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.”