique about all this is how much several local residents have done to tell the immigrant’s stories, A Clymer resident started a face book page that has more than 2 times as many subscribers as live in the town today. A Clymer native with degrees in history retired from teaching in the local schools is uploading pictures of family and place to that site. The first photograph was recorded in 1839 so if there are pictures of the original families they are taken after they are quite mature. But when I went to Scott Lewellyn’s talk, one current resident handed me a picture of Horace Greeley’s younger sister, Margaret (Greeley) Bush. She came with her parents, married and lived to old age in Clymer. These photographs will part of the Clymer Historical Archives.

The Clymer Historical society is one of those gems made from whole cloth in a small town with a unique history. The citizens that live there now are four or five times removed from immigrant families. Many sons and daughters have moved away. The farms that many carved out of very tough western New York land have since past to next generation settlers - the Amish - and the pandemic has laid waste - in some - to the trust of one’s doctor for advice rather than political myth sellers. But a small few have recognized what the place is and how it was made. Santayana said ‘those that forget the past are condemned to repeat it’. In Clymer’s case, thanks to a few, it has no intention of forgetting its past. Those of this day are building on it. Their next project, a protected well managed archive to keep all of these records preserved for our sons and daughters to study, is on the horizon. I’m sure the leaders of that effort would appreciate any donations of funds - yes - but also historical records of the old days.

Doug Neckers is a Clymer native, distinguished research professor emeritus (Bowling Green State University)o and former chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown.

Photo by Matthew Bornhorst on Unsplash

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