Friday, July 29, 2016

Lewi Tonks: Physics with a Side of Social Justice

It’s funny how the answer to a research request can pop up long after a patron requests it.  Back in January a patron contacted me to see if we had any information on GE physicist Dr. Lewi Tonks regarding his work with the Schenectady Human Rights Commission and his creation of a revolving bail fund. I checked our (usually trusty) family files and while we had a file for Tonko, there was nothing listed under Tonks. I scoured our website for any mention of him, nothing turned up. I checked our catalog, books on GE, and newspaper clippings files, still nothing. I found a few news articles online and a bit about his work while at GE, but not much regarding his social justice work in Schenectady.

Yesterday, I decided to open up the 1970 Schenectady Board of Representatives Proceedings. I don’t even really remember what I was looking up, but the first page I opened it to was a report on the Commission on Human Rights. The Commission on Human Rights was created in 1965 to foster mutual respect and understanding among all racial, religious, and nationality groups in the community. One of the Commissions main duties was (and is) to receive complaints of alleged discrimination and to bring these complaints to the State Commission for Human Rights for further examination.

What caught my interest on the page were the words Discrimination in Housing written in bold at the bottom of page 436. The report describes a black woman who brought a case to the Human Rights Commission claiming that she met with an agent of an absentee landlord who showed her a house.  The next day a white woman asked about the house and the agent stated that the neighborhood had an “anti-black attitude” and said “When they move in we are liable to have riots.” This event happened two years after the Fair Housing Act was enacted which prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin and sex. The case made its way to the State Division of Human Rights and the owners of the property were fined $200 (about $1,200 today) and restrictions were placed on the landlord to assure that they would comply with the act in the future. I flipped through a few pages to see who gave this part of the report and it was none other than Lewi Tonks.

Tonks was a physicist who, before working at GE, helped develop a supersonic submarine detection for the U.S. Navy. He joined GE in 1923 where he researched thermionic emission, ferromagnetic, thermodynamics of surface films, and other projects that I had to look up on Wikipedia in order to understand what they are. In 1946 he started working with the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory which was operated by GE for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission at the time. At KAPL, he served as the manager of physics and also worked on the reactor for the nuclear submarine the Sea Wolf. In 1955, Tonks also worked on designing the first fusion device.  So, He was obviously working on some amazing projects in the scientific community, but he was also heavily involved with social issues in Schenectady.

Lewi Tonks hard at work in room 401. He would stay in room 401 until 1938 when he moved up to room 505.
After retiring from GE, he started volunteering for the Commission on Human Rights where he volunteered at least five days a week. In the 1970 report to the County Board of Supervisors, Tonks requests assistance from the Board, specifically in the form of increasing the salary for a potential executive director to assist the sole full-time staff member Anne Donnelly. Donnelly’s main duties were coordinating the activities of the Commission and the various committees of the Commission, writing reports and minutes, attending meetings relevant to the Commission, attending legislative hearings and workshops, among other things. So, she had a bit of a full plate working for the Commission. Tonks takes a bit of a dig at the Board saying “We are paying very careful attention to the caliber of individual whom we would ask to take this responsible role. We are hampered in this search by the low salary level established by the Board of Representatives.” In 1969, the chairman of the Commission on Human Rights compared the budgets and staff of the Schenectady Commission to others cities of similar size in New York. Niagara Falls had a slightly higher population than Schenectady in 1969, but the budget for their Commission on Human Rights was $38,000 compared to Schenectady’s meager $6,520. So the increase of that Tonks called for was a drop in the bucket compared to cities of similar sizes.

"He frightened and angered those who obstruct justice, and he exposed those who still give lip service to justice and peace. And because hope is so necessary to us all, I shall see in every tiny hard-fought victory for human rights and dignity, and off-spring of his spirit and vision. And I shall be grateful to Lewi, and glad." - Friend of Lewi Tonks, Peter Crawford

Dr. Tonks saw the budget increase and hiring of an executive director for the commission in 1971. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack on June 30, 1971. In addition to his work on the Commission on Human Rights, Tonks was also involved with the committee of clergy and laymen concerned about Vietnam. His legacy lived on in the Lewi Tonks Revolving Bail Fund which was created by his family. The bail fund provided bail for people who could not afford it. In the 1971 annual report of the Commission, Anne Donnely stated that Lewi “died knowing that a director was being hired and that the job to be done was actually beginning. I am glad that Lewi Tonks chose to work with me – not only for what I learned from him but because our friendship deepened and added greatly to my life.”

Friday, July 22, 2016

Tracing the History of Your House Can Be Fun…Especially When Your House Is a PokéStop

It’s no secret that the staff at SCHS is hooked on the Pokémon Go craze (see this Daily Gazette article, this piece on Channel 6, and this article on For me, the game touches on a nostalgic nerve as I played Pokémon when I was younger. It then combines that nostalgia with another of my favorite things, history. Many of the pokéstops in the area are places of historical significance and if you have ever walked around the Stockade you would know that many of the buildings have markers stating their historical significance. We’re hoping that by having these landmarks, buildings, and other historic sites as pokéstops, people will start asking questions about the interesting and sometimes weird history of Schenectady. SCHS has been hosting impromptu pokéstop walking tours of the Stockade to try and bring history to the forefront of the game and explain the background behind some of the more prominent pokéstops and gyms in the neighborhood.

When walking around the Stockade on my lunch break I try to take a look many of the historic markers on the houses around the neighborhood. One potential positive of the game is that it could get people to think about their neighborhood in a new light. Judging by the popularity of our tour and similar ones in other historical areas, there are people playing the game who are interested in learning about local history.

One that I just never really seemed to notice was on the corner of Front St. and Washington Ave. which also happens to be the closest pokéstop to 32 Washington (well, besides 32 Washington itself). It wasn’t until our pokéstop tour that I noticed that this house has a marker that states that it was the home of blacksmith Aaron Dickinson. But that’s not all! It also has quite a political history being the home of Schenectady mayor J. Teller Schoolcraft and John Prince, the merchant and Assemblyman of Albany County who Princetown was named after.  

Whether your house is a pokéstop or not, tracing the history of your house can be interesting as you piece together the lives of people who lived in your house before you. It can also give you more of a connection to your neighborhood as you learn more about the people who lived there in the past and what the neighborhood looked like. The changing styles of architecture in your area also tell the story of how your neighborhood changed over the years. You also never know what sort of information you will turn up during your search. You may not find all the answers to the questions you’re looking for, but starting your house history can be very rewarding.

The Schenectady County Historical Society will be hosting a house history workshop on August 13th from 2pm to 4pm to help you get started with your house history research. After the workshop, you’ll be able to use the historical society’s library to use some of the resources that you learned about in the workshop. This workshop is free for members of the historical society and $5.00 for non-members.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Louis Kortmann in the Wild and Wooly Country of Cuba

Most archives and cultural institutions have hidden collections, these are collections or items that, usually due to time restraints and a large backlog, haven't been cataloged or described yet and are hidden by researchers and staff. One of the perks of working in a place like the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives at SCHS is finding these collections. We recently found a small hidden collection of postcards and photos dealing with Louis W. Kortmann Jr. and his relatives. Kortmann was the president of the Schenectady Trust Company and a rather prominent citizen of Schenectady, judging by the contents of this collection. Kortmann Jr.'s father, Louis Kortmann Sr., served in the Spanish-American War and the postcards are mainly correspondence from Kortmann Sr. to his wife Kate who was staying at the Madison Barracks in Sackets Harbor.

Louis and Kate Kortmann at their home in Madison Barracks at Sackets Harbor, NY.
Courtesy of the Louis W. Kortmann Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
The correspondence from Kortmann Sr. is particularly interesting because they document his time serving in the Spanish-American War in 1898. Kortmann enlisted as a private in the Ninth infantry unit at Sackets Harbor, NY. The correspondence to Kate begins on April 20, 1898 as he is traveling from Washington D.C. to Cuba, making stops in Lynchburg, Virginia,  and Rocky Ford, Georgia until he reaches Tampa Bay, Florida on April 22, 1898. Kortmann's unit camped out at Port Tampa for a while and in one postcard he describes the camp as having "sand knee deep and good and hot," with the only trouble being that he can't get enough to eat. The orders to ship out to Cuba came on June 13th and Kortmann writes that there are around 850 men on his ship (the USS Santiago) and that it is "quite a task to breathe." The USS Santiago was among the first ships to arrive at Cuba on June 22, despite this, they were actually forgotten during the disembarking process and ended up having to wait three days till the men were able to leave the humid, cramped ship.

There is a gap in the correspondence between June 26th and July 12th, but we can fill some of
The flag of the 9th Regiment. Courtesy of the
New York State Military Museum
the unit's activity and what Kortmann would have been going through thanks to the website The troops had to march about 12 miles to Santiago in intense heat while carrying their blanket rolls and ammo. The Ninth eventually reached San Juan Hill, but found themselves in the valley between the American artillery and the Spanish troops. As the unit tried to make sense of the battle, their colonel was killed and two lieutenant colonels were wounded leaving Lieutenant Colonel Ezra P. Ewers as the senior officer, which he did not even know until after San Juan Hill was captured.

"We are here at last in the City (Santiago de Cuba) and quartered in the Theater...A great many of our men are sick from exhaustion and malarial fever. - Louis Kortmann

Postcard from Louis to Kate stating that Santiago
has surrendered. Courtesy of the Louis W. Kortmann
Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
Between the intense heat, sickness, and lack of cooking equipment, camp at San Juan was brutal. By the time the Spanish surrendered San Juan, the Ninth had lost one officer and four enlisted men with 27 enlisted men wounded. The Ninth had more to worry about than the Spanish forces as Kortmann writes, "We have plenty of sickness in our camps." By July 22, 132 men out of the regiment's 433 were reported sick and 5 men would die of various illnesses before they reached Camp Wikoff on Long Island. Despite being back in the states, sickness still ran rampant throughout the Ninth. Kortmann writes that "This place (Camp Wikoff) is not a fit place for a camp for sick men. We have to lay on the ground and most of us have only one blanket." In a later postcard he states that the Camp is worse than being in Cuba and that they average six deaths a day.

Doctor William Wallace Walker was stationed at Camp Wikoff and wrote an account of the conditions at the Camp. Walker wrote that “Right here in 100 miles of New York I cannot get medicines for typhoid fever, or chlorinated soda to wash out the bowels in typhoid fever and dysentery, the two principal diseases killing our boys…There is gross mismanagement somewhere and it is costing many lives. Too many politicians and rich men’s sons are appointed to office.” Walker complained of other doctors not visiting sick men till 10 a.m. while he had been working since 5:30 a.m. He was sickened and disturbed by these conditions and requested a transfer back to his regular regiment in San Antonio.

Company E of the 9th Infantry reading newspapers during the Spanish-American war. 1898. Black & white photoprint, 8 x 10 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <>, accessed 30 June 2016.
Telegram from Nelson A. Rockefeller to Louis W. Kortmann.
Rockefeller asks Kortmann to meet to discuss the effectiveness
of state programs. Courtesy of the Louis W. Kortmann
Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
Kortmann made it back to his wife and ended up playing for the United States Military Academy Band. In 1905, their son Louis W. Kortmann Jr. was born. The Kortmann’s eventually settled in Schenectady and Louis Jr. started his banking career as a teller at the Schenectady Trust Company. Kortmann would work his way up to become president of the bank. This collection doesn’t contain too many personal details about Louis Jr.’s life, but from its contents, we see that he dealt with some very important people. There is an invitation to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, a letter from Robert F. Kennedy, and a telegram from Nelson A. Rockefeller. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find much more about Kortmann Jr.’s life. The bits and pieces that are there mostly deal with his time as president of the Schenectady Trust Company. This collection gives a glimpse into his life, and I hope to dig up a bit more about him in the future.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Schenectady Sluggers Part 2: Marty Servo, a Tough Little Fighter

Described by Sugar Ray Robinson as “one of the finest fellows I ever fought,” Schenectady’s Marty Servo had quite a boxing career. He was born Mario Severino on November 3rd, 1919 in Schenectady. Servo attended Nott Terrace High School where he ran cross country and boxing as an amateur. His career as an amateur featherweight was an amazing 91-4 and he received both a Golden Gloves and a Diamond Belt Featherweight championship. Servo’s pro career started in August 1938 at Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC where he fought and beat Jerry Hall.

 Lou Ambers (on the right), former world's lightweight champion, sparring with Marty Servo (on the left), well-known pro, as Eristus Sams, former Tuskegee football and track star, referees. All three are boxing instructors at the Manhattan Beach Coast Guard training station. Courtesty of the Library of Congress.
Servo was guided to his pro career through his relative and fellow boxer Lou “Herkimer Hurricane” Ambers from Herkimer, NY. Ambers’ manager was named Al Weill and thought that it would be natural to bring Servo under Weill’s management.  Weill also managed Rocky Marciano and Joey Archibald. Weill was known for Americanizing his boxer’s names he even shortened his own as his full name was Armand but he went by Al. Lou Ambers was Luigi Giuseppe d'Ambrosio, Marty Servo was Mario Severino, Rocky Marciano was Rocco Marchegiano, Joey Archibald was…Joey Archibald.

Servo wasn’t the most powerful puncher, but he was quick and clever. From the start of his professional career till September 9th, 1941, he went undefeated (with 2 draws). Then he met Sugar Ray Robinson. Some of Servo’s most popular fights were against Sugar Ray Robinson who Servo fought twice during his career. The first fight occurred in 1941 and while Sugar Ray had never lost to a welterweight, Servo gave him a run for his money. Robinson managed to defeat Servo in a split decision. The rematch on May 28, 1942 was even closer but Servo lost in a disputed ten round split decision. Many in the crowd thought that Marty should have won this match.

Photo of the rematch between Sugar Ray Robinson and Marty Servo. Courtesy of The Ring.
The rematch against Sugar Ray Robinson was Marty’s last match for a while as World War II would force him to take a three year break from boxing. Servo was in the US Coast Guard from 1942 to 1945 and served under former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey as a physical training instructor. Servo continued his boxing career after returned from his war service.

“Schenectady has always rooted for me. The newspapers have always treated me fairly, and I want to win for everybody in the worst way." - Marty Servo

He only fought a couple matches before going on to challenge Freddie “Red” Cochrane for the Welterweight World Championship. The match was at Madison Square Garden in front of a crowd of 17,000 people. It was reported that over 2,000 Schenectadians were in attendance.  Servo did not disappoint those that made the trip. In the 4th round Servo hit a bloodied Cochrane with a left hook and Cochrane went down. Although Cochrane did his best to try and get back up from the hook, he couldn’t quite get up. The ref called the match at 2:54 into the 4th round. Despite winning the Welterweight Championship, Marty and his manager actually lost money on the fight. Cochrane was guaranteed $50,000 and two months later, Weill and Servo still owed him.

Speaker of the House Oswald D. Heck shaking hands with Marty Servo
after he won the Welterweight Championship. Courtesy of the Photo
Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library. This photo, along with other
photos of boxers can be seen on our New York Heritage Collection.

This debt led to the worst decision Weill and Servo made during his professional career, the decision to fight middleweight Rocky Graziano. Graziano was only 8 pounds heavier than Servo, but it was an important 8 pounds. The fight was quick and brutal with Servo being TKO’d less than 2 minutes into the second round. This was Servo’s first time being KO’d in his professional career. Graziano broke Servo’s nose so badly that doctors recommended he never fight again. When asked if he had something to say to his fans, Marty said, “Tell them I just forgot to duck.”

Fans welcoming Marty Servo after his 1946 Welterweight Championship win. Courtesy  of the Photo Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library. This photo, along with otherphotos of boxers can be seen on our New York Heritage Collection.
Servo went on to fight two more matches, but hung his gloves up after losing to Rocky Castellani. After he retired from boxing, he worked as a bartender, car salesman, and foreman at a steel mill in Colorado. He fell ill in the early 1950s and had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his left lung. Hospital expenses related to his cancer would cause his savings to dwindle over time and he died at the age of 50. Servo’s story shows just how difficult it could be to make it as a pro fighter. One bad decision ended his career. In Servo’s obituary, Ralph Martin, sports editor of the Knickerbocker News wrote “Marty, whose life was a study in hardship, triumph, pain and tragedy, will never be forgotten. Champions live on.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Schenectady Sluggers, Part I: Abe Feldman

Abe Feldman dressed to the nines. Courtesy of
the Grems-Doolittle Library Collection. You can
find this photo, as well as photos of other boxers in
the Sports and Recreation Collection of
New York Heritage.  
As uploading photos to our Sports and Recreation in Schenectady collection on New York Heritage, I noticed that there were quite a few unlabeled photos of boxers, baseball players, and musicians in these collections. The unlabeled photos in this collection led me to post a photo of an unknown boxer to Schenectady County Historical Society’s Facebook page to see if the collective wisdom of our followers on Facebook would be able to identify him. Sure enough, they were able to! We will be posting unlabeled and unidentified photos to an album on our Facebook page periodically for assistance in identifying people, stores, locations, buildings, and pretty much any other info that can be provided. Any information you all can provide would be greatly appreciated. You can find the album at this link.

This leads to our current series of blog posts. While digging up some information on some of the photos of boxers in that collection we noticed some photos of two Schenectady boxers Abe Feldman and Marty Servo. Servo was a champion welterweight who fought two matches against Sugar Ray Robinson. Feldman was a local pug who had quite a career and fought the likes of Jim “Cinderella Man” Braddock, Maxie Rosenbloom, John Henry Lewis, and other boxing greats of the 1930s. This post will focus on the life of Abe Feldman.

Abe Feldman was born in 1912 in Salt Lake City, Utah but moved to Schenectady at the age of six with his parents, sister and three brothers. Both Abe and his brother Jack liked to fight, and would often fight in the streets of Schenectady while people would throw pennies at them. In addition to boxing, Abe played running back for Schenectady High School’s football team. His skill in boxing and football was rewarded with an athletic scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. Abe turned the scholarship down and decided to go pro. According to a 2005 Schenectady Gazette article by Jeff Wilkin, Feldman said that “I probably wouldn’t have learned much at college anyway and look at the fun I’ve had as a professional pug.”

Article from the Albany Times Union about Abe Feldman's discovery. Abe's
Schenectady origins were often downplayed. Courtesy of Fulton History.
Feldman started his pro boxing career as a light-heavyweight in 1932 with his first match against Julius Vigh in Brooklyn. “Honest Abe” as Feldman was sometimes called soundly beat Vigh and his next 15 opponents, going undefeated until his match against Charley Massera in 1933. Feldman would fight Jim Braddock a few months afterwards. This fight was depicted in the 2005 film Cinderella Man. Braddock broke his hand in three places on Feldman’s jaw and the fight was called off. This fight almost ended Braddock’s boxing career as it was the third time he broke it. Later on, Abe mentioned that he knew that Braddock was injured and went easy on him till the ref called the match off.

Abe’s biggest match was against John Henry Lewis in 1935. Lewis was coming off of a loss from Maxie Rosenbloom and he didn’t have much luck against Feldman either. The fight went ten rounds and Feldman won on points. The win made Abe the second ranking light heavyweight which was the highest ranking he would achieve. Unfortunately, he was never given a title shot.  During the fight, Abe injured Lewis’ eye. Lewis was able to hide this injury for four years when it was determined that the vision in his left eye was “almost nil.” Despite being blind in one eye Lewis would go on to defeat Bob Olin later on in 1935 for the World Light Heavyweight Championship.

"Two-Ton" Tony Galento was rarely seen without
his cigar. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Feldman wasn’t afraid of punching above his weight class and often took on heavyweights like “Two Ton” Tony Galento. Galento’s nickname didn’t come from his weight (although he usually weighed around 235-240 lbs.) but from an excuse that he gave to his manager as to why he was late for a match. “I had two tons of ice to deliver on my way here.” Galento was a larger than life figure in boxing who notoriously wrestled an octopus, and boxed a kangaroo and a bear on separate occasions to draw attention. A typical meal for Galento was six chickens, spaghetti and a half gallon of red wine, or beer, or sometimes both. According to Galento all other fighters were bums and what did Galento promise to do to bums? “Moider dem."
 The fight occurred towards the end of Feldman’s career and reporters wrote that Feldman looked like he had been exhumed from the grave. Feldman took quite a beating from Galento, who despite his antics, could actually fight and had a wicked left hook.  Feldman was knocked down 3 times by the second round and after 30 seconds in the third, Galento delivered a wicked body blow that sank Feldman to his knees. The ref called the fight and Galento went on to challenge Joe Louis for the Heavyweight Championship. Later on, Abe would describe Galento as “the hardest puncher I ever faced.”

Feldman decided to end his career shortly after his match with Galento 1939 when he “started to duck a little too late.” His professional record was 35 wins, 14 losses, and 5 draws. He had 14 knockouts and was only KO’d twice. Feldman retired to live at his house on Pennsylvania Avenue in Schenectady with his wife Sadie and son Howard. He joined his brothers Jack, Leo and Dave in the coal business and worked as a coal salesman. Abe Feldman died at the age of 67 on June 20, 1980 and is buried in the Congregation Agudat Achim cemetery. He was honored in Schenectady throughout his life and often spoke at dinners and other sporting events where he was almost as entertaining as he was in the ring.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dirty Business: Campaigns and Elections in Schenectady

This post was written by SCHS curator Mary Zawacki.

How do we tell the story of politics in Schenectady?
We asked ourselves this question last year, as we began putting together the grant proposal for our “Vote Here! Vote Now!” project. How do we tell the story of politics in Schenectady, especially during such a major year in national politics? How can we take the enormous, complex, and sometimes controversial political history of Schenectady, and make it an engaging, vibrant narrative?
We thought about this, and came up with a list (you wouldn’t believe how long) of possibilities. Exhibits, speakers, events, games, and more. Many of these we flushed out, and developed into programs you’ll see this year at 32 Washington and Mabee Farm. But then we realized something that changed our approach to the project. The story of politics – in Schenectady and beyond – isn’t one, linear, objective story. It is instead a tale formed by opinions, ideals, and the voices of thousands of Schenectadians. And the best way to dig into this history is to go to the source – the primary sources, let them speak for themselves, and then encourage our visitors speak to each other about their own political opinions.

Though we have excellent primary political sources in the library and archives, as we began this project, our tangible collections in the museum were lacking. Sure, we could examine scrapbooks from socialist mayors (looking at you, George Lunn), pour over the records of the Dialogue Café (donuts with your discourse, anyone?), and discover the insecurities of Governor Joseph A. Yates in his letters from friends. Yet, something tangible to hold, display, and to inspire dialogue was missing. And then, serendipity struck!
As we were developing this project, Donald Ackerman, the longtime leader of the Schenectady County Democratic Party and a former county legislator, reached out to us. He had a large collection of political memorabilia, and wondered if we interested in acquiring it. Hundreds of buttons, bumper stickers, signs, and more needed a new home. Ackerman’s collection was unparalleled, made up of everything from matching Roosevelt and Hoover license plates to a Mayor Stratton bobblehead.  Here was our story, we realized. Centuries of political history documented in our archives, and then brought to life through our new Ackerman political collection. The perfect collaboration between our sites.

So we displayed our story. It’s on view now at the Schenectady History Museum at 32 Washington Ave. We selected a variety of pieces from Ackerman’s collection and on loan from the Schoharie County Historical Society to help us visually narrate politics, campaigns, and democracy in Schenectady and beyond. The artifacts are colorful and vibrant. They make you think about the tactics politicians use to shape our opinions of them, and the way campaigns play out. And, hopefully, they encourage you to consider your own opinions and those of your community members, as we move through another messy campaign season!

Included on display are artifacts that document just how complicated politics and campaigns can be. Take, for example, the election of 1840, one of the first truly messy ones in American history.
President Martin Van Buren narrowly defeated by William Henry Harrison, running on the Democratic and Whig Party lines, respectively. Van Buren’s first term had been plagued by an economic depression, and the campaign of 1840 saw him branded as a wealthy, out-of-touch snob. Meanwhile, this was the first time that the Whig Party had coalesced its full support behind a single candidate. Harrison was also wealthy and well-educated, but he was a war hero and enjoyed wide popularity as a result.

Harrison was also the oldest President up to that time, and Democrats mocked him for this; one newspaper quipped that if given a barrel of hard cider and a pension, he would “sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin”. The Whigs co-opted this detraction, however, declaring Harrison the “log cabin and hard cider candidate”, a moniker that swept the nation and gave him an image as a man of the common people. Log cabin dances were held in support of his campaign, miniature log cabins were built, and even jewelry was designed around the theme. Harrison was able to ride this image to victory, along with disapproval of Van Buren due to the poor economy.

How politicians speak to us through their campaigns is just as relevant today as it was in the 1840s. Consider what words politicians say -- or don't say -- to swing our votes in their favor. Do they use simple language, or are they verbose? What about rhyme and repetition? Are politicians vague or specific? At times, politicians use a bit of all of these. Carefully crafted campaigns strategize and determine which voice to use, and when.

It’s our hope that, as we move toward November, that participants in the “Vote Here! Vote Now!” project will be inspired to engage in political discourse, consider campaign tactics, and voice their opinions. And, if our participants elect to elect, that they consider the options. It’s important to speak out, to make your voice heard, and to vote. But it’s also important to understand, completely, what the issues are

Fortunately, there are many nonpartisan organizations and websites that can help determine which candidate represents your voice best. Locally, the Schenectady League of Women Voters runs, which publishes voting guides to candidates. Other sites, such as can help you determine which candidate is most closely aligned with your ideology.

Your vote is your voice. This election season we’re choosing state and national leaders, whose decisions and policy will have great effect on our lives as Americans. Why not take a stand voice your opinion?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Strange Travels from Schenectady, Part 2: Walking from Schenectady to San Francisco

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

If doctors told you that outdoor life could help your children who are having health issues, would you take that to mean walking from Schenectady to San Francisco?  That is what the Fenton Family of Schenectady set out to do.  Physicians told Mr. and Mrs. Reuben Fenton that their son Gilbert, 18, and two of their other children considered to be in failing health would benefit from spending time outside.  The family decided that the warm air of the Pacific Coast would be the best place for their children and began to plan their trip.

The Fenton Family as they set off on their trip to San Francisco. Courtesy of the
Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
The nine members of the family left city life behind and set off on their cross country adventure to follow the Sunset Trail to San Francisco on May 1st, 1913.  They planned to walk across the state to Buffalo and follow the southern shore of Lake Erie to Chicago.  From there they would head south on the Sunset, or Santa Fe route.  They expected to reach Kansas City by fall and spend the winter there.  In the spring, they would set off again to La Junta Colorado then south to Las Vegas and Phoenix before heading west to Los Angeles and finally north to San Francisco.  Mr. Fenton estimated that they would average 15 to 20 miles a day and the trip could take up to two years.

The trip would be made in a typical Prairie Schooner or “Watson Wagon” pulled by a single horse until reaching Buffalo. There, they would supplant the horse with a team.  The schooner was six feet wide and ten feet long.  Under the wagon was a suspended wooden box containing the tools needed for the trip.  They carried two tents for sleeping, a cooking stove and provisions enough to carry them from one city to the next.  The family dressed in the western ranch style of the day.  The Fentons had postcards made of themselves with their wagon and depended on the sale of the cards for their livelihood along the way. One of these postcards can be found in the Wayne Tucker postcard collection.  On both sides of the wagon were signs reading “The Fenton Family. Walking from Schenectady NY to San Francisco California May 1st, 1913. We are dependent on the sale of post cards and books for our living.”

Article/advertisement of Taniac, a cure-all.
Gilbert Fenton Is quoted in the article saying
"Off and on for eight years I have been
bothered with rheumatism...Taniac gave
me very good relief." Courtesy of Old
Fulton NY Postcards.

The family consisted of Reuben and Lottie Fenton and their children: Henry, 23; Edgar, 20; Gilbert, 18; Ruth, 15; Helen, 8; Sidney, 7 and Marguerite, 5. They also had a dog that went along for the journey.  According to the rules of the family, the menfolk would walk all the way but Mrs. Fenton and the children could ride “according to their pleasure”.  At night, Mr. and Mrs. Fenton and they four youngest children would sleep in the wagon and the older boys would tent alongside. 

Did the family reach San Francisco?  We don’t know for sure but assume not.  There is a newspaper article from the Geneva Daily Times dated June 5, 1913 reporting the family reached Waterloo NY and were still traveling.  No other documentation can be found of them reaching another destination.  However, an article from the May 24, 1917 Schenectady Gazette has a still ailing Gilbert working at GE and promoting a product that helped his rheumatism and stomach.  Another article has family members attending Edgar’s 31st birthday party in Schenectady in 1924. Reuben, Lottie and their children Sidney and Margaret were living in Albany at the time of the 1920 census and he was working as a machinist at General Electric, a job he also held in 1910 according to that census.  Two members of the family did eventually move west.  The 1930 census finds Edgar and his wife, Irma, living in Detroit.  Gilbert and his wife, Tressa, lived with them as boarders and the two brothers both worked as machinists in an auto parts factory. 

Similar to the Fenton family were three young men who named themselves the Schaugh-naugh-ta-da Hiking Trio. They set out on a trip from Schenectady to Chicago on September 18, 1911. Much less is known about the trio than the Fenton family, but we do have a postcard of them taken before they set out on their journey.

Postcard of the Schaugh-naugh-ta-da hiking trio before they left from
Schenectady's City Hall on September 18, 1911. Courtesy of the
Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.