2014: Altamont lauded in book and song

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Wearing their hearts on their sleeves: In July, before a library concert in Altamont Village Hall, red T-shirts were for sale, sported this summer by villagers who wanted to keep Altamont Elementary School open. The groundswell of support revitalized the village, the mayor said.  Kelly Abbruzzese, far right, reaches out to buy shirts as Altamont Elementary Principal Peter Brabant, center, chats. In June, a consultant hired by the Guilderland School District made five money-saving recommendations for building use in the face of declining enrollment; four of his scenarios involved closing Altamont Elementary. In August, the school board backed away from the recommendations to seek other solutions.

Enterprise file photo — James E. Gardner

Kisses for the author: Keith C. Lee was applauded, filmed, and bussed in August as he signed the book he wrote on Altamont. Here, he accepts congratulations from Jola Cope, a former village resident now living in Florida. Other book-signings followed, raising about $8,000 for Altamont’s archives.

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Legacy of a life well lived: After Ed Cowley, an artist who shaped Altamont, died on Oct. 11 at 89, his wife of 65 years, Bette, displayed mementos in their home that showed many facets of his rich and varied life — as an artist, a soldier, a teacher, a community leader, and a family man.

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Sweet dreams: Holly VanWie snuggled with her cow, Tootie, of Meadowbrook Farms Dairy in Clarksville, last August during the annual Altamont Fair. An expanded midway and a new wine festival complemented the fair’s traditional agricultural and historical attractions.

ALTAMONT — One change Altamont’s mayor, James Gaughan, was happy to see this year arose in response to what he calls the “maleficent looming specter” of the possible closure of Altamont Elementary School. He noted that one positive result of this “threat to the vitality of the community” has been a new and intense interest in village leadership and village board meetings among a younger generation of Altamontonians.

“This issue has created,” he said, “a cadre of incredibly interested and devoted professionals and parents in the village who have raised their voices about the importance of the school to its community. I see now emerging a new generation, younger than me and younger than our board, that I see as a positive thing for the future of the village. I see these people as future leaders who might serve on our planning or zoning boards or even consider running for office at some point.”

Gaughan, who is now 70 and in his third term, suggested that by 2017 there will have been significant turnover among village officials. He said he has been doing everything he can to “ensure that there’s a smooth transition and that people who have interest in their village will step up to the plate and take on the role of public servant.”

A book and a song

Altamont got a book detailing its history and an informal anthem this year.

Altamont was published in August by Arcadia Publishing in its Images of America series.

Author and longtime village resident Keith C. Lee was assisted in the production of the book by many other volunteers including Connie Rue (researcher), Ron Ginsburg (image producer), and Laura Shore (editing assistant). Archives curator Marijo Dougherty was the project director. A grant from the Altamont Community Tradition, along with private donations, helped fund the project.

The book details the village’s history from its early days as Knowersville, including photos of 19th- and 20th-century homes as well as the village’s mills and businesses including feed, coal, and building materials. There are photos, too, of the grand summer residences of prominent area businessmen and the first fair, then called the Albany County Fair, held in Altamont in 1893.

Gaughan said at year’s end that the book-signing in August and all the related events raised a total of about $8,000 in donations for the village’s archives collection.

“We have only about 20 or 25 copies of the book left at the village hall,” said Gaughan in December. “And people keep coming in to buy them as holiday gifts.”

In January, Altamont got a theme song written in its honor by deejay Richie Phillips of the country music station WGNA. Gaughan described it to The Enterprise at the time as “awesome” and “kind of fun.”

Phillips’s song starts out, “You can find anything you want down here in Altamont” and goes on to mention the gazebo in the park, the Home Front Café, “the gorgeous Altamont Manor,” the Altamont Fair, a wine bar, a pizza place, “a nice library in an old train station,” and even the “laundrymat” with free Wi-Fi.

The lyrics advise, “Not much more you’ll be needing; just don't get caught for speeding,” a reference to a recent case in which an individual caught speeding through the village with drugs and $4,000 in cash in the car took a plea deal that saw the village seize and sell the car.

Village life and taxes steady

“Almost nothing controversial happened,” Gaughan mused at year’s end.

Thanks to the village’s ongoing partnership with the Altamont Free Library and with Altamont Community Tradition, residents enjoyed, in the summer, concerts in the park and a Strawberry Social and, in the winter, house tours, the Victorian Holiday, and the Santa Parade.

The village was able to provide residents with the same services as always, even without raising taxes, said Gaughan in December. “We almost need to spend more time explaining just how well we are doing and how efficiently we’re running our municipality,” he said.

The village adopted a $1.12-million budget in April, an increase over the previous year’s $1.08 million spending plan, but managed to avoid raising taxes, through changes in health-care premiums and employee turnover.

The tax rate for village residents remains at $2.79 per $1,000 of assessed property value, even though village employees will receive a 3-percent salary increase, and zoning board of appeals and planning board members will receive small per-meeting stipends for the first time. The payments, which Gaughan called “token” payments, are of $40 for the chairpersons and $20 for each board member.

Gaughan also credited the village board with careful cost-saving measures that helped ensure that property taxes would not rise this year. He mentioned several factors, including cost cutting by the superintendent of public works and a reduction in county senior meals and transportation reimbursements.

Senior van, at last

In February 2014 the village was finally able to purchase a van for transporting its elderly citizens as needed to their weekly luncheon and to doctor and dentist appointments or to pick up prescriptions.

State Senator Neil Breslin had initially secured the $12,000 for the van in 2010 as a member item when his district included Altamont. After the lines were redrawn — Breslin’s District 44 includes parts of Troy, Colonie, Bethlehem, and Latham — the money was not forthcoming.

“We lost Senator Breslin and then the item got held up for a long time pending approval by the Republican-run finance committee in the Senate,” Gaughan said recently. He said that Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk “worked very hard to free up those funds.”

Wines leaves, Burke enters           

Altamont Free Library Director Judith Wines, who held the post for a decade, announced in September that the following month she would be leaving for a position as director of the RCS Community Library in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk School District.

“We were heartbroken,” said library board of trustees President Sally Dague. Throughout the library’s renovation, Dague said, “she was our guiding light.”

Wines oversaw the library’s transition from a bank to a masonic hall to its permanent home in the village’s historic former train station. Wines spearheaded a seven-year campaign to move into the train station that became more urgent after cramped conditions in the basement of the KeyBank worsened because of flooding caused by 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene.

Wines attributed the campaign’s success to “fundraising, community work, and community cohesion that came together for this building.”

Library Trustee Pat Spohr said in September of Wines’s announcement, “The whole board was totally shocked and surprised,” but added that the board was “glad for her” and that she has “done so much” for the library.

Back in June, Wines had accepted an award on behalf of the library from the Preservation League of New York State for the restoration of the railroad station. This was one of just seven awards given statewide, known as the Excellence in Historic Preservation awards.

Mary Beth Mulligan was appointed interim director as the library established a search committee; 19 people applied for the post, and four were interviewed by the committee.

At the end of the year, Joseph Burke was appointed the new director, which he called a dream job. With an undergraduate degree from New Paltz and a master’s degree in information science from the University at Albany, he’s worked in libraries for 12 years.

“The fundamental role of the library is to work as a community center,” Burke said. He loves “the joy of discovery” at libraries and looks forward to starting such programs as having adults read again the books of their youth, “seeing what perspective you bring to them now that you have life experience.”

Cowley mourned

Artist Ed Cowley died in October at age 89. He had continued to draw even in his last year of life.

He served in the 94th Infantry Division under General George Patton in the Battle of the Bulge, and sent letters home that avoided battle detail but included artworks. After the war, he studied at Albright Art School and Buffalo State College. He then earned a master of fine arts from Columbia University.

He came to Albany in 1951 as an art teacher in the Milne School of the State University and was named chair of the university’s art department in 1955. He retired from the university in 1987, after guiding the art department’s expansion and move uptown.

His paintings of Altamont streetscapes did a great deal to preserve the village’s Victorian heritage. Victorian homes were considered outdated and even ugly in the 1950s. Cowley worked to preserve them, and regularly painted pictures of them that captured their serene beauty.

He also worked in stained glass and created furniture and jewelry.  

Cowley founded an environmental forum that brought speakers every week for a decade, starting in the late 1960s, to talk to audiences of students, residents, and politicians. Then-Albany Mayor Erastus Corning attended regularly, and was sometimes influenced in his policymaking by information he learned at the talks.

Cowley not only painted but also preserved the landscape of Altamont’s downtown. Neighbor and UAlbany colleague Lou Ismay said at the time of Cowley’s death, “It was Ed’s idea to save the railroad station from destruction. People bought bonds of $100 each; $5,000 was enough to buy the railroad station.”

Expanded fair

The 2014 Altamont Fair, which ran from Aug. 12 to 17, featured an expanded midway, a new wine festival, and the same fixed price.   

The carnival midway this year was expanded to make room for five new rides, for a total of over 40 adult rides and more than 30 rides for children. Many of the existing rides and all of the new ones were updated with new light and color shows. The midway area also gained more benches, better lighting, and an additional entrance.

Fair Director Marie McMillen told The Enterprise in August, “We felt as a pay-one-price [fair], we had to increase the area, so visitors have more to choose from and more space to do it in.”

For the fourth year in a row, the fair ran as a pay-one-price event. Admission tickets, priced at $15, were good for parking, rides, the circus, music performances, the many museums, and more.

Quasquicentennial ahead

Gaughan said one important project for 2015 would be to mark the village’s 125th anniversary, or Quasquicentennial. Knowersville, as Altamont was originally called, was founded on Oct. 18, 1890. Plans now in the works call for a nearly yearlong celebration of the village’s history, with several events to be held throughout the year, culminating on Oct. 18, 2015 with a dinner and village get-together at the historic Flower Building on the fairgrounds.

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