Last week we introduced you to Reverend George Orlia Webster, and this week we’re going to celebrate the former Essex Community Church pastor’s creative legacy. “Essex-on-Champlain” (stay tuned for the lyrics, and possibly even an audio recording) may be the most famous of George O. Webster’s hymn among Essex, NY residents and seasonal habitues, but it represents a mere fraction of this prolific man’s creative output over the years.
Pastor’s Poetic Destiny
This past winter and spring Thomas Palmer shared a wealth of information on his great grandfather, George O. Webster.
George was born in 1866 to Joseph B. and Francis Webster, his father being a minister himself as well as a Civil War veteran. When George was young, the family had a visit from a lady known as “Aunt Lucy,” who “read” the bumps on heads (“phrenology”). She proclaimed that young George had a “poetic” bump, and sure enough, he went on to author several hundred published hymns, cantatas, musicals, and other works.” (Thomas Palmer)
Apparently Aunt Lucy was on to something. George O. Webster became a prolific author of hymns. Included at the end of this post is a list of 229 hymns that George O. Webster is known to have composed. “Essex-on-Champlain” does not appear on the list, an indication that there may be other hymns likewise overlooked.
I also have scrapbook of his correspondence with well-known hymn writers he knew and/or collaborated with, such as Charles H. Gabriel (who wrote hymns such as “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” etc.) and many others.
Great Grandpa’s best-known hymn is probably “I Need Jesus.” although there are many more that were well-known in their day. That hymn is almost always played or sung at family funerals and important events – it was played at my own wedding. (Thomas Palmer)
Palmer augmented George O. Webster’s biography and provided a manuscript from a newspaper article written by Billy Burger for “The Adirondacker” column in The Record-Post, Au Sable Forks, NY, on Thursday, October 2, 1941. The following excerpts helps illustrate why George O. Webster was considered “one of the most amazing Adirondack personalities” by Record-Post columnist, Billy Burger.
A family story relays that Rev. Joseph Webster baptized George as a young man by carving a hole in an icy river in the middle of winter. George received his education at Saxon’s River Academy in Vermont (which is still in operation and known as Vermont Academy). Shortly after graduation, he was ordained as a minister, and his first pastorate was of a Baptist church in Saint Johnsbury, Vermont.
Rev. Webster spent the remainder of his life as a minister and farmer, and had pastorates in Warrensburg, Utica, and Franfort, New York. His last post was as pastor of the Federated Church in Essex, which I believed he considered the culmination of his career as a minister. I know he lived there for many, many years. He lived there with his last wife, Winifred (my own great grandmother had passed away at the age of 26, just a month after my grandmother was born). His two youngest daughters were there a lot as well, Marilla and Agnes.
I know for certain that he had a deep love for the Adirondacks in general and Essex in particular. (Thomas Palmer)
George O. Webster: The Sky Pilot’s Pulpit
The Record-Post columnist Billy Burger profiled George O. Webster in “Sky Pilot” on October 2, 1941, amplifying the portrait offered by Palmer.
After his mother’s death, which occurred soon after Aunt Lucy’s visit, Mr. Webster went to a charge in Vermont and George ran wild. But not for long. Presently a famous lecturer and humorist, “Bob” Burdette, preached a couple of summers in the North River church. He got a grip on George, and this resulted in George’s conversion… George now turned definitely to the Baptist ministry, in which he has served almost fifty years. Significantly enough, although he says he can never be anything but, a Baptist at heart, thirty of the fifty years have been spent in undenominational work. His Federated church at Essex contains Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian groups and he is also Methodist minister at Whallonsburg.
Because of ill health of the present Mrs. Webster, he was forced to spend twelve years on a farm near Glens Falls. But the old farm just couldn’t keep George out of the pulpit. Before he realized what he was doing he was conducting, with Mrs. Webster’s help, four services a Sunday. The farm chores sandwiched in between. (Billy Burger, “Sky Pilot,” The Adirondacker. The Record-Post, Au Sable Forks, N. Y., October 2, 1941)
As pastor, farmer and hymn composer, George O. Webster appears to have been a veritable renaissance man.
Up next, a global sing-a-long to George O. Webster’s hymn, “Essex-on-Champlain”.
- Reverend George Orlia Webster (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)