The firefighters in Town Line are one sign of the New York hamlet's unusual history. Sporting a Confederate flag on their uniforms, they're known as the “Last of the Rebels."
That’s because this town near the Canadian border seceded from the United States at the start of the Civil War in 1861. One hundred and fifty years later, the town is still trying to figure out why.
The only church hall in town was filled past capacity recently for a party marking the 150th anniversary of this northern town's decision to side with the South during the Civil War. Cannons sit in the parking lot. Ladies are in elaborate dresses while gentlemen swelter in woolen soldiers’ uniforms.
Brandon Adkins, who has strapped on an authentic battle sword, likes to tell people he’s a natural-born Confederate from upstate New York.
“One guy, he was calling me a Yankee. And I says, ‘Excuse me, I’m from Town Line, I’m a Confederate. We were Confederates for the longest time.’ He said, ‘If that’s true, I’ll kiss your rear end in front of everybody to see.’ He looked it up and I guess he believes me now that we were the last of the rebels.”
Many in Town Line, like history teacher Ray Ball, also find it hard to believe. “I was very surprised when I first heard it 10 years ago. I thought, ‘No way. Come on.'”
As the story goes, townspeople gathered at the local schoolhouse just after war broke out and voted 80-45 to secede from the Union. Shortly after, according to Ball, five local men headed south and joined the Confederate Army.
“The country was literally coming apart at the seams," he says, "and the seams tore much farther north than most people realize.”
But locals are still unsure why Town Line, just minutes from Canada, took such a dramatic step. Ball points out that residents supported Abraham Lincoln for president just the year before. Most were German immigrants without connections to the American south.
“They had nothing to do with slavery here," Ball says. "So it had to be something beyond that, why they voted the way they did.”
Karen Muchow, who runs the local historical society, has researched the story for years without finding the answer. But, she says, after the Civil War ended, Town Line’s secession from the Union was conveniently forgotten.
“I think it was embarrassment, on some parts, that it happened," says Muchow. "There are no records that we know of. There could be in someone’s attic. Or were, and (were) destroyed. So there’s no names. Which may have been on purpose.”
Life went on. Residents paid federal taxes and opened a U.S. Post Office. Then, in 1946, right after World War II, a local newspaper unearthed the story.
Word spread around the country. Telegrams flooded in, hounding the town “rejoin” the Union. Even President Harry Truman wrote an open letter, urging residents to roast veal as a peace offering. Bowing to pressure, the town scheduled a vote.
Back at the 150th anniversary celebration, the crowd watched grainy film footage of long-dead relatives dropping ballots into a box and then lowering the town’s rebel flag, which had flown, on and off, for 85 years.
As an act of unity, an Abraham Lincoln impersonator leads the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance while facing both U.S. and Confederate flags in the front of the church - a salute to Town Line's self-proclaimed status as the “the last holdout of the Confederacy.”