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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 23, 2008
Altamont artifacts and archives may find a new home
By Philippa Stasiuk
ALTAMONT AVA, she’s a demanding mistress, and it’s taking a whole team of people to bring order to her life. AVA, of course, is the Altamont Village Archives.
They are housed in the village museum, a small room in the village hall that stands in stark modernity to the comparatively ancient items that it contains. The mayor would like to see the artifacts in a museum setting, a renovated Crounse House. The historic but derelict house on the edge of Altamont was jointly bought by the village and the town of Guilderland in 2006. It was built in 1833 by Dr. Frederick Crounse, who died there 60 years later.
Mayor James Gaughan sees the museum as a portion of what could make the Crounse House a functioning and integral space for Guilderland’s and the village’s future. His ideas include an area for art exhibits, a meeting center for the community, and an information center for people visiting the village.
As for his role in developing the museum, Gaughan said, “My job is to look at the big picture and move the project forward. I see the Crounse House as part of an overall economic development strategy for the village and the museum archive is part of that.”
A team is coming together now to create a museum as opposed to a disembodied collection of artifacts. The museum room in Village Hall was established and paid for through state grants, to reconstruct records destroyed by a 1986 fire. The late Roger Keenholts, who served both as a village trustee and the village historian, founded the museum.
Keenholts lived in one of the oldest houses on Altamont’s Main Street, a farmhouse that his great-great-grandfather built in 1863. It was filled to overflowing with his wide-ranging collections. He started collecting when he was 7 and his grandmother gave him a dance program card from Aug. 13, 1885, back when Altamont was called Knowersville, of the first annual concert of the Knowersville Orchestra. His collection grew throughout his lifetime and he displayed many of his artifacts in the museum room at village Hall.
Roger Keenholts died in 1992 and left several thousand items to the museum. Rebecca Fishel, who had worked with him, spearheaded efforts for the museum to receive over $90,000 in state grants that allowed the collection to be catalogued and cross-referenced on computer, making it accessible to the public.
If Roger Keenholts’s artifacts were to end up in a museum at the Crounse House, they would have, in a way, returned home. Dr. Crouse was married to a relative of Keenholts, Elizabeth Keenholts. And her house was there, just down the street, when Keenholt’s great-great-grandfather built his.
A fortnight ago, the village hired archivist James Corsaro to survey the contents found in the museum. He is the third in a trifectorate of expertise, which along with that of Alice Begley, the village and town historian, and Marijo Dougherty, the museum curator, will continue to build a remarkable collection of Altamont-related artifacts.
In addition to working with Begley and Dougherty to assess the objects in the village archives and the library’s special collections, Corsaro will be examining the Crounse House.
Gaughan describes what he hopes to learn from Corsaro as “a pragmatic look at whether or not the house can eventually be used to house the village museum.” This includes looking at the feasibility of storage units fitting in the house, and whether or not the house can be affordably renovated to the standards needed to preserve the museum’s contents.
Kenneth Runion, town supervisor of Guilderland, has ideas for the house that echo Gaughan’s: “From our perspective, we were looking to pair meeting space and room for senior activities in the Crounse House,” he said.
Along with a committee headed by Dean Whalen, an architect and an Altamont trustee, the two will collaborate in using the space to best serve the needs of the people of both Guilderland and Altamont. Caruso’s report on the museum and Crounse House will be part of the village’s budget deliberations starting in February.
Since Roger Keenholts bequeathed his extensive Altamont-related antiquities to the village upon his death, people have been working to bring AVA to life. Alice Begley, who has been the town historian for nearly a decade, is one of those people. Through her column, “From the Historian’s Desk,” written periodically for The Enterprise, she writes about the generations of people who have called this area home.
Her portrait of Mary Crounse in last summer’s Enterprise is a perfect example of how a historian like herself uses archives to shed light on a person’s life by bringing context and meaning to letters written almost 150 years ago. Mary Crounse was the daughter of Dr. Frederick and Elizabeth Keenholts Crounse; she grew up in the Crounse House.
Begley spotlighted moments from Crounse’s life, first as a student at the Normal School in Albany, and later as a young wife, working a farm with her husband on the frontier in Ohio. Crounse’s last letter to her mother confesses her fears about giving birth. After that there is only her death notice, sent from a doctor in Ohio, explaining that she died giving birth to a son who lived, but only for a few years.
While Begley’s use of the archived material is valuable, it is the organizing she has done in the museum that will shape its long-term usability. For years, she has continued to catalogue every photo, letter, and paper document of any sort by both subject and name.
There are boxes with artifacts having to do with the fire department, the high school, and even one for the local branch of the Klu Klux Klan, which had a brief resurgence in the area during the Depression of the early 1930s. By amassing these primary source documents, Begley is creating an opportunity for both serious scholars and amateur history buffs to research Altamont’s past.
When asked what part of Altamont’s history fascinates her the most, Begley quickly replied, “All of it. All you have to do is walk down Main Street and see it. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork itself, and the whole street is on the National Historic Register.”
The museum curator
Marijo Dougherty has lived in Altamont for only four years but speaks of the village with something approaching reverence. What excites her most is the community spirit. “The volunteerism is wonderful,” she said. “Everybody loves it here and people really care.”
Since last summer, Dougherty has been volunteering her time and expertise as a former museum curator, first with the State Museum in Albany and most recently, with the Hyde Museum in Glens Falls.
On the table in the center of the Altamont Museum’s main room sits an imposing hardcover book titled, Revised Nomenclature for Museum Categorizing. While not exactly a thrill-a-minute read, this book is at the center of what Dougherty is doing to transform the room’s contents from a bunch of old things into meaningful and historical artifacts.
She is using the book as a guide to officially name and categorize every object in the room. From the tan clay bottles that used to hold locally made root beer to the brittle brown leather Hotel Altamont Guest Register, all the items will now be a part of a classification system used by many museums in North America.
Dougherty sees her own role at the museum as “identifying and preserving, and trying to get an idea of the strong points that are here.” With little or no documentation of some of the objects, identifying takes a certain amount of sleuthing. She is even hoping to solve one of the mysteries through this article.
There are two wooden carvings in the museum that no one seems to know much about. One is of a four-masted schooner and the other, a black model train, with New York Central written on the side, which used to be used in Barbagelotts Newsroom, now the Home Front Café. Both arrived at the archives with typed three-by-five note cards, stating that they were crafted by a merchant marine named Henry Gerard who lived near Bell and Quay roads. He is described on one of the cards as a “local Indian.” If readers know more about these wooden carvings, Dougherty urges them to contact the archives.
In addition to the exacting task of naming and cataloging the museum’s collection, Dougherty has spent the last six months preserving the items. She was trained at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Curatorial Studies Program, which focused on how to protect and preserve archives.
AVA’s items, some of which are extremely fragile, are now cosseted either in acid-free paper or behind glass in order to stop the decomposition process. While the public is still allowed to handle objects, the rules of the museum, which were written by her, now require people to wear white gloves.
But there are some items that she simply doesn’t know what to do with and those await the archival expertise of Caruso. For instance, in a bucket in a cabinet sits an antique metal oilcan, which still contains oil. “My first instinct was to get rid of the oil,” said Dougherty, “but then I wondered if having it inside might actually make it more valuable.”
Dougherty’s ultimate goal of organizing the museum is to make its contents available online. “For someone doing a thesis”, she says, the archives are, “a gift from the gods to be able to have this kind of primary research.” She would also like to help create an oral history project whereby elderly village residents work with graduate students from the university at Albany who are trained to help them make priceless recordings of their memories of the village.