Friday, July 27, 2018

The Same Schenectady Street Scene Over Time

At the Grems-Doolittle Library we probably have more historic photos of State Street than any other street in Schenectady. This makes sense as State is Schenectady's main street and commercial hub and has been for quite a while. As such, there are a number of advertisements that have popped up on buildings over the years and it seems that one building in particular that would get plastered with ads for local businesses. 322 State Street housed several businesses over the years including the Boston One Price Clothing House, Evelyn Dress Shop, German newspaper the Deutsche Journal, the Schenectady Business College and various other businesses. This building is right by the train tracks, making it a perfect space to advertise. We've chosen some photos that show just how this area changed over the years. Some of these are undated, but a good way to get an approximate date is that if there is no railroad bridge over state, then it was taken prior to 1906.

Looking down State Street from the railroad crossing in 1888. This may be the earliest view of this corner that we have. 

Schenectady celebrated Washington's birthday with a big parade in 1892. 

This photo is from the mid-1890s.
This damaged photo from a glass plate negative also shows an advertisement for the Charleroi Plate Glass Company on a handcar. 

 A busy street scene taken on State Street from the Canal Bridge, 1910
One big change that occurred in 1906 was raising the grade of the railroad tracks. This was a notoriously deadly intersection and building the rail bridge greatly increased safety in the city. 

It's a bit difficult to read, but we think the street says "Stop, Let's Go Smilin' Thru Schenectady." This may have been referring to a play called "Smilin Thru" which was playing at the Hudson Theater in 1927. 
A 1966 view from the opposite side shows an ad for the Gazette.

A bit of a later view from 1977 and it's very difficult to see what they're advertising on 322 State. 

Looking down State in 1984. Zooming in, we can see that the ad on 324 State is the same as it was in 1977 for Nelson's Slenderizing Fashions.
Although there aren't quite as many ads, 324 still had an ad on it in August, 2017. Courtesy of Google Maps.
For more photos from our collection, check out our New York Heritage page at

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Mabee Farm's Great Fires - Revealed in Documents and by Trowel

This post was written by SCHS and Mabee Farm Archaeologist Ronald F. Kingsley.

Since the settlement by Europeans in New Netherlands in the 17th century, great fires have occurred in the Dutch village of Schenectady. It was burned in 1690 by a raiding party of French and Indians from Canada with the physical loss of buildings and lives, and again in 1819 when a fire burned a large section of the village between the Binnekill and Church Street (1). Even the Mabee Farm, only eight miles west of the village, has had its share of tragic fires over its more than three hundred year history. This article addresses the story of two known barnyard fires at the Farm.

Historical Context

To visit the Mabee Farm today the visitor would sense a pastoral landscape with a Dutch architectural style stone farmhouse with attached buildings nestled among trees, open fields, and a scatter of outbuildings in the barnyard along the Mohawk River. The historic Farm is located in Rotterdam Junction. It is now owned and operated by the Schenectady County Historical Society (SCHS) after it being donated in January 1993 by the last family owner, George Franchere. Generations of Mabees resided at the Farm until the end of 19th century when tenants lived and farmed the land. The last resident was the caretaker and Town historian, Scott Haefner.

The property, situated on the Third Flat or Woestyne (Wilderness), was acquired from three Mohawk representatives by the Dutch on 28 May 1670 in the presence of interpreters Robert Sanders, Jacques Cornelius [Van Slyck], and a schout (sheriff) J.G.V. Marcken. (2) In 1680 Governor Andros designated it a Patent and gave the land to Daniel Janse Van Antwerpen, for his service. He was an early resident of Schenectady and formerly from Beverwyck (today, Albany). On 22 January 1706 Daniel Johnson [Daniel Janse Van Anterpen], an English name among others associated with him, conveyed the western section of the property containing 63 acres and 79 rods to Jan Pieterse Mebie, then a resident of the village. (3) Over the centuries the property became a productive working farm. Cows and other domesticated animals along with a variety of agricultural products (grains, fruits, vegetables), poultry, and broom corn were raised for sale in the marketplace. (4)

Recollections Of Times Past for the Present

A single photo in the SCHS’s photographic collection, taken in latter part of the 19th century (circa 1880), furnishes us with a rare glimpse of the barnyard of the Farm. The outbuildings (a carriage house, shed, Dutch style barn, and English style barn) in the barnyard vary in size and orientation. Nearby the buildings dairy cows graze peacefully. (5)

While these outbuildings are no longer visible on the landscape, an exact positioning and size of two buried stone foundations were discovered in August 2015. A summer drought created a cover of yellow grass over their buried stone foundations. Members of our SCHS/Mabee Farm’s Archaeological Services Program (ASP) team and some staff of the Farm were able to witness this event. The larger of the two outlines (60’x35’) was just north of the presently situated English carriage barn/restroom. The structure was moved and repaired in 2000 from the former Bradt Farm which was the adjacent property on the west. It is southwest of and nearby the reconstructed ca. 1760 Dutch style Nilson Barn from Johnstown. The ASP team measured and recorded the position on a large sheet of graph paper which provides the Farm an archaeological record. The general position was familiar to our team. This location had been found covered with the charred debris of a barn fire, believed to have occurred sometime in the 1970s.

Hartgen Associates and students and staff from the Community Archaeology Program-Schenectady County Community College (CAP-SCCC) had shovel tested various locations in the charred remains and adjacent areas from 1998 to 2003 in preparation for determining an apprropriate location for the reconstruction of the Nilson Barn and other buildings. As part of the Hartgen 1998-99 survey, staff had dug a small trench (TU-1) across an exposed section located on the north side of the former stone foundation. They determined that the foundation had served two barns from different eras, one barn built upon the other.

A second outline of a buried barn foundation (30’x25’) was exposed, that of the former Carriage Barn, 36 feet to the west of the buried burned Dutch style barn foundation. Both of these buildings appear on Chiamulera’s interpretative landscape drawing of the mid 19th century (1823-1885) farm. A subsurface ground survey was conducted in preparation for the location of the former Bradt’s Carriage Barn and now with a restroom currently in the barnyard. Also the study revealed a portion of a buried foundation of an English style barn to the southeast of the Dutch style barn and east of the proposed Carriage Barn, all seen in the photo above and also depicted in Chiamulera’s drawing. (6)

The 19th Century Yard Fire Revealed

On December 6, 1883 The Schenectady Reflector reported that a great fire had occurred on November 21, destroying the outbuildings of the Mabee farm with a loss of $2,000. According to resident, Jacob S. Mabee, the buildings contained crops. (7) The loss was also reported in the Troy Daily Times on November 30 as being $9,000. (6) Family records now held in the SCHS archives (M-INS-2) revealed that they had insurance but only a portion of the loss was covered by a payment of $1,600. A copy of the insurance policy (No. 1178), purchased with the Agricultural Insurance Company of Watertown, New York, showed that it had been issued on March 26, 1873. The policy identified coverage for a dwelling house and attachments, a brick house, and three barns, one identified as a carriage house. The former company’s office building still stands in Watertown. Personal communication in May 2016 with the Jefferson County Historical Society in May revealed that only recently that the firm’s business records had been donated to the society.

A much more detailed description of November 1883 fire appears in the Schenectady Daily Union. The reporter provides his readers a detailed story of an extensive fire, a possible cause, losses, and the kind and a successful response made by Italian laborers living in the vicinity to save the house by use of what appears to have been a bucket brigade which transported water from the river to the terrace above to dose the embers. (8)

Sometime before 1886, the Mabees built another barn on the stone foundation of the former barn. A property survey of 1886 by William Dorn shows a single building at the same location as a former barn. Other outbuildings were likely constructed to support the activities of the farm in the barnyard, but Dorn’s survey in that year shows only a barn. (9)

A Twentieth Century Barn Fire

The second great fire occurred 87 years later on the evening of October 10, 1970. An article in the Schenectady Gazette on October 12 provides information about the circumstances of the fire, suggesting possible arson. There is no mention of insurance in the newspaper account nor could a record be found among family papers. (10)

During the years following the fire and the discontinuation of agriculture at the farm, the barnyard became overgrown with trees and brush, east of the former white picket fence that had extended north and south between the boundary of the farmhouse yard and barnyard. Trees with extensive roots and brush were gradually removed starting in 1996 in anticipation of proposed reconstruction of a Dutch style barn in the barnyard. The task exposed the extent of the 1970 barn fire. Debris extended from the remnants of the stone foundation to the embankment overlooking the river.

From 1998 to 2003 the site of the burned barn location and an area adjacent and north were periodically shovel tested for buried evidence in preparation for the reconstruction of the Dutch style Nilson Barn from Johnstown. Staff from Hartgen Associates, Inc. and members of the Community Archaeology Program-Schenectady County Community College (CAP-SCCC) worked together to investigate this section of the barnyard. A wide variety of artifacts, including pottery, farming equipment, auto parts, tools, glass, and a portion of a melted weather vane (perhaps which once was mounted on the roof), were recovered confirming newspaper accounts of the former barns. (11) The surface of the site of the burned barns was covered with a protective soil fabric and covered by topsoil in 2010 to preserve the site for possible future study. (12) Since the construction of the Nilson barn other outbuildings have been added to the barnyard. Today with the Franchere Educational Center and all the buildings at the Farm constitute a public presentation by the historical society of an 18th -19th century agricultural teaching/learning educational setting and resource for the community and New York State.

Undoubtedly there have been other fires or close calls unknown to us today, often caused by lightning or sparks from a fireplace or stove upon a vulnerable surface. Their evidence may be uncovered in the future.

Looking Ahead from the Present

However, people of resiliency regroup and move on, often with different objectives but based on values they hold. The historic landscape changes, each reflecting opportunities taken with available resources. Today the barnyard offers the visitor a sense of order and purpose but formed by many events maybe never to be known. While documents are helpful to understanding the recorded past, archaeology continues to provide researchers with unwritten and sometimes unknown evidence that will continue to enhance knowledge of the past, dispel legends and reveal evidence of the lifeways along the Mohawk.


I would like to acknowledge and thank the following: Laurel Conrad, CAP graduate, Norm Aldrich and Chris Dorando, ASP volunteers; Mike Maloney librarian, Schenectady County Historical Society; Bob Sullivan, librarian, Schenectady County Public Library; Cynthia Seacord, Efner History Center; the Rotterdam Junction and Thomas Corners Volunteer Fire Departments; Jefferson County Historical Society; Bill Buell, reporter, Schenectady Gazette; Bill Whelen, local historian, Rotterdam Junction; Ron Rathford, local photographer; and students and staff of the Community Archaeology Program/Schenectady County Community College.


1. Thomas Burke. The Mohawk Frontier. A Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York, 1661-1710. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1991; Susan Staffa. Schenectady Genesis. How A Dutch Village Became an American City, Ca. 1661-1800. Vol. 1. The Colonial Crucible, Ca. 1661-1774. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2004.; Victoria Bohm. The Most Destructive We Have Ever Witnessed”: Schenectady’s Great Fire of 1819. Grems-Doolittle Library Collection blog. July 24, 2014. SCHS.

2. Original document held by the SCHS.

3. Copy of deed (M-Deed-6) held by the SCHS.

4. Eva Chiamulera. The Van Antwerp-Mabee Farm, 1684-2000. Analysis and Proposal for Its Construction to a Museum Accompanied by a Historical Account of the Residents, Buildings, and Landscape of a Dutch-American Farm. A Thesis, Cornell University, Masters of Arts Degree, August 2000, pp. 129-133.

5. Barnyard, unknown photographer, in the photo/slide collection of the SCHS; the image appears in Chiamulera’s thesis, p. 143.

6. R. Kingsley, Field Investigation, mapping subsurface barns, Archaeological Notes, Mabee Farm File, ASP, 2015; Eva Chiamulera, masters thesis, The Mabee Farm , 1823-1885, p. 151.

7. Schenectady Reflector, “Rotterdam Rough-Notes”, Vol. XLIX, No. 4, p. 4; Troy Daily Times, a notice, "November 21. Buildings of Jacob Mabee at Rotterdam. Loss $9,000; insured."

8. Schenectady Daily Union, “Large Fire in Rotterdam”, Vol. XIX, No. 22, p.1.

9. Robert Dorn’s Survey map, 1886, Map Collection, SCHS library.

10. Schenectady Gazette. “Arson Suspected in Mabee Barn Blaze.” Vol. LXXVII, No. 323. October 12, 1970, p. 15.

11. R. Kingsley and L. Basa, Miscellaneous field notes, burned barn area, CAP, no report, 1998-2000; Hartgen Archaeological Associates, Inc., August 1999. Report. Archaeological Investigations. Barn Area, Mabee Farm, Town of Rotterdam, Schenectady County, NY.

12. R. Kingsley and L. Basa, recommendation to the Mabee Farm Committee. May 1, 2002, Mabee Farm Committee Meeting Notes.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Grand Theft Auto: Schenectady

Arrested in 1927, Louis Sulzer (aka Louis Sulsona)of 19 Eagle Street in Schenectady was quite a prolific car thief. It was estimated that Sulzer and his ne'er-do-well associates stole well over 100 cars during their criminal career. An article from the March 16, 1928 issue of the Beacon News described how Sulzer stole that many cars. The article profiled Arthur Davis, the head of the stolen car department of the NYS motor vehicle department, on a new technique where car thieves manage to register cars weeks before they steal them. The thieves would dupe motorists into giving them their motor number (probably similar to a modern VIN). They would also take the tags from cars, cut them in half, and solder different parts together. Unwary automobile buyers would have no clue that anything was wrong. Davis was the first to suspect that Sulzer was selling stolen cars and mentions that he was found with 94 cars registered in just three weeks.

Sulzer would travel to New York City and New Jersey to steal the cars, then drive them back to Schenectady to sell them. Sulzer was fond of Fords and mainly stole Ford Coupes and Tudor Sedans. He was arrested in Albany on May 9 and it was alleged that over 2 years, Sulzer sold more than $100,000 (almost $1.5 million today) worth of stolen cars. He and his associates would advertise in local and out of town papers. This turned out to be his downfall as he was arrested in the office of Albany's Knickerbocker Press while waiting to place an advertisement. An article in the May 16, 1927 Schenectady Gazette stated that "Agents of the detective agency...declare that the changing of the motor numbers on the machines Sulzer is alleged to have stolen is one of the cleverest pieces of work in this line that they have ever seen." Agents from the Automobile Underwriters Detective Agency were called to process the engine blocks in order to figure out the actual motor numbers of the stolen cars. This wasn't the first time Sulzer had been caught either, he served a two-year term in the Great Meadow Prison in Comstock for stealing cars in New York City. After skipping bail and missing his court date, Sulzer was found in Atlantic City and sent to Albany County Jail without bail.

An illustration of Sulzer and Deere's
daring escape from the Albany
County Jail. From the August
25, 1927 issue of the Albany
Evening News, courtesy of
Sulzer's saga wasn't finished when he was sentenced though. About 3 months after being sent to Albany County Jail, Mr. Sulzer and fellow inmate Wray Deere decided they had enough and flew the coop. The guards came back from chapel services to find the inmates missing and bars from the window sawed off. How Sulzer and Deere managed to get hacksaws into the jail is up to some speculation. It was suspected that hacksaws were thrown through the window of the recreation room at some point prior and collected by Sulzer. They would then cut through the bars of a window in the recreation cell every Sunday as they skipped chapel servies. The window was nine feet from the floor and had "massive inch-and-a-quarter rods." Heating pipes ran along the wall and it was suspected that they climbed the pipes to gain access to the window. Ten minutes before they escaped, everything seemed normal and guards noted that Sulzer and Deere were seated on a bench underneath the window, a bench that they would use to help them escape.

Soon after the prisoners were suspected missing, Schenectady and Albany police searched Sulzer's house, as well as every known place that he associated with. Schenectady police soon found out that not only was Sulzer and his wife, Eva, not at their Eagle Street home, but apparently never resided there according to the owner. Days passed and the prisoners were still nowhere to be seen. Reports came in that the men were seen walking around Lincoln Park and Myrtle Ave. in Albany but these reports were discounted. What seemed more likely to the police is that they had help from the outside and were transported across state lines shortly after their escape.
Picture of Wray Deere (top-left) and Louis Sulzer (bottom-right) as well as their path from prisoner to escapee. From the August  25, 1927 issue of the Albany Evening News, courtesy of
In the August 25, 1927 issue of the Albany Evening News, Sheriff Claude C. Tibbets stated that Sulzer was a model prisoner and went on to describe him as "A brainy man...He appears capable and shrewd, never giving me any trouble. always genial, sometimes smiling, but ever on the alert for the main chance." Sulzer's choice for a companion didn't make sense to Tibbets and offers that Sulzer may have just wanted some company, or possibly needed Deere's help to escape. Deere was declared mentally insane and had previously escaped while serving an indefinite sentence at Matteawan State Hospital. He was caught in Philadelphia and brought back to Albany and declared sane.
The August 25, 1927 issue of the Albany Evening News described Sulzer as 39 years old, 5'7" and weighed 170 pounds. He wore a striped green suit, blue hat with a light blue band, and tan shoes. Courtesy of
By August 26, Sheriff Tibbets had offered a $200 reward for Sulzer's capture (along with $50 for Deere). Tibbets called off the investigation of the jail and the guards, convinced that the guards took every precaution to prevent an escape. Police continued to search in New York City, Atlantic City, and Philadelphia, all prior hangouts for either Sulzer or Deere. Tibbets made capturing the two men his sole purpose before his term as sheriff was over. By the 27th, private detectives all over the country engaged in a nation-wide search for Sulzer and Deere with the search focusing on Mrs. Sulzer. Details about what Sulzer was up to during his time as an escapee were scarce, but Deere had quite an interesting time while on vacation.

Deere was supposedly seen in Middleburg, NY and was believed to have separated from Sulzer. The sighting was reported by a mechanic in Middleburg who said that Deere headed out towards Catskill after asking how to get to Preston Hollow. The mechanic noticed the photo of Deere in the Albany Times-Union and was positive that the man he saw was Wray Deere. This sighting led authorities to believe that Deere did not have a car waiting for him after his escape. Despite this sighting, no sign was found of Deere in Catskill.

The Times-Union poked a bit of fun at the situation with a humorous article, calling Deere a lothario and saying that Mabel Elder "is down-right 'mad with' Wray while Daddy Elder "says: I told you so." From the October 18, 1927 issue of the Albany Times-Union, courtesy of
It wasn't until mid-October that Wray Deere was found all the way over in Gettysburg, PA where he assumed the identity of Wray Kane. Deere kept himself occupied, even managing to get married while on the lam. After a whirlwind month-long romance, Deere married 20 year old Mabel Irene Elder on October 6th against the wished of Mabel's father. Although he was busy courting Mabel Elder, he wasn't doing much else of consequence besides passing worthless checks in local stores. He was about to be arrested on this charge when authorities saw a clipping from the Albany Evening News describing Deere and he was "snatched from the side of his bride" according to the Albany Evening News.Of course, Deere denied that he was the "Wray Deere" However, his alias folded after being threatened with fingerprint and Bertillion records. Deere was sent back to his "little room" at the Albany County Jail.
Lewis Sulzer's Inmate Admission Ledger from the Clinton Prison Admission Ledgers, 1851-1866, 1926-1939. Courtesy of
As for Sulzer, the details on his capture were hard to track down and might take some deeper digging. It seems like Sulzer enjoyed a bit of time away from the Albany County Jail as the most we could find was an article in the April 19, 1931 issue of the Times-Union stating that Louis Sulzer's trial was set for "Wednesday." Library volunteer Erin Hill-Burns found an inmate admission ledger for Clinton Prison with Sulzer's signature as well as a wealth of personal information about Sulzer. Interestingly, it looks like he is just doing 40 days for one of the car thefts. Erin also found out that he spent some time in Sing-Sing in 1913 for burglary.

Unfortunately, we haven't been able to find much about Sulzer's capture. Send our librarian an email at if you can find anything about Sulzer that we haven't mentioned. We can't offer a cash prize, but you'll be acknowledged in our blog.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Barbers of Schenectady

Something that surprised us recently, there were over 100 barbers in 1925 Schenectady. Men would frequent barbershops weekly, sometimes daily to get a shave. Barbers in Schenectady got up close and personal with some of the most prominent people in Schenectady and in some cases, formed close friendships. The popularity of barbershops declined throughout the 1960s (with longer hair being popular) and into the early-2000s. With beards and more complex haircuts being more fashionable, there has been an increase in the popularity of barber shops throughout the U.S.

The list of barbershops in the 1925 Schenectady Directory. Note that the Wedgeway Barber Shop is still in business and is one of Schenectady's longest running businesses. It was established in April 1912 in The Wedgeway Building at the corner of State and Erie and tonsorial artistry is still practiced in the same room. In a letter to Larry Hart, owner Richard DiCristofaro wrote that "many civic leaders, judges, attorneys, clerks, and notable business persons" used their services.

The interior of Schmidt's Barber Shop shows customers getting a quick cut and shave. This photo is undated, but August Schmidt's shop was listed in city directories as early as 1881 and possibly even earlier. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
In addition to running a barber shop, August Schmidt also dealt thoroughbred canaries. 
Luxury Barber Shop at 104 Clinton caught on to the hair bobbing craze of the flappers. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Speaking of bobs, the NRA (National Recovery Administration, not the National Rifle Association) set the prices for hairdressing. Courtesy of
The Carley House was built by Andrew Devendorf on the corner of Broadway and State. It would eventually become the Hotel Vendome. William Young's barber shop, complete with barber pole, can be seen on the left side of the building. 

A nice interior shot of Tilly's Barber Shop lit by GE Mazda Lamps. Attilio Mengarelli was known as "Tilly" to friends and customers. Tilly's started out in 1905 in the Mohawk Hotel & Baths on Broadway. He moved his shop to the newly built railroad arcade in 1909 when Union Station was built. Tilly's had the most modern equipment and GE Mazda lights. 
An ad introducing barbers Edward Tario and Henry Froehlig as partners in Tilly's. Henry would go on to take ownership of  Tilly's in 1922. 
An action shot of a barber on South Ferry Street, possibly at John Friday's barber shop.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Mastroianni Brothers Bakery

Founded in 1923 by brothers Peter, Dominic, Mario, Gurino, Carmen, John, Armand, and Pasquale Mastroianni, the Mastroianni Brothers Bakery was a staple of local life in Schenectady County. We recently sat down with Josephine Mastroianni Parchetta, the daughter of Dominic Mastroianni to talk about some of her memories of her family and of the bakery. 
The Mastroianni Bros. Bakery can be seen today on Mohawk Ave. in Schenectady. Courtesy of Google Maps.
Dominic Mastroianni, didn’t start out as a baker, but as a boxer. He was the lightweight champion of the Capitol District and even fought at Madison Square Garden. An ad touted Dominic’s boxing skills stating that he, “Possesses a wicked sock in either hand and is blessed with marvelous stamina and endurance.” Eventually, Dominic’s father said that he was needed to come home to work in the family's bakery, and as Josephine says “you don’t say ‘no’ in an Italian family." So, Dominic became a baker. Dominic couldn’t stay away from boxing though, and started a boys club called Graymoor where he trained kids to box.
Photo of Dominick Mastroianni. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.

Grandpa and Tony in front
of the delivery truck.
 Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle
Library & Archives.
Josephine’s grandparents were Italian immigrants who came to America around the turn of the century. They were grocers, had 8 sons and 2 daughters, and lived at 313 Front Street. As the family and business expanded, they built an apartment house next door to the bakery on Mohawk Ave in Schenectady, right off of Front Street. Josephine would grow up in the house on Mohawk Ave. which was divided into four apartments for the brothers. The family was extremely close and during family gatherings, the women would go into one room and the men in another and the women would usually speak in Italian and the men would talk about politics.

Uncle Cuddy Geurino taking bread out of the pans.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.
The bakery was the idea of Josephine’s uncle Peter who felt responsibility to help his family. At the age of 26, he came up with the idea to start an Italian bakery. The whole family would get involved with the bakery and the brothers would deliver bread and work in the bakery. Josephine’s grandmother, also named Josephine, was the bookkeeper and would count the money. Josephine remembers everyone working extremely hard to keep the business going and provide for their family. Josephine remembers her family being very charitable, often giving out free bread for ALCO employees who would often play baseball near their house on Front Street. They would give bread to nuns at St. Anthony’s Church as well as pizza for St. Anthony’s parade.

Uncle Mario, Uncle Armand Mastroianni (in uniform) and Tony during World War II.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.
The old REO Speedwagon. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.

Dominic Mastroianni in front of the oven in the bakery.

Josephine remembers a lot changing during and after World War II. She states that many of the sons of local families were in the service and that their family would have gold star flags hanging in the windows. One memory that really sticks out is walking home from the Plaza Theater when a train went by filled with young men going off to the war. Many of Josephine’s uncles and cousins were in the service and Sudsy Tiscione, her mother’s brother, was the first in the area to receive the Purple Heart. During WWII, production at ALCO was in full swing and tanks would drive right down Front Street. Life during the war was very tough for the family. Meat and sugar was rationed and they had to paint the windows of the bakery black. Josephine and her brother and cousins would have to walk to school, no matter what the weather was like. In the winter, she would arrive covered in snow with frozen hands and faces.

Dominic holding his son Anthony along with his daughter Josephine and niece Antonia.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.

Tony Mastroianni and the one cars used by the 8 Mastroianni brothers.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.
The bakery continued to be a staple in Schenectady County and the company stayed within the Mastroianni family until Armond Mastroianni died in 2008. Josephine remembers her family and the bakery fondly and is very proud of her family’s business and the legacy they left.

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.