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Historical marker commemorates Town Line’s secession, return to U.S.

A small crossroads community between Alden and Lancaster holds a peculiar footnote in American history.

Town Line is the only community north of the Mason-Dixon Line believed to have voted to secede from the United States during the Civil War. It didn’t officially rejoin until about 85 years later, at the end of World War II.

Earlier this month, a historical marker commemorating Town Line’s secession and return was affixed to a large boulder on the grounds of Town Line Lutheran Church, on the Alden side of the hamlet, just east of where the schoolhouse once stood where 125 men voted, 85 to 40, to leave the U.S.

Town Line wasn’t an incorporated, municipal entity, so the vote had no legal effect. No documentation exists that the vote occurred; neither side in the war ever acknowledged the outcome.

But Gil Dussault, president of the Alden Historical Society, which organized the marker effort and received a congressional commendation from Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, in recognition of the effort, said stories handed down from generation to generation leave little doubt the event happened.

But the stories also cast different interpretations on why the mostly German-populated hamlet voted as it did.

“The true reasons aren’t known, and obviously no one is alive who can attest to the vote,” Dussault said. “Many in the community even served with the Union, but there was some dissension and unhappiness with the United States going to war.”

Town Line was first settled in 1812. In 1861, at the time of the secession vote, the 4½-square-mile farming community’s business district had a hotel, store, wagon shop, harness shop and two blacksmiths.

A majority of Town Line residents voted for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, yet there was also known to be a strong “Copperhead” movement, the name Republicans gave anti-Civil War Democrats.

Several residents are believed to have left for Canada, while 20 fought for the Union Army and five served with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Some in the town – the U.S. Census Bureau counted 2,367 residents in 2010 – don’t like having the people who voted for secession referred to as “rebels,” Dussault said.

“It sounds like they were Confederates. I’m not sure there were Confederate sympathizers to the point where they were going to pick up their gun and start shooting people who were in the Union, but there was some animosity and some difficulties after the vote,” he said.

The vote, if it occurred, as most believe it did, seemed to have little more than symbolic meaning. It also went unrecognized for years.

But after Vicksburg, Miss., and Dale County, Ga., voted to rejoin the Union in 1945, the issue resurfaced and prompted encouragement from a 97-year-old former Confederate general. “We been rather pleased with the results since we rejoined the Union,” wrote TW Dowling of Valdosta, Ga. “Town Line ought to give the United States another try.”

A reporter wrote a letter to then-President Harry Truman seeking advice on re-entry, and Truman wrote back, suggesting the town have a barbecue to decide “whether or not to have themselves readmitted.”

When the ceremonial town vote was held Jan. 24, 1946, residents ate roast beef and watched “Colonel Effingham’s Raid,” a film about a retired Army colonel who returns to his Southern hometown in 1940 and fights a plan to rename Confederate Monument Square. Actor Cesar Romero counted the votes. By a 90-23 margin, the earlier vote was rescinded.

Two years ago, the Alden Historical Society, which retains the schoolhouse desk where it’s believed the Article of Secession was signed, sponsored a program about Town Line in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. An overflow crowd of about 300 people attended the program at Town Line Lutheran Church to hear speakers, view exhibits and watch an outdoor war re-enactment with cannons.

The interest sparked the idea of creating a historic marker. A fundraising campaign to raise $1,000 brought in triple that amount, money that will be used toward future markers, Dussault said.

Garland Graphics, an Alden company, made the aluminum marker. The inscription, by Alden Historical Society curator and archivist Karen Muchow, reads:

“It is believed that the residents of Town Line, NY met at the schoolhouse near this marker following the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 and voted 80-45 to secede from the Union. The story is undocumented and their reasons are unknown. With encouragement from President Harry S. Truman, Town Line residents gathered again in January of 1946 at the schoolhouse, which had become a blacksmith shop, and voted 90-23 to officially return to the Union.”