Sunday, June 30, 2024

Boot and Shoemakers in Schenectady

 This post was written by library volunteer Susan Cromer.

In November of 1852, a new firm named Van Epps & Poland opened up their shop at 113 State Street in Schenectady, New York. Their business was boot and shoemaking (sales and manufacturing). They opened after purchasing the stock of Wolf and DeForest (former proprietors of 113 State St.). Andrew C. Van Epps and William V. Poland joined many other boot and shoemakers in Schenectady as this lucrative business was quickly becoming one of the most profitable in the state. The 1859 Schenectady Business Directory lists fourteen boot and shoe manufacturers in the State Street area of the city. In some directories, Van Epps & Poland is listed as manufacturers and in others as sellers of boots and shoes, leading us to believe that they were both. The new business advertised inexpensive ready-made as well as custom-made footwear using quality materials and prompt delivery. The partnership of Van Epps & Poland dissolved in February of 1856. Both the creation and the dissolution of the firm were advertised in local newspapers. Van Epps continued the business for the remainder of his life. 

Newspaper announcement of the new firm Van Eps and Poland, 1852

We can view Van Epps and Poland as an example nineteenth century business thanks to a recent donation of papers to the Grems Doolittle Library. This small collection of papers turned out to be a treasure trove of information about the business of boot and shoe making in upstate New York although it covers only a snippet of time (1852 – 1855). The collection was donated by a Stockade homeowner who found them in the attic of her newly-purchased home. The neatly-folded papers (which turned out to be receipts, invoices, and orders) were bound together with a leather band. Rather than throw them away, the homeowner (luckily for us) donated them to the library. The majority of the papers indicate items ordered, received, and billed by various large suppliers in Albany and New York City. A gas bill from Schenectady Gas Works (Jan.1, 1855 – Feb. 1, 1855) gives us another view of the small business ($3.80 for the month!). Also included are a few more personal letters addressing order mix-ups, requests for payment, and late shipments which describe issues typical of running a small business.

The manufacturing portion of the firm is well-documented with many receipts and orders dated between 1852 through 1855. Van Epps and Poland purchased boot and shoemaking materials from several different firms in Albany and New York City. Many of their purchases were from three vendors in Albany: Samuel Gross, Jared Holt Leather and Findings, and G.A. Woolverton. A bill of sale dated December 7, 1852 from Anable and Smith (Leather, Oil, Finding, and Wool Store, Albany, N.Y.) records the sale of 2 dozen men’s cork soles for $3.50. On December 24, 1853, a sale of 4 ½ dozen calfskins for $102.19 was recorded. Various animal skins, leather, soles, and nails were frequently ordered as were decorative items such as braiding and ribbons. A letter from a supplier indicates that he has lambskins for sale but that the order should be placed “by return mail as they go off very fast” and he may not be able to supply everyone.

Van Epps and Poland also purchased ready-made footwear from several vendors. For example, a bill of sale dated January 5, 1854 from G.A. Woolverton and Co. (Manufacturers and Wholesale Dealers in Boots, Shoes and Rubbers, Albany, N.Y.) records that Van Epps and Poland purchased 25 pairs of women’s rubbers at 55 cents per pair for a total of $13.75. The same bill indicates the sale of 12 pairs of men’s sandals at 85 cents per pair for a total of $40.20. The number of orders indicates that Woolverton was a major supplier of boots, slippers, gaiters, shoes, and rubbers for Van Epps and Poland. While they purchased mostly from firms in Albany, one order for a dozen “silk fox gaiters” (at $1.10 each) came from A. Bragg and Co. in New York City

Newspaper announcement for the dissolution of the Van Epps and Poland partnership, 1856

The name of William V. Poland disappears from the business in 1856 when the partnership with Van Epps was dissolved. He is listed in the 1850 U.S Federal Census where his date of birth is “abt” 1817. He likely died close to 1865 because his wife, Eliza (Lake), is first referred to as a widow in the Schenectady City Directory of 1865. Schenectady census and earlier city directories show that Poland lived with his wife, Eliza, and daughter, Anna, at 104 Romeyn St., Schenectady. Records indicate that at some point, William V. Poland refers to himself as Vedder Poland (perhaps the “V.” in William V.). He is first listed as Vedder Poland, shoemaker, in a Schenectady Directory from 1860 and in other directories until 1865. We have few business records of William V. Poland after the dissolution, although there are several directory references to him as a shoemaker (mentioned above). There are no references to a new place of business with the possible exception of a mention of Vedder Poland, Shoemaker, at 85 Union St. in the 1862-1863 Schenectady City Directory. Since many boot and shoemakers were itinerant at this time, it is possible that Poland did not have a storefront but, instead, traveled with his work. 

Records for Andrew C. Van Epps (August 6, 1817 – March 20, 1899) are more numerous. His surname is variously spelled with one “p” or two. The Van Epps were a prominent Dutch family in New York State and thus church and various other records contain dates of his life events. Andrew joined another prominent local family when he married Catarina Peek in 1840. His death at 82 is recorded in Bible records and his place of burial (in a family plot in Glenville) is also recorded. After the dissolution of the firm in 1856, Van Epps continued as owner until at least 1897 under various names including “Van Epps, Andrew C. Manufacturer and Dealer in Boots and Shoes.” It is interesting that in the later directories, the place of business is listed in various locations, mostly on State St. but also on So. Ferry St. In the Schenectady Directory of 1882, E. J. Van Epps joined the business which was now located at 161 State St. Geneological records indicate that Andrew C. had a son named Edward James so it is probable that this son joined the business for a short time. A business listing is missing from an 1885 City Directory but reappears in 1886 under only Andrew (E.J. does not appear). The business listed under AC Van Epps continues to appear until 1897, two years before Andrew’s death.

City Directory Ad for A.C. & E.J. Van Epps Boots and Shoes

Van Epps and Poland (and other boot and shoemakers) conducted business during a pivotal time in their industry. In the mid-nineteenth century, shoemaking was listed as America’s second largest industry after agriculture. A sewing machine had been invented by Elias Howe in Massachusetts in 1848. While it would be a few years before machines were invented that could sew leather uppers together and attach them to soles, these inventions would revolutionize the shoemaking process which had had previously been done completely by hand. This invention also led to the development of shoemaking factories which replaced many (but not all) small shoemaker shops. Labor was done by “teams” or “gangs,” each of which had a particular task such attaching soles or polishing uppers. Mass-produced shoes became more popular. In the later half of the nineteenth century, Van Epps conducted business at several addresses (mostly on State St.) and it is possible that he was dividing up the shoemaking tasks to be performed at his various locations to make use of these new technologies and processes.


Monday, May 20, 2024

From Crescent Park to Veterans Park: An Evolving Story

 This post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone.

One of the gems in downtown Schenectady is Veterans Park, that small oasis on State Street between Lafayette Street and Veeder Avenue that was once called Crescent Park.

In 1857, when the Schenectady Common Council decided to create a park, the Weekly Reflector envisioned the proposed space as “a delightful breathing spot at the head of the city.” (1) Unfortunately, the onset of the Civil War led to a delay in its completion. When work resumed after the war, the builders had to tackle the terrain, which included a gully with a small stream that emptied into Cowhorn Creek, dwindling as it flowed down toward Lafayette Street. The plan required the gully to be filled, anchored with trees and grass, and later enhanced with benches and other park features, including walking paths, lampposts, and shade trees, primarily maples and elms

The park was located on what is currently State Street, bordered on the east by Veeder Avenue and on the west by Lafayette Street. At that time State Street was the state turnpike, connecting Albany and Schenectady and serving as the primary route for wagons and carriages that plied the roads. Creating the park meant setting aside what came to look like a parcel of land bordered by Albany Turnpike on the north side and a road running into Albany Street on the south side. Some adjacent landowners, whose names are listed on the map below, donated parts of their property to facilitate creation of the park

The source of the park’s original name is unclear. One story posits that Robert Furman, a well-to-do merchant instrumental in the creation of the park, proposed the name of Crescent Park because the park had a half-moon shape, although the drawing below reveals an irregular oval. In any event, the thoroughfares noted above were supposed to be named North and South Crescent Streets, although that never occurred

Map of Crescent Park and surrounding area. Property owners of adjacent land identified. Surveyed April 4th 1863. Grems-Doolittle Library Map Collection.

Within a few years after the Civil War ended, the public wanted to have a monument honoring all of the county’s veterans. A committee was formed to create the design, and a fair helped defray the cost of the project, which ultimately came to $4,000. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated on July 15, 1875, to great fanfare, including a parade of Civil War veterans on State Street, with music provided by an army band.

Situated at the end of the park at Lafayette Street, this first monument was quite impressive. Facing west, where the majority of the city’s population resided, the memorial stood 24 feet high, including a 6-foot high Civil War soldier “standing at parade rest with his army rifle.”(2) The four sides commemorate four major Civil War campaigns: Gettysburg, Wilderness, Antietam and Sherman’s March to the Sea. The inscription on the base recognizing the March to the Sea reads, “In memory of the soldiers & sailors from Schenectady County who aided in the suppression of the Great Rebellion of 1861-5."

Civil War Monument in Crescent Park, undated. Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

Another early park feature was a three-tiered cast iron fountain, 12 feet in diameter, at the top of which was a water nymph spouting water that was continuously recirculated by hydraulic pressure. The fountain was enclosed by a low granite wall. During the warm weather, it served to cool visitors, who often dipped their feet into the pool at its base.

The bandstand was a centerpiece of the park. Built by 1880, it was constructed of wood, painted green, encircled by a wrought iron railing, and supported by pillars was a rust-colored canopy. Used for concerts, as well as political and social gatherings, it soon became the venue for weekly performances by Rivette’s Silver Cornet Band, named for a local music professor who played lead cornet in the ensemble. In his newspaper column, historian Larry Hart commented on the growing importance of the park, which became a center for a wide variety of public events in this forward-looking city with a growing population and industrial base: “Indeed, Crescent Park became closely associated with a feeling of community pride which swept through the city after the 1880s.”(3)

View of the Crescent Park Fountain, 1911. Original bandstand in background. Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library.

The early years of the twentieth century saw the addition of the bust of a deceased president, as well as a drinking fountain. In 1902, only a year after President McKinley’s assassination, the Italian American community donated a granite bust of the late president, which was dedicated on Memorial Day that year. Unfortunately, it vanished about two decades later, never to be found. Some attributed its disappearance to a Union College prank, but there was no evidence to support that accusation. A granite drinking fountain was added in 1904, courtesy of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which gifted fountains to many American cities in the promotion of an alcohol-free life. According to a 1983 article by Larry Hart, it had not been working for about two decades.

Drinking Fountain, donated by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Photo taken August 2023 by author.

Less than a decade later, the city council decided to install a more modern bandstand to replace the wooden one mentioned above, which was razed in 1912. The new brick structure, twice as large as the earlier version, was an octagon, with eight wood columns and a railing made of wrought iron. It was topped by a corrugated metal tile roof. The brick base housed restrooms for park users. The bandstand had a high price tag for the time: $17,000. The cost, as well as nostalgia for the old bandstand, led some to call it “Lunn’s Folly”—after Mayor George R. Lunn. Until the end of World War I, the new structure was popular as the site for Salvation Army Band concerts. During the war, the organization used it for open air meetings. It also served as a canteen for military personnel. Its use dropped off sharply during the post-war period.

View of Crescent Park Memorial and New Bandstand, ca. 1920. Bandstand on the right, World War I memorial in left foreground and the original fountain in the center. Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library.

Following the First World War, then known as the Great War, a stone memorial was added to the park, dedicated to those in Schenectady’s 27th Division who gave their lives during the conflict. It is shown in the postcard photo below, in the left foreground. Above the list of heroes is an engraving that reads:

"Be it our task to save

In memory of the life you gave

Those rights for which 

Your blood was shed."

Crescent Park Rally, circa 1915. Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

As the city changed in the early decades of the twentieth century, Crescent Park was changed as well. With urban growth, its acreage began to shrink. New buildings, including a new fire station on State Street, the county jail on Veeder Avenue, and the courthouse adjacent to the firehouse, meant more traffic. The city needed to accommodate these added vehicles, including larger trolley cars, which ran on both the north and south sides of the park. As a result, the park edges were redrawn to make room for wider streets. In addition, post-World War I inventions such as the automobile, radio and motion pictures, in combination with the accessibility of the newly built Central Park, opened up new recreational opportunities, so that by the 1930s the popularity of Crescent Park was beginning to wane.

The park shrank further in size after World War II. Once again, the need for wider streets led to shaving several feet off the edges of the park, so that over the years it came to resemble a footprint rather than an oval. The surrounding area was transformed as well. The trolley tracks were dug up and new asphalt streets were laid. The State Street Armory just above the park near Nott Terrace was razed in 1947; it is now Pulaski Plaza. Other buildings erected earlier in the century were also demolished for new construction.

The year 1948 was a particularly notable one. Over ninety years after the park’s creation, legislation was proposed—and enacted in 1950—to change its name to Veterans Memorial Park to commemorate all Schenectady County veterans, both living and deceased. The American Locomotive Company (ALCO) donated a 110-foot high flagpole with a flag measuring 12 by 18 feet, placed at the lower end of the park near Lafayette Street, celebrating the company’s centennial and honoring all those from Schenectady who died for their country. The deteriorating bandstand, having become a gathering place for vagrants, was razed and replaced with a round flower bed. Lastly, a new, more modern fountain replaced the original wrought iron one. Forty feet in circumference, it was named the Charles Steinmetz Memorial Fountain. At its dedication on July 14, 1948, floodlights were triggered by Steinmetz’s recorded voice. With the press of a button by the mayor, water poured forth from the many spouts. As an article in the Schenectady Union Star described it, “A dome of water is created by the 12 spouts around the edge of the fountain, while the center jet sends its stream 25 feet into the [air]. Ten different colors are thrown in succession on the spray by the floodlight system, which repeats its cycle every minute." (4)

Steinmetz Memorial Fountain, August 9, 1948.  Photo from miSci - Museum of Innovation and Science.

Another veterans’ memorial, underwritten by the county, was dedicated on Veterans Day in 1960. The plaque on the granite monument, which includes a raised speaker’s platform with side benches, recognizes the service of county residents who served in all wars with these words: “Dedicated to the men and women of Schenectady County who have faithfully served their country in time of national danger.” 

This memorial is “Dedicated to the men and women of Schenectady County who have faithfully served their country in time of national danger”. Photo taken August 2023 by author.

One of the newer monuments sparked some controversy. In 1981 the city erected a memorial recognizing the sacrifice made by those who died in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. An agreement was made with the headstone maker to include one black man among the six figures represented. It was a black soldier, James Pittman, who was the first Schenectady resident to pay the ultimate price in Vietnam. Unfortunately, upon the project’s completion, the figures represented were all white. Willis Sanders, once president of the Schenectady NAACP, in conjunction with the city, forced the contractor to honor the agreement. The figures were redone with a black soldier, as shown below. 

Figures on the memorial to those who died in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Photo taken August 2023 by author.

Around the same time, an unexpected problem with the Civil War monument led to an interesting find. The cornerstone, originally laid in 1874, had pulled away from the foundation. The city had it opened and discovered that the contents of the enclosed metal memory box had gotten damp. It was replaced with a new plastic box, and the contents updated with additional, more current artifacts. Larry Hart, then Schenectady City/County Historian, in a letter to “those who come after us,“ expressed this sentiment:

We hope that when there should come a time when this cornerstone must be removed for whatever reason, those who inspect its contents as we have this past week will appreciate what changes are wrought in the mere passage of time. We who today consider ourselves in a fast-moving and inventive age—with space explorations, nuclear research, jet planes, television orbital stations, etc.—might well be looked upon in years to come as those who lived in the twilight of the primitive 20th century, when life was slow and easy. This is exactly how we today look back upon the mid-19th Century. (5)

Honoring World War II veterans is a small monument, possibly installed in 1992, and dedicated to the 2nd Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division, who, as the inscription reads, “Served in defense of the Hawaiian Islands,” and took part in hard-fought battles on several islands, wresting them from Japanese control.

Memorial for the 2nd Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment of the 27h Infantry Division. Photograph taken August 2023 by author.

In recent years, additional monuments have made their appearance. The year 2009 saw the unveiling of a memorial sponsored by the Schenectady Chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart and “Dedicated to those who shed their blood in defense of our country.” The striking rectangular shaped monument bears a carving of the medal and an inscription: “My stone is red for the blood they shed. The medal I bear is my country’s way to show they care. If I could be seen by all mankind maybe peace will come in my lifetime."

Purple Heart Memorial. Photograph taken August 2023 by author

Another monument, originally proposed by the Schenectady County Council of Veterans and the American Gold Star Mothers, was completed over a period of several years, beginning in 2006. Reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, the large memorial consists of two separate walls, one on the north side and the other on the south side of the park. Each is composed of two back-to-back polished black granite panels, framed by brick columns. On their surfaces are engraved the names of Schenectady County service members, both living and deceased, who received an honorable discharge. The emblems of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard are engraved above the names. Names can be added for a fee put to the monument’s upkeep.

Memorial dedicated to Schenectady County residents who served in the military. Photograph taken August 2023 by author.

Over the years, government officials, as well as local residents, have recognized the need for park maintenance and initiated projects to improve it, with the assistance of dedicated volunteers. With many parks to manage, however, the city’s resources are limited, resulting in challenges to the park’s upkeep. Still, Veterans Park is a valued green space in the heart of downtown that offers people a chance to appreciate the sacrifices of those who served.

Works Cited:

1) Larry Hart, "Robert Furman's Many Achievements Remembered," Daily Gazette, January 10, 2000, B-02.

2)  Larry Hart, "85 Years Ago: 1st Monument Day," Schenectady Union-Star, November 8, 1960.

3)  Larry Hart, "Crescent Park a Symbol of Community Pride," Schenectady Union-Star, January 24, 1961.

4)  Norman Mackie, "3,000 at Steinmetz Fountain Dedication," Schenectady Union-Star, September 15, 1948.

5)  Larry Hart, Schenectady City/County Historian To those who come after us, April 8, 1981, Grems Doolittle Library, Schenectady County Historical Society, Schenectady, NY

Complete bibliography