Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Clyde Fitch: Schenectady's Playwright

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Photo of Clyde Fitch from the Fitch Family Photo File at the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives
When word reached Schenectady that Clyde Fitch had died in France, there was sadness among his friends and acquaintances. Although he hadn’t lived in Schenectady since he left for college in the early 1880’s, he always considered Schenectady his home and used many of his childhood memories of its people and places in his plays. At the time of his death in 1909 Fitch was only 44 years old and one of the best-known playwrights in the world. He still holds a record for having four plays running concurrently on Broadway.

Even the events leading to his birth in Elmira New York was fodder for one of his plays. The son of a Captain in the Union Army and a daughter of the Confederacy, he was born William Clyde Fitch on May 12, 1865. His father, William Goodwin Fitch was a graduate of West Point and his mother, Alice Clarke, was a member of an old Hagerstown Maryland family. The courtship and marriage of the Union officer and much younger, charming and high spirited Southern belle inspired the love story in his play Barbara Frietchie. After his father retired from the army, the family moved to Schenectady where he took a job in insurance, eventually owning his own agency. Young Clyde was about two at the time and the family settled into Number 22 Washington Avenue.

Signature of Clyde Fitch from April 12th, 1877, likely from an autograph book. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
Clyde attended the private school of Miss Alice Wood on Front Street. He was a favorite student and often said that he owed a great deal of his success to the instruction he received from Miss Wood, especially having “poetry pounded into my head”. He later attended Union School in Schenectady and then the Holderness School, a boarding school in New Hampshire.

A young Clyde Fitch with Mary Jackson, one of Fitch's childhood friends. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives
An article about his death appearing in the Schenectady Gazette contained interviews with some of his childhood friends. Schenectady attorney and childhood friend, Edwin C. Angle remembered Clyde to be “different than other boys, quiet and well-liked by his chums”. Another lifelong friend, Mrs. John Paige of 17 Washington Ave., said “Clyde was an only child and you might say – feminine. He was very timid, not athletic and enjoyed girls games, seldom playing with boys”. He was “very sensitive and was true and loyal to his friends”. Most of his friends were neighborhood girls about his age who adored and defended him, one saying even a walk down the street with him was an adventure. A boy he idolized was his next-door neighbor, Ned Watkins. He wanted to be and dress like the older boy.

His mother was worried about young Clyde leaving the house to visit Ned so had a door put into a shared wall to connect the two homes. By the time he was 13 years old, Clyde was already interested in theater and staged a successful production of “Pinafore” at the residence of Judge Samuel W. Jackson, a Washington Avenue neighbor. He painted scenery, found costumes, managed rehearsals and directed all aspects of production. Assumed to be a “dandy” in boarding school, Clyde knew he was considered a sissy by the other boys but said “I would rather be misunderstood than lose my independence”. He had a unique style, considered somewhat flamboyant and would often write his parents requesting specific articles of clothing for upcoming events and activities. Even though he was teased and sometimes tormented by his schoolmates, once even thrown out a window, Clyde never conformed and remained true to himself. One school chum who later became a critic, fondly recalled how the “motive power in Fitch’s hips resembled a gay sidewheel excursion steamer,” with the port and starboard wheels moving in turn instead of together, and his voice that of a “hysterical woman who just missed the train.”

Clyde attended Amherst College in Massachusetts where he was known as "Billy". He was a member of Chi Psi Fraternity and the “AC” (Amateur Club), a dramatic group where he was well known for playing female roles and “dazzled his fellow students with his flair for dress and his virtuosity as an amateur actor”. Upon graduation in 1886, he considered becoming an architect, his father’s choice for him, but wanted to try his hand at writing. His mother, who also dabbled in writing, encouraged his literary pursuits and his father agreed to support him for three years while he tried his hand at writing. They had an understanding if he wasn’t successful at the end of that time he would return home to Hartford Connecticut, where his parents had moved in 1885, to launch a career in architecture or business.

The cast of The Rivals at Amherst College, 1885. Fitch was known for playing female characters and is seated on the far right. Courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections blog at Amherst College.
After graduation, Clyde wrote a novel and several plays. Most were failures and despite persistent criticism, Clyde would just shrug his shoulders and say, “The World is a Funny Place” and soldier on. Near the end of the three years trial period, he wrote a one act play, Betty’s Finish, which ran for two months at the Boston Museum. The production attracted the attention of the well-known dramatic critic, Edward A. Dithmar who liked it and recommended him to the famous actor Richard Mansfield. Mansfield was looking for a playwright to write a play for him based on the English Regency dandy and fashion icon Beau Brummell. Clyde agreed and wrote the play which was first produced in 1890. It was an instant success for both him and Mansfield who played the role for the rest of his life.

Caricature of Clyde Fitch courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections blog at Amherst College.
Following the success of Beau Brummell, Clyde went abroad to France to study the French stage continuing to write plays in rapid succession. It wasn't long before the famed Broadway producer Charles Frohman took notice of the rising young playwright. They formed a collaboration that lasted until Clyde's death. Within two years, the most famous Broadway actors including Maud Adams, John Drew, Jr. and Lily Langtry were staring in his plays. Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines made a star of Ethel Barrymore and another of Clyde's plays provided her brother John with his Broadway debut. He returned to Europe often and mounted many of his plays successfully in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin.

Clyde wrote at least 62 plays, 36 of them original stories ranging from social satire to historical drama. He was especially known for his plays chronicling the lives of the leisure class. During the nineteen-year period he was actively writing, he was the most popular writer for the Broadway stage of his time. Beau Brummell was followed by Nathan Hale, The Cowboy and the Lady, The Moth and the Flame, The Girl with the Green Eyes and The Truth to great success. He was actively involved in the production of all his plays, directing most of them. He was well known for his staging and spectacular sets also giving impeccable attention to costuming, lighting and props. His plays were wildly popular with audiences but found mixed reviews with critics who said they lacked substance, focused too much on women's roles and storylines and relied too much on spectacle. Nevertheless, almost all of them were box office smashes. Many of his plays were made into silent films, the most popular being Beau Brummell.

Clyde's writing not only brought him fame but also enormous wealth. The annual income from his plays was put at about $250,000 a year, the equivalent of over $7 million in today’s dollars, this before the time of income tax when the average worker earned about $1 a day. His lifestyle was lavish. He built a townhouse at 113 East 40th Street in New York City with cupids overlooking the street and the interior adorned with fountains and nude male statuary. During his travels he amassed valuable artwork and antiques from Europe to furnish the townhouse as well as in his summer home in Greenwich CT. Clyde generously entertained and was a popular host and raconteur. Invitations to his parties and country weekends were highly coveted. His inner circle was a colorful group of gay and gay-friendly friends and colleagues who adored him. He had discreet affairs with well-known men most notably Oscar Wilde. Despite his opulent lifestyle, Clyde never stopped working. One friend said, "he lived like a sultan but worked like a dray horse". He even wrote lyrics, most notably to the popular song "Love Makes the World Go Round" for the show Bohemia with a musical arrangement by William Furst.

Not all his collaborations were successful. In 1906, Charles Frohman teamed him with Edith Wharton to write a theatrical adaptation of her novel House of Mirth. It was a difficult story to turn into a play, but they persevered, often working at Wharton’s home The Mount in Lenox Massachusetts. Neither thought the play was going to work but each continued working on it not wanting to disappoint the other. They eventually realized that Frohman had told each of them that the other wanted to work together on the project. They did finish the play and it was as unsuccessful as both feared but they became fast friends.

Advertisement of Clyde Fitch's "Girls" which debuted at the Van Curler Opera House in Schenectady. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
Clyde often told his friend Mrs. Paige that he wanted to premiere one of his plays in Schenectady. Finally, in January of 1909, that came to fruition. He traveled from New York City to Schenectady with Charles Frohman to oversee the premiere of The Happy Marriage, a comedy of errors about a young couple. The Schenectady Gazette reported that Schenectady's society, dressed to the nines, filled the Van Curler Opera House. The audience was delighted by the play, responding with tumultuous applause and numerous curtain calls. Shouts for the author drove Clyde from the audience to the stage where he thanked the crowd and said that more than ever before he felt like a "Schenectady boy". He lamented not being born here but said he and no control of that event. He spoke at length about how much Schenectady meant to him saying "the happiest period of my life, my boyhood, was spent here". He went on to say that he traveled to the most beautiful cities in the world but although he "walked on wide boulevards, none of them seemed to me like the State Street of my boyhood. I have seen many rivers but not one has seemed as wide as the Mohawk at the foot of Washington Avenue when I was a boy and played on and in its banks. I have seen many steeples but not one has ever seemed as tall as the old St. George's when I was a lad". Producer Charles Frohman was impressed with the reception of the play, the Van Curler Opera House and how easy it was to bring the show to Schenectady. He enjoyed his dinner with Clyde and some of his Schenectady friends at the Mohawk Club and promised to bring more first productions to the city.

Unfortunately, Clyde was unable to bring another of his plays to Schenectady. He began suffering from attacks of appendicitis and was advised to have surgery. He decided to travel to France instead for an alternative treatment against his doctors wishes. He spent a few months in Chalons-sur-Marne where he suffered an acute attack. He underwent emergency surgery by a local doctor but never rallied. Clyde died a few days later, September 4, 1909, after developing blood poisoning. Charles Frohman died on the Lusitania in 1915 ending Schenectady's hopes of more first productions.

Fitch's library was recreated in the Clyde Fitch Memorial Room at Amherst College. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives. 
There were newspaper reports of singing nuns holding vigil beside Clyde's body in a candle-lit French church until his heartbroken mother arrived from a trans-Atlantic crossing to collect the body of her only child. His body was entombed for a time in the crypt of a friend until his parents completed an elaborate monument in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, designed by the architectural firm of Hunt and Hunt. When the monument was finished in 1910, his body was cremated and entombed in the sarcophagus where the ashes of his parents joined his after their deaths. Following his death, it took his parents three years to dispense of his estate, including his antiques, artwork, and properties. Copyrights of his plays were bequeathed to the Actors Fund after the deaths of his parents. His estate in Connecticut was purchased by Alice Cooper who burned it down in the 1970's.

Fitch's grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx is a testament to his wealth and lifestyle.
Unfortunately, Clyde Fitch's plays did not withstand the test of time. The Happy Marriage was the last play he saw produced. One other, The Girls, opened to great fanfare soon after his death but after a few years, his plays were rarely produced. Since his death he has fallen into obscurity although occasionally some of his plays have been revived in repertory theater. His alma mater, Amherst College, holds a large collection of his paper and the "Clyde Fitch Memorial Room" in Converse Hall at Amherst was a gift to the College from his mother. It contained many of the furnishings and most of the books that were in his study in New York City.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

West Hill, An Innovative Community

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Pamphlet for West Hill. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives Collection.

As mentioned in a previous blog about Lustron homes (, the post-World War II housing shortage was critical throughout the country and Schenectady County was not spared.  Many suburban subdivisions were springing up but not fast enough to meet the demand.  In 1946, the General Electric Engineers Association formed a housing project committee to try to come up with a solution to meet the needs of the young families of engineers from the Schenectady plant. They decided to take matters into their own hands and plan a community where the homeowners would design and build their own homes. 

These two images show the proposed land that the West Hill neighborhood would occupy. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives Collection.
After searching for property around Schenectady, the committee narrowed down land options to two; a parcel on Balltown Road in Niskayuna and a property off Putnam Road in Rotterdam.  The latter was familiar to many in the group who hiked there and gathered wild blueberries. After careful consideration, a decision was made to purchase the 271-acre property off Putnam Road.  Several names for the area were debated, including Westwood and Crestwood which were already in use in New York state. Finally, the wife of one of the committee members suggested “West Hill” which was quickly approved by the group.   In September of 1947 The West Hill Development Corporation was formed and 286 shares of stock were sold at $100 a share to be used, in part, to purchase the property.  There was one small glitch however - the land was not for sale.  After speaking with nearby farmers, the committee learned the property was owned by Virginia Peyton, having passed down her family line from ancestor Daniel Campbell, an early Schenectady fur trader and businessman.  Finding and negotiating with Virginia was difficult.  She refused to give anyone her address or phone number, so messages were sent to her in New York City through her boyfriend and meetings took place in parking lots and dark Greenwich Village bars.  The group persevered, however, and finally make a cash sale for $12,000 taking care to follow her instructions to deliver the money in a brown paper bag. By early 1948 the group was ready to start building.

The association drilled a well and put in the first road, Terrace Road, which boasted views of the Heldeberg Mountains.  The first group of “pioneers”, as they called themselves, hiked the property and staked out plots.  Water mains were laid out and by the end of the year sixteen homes were underway.   The lots were large, some an acre or more and the houses were varied in style; many were contemporaries - now called mid-century, as well as colonials, ranches and Cape Cods.  Some of the original owners designed their own homes.  Others used architects such as John M. Johansen (one of the famed Harvard Five), Victor Civkin (pioneer of the split level) and Schenectady architect Eric Fisher. Because of the large lots, there was plenty of room between homes.

Stephen Clark at 230 Juniper Drive did most of the work on his own. Photos in our West Hill Collection show him clearing and leveling land, building the foundation and pouring concrete. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives Collection.
The original owners were an intrepid bunch.  Some lived on their property in tents while they actively worked on building their houses.  Others lived in unfinished basements as the buildings went up above them.  The early West Hill pioneers had a strong “neighbor helping neighbor” philosophy and assisted each other with building projects, meals, watching young children and dealing with the ever-present mud.  Kitty Gibson recalled that her family camped on their property for three summers as they worked on their house while each morning her husband emerged from the tent shaved and in a suit to go to work.  Jane Root was on her roof nailing shingles two months before her twins were born and recalls buying the bell from the old Putman Hill School, installing it on their roof and ringing it every morning when the school bus was coming and at 5:30 to send children home to supper. 

These photos show the exterior and interior of the Clark residence at 230 Juniper Drive. Marjorie Clark installed the insulation seen above the fireplace. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives Collection.
Materials were bought in bulk and shared among homebuilders to save on costs and those doing a majority of the building themselves were able to build homes very cost effectively.  By 1949, there were eight families living on Terrace Road and twenty one houses under construction.  Sixty-nine new lots were approved for the next phase of building.  An additional well was drilled, Terrace Road was expanded and Cricket Lane, Juniper Drive and Oakridge Drive were laid out.  The original plans for West Hill included 300 building lots, a school, church, park and small shopping area along Putnam Road.  In 1960, when plans for the third phase of building were submitted to the New York State Board of Health the Association was told that common sewers would need to be installed before any additional building could be approved.  Since funding was not available such a large project, the next phase was scrapped, and building was completed at just 83 homes.  The entrance to West Hill off Putnam Road is still a wide expanse of open land.   Tennis courts and a small pond with a lean-to were built and sit off to the side, making the entrance seem more like that of a recreation area than a subdivision.  Half of Juniper Drive -- the only road leading in and out of West Hill – remains undeveloped.

The young families who settled West Hill contributed to the post war baby boom.  By the mid-1950’s over 150 children were living there.  The community was very active.  Even when houses were under construction, the early pioneers would gather late at night in unfinished basements for beer and poker parties.  There were annual Memorial Day and summer Field Day parades, picnics and events.  Decorated trikes, bikes and floats would compete for prizes.  The pond was stocked for fishing and used for skating in winter.  A  group banded together to build a lean-to shelter to use for the skaters.  The women of West Hill formed a gardening club to help combat the mud and erosion caused by years of building which is still going strong.  They also formed a social club, the WOWS (the Women of West Hill) to help new neighbors, hold twice a year exchanges of outgrown children’s clothing, publish the West Wind* newsletter and provide a social and artistic outlet for members.  There were active Brownie, Girl Scout and Cub Scout troops as well as a rifle club.  Cross country ski trails provided another winter sport option in addition to skating. 

A few of the photos from the issue of Living for Young Homemakers featuring West Hill. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives Collection.
The July 1951 issue of Living for Young Homemakers, a national home and decorating magazine from the 40’s and 50’s, featured a twenty-page spread about the West Hill.  The article highlights several of the original families who built there along with photographs and floorplans of the homes calling West Hill “a model and inspiration for young families everywhere.”  Considered a hidden gem in Schenectady County, West Hill continues to be a thriving community and a good place to live.
Thanks to the Coggeshall family for their generous donation of West Hill memorabilia used for this blog.

*If anyone has copies of the West Hill newsletter “West Wind”, or any other West Hill material,the SCHS would be happy to accept donations.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Virginia Sweet: Trailblazing WASP

This post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone.

On May 21, 1932, Amelia Earhart touched down in Ireland, completing a transatlantic flight exactly five years after Charles Lindbergh entered the record books as the first pilot to fly solo in a nonstop flight across the Atlantic.  In a small Saratoga County hamlet, a twelve-year old girl was inspired by Earhart’s feat to become a pilot herself.  Virginia Sweet would heed the call to serve her country in World War II, joining the Women’s Air Service Patrol (WASP).  As part of a select group of over 1,000 women, she made an important contribution to the war effort, and went on to an impressive career in the Air Force and as a commercial pilot.

Virginia, also known as Ginger, was born on February 12, 1921 to Harry Sweet and Jessica Smith Sweet.  She grew up, along with two sisters, in Quaker Springs, a small community in Saratoga County. Sadly, her father, a veteran who had been exposed to mustard gas in World War I, died when Virginia was nine years old, leaving her mother to raise the three daughters by herself.

Her early school years were spent in a one-room schoolhouse, where Virginia proved to be a gifted student, skipping two grades.  She continued her education at Mechanicville High School, and graduated with honors as a language major from Duke University.  When home for the summer following her sophomore year, she wanted to drive her grandfather’s new car.  In response to his assertion that no one was going to drive his vehicle, Virginia said: “Then I’m going to learn to fly instead” (“Flying Chatter – Quaker Springs’ Virginia Sweet).  She was about to make good on that declaration.

Her flying career began when Virginia entered the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) at Union College, which utilized the Schenectady County Airport.  With the prospects of war growing, in 1938 President Roosevelt had begun this program to create a corps of potential pilots for the military. Luckily for Virginia and other young women--limited to 10% of the trainee population--the CPTP gave them a rare opportunity to participate in an activity which, under normal circumstances, would be out of their reach.  She earned her private pilot’s license in September of 1940, at the age of nineteen. With war approaching, all graduates from the program were required to enlist; women, who could not join the military, were no longer welcome.  Still, the CPTP trained approximately 25,000 women by June of 1941 (Civilian Pilot Training Program), a valuable pool for WASP recruitment.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 opened up opportunities for women to serve their country.  In the spring of 1942 Virginia enlisted in the New York wing of newly created Civil Air Patrol, an organization of civilian pilots who assisted in defense of the homeland.  It welcomed all citizens, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity.  In that role, she served as a courier, ferrying crucial materials and personnel.   Once the war was in full swing, the manufacture of airplanes ballooned.  With the majority of male pilots at war, the army was in desperate need of pilots to deliver these aircraft to US bases.  Two army-approved programs—the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD)--were created, respectively, by Nancy Harkness Love and Jackie Cochran.  In August of 1943, the programs were combined into the Women’s Air Forces Service Pilots, with Cochran as director and Love as executive of the Air Transport Command, Ferrying Division.

Sweet had the distinction of being the first Schenectady County resident to join the WASPs.  As part of the class of 43-4 (Fourth class of 1943), she was assigned first to Houston, and then to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, for rigorous training.   Although the women were civilians, they followed military protocol, including marching and living in dormitory-style barracks.  After a 6 am breakfast, trainees spent half of the day in class, and the other half in ground school.  The curriculum included navigation techniques, principles of slight, communications, maps and weather, as well as subjects such as math and physics. Studying and homework followed a 7 pm dinner, with lights out at 10 pm.  The early recruits, who were experienced pilots, underwent 23 weeks of training, divided into 115 hours of flying and 180 hours of ground school.  As the war continued, course time expanded to 30 weeks to accommodate less experienced volunteers.

After learning how to operate single-engine planes, they moved on to twin-engines, such as the A-17 Cessna Bobcat, having to exhibit mastery in some rather extreme circumstances:

They practiced making emergency landings and doing lazy-eights, loops, and slow rolls.  They also learned how to make a plane fly again if it stalled in midair or went into a spin, which would send it spiraling down toward the ground.  To master this skill, they first made a plane go into a spin, and then worked the plane’s controls quickly to get out of the spin before the plane could crash. (Yankee Doodle Gals, p. 36).

An important skill the women had to master was flying using only the plane’s instruments.  Eventually, WASPS made cross-country trips, first using a flight map to determine their routes, and then flying an hour or two from base, locating another airfield, and finding their way back to Sweetwater.  Trainees were tested at each phase of their training before moving on to the next level.  Upon graduation, the proud women were issued silver wing pins. 
The process of qualifying to become a WASP was no easy feat.  Of the 25,000 women who applied to the program, only 1,830 (less than 1%) were accepted.  Of that group, only 1,074 graduated and earned their wing pins (WASP Digital Archive).  These pioneers were the first US women to fly our country’s military aircraft. They flew every type of plane in the army’s arsenal and every type of mission that their male counterparts flew, excluding combat missions.  In addition to ferrying aircraft, later classes performed many other tasks, including flying personnel and cargo planes, towing targets, testing damaged aircraft, taking meteorologists on weather missions, and serving as flight instructors. Ultimately, thirty-eight WASPS and WASP trainees died in service to their country; twenty-seven were mission-related fatalities, and eleven occurred during training.

As a new WASP, Virginia reported to Romulus, Michigan’s Third Ferry Group in Air Transport Command, where she was assigned to deliver army aircraft.  During her period of active duty, Sweet attended instrument school in St. Louis, Missouri, qualifying her as an army instrument and night flight pilot on the Douglas C-47, a large military transport ship, as well as on other aircraft.  Virginia entered officer training school in Orlando, Florida in July of 1944.  A Troy Times article notes that, “During her 22 months in the WASPs Virginia flew 28 different types of planes, completed fifty ferrying missions and numerous training light* [flights] which included hops as long as 3,000 miles and as many as 10 ½ solo hours in a single day” (“OTD: Sweet Teaching Flying at RPI”) . Her favorite plane was the P-51 Mustang, a single-seat fighter.  Sweet said “She was a honey to fly” (“Virginia Sweet: Pioneering Aviator”).

On December 20, 1944, the WASP program was officially shut down, a disappointing ending for these valiant women.  For Virginia, however, this was only the beginning of a long career in the military and as a pilot.  In 1947 a separate Department of the Air Force was created; one year later, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act established the WAF (Women in the Air Force) program.  Virginia, hoping to remain in the service, applied.  To her disappointment, she was forced to reapply one year later, after her original application expired.  On September 13, 1949, she received her commission as a first lieutenant.  That same year, as a member of the Ninety-Nines, an international club for women pilots, she was the recipient of a $200 Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship, which she used to obtain a commercial instrument rating.

With the Korean War imminent, her immediate assignment was Extended Active Duty.  For two months, beginning in January of 1953, she was a member of the Ground Observer Squadron in Roanoke, Virginia.  Its mission was to train citizen volunteers to spot potential threats from enemy aircraft. From 1954 to 1957, Virginia was assigned to a number of bases in England, and was named Administrator for the Dependents Schools in London and Copenhagen.  These were educational institutions for children of US service members stationed in those areas.

Women were the first victims of the decision to reduce the size of the military in 1957.  Virginia quickly attained the rank of captain in her new position in the Air Force Reserve.  Among her assignments was Rome, New York, where she worked with the Volunteer Air Reserve Training Unit, and became a captain.  Once again, she was disappointed when she was not accepted into active duty following the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam.  Still, Sweet remained in the service until September 13, 1979, when she retired as a lieutenant colonel, having served her country for approximately thirty-six years from her entry into the WASPs.

During her long career, Virginia Sweet was a presence in the Capital District, teaching flying at many local airports, and serving as a flight instructor in Lake Champlain, as well as for the ROTC students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  As noted in her obituary in the Times-Union:

After WASP deactivation, she had a lifelong aviation career, adding some 55 different civilian types of aircrafts to her flight log, along with 14 sailplanes and gliders. She held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for single and multi-engine land and seaplanes, gliders, and an instrument and instructor certificate. She was an advanced ground school instructor and was a flight examiner for many years.

In reference to Virginia’s pilot credentials, an editor of the P-51 Mustang Pilots Newsletter commented, “In my mind, this is a pretty impressive collection of aircraft.” (Grems-Doolittle files on Virginia Sweet).      According to an article in the      P-47 Thunderbolt Newsletter, one newspaper article noted that she was “ of the ten most experienced women pilots in the country” (Grems-Doolittle files).

Beyond her achievements in the air, Sweet was an independent woman long before the women’s movement of the 1970s.  She chafed at the discrimination that she and other women experienced in spite of their service: 

Sweet wasn’t shy about articulating the bitterness she felt for being treated as a second-class citizen because she was a woman in a man’s realm during the war. She felt she could fly as well as any male, even if she was issued men’s flight jumpsuits that never fit quite right across her sinewy 5-feet-6, 100-pound body (“Flying Chatter – Quaker Springs’ Virginia Sweet).

This unfair treatment began early and persisted for many years.  In March of 1944, Congress considered enacting legislation granting military status to WASPS; unfortunately, the bill was defeated.  When the program was terminated in December of that year, many of the 916 WASPs were given only one day to leave.  Even after WASPs were offered the opportunity in 1949 to become Air Force officers, those, like Sweet, who accepted, were not permitted to fly military aircraft.  A giant step forward was legislation in November of 1977, which granted WASPs military status, along with limited veterans’ benefits.  Over a generation later, on July 1, 2009, President Barack Obama signed legislation that bestowed on the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal, the most prestigious honor which that body can award to civilians.  Sadly, Virginia Sweet died at Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on July 12, less than two weeks later.  She is buried in Schenectady’s Vale Cemetery.
The struggle for recognition continued until recently.  In 2002, Arlington National Cemetery revised its policy so that WASP members could have their ashes inurned there. That eligibility was challenged in 2015, however, by the secretary of the army.  Thanks to a few female senators, legislation enacted in 2016 ensured that those female pilots secured that right.  As then Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski said, “If they were good enough to fly for our country, risk their lives and earn the Congressional Gold Medal, they should be good enough to be laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery” (“Legislation Introduced”).

Along with other WASPs, Virginia Sweet answered the call when her nation needed her.  Like other trailblazers in history, she and her peers faced prejudices and other obstacles in paving the way for future women in the military.  History professor Kate Landdeck, who has studied the WASP program for years, aptly notes, “We want the WASP to know that the work that they did during the war — and the work they’ve done since in representing women who served as pilots — that legacy lives on,...“Their journey may be ending, but their story isn’t finished” (“Rose Parade: Female WWII Pilots to Be Honored). Lieutenant Colonel Virginia Sweet would be pleased.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Horses of Schenectady County

An account book from Edward Ellis made us think about just how entwined horses were with life in Schenectady County. Whether for transport, work, or recreation, horses were an inseparable part of daily life and photos from our collection show just how important they were. Edward Ellis was the third son of John and Mary Ellis. Edward succeeded to the presidency of the Schenectady Locomotive Works after the death of his brother Charles. He was also one of the residents responsible for bringing the Edison Machine Works to Schenectady. The account book runs from 1865 to 1896 and is a list of horses that Ellis bought and sold throughout his life. Towards the end of the account book, we found a few pages of newspaper clippings that explain why Edward was so interested in horses, horse racing. One of Edward's prized horses was named Ambulator. Ambulator is described as "not only a highly bred colt, but he is a race horse of the highest quality...He is not only fast, but he is game, and his owners believe that it will be no trouble for him to go a mile in 2:15 the coming season."

A listing for Edward Ellis' horse Ambulator. This seemed to be a pretty fair price as he was offered $3,000 at a later date. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
Ambassador was the mother of Ambulator and also a fine race horse. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.

A photo from the Barden family file showing a young girl riding a pony. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library photo collection.
The Hathaway Livery was located at 324-26 South Center Street (now Broadway). Hathaway's, started in 1890, was one of the premier livery services in Schenectady. The horses seen above were pure whites used mainly for funerals and parades, in the case of this photo, a parade. Hathaway Livery was not just used to haul people and Edward Hathaway hauled scenery for the Van Curler Opera Company. The mass production of cars sounded the death knell for many livery businesses. Hathaway's survived until shortly before World War I. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library photo collection.

A horse drawn hearse on the frozen Mohawk River showing the iron bridge to Scotia in the background. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle photo collection.

This photo shows an interesting view a horse drawn plow on restricted land on an island in the Mohawk. This land is possibly the Isle of Cayugas which can be seen on Google Maps. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle photo collection and Google Maps.

An interesting colorized image from 1912 showing two horses in front of the Schenectady County Coal Company. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library photo collection.
A horse and dog combo from our collection. Unfortunately, not much else is known about this photo. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library photo collection.

Of course, where you have horses, you have horseshoes. The two photos above show some of the blacksmiths in the area. The first photos is of Lynch's Blacksmith Shop on Broadway and the second is the Glenville Village Blacksmith. Courtesy of Doolittle Library photo collection.

Found in a 1917 issue of the Daily Gazette, you can't help but feel a bit sorry for this mate-less horse. Courtesy of

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Dressing a Future President: The Good Luck Shirt Company in Schenectady

Headline from Shutts' obituary in the
July 27, 1929 issue of The Morning
Herald, Gloversville and Johnstown.
Courtesy of
The subheading of Edward D. Shutts' obituary states that he was "Born of Poor Parents, Has Interesting History." The headline is even more interesting "Former Local Man's Estate Near Million." That's over $14 Million today. So, just how did a poor boy from Gloversville become a millionaire in Schenectady? Hard work, networking, fearlessness in the stock market, and to a lesser extent, pre-POTUS Calvin Coolidge.

As a young boy, Edward Shutts would assist his father in making deerskin mittens and gloves. This life was not for Edward though and instead, he chose to work as a traveling salesman where he flourished. Edward was very business savvy and soon enough, he ventured out into business ownership. Shutts moved to Schenectady to start his own business, the Good Luck Shirt Company.

Shutts started out his shirt business with business partner Charles E. Vedder on 320 State Street (upstairs). From there the factory bounced around to a few different locations, mostly around the State/Jay Street area. The final location was at 102 State Street, which was previously the Carley building. By the 1890s, Shutts was listed as the sole proprietor of his shirt company. He would eventually called his company the Good Luck Shirt Company. Shutts apparently never advertised in newspapers or city directories and I have not been able to locate an ad for his company. He traveled quite a bit and his goal was to interest prominent men in his shirts.
Announcement for remodeling of 102 State Street from the Good Luck Shirt Company to apartments. Courtesy of
One of those prominent men happened to be Calvin Coolidge who was a lawyer at the time he met
Shutts. Coolidge was also listed on the buyers' lists in the business files of the company, unfortunately, we do not hold the records of the Good Luck Shirt Company. Coolidge bought Good Luck shirts throughout his term as governor of Massachusetts. Coolidge stopped buying Shutts' shirts when he was elected president. The reason behind Coolidge cooling down on Good Luck shirts was probably that Shutts stopped trying to meet up with the president. Shutts stated that "It's a long way to Washington and he probably would not be easy to see now that he's a great man."

Similar to his dislike of advertising his company, Shutts also tried to keep his personal life out of the spotlight. He was known as a recluse who lived in the shirt factory and his wealth came as a surprise to many. In addition to being a successful businessman, Shutts was adept at playing the stock market. Those who knew him described his ability to find profitable stocks as uncanny, associates also admired his ability to hold onto unprofitable stocks until they came back around to make him money. After Shutts died, he left several bequests, but the most prominent one was $250,000 to his nephew Roscoe S. Powell of Gloversville. Powell credited his uncle's fortune to being thrifty and saving something each week.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Schenectady County's Lustron Home

This blog post was written by SCHS volunteer Gail Denisoff.

When millions of GIs returned home from World War II, they faced the biggest housing shortage in US history.  Veterans and their young families were desperate for homes of their own and wanted to take advantage of the low interest rates guaranteed by the GI Bill.  Construction companies were frantically trying to meet the need as suburbs were springing up around cities nationwide.   Wilson Wyatt, the federal government's new Housing Expediter, estimated that 3 million houses needed to be built between 1946 and 1947 and the demand for most of these homes was among low and middle income families.

Prefabricated houses were proposed as a remedy for the crisis with nearly 300 companies entering the industry in the late 1940’s.   It was believed that manufacturing and technical advances generated by the war would result in homes rolling off production lines by the millions. This never happened. In 1946 and 1947, only 37,000 prefabricated houses were put up.  For many prospective buyers, prefabricated housing still carried the stigma of the shoddy emergency housing built during the war. Some had aesthetic objections to visible joints between panels and thin painted plywood walls. Local building codes and the opposition of labor unions were also obstacles.

Enter the technologically sophisticated Lustron House - “The House America Has Been Waiting For”.  Of all the companies joining the prefab market, Lustron was one of only three to receive a direct federal loan. Led by Chicago industrialist and inventor Carl Strandlund, who had worked with constructing prefabricated gas stations, Lustron offered a home that would "defy weather, wear, and time."

Advertisement for the Lustron Home in Life Magazine.
Strandlund's Lustron Corporation set out to construct 15,000 homes in 1947 and 30,000 in 1948. However, the corporation eventually constructed just 2,498 homes between 1948 and 1950.  Lustron homes were built entirely of steel in a former airplane factory using materials and technology developed during the war. Interior and exterior surfaces were steel with a porcelain enamel finish baked onto panels. The roof shingles and all framing were also made of steel. The houses, which sold for $6,000 to $10,000, arrived in 3000 pieces on a specially designed truck.

Homeowners had a choice of three models -  Westchester, Newport and Meadowbrook; the most
popular being the Westchester Deluxe with approximately 78 built in New York State.  Most homes were built on concrete slabs by local Lustron dealer/builders following a factory manual which estimated they could be completed in 360 man-hours.   Owners also had a choice of two or three bedrooms and could choose from four exterior colors; surf blue, dove gray, maize yellow and desert tan.  Interior colors were neutral gray, ivory, blue, yellow and pink. Local dealers supplied flooring options. In 1949 Lustron also offered garage packages

The Lustron Corporation declared bankruptcy in 1950, despite being an extremely well-funded, well-
publicized, government-supported enterprise that was manufacturing a desperately needed product. Production delays, the lack of a viable distribution strategy, and the escalating prices for the finished product all contributed to the failure. Additionally, local zoning codes also played a part. Some accounts suggest an organized effort from the existing housing industry to stop Strandlund.  Another issue was that dealerships had to pay for homes in advance and needed to order in quantity to make a profit.  When Lustron closed, dealerships had paid for thousands of homes that were never manufactured and many lost a great deal of money. 

Although builders reported a strong interest in the homes, locally only 18 homes were built by Albany builder Upstate Construction Corp. and 21 by Amsterdam/Schenectady builder Wilson Bartlett Taylor by the end of 1949.  Both companies were undoubtedly hurt financially when Lustron ceased production.  Dealerships nationwide submitted testimony to a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Banking and Finance stating their confidence to sell the homes if manufacture continued.  Upstate Construction Corp. of Albany reported by telegram: 

“Have been a Lustron dealer for 8 months and have erected and sold 20 Lustron houses without use of a sales force or sales effort.  Have used this time (8 months) to train crews.  Now can turn out a Lustron house ever 3 days in 350 erection hours.  Have just employed large sales staff and can sell 100 houses in matter of weeks.  Am prepared to erect 100 houses in next 4 months and 300 houses in year.  Have 18 years as leading builder in our area.  Lustron is best value ever offered.  All dealers this section in similar position having spent months training crews.  None employed any sales effort during training period.  We’re all ready now to meet tremendous demand for Lustron.  If Lustron permitted to continue this year, success is assured.”  Despite the efforts of the 221 dealerships who testified to the Senate, Lustron ceased production in March of 1950.

One Lustron home that has been preserved in near original condition is on Slater Drive in Glenville. Built in 1949, it was the Westchester Deluxe 2 bedroom model in dove gray built on a slab foundation.  When inspected, only two changes to the original home were noted – the outside trim had been painted and the bathroom door replaced. It was added to the National Register in 2008 and at that time was still occupied by the original owners.  The home has steel panels inside and out with built in closets, original metal kitchen cabinets, built in vanity and dining room hutch.  It also retains the original bay window and aluminum casement windows, signature gutters and zigzag downspout, entry porch, steel rooftiles and chimney and inside wall panels and trim elements. Photos of this home were taken as part of the New York State Lustron Home Survey in 2007 and some can be seen below. 

As a testament to the durability of Lustron homes, today almost 2000 are still standing although many have been modified over the years.  A good number enjoy official protection through the National Register of Historic Places.  Even though many owners are trying to preserve the original integrity of the homes, existing Lustron homes face an uncertain future.  Because of their small size and the changing demands of modern living the homes do not appeal to young buyers. Only time will tell if these homes can sustain modern family life or if alternative uses for them can be found.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The World War II Diary of Joseph James Fazzone

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

A collection of artifacts and documents belonging to the late Joseph James Fazzone was donated to the historical society in 2010 a guide to this collection can be found here.  Among the items is a wartime diary that Joseph kept as a Seaman 2nd Class serving aboard the Navy Destroyer USS Chauncey in the Pacific Theater during the second World War.  The diary provides valuable insight into the day to day life of a seaman during the war.

Joseph James Fazzone was born to Italian immigrants, Antonio and Angela Fazzone on March 19, 1911 in Scotia NY.  He attended school until the 8th grade and then went to work, eventually becoming proprietor of his own shoe repair shop on Broadway in Schenectady.  In the 1930’s he met Bertha Marcinek whom he called “Squige”.  They were married on August 16, 1936. 

Joseph and Bertha at their home. 
Joseph, who his wife called “Darlin”, and Bertha had no children of their own but doted on nieces and nephews.  Family photos show many family celebrations and get togethers.  Bertha worked as a baseball sewer at the old Wilson-Western Baseball Factory on Hawthorne Street in the Mont Pleasant section of Schenectady. Theirs was a very loving relationship and diary entries reveal how much Joseph missed his wife while he was serving overseas.

Joseph ran his shoe repair business until he enlisted in the Navy in 1942.  He saw action aboard the USS Chauncey whose home base was Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  He also served aboard the USS Randolph for a time.  His diary entries are comprised of brief descriptions of daily travel or activity.  The entry below describes Chauncey’s participation in air strikes on Wake Island on October 5&6, 1943. The Chauncey rescued three downed aviators during the mission.

Someone obviously thought that Joseph looked better with a mustache. 
The destroyer participated in air raids on Rabaul on November 11th.  After the first successful strike launched by the carriers, enemy planes came out in force to seek vengeance, resulting in a furious 46-minute action, during which Chauncey's guns blazed almost continuously, resulting in many downed Japanese aircraft.

Diary entry describing the air raids on Rabaul in New Guinea.
Chauncey next sailed north to begin pre-assault air strikes on Tarawa, on November 18-20. As the landings began on November 20, the carriers launched combat air patrols, antisubmarine searches, and close support strikes, which continued until the island was secured after furious fighting ashore. During this operation, Chauncey again helped drive a Japanese counterattack from the air above the ships she guarded.

Joseph was discharged from the Navy on October 26, 1945.  After the war, he worked as a warehouse supervisor for the Army Depot until his retirement in 1967.  Joseph and Bertha enjoyed a long marriage with presidential greetings from the Clintons and Bushes on anniversary milestones.  They celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in 2006.  Two years later, Bertha passed away at the age of 95.  Joseph died on January 29, 2010 at the age of 98.