Thursday, April 11, 2019

Glenotia Park

This post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone

In the early decades of the twentieth century, a recreational gem sat just on the doorstep of downtown Scotia. In 1907, a tiny island in the Mohawk River, once called the Isle of the Mohawks, was leased by the newly created Scotia Athletic Association from the Sanders family, owners of a riverfront home, now the Glen-Sanders Mansion. The lessees hoped to create a sports and recreational venue, which they named Glenotia Park, for Glenville and Scotia. The lease was granted with the proviso that there would be no disorderly conduct, hard liquor, or late-night carousing. Although the athletic association lost its lease after five years, the park continued to operate under different proprietorship. Until its closure in the early 1930s, Glenotia was the scene of many picnics, swimming lessons, ballgames, dances, and other forms of entertainment.

Idyllic scene of Glenotia Park in 1920. Courtesy of the Larry Hart Collection in the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.
Over the years, Glenotia was a favorite summer gathering place. Clara Wege McGuire recalled riding the Crane Street Trolley over the Washington Avenue Bridge, and walking from the stop near the Sanders residence down to the park. The island was accessible via a portable pontoon bridge that spanned the Mohawk’s narrow inlet, called Sanders Creek, at the end of S. Ballston Avenue. The association built a baseball diamond and a one-eighth mile track to accommodate athletic events. Crowds came to cheer on a variety of locally formed baseball teams that vied against each other. Scotia High School’s first track meet on May 22, 1909 was a big event, with the community participating in a parade that marched down Mohawk Avenue. The team defeated Altamont, Rensselaer, and Schoharie. In the fall of 1924, while a football field was being constructed at nearby Collins Park, the Glenotia ballfield was the practice site for Scotia High’s first official team, which played games against opponents from Catskill, Little Falls, and Johnstown.
The pavilion at Glenotia park. Courtesy of the book Glenville, NY: Images of America.
Young people enjoyed Saturday night boating, as well as dances, held in the upper part of a two-story wood pavilion built on stilts to protect it from the ravages of winter ice and spring floods. The structure featured a concession stand and a lower level for picnickers. While most people were respectful, the constables and deputies on duty had to deal with occasional troublemakers. One man who attempted to instigate trouble at a dance was thrown into the river by Deputy Phil Kline, to the delighted cheers of everyone.

Other forms of evening diversion were traveling shows and movies. One show, titled Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1910), was based on the 1854 pro-temperance novel. The accompanying advertisement was for Kickapoo Indian Juice and Body Purifier, a well-known patent medicine of the era. A park patron noted that fight movies were shown for adult males inside a tent. Young boys were relegated to the outside, where they had to peek into the tent to watch the the “flickers.” One controversial film was the 1910 heavyweight bout, at the time dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” in which Jack Johnson knocked out James J. Jeffries, becoming the first African American heavyweight champion. As a result of racist attitudes, the film was the subject of censorship in many places, including Scotia. Since Glenotia was outside the village boundary, the film was shown there. The 1915 Johnson-Jess Willard bout, in which Johnson lost his title, was also shown.

Billboard advertising the Mohawk Swimming School. Courtesy of the
Larry Hart Collection in the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.
Many area residents had fond memories of traditional summer pastimes, such as picnics and swimming. One woman, reminiscing years later about Saturday church picnics, recalled that while the men worked at GE from 6 am to noon, the women would transport and prepare the food, anticipating the arrival of their husbands and male relatives. As she describes a childhood memory of soaring over the water in a swing, “I can feel the breezes now as they blew up my petticoats and dress revealing the Hamburg ruffle on my ‘short drawers.’” 1
Swimmers at the Mohawk Swimming School.
Courtesy of the Larry Hart Collection in
the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.
Swimming was a popular activity at Glenotia. Launching into the river from long ropes attached to trees was a favorite pastime. As Clara Wege McGuire pleasurably recalled: “Once at the river, what a day it would be! As a child there was no way to describe it, except that it was worth a whole year in school to look forward to it.”2

Dredging for the Barge Canal deepened the river, leaving a gravel beach area. In 1915, after Claude and George Chrisman’s brief unsuccessful stint at running a swimming school, German immigrant Werner Gewecke leased the island, opening the Mohawk Swimming School, which was incorporated into the park. He promoted it widely, and even arranged with the Schenectady Railway Company for a bargain fare for trolley riders bound for Glenotia. One ad for the school promised a “Large Bathing Beach — Big Diving Tower & Floating Tables. Swimming Taught in Scientific Way.” He charged $ .05 for park admission and $.10 for swimming. To attract customers, he constructed bathhouses, fortified the beach with extra sand, and built a movable multi-level diving platform. A refreshment stand sold ice-cream. Gewecke’s technique was to suspend students from harnesses attached to the side of his boat so that they would learn to swim safely. Aspiring swimmers were assured that they would learn by the end of the summer. As the sign on Gewecke’s boat read: “We guarantee you will swim or your money back!”3
Courtesy of the book Glenville, NY: Images of America.
Glenotia’s popularity waned as the years brought social and economic changes. The growing accessibility of the automobile made it easier to travel to recreational sites that were farther away. Radio became a household fixture, opening up a new entertainment format that kept some people at home. With the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Depression, disposable income dried up. Sadly, on top of all these developments, the pollution of the river made swimming hazardous. According to Gewecke’s daughter Ruth, her father closed the swimming school in 1927, although the Schenectady County Historical Society’s book on Glenville gives 1930 as the closing date. The pontoon bridge was removed, as was the pavilion, whose wood beams were incorporated into a home near the river. The once-popular park closed in 1931-32, meeting the same fate as Rexford’s Luna Park and Forest Park in Ballston, two local amusement parks from the same period.

For years, Glenotia remained unused and forgotten, with ownership changing several times since the park’s closure. It was returned to the public’s awareness in 2012 when the 19 acre island was placed on the market for $91,900, as reported in the Daily Gazette. Since the land is designated as a conservation zone, usage is limited. However, the island could be utilized for recreational or educational purposes. Today, it remains just offshore, overgrown, a deserted piece of the past.

Quotations were taken from newspaper articles on file at the Schenectady County Historical Society under “Glenotia Park.”
1. "More of Ruth O's Memories," Scotia-Glenville Journal, April 14, 1976.
2. “Little-Known Glenotia Park Was Popular Spot,” Schenectady Gazette, June 23, 1979.
3. Hart, Larry. “Glenotia Park Was a Popular Place,” Scotia-Glenville Journal, April 22, 1993.