Historian leaves legacy of love for community

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 2 January 2015 at 12:00 am

File Photo – Bill Lattin leads a tour about downtown Medina this summer, one of the many events where he helped residents better understand the past and the county’s heritage. Lattin retired on Dec. 31 as county historian.


ALBION – It was another day of horrible winter weather last Feb. 27. With blowing snow, fierce winds and freezing temperatures, I figured it would be a small group at a lecture by Bill Lattin. He was scheduled to talk about Mount Albion Cemetery and a Civil War memorial – the 68-foot-high tower in the cemetery – as part of GCC’s Civil War lecture series.

I went to show some support for Lattin. I really didn’t think too many people would brave the elements for his talk.

The bad weather didn’t deter the crowd. All of the seats were taken and many stood for an hour to hear Lattin talk about the cemetery and the Victorian attitudes towards death expressed in the gravestones. (Another dedicated group braved nasty weather about a year ago when Lattin led a tour of stained-glass windows at churches in Albion.)

Lattin has developed a following in his 36 years as Orleans County historian. He frequently gives lectures and talks around the county, leading tours of cemeteries, addressing service clubs and other organizations. He has proven a draw, telling stories of the county’s past, often mixing in humor and respect for residents from generations ago.

We live in an era when many people don’t know the names of their neighbors. Lattin is far the opposite. He can look at a picture from the 1940s and name the local residents, sharing anecdotes about local folks from long ago.

Local dignitaries including former Congressman John LaFalce (center) gather in 1977 for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Ward House at the Cobblestone Museum in Childs. Bill Lattin, right, was the long-time curator and director of the museum and helped save several sites at Cobblestone Museum. The museum is a National Historic Landmark, the only location in the county with that designation.

Lattin retired on Dec. 31 as county historian, a role he served in for 36 years. A former Albion art teacher, Lattin also led the Cobblestone Museum for more than three decades, served on the Gaines Town Board, and has been active at the Pullman Memorial Universalist Church.

He has been a regular contributor to the Orleans Hub, providing us with photos and write-ups in the “Vintage Orleans” feature. For 35 years he wrote a weekly historical column for The Journal-Register in Medina. (He has given Orleans Hub additional photos that we will publish early in 2015.)

He has been available to help residents with numerous historic preservation and appreciation projects, whether erecting historical markers, researching ancestors or working with students on projects.

Lattin has worked with Albion High School students on the annual Albion Ghost Walk at Mount Albion Cemetery. He provides some background on prominent and sometimes obscure residents in the cemetery. The students will put the person from the past in the own words during a dramatic presentation at the cemetery.

The Ghost Walk typically includes about 50 students. About 500 people attend the annual Ghost Walk, which shows the community’s appreciation for history.

File photo by Tom Rivers – In this photo from last year’s Ghost Walk, student Chey-Rain Eagle depicts Elizabeth Proctor, the third wife of John Proctor. He is considered the “Paul Revere of Gaines” for riding his horse and alerting residents all the way to Lewiston that the British were coming.

In 2011, Lattin worked with Albion Middle School students in an impressive preservation effort. Lattin visited seventh graders in the 2010-11 school year and talked to their class about the former Alms “Poor” House, the precursor to the county nursing home on Route 31. The nursing home replaced the Alms house in 1960. Lattin told them why Countyhouse Road was called “Countyhouse.”

Some of the residents at the Alms House were buried in a cemetery on West Countyhouse Road in Albion. That cemetery in a wooded area became overgrown with brush and small trees.

The students wanted the residents to have a proper burial place. They worked with Lattin and the County Highway Department to research the site, find 66 head stones and clean up the property. It was rededicated in June 2011.

The poor house served many immigrants Irish, English, Dutch, Scottish and others and no doubt was a home for hard-luck Civil War veterans, Lattin said during the dedication ceremony.

He thanked the students for showing high qualities of citizenship, for wanting to recognize some long-forgotten residents. Lattin said those residents were also doting fathers and mothers, and contributing community members. But their families may not have had money to bury them in Mount Albion or another local cemetery.

Lattin’s best legacy may be empowering residents, including many students, to understand the past and to care more deeply about the community’s residents, including those who paved the way for the current generation.

If you love your community, you should know about its history. Lattin has been a dedicated teacher.