On an early fall day, the only church hall in Town Line, N.Y. is filled past fire code capacity, for a town-wide celebration.
It looks like lots of other historical commemorations: there are cannons in the parking lot, women are decked out in elaborate period dresses, and men are sweltering in woolen military uniforms.
Those uniforms are the curious part though. Celebrants are sporting both colors of the Civil War’s conflict - blue and grey - because this town, just minutes from the Canadian border, is a town divided.
And what it’s celebrating is the sesquicentennial anniversary of the town’s decision to join the Confederacy.
Town Liners are proud of their unique historical footnote. More than 100 people had to be turned away at the door at the celebration - they even ordered a sheet cake frosted with a Confederate flag.
Brandon Adkins managed to get into the packed hall, which is good, because he’s dressed for the part. Strapped to his side is a sword that was used at the Battle of Franklin (Tennessee). He says he’s a natural-born Confederate - from upstate New York.
“One guy, he was calling me a Yankee,” Adkins recalls. “And I says, ‘Excuse me, I’m from Town Line, I’m a Confederate. We were Confederates for the longest time’. He said, ‘If that’s true I’ll kiss your rear end in front of everybody to see’. He looked it up and I guess he believes me now that we were the last of the Rebels.”
“It didn’t stop at Mason-Dixon”
“I was very surprised when I first heard it 10 years ago,” admits Ray Ball, a local history teacher. “I thought, ‘No way. C’mon!’”
According to Ball, townsfolk gathered at the local schoolhouse just after war broke out. After a rowdy discussion, they voted 80 to 45 to secede from the Union, signing a declaration on a sturdy wooden desk that is a treasured town artifact. Shortly after, five local men headed south and joined the Confederate Army.
“The country was literally coming apart at the seams. And the seams tore much farther north than most people realize. It didn’t stop at the Mason-Dixon [Line]. That’s a bit of a mythology,” Ball says.
But locals are still unsure why Town Line, just minutes from Canada, took such a dramatic step. The town supported Abraham Lincoln for president the year before, Ball says. And residents were mostly German immigrants, without connections to the American south.
“They had nothing less to do with slavery here,” Ball says. “So it had to be something beyond that, why they voted the way they did.”
Embarrassment, or lax record keeping?
Karen Muchow has researched the story for years as head of the Alden Historical Society (Town Line is located between Lancaster and Alden, N.Y.). Historians like her have yet to pin down the question of what compelled secession.
But after the Civil War was over, Muchow says, Town Line’s disaffiliation from the United States was conveniently forgotten.
“I think there was embarrassment that it happened. There are no records that we know of, [though] there could be in someone’s attic,” she says. “So there’s no names. That may have been on purpose.”
For years, many records pertaining to the story were kept informally, or were damaged or lost. Currently, Blair’s Hardware maintains a few scrapbooks with relevant documents, pictures and evidence.
The shop’s business owners call it “The Last Rebel Business Still Standing” because it opened in 1944, two years before the town was pressured into addressing its secession vote.
Re-joining the Union
Despite leaving the Union, Town Line residents still paid federal taxes and opened a U.S. Post Office (which has since been shuttered). Men and women participated in the war effort, during both World Wars.
Then, in 1946, after peace was won in Europe and the Pacific - during a time of patriotic fervor in the United States - the Buffalo Courier Express unearthed the town’s Confederate back story.
“Many [local] young men had returned home from the war to find their homes were not part of the United States and they were infuriated,” Muchow says, laughing.
Places like Vicksburg, Mississippi and Valdosta, Georgia had similarly voted to secede from the Union during the 1860s and were in the news for reconciling their outstanding disaffiliations. That led word about Town Line to spread around the country.
Telegrams flooded in, hounding the town “re-join” the Union - or to hold out, maintaining a grip on its Confederate roots. Even President Harry Truman wrote a good-natured open letter, urging town residents to “roast veal” as a peace offering.
Bowing to pressure, a vote was scheduled. Film crews were hired, and every representative and senator in the nation was invited to the ceremony. B-list movie stars Cesar Romero and Martha Stewart RSVP’d. School was canceled and kids ran amuck, riding on fire engines.
Capitalizing on the story
Footage from the vote recently surfaced, and made its premiere at the 150th anniversary celebration. In the movie, long-dead relatives of many in the crowd are shown smiling and laughing, while dropping ballots in a large white box.
A dog named “Damn Yank” is paraded around, wearing a hand-painted sign bearing his moniker. He barks futilely at the 8mm camera - no audio survives from that day in 1946.
At the end of the short film, the town’s rebel flag, which had flown on and off for 85 years, is lowered.
Now, the town’s looking to capitalize on the story.
A DVD of the footage from 1946 is being planned. T-shirts celebrating the town’s Confederate heritage are on sale for $20 at local businesses. A museum is in the works, to try to lure tourists.
After the viewing of the 1946 vote, attendees at the celebration are led in the Pledge of Allegiance by an Abraham Lincoln impersonator on the steps of the church. As an act of unity, the crowd faces both a United States and Confederate flag.
It’s a last moment of rebellion for Town Line, as times change, slowly but surely:
Just last month, the town’s firefighters voted to remove the Confederate flag from their station patch. But they’ll still be known as the “Last of the Rebels.”