In the right-hand upper corner of New York State, you will find Lake Champlain. Most people would be surprised at the vast history of this lake. It has been the site of significant battles going back to the French and Indian Wars. Conflict also continued in the American Revolutionary War. However the War of 1812 saw perhaps the most momentous battle fought on and around this lake, this battle is known as the Battle of Plattsburgh. The British invaded from Canada in the North with 10,000 troops and 16 Warships. To meet them on Lake Champlain and its western shore the Americans had 14 warships and 4000 troops which was a mixture of regular soldiers and local militia. The Battle resulted in a major victory for the Americans. This was the last military engagement that was to take place on Lake Champlain. What followed was years of peaceful growth and commerce in which steamships were to play a significant part. This is when and where a part of the life story of Mary Guyette Barney Douglas, my 2nd Great Grandmother was to take place.
In the late 1800s and well into the 1900s great steamboats plowed the waters of Lake Champlain. While many were used to transport commercial goods, many also transported people. This was a popular way to travel from Lake George and the length of Lake Champlain. The steamships had private cabins and of course, dining rooms. Meals were cooked and severed onboard. One of these cooks was Mary Guyette. Steamships were to be a very popular way to travel until the railroads, and good roadways were to bring an end to this era.
Mary Guyette was born in 1864 to Civil War Veteran Peter and her mother, Elizabeth Thorndike Guyette. The first record I have of her working was at age 16 as a servant in the Stearns household in Waterbury, Vermont. She married Solomon M Barney in 1886 who was 47 years older than she and a hotel owner in Jericho, Vermont. They were to divorce in 1892. She married once more in 1895 to Edward Douglas. This marriage was to end after a few short years in 1898 when Edward died on the family’s kitchen table while the doctor was attempting to treat him for a ruptured appendix.
Mary, by this time, was working as a cook both on the steamships and on land. One of the places Mary worked at was The Crystal, which was located on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont. Here they offered what is known as Table Board. That is when a person purchases his or her meals weekly but is separate from lodging. A quick check on my inflation counter shows that the four dollars spent in 1891 would be about 112.00 dollars today. Not too bad for three meals a day for a week cooked to order.
My 2nd Great Grandmother Mary was to work on two Lake Champlain steamers the Chateaugay and the Ticonderoga. I know that she was working on the Chateaugay in 1892, but I do not have a starting date for the Ticonderoga. I do know that she worked long hours on these steamers. Growing up, I heard stories from my Grandmother Pauline Bonnett and my Great Uncle Harry about how early she would leave and would not get back sometimes until the next morning. They lived with her as did all her grandchildren pictured above since their mother Bessie, Mary’s only child had major issues that she was dealing with. One story I heard several times from my Great Uncle Harry was how she would spank him after she had been gone for a day or so at work. She would tell him this is for what he thought he “got away with.” While this could be just a story, it does point to the fact that she ran a strict household.
One other story I often heard from my grandmother, all my aunts, and uncles and even my mother was what a wonderful cook she was. I was told she could make a mouth-watering meal out of almost nothing. The proof to me is that she was able to prepare meals like the one on the above menu. Also, when I was given a tour of the Ticonderoga a few years ago, I was surprised how small the kitchen was. The stove is smaller than what can be found in many homes today. The skill was passed down to her grandchildren as I can attest to. My grandmother was one of the best cooks I ever enjoyed a meal from. She was to be a cook at a large nursery and child daycare center in her later years.
The Ticonderoga now sits on dry ground at the Museum, at Shelburne, Vermont. People can walk the decks and perhaps for a moment or two find themselves somewhere in the past when even short journeys could be an adventure. In many ways, this story many years ago is one of the reasons (I also had more than a few on my father’s side) I got into family history. For years in my grandmother’s kitchen was a platter from the Ticonderoga. It was this plate and the stories that came with it but mostly the questions that the adults would and would not answer that set me on a course to know the rest of the story as the saying goes.