Thursday, April 28, 2016

Strange Travels from Schenectady, Part 2: Walking from Schenectady to San Francisco

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

If doctors told you that outdoor life could help your children who are having health issues, would you take that to mean walking from Schenectady to San Francisco?  That is what the Fenton Family of Schenectady set out to do.  Physicians told Mr. and Mrs. Reuben Fenton that their son Gilbert, 18, and two of their other children considered to be in failing health would benefit from spending time outside.  The family decided that the warm air of the Pacific Coast would be the best place for their children and began to plan their trip.

The Fenton Family as they set off on their trip to San Francisco. Courtesy of the
Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
The nine members of the family left city life behind and set off on their cross country adventure to follow the Sunset Trail to San Francisco on May 1st, 1913.  They planned to walk across the state to Buffalo and follow the southern shore of Lake Erie to Chicago.  From there they would head south on the Sunset, or Santa Fe route.  They expected to reach Kansas City by fall and spend the winter there.  In the spring, they would set off again to La Junta Colorado then south to Las Vegas and Phoenix before heading west to Los Angeles and finally north to San Francisco.  Mr. Fenton estimated that they would average 15 to 20 miles a day and the trip could take up to two years.

The trip would be made in a typical Prairie Schooner or “Watson Wagon” pulled by a single horse until reaching Buffalo. There, they would supplant the horse with a team.  The schooner was six feet wide and ten feet long.  Under the wagon was a suspended wooden box containing the tools needed for the trip.  They carried two tents for sleeping, a cooking stove and provisions enough to carry them from one city to the next.  The family dressed in the western ranch style of the day.  The Fentons had postcards made of themselves with their wagon and depended on the sale of the cards for their livelihood along the way. One of these postcards can be found in the Wayne Tucker postcard collection.  On both sides of the wagon were signs reading “The Fenton Family. Walking from Schenectady NY to San Francisco California May 1st, 1913. We are dependent on the sale of post cards and books for our living.”

Article/advertisement of Taniac, a cure-all.
Gilbert Fenton Is quoted in the article saying
"Off and on for eight years I have been
bothered with rheumatism...Taniac gave
me very good relief." Courtesy of Old
Fulton NY Postcards.

The family consisted of Reuben and Lottie Fenton and their children: Henry, 23; Edgar, 20; Gilbert, 18; Ruth, 15; Helen, 8; Sidney, 7 and Marguerite, 5. They also had a dog that went along for the journey.  According to the rules of the family, the menfolk would walk all the way but Mrs. Fenton and the children could ride “according to their pleasure”.  At night, Mr. and Mrs. Fenton and they four youngest children would sleep in the wagon and the older boys would tent alongside. 

Did the family reach San Francisco?  We don’t know for sure but assume not.  There is a newspaper article from the Geneva Daily Times dated June 5, 1913 reporting the family reached Waterloo NY and were still traveling.  No other documentation can be found of them reaching another destination.  However, an article from the May 24, 1917 Schenectady Gazette has a still ailing Gilbert working at GE and promoting a product that helped his rheumatism and stomach.  Another article has family members attending Edgar’s 31st birthday party in Schenectady in 1924. Reuben, Lottie and their children Sidney and Margaret were living in Albany at the time of the 1920 census and he was working as a machinist at General Electric, a job he also held in 1910 according to that census.  Two members of the family did eventually move west.  The 1930 census finds Edgar and his wife, Irma, living in Detroit.  Gilbert and his wife, Tressa, lived with them as boarders and the two brothers both worked as machinists in an auto parts factory. 

Similar to the Fenton family were three young men who named themselves the Schaugh-naugh-ta-da Hiking Trio. They set out on a trip from Schenectady to Chicago on September 18, 1911. Much less is known about the trio than the Fenton family, but we do have a postcard of them taken before they set out on their journey.

Postcard of the Schaugh-naugh-ta-da hiking trio before they left from
Schenectady's City Hall on September 18, 1911. Courtesy of the
Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Strange Travels from Schenectady, Part 1: Canoeing to Oklahoma and Beyond

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Richard Strevell and Raymond Borden liked to paddle.  In the winter of 1907, they paddled 900 miles through the lake country of Florida in a 16 foot canoe.  In 1908 they decided to go big.  They set their sights on an 18 month voyage in the same canoe leaving from Schenectady. Strevell, 28, was a machinist at General Electric, living on Congress Street.  Borden, 23, was a painter living on South Ferry Street.  They were described as “hardy young men all ready for the occasion” which they would have to be for what they had planned.

Richard Strevell and Raymond Borden getting ready for their trip. Courtesy of the
Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
At 3pm on Monday, August 3rd, 1908, over 1000 people witnessed their departure by way of the Erie Canal.  To help finance their trip, they sold “postals” of themselves with their canoe, one of which made its way into the Wayne Tucker postcard collection. Their canoe was 16 feet long and made of cedar and canvas.  It had a 33 inch beam and weighed 600 pounds loaded, including Strevell and Borden, 51 pounds unloaded.  In the space between the beams was a watertight compartment for groceries and provisions.  They filled every available nook and cranny with items needed for the trip including complete camping and cooking outfits. From either end of the canoe, pennants of the Old Fort Club waved in the breeze.

Their itinerary was ambitious.  They would start off for Buffalo by way of the Erie Canal.  From there, they would paddle inside the breakwaters of Lake Erie to the St. Clair River to Lake Michigan.  Then they would travel up the lakes as far as Green Bay Wisconsin, taking the Fox River then the Wisconsin River inland, eventually reaching Oklahoma by December where they would winter on a ranch in Oatka.  This leg of the journey would be 4000 miles.
The Union Street bridge over the Erie Canal where you could have lined up
to watch our ambitious paddlers row their way towards Oklahoma.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection
Once navigation opened again, they planned another 6000 mile odyssey.  They would take the Arkansas River and drainage canals to the Mississippi and then head south to New Orleans.  From there they would paddle to Key West through the Gulf of Mexico and then cruise up the Atlantic just inside the breakwater to New York.  They would then go up the Hudson River to Albany returning to Schenectady by way of the Erie Canal in early 1910. They said the trip was for “pleasure and recreation”.

Did they make it?  We don’t know.  Newspaper reports have them arriving in Buffalo on August 21st.  In Buffalo, they hooked up with William Adams who had canoed there from Boston with a friend who abandoned the journey at that point.   They were also intent on reaching New Orleans. The next mention of the trio is from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, not part of their original itinerary.  They must have rethought their route and taken waterways south, most likely the Alleghany River, from Lake Erie.  While in Pittsburgh, they were seeking advice from local river pilots on streams to be traversed and general conditions of various routes.  They told a local reporter that they camped along river ways at night and by hunting and fishing for food were able to hold their expenses down to 25 cents a day for each man.  They secured money through sales of their postcards and “by any means offered en route”.  They planned to travel west on the Ohio River from Pennsylvania and a fourth man was expected to join their party further down the river. 
The Junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, a possible route of the Strevell and Borden.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (
From there, the trail goes cold.  No other articles have been found to ascertain whether they completed their journey.  A small notice in the Schenectady Gazette finds Richard Strevell visiting his cousin in Schenectady in 1913 from his home in Iowa.  Did he paddle there?  His 1918 World War I draft card has him living in Seminole, Florida with fishing listed as his profession.  He stayed in Florida for the rest of his life. He was a school bus driver according to the 1930 census and a store merchant at age 60 on the 1940 census.  Sometime between 1930 and 1940 he married Florence who worked with him in their store.  He died in Florida in 1964 at age 84.  I haven’t been able to locate any information as to what became of Raymond Borden but we will keep looking! 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Strongmen of Schenectady

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff

Advertisement for the King Bros. at Proctor's theater
from 1913. Courtesy of Fulton History.
The family of Wayne Tucker recently donated a vast postcard collection to the Grems-Doolittle Library.  Mr. Tucker's collection consists mainly of postcards related to the city of Schenectady and Schenectady County.  There are cards of familiar landmarks as well as of those of places which no longer exist. As one of the volunteers who has been indexing the collection, I can only begin to imagine the time, effort and expense involved for Mr. Tucker to amass this collection.  My work has often been slowed as I've read a message from someone or pondered an image on a card.  In the early 1900's postcards were not only a way to get a message to a loved one, but were used to chronicle blizzards, floods, accidents, fires and events of the day.  People could go to local photography studios to have portraits taken and made into postcards to send to friends and family far away.  They were used in advertising, to announce events as well as to showcase the sights of the city.  I hope to use this space to share some of the interesting and odd postcards that I have come across in this collection. 
Postcard of the King Brothers from the Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the
Grems-Doolittle Library.
First up is a postcard advertising The King Brothers, Herculean Comedy Athletes.  These two young men were neither brothers nor named King.  They were both from Schenectady and ran off to join the Ringling Brothers Circus early in the 1900's.  They later found fame and hopefully fortune on the vaudeville circuit of the teens and 1920's. Their real names were Thomas Traver and Robert Shank and they performed hand and head balancing feats, contortion work and “tumbling with a sensational finish”. Their shows also contained a generous dose of comedy.  Newspapers of the day have them performing on Hippodrome stages from Spokane Washington to Atlanta Georgia where they shared the stage with Will Rogers.  They combined feats of strength with playful fun and reportedly were featured in Ripley's Believe it or Not.  An advertisement from October 1913 finds them closer to home performing at the Proctor's theater in Mechanicville.  I'm sure many of their local family and friends were there in the audience to cheer them on. Unfortunately, there isn't much information to be found about what became of Thomas and Robert. On the back of this postcard, someone noted that they served and died in the first World War.  Since the Sacramento Union advertised their upcoming performance at the Sacramento Hippodrome in February of 1921, and the Troy Times had them at Proctors's Theatre in Troy in November of 1922, rumors of their demise were a bit premature!

Advertisement for the King Bros. at Proctor's theater from 1922.
Courtesy of Fulton History.
Thanks to The Oldtime Strongman Blog and Fulton History for information.