A few weeks ago, I was at a coffee shop with a friend of mine. As we stood to leave, I was shocked to catch the eye of Jim Parker who was sitting at the table next to me.
Jim was a local historian and folk artist who had owned one of my favorite landmarks and field trip destinations, Clapsaddle Farm in Ilion, NY. The farm was the home to Parker’s Cider Mill and a year-round farmer’s market.
Three years ago, he had retired, sold his farm, and moved to Cape Cod to live with his son. I never expected to see his familiar face again.
I waved good-bye to my friend and sat down at Jim’s table.
“What are you doing here?” I blurted out.
“This is one of the venues that sells my cards,” he said.
“But I thought you had moved . . .”
“Yes, I did,” he said, “but I moved back about five months ago.” Then he explained that he had foreclosed on the new buyers for non-payment of the farm mortgage, so he had moved back to the area.
“I have my cards, prints, and framed paintings in about eighty shops and museums throughout Central and Northern New York.”
In only five months? During a pandemic? Impressive! I thought.
“I like to support the local businesses,” he said. “I try to visit them at least once a month.”
We chatted for a while and then agreed to meet again so he could fill me in on the rest of his story.
We met a couple of weeks later at a coffee shop at Canal Place which overlooks the historic Erie Canal in nearby Little Falls. Before we sat down, he pointed to the ridge on the far side of the canal. “That’s Lover’s Lane Leap,” he said, “have you heard of it?” I shook my head.
“It is a wonderful legend about young people from the rivaling Mohawk and Mohican tribes falling in love and escaping to get away from both tribes who were hunting them down. This is my next book that I am working on.”
Then he told me stories about other projects he was working on, like the story of John Mashow, the son of a slave and slave owner who became a prominent ship builder in Padamaran, MA, before the Civil War. And the story of the Quakers who used to meet in secret at the end of Jim’s street in Cape Cod to escape persecution at the hands of the Puritans. I wish I could give you the details of all Jim’s fascinating stories, but I will focus on one story which is no less interesting or inspiring than the rest. The story of Mr. Jim Parker, a story which I know will encourage you.
Jim was originally from Ilion, an eighth-generation descendant of Rudolf Stahl, one of the original Palentine Germans, who had settled in the Mohawk Valley and started the first Grist Mill in the 1700s. In the early 1800s, the Stahl family won the bid to build the five-mile section of the Erie Canal from Ilion to Frankfort, but they hit bedrock and went bankrupt.
Jim grew up in Ilion where he attended a one room school and helped in the family business, Parker’s Cider Mill.
With no formal art training, Jim describes himself as a self-taught artist. He went to college for higher math, and he explains that math is what helped him to learn perspective in his drawings. He devised a mathematical system to learn how to use proportions when drawing people. He has made worksheets of this system which he uses when he teaches art classes.
During college, Jim joined the Naval reserve. After he graduated, he became a gunnery officer on a US Navy destroyer. It was when he was stationed in the Persian Gulf during the Suez crisis of 1956 that he had his first commissioned art project. Prints of an ink sketch Jim had made of his ship were mounted and given out as gifts by the Captain to local government officials in many countries they visited.
In 1957, during a 72-hour leave, Jim married his sweetheart, Hilda. He had first taken her to the prom when she was thirteen and he was fifteen.
The next year he surprised his Captain when he chose to leave the Navy. “I’m going back home to work in my father’s cider mill,” he told him. His choice was strategic. He had enjoyed traveling in the Navy, but he had observed that eleven out of the thirteen officers he worked with were divorced. He realized that the life of a Navy officer would not be conducive to being married and having a family.
He went home and worked in his family’s cider mill until November which was the end of the season. He then interviewed and was offered a position with New York Telephone. He surprised others when he did not take the position. He realized that he was already making more money selling encyclopedias than he would working for NY Telephone. Besides, he enjoyed sales. He was a natural at it because he loved interacting with people. Within a year, he became the top seller in New York and was transferred downstate and then to Rochester when he became the top district manager.
Jim eventually started his own business which included creating his own brand of high-end custom-built knives. At various times, He owned stores in Ilion, Utica, and in Boston’s Quincy Market. In response to a request from a customer, he taught himself the art of scrimshaw and began embedding his carvings into the handles of his knives.
Jim’s store at Quincy Market was successful. But after completing an order for 700 custom knives which required both he and his business partner to work day and night to fulfill, he decided it was time for a change. He sold his share to his business partner and used his money to buy the Clapsaddle Farm from his cousin’s estate. The farm had been in his family since 1737. The original farmhouse was burned to the ground in 1783 by the Mohawk Tribal Leader Joseph Brant who was a supporter of the British.
It took Jim nine years to complete the renovations on the farm. He started by planting an orchard of 700 organic apple trees. This was important to him because his father never owned an orchard of his own. He bought his apples from 5 different orchards and, without fail, the manager of each of those farms died of leukemia, a result of pesticide use.
Jim’s father ran his cider mill until he was well into his eighties. When he retired, Jim bought his father’s equipment and moved it to Clapsaddle Farm. According to state regulations, Jim was required to pasteurize the cider. He refused to do this because it diminished the cider’s quality. He got around this regulation by adding some pears to the cider, but this altered the flavor, and he was dissatisfied with the result. He researched and discovered a process using ultra-violet rays which killed the germs without altering the product.
The only problem was that it was expensive. His problem was solved in a surprising way. Jim responded to an invitation to attend a village meeting in Ilion, and he was offered grant money which was enough to cover the cost of the new equipment as well as other upgrades.
Besides planting his orchard, Jim rebuilt the farmhouse. He found the diary of William Clapsaddle, the original owner of the farm, which contained notes about blueprints from the farmhouse dating back to 1783. Jim restored the home to the original specs and moved his family into the farmhouse in 1992.
Jim had been dabbling in pastel and oil painting for many years. During the 1980s, Jim tried watercolor. His first painting was a historic re-creation of the Miller’s Mills Ice Harvest in Herkimer County. He brought his painting to display at the annual Ice Harvest Festival in 1985. When he went to pick it up, he was told that it had sold for $125.00. That is when Jim realized that he could make a career out of his folk paintings.
Word spread quickly, and soon Jim was commissioned to paint historic folk paintings of several local villages and a bicentennial map of Oneida County which led to more requests for his paintings.
Each painting requires hours of research. Jim spends considerable time in libraries and historical societies studying maps and old photographs. And he spends time talking to local residents to discover stories and legends that have been passed down from generation to generation.
To date, Jim has painted over 1500 villages, hamlets, cities, and towns in Central New York, including scenes of the Erie, Chenango, and Black River Canals and famous historic battles. He also has painted communities in Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and the southern coast of New England.
Jim is the author of the children’s book, The Mist Fairies and Leprechauns of the Adirondack Mountains, which he describes as a fantasy tale rooted in local legends.
Jim taught art classes on a volunteer basis at local Mennonite and Amish schools for ten years. Jim said he felt a connection to the Mennonites and Amish. “They are the type of people my grandparents were – religious and down to earth with common sense.”
Jim taught art classes at the Mohawk Valley Center of the Arts in Little Falls as well, including a class for children with special needs.
Jim also used his paintings to teach local history in the public schools. And for years, Jim would conduct art workshops at Mohawk Valley Christian Academy in Little Falls where I was a teacher.
Becoming a folk artist was a perfect blend of Jim’s passions -- art and history, but he paints for a much greater purpose than for his own enjoyment and to earn a living. It is Jim’s mission to help revitalize the villages, hamlets, and towns in Central New York.
When Jim paints what is presently a struggling run-down rural community, he attempts to re-create it in its prime. “I want to help people to take pride in where they live,” he explained.
Jim is currently working on a project to paint and re-create South Edmeston and West Edmeston which border the Chobani Yogurt plant, communities which he describes as a “rural slums.” He hopes his paintings will inspire the locals to revitalize the area and that people will be attracted to move in.
He also hopes to help revive downtown Herkimer by painting the old trolley bridge which spans the West Canada Creek as a “Bridge of Flowers,” offering a vision of what the community could become.
Jim is working on another project in conjunction with the Mohawk Valley Historical Association, an organization of which he was president for years. They are erecting historical markers to commemorate the “Burning of the Valleys,” raids led by loyalists and native Mohawks during the 1780s which resulted in many Central New York communities being burned to the ground.
If you have not had a chance to view any of Jim’s paintings, I encourage you to visit his Etsy store (link below) If you take a moment to gaze into one of his paintings, it will transport you back to a simpler era, to a time when people worked hard, but worked together, to a time when people were God-fearing and down to earth. Perhaps then you will catch Jim’s vision for revitalizing America, one painting at a time.
*you can connect with Jim on Etsy https://www.etsy.com/shop/JamesParkerFolkArt?ref=search_shop_redirect
*background is Jim's painting, “Train Arriving at Cedarville Station”