A glimpse of Guilderland history In the 1880s: Gloomy Novembers and dark Decembers spawned social gatherings

Photo from Mary Ellen Johnson

In the early days of the automobile, sleighs did better than cars in deep snow. As in the 1880s, sleighs brought people to visit family and friends, attend church services, and take part in meetings and events. These horses and sleighs were at the corner of Foundry Road and the Western Turnpike, looking across to willow Street. The house in the background was taken down by the Guilderland Fire Department for firehouse expansion.

Photo from Mary Ellen Johnson

Sleigh tracks are visible in this wintry view of the Western Turnpike slightly west of the hamlet of Guilderland. Batterman’s Mill Pond would have been to the right in the distance.

Meteorologically in these parts, November has the least sunshine and December the fewest hours of daylight. How did Guilderland folks in the late 1880s get through these months before electricity and all that it powers, the internet, and the automobile?

A survey of Enterprise issues from 1887 to 1889 gives some insight into what the residents of our rural town were doing at the time of year when the farm work wound down and snow began to fly.

Weather has always been a topic of comment no matter the generation. Early November 1887 the Helderberg escarpment showed a coating of snow, inspiring a writer to moan, “Surely grim winter is coming.”

And it soon arrived with heavy snow causing cancellation of some church services. But the joy — good sleighing combined with a full moon — was “conducive to the full enjoyment of the holiday season” that year.

A year later, heavy rains and unseasonable warmth meant that, instead of gliding over the snow, people were forced to remain at home because of deep mud, ruts, and impassible roads. The Christmas season the year after that was ruined with spring-like temperatures, preventing church services and visiting.

This drab time of year was brightened by the socializing that went on with events sponsored by church groups and organizations; club meetings; the happy milestones of weddings and anniversary parties; and participation in husking bees, parties, and candy pulls.

Occasionally, traveling professional entertainment arrived in town. On a sad note, funerals also meant gathering together.

A variety of fundraising events were sponsored by ladies’ church groups and temperance organizations such as the Good Templars, all costing the attendees a small amount of money to participate. A type of gathering mentioned several times was a Lemon Squeeze. One sponsored by the Good Templars brought them $40 over two nights and won prizes for Mrs. Briggs and Mr. A.F. Spawn “for having the lemons with the greatest number of seeds.”

One dollar admitted you to an oyster supper and dance for the benefit of the Guilderland Center Orchestra. That community’s Lutheran ladies, famous for “providing quantities of excellent provender,” offered a Lady Washington Tea Party.

For a more novel entertainment, the Helderberg Reformed ladies announced a donkey party, promoted to “afford much amusement.” Being scheduled outdoors, it very likely included actual donkeys.

An apron party, one of many scheduled by various church groups, netted Guilderland Methodists $30, while the Presbyterian ladies put on an oyster supper, one of many groups offering oyster dinners. New England suppers and pumpkin-pie socials were also scheduled. Announcements of donation parties for various ministers were listed as well.

Church-going was a major activity for the town’s population, spread among the Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations. The Methodists presented a series of revival meetings declared so successful that many conversions were made.

Organizers bragged, “Truly, Guilderland is being shaken up.” Churches scheduled temperance sermons preached by visiting ministers in addition to regular Sunday services.

Fraternal organizations filled men’s need for male company. The Noah Lodge, No. 754, F. and A.M. and the Knights of Pythias, Washington Lodge, No. 181 met on alternating Saturdays. Triumph Lodge, No. 338 of the Good Templars met each Friday evening, while the Grand Army of the Republic., Barkley Post, the Civil War veterans’ organization, got together monthly.

Other male activities at that time of year included hunting and fishing. Early November brought Election Day preceded by political meetings and rallies held at various local hotels followed by torchlight parades.

Some men like to drop by their local hotel bar — and there was at least one or more in every hamlet of Guilderland except Meadowdale — raising the ire of local temperance groups.

Professional entertainment sometimes appeared at Stitt’s Hall or Witherwax Hall. Admission was charged to view Professor J.B. Southworth’s exhibition of stereopticon views, offering a three-D effect of the world’s most beautiful buildings, landscapes, and waterfalls, projected on a canvas 25 feet square.

On another occasion, a blind elocutionist recited popular selections of the day, considered to be “exceedingly well rendered.” She also sang and performed “clever” calisthenics.

The G.A.R  presented a stereopticon exhibition of 70 Civil War battle scenes accompanied by a lecturer. Most professional performers traveled by rail, making Altamont a likely spot to witness their acts.

The dreary season was broken up by the holiday’s good cheer. As Thanksgiving approached, the comment was made that “turkeys are now being viewed with an admiring eye” with one Fullers Station man proudly bragging about the 36-pound turkey he had raised.

Another man had the audacity or perhaps desperation to steal a turkey from Fred Keenholts’s market in Altamont and was publically notified that he was known and, if he did not return the turkey or $2 by Saturday night, he would be exposed by those who witnessed him take it!

Union church services were held in some churches and many folks shared the meal with friends or relatives, all duly noted in the next week’s Enterprise. There were even some organization-sponsored activities scheduled for Thanksgiving evenings.

Mention of Christmas was held off until mid-December when the general announcement was made that “Christmas preparations were underway.” A few Albany stores advertised “Holiday Presents,” though very little Christmas advertising appeared from local merchants.

The Enterprise reminded readers that the paper “would be a welcome Christmas present for an out of town friend.” The paper observed that “our local merchants are getting their show windows ready to receive their stock of holiday goods.”

The Enterprise noted that various one-room schools were out for the Christmas holidays for a week or two, but no mention was made of Christmas activities or programs in any of the schools.

Sunday-school participants’ excitement must have run high with the prospect of the annual Christmas programs at their churches, mainly religious in nature. Children sang and recited for the adults of the congregation and probably received treats and possibly small gifts. Little bags filled with candy were given out to the children of St. Mark’s in Guilderland Center.

In Guilderland Hamlet, concerts and Christmas trees were at the Methodist Church Christmas Eve and at the Presbyterian Church Christmas Day. In Altamont, St. John’s Sunday School Christmas Festival was so well attended Christmas night that latecomers had to stand. A goodly crowd also showed up for the Sabbath School program at the Helderberg Reformed Church as well.

In addition to the usual housework, farm chores, or other jobs, these were the varied activities that helped those Guilderland residents of 130 years ago get through gloomy Novembers and dreary Decembers.

More Letters to the Editor

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.