Wednesday, December 26, 2012

History in Pen and Ink: Prints of Drawings from the H.S. Barney Collection

The H.S. Barney Company, also known as Barney's department store, was an institution in the downtown Schenectady shopping area for nearly 140 years. In addition to conducting business, the store also helped to tell the story of Schenectady's history through a series of attractive and interesting prints. The prints are roughly chronological, and depict different aspects of the city's history from 1833 through 1929.

There is a bit of mystery surrounding the origin of the prints. Some of the prints were reproduced in local newspapers in advertisements for the Barney's department store. The earliest such advertisement we were able to find was in a 1955 advertisement in a special 100-year anniversary edition of the Schenectady Union-Star. There appears to be a total of 10 drawings in the collection, each bearing the notation "From the H.S. Barney Collection of Original Pen Drawings." The first two are not signed, but all appear to have been drawn by the same artist, and the drawings numbered 3 through 10 are signed with the initials "F. B. R." We have been unable to determine who the artist is, exactly when the prints were made, how many were made, or how they were distributed. Anyone who has additional information about these prints is encouraged to contact Librarian Melissa Tacke by phone at 518-374-0263, option 3, or send an email to

Below are images of some of these compelling prints.

This is the first drawing in the series. A 1955 Barney's advertisement in the Union-Star describes this drawing as depicting "H.S. Barney's arrival by mulecart in Schenectady in 1833." In this scene looking east up State Street, viewers can see the Erie Canal, the railroad, and the area that is now Veterans' Park. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

The local fraternal organization Mystic Order of the True Blues was a short-lived organization, being in existence roughly from 1867 to 1870. Joel Henry Monroe in his book Schenectady Ancient and Modern describes platform of the True Blues as being "to awaken Schenectady by carnivals and burlesque shows and characterizations of certain institutions and incidents." According to newspaper reports of the time, upwards of 30,000 out-of-towners visited Schenectady for the 1870 carnival and parade organized by the True Blues. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

A street scene in front of the H.S. Barney Company on State Street around the turn of the twentieth century. The H.S. Barney Company, later known as Barney's, was a fixture in downtown Schenectady until the store closed its doors in 1973.  Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

This drawing seems to have been inspired by Schenectady's 1914 flood, described as the worst flood in the city's history. The Mohawk River's level was raised by 25 feet. The flooding forced hundreds of people from their homes, and many people had to be evacuated from their homes in boats. Notice the rats who have commandeered a plank of wood as a raft. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

Although Schenectady was no Chicago in the 1920s, the effect of crime during Prohibition was present in the city. This depiction of Prohibition-era crime may have been been influenced by a story on file in the city police department which was also shared by Larry Hart in his book Schenectady's Golden Era, 1880-1930. A bootlegger transporting liquor smuggled from Canada was traveling near Amsterdam on November 7, 1924 when "a high-powered car pulled alongside and another man jumped onto the running board, held a revolver against the driver's heart and ordered him to stop. They took over his cargo, valued at about $3,000, and drove him to the Rotterdam hills and told him to 'start walking.'" The car was later found abandoned near the intersection of State Street and Ferry Street in Schenectady. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

The last in the series of drawings shows a local connection to the stock market crash in 1929 that led to the Great Depression. Two concerned men are shown inside the office of the Edward B. Smith & Co. stocks and investment securities company at 212 State Street in Schenectady. The two men might be the men listed in the 1929 city directory as proprietor and manager -- Edward Smith and Theodore Lydgate. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

Friday, December 21, 2012

"The Best Santa Claus in the World": Schenectady's Frank Mauro

Frank Mauro acts the part of Santa Claus at the Carl Company department store in 1951. From Larry Hart Collection. 

When the Carl Company closed its doors in Schenectady, one sentiment written in a memory book made available to the store's customers in the weeks before the store's closing read, "The Carl Company had the best Santa Claus in the world!" This sentiment could likely have referred to Frank Mauro, who acted as Santa for the Carl Company for three decades.

The interior of the Carl Company department store during the holiday shopping season, ca. 1950. From Larry Hart Collection. 

Frank Mauro was born in Italy and moved with his parents, Louis and Antonetta, to the United States in 1910. By 1919, the family had moved to Schenectady. Mauro's first publicity as an artist came in 1921, when he was mentioned in a Schenectady Gazette article about a kite-making contest in Pleasant Valley Park: "Frank Mauro, a young contestant, has been amusing a large crowd with his comic cartoons. Every day a different cartoon appears on the bulletin board and it pays to read them over, as they often are scenes happening in the park." He was then only 15 years old. He began his working life at G.E., where he worked until he established his used car dealership, Mauro Auto Sales, in 1936. He married Rose Furlano that year, and the couple went on to have two children. Mauro would continue to work as an auto dealer until his retirement in 1984.

Mauro's commitment to art and entertainment ran through his entire life, and he often drew in public to entertain others. A 1932 Gazette article described Mauro's efforts in drawing crowds to the Carl Company during a sale of fur coats: "at 11 o'clock a young man in painter's smock stepped into the window, adjusted a big easel and went to work drawing quickly on the big sheet of paper. The crowds soon gathered. He drew and there appeared an amusing fat boy and his little dog. Quickly lettering a message at the top of the paper the artist, Frank F. Mauro, introduced his cartoon boy, Dick Doolittle Dunn and dog. After that the sheets were filled with pictures of Dick in different amusing poses always saying something about the Carl fur sale . . . All the time the artist, Mr. Mauro, was drawing quickly and cleverly so that the succeeding scenes seemed like a moving picture. It amused the crowds greatly and many of the women and girls stopped in to see the bargains in coats which the store was offering." Mauro copyrighted his images of newspaper-boy Dick Doolittle Dunn and his dog Fido that year, and continued to draw them for years. Historian Larry Hart notes that the duo appeared in local publications, but in searching newspapers and other documents in our library, I have not yet come across any of Mauro's work.

This photo of Mauro in his later life appeared with his obituary in the March 13, 1987 Schenectady Gazette. Below his photo and name, it read "Was a Carl Co. Santa." Image obtained via Google News Archives.  

During World War II, Mauro painted shop windows and billboards to promote the sale of war bonds to Schenectadians. In 1942, in preparation for "Tank Week," a week-long drive to sell war stamps and bonds to fund the purchase of an ALCO-made M-3 tank for General MacArthur, the Schenectady Gazette highlighted Mauro's artwork: "Some of the stores in the city began to take on a tank week atmosphere yesterday when Frank Mauro, local artist, started decorating windows with a water color outline of one of the big tanks. Thus far he has been engaged to decorate 35 windows and hopes to do more if time will permit. He is doing this work without charge as his contribution to the campaign." Gazette editorial column writer "Van" wrote that Mauro also made sketches of Dick Doolittle Dunn in support of the war bond effort in Crescent Park over the course of several months. Van also added that in addition to his talents as an artist, Mauro was "an A-1 yarn spinner and is seldom seen without a cigar in his mouth."

Mauro was especially engaged with sharing his love of cartooning with local children. He began teaching cartoon classes for children and regularly giving cartooning demonstrations during the 1930s and headed a local Cartoon Club. During the summer of 1949, he gave free cartooning classes to children nearly every day of the week at 13 of the city's parks and playgrounds, reaching nearly 500 local kids. He often was featured as an entertainer at the Schenectady Hobby Show and Central Park Play Day and other local festivals and holiday celebrations. During the 1950s, he brought cheer to children in Sunnyview Hospital through his sketches and cartoons. Cartooning even followed him to his place of business; a 1950 Schenectady Gazette article noted that between 35 and 40 youngsters gathered every day after school to receive a quick sketch from Mauro or have him look at their drawings. Mauro said he enjoyed having the children visit and that it wasn't a hindrance to conducting business -- if a customer came in, the children would wait.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"I Was Present at Some Warm Work, It's True": Schenectady's William Duane Witnesses France's July Revolution

This painting, Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix (1830) commemorates the July Revolution in France. The  original painting is part of the collections of the Louvre.

In the General Letters in the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library is a gem of a letter written by William N. Duane to his sister, Maria Bowers (Duane) Jones that gives his eyewitness description of the July Revolution, a three-day revolt in France that overthrew King Charles X  in 1830 and gave rise to what would become known as the July Monarchy. In 1832, Parisians again revolted in an uprising known as the June Rebellion, which has been immortalized in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. The July Monarchy remained unpopular and was ultimately overthrown in 1848. A tip of the hat is due to researcher John Gearing, who recently came across this letter while researching another subject.

Page of letter from William N. Duane to his sister Maria Jones describing events during the July Revolution in France (Gen L 131). 

William N. Duane (1804-1871) was the son of James Chatham Duane and Mary Ann Bowers. Born and raised in Schenectady, he graduated from Union College in the class of 1824. He married Frances Eliza Prince Walton in 1835; the couple had one son. William Duane became a physician and worked from his home on Union Street, where he lived until his death in 1871.

Image of Dr. William N. Duane, ca. 1860.
From Duane surname file. 

From sources in the library, it is not clear why Duane was in France in 1830. The letter offers a number of interesting details recorded by Duane in November 1830, a few months after the July Revolution. He discusses that a rumor was spread that he had died during the uprising, and admits that while he did no fighting, he did help to build barricades and took some gilt paper crowns that had once decorated King Charles X's table from the ransacked palace. He also comments on the role of women in the uprising as combatants and nurses, noting that "no one was more active than they were in forming the barricades." A full transcription of this fascinating letter has been included below. The original spelling, punctuation, and line breaks have been preserved.

To: Mrs. Samuel W. Jones
New York
United States America

From W.N. Duane 16th Nov 1830

Paris November Nov 16
Rue d'arrjon au Marian
Boulevart de Tample

on the twelfth of this month my Dear Maria
I received my first and as yet, my only
letter from Home. its date was September
the fourth and written by our Dear Father on his
arrival from his wonderful jaunt through the Northern
Country. I happened by accident to extend my visit one
morning who was anxious to call on an American
who had been residing fr some years at Paris on am
leaving him he desired an address after looking at
my Card he told me he was certain he had a letter
for that name and some papers which had been
in his possession for six weeks. they were left at his
House. he gave them to an American who promised
to find me if in Paris but after keeping them a
fortnight he returned them with the report that
I was killed during the late glorious string gleanor (?)
of course all further enquiring ceased. three different
families sent during the revolution to my Hotel to
see if the report was true. I was present at some
warm work its true by was merely a spectator as
relates fighting although I did lend a hand
in making the barricades. I has since the late
struggle been a little frightened I must confess
when I reflect upon some of the risks that I ran
I saw many a poor fellow bite the dust on both
sides and heard the whiz of a stray bullet
occasionally but I now no more wish than
many a one of your sex for the streets waere
Herranged with them during the midst of the
warmest engagements and no one was more active
than they were in forming the barricades they brought
out old trunks and barrels and in short every thing
they could lay their hands upon. there were several
killed during the second day in the opposite corner
but on the same side of the street I saw one poor
woman shot. she was exciting the people to
make them stand to their barrier while a body of
the royal guards were coming down a little
street immediately opposite to it. at the first fire
she was among the victims. there was also another
killed by a cannon shot fired from the arch (by the)
palace she was setting in her room nearby a
quarter of a mile from the Palace the ball
entered the window and struck exactly in
the middle. but the most affecting sight that
I saw was the young woman as soon as poor
fellow dropped three or four would sally out
regardless of the fire and carry him in and
dress his wounds and minister to his comfort
and before any door you might see them
making bandages lint ti ti at as number of
the barricades the stood behind to load the
guns as soon as fellow would drop they would
run and get his gun and ammunition and
load and hand to the men. and many a swiss
was shot from the windows by woman
the swiss were the poor fellows who sufferd the most
they were the kings guards and of course detested
by the people and received no quarters. just at the
termination of the last engagement we went up
to the Tuilleries and on our way we heard a sharp
firing in a little street very near our route we were upon
as it was not far to follow the people who were hurrying in wards
when we arrived we found that a body of the royal guards
in [illegible] about 20 had been firing from an hotel all
day upon the people. who had just succeeded in forcing
the doors they rushed in and pushed the guards with
they bayonetts to the windows and the people below
were shooting them ina few moments they killed
the whole and threw their clothes guns et to the people
below, them then sacked the Hotel reds pictures [hole in paper]
tables and in short every thing that was movable
at the [hole in paper] bishops palace they made a bon fire
it was [hole in paper] they burned and destroyed for him
300,000 francs the whole of his library they threw
in the river not an article was touched by the people
but the Kings palace was lawful plunder and
what they could not carry off they broke to pieces
in the duchess deBerry appartments they had a fine
haul. I got three little gilt paper crowns that were made
to ornament his majesties dinner table. but the englishman
that was with me filled his pockets with preserves & liqueur
at Present as you will see by the papers which
I shall send to Father that we are all very quiet at
present. the exaministen are not to be tryed until the
last of January two of them at present are very ill but
from the state of the public feeling at present it will impossible
to save them foreign powers are making [illegible] in their favor
It is said in the papers that Gen Lafayette has recv'ed
the Embassy for America I saw the General yesterday
tell Father he desired particularly when I wrote to
be remembered to him. He gives a soiree this evening
and our minister on Wednesday. Mr. Hamper our
ambassador from Md has resigned his office on account of ill
health and gone to Winter in Italy. I saw M____ [?]ieves on Sat
and from his talk I should judge that is to be suspended or expects him
to resign as he talkes of going to study farming in England I sent
by the Packet of the first some seeds a letter and my miniature
directed to T.H. Fumiss give my respects to all our Friends
the McC____, Mumfords, Waltons, Kanes [illegible] kiss all. the children
give my love Father Mrs Jones and Elvira R_____ and kiss the
little Rec'd for your affectionate Brother William

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Researching an Eighteenth-Century African-American Family in Schenectady

A researcher recently wrote to our library seeking information about the Speck family of Schenectady. We had come across the name before, as it is the surname of one of the earliest known free African-American families in our area. The Speck (or Spack) surname appears in the early records of the First Reformed Church and in colonial-era tax lists. Also, the house at 116 Front Street bears a plaque indicating it as the Symon Speck House. Encouraged by having come across the name before, I began conducting research to connect members of the family with each other.

The earliest reference I found to the family in Schenectady was the 1705 baptism of Abraham, the son of Symon, a slave of Captain Sanders, and Susanna Tomassen. According to the records of the First Reformed Church, the couple had several other children over the years. The Speck surname first surfaced in 1723 with the baptism of another of the couple's children. Researcher Susan Staffa believes that Nicholas Speck, son of Simon, was the caretaker for the cemetery of the First Reformed Church, which was then west of the intersection of Front and Ferry Streets. Speck's grandmother, Catrina Ezabel, a freewoman, had purchased the land from the First Reformed Church around 1725. It is speculated that the house now known as the Symon Speck House was built there and later moved and adjoined to the house at 114 Front Street, where both structures still stand today. Generations of the Speck family stayed in the area and married into the Cesar/Seaser, Thomas/Thomson, and Primus families. Specks remained in Schenectady until about 1820, when the name disappeared from records.

Letter from Nicholas Speck to John Kiler (Cuyler), 1761. From Historic Manuscripts Collection, General Letters, Gen L 80. A transcription follows:
"Sir / I Would Wait on you but am so very ill that I have not been out of my Bed this two Days - but Sr if you would Oblidge me so much as to go to Mr Jno Saunderson & Desire to know of him of a truth Wither he Did not Write a Coppy of my Mothers Masters Will. Where I got the Will of Jacob Scarmerhorn, & Sr I woulld take it as avery Great Favour to Lett me know by the First Oppertunity & in So Doing you will Greatly Oblidge your Humble Servt Nichs Speck. PS Please to go to Josh Yates Esqr & Desire to know of him the Wittness of the New Transport & Whither it was a Gift of the Old Transport, or Wither my Grandmother paid it well for Joesph Yates Esqr was the man that wrote it" 

Connecting people to the Speck name sometimes proved to be a bit of a challenge. When I began the research, I assumed that it would be easy to distinguish enslaved and free African-Americans in the records; I thought that free people would carry surnames and that enslaved people would either not carry a surname in the records, or they would carry the surname of a slaveowner. This was sometimes true, but many times was not. Even when a person was identified as a “free negro,” the person’s surname might be omitted from a record. For example, one baptismal record from the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, which usually records the father's surname and the mother's maiden name, shows the parents of a child as Jupiter (no last name) and Elizabeth Speck. In another record, a baptismal record shows the parents of a child as Jupiter Primis and Elizabeth (no last name).

I first searched through transcribed church records using the surname index, as I normally do. I found some results, but when I consulted the transcribed records I noticed several entries for which no last names were listed. Some indexes for church records do not include entries for people for whom no last name is provided. I found that even in indexes that incorporated people without surnames (either under "no surname" or "Negro"), many such entries were missed. I discovered several entries in baptismal records by scanning through all of the baptisms for a particular time period. As I scanned the pages, I was not only able to find several entries for people who appeared to be part of the Speck family, but other families of Schenectady's African-American community, both enslaved and free, began to come into view. Although this is quite a tedious method of searching for information, I found it very helpful in finding members of the family who might have otherwise been missed. Also of great help were the births recorded by midwife Mary Stevens from 1767 to 1788, which were transcribed and published with the records of St. George's Church.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Accidents, Fires, Openings, and Demolitions: News Negatives from the Larry Hart Collection

Police officers at scene of accident at intersection of Washington Avenue and bridge to Scotia, October 1956. A truck had collided with the traffic light stanchion. From Larry Hart Collection.

Larry Hart, Schenectady city and county historian, was also a long-time reporter and photographer for the local newspapers the Schenectady Union-Star and the Schenectady Gazette. Among his collection of personal papers are a number of photographic negatives that Hart had labeled "news negatives." Many of these photographs were taken during the late 1940s and early 1950s. They capture brief moments in Schenectady's history that might not be found elsewhere, such as accidents and fires, store openings, groundbreakings and building dedications, anniversary events, strikes, building demolitions, road construction, and storms. Below are just a few images from this collection of negatives.

Workmen inside the Hamilton Street Synagogue during the building's 1952 remodeling. The building was razed in 1960. From Larry Hart Collection.

Shoppers line up outside the Central Market on Eastern Avenue on the store's opening day in 1949. From Larry Hart Collection.

Fire at Stein's Food Market on State Street, 1955. From Larry Hart Collection.

View of Dutchman's Village homes on Nott Street, 1949. From Larry Hart Collection.

Shoppers throng to the cash registers at the Empire Market on Crane Street on the store's opening day in 1950. From Larry Hart Collection.

CIO Hall on Liberty Street in 1947. The building was razed in 1955. From Larry Hart Collection.  

Store window at Hall's Drugstore, 233 State Street, in 1950. From Larry Hart Collection.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

“The Nicest on the Whole Line”: A History of the Niskayuna Railroad Station

This blog entry is written by volunteer Hannah Hamilton.

Prior to the invention and development of “Iron Horses” in Europe, Americans as late as the early 19th century were still accustomed to travel by foot, wagon or waterway. Following the importation of this new technology to the Western Hemisphere, businessmen could not wait to see the popularization of the railroads. State governments, however, were not so keen to encourage the growth of the railroad, especially when it came to their funding!

As far back as 1811, Colonel John Stevens of Hoboken, New Jersey was petitioning for the institution of railroads as a means of transporting goods in the Americas. Caught up in the excitement of this new and, what he recognized as revolutionary, steam engine, he published pamphlets to enlighten the general public, as well as urging Congress to consider railroad construction as a national endeavour. Stevens even went so far as to build a small locomotive and a track to boot, and to the astonishment of all who saw it, he let it complete a number of trips around his Hoboken estate.

Such zeal for innovation was not widespread, however, especially in Schenectady County and New York State. “One of the last of the pioneer railroad enterprises to get started was the New York & Erie Railroad. The people of New York had the Erie Canal, with excellent facilities for water-borne traffic, and were consequently very apathetic toward Railroad construction,” (Alexander Norton, pg 34 Iron Horses).

Even after congress had approved of railroads and entrepreneurs had begun the national and interstate construction of the railroads around 1835, upstate New York was still rather late in adopting the new means of transportation.

The Niskayuna Train Station of the Troy-Schenectady Railroad was constructed in 1843, and ran between 10-12 trains, carrying tons of cargo and between 75-100 passengers daily for around one hundred years. Throughout the century and a half of its existence, it has seen great change following economic and social development.

Above: A group of passengers awaits the boarding of a train circa 1890 at the Niskayuna Aqueduct Train Station located above the Mohawk River on what is now the bike trail of River Road. The train’s tracks would once have serviced numerous such groups each day. (From the Niskayuna Train Station Photo File.)

The train station remained popular and well-used into the 20th century. However, as other industries such as that of the automobile became more fashionable, railroads slowly fell out of use as far as public transportation went.

Above: A view from the West of the Niskayuna Aqueduct Train Station taken before 1925. The image was captured in winter and depicts what appears to be a mother and two children with luggage in, waiting to board a train about 100 yards in the distance. (From the Niskayuna Railroad Station Photo File.)

The Niskayuna train station was described as “the nicest on the whole [Troy-Schenectady] line” by the late S.T. Gilroy, who was a New York Central Engineer that knew the station in its golden days. However, by the 1950s the tracks had been removed for the most part, and passenger traffic had come to a complete halt. The Niskayuna line was no longer the center of travel that it had once been for Niskayuna residents. Instead, it became a home.

In the early fall of 1953, a curious event took place when the Parks family moved into the Niskayuna Railroad Station and turned it into a tiny home for their family of four and pet dog, cuddles. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Park were described as “an enterprising couple from Carman” (Old Railroad Station Put to Modern Use, Niskayuna Railroad File), who turned the station into not only a home, but a boat livery and a lodge for hunters. The Parks resided here for a number of years, but inn-keeping must not have proved as ample a livelihood as they had imagined, for by the mid 1960s, the station was abandoned.

Above Left: An image of Mrs. Robert Parks standing in the doorway of the Railroad station, which she and her husband converted into a home summer of 1953. The tracks had been all but completely removed by this time. Above right: Mrs. Parks proudly shows off her original pot-belly stove while one of her sons, either Edward or Brenden, pets their dog Cuddles while watching “the only modern item in the house,” a television. Mrs. Parks humbly described their abode in the train station as “a compact but not crowded life.” (Niskayuna Railroad Station Photo File.)

After the departure of the Parks Family, The Niskayuna Aqueduct Train Station fell into a sorry state of overgrowth and disrepair. It was almost entirely forgotten, except for by the newly formed Niskayuna Historical Society, whom petitioned for state grants and strove to gain recognition for their cause of restoring the historical building, and having it added to the Historical Register in the 1970’s.

Above: Niskayuna Parks Commissioner Robert Kline overlooks the old railroad station. The rails themselves were now entirely gone. The building was overgrown and the slate roof a terrible mess, the doors blowing in the wind, paint peeling off the brick walls and windows boarded up. It was a sorry site of what had, at the turn of the century, been a delightful place bursting with life and commerce. (Niskayuna Railroad Station Photo File.)

Finally in the 1970’s, SETA acquired the funds to repair the roof, walls, and foundations. With a group of only 50 people, they hacked back the overgrowth and turned The Niskayuna Railroad Station building into a lovely historical landmark in a small, quiet park along the banks of the Mohawk. With the aid of the Niskayuna Historical Society as well as the dedication of Niskayuna inhabitants, the Niskayuna Aqueduct Railroad Station was saved from becoming a forgotten ruin and crumbling down the bank into the river.

Above Left: In August of 1977, teenagers Sean and Chris Hart work with project coordinator Linda Champagne Van Dyke to clean up the area on the bank below the Niskayuna Train Station. Above Right: A group of Niskayuna Historical Society members admire a plan for the new building while others in the background work to repair planking of the wrap-around porch and foundations in May of 1979. (Niskayuna Railroad Station Photo File.)

Today, the railroad station is a small historical museum which also occasionally serves as an art exhibit overlooking the Mohawk River. The surrounding park is enjoyed by the young and elderly alike, much as it was during the early days of the Iron Horses.

Above left: A recent image of the Niskayuna Railroad Station Museum in the Summer. Above left: Photo from the East of the Museum in the fall, overlooking the scenic Mohawk river and facing the Mohawk River bike trail. (Niskayuna Railroad Station Photo File.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Spooky Schenectady: Halloween Images from the Grems-Doolittle Library

We wish everyone a safe, fun, and happy Halloween! In celebration, here's a look at some tricks and treats of times past in Schenectady.

1969 Halloween parade at Euclid Elementary School. Photo from Eleanor Jaeger School Photograph Collection.

Notice regarding Halloween from an 1863 issue of the Schenectady Evening Star and Times newspaper. Image obtained via

1903 newspaper clipping from the Utica Globe depicting a "wheel puzzle" assembled by Halloween-inspired vandals in front of Samuel Hillis's grocery on Mohawk Avenue in Scotia. The Globe reported that the store "was blocked on both sides by 23 wagons, carriages, busses, and carryalls, so closely packed together with wheels locked that the work of removing them was something like the famous '15' puzzle of a few years ago. It remains somewhat of a mystery because the thing was done by 11:00 p.m. The majority of people look upon it as a good joke, remembering their own youthful days and pranks, but there are one or two who have lived long long beyond their 'happy days' and forget that they were many, many years ago young too." James Ransom of Scotia, who spoke with Larry Hart about the prank at the age of 81 in 1972, recalls that "it was done just about every year from about the turn of the century until maybe about 1910 or so . . . Of course the boys had to pick different places each year, but it was always done. I guess it was kind of expected, like a sort of Halloween ritual." Photo of image from Larry Hart Collection.

1927 newspaper advertisement for Halloween masquerade party at the Cains Castle "College of Dancing" at 164 Barrett Street in Schenectady. Image obtained via

Costumed children take part in a sidewalk parade down Union Street in 1950. Photograph from Larry Hart Collection.

1937 advertisement for Halloween costumes for children and adults at Kresge's, 271 State Street, Schenectady. Image obtained via

Boys march in the 1967 Halloween parade at Euclid Elementary School. Photograph from Eleanor Jaeger School Photograph Collection.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Exploring Schenectady Homes with Vault Book 79

Many of the entries in VB 79 utilize a form, such as this entry, number 226, for 81 Lafayette Street.

Researchers investigating house histories use a variety of sources, such as deeds, maps and city directories. Another helpful resource -- although less commonly found -- are descriptions of properties compiled for real estate sale listings. In our collection of Vault Books, a term used to refer to a variety of account ledgers, letter books, meeting minutes, and even diaries in our collections (click here for a complete list of all of the Vault Books in our collection), is one such example.

Vault Book 79 contains descriptions of properties for sale compiled by Fitch and Griffes, an insurance and real estate company in Schenectady, from 1870 to 1880. Virtually all records refer to properties in the city of Schenectady. The earliest entries are written in a brief narrative format; most entries utilize a printed form that includes spaces to indicate owner's names and descriptions of properties, including lot dimensions, stories, building material (frame/brick), number of rooms, any associated outbuildings such as a barn or carriage shed, price and terms, information about cellars, roofs, water, and fruit trees or gardens on the property.

Listing for home at 120 Front Street, between John Street and Jefferson Street, which after numbering changes became 210 Front Street. The house was demolished around 1966.

"Two story brick dwelling, no. 120 Front Street. Large lot 120 x 60. Garden prettily laid out. Fruit in great variety and abundance. Small barn on alley in rear. House in perfect order and condition, and well arranged for convenience. Good well and cistern, both in-doors and with pumps to each. Thorough drainage. Best of water. Slate roof on house and finish and trimmings of the best material, doors are heavy & well hung. Large dry cellar, abundance of closet room, clothes press large, with drawers, etc., pantries, etc. One of the best constructed and most convenient homes in the city. Price: $4,500."

In addition to those researching a house history, Vault Book 79 is also useful in examining local history and genealogy. Those conducting genealogical or biographical research can find contextual information about the home of the person or family they are researching. Those who examine the book as a whole can chart the development of neighborhoods such as the Stockade or Prospect Hill and compare prices and dimensions of homes and lots. The entries can also help to identify when street names or street numbers changed.

The Grems-Doolittle Library has compiled an index of all entries in VB 79, extracting the street name, street number or location description, and the owner's name, if given. We have created two lists; one arranges properties alphabetically by street name, and the other arranges entries by owner's name.  Both indexes can be found by clicking here.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Various Deteriorating Conditions": WWII-Era Photos of Schenectady by Glenn B. Warren

Photograph of abandoned building plastered with advertisements, ca. 1944. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Photographs can capture the majesty and beauty of landscapes and buildings; they also can also document the grit, blight, and humdrum aspects of urban life. Below are just a few of the photographs that capture aspects and views of Schenectady in the mid-1940s not often seen -- junkyards, gas stations, newsstands, vacant buildings, garbage heaps, ragged advertisements, the back sides of run-down houses, and the areas around sections of railroad tracks. These photographs serve as interesting records of Schenectady's past. Additionally, in the passage of time, some of the photos appear downright artistic -- such as a lonely view of an abandoned building papered with advertisements.

Scene on Broadway near the Mica Insulator Company, visible in the center background, ca. 1944. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

This group of photographs were taken around 1944 by Glenn B. Warren, who was at that time an engineer working for General Electric. He would later go on to serve as a vice president and general manager for the company. He took approximately 50 snapshots of various parts of Schenectady, mostly clustered around the area around the General Electric works and Broadway, Edison Avenue, Erie Boulevard, Duane Avenue, and Altamont Avenue. Warren's wife donated the images to the Schenectady County Historical Society in 1979 and recalled that her husband took the photographs to document "various deteriorating conditions" in the city and perhaps planned to present them to city officials to stimulate remediation of such conditions.

Bert's Esso Station at 121 Edison Avenue, ca. 1944. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

414 Duane Avenue in Schenectady, home and business of James Laden, grocer, ca. 1944. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Junkyard, possibly Lew's Auto Wreckers at 1067 Altamont Avenue, ca. 1944. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Backyards and backs of buildings along east Front Street and River Street, ca. 1944. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Broadway and Lower Broadway, ca. 1944. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Ice cream lovers gather at the Green's Ice Cream stand at 1109 Erie Boulevard, ca. 1944. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Advertisements and pedestrians on unidentified street, ca. 1944. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Friday, October 12, 2012

First Reformed Church Book of Indentures, 1788-1823

Portion of the first page in the First Reformed Book of Indentures, 1788-1823.

This blog entry is written by volunteer Paul Contarino.

Over the last couple of months I had the pleasure of working on the First Reformed Church’s Book of Indentures, 1788-1823. For those who are unfamiliar, an indenture can be defined as a legal contract involved with a purchase. In this case, all pertained to purchases of land.

The project involved creating high-resolution digital images of each page and extracting information from the indentures to create a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet serves as a finding aid and guide to the Book of Indentures. Fields in the spreadsheet were created with respect to what information might be potentially useful to a researcher, such as the names of the parties involved. The extracted information is subdivided into numerous categories such as page number, transaction date, and name of grantee. The description field contains information about the property, bordering properties and their owners, and any defining landmarks such as streams, trees, and roads. Information about the area of land is provided in morgans, followed by the payment date and method as well as present value. Any commuted land rent is listed and the date given. Memoranda are essentially amendments made to the indenture itself; these notations have been fully transcribed. A New Ledger book, also in the holdings of the First Reformed Church, is referenced by a number of indentures. There are some transactions in which the church elders signed. Some pages contain either a red seal, a non-red seal or no seal at all. Click here to open the complete spreadsheet.

Until I started working on this project, I did not realize the First Reformed Church possessed a lot of land. The ledger proved to be in surprisingly good condition considering its age, and the handwriting fairly legible. It is important, however, to have a digital copy not only for increased user access but also for preservation. Unfortunately, there is the real possibility of a flood, fire or theft.  I look forward to continuing to work with the First Reformed Church and the Schenectady County Historical Society in safeguarding the past.  On a final note, I extend my gratitude to both institutions.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

1865 New York State Census Index and Transcription for Schenectady County

State Street, downtown Schenectady, ca. 1865. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Our volunteers recently completed transcribing information from the 1865 New York State Census for Schenectady County. This project was begun several years ago but had lain dormant for the past few years. Using these transcriptions, we were able to create an every-name index for that census. Being able to access this index is a particular boon to genealogical and historical researchers because the 1865 New York State Census is not indexed elsewhere, such as through websites like or

The index, which is posted on our library collections page (click here to access the index directly), contains the first name, last name, middle initial if given, the city/town and ward or election district in which the person resided, and the family number assigned to the household that the individual lived in. Using this information, researchers can consult the transcribed census record or the original census record on microfilm in our library.

Having a digital transcribed record available to researchers in our library makes it very easy to find information for a particular family or individual. It also makes it possible to extract city/town-level or county-level demographic information, such as race, national origin, military service, or occupation of individuals with the click of a mouse.

Section from transcribed entries of the 1865 New York State Census for the city of Schenectady, Ward 1.  

The transcribed records include the following fields: City/Town name; District or Ward number; material of which the house is built; value of building; family number; name; age; sex; color; relation to the head of household; county, state or country of birth; number of children; number of times married; current marital status; occupation; place of employment, if outside the city or town in which the person resides; whether the individual is a native or naturalized voter, whether the individual is a foreign-born person not naturalized; current and former military service of individual; whether the individual is an owner of land.

Below is a summary of our holdings of New York State census records. Please feel free to send an email to or call us at 518-374-0263, option 3, if you have any questions or would like to request a look-up of New York State Census records. 

New York State Census Records for Schenectady County in the Grems-Doolittle Library
1835 - microfilm; printed transcription; print name index
1845 - printed transcription for Rotterdam only. See Mohawk v. 8 no. 3 through v. 9 no. 1
1855 - microfilm; printed transcription; print name index
1865 - microfilm; digital transcription; digital and print name index
1875 - microfilm (searchable index available via
1892 - microfilm; printed transcription for Schenectady Ward 1, Dist. 1 only (searchable index available via and
1905 - microfilm (searchable index available via
1915 - microfilm (searchable index available via and
1925 - microfilm (searchable index available via and

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ettore Mancuso and The Record Italian-American Newspaper

Banner of The Record weekly Italian-American newspaper.

This blog entry highlights The Record, a weekly newspaper published from 1925-1932 in Italian and English by Ettore Mancuso. The newspaper serves as a reflection of the Italian-American community in Schenectady of the time; it also tells us more about the interests, personality, and sense of humor of its editor, Mancuso.

Photograph of Ettore Mancuso in uniform in 1918. From Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.  

Ettore Mancuso was a lawyer who was very active in the Italian-American community in Schenectady as well as in local politics. He was born in Italy in 1896 and came to the United States at the age of 13. He attended Catskill High School, then relocated to Schenectady, graduating from Albany Law School in 1922 and establishing his law practice in Schenectady soon after. Mancuso was a Democratic candidate for alderman for the 11th Ward in 1929, and served the city as secretary to Mayor J. Ward White, as the city's Director of Public Information, and as Corporation Counsel during the 1930s. Through The Record, he was a vociferous Democrat; around 1935 he became an equally vociferous Republican, and remained so until the end of his life, frequently writing letters to the editor of the Schenectady Gazette about local and national politics up to 3 months before his death in 1979. He was involved in a variety of local Italian-American organizations, including the Sons of Italy, the Italian Culture Club, the Italian University Club, the Italian Political Association, and the predominantly Italian-American Brotherly Love Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. A veteran of World War I, he was also involved with the American Legion.

July 18, 1930 article encouraging Schenectadians to buy locally: "The 'Schenectady for Schenectadians' idea is not a new one, and it is not ours; but we are the only ones who have been preaching it consistently and persistently."

The Record's bilingual pages focused on events, personalities, and organizations related to the Italian-American community. Small articles, often with photographs, introduced Italian-American pharmacists, real estate brokers, and shop owners to the community. Local Italian-American graduates of Union College were honored and pictured on the front page of the newspaper, under the headline "Our Graduates." The activities of local ethnic organizations, such as the Sons of Italy and the Italian Political Association, were featured. Occasionally, the newspaper also featured social news, highlighting the wedding of a local couple. The Record also included a variety of advertisements for local businesses in both Italian and English. Mancuso occasionally published an article entitled "Why -- No Matter What Your Business -- You Should Advertise in the 'Record' and Other Foreign Language Weekly Newspapers," to encourage local businesses to place advertisements. "We carry the local news in Italian for our readers," Mancuso writes. "Our readers get genuine pleasure out of reading their news in their native tongue. Even if they can read English, they will get more pleasure out of reading Italian, for the same reason that you would get more pleasure out of reading the New York Herald instead of some French newspaper, if you lived in Paris." Mancuso also asserted that the smaller size of the weeklies encouraged more attention to the advertisements than in the dailies, and that members of the Italian-American community read it more devotedly than the daily newspapers. "He reads it from beginning to end. His family reads it. Often it is passed to others. It gets a reading such as the daily newspaper can never expect to get."

Italian-language advertisements for the Mont Pleasant Furniture House and the Jersey Ice Cream Company from the December 5, 1930 issue of The Record.

Profile of and advertisement for local Italian-American real estate broker Michele Suraci from The Record, August 29, 1930. In addition to advertisements, The Record often included short articles highlighting local Italian-American business people.

In addition to news of the Italian-American community, The Record also featured many articles about local politics, local news, and national politics. Mancuso made no claims of being an unbiased news source, always emphasizing the editorial content of the paper; all articles appeared under the statement on the newspaper's banner, "All the News You SHOULD Know With Comments." During the early 1930s, the topics of local elections/politics, the problems of crime resulting from prohibition, and police corruption surfaced again and again. The Record also contained a column of brief comments on local and national news and happenings under the heading "This is Station B-U-N-K. The only broadcasting station using a permanent wave. 'We tell the universe.'" In the "Station B-U-N-K" column, Mancuso commented about a variety of topics, from federal immigration quotas to the statements of local politicians, sometimes with a serious tone, other times tongue-in-cheek. Mancuso also occasionally used the column to make occasional jabs at other local media outlets for what he saw as shoddy reporting. The most frequent target was the Union-Star newspaper, as in this excerpt from the Record's "Station B-U-N-K" column on July 18, 1930: "The Union-Star has made a startling discovery. Lack of business is due to the piling of money in banks, says our afternoon daily, which 'prives that people have the money, but that they are hoarding it.' Since the Star has found the cause of the trouble, we suggest the remedy. If the ones who own the money prefer to keep it in the banks, why don't the banks loosen up and loan it to those who are anxious to borrow it?"

While many of the "Station B-U-N-K" columns addressed a potpourri of issues, the September 26, 1930 column focused solely on local gambling operations.

The library's Ettore Mancuso Collection includes a number of issues of The Record, as well as several speeches and letters written by Mancuso, a recollection of his World War I experiences, newspaper clippings related to local politics and political figures, and other materials. A complete finding aid for the Ettore Mancuso Collection can be found here