Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Barney's Department Store

The Barney Block, completed in 1873, as it appeared in the 1880s. The staff is posed in front, along with the two hand carts used to move merchandise. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Ann Eignor. 

Howland Swain Barney, originally of Minaville in Montgomery County, was a young man on the move. Arriving in Schenectady in 1833, he took a job clerking in the John Ohlen and Company store. He became a partner in 1849, and in 1855 he took over as sole proprietor. By 1856, he was well established as a Schenectady businessman and married Sarah Horsfall of the city. H. S. Barney continued to lead the store until his death in 1904.

Howland Swain Barney, the original proprietor of H.S. Barney Company. This photograph of Barney was taken around 1900. Image from Larry Hart Collection.  

The original Barney’s was 700 square feet. With constant expansion, the H. S. Barney Company occupied 100,000 square feet at its peak in 1958. The Barney Block was completed in 1873 and a new facade uniting the three separate store fronts was added in 1923, creating the H.S. Barney’s that many people remember.

An early interior photograph of Barney's taken by White Studios of Schenectady. Note the elaborate tin ceiling and the elevator in the foreground. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Barney’s was known to carry “high class” merchandise. In the early 1900s it had purchasing offices in London and Paris. After a 1904 makeover, the store displayed ribbon, knit underwear, men’s furnishings, and more on the first floor. The second floor, which sold carpets and draperies, was well-lit and airy. The well-dressed woman could purchase a complete wardrobe including “silk petticoats in dainty shades.” Once purchased, items could be delivered to your home – first by horse and wagon, later by truck.

The Barney Company's stylish delivery wagon, ca. 1880. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Barney’s continued to prosper throughout the first half of the twentieth century until the growth of suburbia and the appearance of shopping malls doomed the city department store. In late 1973 Barney’s, as well as Wallace’s, went out of business, marking the beginning of the end of the department store as a fixture on State Street.

The prosperous Barney's department store on State Street, circa 1950. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Day the Circus Came to Town: Schenectady’s 1910 Circus Fire

Crowds exit from a fire in a circus tent at the Barnum & Bailey Circus in Schenectady on May 21, 1910. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Mary Ann Ruscitto. 

It was May 21, 1910 when a spectacular fire destroyed the main tent of Barnum & Bailey Circus in Schenectady. According to many eyewitnesses, this Saturday afternoon was an afternoon of terror.

Robert Finn was 9 years old in 1910 and claimed that he witnessed how the fire began. Later in his life, he wrote a letter to the Schenectady Gazette with his recollections of the fire. Finn and his father were sitting on the top bench about five feet from where the fire started. They noticed that two men were laughing and joking and when one of the men raised his arm, his cigar touched the canvas and started the fire. Finn’s father grabbed him and they quickly jumped to the ground and got out of the tent. Other people claimed that a boy playing with matches was responsible for the blaze, while still others faulted a careless smoker who tossed a cigarette or match onto paraffin-soaked canvas.

Onlookers watch the blazing Barnum & Bailey Circus tent on May 21, 1910, at the circus grounds in Schenectady. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

K. H. Schmidt also wrote to the Schenectady Gazette after seeing a story about the fire. In the letter, Schmidt remembered that it was a hot afternoon and he was 8 years old. He went with his grandmother, Emily C. France, to the circus and sat in the reserved section. He states that all at once a large group of workmen could be seen running into the tent yelling, “Fire! Fire! Fire!” And all at once everyone was trying to get out. Many slid down poles that held up the walls of canvas. Schmidt also remembered that the elephants were being lined up for the grand parade entrance into the tent. The animal handlers hurried them down to Van Curler Avenue (at the time, the circus grounds were located where Schenectady High School is today). Schmidt went on to say that in all the confusion, he lost his coat. His mother went to City Hall the next day, where all the personal items that were found at the fire were brought from the fire scene. All was not lost, for this little boy of 8 years old -- when he returned the next year to go to the circus -- still had his ticket stub from 1910 and was able to go for free!

Larry Hart reported in one of his Gazette columns, “For a scant 5 minutes on a May afternoon in 1910 the lives of nearly 12,000 people hung in the balance as the circus tent, which enveloped them, suddenly burst in flames and burned like a mammoth torch.” Miraculously, not one person was killed and only a few were injured.

Circus fire, Schenectady, 1910. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

Hart goes on to say that it was published that the Barnum & Bailey Circus would arrive at the Edison Avenue freight yards at about 4:00 a.m. The customary parade was to leave the circus grounds at 10:00 a.m. The parade route would be down Rugby Road, over Union Avenue and down State Street, then over Church Street and up State Street to McClellan Street and back to the grounds. There were two shows scheduled, one for 2:30 p.m. and the other for 8:00 p.m.

The day did not go well for the circus right from the beginning. One of its circus trains arrived about 1:00 p.m., but it would take nearly 10 hours for the main portion of the big show to finally reach the freight yards. The delay was due to a grass fire along the railroad tracks outside of Rochester, which prevented the circus train from leaving after its last performance. When they finally reached Schenectady, there was difficulty getting the heavy wagons to the grounds due to Edison Avenue being widened and resurfaced. The wagons would be stuck axle-deep in soft dirt. Heavy planking and the elephants were used to pull the wagons out of the dirt with great difficulty. Due to the delay, the traditional circus parade was cancelled.

As the circus tent filled with nearly 12,000 people waiting impatiently for the 2:30 matinee show to begin, the ringmaster announced over his huge megaphone that there would be a slight delay of about 10 minutes before the show would begin. In the mayhem of waiting, someone asked a lady with her child and who had fear written on her face, what is the matter. She replied “Fire!”

Schenectady Gazette columnist Larry Hart went on to report that if it were not for the heroic efforts of Police Chief James W. Rynex, who was at the circus, the fire could have been disastrous. Rynex quickly brought together the dozen uniformed police officers that were on the scene, and recruited about 20 civilians to help maintain order. Chief Rynex’s rapid response helped keep the crowd calm, while at the same time exiting the people very quickly from the burning tent. It took 4 minutes after the first cry of fire to evacuate the tent of nearly 12,000 people.

Fire Chief Henry Yates responded to Schenectady's 1910 circus fire. This photograph of him dates from around 1905. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Animal trainers herded up uncaged creatures out of the animal tent to a distant lot far away from the fire scene. The trapper bell sounded in Station 6 at Eastern Avenue and Wendell Avenue at 2:48. In less than 2 minutes, the horse-drawn steamer from the fire station pulled into the circus grounds. Deputy Fire Chief August Derra was in charge of firefighters at first; Fire Chief Henry Yates then took over. The entire top of the tent was consumed in flames. The blaze was extinguished by 3:15, and the all-clear signal came an hour later.

To show its gratitude to the Schenectady Fire Department for its quick and efficient response to the fire, the Barnum & Bailey Circus gave Fire Chief Henry Yates the pick of the fire draft horses that pulled the circus wagons. The horse that was picked was assigned to Fire Station 3 on Jay Street; appropriately, they named him Circus.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Good Food Without Frills": Nicholaus Restaurant in Schenectady

This photograph of the bustling intersection of State Street and Erie Boulevard, taken around 1935, shows Nicholaus Restaurant at left. Notice the building's signature bay window turret. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.   

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Ann Eignor.

Long a fixture in Schenectady, Nicholaus German Restaurant was first opened as a saloon by Louis Nicholaus in either 1883 or 1891, depending upon the source. Originally located at the corner of Ferry and Liberty Streets, the restaurant was soon moved into a building at the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street. The restaurant continued to operate out of this location until it closed in 1975.

In the early days, only men were served at the restaurant and bar. For many years, the elegant mahogany bar remained a men’s enclave. One patron recalled that men ate lunch at the bar in the early 1950’s – a bowl of soup, bratwurst sandwich and a tall glass of double-dark beer was a full meal. He also remembered the bar as a “guy joint” where the barkeeps, Henry and Joe, and the customers freely insulted each other.

Image of the famous men's bar at Nicholaus Restaurant, taken in 1975. Photograph from Larry Hart Collection.

The restaurant, the premier location for German food in Schenectady, soon allowed women who entered through the “ladies entrance” directly into the dining room. A 1939 menu offered an extensive selection, including Hot Pigsnuckles (Hockey) with sauerkraut and boiled potato for 70 cents, Wiener Schnitzel ala Holstein for 90 cents, or Sirloin Beef Steak for $1.25. Mixed drinks went from 25 cents to 40 cents and a pitcher of Muencher Dark (German) beer cost $1.25.

Excerpt from 1939 Nicholaus Restaurant menu, showing German specials served at the restaurant. Image from the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Loppa, a macaw parrot, was brought to Schenectady from Guatemala in 1907. Thought to be about 50 years old at the time of his arrival, Loppa died in 1936. The parrot freely roamed the saloon, the restaurant, and the outside environs. After his demise, Loppa was preserved by a taxidermist and was perched at Nicholaus’ until the restaurant closed. Loppa is now part of the museum collection at the Schenectady County Historical Society.

Dr. John Nicholaus poses with the stuffed parrot Loppa, long a mascot of Nicholaus Restaurant, in 1965. The parrot is now in the museum collection of the Schenectady County Historical Society. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Louis Nicholaus passed away in 1923 and was succeeded by his son Alfred. Louis’ younger son, Dr. John Nicholaus, took over the business in the 1950s until his death in 1968. The business operated on a lease arrangement for many years as patronage declined. Shortly after its closing in 1975, an explosion in a basement store room shook the building. It was feared that the building might need to be demolished, but that was not the case.

1960 composite photograph of the employees of Nicholaus Restaurant, with Alfred, John, and John's wife Margaret superimposed in the foreground. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Maurice’s Readi-Food, known for its roast beef sandwiches and other deli sandwiches, moved in to the old Nicholaus building from 1976 until 2004. Since that time, the Nicholaus building has housed the Bangkok Bistro Restaurant and now Thai Thai Bistro. During its various incarnations, the Nicholaus Block with its distinctive bay window turret has remained a landmark in downtown Schenectady.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Patrolling Schenectady: Keeping Our City Safe Throughout History

Police used this two-horse hitch wagon to patrol Schenectady at the turn of the twentieth century. The use of horses expanded patrol areas. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Jane Falconer. 

Everyone is familiar with the sight of a police car patrolling the streets of Schenectady, but that was not always the case. A look back includes foot patrols, horse-drawn wagons, horses, motorcycles, and finally automobiles and even mountain bikes.

When Schenectady was first settled there were no patrols and no one guarding the settlement in February of 1690 when a raiding party of French and their Indian allies attacked, massacred the settlers and marched captives north to Canada. A Mohawk man, Lawrence, led a party to rescue the kidnapped settlers and convince them to return and rebuild the settlement.

The first night watchmen were appointed in 1788 through an act of the New York State Legislature. There were six who walked the streets of Schenectady within 3/4 mile of the Old Dutch Church (now the First Reformed Church) on Union Street between 9:00 p.m. and dawn. They received no pay, but were subject to a fine if they neglected their duties. One watchman was on duty at a time, and their equipment consisted of a staff approximately five feet long and a lantern. Their primary responsibility was to watch for fires and other disturbances. Ten years later, in 1798, Schenectady incorporated. The city was divided into two wards and the night watchmen were now designated as constables who were elected by the City Council. Each ward had 4 constables for a total of 8. For the first time they received payment in the amount of 37 and 1/2 cents a night, out of which they paid for the candles used in their lanterns as well as firewood for the station house. With an increase in numbers around 1817, they patrolled in pairs.

The New York State Legislature formed the Capital Police Force in 1867 to oversee law and order in Schenectady, Albany, and Troy. This continued until June 15, 1870, when the Schenectady Police Department was established by an act of the State Legislature. The new department consisted of a Chief of Police and Assistant Chief and eight patrolmen who worked twelve hours a day with one day off per month. The uniform of the day was a blue wool knee length coat with a high collar and two rows of brass buttons down the front. The hat was a Keystone or Bobby style cap.

This photo of the Schenectady Police Department was taken around 1890. Note the original wool uniforms worn year-round including the Keystone caps. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Horse patrols were introduced in 1904. James Rynex was the first patrolman to ride a horse on rounds; in 1927, Ephraim Traver was the last. By that time, horses were restricted to Central Park and eventually sold. Along with mounted patrolmen, the two horse hitch “Black Maria” and horse-drawn patrol wagons were used. On the streets, patrolmen contacted headquarters with their whereabouts through the use of call boxes placed throughout the city.

1906 saw the introduction of motorcycles for officers on patrol and they were able cover a larger patrol area and respond to calls faster. There was a drawback to this faster mode of transportation -- their hats often fell off while riding, and this necessitated a change to a military style hat. The hats changed again in 1928 when the New York City Police Department changed to an eight-point cap as a way to commemorate the original eight members of the first Watch in Dutch colonial New Amsterdam (now New York City). The Schenectady Police Department followed suit and that style cap is still in use today.

An example of an early automobile used to patrol the streets of Schenectady, in front of the police station on Jay Street. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Automobiles were first used in 1912, and 1937 saw the installation of AM radios in police cars. Those were replaced in 1943 with FM radios for clearer reception. Call boxes were upgraded to include voice capability and they were replaced with walkie-talkies in the 1960s in an effort to help the officers on patrol better communicate with headquarters.

These photos of patrol cars, taken in 1941 and 1987, show how Schenectady's police cars changed over time. Images from Larry Hart Collection.

Today patrols include mountain bikes in addition to foot patrols, motorcycles, and automobiles. After completion of the mountain bike training academy, officers can patrol in cars, on their bikes, or both. Their cars include bike racks so they can park their cars and bike their patrol zone. Currently there are two mountain bike patrols in downtown Schenectady.

Today's police officers have come a long way from the days of a carrying a staff and a lantern while patrolling the streets between dusk and dawn. However, the early days will always be remembered in the shoulder patch worn by the current members of the Schenectady Police Department. It depicts the statue of Lawrence the Indian that is located in the Stockade area of the city as well as the burning of the settlement on that long-ago night in 1690.

The current police department shoulder patch reflects the earliest days of the Schenectady settlement and the massacre of 1690. Image from Schenectady Police clipping file.