Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mayor Ellis' Excellent Adventures

Schenectady native Malcom Ellis was mayor of Schenectady throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s. Judging by a collection of Ellis' publicity photos in our library, he sure seemed to have a good time during his run as mayor. Prior to his political career, Ellis had management experience at several Grand Union Company locations. He was also a partner at the Jewell and Ellis Funeral Home which he bought in 1950s, changing the name to Ellis Funeral Home. Ellis was first elected mayor in 1960, 5 years after a short stint on the Schenectady County Board of Representatives.

Accomplishments that were made during Ellis' run as mayor included computerizing assessments, taxes, payroll, and parking tickets, completing the 22-block urban renewal project, upgrading housing code enforcement, and developing downtown Schenectady. He also had a pretty good publicity department. It wasn't all positives for Ellis, but as Art Isabel and Larry Hart wrote in their April 9th, 1971 column The Art and Hart of Politics "Ellis is a good campaigner; he photographs well both for newspapers and the tube; he shows up at as many social events as possible and has probably cut more ribbons, issued more proclamations and named more patroons than any mayor in Schenectady's history." Our photo collection of Ellis prove this statement to be true.

Ellis was mayor during the time when there was both a city manager and a mayor, which he felt gave the mayor responsibility for fixing things, but little authority. Unfortunately, this wouldn't change until the late 1970s when Schenectady city government changed from a City Manager and Mayor to a Strong Mayor.

Despite his problems with the city manager/mayor system in Schenectady, Ellis seemed to have a good sense of humor with his job. As shown in the photos below, Mayor Ellis was rarely seen without a smile. This collection takes us around Schenectady to see ribbon cuttings, Patroonships, declarations, proclamations, and even inside City Hall to visit Ellis and his staff. Unfortunately, many of the photos are unlabeled. So besides Mayor Ellis, we don't know who is in the photos, or in some cases, where they were taken. Still they're a fun tour through early 1970s Schenectady and show the lighter side of what must have been a stressful job.

Mayor Ellis (in full suit) trying out his skills at a local dojo.
The back of this photo reads "It's that time again." Our detective skills indicate that "that time" refers to Christmas time. Ellis is second from the right.
Ellis at the ribbon cutting of the Golden Dragon Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge.

Shucking corn at the Glenville Sesquicentennital with Scotia Mayor John Ryan (second from right)

Hey! That building looks familiar and I think we can name everyone in the photo. From left to right: Gertrude Naylon, Ann George, Mary De Julio (Former Executive Director of SCHS), Wayne Harvey (Former President of SCHS), Larry Hart (Schenectady City and County Historian), and Mayor Malcom Ellis.
Mayor Ellis hanging out with Schenectady's youth and attempting to hold a reluctant looking baby.

Probably the best photo in the whole collection. Did Mayor Ellis eat this sandwich himself, or did he bring it back to staff? We'll never know!
A nice shot of Ellis and his staff.
This photo ran in the April 28, 1971 edition of the Schenectady Gazette. It was captioned "12 Years is Enough" In the accompanying article, Ellis stated that after his last meeting as mayor, he would like to "devote more time to my business (Ellis Funeral Home, golf, bowl and some curling."

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

It's Not Easy Being Green's

This post is written by library volunteer Ann Eignor

There have been several songs written about Schenectady - "I Can't Spell Schenectady," It's Forty Miles From Schenectady to Troy," "Our Schenectady," and a few others. One of the most unusual is "Joe Green's Clothes Shop."

Credit for the music is given to Charles E. Benham, a local printer. The words are based on the text of the advertisement below which appeared in the May 22, 1924 issue of the Schenectady Gazette. Notice the ads for the two different Green's.

Green's Clothing Store was tricky in it's advertising, stating that it was a new location rather than a whole new store. It also looks like Joe had a bigger advertising budget. Joe Green's ad included a photo of Joe, just in case you wanted to put a face to the song.
Joe Green's Clothes Shop first appears in the 1918 City Directory at 412 State Street. At that time George Green (possibly a brother or cousin to Joe) is listed as a tailor at that establishment. Since Joe and George were both listed as living on Summit Ave. so it seems likely that they were related. By 1921 it seems that George had his fill of being a tailor at Joe's shop and struck out on his own. In the 1921 Schenectady City Directory, George Green is listed as the President of Green's Clothing Store Inc. located at 306 State Street while Joe Green's Clothes Shop remained at 412 State Street.

Lyrics to "Joe Green's Clothes Shop!"
Notice; statement to the public
Don't be fooled, there is only one Joe Green
One Store, No branch,
Look for the name Joe at the old established place
Look for the big number Four Hundred Twelve
State Street before you enter
Joe Green's Clothes Shop,
Joe Green's Clothes Shop,
Joe Green's Clothes Shop,
Over the Worthy Lunch,
Opposite the Wallace Company
Same block as Carl Company,
over the Worthy Lunch
Jooooeeeee Greeeeeennnn (editorial note)

It would seem that Joe Green was not pleased with this new competition who used a similar name, sold similar items, and was located just a block away. The words of the 1924 advertisement make Joe Green's dissatisfaction quite clear. Once the words became song lyrics in 1924, no one should have confused the two stores. The sheet music was probably given out as a "Souvenir of Schenectady" to Joe Green's customers, State Street pedestrians, and was available "at all music dealers." It was not a best seller.

In the battle of the Green's, Joe outlasted George. George Green's Clothing Store was no longer listed in the 1933 City Directory, but Joe's was still going strong. Was the song a deciding factor for Joe's success? We may never know. Joe remained in business until selling to his employee Jerome Oppenheimer in 1938. The store was renamed The Rochester Pants Company which continued in business for several years 

"Don't be fooled - There is only one Joe Green!"

Monday, September 25, 2017

James Cuff Swits – Herbalist and Gentle Giant

This blog post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

In April of 1946, a group of “old-timers” gathered at the Schenectady County Historical Society to swap yarns of days gone by. The 12 well known Schenectadians shared their recollections with a packed house in the Historical Society library. According to the Schenectady Gazette, the average age of the group was “more than 75 years”. They began by reminiscing about State Street in the 1880’s – the many stores and groceries, hotels, trolleys, gas lamps and barber shops as well as sharing memories of the Blizzard of 1888. Conversation soon turned to Jim Cuff, a well-known character from the 1800’s.

Jim Cuff was a familiar figure on the streets of Schenectady. His lanky 6’7” frame and odd shuffling gait made him instantly recognizable. He looked even taller than he was because of his unusual clothing. He wore cast offs that were too short leaving his wrists and ankles exposed and an old “plug” hat that added to his height. He always wore a neckerchief fastened with a piece of carved bone and rubbers or galoshes year-round. He carried himself proudly and one of the presenters said of him “how pathetic a figure – such fierce pride coupled with such superb dignity”.

Jim’s heritage is a bit sketchy. He was born sometime after 1800 on the farm of Henry Swits located where Proctors now stands and the area beyond. By most accounts, his father was James Hartley, a black man, and his mother, according to Jim, was the last of the Schoharie (probably Oneida) Indians. Both of his parents worked on the farm as sharecroppers and one or both may have been a slave of Henry Swits. He was named James Hartley Swits but was referred to as Jim Cuff, Cuff being a "Negro name of significance" at the time.
This portrait of Jim Cuff was taken by professional photographer Joseph A. O’Neill in his Jay Street studio, without payment, for the posterity of the city. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Jim made his meager living as an herb peddler, often called an "herb doctor or "medicine man" around town. Most mornings from early spring to late fall he roamed the Rotterdam Hills, now Coldbrook, as well as the river flats along the old Campbell Road collecting herbs, roots and bark. He peddled the "yarbs", as he called them, door to door to housewives who bought them to make their own remedies. His gaunt figure was a fixture standing in front of the Ellis Building on State Street selling watercress, wild mushrooms, spearmint, fox glove, sunflower and poppy seeds, milkweed and berries out of his huge basket. 

A one room shanty in Cotton Hollow was what Jim called home. He built the shack himself from found materials and reportedly had just one piece of furniture, a cast off chair. Jim slept on the dirt floor near his only source of heat, a fire built in a hollow dug into the floor. The shanty is believed to have been located in the vicinity of the current Lincoln School, between State and Albany Streets.

Jim was a gruff but kind and gentle man who was welcomed into the homes of his customers. If
Jim Cuff standing in front of what is believed to be his shanty. 
Courtesy of
children sometimes taunted him, he would loudly shuffle his feet to shoo them away. Several people looked out for him. Dr. Harlan Swits, a descendent of Henry Swits, had Jim deliver a standing order of herbs to his State Street office and kept an eye on his well-being. He stopped by Colonel A.W. Toll's home most mornings and was given breakfast that he ate in the woodshed. The tollgate keepers on the old Scotia bridge let him pass without cost. He was an avid fisherman and spent many hours fishing at Sanders Lake and along the Mohawk. Jim regularly visited the Wallace Stonecutters where he would shoot the breeze with his friend Tom Wallace. His kindness was exemplified in a story told by Dr. Swits. Once, when a circus came to town, there was a parade on State Street. Horses and buggies were lined up along the curb and people were told to rein in their horses. The parade spooked the horse of one buggy with a young girl at the reins. The horse crashed into the canal bridge and ran off along the bridge as the girl fell to the floor. Jim Cuff rushed from the crowd and grabbed the bridle, calming the horse then carrying the girl out of the damaged buggy. Called a hero by many onlookers, Jim cared only about the well-being of the girl.

He didn't attend church, saying his clothes weren’t fine enough but Jim had his own kind of spirituality. He believed that there was a better place after death, often saying "Someday we shall all be in equal skies". In his declining years, he was destitute and relied on help from some of his friends and customers. When one of his customers didn't see him out with his herbs for several days he checked on Jim and found him in his shack, quite ill. An item in the Schenectady Gazette, dated February 26, 1893, stated “Schenectady’s big Indian, Jim Cuff, who has been ill of consumption and lung hemorrhages, was today removed from his hut to the county almshouse on Steuben Street”. He died there a few days later on March 4, 1893. Dr. William Clute signed the death certificate for "James Cuff Swits" noting the cause of death as pneumonia and giving an estimated age of 72 although many thought he could have been closer to 90. Jim was buried in the Potters Field section of Vale Cemetery in Schenectady. 

James Cuff Swits grave as it now appears in Vale Cemetery. Courtesy of Gail Denisoff.
Jim's story doesn't end with his death. His friend Tom Wallace carved Jim's likeness in bas relief on his headstone, the only such stone in Potters Field. Under his name and date of death, Wallace carved the words "Admitted to that Equal Sky". Forty years after Jim's death, a local physician, to alleviate his guilt, anonymously gave an account to the Schenectady Gazette regarding the placement of that headstone. The physician, a medical student in Albany at the time, decided that Jim's skeleton would be an exceptional specimen for study since Jim claimed to be the last of the Mohawks and was close to seven feet tall. When he got wind that other medical students had the same idea, the physician went to Potters Field at night and switched Jim's headstone with that of a woman who had died about the same time. A few nights later, he returned to dig up the grave. According to his account, the sight of the dead Cuff so unnerved him that he quickly refilled the grave and left the cemetery without the body or switching back the headstones. He claimed not to remember which was the other headstone he switched. Other accounts have Union College students removing Jim's body for autopsy. Whether either of these stories are true is the subject of speculation. Jim may not be lying beneath his headstone but he is not forgotten.

Photos and information for this blog from the Schenectady County Historical Society holdings and the Fulton History collection.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Ghost Train of Mont Pleasant

We can't wait for Halloween over at the Schenectady County Historical Society, so when one of our volunteers found this letter about the "Ghost of the 9:15", we were thrilled and wanted to post it right away. There is not much backstory to it, so we've transcribed the letter below.

December 28, 1992

To: Larry Hart

Larry, here is the real story of the "Ghost" Train.

As a teenager living in Mt. Pleasant in the early 1950s, entertainment for young teenagers was non-existent. The "flockey" as it was called was our playground, the wooded area between Mt. Pleasant and Bellevue. We explored and knew every inch of that land from Altamont Ave. to Lower Broadway Hill.

The "Ghost of the 9:15" was the actual name of the event.

The Ghost was a bed sheet attached to a fishing pole and dangled from a tree branch which was along side the railroad tracks. The white sheet was painted black on one side so as not to be seen when transporting our ghost to and from the tree. The sheet was reversed and the black side covered the fishing pole.

The original story that we had heard was that a hobo was killed in that location years before and that his ghost haunted the 9:15 train. We helped the story to be true. 

You could probably see the ghost train pretty well from this vantage point of the Congress Street bridge. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
We could travel the Mont Pleasant area from yard to yard, alleyway to alleyway in the dark as well as in the daytime. Our schedule was to pick up the "Ghost" bed sheet attached to the fishing pole around 8:30. Wait until it was dark enough, then walk or run from the alleyways between Cutler and Davis Terrace, down to Park St. into the woods and down to 3rd Ave. We then would climb the tree, wait for the train, flip the bed sheet over to the white side, dangle it as the train passed, flip it to the black side, down the tree, through the woods, alleyways, and home. When the news about a ghost got out of control and crowds would gather to try to see him, we would not appear that night and eventually retired him for good. 

That's the story of the "Ghost of the 9:15"

Yours truly,
One time member of the "Cutler St. Gang"

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Ambrose Ham – Survivor of the USS Maine

This post was written by SCHS Library Volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Stylized image of the USS Maine explosion. Only 94 of the ship's 355 crew members survived the explosion. Courtesy of the Nautical History Gallery and Museum
Schenectady resident Ambrose Ham was a 20 year old Apprentice First Class aboard the USS Maine when it exploded in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898.  An article in the Schenectady Evening Star dated February 17, 1898 questioned his survival.  According to the article, an Ambrose Hall was listed as a survivor and hope was that he was really Ambrose Ham.

Born January 10, 1878, in Indian Fields, New York, Ambrose moved to Schenectady as a boy with his mother and brothers where he lived on Catherine Street and attended school until the 6th grade.  Following the death of his mother in about 1894, he came under the guardianship of Mr. B.L. Conde of Schenectady who enlisted him in the US Navy on July 31, 1894 at the age of 16.  He was placed on a school ship in Newport RI where he apprenticed for approximately 18 months.  On his enlistment card he was described as being 5’4 ¼” tall with grey eyes, light brown hair and a light freckled complexion. At the time of the explosion, Ambrose had been part of the crew of the Maine for about a year and a half.

The USS Maine is best known for the explosion in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898
Image of Ambrose Ham from
the Feb. 6, 1906 edition
of the Binghamton Press
and Leader. Courtesy of
which killed 261 of its crew of 355. Sent to protect American citizens who were then in Cuba, the Maine exploded without warning and sank quickly. The cause of the explosion is still unclear but the incident was one of the factors leading to the Spanish-American War. The phrase, "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”, became a call for action. In 1898, an investigation of the explosion was carried out by a naval board appointed under the McKinley Administration. The consensus of the board was that Maine was destroyed by an external explosion from a mine. However, the validity of this investigation is still a subject of speculation.

Ambrose did indeed survive the sinking of the Maine.  In response to a letter sent to him from the Schenectady Sunday News, Ambrose gave this account of the incident sent from the US Army Hospital in Key West, Florida dated February 26th, 1898 (original letter in the Grems-Doolittle Library):

Dear Sir,

I received your letter with picture last night.  I thank you very much for taking such an interest in my escape from the Maine. 

On Tuesday, Feb 15th I went on watch at 8:00 o’clock, aft on the poop deck.  I was standing signal watch and my watch would be up that night at 12:00 o’clock.  Everything went well till twenty minutes of ten.

It was a beautiful night, the water in the harbor was as still as a lake.  The ship was swinging to flood tide.  As I was about to turn around to walk aft, I saw a volcano of fire which seem to envelope the whole ship then followed a terrible roar and another which lifted the big ship out of the water.  I was hit by a piece iron which was coming down like hail.  The whole forward part of the ship was torned to pieces, steele was twisted like wire. Men were thrown high in the air and what few escaped were burned so badly we could hardly tell who they were.

As soon as the explosion was over I ran to the Captain boat which was not injured and helped to lower it into the water.  Several men who were not hurt got into the boat with Cadet Holden in charge and picked up the men in the water.  By that time boats from shore and some from the Spanish man of war came up, picked up a lot of injured men and took them ashore to the Hospital.  Well our boat stayed around the wreck which was burning.  The after part of the ship was not injured and on the poop deck was the Captain, leut comd. Wainwright and a couple of junior officers.  Then the captain gave orders to see if everyone was off the ship.  Next order was to abandon ship.  The captain was the last man to leave the ship, he seem as cool as a piece of ice.  He was taken over to the City of Washington where some of the survivors were and such a night – men with broken limbs, burned faces.  The Maine surgeon, the Captain and Lieut. Blow were working hard dressing the mens wounds.

Two of the men were taken to Havana Hospital that night but they died afterwards.  Next day we were taken to the Steamer Olvette which runs between Key West and Havana and left that afternoon and arrived in Key West at night.  Went to the Hospital some to Marine some to Army Hospital.  Last week eight men came from Havana, four are expected today.  The men were treated kindly on the Steamers and in the Hospital.  On the City of Washington some of the passengers stayed up all night to watch the wounded. 

Whether it was an accident or not I will not say.  The court of inquiry will know tomorrow.  My injuries were slight and are all well now.  The men in this Hospital are improving quickly and will be able to get discharge from Hospital in two weeks with the exception of two men who have broken legs.  It was said last night that two men died in Havana Hospital.  I don’t know how true it is.

I am sorry I could not send this account before for I only received your letter last night.  Would you mind sending me one of the papers with my picture in it.  I would like to read the account of the disaster in your paper and oblidge.

Ambrose Ham

The USS Marblehead courtesy of Wikipedia.
Following his release from the hospital, Ambrose served aboard the USS Marblehead in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He was honorably discharged from the Navy on January 9, 1899, a day before his 21st birthday.  After returning to Schenectady, Ambrose lived on Paige Street and worked as a grocer. His guardian, Mr. Conde had pursued a lawsuit that his mother, Mrs. Hannah Wiltsie Ham had initiated before her death for an inheritance from an uncle of hers.  He was successful and when Ambrose returned, there was $1300 in the Schenectady Savings Bank waiting for him.   Shortly thereafter, on March 12, 1899, Ambrose was baptized in the 2nd Dutch Reformed Church .

By the early 1900’s, Ambrose (whose name in later years was sometimes spelled Hamm) and his wife, Edna, were living in Binghamton, NY where he was employed for many years as a Postal Clerk.  He died on November 23, 1961 at the age of 83.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Mayor and the Aurora Borealis

Image of Samuel W. Jones.
This blog entry was written by library volunteer Bob Emery.

The Schenectady County Historical Society owns the diary, 1821-1855, of Samuel W. Jones (1791-1855), mayor of Schenectady in 1837-1839.  Jones came from a prominent Long Island family, noted for its legal accomplishments (his uncle Samuel Jones, for instance, was Chancellor of the State of New York).  After graduation from Union College in 1810 and admission to the bar in 1813, Jones located in Schenectady.  He cemented his position in the community by his 1816 marriage to Maria Bowers Duane (1793-1858), granddaughter of James Duane, a member of the Continental Congress and mayor of New York City, locally best known as founder of Duanesburg and owner of a big chunk of the eastern Mohawk Valley.
Jones had a career of some minor distinction.  Prior to his service as mayor of Schenectady he overcame local “Dutch prejudice” to achieve election in 1833 as a city alderman, as well as appointment to the county Court of Common Pleas; after his mayoral term he was elected County Court judge and county Surrogate.  In addition, he was a longtime vestryman of St. George’s Church and a leader in such local civic projects as the Schenectady African School Society, founded in 1829 to educate Schenectady’s newly emancipated African-American residents.  Jones was, in short, a solid citizen of the superior sort.

Jones’s “diary” might better be described as a journal, containing random notes on things that interested him, including some information on the Jones and Duane families that might be of interest to genealogists.  These random notes ranged from criticisms, as an old alumnus, of the way Union undergraduates pronounced Greek to the derangement and dismissal of the Presbyterian Church’s minister, and everything in between.  One of Jones’s main interests, however, was transportation improvements.  In the 1820’s he was a devoted supporter of De Witt Clinton, particularly of Clinton’s efforts to promote the Erie Canal.  Throughout his diary, Jones was careful to note when the canal closed for the winter and opened in the spring, and any untoward events that affected its operation.  In his later years, he was involved in turnpike and railroad development.  Another of Jones’s major interests was politics.  After Clinton’s death, Jones moved into the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, becoming a strong follower of Martin van Buren and Andrew Jackson.  As early as the Compromise of 1820, he had expressed his suspicions concerning the expansionistic ambitions of the slave states; if he had lived long enough he may well have followed other van Buren Democrats (like B.F. Butler) into the Republican Party.

Weather for the week of December 21, 1840.
If there was any sign of the Aurora Borealis
in Schenectady, then Samuel Jones noticed it
and wrote about it in his journal.
Jones’s primary interest, though, seems to have been meteorology, and in particular the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.  The Aurora Borealis seems to have been much more visible in Jones’s time than it is now.  Like his contemporary Professor B. F. Joslin of Union College (whom Jones knew), Jones regarded the Northern Lights phenomenon more as a weather-based than as an astronomical event.  Hence, he carefully recorded meteorological data surrounding each appearance of the Aurora Borealis.  He devoted page after page of his diary to the Aurora, noting such things as extent and duration as well as careful descriptions to the shifting colors of each appearance.  If one is to judge by the attention Jones paid to the Aurora Borealis in his diary, it was his main interest, even surpassing politics.

"Last evening another more brilliant display of the Aurora Borealis. It concentrated in the zenith from all directions it was first seen in the South East and in the course of the evening presented every shade of colour from bright red to white-  sometimes it would hand from the zenith over the whole south part of the sky-  sometimes to the north and sometimes to every point-  it continued until late in the night as I heard-  it was brilliant at Eleven when I went to bed." - Entry from Samuel Jones Diary dated September 4th, 1839.

Jones’s diary is by no means a significant source for Schenectady history.  It is, however, a useful record of the interests of a prominent local citizen who might, not altogether unfairly, be described as an Aurora Borealis fanatic.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Genealogy Success Story

This post was written by SCHS member Carol Clemens published in the Heritage Observer

My husband and I recently did DNA testing through Ancestry’s service. When the results were completed, I noticed a “first cousin match” in the results, on my husband’s side. Thinking it was probably one of the “known cousins” and being busy, I did not contact the person immediately. Shortly after, I received a message through Ancestry from the person, and found she was NOT one of the cousins I knew about.

Here is part of her message:

I was actually adopted. I found my birth mother's family several years ago and all I know about my father’s side is that he was a policeman with the Downey Police Department. I'm trying to figure out his name due to the fact that by the time I found my birth mother she was deceased, and my siblings, through her, do not remember his name. They have asked the older family members but no one can remember his name. Maybe this story rings a bell for someone in your family. I hope I'm not opening a can of worms that is, or was, a secret for your family. If you have any information, please let me know. I don't need to meet anyone, I just want to get some family medical history and have names for my children's family trees.

The clue was the fact that her father was a Downey, CA police officer. My husband’s Uncle Walt was a police officer in California and later an Alaskan State trooper. I had documentation of his residence in Downey for the correct time span. Piecing together my research, her limited knowledge, and DNA, we have no doubt that she is indeed the daughter of Uncle Walt. 

I have added her info to the family tree and shared it with her. From knowing nothing other than the occupation of her father and his residence, she now has family history going back to 1801 in Norway. She has the colorful story of her Grandfather “jumping ship” in New York harbor in 1923 and his purchase of “immigration papers” for $50 that he believed made him a US citizen. She now knows about her half-brothers and sisters and has photos of many of her Norwegian ancestors.
My husband’s mother recently passed away and we held a Celebration of Life Service in her hometown in upstate New York. Our “new” cousin and one of her daughters made the trip from the West Coast to join us in celebrating the life of the aunt she never knew.  She was so excited to meet the family she never knew about.  She was welcomed with open arms….and went home with not only new memories, but photos and even a quilt made by her late aunt.

I am delighted that I could play a part in this wonderful success story. It would not have been possible without both careful, documented research and the benefits of science through DNA testing.