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Remington memorialized at museum

Frederic Remington, the iconic Western artist, was a North Country boy, and no place in the country has a better collection of his works -- paintings, drawings and sculptures -- than a museum dedicated to him in Ogdensburg, along the St. Lawrence River.

Ogdensburg is about as far north as you can get in New York without going to Canada, and when Remington's widow died in 1918, her will directed that her large private collection of his work be donated to the library in Ogdensburg, her hometown.

One biography of Remington, by Peggy and Harold Samuels, laments that "Eva Remington's bequest to Ogdensburg did not foster her husband's fame. The museum was inaccessible. No one who wanted to see the art, artifacts and papers could easily get to Ogdensburg to see them."

Yet, Remington's fame has survived very well. He is the best-known Western artist in history. And, while it might be a long drive -- five hours from Buffalo -- the Frederic Remington Art Museum is worth the trip. The museum contains hundreds of sculptures, paintings and sketches by Remington, as well as hundreds of personal items he owned, including furniture and books. (Among the personal items, the 1-carat engagement ring he gave Eva was reported stolen earlier this month; a week later, it was recovered, and a part-time museum employee was arrested in the theft.)

It is housed in a large old house, known as the Parish Mansion, where Eva and her sister lived for three years. The mansion, prior to that, was best known as the home of the onetime mistress of the son of President Martin Van Buren.

In 1841, George Parish, the richest man in Ogdensburg, played poker with Van Buren's son, John, who, after losing all his money, gambled his mistress, Maria Ameriga Vespucci, who claimed to be descended from the man for whom the continents are named. Van Buren lost, and Madame Vespucci moved in with Parish. She was known as "Parish's fancy woman," and unsurprisingly for the times, was shunned by polite Ogdensburg society.

(Actually, that story, while widely reported, may not be quite accurate. Maria's first name is sometimes reported as Elena. Her claim of her ancestry is suspect. And she may have simply switched lovers on her own rather than because of a late-night poker game.)

Remington was born in Canton in 1861, and when he was 11 his family moved to Ogdensburg. At age 20, two years after dropping out of Yale, he visited Montana Territory, the first of many trips he would make to the American West. Two years later he married Eva Caten; they had met as teenagers in Ogdensburg. Over the next two decades, they lived in Brooklyn and New Rochelle and in Ridgefield, Conn. He also purchased Ingleneuk, one of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River and often vacationed there in summers.

His first fame came from doing magazine illustrations for Colliers, Harper's, Cosmopolitan and other large circulation magazines. But he also painted pictures, sculpted bronzes, wrote articles and novels and deliberately developed a public personality as a rugged outdoorsman. Along the way, he did illustrations for articles written by Theodore Roosevelt and books written by Owen Wister, two men with whom he developed long-term friendships.

He was constantly overweight, peaking at 295 pounds, and that may have contributed to his death at age 48 following an emergency operation for removal of his appendix.

After he died, at his Connecticut home, his widow returned to Ogdensburg, which is why the museum is located there.

The museum, across the street from the library to which the collection was originally donated, contains an often-changing and wide-ranging exhibit of his work. Famous statues, like "The Rattlesnake," depicting a cowboy trying to control a horse spooked by a snake, and well-known paintings, like Teddy Roosevelt leading the charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War (which Remington covered as a correspondent), are on view.

Just as interesting for most Remington fans is the collection of his personal belongings, many of which were donated to the museum by the Remington estate after his widow died.

Particularly noteworthy for anyone trying to understand the psyche of the artist are the hundreds of books from his personal library.

Because of his penchant for dressing in cowboy outfits and affecting a Western accent, it's easy to overlook the fact that Remington was widely read. Among the titles in the collection are Pilgrim's Progress, Dante's Inferno, Longfellow's Hiawatha and a history of the Iroquois. The collection is dominated by history books and literary classics.

The books are in locked cases, but Remington's biographers note that most of his books were heavily marked with annotations and marginalia, indicating that he was a careful reader.

Remington was a commercially successful artist. Some would say a commercial artist. He saw nothing wrong with that. So it's not surprising that one of the most interesting parts of the museum is the gift shop. Among items for sale are a "Remington Tribute" rifle for $2,195, books (only one novel by Remington, "Pony Tracks;" most of his books are long out of print) and the usual array of bookmarks, coffee cups, hot sauces and refrigerator magnets.

Since they were half price, I bought two magnets, each containing a reproduction of Remington paintings (I assume they're not originals, since they cost only $3.50 each).

I had hoped there would be a Western-themed restaurant in Ogdensburg, but the best I could do was an old diner, named Phillips, one block south and one block east of the museum. The wait staff wore T-shirts that said, "Our food is so good you'd think we kidnapped your mother."

I almost enjoyed the poutine I ordered, but it seemed skimpy on cheese. So skimpy that I assumed the little container of Russian dressing that my friend, Eileen, got with her Reuben sandwich was cheese for my dish, so I dumped it on.

The waitress thought that was funny, so she got Eileen another cup of dressing, which was probably healthy for me.


If you go:

Take the Thruway (Interstate 90) east from Buffalo to Interstate 81 north; at Alexandria Bay, take NY Route 12 east to Route 37. As you approach Ogdensburg, look for signs directing you to the museum. It's located at 303 Washington St., within sight of the St. Lawrence River. If you miss the signs, don't worry. Head for what looks like downtown, and you'll see plenty of other signs. There's lots of free parking on the streets.

The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. After Oct. 15, it is closed Mondays and Tuesdays and opens at 11 a.m. Wednesday to Saturday. Admission ranges from $2 for members of school groups to $9 for adults, with discounts for seniors ($8), active military ($5) and members of groups of 15 or more ($7).

To reach Phillips Diner, at 3 Finn St., go one block south from the museum and then one block west. It's one of the few eateries in town that is not part of a national chain.