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Seward House Museum celebrates 150th anniversary of Alaska Purchase

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase, which was negotiated by Secretary of State William Henry Seward, who lived in Auburn. The Seward House Museum is celebrating the anniversary with the unveiling of a new Seward statue on Saturday that will make its way to the Alaskan capitol of Juneau.

At the Prison City Pub and Brewery in Auburn, co-founder Marc Schulz said their new beer, called Seward’s Folly, pays homage to the historically significant man, who draws in tourism and business.

“William Seward, famously purchases this crap piece of land, everyone thought was a bit of a joke, everyone dubs it Seward’s folly, so we brew a blonde ale to commemorate that,” Schulz said.

Credit Tom Magnarelli / WRVO News
The drawing room and the 1872 Steinway piano in the Seward House.

A few blocks away, Jeff Ludwig gives a tour of the Seward House Museum. In the drawing room, there’s the 1872 Steinway piano purchased by Seward’s son for his wife with a birthday note.

“Happy birthday darling, this is the best piano that money can buy, let’s hope it improves your playing,” Ludwig said.

Seward started his political career in New York as a state senator, then governor, then U.S. senator. Ludwig said Seward was seen as a radical for his views on immigration and slavery. The house's basement was a stop on the Underground Railroad.   

“In 1860, he is the consensus front-runner, the heir apparent to be the 16th president of the United States before he is upset by Abraham Lincoln, a true dark horse candidate,” Ludwig said.

But Lincoln tapped Seward to be secretary of state during the Civil War, part of Lincoln’s famous team of rivals. Also on this tour is Frank Duke, who came all the way from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When asked why he was in Auburn, he replied, "Why not come to Auburn, New York?"

Duke said he just finished the book, “Team of Rivals.” Author Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke at the Seward House in 2012. That gave the museum a bump in visitors. Executive Director Billye Chabot is hoping the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase will do the same.

“We really feel like this celebration is helping us have that national spotlight,” Chabot said.

Back on the tour, Ludwig said it was dining room diplomacy that helped get the Alaskan treaty with Russia ratified by the U.S. Senate.

"Just two years after a very costly Civil War, $7.2 million seemed a high price to pay for what some were calling an icebox or a polar bear garden," Ludwig said. "Fortunately, Seward could serve dinner with the best of them. A number of Alaskan-themed dinners, with Alaskan items on the menus, Alaskan furs brought in for female guests.”

Credit Tom Magnarelli / WRVO News
A political cartoon and copy of a painting depicting the signing of the Alaska treaty.

Ludwig said the land deal was negotiated between Seward and a Russian ambassador in four hours in the middle of the night. It was initially hailed as a triumph, but the tide turned on an unpopular President Andrew Johnson and for Seward, as seen in a political cartoon Ludwig described.

"A raggedy looking Mr. Seward, hat tattered, the caption reads, 'The honorable secretary of state, retiring from the cabinet, sets out for Alaska to enjoy its genial climate and take a look at the walruses," Ludwig said. "'Goodbye Billy, we could have better spared a worser man.' That's exactly what Seward did."

He retired and traveled to Alaska, having purchased it for the U.S. sight unseen. Barbara Propes lived in Alaska for 30 years and described it as beautiful, massive, harsh and isolating.

"Your friends and your communities become like family," Propes said. "I used to joke and say you can’t afford for anybody not to like you.”

Propes helped raise more than $150,000 in private funds for a 6 foot brass statue of Seward to be unveiled at the Seward House.

“I encourage people everywhere to visit because they will learn so much," Propes said. "Especially for Alaskans, I think it will make them feel closer to their own state by learning more about this man, and his vision.”

That should make Seward House and businesses in the city dubbed, “history’s hometown,” very happy.

Credit Tom Magnarelli / WRVO News
WRVO News (file photo)
Exterior of the Seward House.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.