Perlee hopes to empower villagers with tools to research the history of their homes, and so build community

Jeff Perlee

Jeff Perlee

 

ALTAMONT — Jeff Perlee hopes that everyone in Altamont and its environs will research the history of their house.

“This is an activity about community,” says Perlee, a lawyer and Albany County legislator who describes himself as an amateur historian.

He has joined forces with Joe Burke, director of the Altamont Free Library, and Dan Barker, curator of the Altamont Archives, to help village residents delve into learning about their homes — regardless of the building’s age.

“The activity itself can help build community,” said Perlee, who worries that the decline of civic participation is bad for the state of our democracy.

“The Kiwanis clubs and local garden clubs and church memberships and the things that used to kind of bind people together aren’t as prevalent,” Perlee says in this week’s Enterprise podcast. “People are much more inward.

“They’re much more tied to their own social media … They’re on their phones … People go to their respective silos and Democrats only talk to Democrats and Republicans only talk to Republicans.”

Perlee, a Republican, hopes the Every House project will bridge those gaps and let villagers see that they share a common history.

He’ll give a presentation on May 25 at 7 p.m. at the Altamont Free Library to provide “a common toolkit” to anyone who is interested. A Facebook page will be set up so those doing research on their homes can communicate with one another.

Most of the records — including historic editions of The Altamont Enterprise as well as deeds and mortgages — have been digitized, Perlee said, so participants will be able to do their research from their computers or phones.

The individual histories of buildings — homes as well as businesses — once documented, will then be coalesced into the history of the community.

Perlee, who lives in an 11-year-old house on the Hill above Altamont, recalled attending a family birthday party last fall for a 4-year-old. He talked to a neighbor, David Whipple, as their children played together on the swing set.

Perlee told Whipple that their ancestors had come together from Stonington, Connecticut to settle in the Helderberg Hilltowns. That may not matter to the 4-year-olds playing on the swings, he said. “But, if we capture that and we can record that, then I think at some point in their life, it will matter … It will root them to a place. It will give them a sense of belonging, a sense of identity that I think is very important — and it’s very positive.”

Perlee believes there are tens and perhaps hundreds of individual repositories of local history that are now held in someone’s attic or dining room — stories about their family or about their home.

“Part of this effort is to tap into that and to gather that into one sort of central place,” he said, which will create a collective history.

He noted the late Arthur Gregg, who was both the village and town historian and whose research, based on primary sources, has become the definitive history of the area.

“But that was 100 years ago,” Perlee said of Gregg’s writing, which first appeared in Enterprise columns before being published by The Altamont Enterprise in 1936 as a book, “Old Hellebergh.”

Perlee also credited the late village historian, Roger Keenholts, and currently Keith Lee for documenting village history. Lee compiled a book in 2014 of historic village photographs for Arcadia’s Images of America series and was also instrumental in putting together the “Museum in the Streets” panels that explain the history of 27 historic sites in the village.

“What we want to do,” said Perlee with the Every House project, “is to sort of empower other people who may not have that same degree of intensity or passion about it, but still have an interest.” The goal is to “arm those people” with the tools they need to gather information, he said.

Perlee is not sure in what form the amassed information will be displayed but he said there will definitely be an online site in which pictures and ephemera unearthed in the research process — beyond just the date and builder of a house — will be displayed.

Whatever the form, Perlee wants it to be relevant and accessible — not something that sits on a shelf “for some future Ph.D. student.”

“Everyone appreciates the look of our village, the physical beauty,” said Perlee. “But when you can sort of scratch the surface and get to know … the stories, your appreciation actually deepens.”

He gave an example of Christopher Keenholts, whose history he learned in helping a neighbor research her home. Perlee was astounded to learn that the Keenholts family spoke Dutch as their primary language into the mid-19th Century.

“The thing that really struck me,” said Perlee, “is he had a big family and, during the Civil War, in the course of the four years of the war, he lost a daughter, a daughter-in-law, and three sons in the war. And just the magnitude of that sacrifice … a country Dutch farmer from Altamont, New York made during the Civil War really, really resonates when we are about to celebrate Memorial Day.”

The current Every House project is centered on Altamont but, if successful, may be used as a template for other areas. Perlee hopes that dwellers in some of the village’s newer houses will participate.

He also hopes those who enjoy researching their own homes may want to volunteer to do the same for neighbors or for area businesses.

In Altamont, many structures were both homes and businesses simultaneously, or one or the other over the years. For example, Perlee said his mother grew up in the house at the end of Lincoln Avenue on Western Avenue that was a dairy farm. “When I was a kid, it was Dr. Grover’s office,” Perlee said. It is now a group home, which he called a “great resource for altamont.”

Altogether, the number of properties in Altamont is in the “high hundreds” Perlee said but he is not going to measure the project’s success by whether all of them get documented, although that is the ideal. “If we get half the properties, that’s way more than we have today … We can grow from there,” said Perlee.

Anyone living on the outskirts of Altamont is also invited to participate.

The project is not focusing on just historic houses. “The houses on Sunset Drive that were built after World War II,” said Perlee tell “the story of the people that went off to fight in the war and came back and were raising families,” contributing to the suburban boom of the 1950s.

“That’s as relevant as an 1860s Victorian on Main Street,” he said.

Perlee encourages everyone to participate, and not to be intimidated. “You don’t have to have information,” he said. “It’s just: Bring your interest in participating … We want to make this as democratic — small ‘d’ — as possible because that then will achieve the ultimate objective.”

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