The earliest history of Potsdam unfolded shortly after the American Revolution when the St. Regis Indians blazed the first known trails along the banks of the Raquette River and built hunting camps at the site of the present village.
In 1802, David Clarkson and his brother-in-law Garret Van Horne bought the eastern four-fifths of the town. The purchase marked the beginning of the Clarkson family influence in Potsdam. In 1803, Clarkson assigned Benjamin Raymond as land agent to sell parcels to settlers who would develop the territory. Under Raymond's guiding influence, Potsdam became the first settlement along the Raquette River and the seventh town erected in St. Lawrence County.
Potsdam's storied past provides interesting reading. The Union Settlement, now known as Unionville, is believed to be the first cooperative community or commune established in the United States. In 1889, the Barnum and Bailey circus lost numerous animals, including camels and Arabian stallion, that were killed in a train wreck at Clark's Crossing near Unionville. In 1968, a Clarkson student film project, spoofing horror flicks capturing scenes along Elm Street in Potsdam, became the inspiration for Hollywood film producer (and former Clarkson instructor) Wes Craven's smash box-office movie series, "A Nightmare on Elm Street."
From the beginning, education has been a vital and prominent industry in Potsdam. The first one-room schoolhouses were established in 1810. Since then, Potsdam has become distinguished in the quality of education for its children. St. Lawrence Academy, the forerunner of the State University College at Potsdam, was founded in 1816. Its teacher education department has graduated some of the North Country's finest educators. Clarkson University was founded in 1896 as a memorial to the efforts of Potsdam sandstoner Thomas S. Clarkson III and his principles of developing the Potsdam community and assisting in the education and employment of its citizens. Many of today's programs have evolved from the original courses in technical training, liberal studies and manual training. In 1983, Clarkson became the first college in the nation to require each student to have a personal computer as part of his/her education.
For more than a century, papermaking has provided substantial employment. The Potsdam paper mill at Unionville produces "technical specialty papers." It is currently owned by the Little Rapids Corporation of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Potsdam is also known as the "Car Capital of the North Country," currently the headquarters for eight new-car franchises and more than a dozen used-car dealerships. By Bob LaRue