The Early Debating Clubs of Saratoga.


". . . . The grand debate, the popular harangue, the tart reply. The logic, and the wisdom, and the wit."


ALTHOUGH Saratoga Springs has been the nursing mother of many men eminent in the legal profession, she seems to have been somewhat tardy in developing the forensic powers of her youth. It was not until 1836 that she awoke to her duty in this regard, in which year the first debating club was organized. The meetings of this society, which was called the "Slawkenbergian Dialectic Club," were held at the Columbian Hotel, and at the "Old Bell School-house," on Federal Street. It was composed of a number of rising men, among whom were O.L. Barbour, President; John H. Beach, Secretary; Wm. A. Beach, Sidney J. Cowen, Stephen P. Nash, Nicholas Hill, Thomas Rogers, Richard L. Allen, Clarence Walworth, John A. Corey, {The "Reminiscences of Saratoga" would not be complete without a tribute paid to Mr. John A. Corey. The manner of Mr. Corey – who disliked "shams" and was often too outspoken for his own good – did him great injustice. Yet I am free to say that Saratoga never had a more loyal son – one who was more devoted to her interests – and that Saratoga is more indebted to Mr. Corey than she is aware, for much of her present prosperity. Mr. Corey and Mr. G.M. Davison also gave the village two of the best early newspapers she ever had.} Charles A. Davison, Perry G. Ellsworth, and Patrick H. Cowen. "There were," writes Hon. O.L. Barbour to the author, "many fine debates in that old club. Some of Rogers’, Hill’s, and S.J. Cowen’s highest flights of eloquence were there attained. Rogers, I remember, with his strong voice, in a slender frame, used to wake the echoes and astound the ‘groundlings.’ He often reminded his hearers of their privileges in being residents of a county which contained the battle-field of Saratoga and the bones of the patriots there interred. He rattled those bones in the ears of his audience so often (but not by any means too often), that they finally took to joking him about them. One day, a wagon-load of bones from some slaughter-house was passing through the street. A member of the club called out to Rogers: ‘Here, Tom, come quick, here is some of your property.’ He afterwards emigrated to Dubuque, Iowa, and was elected to the State legislature, where he distinguished himself by many an able and eloquent speech. A person from the country, who had read his speeches as reported in the newspapers, had formed so high an opinion of Rogers’ oratorical powers, that on coming to Dubuque he sought and obtained an introduction. On learning his name, he said, ‘What! Are you the great Tom Rogers, who makes such splendid speeches in the House? I don’t believe a word of it! Why, I expected to see a man at least six feet high, with a voice like thunder!’ Rogers told me this himself. "Hill and S.J. Cowen were fine debaters, as were several others. Dr. Allen was a very fair speaker and a good logician. Nash was as clear as crystal. Alas! most of the members are gone." The departure of many of the members for wider fields of usefulness – Rogers going to the West, Hill settling in Albany, and Walworth called to the priesthood – broke up the club, which in its day had proved so useful, and several years passed before a similar one was inaugurated.

During this interregnum, however, efforts had not been wanting to draw out the literary talent of the place. A Histrionic Company was formed in 1842, composed of those youths of the village who were ambitious to wear the sock and buskin, among whom were A.A. Patterson (the life and soul of it), George W. Andrews, Henry Hay, Henry P. Andrews, James M. Andrews, Benjamin and Jesse Frazer, and J.R. Plunkett. During the existence of this association, which lasted two years, very creditable performances were given weekly in the Pavilion Hall {Situated in the Pavilion Spring grounds on Lake Avenue, opposite the "Flat Rock." The Flat Rock Spring still exists, covered by the tanneries.} Many of Shakspere’s plays, as well as those of others, such as "The Rivals," "The Mistletoe Bough," "The Irish Tutor," and "Bombastes Furioso," were performed both for the amusement of the village and for deserving objects. {As an illustration of this remark, we quote the following from the Saratoga Sentinel of 1843 – at that time ably edited by Mr. Charles F. Paul:

"HISTRIONIC ASSOCIATION – BENEFIT OF WILLIAM C. OWEN. – We understand that this association have, with commendable liberality, resolved to give the receipts of next Thursday evening’s performance to our unfortunate townsman, William C. Owen, who, it will be recollected, some two months since received an injury by a fall from a building, by which he was and still is incapable of pursuing his profession, upon the emoluments of which his family depend for support. We trust that this fact need only be made known to our citizens to ensure a crowded house. "Pizarro" and "The Day after the Wedding" are the plays to be brought out on the occasion."} To show that this Histrionic Association, also, was not mere child’s-play, but was really of great merit, it may be stated that Miss Cora Mowatt was glad to avail herself of the talent of Mr. A.A. Patterson and others belonging to the association to aid her in a dramatic performance given in the village.

Others of the young men occasionally satisfied their literary aspirations by going over once a fortnight either to the "Stafford School-house" on Fish Creek, or to the one near the "Eddy Four Corners," and measuring swords with the young farmers of those neighborhoods. During one of these winters, John Scofield – now settled over a church in New Jersey – was the teacher of the district-school. Many were the passages-at-arms between the young men of the village and the farmers’ sons; and many were the flights of eloquence that rang through the smoky rafters of the Stafford School-house. At these meetings, moreover, the school-master was sometimes "abroad"; for once, when one of the speakers had quoted that stanza from Gray beginning, "Perhaps in this neglected spot," etc., one of the members, at the close of the speech, came up and congratulated him, saying: "J----, those lines of yours were splendid! Were they original ! Occasionally, also, Rev. Dr. Woodbridge would kindly come over from the village and act as an arbitrator – his attention at these times being equally divided between listening to the arguments and snuffing the tallow candles which, stuck in potatoes for candlesticks, cast weird and ghostly shadows upon the whitewashed walls. Sometimes, too, if the sleighing was fine, Rev. Dr. Woodbridge or Rev. Mr. Stowell would vary the exercises by delivering a lecture to audiences made up of the farmers and their families dwelling in the vicinity.

At length, about 1850 – encouraged by Judge William Hay, who at that time had quite a number of students in his office – a debating club was successfully organized in the village itself, under the name of "The Young Men’s Association."

This Association, composed of two branches – the "Senior" and the "Junior" – and numbering among its members that prince of humorists the late Henry Hay, Frederick Root, John Knickerbacker, Charles S. Lester, Paoli Durkee, John Putnam, B.C. Thayer, J.A. Shoudy, and others, held its meetings sometimes in the dining-room of the "Columbian," and again in the basement of the old Methodist church. The "Juniors" were John L. Barbour, Cornelius Durkee, Lewis P. and George Close, Robert Patterson, John Lamb, James McDonald, Hamilton Peters, Walter Putnam, William N. Sturges (now of Chicago), Harvey Stafford, and the author, all but three of whom have passed away. The "Junior" Club frequently met in the "Wayland School-house" on Washington Street, to debate questions among themselves by way of practice, before taking part in the discussions of the association proper.

Some really able debates were held at these meetings; and it being just previous to the formation of the Republican party, when anti-slavery feeling ran high, the discussions were often exceedingly acrimonious. Nevertheless, they were frequently interspersed with humor. A certain member, one William Lane, a good speaker and possessed of fair abilities, was a fiery abolitionist, and forever on his feet. The poet and wit of the association, par excellence , was John R. McGregor, who, continually "tilting" with Lane, would frequently take the "wind out of his opponent’s sails," and that, too, in a very summary manner. Once I remember, in particular, when Mr. Lane had been indulging in one of his most grandiloquent flights, and it came McGregor’s turn to reply, the latter simply rose, and, in the demurest possible manner, improvised the following:

"I’d rather meet a railroad train

Than to encounter Billy Lane!"

and sat down. "Only this and nothing more," yet it was enough; for, amid shouts of laughter, Mr. Lane retired from the field utterly discomfited – for that night at least.

On another occasion, the question up for discussion was, "Which exercises the most influence on mankind – moral or physical force?" Now, it so chanced that the night before the debate Mr. Paoli Durkee had captured in Washington Hall two burglars, and by the strength of his powerful arms had compelled them to cry for quarter. Mr. Durkee was the one on the moral side of the question, and had got on splendidly with his speech till Mr. Lester, who was opposed, when it came his turn to reply, quietly asked him how amenable to moral suasion those burglars would have been without his (Mr. Durkee’s) strong arms! It is, perhaps, needless to add that Mr. Lester won the debate. Sometimes the late Franklin Hoag, or, as he was familiarly called, "Squire" Hoag, would take part in the debates, and by his infinite fund of humor contribute not a little to the evening’s entertainment. {Franklin Hoag was born in the year 1800, near Dimmick’s Corners, in the town of Wilton. His father was a prominent Methodist clergyman. Early in life he turned his attention to the law, and his fame as a successful pleader in justices’ courts soon became so great that through the northern towns Frank Hoag was always upon one side or the other, and frequently the successful one. About 1835, he removed to Saratoga Springs, and pursued a regular course of studies in the office of William A. Beach, now of New York City, and was admitted to the bar. As an advocate his practice was mostly confined to the Common Pleas and Justices’ Courts, and, after the Constitution of 1846 was adopted, in the County court. He was peculiarly at home in cases arising from breach of warranty in horse trades, and he was acknowledged by his brethren of the bar to be the best read in that branch of the profession of any lawyer in the county. For many years he held the office of Justice of the Peace in Saratoga, and in 1855 he was elected Supervisor. In 1870, he removed to Oil City, Pa., where he died on the 3 d of May, 1875, leaving five children, viz., Mrs. George C. Alger, Samuel F. and Hiram W. Hoag, of Oil City, Franklin S. Hoag, of Meadville, Pa., and Mrs. George Weller, of Schenectady.}

This Association was also, I believe, the first to introduce the custom of having a regular course of lectures through the winter months.

Very often, however, the funds of the Association would come so short that, with an empty exchequer, it was puzzled to know how to manage. On one occasion when, as a great coup , Mr. Greeley was invited to lecture, and had accepted, it was found that, after paying for the lighting of the church, we would be able to give that lecturer the magnificent sum of $10. The morning after the lecture, which was delivered in the old Presbyterian Church, I, as the youngest of the lecture committee, was made the scapegoat, and deputed to hand Mr. Greeley the $10, John Putnam, J.D. Briggs, and Henry Hay standing behind a corner of the depot, laughing in their sleeves. I therefore accompanied him into the train, and, taking a seat in the cars, awaited the time of departure. When it was fairly under motion, I thrust the $10 (carefully enclosed in an envelope) into the lecturer’s hand, and jumped from the train, leaving the recipient to examine by himself the contents. The following year, Horace Greeley was again invited to lecture before the Y.M.A. of Saratoga Springs; but a "singed cat dreads the fire," and the following answer was returned:


"NEW YORK, Dec. 19, 1852.

"MY DEAR STONE: Many thanks for your note of the 17 th . I rather guess I won’t come to Saratoga to lecture. Reason: It is some distance to travel, and I can’t afford to go for nothing, and (if I remember rightly) your society don’t pay. Now, I was willing to go once, just for the sake of exhibiting myself and meeting my friends, but I don’t want to make a practice of the like. I should want $25 for going to S. and lecturing, and I can’t in conscience assure your society that the lecture would be worth the money. So let it stand over for this season.



"W.L. Stone, Esq., S. Springs."


$25 for a lecture from Horace Greeley! Truly, tempora mutantur ; for exactly ten years afterward, I paid Henry Ward Beecher $100 for a lecture on behalf of the same association, leaving a surplus in the treasury of $300.

Such, in brief, is the history of the humble beginnings and many trials of the present "Young Men’s Christian Association" of Saratoga Springs.



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