Take a tour of Guilderland’s history — it belongs to all of us

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Opening day of the Altamont Fair was crowded in 1903.

Is there any history in Guilderland? Yes, there is!

Guilderland is a wonderful place, one of the oldest in the state; its settlement dates from the 1700s while the town was created by the state in 1803. Guilderland is one of the most interesting and most historically significant towns in the state. There is history all around us here and more is being made every day.

But sometimes we seem unaware of it or underestimate its power in shaping the present-day town and projecting it into the future. Other times, we may assume history is someone else’s domain — for instance, academic historians, the town historian and village of Altamont archivist, Guilderland Historical Society, Guilderland Public Library and Altamont Free Library, or the Village of Altamont Archives and Museum.

They are all essential preservers and presenters of history. History, though, belongs to all of us. Guilderland’s history is the one thing that every person in Guilderland has in common, our “usable past,” one of the town’s greatest assets. It is something that anyone can explore.


History along the way

One way of appreciating the breadth of Guilderland’s past is to trace history along the town’s highways. There are many historical places and sites along the roads and an interesting story behind every one of them.

Just a few examples, starting at the Knox town line at the top of Altamont Hill on Route 156 and heading into Altamont and connecting there with Route 146 to Guilderland Center:

— As you come down the hill, there are several homes (private residences, not open to the public) that were built there in part to have a grand view of the valley. For instance, there is a sign near the top for ”Mira Vista 1872.” Further down, on Mount Presentation Way, was “Coolmore,” circa 1884, summer home of United States Supreme Court Justice Rufus Peckham (1896-1909, author of a famous Supreme Court decision, Lochner v. New York, 1905), later home to Cobb Memorial School;

— Peter Young Center, originally an early 20th-Century resort, prized for its setting and views down the valley, a reminder that Guilderland has several early taverns and hotels for travelers;

— Village of Altamont, 1890, originally called Knowersville, which has its own distinct history within that of the town;

— Coming into the village, there is Fredendall Funeral Home (1916), a successor to companies dating back to the mid 1800s;

— Delaware and Hudson Railroad passenger station,1899, once a major railroad stop on the D&H, originally the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad, begun in 1823, which arrived in the village in 1863, and now the Altamont Free Library;

— Altamont Fair, 1893, celebrating 129 years of operation this year, always entertaining, with exhibits of historic cars and farm equipment, a reminder of Guilderland’s important agricultural past;

— Hayes House, 1910, a great example of Victorian-era architecture and lifestyle, next to the fairgrounds;

— Altamont Enterprise, 1884, just down Maple Avenue, the grand chronicler of Guilderland’s (and nearby communities’) history, one of the oldest newspapers in the state, a rich source of information for  documenting and studying local history. The Enterprise is also a vehicle for presenting that history, particularly through Melissa Hale-Spencer’s thoughtful editorials and the late Alice Begley’s and current Mary Ellen Johnson’s superb historical essays;

— Crounse House site, recently demolished, marked by a historic marker, home of a leader of the historic Anti-Rent Wars of the 1840s and 1850s (the largest tenant rebellion in U.S. history) and a Civil War era physician (a reminder of Guilderland’s Civil War era history);

— Jacob Crounse’s Inn, 1833, tavern and place where people stayed and horses were changed on the Schoharie-Albany stage route;

— Knower House, ca. 1800, originally established as a hat factory; and

— Appel Inn, 1764, site of the first town meeting in 1803 and now a venue for weddings and other social events.


Coming into Guilderland Center:

— Cobblestone Schoolhouse, 1850, a rare intact one-room school, one of the few in the area, a reminder of education before the Guilderland Central School District was formed;

— Guilderland High School, 1953, just down School Road, consolidating a number of school districts, a reminder of the educational excellence that is a Guilderland hallmark;

— Mynderse-Frederick House, 1802,  owned by the town and home of the Guilderland Historical Society and Guilderland Garden Club;

— U.S. Army Supply Depot, 1942, a key facility in equipping military forces in World War II, now Northeastern Industrial Park, located on the former New York Central Railroad, which traces its roots to 1853; and

— Marker for the Palatine Road (at Wagner Road), ca. 1717, the first road west for German refugees seeking to make their valley to the Schoharie Valley.


Route 146 intersects Route 20, one of the earliest and most important east-west roads in the nation. The road through Guilderland was originally the Great Western Turnpike (1799), a toll road. Along the way to the west:

— Gade Farm, owned by the Gade family since 1878, another reminder of Guilderland’s roots in farming and agriculture;

— Watervliet Reservoir, 1915, owned by the city of Watervliet, created by damming the Normanskill Creek, still one source of Guilderland’s water;

— Route 20 passes under two railroad bridges, one above the other. This is one of the most significant examples of transportation history in the state, probably the only place where a major highway and two major railroads meet: Route 20; former Delaware and Hudson Railroad; and the former New York Central Railroad; and

— Route 20 to the Princetown town line, still mostly open and rural, a reminder of Guilderland’s agricultural past.


On Route 20 east of where Route 146 coming from Altamont and Guilderland intersects it:

— To the south, Foundry Road, a reminder of Guilderland’s industrial past, mostly in the 19th and early 20th century, which included a knitting mill, a button factory, a grist mill, a glass works, and other small manufacturing establishments;

— To the north, opposite Foundry Road, on Willow Street, an early schoolhouse, 1847, served as Town Hall before town government moved to the current offices, now headquarters of the State Police;

— Guilderland Fire Department, 1931, one of the historic volunteer fire departments in the town, a reminder of the importance of volunteers in building and sustaining the town;

— John Schoolcraft House, ca. 1835, built by Congressman John L. Schoolcraft, now the Schoolcraft Cultural Center, owned by the town of Guilderland;

— Robinson Hardware, “Serving the Community Since 1958”;

— Bridge over the New York State Thruway, a highway begun in 1954 and completed in 1957, one of first and most important superhighways in the nation (its origins predate the Interstate Highway System);

— Starting point of the I-87, the Adirondack Northway, begun in 1957, completed in 1967, another reminder of the importance of Guilderland’s transportation history;

— Stuyvesant Plaza, 1959, one of the first shopping malls in the state, named after Peter Stuyvesant, last governor of New Netherland, 1647-1664, a reminder that New York was New Netherland, governed by the Dutch, until 1664;

— McKownville Fire Department, 1918, among the oldest in the state; and

— Just over the city line, the University at Albany, with some parts in Guilderland, originally the New York State Normal (Education) School, 1844

Why does

Guilderland history matter?

Of course, this is a highly selective list. The sites noted here are only a small part of the tapestry of Guilderland history. It would be possible to compile several other lists, using different sites, for example, from the town’s more recent history, from church history with the town’s historic churches, or highlighting particular events.

These are sites, but the real history behind them is the people who built them, lived there, worked there, were educated there, or had other interactions.

But these examples illustrate Guilderland’s immense historical richness and importance.  

Why should Guilderland people care about their town’s history and take an interest in it?

— It is immensely interesting and exciting. The best history has people at the center. It is in part of a collection of carefully-researched and well-presented stories — up close and personal history in a sense.

As historian Wilfred McClay, in his book “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story,” writes: “The impulse to write history and organize our world around stories is intrinsic to us as human beings. We are, at our core, remembering and story-making creatures and stories are one of the chief ways we find meaning in the flow of events”;

— It helps us get our bearings at a time of rapid change and transformation. Guilderland’s population is growing, the demographic makeup changing, and the nature of jobs and the economy of the town is evolving as more and more activity moves online. Studying the town’s historical development and trajectory helps provide insight into the current status of the town and helps us plan for where we want to go;

— It builds a vibrant community. “History is the foundation for strong, vibrant communities,” notes the History Relevance Campaign, a consortium of history organizations. “A place becomes a community when wrapped in human memory as told through family stories, tribal traditions, and civic commemorations as well as discussions about our roles and responsibilities to each other and the places we call home”;

— It is good for young people, helping them understand and appreciate their community but also seeing opportunities for change and improvement through understanding how we got where we are and how change has happened in the past. This is particularly important at a time when young people need a keen sense of civic responsibilities;

— It provides information on, and reminds us of the importance of, the role of public institutions in shaping our community and being shaped by it, for example, town government, volunteer fire departments, schools;

— It is an essential element of strategic planning, for example, the impact of growth in the past and a reminder that Route 20, where or near where much of the town’s population and businesses cluster, is the only east-west route we have so we need to protect it;

— It provides historical precedents, parallels, and insights into the origins of many of the current issues we face as a town. Almost all of the issues of concern today, for example, in the areas of transportation, environment, and rate of growth, have been around before, some since the town began; and

— In part because of Guilderland’s proximity to the state capital and its status as a transportation corridor and hub, every development in state history and many from American history generally have played out in this town. In some ways, Guilderland has been New York and the U.S. in prototype because many things that happened here early-on later spread to other parts of the state and nation.

Where to go from here?

Guilderland’s history deserves to be better known in the town. Some things to do might include the following:

Town government

— Designate Feb. 26, the day in 1803 when Guilderland was created by the state legislature, or April 5, the day the first town board met at Appel Inn, as Guilderland’s Birthday (220 years old next year!) or Guilderland History Day, a time for celebration and commemoration;

— Sponsor history and heritage activities during October, officially designated in state law as “New York State History Month”; and

— Town government could develop a Strategic Plan for Preserving and Using Guilderland History, perhaps as part of the long-term comprehensive strategic planning initiative that the town is initiating.


Guilderland schools

— Expand history in the schools, particularly grade 4 and 7-8, where the State Education Department’s curriculum framework includes state and local history. Town history, close to home, is a good way to provide students with insights into broader state and national history developments.



— Develop archival programs to preserve business records of enduring importance; and

— Sponsor events during State History Month.


Anyone who is interested

— For the context in which Guilderland’s history has unfolded, good sources include Janet Reitano, “New York State: People, Places and Sources,” David M. Ellis et al, “A History of New York State,” Milton M. Klein, “The Empire State: A History of New York and Peter Eisenstadt,” ed., “The Encyclopedia of New York State.”

Books exploring the significance of local history include: David Kyvig and Myron A. Marty, “Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You” or Robert Archbald, “A Place to Remember: Using History To Build Community”;

— Read books on Guilderland history, for example, those written by Alice Begley, Mary Ellen Johnson, and Arthur B. Gregg;

— Join the Guilderland Historical Society;

— Check the Guilderland Local History Room in Guilderland Public Library and its excellent collection of books and other materials;

— Follow and support the work of the Guilderland town historian and the Altamont archivist;

— Read The Altamont Enterprise every week where in a sense “history goes on record”;

 — Check the list of historic markers in Guilderland (Historical Marker Database, https://www.hmdb.org/;

— Follow the posts and news items on the websites of the Office of State History  (http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/research-collections/state-history) and New York Almanack (https://www.newyorkalmanack.com) for information on how other communities in our state are managing, and making use of, their history;

— Read the new report by the American Association for State and Local History and allied organizations, “Making History Matter: From Abstract Truth to Critical Engagement,” for insights into how history helps with current societal issues and concerns (available online at http://download.aaslh.org/Research/FWI-Reframing-History-Report.pdf); and

— Explore aspects of Guilderland history that interest you. Depending on interest, available sources, and other factors, there are several themes and topics that might be considered, including these:

— Public education, from one-room schools to Guilderland Central School;

— Town government and public policy issues;

— Transportation history, including turnpikes, highways, and railroads;

— Religion, for example, tracing the history of one or more churches in our town and how they changed over the years;

— A particular business or Guilderland businesses in general;

— Wars and their impact;

— Campaigns for social and economic change, for example, woman suffrage, civil rights, other aspects of social justice;

— Demographics, diversity, history of particular groups;

— Genealogy and history of individual families;

— Old timers and newcomers — how Guilderland has handled change over the years.

Make it fun! History is by nature interesting, enlightening, educational, and in a sense entertaining because it is the story of people.

Editor’s note: Bruce W. Dearstyne and his family have lived in Guilderland since 1979. He is a historian and the author of the second edition of “The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History” and “The Crucible of Public Policy: New York Courts in the Progressive Era,” both published this year by SUNY Press.

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