For a place that owes its name to a conquering commander, Montcalm Park is among the more peaceful and contemplative public spaces in Oswego.
In the early 1700s, the community of Oswego, New York, was a keystone in British trading activities, located strategically on Lake Ontario at the head of the Oswego River. Coming hostilities with the French led to the British creating and fortifying edifices including Fort George on a westside cliff. During the French and Indian War, the park’s namesake, the Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, led a French garrison that overran Oswego’s defenses. The 1756 win bolstered the rising reputation of Montcalm, then the French Commander-in-Chief for this new continental activity, and resulted in 1700 British prisoners and the burning and razing of Fort George.
Their statement made, the French left the city in British hands until after the Revolutionary War, when it turned over to the fledgling United States. As the nation began to grow and prosper through the early 19th century, Oswego became a key port city through which goods and people flowed. The city became a boomtown while water traffic was still primary—especially in the mid-19th century—and was the fastest growing city in New York state (from 6,818 in 1845 to around 16,000 in 1855) until the emergence of railroads redirected some of its trade.
During these years of boom, Edward Austin Sheldon came to Oswego. A farmer’s son who dropped out of Hamilton College and came to the port city for what would be a failed business venture, Sheldon was a religious man who found great concern in the number of orphans in need of education in a city otherwise flourishing. He would go on to found what was called the Orphan and Free School to meet this need.
While that effort eventually fell apart, Sheldon continued to learn more about education and returned to the city in 1853, asking to organize the school district for the sprawling city. Adopting the radical new Pestalozzian method of object teaching resulted in a need to develop more teachers, as his were poached by other districts. Thus he founded the Oswego Primary Teachers’ Training School (today SUNY Oswego) in 1861, which also launched what was known as the Oswego method of active learning with teachers-in-training mastering their craft in the classroom and taking their skills and methods afar. The school moved into the Montcalm Park neighborhood in 1866, where it remained for nearly half a century.
Students from the Oswego teacher-training school created gardens on the plot that is today Montcalm Park. When the Oswego Normal School moved to its new (and current) location west of the city, the question arose of what to do with this prime piece of land. As the gardens fell into disrepair, the school’s principal Helen Stevens, who also was a member of the Ontario chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, proposed a park with a monument to Fort George and other veterans. In 1913, the state approved conveying the land, now named Montcalm Park, to the DAR.
More recently, the neighbors of the Montcalm Park Historic District, consisting of 28 buildings around the triangular land, pulled together to lead beautification efforts at the park, buoyed by the 2001 addition of Montcalm Park to the National Register for Historic Places. Surrounded by homes of architectural and historical significance, the park’s tree-lined paths beckon people walking dogs, having picnics, enjoying its garden or reading about its historic past.
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The neighborhood association has led beautification efforts from securing grants to maintaining gardens, painting fences to restoring and replacing aging features. Several benches donated by local organizations or honoring outstanding individuals include one for the late Charlotte Sullivan, founder of the city’s popular Harborfest celebration.