Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"A Gateway to Better Things:" The Opening of the Original Great Western Gateway Bridge

Rendering of proposed Great Western Gateway Bridge. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Documents Collection.

"East side, west side,
From city to the town.
Now at last we have a bridge,
We know it won't fall down.
An aid to bigger business,
Our enterprise will pay;
Our gift to all posterity,
The Great Western Gateway."
 - Excerpt from song "The Great Western Gateway," words by Scotia High School student Joseph Foley, from Great Western Gateway Bridge opening brochure, 1925.

On December 19, 1925, the original Great Western Gateway Bridge was opened to traffic. After four long years of construction, the bridge was finally complete. The bridge, which comprised 24 spans and measured 4420 feet in length, cost about $2,500,000 to construct.

Original Great Western Gateway Bridge under construction, 1925. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

New York State officials, local leaders, and members of the general public participated in a celebratory lunch, held at the Hotel Van Curler the day of the bridge's opening. Following the luncheon, an estimated 2,500 cars lined up in Scotia in anticipation of participating in an "automobile parade" to open the bridge at 1:15 p.m. Curtains of American flags hung at the Scotia end of the bridge, and fireworks were exploded to mark the parting of the curtains and the bridge's unveiling. The bridge's first moments of being used included both ceremonial and regular traffic. "A parade . . . had hardly started from from the Scotia to the Schenectady end of the bridge, when an actual traffic stream, made up of cars and tourists, commercial travelers and business trucks, began flowing in the opposite direction -- an immediate utilization of the new transportation lane."

Photographs of opening ceremonies for the Great Western Gateway Bridge on December 19, 1925 from Knickerbocker News. Image from clipping file.  

The village of Scotia was the focal point of the celebration, where in addition to a parade, the Scotia Methodist Church sponsored a dinner and a reception was held at Scotia High School. In the local press, village President Alvin Spitzer "expressed his hope that Schenectadians generally will visit Scotia for the afternoon and note the improvement throughout the community." Every household and business along Mohawk Avenue between the new bridge and Reynolds Street was encouraged to decorate their business or home.

Program for the opening of the Great Western Gateway Bridge in Scotia. From Grems-Doolittle Library Documents Collection. 

Local press hailed the opening of the new bridge. An editorial in Albany's Knickerbocker Press touted the new bridge as being "a gateway to better things," praised the beauty of the structure, and claimed that "nothing to equal this restoration of the earliest commercial center of Schenectady has occurred in three centuries." It was hailed as a safer and more efficient means of traveling between Schenectady and Scotia than the old toll bridge that extended from the foot of Washington Avenue.

Image of the completed Great Western Gateway Bridge, ca. 1930. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Although the opening of the bridge to traffic was certainly a significant event for the denizens of Schenectady and Scotia, it was dwarfed by an even larger public celebration for the bridge was held several months later, when the bridge was celebrated with a nine-day exposition from June 11-19, 1926, and dedicated on June 26. Decades later, the bridge was considered to be structurally unsound, and the curve of the bridge was sometimes referred to as "Dead Man's Curve," due to the accidents which frequently occurred there. A new Western Gateway Bridge was constructed to replace the original, and the original Great Western Gateway Bridge was demolished in 1974.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Aloha Schenectady: Local Hawaiian Connections

North shore beach, Hawaii, photographed in 2005 by Carol Highsmith. Image from Library of Congress (, reproduction number LC-DIG-highsm-04487. 

During the cold winter months, when Schenectadians must sidestep slush and shovel out snow-buried cars, it's nice to daydream about spending time in a warm and sunny tropical paradise. Take a brief respite from the realities of winter in the northeast to explore the lives of a people that share a connection with Schenectady and with our fiftieth state, Hawaii.

One fascinating figure whose personal history touches Schenectady and Hawaii is Anthony D. Allen (1775-1835). Allen was born as a slave to a man named Dougal/McDougall in Schenectady. Following Dougal's death, Allen was sold to a Mr. Kelly of Schenectady. Allen escaped slavery in May 1800, and made his way to the Atlantic coast, where he found work on ships. He traveled to France, China, India, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Northwest, earning enough money to purchase his freedom before finding his home in Hawaii in 1810. He was granted a six-acre parcel of land in Waikiki from Hawaiian royalty. Allen soon became a prosperous and prominent entrepreneur and farmer. He also opened a boarding house, bowling alley, a small hospital, and is credited with building one of the first schools in Hawaii. Allen was also known to be very generous to the missionaries who came to the islands. "There are many white residents here -- the most pay an outward respect, sending us little present of fresh pork, corn, beans, and the like," wrote missionary Sybil Bingham in 1820. "There is one black man, Anthony Allen, brought up in Schenectady, New York, who I believe lives the most comfortably of any on the island . . . He has been very kind to us, sending us potatoes, squashes, etc. As often as once in two weeks, a goat or kid neatly dressed, -- every morning, two bottles of goat's milk, and many things I cannot mention." Allen's connection to Schenectady was renewed in 1822 when, following an article about Allen that appeared in the June 23, 1821 issue of the Missionary Herald, Daniel Dougal, the son of the man who had once held Allen as a slave, wrote to Allen and asked about his life in Hawaii. Allen did reply, dictating a lengthy and detailed letter about his life. He also sent gifts and money to a sister, Diana, who remained in Schenectady. The Reverend Charles S. Stewart also remembered a few prominent Schenectady men meeting with Allen during their travels to Hawaii following the Missionary Herald article. Allen died in 1835.

Image of the front page of an 1822 letter dictated from Anthony D. Allen to a Dr. Dougal of Schenectady, son of his former slave owner. The letter was sold at auction in 2009; this image comes from the British auction house Bonhams. 

Another notable person in Hawaii's history with a connection to Schenectady is John Owen Dominis (1832–1891), a statesman and the husband of Queen Lili'uokalani, the last reigning monarch of Hawaii. Dominis, the son of Captain John Dominis and Mary Lambert Jones, was born in Schenectady and spent his earliest years living on Front Street in the Stockade. The Dominis family was close to the family of Dr. Andrew Yates and lived in his home. When Dominis was five years old, he arrived in Hawaii with his parents. His sisters, Mary and Frances, stayed behind in Schenectady to complete their educations; unfortunately, both died very young, in 1838 and 1842, respectively. Around 1853, Dominis was appointed the private secretary to Prince Lot, who would later become King Kamehameha V. In 1862, Dominis married Lili'uokalani (also known as Lydia Paki). The marriage was, unfortunately, not a happy one. Dominis had many affairs and chose to socialize without his wife. In her memoirs, Lili'uokalani also notes that Dominis' mother disliked her and initially saw her as an "intruder," but warmed to her a bit more in later years. Dominis' connection to Hawaiian royalty afforded him a number of honors and responsibilities. Dominis served as Governor of Oahu and Maui, served in the House of Nobles, on the Board of Health, Board of Education, and Bureau of Immigration. He also served as Lieutenant General and Commander in Chief of the Hawaiian Army. When Lili'uokalani became Queen in January 1891, Dominis became Prince Consort. He died later that year in Hawaii and is buried in the Royal Mausoleum. Dominis fathered one son with Mary Purdy Lamiki Aimoku, a servant of Lili'uokalani.

This 1870s image shows Schenectady native John Dominis with his wife Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last reigning monarch. Seated, left to right: Queen Liliuokalani, Miriam Likelike (Princess of Hawaii), and Elizabeth Sumner. Standing, left to right: John Dominis and Archibald Cleghorn, respectively the husbands of Liliuokalani and Likelike. Image from the collections of the Hawaii State Archives, call no. PP-98-9-014 ( 

Last but not least is Emma Theodora Paty Yates (1850-1933). She was born in 1850 in Honolulu to John Paty and Mary Ann Jefferson. She married Isaac I. Yates in San Francisco in 1873, and the couple moved to Schenectady, where Emma Yates would live for over 60 years. Yates was active in the local chapter of the YWCA, serving as the organization's first treasurer. At the time of her death in 1933, she was one of the YWCA's oldest members. Yates was also active in Christ Episcopal Church in Duanesburg. She had five children: Jennie Ormsby Yates, Emma Theodora Yates, William C. Yates, Isaac I. Yates, and John Henry Yates. Emma Yates died in 1933 and is buried in Vale Cemetery. The Grems-Doolittle Library holds a collection of her personal papers. Yates also penned a document entitled Reminiscences of Honolulu, which is in the holdings of the Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Schenectady in the 1970s and 1980s through the Eyes of John Papp

An undated wintertime view of State Street through the railroad overpass, circa 1970s. Image from John Papp Photograph Collection.  

The Library recently received a significant addition of material to our John Papp Photograph Collection. John Papp, who has been referred to as "a photographer by trade but a history buff by desire and avocation," was very interested not only in collecting and reprinting historic photographs, but also in documenting Schenectady in his time. He photographed numerous street scenes, construction and demolition projects, aerial views, and local events from the 1960s through the 1980s. He took a number of photographs of the city of Schenectady, as well as many photographs of Rotterdam. Papp lived many years in Rotterdam and served as the town's historian for a number of years. Here we have included just a few images that show Papp's documentation of downtown Schenectady from the 1970s and 1980s.

One of two featured views of Jay Street between State Street and Franklin Street as it was transformed into a pedestrian-only block. This photograph, taken from State Street in March 1984, illustrates this process. Image from John Papp Photograph Collection. 

This view of Jay Street, taken from Franklin Street in July 1984, shows the transition to a pedestrian-only block near completion. Image from John Papp Photograph Collection. 

Once processed, this recently-acquired addition to the Papp collection will add approximately 3-4 cubic feet of materials to the existing collection. An updated finding aid will be featured in an upcoming Grems-Doolittle Library Blog entry and be made available on our website. If you are interested in viewing photographs in this collection, please visit us or contact our Librarian.

Exterior view of Peggy's Restaurant at 426 State Street, ca. 1980. The collection includes a number of photographs of local businesses in downtown Schenectady as well as in Rotterdam. Image from John Papp Photograph Collection. 

Aerial view of downtown Schenectady, taken April 1981. State Street runs down the center of the photograph, from Erie Boulevard near the top of the image to Nott Terrace just past Veterans Park near the bottom. Image from John Papp Photograph Collection.

Corner of State Street and Clinton Street. This photograph was taken in February 1984. Image from John Papp Photograph Collection. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Schenectady County Thanksgiving Tale

"Thanksgiving An Inspiration Peculiar to the Nation." A festive meal, time with family and friends, and even football are featured in this drawing. Image from Library of Congress. 

"Why should we have Thanksgiving
For just one little day?
Should we not always be thankful?
Should we not always pray?
While the leaves are crimson and glowing,
While the fall mists are in the air,
While your heart is with gladness o'erflowing
Don't you breathe up a little prayer
To the Heavenly Father who made you
And this earth so broad and fair?

Thanksgiving really comes every day:
When you look at the sky and trees:
When you look at the silvery river
And feel the Autumn breeze.
When you feel a queer little ache
In your soul for the very joy of living,
Reach out your hand for the hand of God,
And remember -- That is Thanksgiving!"

- Poem entitled "Thanksgiving," written by Bertha R. Wolcott, Schenectady High School student, from SHUCIS literary magazine, November 1922.

Tomorrow, people all around Schenectady County will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. The Thanksgiving holiday is traced to the 1621 harvest feast at the Plymouth Plantation. Autumn and early winter celebrations continued in subsequent years as religious and civil traditions. Thanksgiving Day became an official federal holiday in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

Larry Hart, a Schenectady Gazette reporter and long-time Schenectady city and county historian, remembered in his "Tales of Old Dorp" newspaper column one Thanksgiving he experienced as a boy growing up, when he and his family lived in Carman during the Great Depression. This wonderful Thanksgiving story is worth sharing in its entirety:

"It was 1933, when the Depression was at its lowest depths. Yet, that holiday was far from being somber of even ordinary.

"Like so many breadwinners at the time, Dad wasn't having the best of luck in finding work that might supplement his meager trucking business. At school the past week, all of us kids had been drawing and coloring pictures of the strutting turkey as is the custom yet today. There were not a few of us, however, who knew deep down that our dinner table would not be favored this year at least with the impressive sight of a tom turkey on a platter, roasted to a steaming brown and ready for carving.

"Prices were low enough in 1933. The trouble was that few families in our circle bought anything at the stores which might be considered 'extras' -- such as a turkey, or a second radio set, or even a second newspaper. Now that we look back on those times, the Great Depression must have been rougher on the adults who had to worry about money problems than [on] the youngsters, who were quite content to enjoy everything that life had to offer.

"It so happened that in 1933 our Boy Scout Troop 32 had raised extra money through various projects which was to be used for Thanksgiving baskets for the absolute needy of the Carman neighborhood. We don't recall, probably were never told, how the names were received but that didn't matter. All we can remember is the great feeling of being a part of some special mission that Tuesday or Wednesday night before the big holiday, when we were driven around parts of Carman by our Dads to deliver those baskets. They were bulging with fruits and nuts, canned goods, and -- biggest of all -- a dressed turkey. The incredulous looks on the faces of those who answered the door that night, looks which softened to tearful, heartwarming smiles as they understood our visit, are indelible in our memories.

"Needless to say, the chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes, turnip, and homemade apple pie which Ma served on that Thanksgiving, 1933, was a repast especially enjoyable to us. A ham sandwich would have done just as well."

We at the Schenectady County Historical Society wish everyone in our local community -- and beyond -- a happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Your Paper, For You, And In Your Interests:" The Schenectady County Farm Bureau News

The farmer speaks his mind to the politician on this cover of the Schenectady County Farm Bureau News dated October 1950. With rolled-up shirtsleeves and newspapers and periodicals within his reach, the farmer is portrayed as being as well-informed as he is strong. Image from the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library. 

The Schenectady County Farm Bureau News is one of the many interesting local periodicals we have in our holdings. The Grems-Doolittle Library holds a complete run of the periodical, and its subsequent titles, from the inaugural issue in 1918 through the year 1973. If you're interested in seeing issues of the Schenectady County Farm Bureau News, please visit the Library or contact our Librarian for more information.

The Farm Bureau movement began in New York State in 1910, when the Binghamton Chamber of Commerce proposed a farm department of their local Chamber, to "extend to farmers the same opportunities for cooperation enjoyed by the businessmen of the city." John Barron was hired by the Binghamton Chamber of Commerce as a county agent in 1911. His charge was to make an agricultural survey of the county, inquire of local farmers what problems they were having and try to help them find solutions, to work with local farmers to identify best farming methods and systems, crops and stock, and implements and tools. From this origin, Farm Bureaus spread throughout the state and throughout the nation.

Executive Committee of the Schenectady County Farm Bureau Association in 1928. Standing, left to right: William Mc Michael, R.H. Schrade, E.A. Gasner, J. Hilton, Earl Jewett. Seated, left to right: Clarence Johnson (Manager), H.L. Varian (Secretary/Treasurer), Jacob Feuz (President), John Ennis (Vice President), B.J. Waldron. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

The Schenectady County Farm Bureau was organized in January 1918. The Schenectady County Board of Supervisors appropriated $2,500.00 for the purpose of establishing the Bureau. Fred Briggs, who operated at 210-acre dairy farm in Duanesburg, was chosen as the organization's first President. The organization began with 275 members. Soon after, in March, Theodore Clausen was chosen as the organization's manager. Initial meetings were held at Delanson, Esperence, Pattersonville, Mariaville, Glenville, Rynex Corners, and Bramans Corners to engage local farmers with the Bureau.

A few months after the Schenectady County Farm Bureau was formed, the organization released the first issue of the monthly newsletter Schenectady County Farm Bureau News. A column welcomed readers to the new publication by declaring, "This is the first appearance of your paper, and we are very glad to announce that we mean to make it YOUR paper. It is to be an expression of the local conditions as local people see them . . . It is to be a paper which will spread through Schenectady County the real spirit of co-operation and broadness of purpose, which understands the old adage, 'that which benefits my neighbor, benefits me.' . . . It is your paper, for you, and in your interests." The first issue of the Farm Bureau News sought to connect local farmers with the organization, and the authors were forthright in addressing the concerns of local farmers who felt that perhaps "the Farm Bureau does not amount to a row of pins anyway." The front page of the first issue listed 10 reasons for joining the Farm Bureau, and reassured farmers that they'd see visitors from the Bureau to talk with them: "don't be a bit discouraged if you see a Ford running into your yard with two or three men aboard. Guess it is the Farm Bureau, not a corps of book agents."

First page of Schenectady County Farm Bureau News for August 1918. Image from the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Soon, the Farm Bureau News was in full flower. In its pages, legislation and government rulings on agriculture were explained, agricultural fairs, demonstrations, and shows were promoted, and local farmers shared tips on a variety of topics from record keeping to fire prevention to dealing with sheep scab and onion smut. An Exchange Column was soon established for farmers to buy, sell, and trade with each other, and farmers along with the Bureau cooperated in finding placements for farmhands seeking work. Meetings, Farmers' Institutes, picnics, and celebrations were organized and publicized. The Farm Bureau News also featured a number of advertisements from local businesses, selling merchandise from horse blankets to phonographs.

Throughout the years, the Farm Bureau News emphasized the cooperation of local farmers and the farmer's role in helping to standardize practices with his fellows, in farming techniques as well as in the business and financial management of his farm. One 1927 article encouraged local farmers to take an inventory of their business and file a credit statement when asking banks for a loan -- even if they didn't need to do so to secure a loan; in so doing, the "men older in the game" would "set a most excellent example" for the young farmers starting out and seeking loans. By the early 1930s, the idea of setting a good example for the "young fellow" was extended to children and teenagers, as the Farm Bureau News began to dedicate one page of its paper to local 4-H clubs. Members were reminded to post their membership sign prominently at the front of their property on a tree or barn; to do so "tells the world who lives at your place and that you believe in farmers joining together to advance their own interests."

Crowd in attendance at the Schenectady County Farm Bureau's 20th anniversary celebration in 1938. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

From the beginning, New York's Farm Bureaus had partnered with the College of Agriculture at Cornell University. In 1955, a congressional order separated the Farm Bureau and the Cornell Cooperative Extension. As a consequence of this change, the title of the Schenectady County Farm Bureau News was changed to the Schenectady County Agricultural Service News, and was published by the Agricultural Department of the Schenectady County Extension Service Association (still later, the periodical would be know as the Schenectady County Cooperative Extension News). While the titles changed, the emphasis on moving toward better practices for farmers through education and cooperative help among farmers endured through the years.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Tragic Ends: Coroner's Inquests from the Legal Matters Documents

LM 3478 - Part of the inquisition over the body of Polly Outerkirk, dated September 16, 1826. The eight-year-old child fell into the Erie Canal "in a place called Waltons Basin" and drowned. Several other inquests in the collection identify cause of death as drowning by accidental falls into the Erie Canal or the Mohawk River. Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library.

The Legal Matters category of the Historic Manuscripts Collection consists of an interesting variety of documents related to legal transactions and disputes, dating from 1670 to 1972 (most documents in the collection date from the nineteenth century). The documents include land agreements and leases, affidavits, petitions, judgments in civil and criminal suits, legal notices, promissory notes, licenses, bills of sale, contracts, and bonds. Some of the documents in this category highlight the unsavory and the tragic, documenting gambling, assaults, domestic violence, slavery, and prostitution in Schenectady County in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century.

LM 3480 - Portion of inquisition over the body of Susan Day, otherwise known as Susan Tappan, dated March 29, 1828. The jury found that "being moved and seduced by the devil," Day took a large amount of opium to poison herself. The Schenectady Cabinet of April 2, 1828 further reported that "from letters which were found on her table, she appeared to be in great distress of mind; one particularly directed to the landlord, wherein she makes a partial statement of her situation; that her mind is calm and firm, and that she was broken-hearted. She left directions about her interment -- and where the landlord must call to be remunerated." Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library.

There are approximately 50 coroner's inquests included in the collection, ranging in date from 1824 to 1843. Inquests are inquiries made into the manner and cause of person's death. These documents were created when there were reasonable grounds to believe that the death of a person resulted from violence or suicide, or when a person's death was sudden or mysterious. The inquests in this collection tend to be fairly brief, are signed by a number of jurors, and -- on occasion -- impose moral judgment on the deceased. During this time, law enforcement structures were rudimentary, and physicians may or may not have been enlisted to participate in inquests. As the documentation created by coroners was expanded and forensic science developed in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the record-keeping became more standardized, formal death certificates began to be recorded, and the legal and medical terminology employed became more technical.

LM 3549 - Part of inquisition over the body of Joseph Crasp, dated December 4, 1826. Crasp, an inmate of the Schenectady County Almshouse, was severely beaten by fellow almshouse resident Daniel Bradt on December 1 and died on December 3 as a result of injuries received. Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library.

Included here are just a few examples of the inquests included in the collection. Click this link to see the full, searchable finding aid for the Legal Matters category of documents.

LM 3553 - Portion of inquest over the body of Caroline Behart, dated November 28, 1828. The day prior to her death, Behart "got intoxicated with ardent spirits and continued so all that day in company with others." She was found the next morning a mile and half east of the Schenectady city center, on what is now State Street, lying in the road. It was found that "Caroline Behart came to her death by intoxication and lying out all night exposed to inclemency of the weather." Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library.

LM 3496 - Portion of inquisition over the body of "John, an Indian," who purposely leaped from a small boat on the Mohawk River at Alplaus to his death, dated Agust 5, 1827. The inquest reads that the man, "not having the fear of God before his eyes," "voluntarily and feloniously as a felon of himself killed and murdered, against the peace of the people of the State of New York." Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

LM 4227 - Brief inquest over the body of "an infant found on the hill near the Baptist Burying Ground," dated April 12, 1843. The baby was "found in a coffin & left there by its unnatural mother" or by another unknown person. Image from collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

“Schenectady Brooms Keep the Nation’s Homes Clean:” Brooms and Broomcorn in Schenectady County

Broomcorn growing along the banks of the Mohawk River at Schenectady's shore around 1870. The old Burr Bridge that connected the foot of Washington Avenue with Scotia can also be seen in this photograph. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Today, Schenectady is often referred to as “The City That Lights & Hauls the World,” due to the presence of General Electric and the American Locomotive Company. Before that, the common phrase was “Schenectady brooms keep the nation’s homes clean.”  In the mid-1880s, Schenectady was the leading producer of both broomcorn and brooms. At its peak, the county led broom production in the United States, sending out one million brooms a year to all parts of the nation.  Schenectady brooms won several prizes at the Philadelphia Centennial World’s Fair in 1876.

A "Best Parlor" broom made in Schenectady by H. Whitmyre Jr. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

The tradition of broommaking thrived in the Mohawk Valley in the 19th century with brooms first being hand-bound on farms and later being manufactured on a larger scale. Many families in Schenectady County grew broomcorn and contributed to the area’s growing industry. The flats and islands of the Mohawk River provided ideal conditions for the broommaking boom that occurred New York during the mid-1800s.

Notice of auction of Maalwyck Farm in Scotia, one of the many local farms where broomcorn was grown. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

According to the Gazetteer of the State of New York, Schenectady County produced more broomcorn than any other county in the state during the first half of the 19th Century. Half of New York State’s entire production came from Schenectady. In 1880, Schenectady County’s broomcorn production peaked at 1,500 acres.

Interior of Whitmyre Broom Shop at 150 1/2 Front Street in 1947. Owner Harvey H. Whitmyre (left) looks on as an employee works. The Whitmyre factory had a long history in Schenectady and stayed in business throughout most of the 1970s. The building is now a condominium. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

Six years later, it had dropped to below 500 acres. Eventually, competition from farmers in the Midwest proved too strong for New York farmers who stopped growing the crop in the last decades of the 19th century. Although Schenectady was no longer a leading producer of broomcorn, it remained a significant manufacturer of brooms into the 20th century. The Whitmyre Broom Factory in Schenectady remained in operation into the 1970s.

You can learn more about the history of brooms, broomcorn, and Schenectady County's role -- agriculturally, industrially, and in everyday life -- at the exhibit Swept Away: The History and Culture of Brooms, now on exhibit through January 2014 at the Franchere Education Center at the Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction. A sneak peek at the exhibit and some of the artifacts on display are included below. For more information about the exhibit, please contact our Educator/Assistant Curator Jenna Peterson or call 518-887-5073.

Image of exhibit Swept Away: The History and Culture of Brooms, open now through January 2014 at the Franchere Education Center, Mabee Farm Historic Site. 

Broom machine - The broom machine, also known as a winder, holds the broom handle in a vice while a hollow shaft rotates to wind string or wire around the broomcorn laid alongside the handle. The machine is operated by a hand crank or a treadle, turned in a constant motion to keep the vice spinning. Broomcorn is added around the outside of the handle to fill out the broom to the desired shape and size. Between each layer of broomcorn, the winder rotates the handle, pulling the wire tight enough to hold the last layer in place.  

Sewing vice - A broom sewing vice consists of two jaws that can be tightened by a screw or lever to hold the head of the broom in place. As the vice tightens, the broomcorn is compressed so that it can be sewn flat. The Shakers created the first vice to flatten brooms in the early 1800s. In 1861, Schenectady resident T.C. Hargraves developed an improved version of the broom sewing vice. His patent submission explained that his invention was “intended for the purpose of holding brooms while the stitches are being put in to hold the corn below the handle.”

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Project to Discover Schenectady County’s Eastern European Roots

Vilnius, Lithuania - Korycinski Family Reunion –– I’m in the 2nd row, center, wearing a red shirt - July 28, 2013. Photograph collection of the author. 

A Project to Discover Schenectady County’s Eastern European Roots
Date: Saturday, November 9th
Time: 10:30 a.m.
Location: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Avenue, Schenectady, NY 12305
Cost: Free and open to the public

This blog entry is written by Schenectady County Historical Society member Phyllis Zych Budka.

“To me it is a mystery why I must study history” – those sassy words are the opening line of a poem I wrote for the Mont Pleasant High School Watchtower student newspaper over 50 years ago.  More a fan of my math and science classes, it has taken me until recently to solve that “mystery.”  What changed my attitude?  My retirement pursuit of genealogy and a feeling of responsibility to preserve my more recent family history!

As a result of 5 trips to Poland and 2 trips to Lithuania since 1999, I have records of my maternal and paternal ancestors going back to at least 1800 and, more importantly to me, many “new and LIVING” relatives and friends!  Both sets of grandparents came to Schenectady from . . . well, they spoke Polish but, as I later learned, Poland did not exist when they left their homes in the early 1900s.  I now have an understanding of their reasons for leaving and am most grateful to them for making Schenectady, New York, their home and mine.

Nowy Targ, Poland – Young Adam Zych and his father.  We are probably related, but don’t have the facts yet. –– August 2011. Photograph collection of the author.

The process of visiting the Schenectady County Historical Society library and a visit to the Schenectady City Archives made me aware that, in general, there is very little information available on the thousands who share my Polish heritage.  Thus, my efforts to launch this project with friend, Bernice Izzo.  And, when I opened the box with my parents’ 1930s “Maska” scrapbook, I felt a responsibility to digitally capture and share this combination of personal and community history.

Torun, Poland – Meeting of cousins from both sides of my mother’s family – August 2013.  “Newest cousin” Krystyna (on my right in purple) found me last fall.  She has done an amazing amount of genealogical research and discovered that we are connected on my mother’s father’s side through a female ancestor who died in 1833 in Traki, Lithuania.  “Oldest cousin,” Joanna (next to Krystyna) and son, Wojtek (on my left) – on my mother’s mother’s side - Joanna’s grandmother was my grandmother’s first cousin. Photograph collection of the author.

“Maska,” Polish for “mask,” was a word I heard many times growing up in the 1940s and 50s in the Mont Pleasant section of Schenectady, New York.  The “Maska Dramatic Circle” was where Dad, Stanley Jacob Zych, and Mom, Sophie Victoria Korycinski, met in 1936.  Now, many years later, opening their Maska scrapbook full of play programs, newsletters, news clippings and pictures, I am surprised and delighted to learn more about who they were as young people, before they married in July 1940.

Maska existed from 1933 until 1942, presenting more than 55 plays, all in Polish.  The scrapbook was Dad’s and contains Maska’s first program from Sunday, November 1, 1933.  As I read the contents of the scrap book, both in English and in Polish, I realized that this was more than a family history, more than a recounting of the young adult lives of my parents; it is the history of a community of first generation Americans, the children of the Polish immigrants who came to Schenectady in the early years of the 20th century, before the Great War, hoping for a better life.

“Krewniak z Ameryki,” Sunday, October 6, 1935, at the Polish National Alliance Hall, Crane Street, Schenectady, New York.  Stanley Zych, my Dad, back left with white top hat; Joseph Drapala Sr., kneeling, center.  Photo courtesy of Joseph and Seena Drapala.

The Maska community was largely centered in Mont Pleasant (Schenectady’s 9th Ward).  Few people had cars.  Most members lived in walking distance of the Polish National Alliance (P.N.A.) “Home” on Crane Street, their “theater.”  While I associate the people with Saint Adalbert’s Polish Roman Catholic Church, also on Crane Street, Maska was not affiliated with the Church.

Bernice Izzo and I are leading an effort to share information and discuss what additional help is needed to fill the void – lack of documentation – on the substantial population of Eastern Europeans who came to this area from Eastern Europe who helped to build Schenectady.

Come to the Schenectady County Historical Society on Saturday, November 9th, at 10:30 a. m. to help launch this project.  The meeting is free and open to the public. The pictures included in this blog entry illustrate how I learned to solve the “mystery” and my personal reasons for studying history.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Documenting Slavery in Schenectady

In this document, dated 1809, Phillip Vedder grants permission for his female slave to marry Peter Jackson. Enslaved people in Schenectady, as elsewhere, faced numerous restrictions on their behavior and needed permission from their owners for many life choices, in addition to being used for their labor. Misc 476 from Historic Manuscripts Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

Image of advertisement for sale of enslaved woman and her six-month-old child by Christopher Ward of Schenectady in 1796. This advertisement appeared in the local newspaper of the time, the Mohawk Mercury. Notices for slaves for sale and notices about runaway slaves were not uncommon in Schenectady newspapers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Image from microfilm of Mohawk Mercury newspaper, Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

Many people conceive of the issue of slavery in American history as a Southern institution. However, the enslavement of human beings was part of the system of labor in New York -- including Schenectady -- from the earliest European settlements in the 1600s through 1827. 11 of the 60 people killed in the Schenectady Massacre of 1690 were slaves, which shows that slavery was a way of life in Schenectady at the time of its early settlement. By 1714, enslaved people constituted 7% of the population of Schenectady. This percentage increased to almost 11% by 1796. 

Letter from John Hansen to Ryer Schermerhorn dated 1772. Hansen, acting on Schermerhorn's behalf, proposes trading Schermerhorn's unnamed "Negro wench" for rum and sugar. From New York State - Slavery, Documents Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

Emancipation of slaves in New York State was gradual. Conversations among whites as to whether slavery should be permitted or abolished increased in number in the years leading up to and following the American Revolution. Both the British and Americans offered incentives of freedom and land to blacks in exchange for military service. In 1799, the Legislature passed an act to gradually abolish slavery in New York. According to the Act, any child born to an enslaved woman after July 4, 1799 was defined as an indentured servant; children born after that date would be required to serve their mother’s master until age 28 (for males) or 25 (for females). Enslaved people born before that date retained their enslaved status for their lifetime. A 1817 statute extended freedom for enslaved people born before 1799, who were to be granted freedom in 1827. Essentially, slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827 -- although a loophole allowed visitors from states where slavery was permitted to bring their slaves into New York for up to nine months out of the year. It was not until 1841 that slavery was completely prohibited in New York State, by residents or by visitors.

Bill of slave for enslaved man, Cato, dated 1800. Cato was being sold from Peter Conyne, Henry Fonda, Peter Mabee and Simon Mabee to Jacob Mabee for £85. M-Slaves-3 from Mabee Family Papers, Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

Free African-Americans who lived in New York did so at risk of enslavement. The burden was on African-Americans and persons of mixed race to prove that they were free to city and county governments. Those who could not provide proof of their freedom could be jailed on suspicion of being runaway slaves. Authorities in New York State localities had the power to arrest them and place advertisements in newspapers seeking their "owners." If no one claiming to the the person's slave owner came forward, authorities had the right to sell the person into slavery. Free African-Americans could also be kidnapped and sold into slavery below the Mason-Dixon line. 

Photostat copy of first page of a legal agreement dated 1805 between Yat, an enslaved man, and John and Sarah Glen of Schenectady, who owned him. In the agreement, the Glens promise to release Yat from slavery after six years, but only if he agrees to abide by a number of restrictions on his behavior -- including when he can see his wife, when he is permitted to play his fiddle, how often he is to attend church -- and must pay his masters $90.00 at the end of this six-year term. If Yat failed to live up to any of the several expectations listed in the document, he was to "remain a slave forever and [would be] subject to be sold." Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

We have in our collection a number of materials that help to document the reality of slavery in what is now Schenectady County. lacking materials that give us the perspective of people locally who endured enslavement -- such as diaries or letters -- we must piece together fragments of information from those who owned, bought and sold, or freed slaves. Documents such as bills for sale of slaves, receipts for the sale of slaves, wills that show enslaved people appearing as property bequeathed to heirs, correspondence that discusses slaves, copies of manumission records, and newspaper advertisements offering slaves for sale or advertising a reward for the capture of an escaped slave. Records from institutions, such as local churches, can show the baptisms, marriages, and burials of enslaved people. A few documents that illustrate slavery in Schenectady are included throughout this blog entry. If you are interested in the history of slavery, the free African-American community, or the Underground Railroad and abolitionist activity in Schenectady County, please contact us or visit our library. We'd be glad to get you started in your research. 

Letter from John Sanders of Scotia to the overseers of the poor for the city of Schenectady. This document illustrates the role of bureaucracy in the years of gradual emancipation. Sanders wished to free his slave, Meg, according to an 1801 act. Under those terms, the overseers of the poor had to confirm in writing that a slave under consideration for manumission was under 50 years of age and "of sufficient ability to provide for themselves." GenL 55 from Historic Manuscripts Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Genealogy Resources in the Grems-Doolittle Library

Genealogy researchers who visit us especially appreciate our holdings of local church records of birth/baptism, marriage, death/burial, and membership. Many of the church records in our collections are transcriptions; the above image is a photostat copy of a page of baptismal records from the Woestina Reformed Church in Rotterdam. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

Many of the researchers who visit our Library come to research the history of their family in the area. We have a wealth of resources for visitors conducting genealogical and biographical research about Schenectady County people, from seventeenth-century manuscripts to twentieth-century high school yearbooks. Experienced Library staff and volunteers are available to assist you during your visit and to brainstorm about other possible resources when you get stuck.

Our surname guide to photographs in our collection can help connect people with images of their local ancestors. This nineteenth-century photograph can be found in the Fuller photograph file. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Our Library collections page features a general at-a-glance guide to the kinds of materials we have in our holdings that tend to be of most interest to genealogy researchers. Our collections page also features thematic research guides, indexes, and listings of documents in our Historic Manuscripts Collection -- from accounts and education to correspondence and deeds. The page also includes guides to frequently-accessed materials such as surname files, city directories, church records, and yearbooks. Not all of our collections are represented online, but exploring our collections page is a great way to get a sense of some of the materials in our holdings before you plan a visit.

One resource you won't find listed on our website is our collection of books and published genealogy guides. These materials can be a wonderful resource for researchers. This page comes from one of the volumes of Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files, compiled by Virgil White. 

In addition to materials in our library, we often feature programs and events that focus on genealogy research and resources. Our annual Genealogy Day, which will be held this Saturday, October 19, 2013. The event is free for SCHS members; the admission charge for non-members is $5.00. Doors open at 9:00 a.m. and our first speaker begins at 9:30 a.m. a schedule for this year's Genealogy Day is listed below:

9:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m.
The Role of the County Clerk’s Office in Genealogy - Real Life Stories
by John Woodward, Schenectady County Clerk

10:00 a.m. – 10:45 a.m.
Using Court Records for Genealogy Research
by Nancy Curran, Professional Genealogy Researcher

11:00 a.m. – 11:45 a.m.
Local History Resources in Union College Special Collections and Archives
by Ellen Fladger, Special Collections Librarian, Union College

12:00 p.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Lunch Break – lunch off-site. List of nearby restaurants provided upon request.

1:30 p.m. – 2:15 p.m.
Accessing Historical Newspapers Online
by Melissa Tacke, Librarian/Archivist, Schenectady County Historical Society

2:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Open Research Time in the Library

There is no need to register for Genealogy Day. For more information, contact Melissa Tacke, Librarian/Archivist at the Schenectady County Historical Society, by phone at 518-374-0263, option “3”, or by email at The Schenectady County Historical Society is wheelchair accessible, with off-street parking behind the building and overflow parking next door at the YWCA.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Accounts in the Historic Manuscripts Collection

Our Historic Manuscripts Collection comprises some of the earliest documents in our collections, from the 1670s to the early 20th century. One category within this collection is Accounts. Used as a broad category, the Accounts category includes receipts, promissory notes, bills of lading, auction notices, pew rentals, ledger pages, tax receipts, and notes or correspondence regarding land transactions. The Accounts category documents economic activity in our community, from the purchasing of fabric, food, and furniture, to paying for the services of a doctor, batteauman, or teacher, to the ordering of military supplies, to the traffic in enslaved human beings. These financial transactions show us not only about commerce in the community, but also help to shed light on occupations, transportation, military operations, local disputes over land, law, fashion, daily life, agriculture, and the mores and customs of people in our area.

Below are just a few examples of documents in the Accounts category. A full listing of the documents can be found here. Information about other accounts and financial transactions, see our collection of vault books and ask our Librarian about records in our collection pertaining to local businesses.

Portion of Mrs. Jacob Winne's account with Stephen Van Rensselaer for rent, including payment in bushels of wheat, rye, corn,  and via the pasturing of animals. Image of Accts 544 from Grems-Doolittle Library Historic Manuscripts Collection.

This document, dated March 21, 1785, is a statement certifying that a batteauman by the name of Anthony Flansburgh had received all of his pay in service of Joseph Peek's company of batteaumen. Image of Accts 165 from Grems-Doolittle Library Historic Manuscripts Collection. 

1853 receipt of payment of bill to Schenectady Gas Light Company for a home on Union Street. Image of Accts 1804 from Grems-Doolittle Library Historic Manuscripts Collection.

Receipt for sale of a enslaved woman named Sarah, from John Brown to Nicholas Stevens, dated December 6, 1764, for £40 in New York Currency. Image of Accts 1873 from Grems-Doolittle Library Historic Manuscripts Collection.

Receipt for $25.00 paid by Henry Glen, agent to the United States, for sundries advanced to two Indian chiefs and their interpreter, signed James Murdock & Company. Image of Accts 342 from Grems-Doolittle Library Historic Manuscripts Collection.

Receipt for a payment from John Visger to Derrick Groot for “keeping” Susanna Brat, dated February 16, 1776. Image of Accts 1905 from Grems-Doolittle Library Historic Manuscripts Collection.

Portion of a quartermaster’s 1734 calculations for army rations, including flour, pork, rum, candles, vinegar, and soap. Image of Accts 1169 from Grems-Doolittle Library Historic Manuscripts Collection.