History II

In order to understand the founding of the Pratt-Northam Foundation, we have included an excerpt from The Pratt-Northam Foundation: A History  by Robert C. Rich. It contains the story of the founding along with some aspects of Walter Pratt and Hazel Northam's lives written by John Beach.

Recollections of Walter Pratt,
Hazel Northam, and their Foundation

by John A. Beech

Bob Rich's excellent background piece prompts me to put down some of my recollections about Walter Pratt, Hazel Northam, and the early years of the Pratt-Northam Foundation.

I drew up the Foundation's charter in 1962 as a young lawyer at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Syracuse, working for Lyle Hornbeck. Lyle was a senior partner to whom Walter Pratt had come in the '50s for labor law advice regarding the Moyer & Pratt paper mill at Lyonsdale. Walter got to trust Lyle, as he trusted his partner in the mill, Olive Moyer, the mill superintendent, Nick Hansen and perhaps a very few others.

Lyle drew up a will for Mrs. Moyer, who left her one-third ownership of the mill and most of her sizable estate to Walter. Since Walter was her executor as well as the major beneficiary, between her death on January 4, 1959, and his own death on June 13, 1961, I visited Walter many times. Usually it was at his office in the mill at Lyonsdale. I also recall meeting him at the Utica office of his accountant, Mr. Hall, and on occasion it would be at another office in his Island Paper Company mill on Tannery Island at Carthage, which had not turned a wheel since some point in the New Deal. Once, when traveling with him from one to the other, he allowed a stop at "The Little Hotel" on Route 12D (now 26) for lunch.

As I recall he ordered a glass of milk but brought his own bag of Planter's peanuts. He was careful about eating and was slim and straight as a rail. With a bald head and intent eyes. He was a taciturn but always polite. I'm not sure if I ever saw him smile. I am sure I never heard him laugh. All in all he was very decent with me. I sensed a deep, cold loneliness and isolation from society, but never the hostility that many attributed to him.
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His isolations was particularly evident at the Island Paper Company. Shut down for over two decades, it occupied a large island in the Black River, connected to the road outside Carthage by a narrow bridge. He actually had two levels or degrees of isolation there: first, the semi-heated corner of the mill, where the stove and large safe were dwarfed by the huge factory building containing a gigantic papermaking machine, a few old cars, and any number of things now forgotten. (An adjoining garage contained other old cars, several of them antique collector's items albeit not in particularly good repair.) He might spend time at the mill talking with the watchman whom he had been paying for years to watch the place slowly disintegrate while supposedly saving it from thieves and vandals. Thievery and vandalism had been the fate of several miles of copper wire that at one time carried power to the mill from high up Tug Hill where the Deer River Power Company - another abandoned Pratt enterprise - once generated electricity from a substantial head of water.

Second, at some remove from the mill building and back toward the bridge, there was a small shack-like office, with pot bellied stove and two or more oak roll-top desks. The desks, like the office and like his other desks and offices, were grimy, old and cluttered with handwritten receipts and correspondence relating to the lumber and paper business going back to Walter's father.

This island shack, approachable only on Walter's terms, overlooking the idle and mostly powerless vast enterprise in one direction and the narrow bridge to the souls of Carthage and beyond in the other direction, cluttered with mostly irrelevant papers from long ago yet containing some current records of investments and land holdings that survived to make him rich, etched a scene that might have seemed overdrawn in fiction.

He died in his sleep in his second floor bedroom over the kitchen in his house on Schuyler Street in Boonville (now the Dodge-Pratt-Northam House) on June 13, 1961. His housekeeper, Delia Karlen, found him dead, just as she had found his father, Charlie Pratt, in the same bed over 27 years earlier.

Walter Pratt's only surviving cousin, and hence the sole beneficiary since he never wrote a will, was Hazel Northam. The two had known each other as children and young adults, but saw each other only rarely after she left Watertown with her mother and moved to Brooklyn. She had worked hard in the undertaking business all her life, and retired in April 1961, just a few months before Walter died. When Lyle first told her of her inheritance, she said she wasn't particularly interested. I recall trying to convince her to take a trip to see some relatives in California; perhaps to rent a car and driver; and generally to enjoy her wealth. She just said "I'm too old." When she gave approximately 4,500 acres near South Lake to the State of New York, Lyle had it all set up for her to meet Governor Rockefeller, but I think she put it off indefinitely.

Both during her lifetime and through her will she was generous to a number of her friends and relations, and to just about every cemetery along the Black River upstream of Watertown. She had been unhappy in Watertown ,and it was outside her zone of benevolence.

The Foundation was suggested by Lyle and blessed by Hazel as a vehicle for her generosity. She wouldn't have put it that way; she would have said she wanted some good to come out of Walter's money. At my urging Lyle recently wrote me his recollections as follows:

Hazel and I were en route from Boonville to Lowville on estate matters. In the early days her presence was necessary on many occasions.

Suddenly, out of the blue, she said, "All this property is a big headache I don't need and don't want."

I thought a minute - the Foundation idea came to me and I then told her, "You have it, you have to handle and dispose of it. You can give it away any way you please. You can set up a foundation with the estate money and property that can use the money for the benefit of the people in the area where the money was made." She thought a while and said, "That is a good idea. Let's get started."

Probably the Foundation would never had come into being were it not for the morning trip to Lowville.

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Hazel signed the Foundation charter on July 31, 1962, along with six others: her cousin, Northam Haberer of Lowville; G. Byron Bowen of Lowville; Leland J. Bayley of North Syracuse; and Lyle Hornbeck, Howard H. Cannon, and me, all of Syracuse. She was the sole principal, really, and the rest of us were functionaries. Again, she might not have put it that way. All seven of us were the directors, and she was content to let us talk and plan while she said little. Yet during her lifetime the foundation had no real funds, and our talk and plans were funded by her approving contributions from Pratt Estate funds - in other words, by her money.

Byron Bowen was Lowville's banker, having headed up the Black River National Bank for years before its acquisition by the Watertown National Bank, making him vice president and still Lowville's banker. (In turn the bank was acquired by The National Bank of Northern New York, and ultimately by Key Bank.) Lee Bayley was an acquaintance of Lyle's who I believe had worked years earlier for Lee Hirschey's father in the Carthage area. Howard Cannon had been born and raised in Lyons Falls before going to Hamilton College and Harvard Law School. At the time he was "the boss," or at least the chairman of equal senior partners at Bond, Schoeneck & King. The seven assembled for the first Foundation meeting on September 20, 1962, at the Pratt house, 106 Schuyler Street, Boonville. As the youngest I was elected secretary. Only Lyle and I survive, and only I as a director. Lyle is in spry retirement in Arizona but still drops in at a summer directors' meeting occasionally.

At the very first meeting, $50,000 was committed for a capital fund drive for Carthage Hospital, conditioned upon additional support from local citizens beyond the $400,000 already committed. This was the first instance of a technique often later used by the Foundation - conditioning support for programs, being hailed and promoted by local citizens, to some earnest support by the citizens themselves. This technique has avoided several ill-conceived promotions over the years. That the chairman of Carthage Hospital Capital Fund Drive at the time was Charles Hirschey was probably significant. I hope it is less significant that the Foundation's young secretary misspelled the name "Hershey" in the initial minutes.

Starting in 1964, the Foundation began awarding partial scholarships to high school students in the Boonville-Lewis County-Carthage-Tug Hill area for attending any colleges of their choice. Hazel Northam liked doing this, and enjoyed meeting or hearing from scholarship recipients. This continued until 1979, but finally was abandoned due to the fear that our scholarships virtually never made the difference between going or not going to college, or decided the particular college, in individual cases. Also the administrative difficulties of selecting recipients fairly and effectively got tedious.

Northam Haberer died in November, 1965, and was replaced as director by James P. Lewis in May, 1966.

Hazel Northam's death on February 19, 1972, funded the Foundation with well over $1,000,000 as residual beneficiary under her will. Within a year her good friend and co-worker in the undertaking business in Brooklyn, Andy Behr, was elected a director and also president. Dick Cummings was elected a director at the same time. Andy had retired about the same time Hazel had, and moved with his wife, Muriel, to the North Lake area - a winter home just north of the Air Force radio tower and very near the Koenig brothers' saw mill, and a summer home on North Lake that Hazel had given them in the '60s when their three children were young. Andy and Muriel had lived a few blocks from Hazel in Brooklyn for many years and had been good friends of hers before she had wealth; thus Andy was a legitimate replacement on the board for Hazel. Yet he, like Hazel before him, proved to be mostly passive, deferential, and usually without strong views about either specific programs or general direction of the Foundation. The foundation continued to award annual scholarships, but a certain lack of vitality was reflected by Jim Lewis' question at a meeting in May, 1975, "How long should the Foundation be programmed to last?"

The next few years say Lyle retired and away except for summer time. Jim Lewis pretty much the same, and me engulfed in being primary counsel to Syracuse University (during a tumultuous period of growth to its programs and facilities, e.g., construction of the Carrier Dome) and to Albany Medical Center. Howard Cannon became sick and ultimately died in early 1979.

To his credit, Dick Cummings finally persuaded us that the Foundation's Scholarship Program and its general inertia needed serious re-thinking. At this prodding, Lyle convened the directors for several meetings in the summer of 1979 to do just that. Don Hunt and Livingston Lansing were elected directors, the board decided finally to phase out the Scholarships Program, and concerted effort was started to "go public" by advising area citizens of the Foundation's accomplishments and intentions, and by encouraging public commentary about what the Foundation could or should do to improve the area.

The new resolve and vitality continued with election of Lee Hirschey as a director in September, 1980, and Ed Sieber the following spring. Later that year, the Foundation started moderately funding the position of Coordinator of Lewis County Youth Board taken by Don Exford. That plus the encouragement and hard work of Don Hunt and Ed Sieber ultimately led to development of a major annual Foundation sponsorship of a Summer Workership job program for young people throughout the area, and later (in 1986) of Don Exford becoming the Foundation's Executive Director on a part-time basis.

Election of directors Jane Rich in November, 1988, and in July, 1992, Susan Parker and Sally Jackson, has insured continuation of the inertia of positive motion rather than the inertia of rest. The difficulties faced, particularly by young people in this relatively desolate and culture-starved area, have become a serious focal point of Board concern. Walter Pratt and Hazel Northam each knew the North Country's loneliness and desolation, to a fault. I have no trouble believing each would have approved the Foundation's groping efforts to do something about it.

The Foundation is now older than I was when I attended its first meeting of directors at the house in Boonville. For no understandable reason this pleases me - maybe because it continues as an institution committed, however halting and imperfect its activities, to doing the right thing.