MORRIS — Ada, born Adah Yvonne, passed away on Oct. 20, 2002, at the Harding Nursing Home in Waterville, where she was staying for rehabilitation. Since it seemed that her problem was only a broken ankle that was stubborn in mending, the abrupt onset of breathing problems, and her death several days later, took everyone, including Ada, by surprise.
A general public announcement of her death was withheld by her trustees for a protracted time in order to protect the antique shop/home premises, containing her lifetime's work, left uninhabited and vulnerable.
Ada was born Jan. 18, 1915, youngest child of William Henry Harris and Winifred Yates Harris of Morris.
She graduated from Morris High School, and then, in 1937, from Oneonta Normal School, teaching school just briefly. In 1938 she opened her first antique shop, Brookside Antiques of Morris. Her career in antiques was interrupted for only a couple of years, during World War II, when she labored at the Bendix defense plant in Sidney.
In 1948, after the death of her beloved mother, Winifred, she sold Brookside and moved to a farm outside of West Winfield, where she opened another antique shop, dedicated to "country antiques in the rough." There she remained until just a month before her death, removed from her family, leading a semi-reclusive life.
Ada did, however, remain in spirited lifelong correspondence with certain friends and cousins, while cultivating good new friends among her neighbors, business clientele, and fellow antique dealers.
And she became one of the best-known antique dealers and experts in New York state, while also being known as a "real character" with decidedly eccentric ways. It seems that everyone, among neighbors, clientele and fellow dealers, has a favorite "Ada story."
She was a night person, working into the wee hours then sleeping late. She vociferously resented anyone who rang her bell before noon, and, even during permitted hours, you didn't get in her front door unless she liked the looks of you or you talked the talk that was on her wavelength. And very few people were ever admitted to her inner-sanctums, where she kept the stuff that meant the most to her. In many ways, to most people, Ada was a woman of mystery. The quote under Ada's picture in her high school yearbook is "I just want to be left alone." Basically she arranged her life to achieve that aim. Yet she also managed to reach out to many who will never forget her, who will always miss her salt-and-peppery self.
Ada was proud of her Yates family heritage, and preservation of that family history was one of her chief concerns. Her great-grandfather was Dr. William Yates, baronet, born in 1767 to the manor of Sapperton, Burton-on-Trent, England — cousin to Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel and to the philanthropist John Howard. Having been on the staff of ancient St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, and a colleague of Dr. Jenner's, the originator of the smallpox vaccine, Dr. Yates, of a philanthropic bent himself, was the first to bring the smallpox vaccine to America, to Philadelphia in 1799. It is possible that it was Dr. Yates who personally administered the vaccine to ex-President John Adams, who did receive a vaccination on one of his trips through Philadelphia.
Whilst in Philadelphia, Dr. Yates struck up a friendship with Judge Cooper, founder of Cooperstown and father of James Fenimore Cooper. Dr. Yates accompanied Cooper up the Susquehanna with an eye to purchasing property. In Morris, then called Butternuts, Dr. Yates became captivated by a tall, lovely blonde, the daughter of prominent settlers, Ichabod B. Palmer and his wife, Mary Wakelee, lately of Brookfield, Conn.
Dr. Yates and Hannah Palmer were married and, in 1801, he took his bride back to England where she was presented to King George III's queen, Charlotte. During the bridal couple's year in England, the doctor devolved the manor of Sapperton and his baronetcy in favor of his younger brother Harry, settled his financial affairs and, in 1802, returned to Butternuts, there to live the life of a gentleman farmer and doctor to all who needed help, with no fees charged — becoming the patriarch of a large, exceptionally well-educated family.
In late February of 1857, when summoned to attend a patient on a remote farm, the still vigorous Dr. Yates, just short of his 90th birthday, rode out into sub-zero weather. On his return home he found that one of his feet was frozen. He remarked to Hannah that most likely gangrene would set in and kill him. It did.
Ada was a farm girl, and throughout her life she practiced that farm heritage, sometimes raising farm animals, always growing, canning, preserving and drying much of her own food. But she also inherited a profound respect for, and concern for, history — of her family but also of colonial and 19th Century New York country society in general. She dedicated her life to studying, collecting and preserving colonial and rural 19th Century artifacts: art work, household utensils, agricultural and architectural items — excited always with the history behind any object, rather than by its condition.
A special study was that of antique wallpaper, and one wallpaper company specializing in reproductions honored her when they reproduced an ancient wallpaper that she had rescued from oblivion. They named their reproduction the "Ada Harris." Ada was always eager to teach any, who were willing to sit and listen as she imparted her knowledge of New York State rural history.
With her death we lost one of our most knowledgeable experts in that regard. How sad that we only, just now, begin to realize that fact. But the world of antiques and history can be thankful that Ada cared enough to recognize the importance of "everyday" items, to collect them and to preserve them — thousands upon thousands of items which would simply have been tossed, and so lost — but which now are being treasured by those with the smarts to appreciate their historical and societal importance.
Aside from her passion for history — family and societal — and for antiques and gardens, Ada was passionate in regard to issues of environment and conservation. She prided herself that her household produced only one small bag of trash a month. All else was in some way reused. Ada even dried and reused paper towels.
Then, very importantly, there were her animals. For close to 60 years Ada's closest friends and companions, those beings in whom she was able to place absolute trust and affection, were not people — for, beginning in childhood, people, sometimes those closest to her, traumatized, wounded, confused, or alienated her, and she was hesitant to trust and to love. It was to the dogs and cats who shared her home that she was able to give unqualified trust and affection, and receive trust and affection in return. On their behalf she developed an active interest in ending the abuse of, and promoting the humane treatment of, all animals.
Those few of us in whom she did finally place her trust — trusting us to see that her wishes are carried out, that certain collections are passed on and preserved as a heritage for all, and that her hard-earned funds go to furthering the work and passions of her lifetime — are aware of the honor done to us. We will not fail her.
Ada desired that all that she had worked for would go to organizations which she carefully researched and selected, which organizations would preserve her goods and use them to inform, instruct and educate the public, while using her funds for the furtherance of those causes to which she was passionately devoted.
Those desiring to make contributions in her memory may consider any of these, her four beneficiaries. The New York State Historical Association (Cooperstown), the New England Historical and Genealogical Society (Boston), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NYC), or Spring Farm CARES Animal Sanctuary (Clinton).
Ada was predeceased by her "Papa," William, who died after an auto accident in 1923, by her mother, Winifred, and her siblings, Collis Paschal Harris, Erie Corinne Colvin, Avis Lorraine Paden and Winston Harris.
She is survived by nieces, Rosalie Smith and Winifred Talbot; nephews, William and Winston Harris, by numerous cousins; by caring friends who sorely miss the irreplaceable Ada and who wish that she was still around to teach us and to entertain us; and by her cherished dog.
As per Ada's wishes, her ashes will be interred in the grave of her beloved mother, Winifred Yates Harris, whose grave is in the Yates plot at Hillington Cemetery, Morris. The service for the extraordinary Ada will be at that graveside at 1 p.m. on Nov. 8, 2003, overseen by Johnston Funeral Home of Morris, and conducted by Father Witt of Zion Episcopal Church of Morris, a church which Dr. William Yates and his family were instrumental in organizing and building. At 3:30 p.m., Ada's friends and neighbors are invited to her home, 9869 Route 20, 2 miles West of West Winfield, 1/2 mile east of Bridgewater, corner Route 20 and East Street, for a party to celebrate the life of Ada and to trade fond memories of our gal.
Published in The Daily Star on Nov. 4, 2003.
Find A Grave Memorial for Ada Yvonne Harris 1915-2003