Living In the Midst of a Utopian Community

My grandfather, Frank Carl Mesle was born in Buffalo, NY on March 18, 1884 and died in Sherrill, NY on August 24, 1964.  His parents left Germany three years before his birth.  His father, Franz Mesle, died when Frank was 9 years old.  His mother, Kate Kirsch Mesle raised 4 children alone.

He had only a limited education when, at age 13, in 1997, he was hired to be an errand boy by Oneida Community, Ltd.  It changed his life forever.  By age 16 he was a plant foreman.  In 1914, when the company moved its headquarters from Niagara Falls to Sherrill, NY, Frank was one of many employees making that move.  In 1915, my grandparents moved into their house, just up the hill from the plant, where they lived until their deaths.

Because our “cousins trip” to New York was focused on family history, Sherrill was one of our primary destinations.  All the cousins remember happy visits to Sherrill, wandering the streets in and around their home at 166 Willow.  We visited again in July, 2012.  The house looked the same as it looked  on my last visit 50 years ago.

Frank was a pioneer in electroplating processes that revolutionized the production (and quality) of silver-plating.  Ultimately, he rose to the position of Superintendent of the Plating Department.  He directed silver plating of artillery shells in World War I and the silver plating of aircraft bearings in World War II.  He served as Editor of The Monthly Review and in 1926 became President of the American Electroplaters’ Society.  He received the Society’s Founder’s Gold Medal in 1929, 1938, 1940 and 1943. He received the key to the city of Toronto, Canada, during an international conference of electroplaters.

For many years Oneida, Ltd. was a major producer of high quality silver plate flat ware.  Ultimately, it became unable to compete with foreign products. My grandfather had a significant role in the company’s successes and would have grieved the company’s losses.

The company was good to granddad and he was good for the company.  When Sherrill became a self-governing city in 1916, he was elected to Sherrill’s original governing Commission.  In 1917 he was elected a member of the Board of Education of Sherrill’s public schools.  He was President of the PTA, Superintendent of Schools, Counselor to Boy Scouts and a member of the Library Board.  He was a charter member of Sherrill’s chapter of the Masonic Order and an ordained minister.  He was recognized in the American Men of Science and Who’s Who in American.  He was given the key to the city of Toronto, Canada and was featured in the “Leader’s in the Industry” edition of the Journal of the American Electroplaters’ Society.  He never spoke of these accomplishments.

The above is really just statistical information about a man.  What matters more to me are the factors that shaped the family we are today.  My visit to Sherrill gave me some insight.  When we toured the Community’s Mansion House, the Curator of the Mansion House, described the values of the Oneida Community in words I remember vividly as the morality lessons and beliefs I learned as a childhood.   Granddad joined Oneida, Ltd. just 16 years after the end of the utopian experiment.  By then the radical ideas of the community were in the past. The commitment to working toward perfection on earth continued.  The company–and my granddad–tried to create an environment that provided a high quality of life for the Sherrill community.  If unable to achieve perfection, perhaps, however briefly, they created their own “Camelot”.

Oneida Ltd’s values, and my grandparents’ values, focused on religion, academic achievement, commitment to healthy living, love of music and the arts, hard work and the equality of the sexes. My grandparents’ early letters evidenced their belief in the equality of the sexes. Granddad’s commitment to education resulted in his educating himself as an adult so that he became widely recognized as a scientist and chemical engineer.

The utopian community emphasized that members of the community, and the company, should share the successes and failures of the community.  Oneida, Ltd. embraced this concept by insisting that top management share financial successes and hardships with laborers; taking pay cuts during economic downturns and receiving salary increases only when workers received them as well.  My father still advocates that during economic downturns companies should share available work so all employees will keep a portion of their income.

In supporting the community, Oneida, Ltd. contributed significant resources to develop a park, school, tennis courts, and recreational activities.  The company even created a “swimming hole” in the stream so kids would have a place to swim.  It is still there today, less than a block from our family home.

The values of the community formed the essential elements of my father’s and my grandparents lives.  They dedicated their lives to community, God, and family.  Granddad served on the boards that provided for Sherrill  what the Utopian community believed were essential prerequisites of a “perfect” life.  My grandmother, Mary Lewis Mesle, was also active in the community, was a prolific writer and correspondent and was, like her father before her, active in temperance organizations.  My dad shares all those goals and traits.

The Oneida Community’s utopian experiment ended just 16 years before my grandparents joined the company established by its former members.  As we drove through Sherrill I was overwhelmed with the understanding that the best values established by a utopian community in the mid-1800’s continue to influence the lives and personalities of the people of Sherrill and my own family.   I am grateful for it.

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Cousin Trip–In the Shadow of My Ancestors

My Uncle Dick Mesle was the family historian.  Until I found family photographs, Bibles and other evidences of generations’ past, I had little knowledge of my family history.  For my parents, it was religion that bound us together as a family, not the ancestors whose blood flows through our veins.  But I have long wanted to know “who is my tribe”, where do I belong in this great world.  As a result, when I began to find windows into our family past, I was anxious to pursue them. I have done so from that day to the present, a quest that has continued more than 9 years.

I am not looking for lost treasures, nor am I interested in kingdoms or proof of nobility.  But I am fascinated by the values that unite us as family.  Surely family values, beliefs and even professional interests are likely to continue from generation to generation.  Bankers are likely to raise bankers, teachers are likely to raise teachers.

With my husband I have travelled to find where John Lewis was buried in 1691 under an asphalt patch of land in Westerly, Rhode Island.  Now my sister, my cousins and I have walked Section A of Mt. Hope Cemetery, in Norwich, NY.  Here rest generations of Lewis and Terry ancestors: my family.  While I can incorporate these photographs of their gravestones into my genealogical research, for now, the photographs themselves document the close ties that bound the family together in Norwich for more than 100 years.  Here are some of the ancestors I found:

Elnathan Terry (1758-1840): American Revolutionary Soldier.  Served under Captain Gorton, under command of Lt. Caleb Lewis.

Mary Kinyon Terry (1768-1858): Wife of Elnathan Terry.  Mary is a direct descendent of Thomas Rogers, Richard Warren, Francis Cooke and John Cooke, all of whom arrived on the Mayflower.  Elnathan and Mary moved to New York before 1810.

Freeborn Lewis (1784-1822): Married Esther Terry (1787-1865) daughter of Elnathan Terry and Mary Kinyon Terry.  She remarried on Freeborn’s death and is buried in Little Sioux, Harrison County, Iowa.  Freeborn also moved to NY with other Terrys and Lewises by 1810.

Lorenzo Lewis (1808-1855) is the son of Freeborn Lewis and Esther Terry Lewis.  Lorenzo married Mary Ocelia Smith (1815-1879). Lorenzo owned a saw mill in Norwich. He died when his son, Horatio,  was only a year old.  His sons continued and expanded the milling operations.

Daniel Horatio Lewis (1854-1917):  I was elated to finally locate the tombstone of my great-grandfather, Daniel Horatio Lewis. He is the son of Lorenzo Lewis and Mary Ocelia Smith.  He married Victoria Belcher Lewis. He and his brothers Herman and Harris Lewis were in the lumber business, were builders, and owned and operated saw mills in and around Norwich. Herman and another brother, Willard, served with the Union in the Civil War.  Willard died of disease in a prison camp in New Orleans in 1855.

Horatio was also a temperance lecturer.  Victoria was a teacher.  Horatio and Victoria moved with their family to Boston and ultimately moved to Sherrill, NY where they died.  They are buried in Norwich in the Lewis family plots.

After years of research, Mt. Hope Cemetery in Norwich was a wonderful day of discovery.  All along the way, i was aided by the ground crew of the cemetery, who were gracious and enthusiastic about our adventure; and abetted by my sister and cousins, who seemed to thrive on every discovery as much as I did.  A quest, an adventure and a bonding experience.