Are Voorheesvillians bowling alone? Are all of us?

— Illustration from the cover of Robert D. Putnam’s  “Bowling Alone”

This is the preface to a paper, “The New Scotland Law and Order League and the Case of Elmer Peter’s Hotel: The Temperance Movement in Albany County, N.Y. in 1905,” that Dennis Sullivan, the village historian for Voorheesville, will present on June 6 at the Voorheesville Public Library. Another Enterprise columnist, Jesse Sommer, will hold a whiskey-tasting at the event, serving liquor produced locally by his company, New Scotland Spirits.

While engaged in writing history over the years, I have often wondered if communities have genetic traits they pass on to the generations that come after them, in the same way that people say families do, that is, part of them comes from another world.

In the preface to a book I wrote about the village I live in — Voorheesville, New York — nearly 40 years ago, I alluded to the importance of a community understanding the social DNA it was, if you will, born with.

I called attention to the fact that a lot of people look at history as a series of quaint little artifacts, for example the time the postmaster fell in the creek on the way home from the square dance having quaffed too much of Aunt Trudy’s punch. When the locals are in a group and that story is told, everybody goes, “Ha ha; wasn’t that Bill Finch something!”

In our village history, I wrote that, if that is a community’s approach to history, it makes the past an abstraction by which we simultaneously sever ourselves from the present.

I added, “Community-making becomes impossible or at the very least extremely difficult when people lack a sense of place. Sooner or later life becomes haphazard; anything goes.”

Some people say that that’s what’s going on in the United States today, that Americans no longer have a sense of place because America the Beautiful has disappeared. Thus, in the news we see all sorts of stories about young people struggling with mental-health problems: It’s due to a loss of grounding, a sense of place, the cousin of “having a purpose in life.”

Nearly 25 years ago, Robert Putnam in his American classic “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” said America was in for a rude awakening, that we already were a country whose people bowled on separate alleys with no connection between one and the other.

It’s what American sociologist Mildred Newhall spoke about 100 years ago when she coined the phrase “parallel play.” It’s a 2-year-old madly at play sitting next to another kid madly at play in a common sandbox — the two mentally aware of each other but wanting no further exchange. It’s a stage of youth we all go through but cataclysmic when a nation lives that way.

This booklet is about a town in upstate New York at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s a sad story in a way because it involves a cell — the way Communists use the term — of people in our community who sought to stop friends and neighbors from getting together and having a drink after work, gathering the way the Irish do in pubs to talk over the day’s affairs. 

The prohibitionists in our town, mostly from the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, frowned severely on people having a drink, constantly mocking the fool-headed “drunkard.” It was this thinking that fueled the W. C. T. U., the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the most doggedly committed (fanatical) groups ever to go against drink.

On one level, the temperance movement those churches championed is understandable because many men — after working like dogs at heavy machinery jobs during the industrial era — frequented bars on the way home and got “hammered,” after which they went home and hammered the missus, women treated as less than dogs. The women couldn’t even vote.

In our town, the town of New Scotland, a group of church-goers got together when the temperance movement was running high and sought to stop drinking in our bars and hotels, even in our homes. They called themselves the New Scotland Law and Order League and, like vigilantes, went about rendering judgment on, and simultaneously punishing, tipsy souls as they left the local saloon — like a grammar school principal washing out the mouth of a kid with soap for saying something naughty.  

Mouth-washing for drinking got serious when the United States forbade the production and use of alcohol through the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The national decree lasted from 1920 to 1933 and, as history says, it was a gargantuan failure. Things got infinitely worse.

One of the leaders of the law-and-order league in our town, say in 1900, was Frank Van Auken, a church-going Methodist whose family was here for generations. He lived at 10 Voorheesville Ave. in the village of Voorheesville — an incorporated village inside the town since 1899. For nearly 50 years, I have lived at 14 Voorheesville Ave. two houses away from Frank’s, though he was long dead when my wife and I came.

I have been inside Frank’s house at #10 many times — it’s been beautifully redone — and, when I give historical walking tours of the village — as part of my job as municipal historian — when we come to Frank’s house, I comment on his involvement in the law-and-order league and shake my head in disbelief. (His granddaughter Gert once had a dance school in the barn out back.)

And as village historian — the town has its own — I’ve been involved in researching and writing about our people and its institutions for 38 years. When I walked down Main Street while writing the history book, I saw people from the past come out of their homes and greet me as if I was Thornton Wilder in “Our Town”; I thought of Voorheesville then as “My Town.” Not hubristically, as those who know me know.

I’d like to send this essay to every municipal historian in Albany County and to every president of every historical association in every village and town within its bounds, inviting each and all to come to Voorheesville and share stories about the temperance movement in their community during the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

The town of Guilderland didn’t take kindly to prohibition in those days; they voted for drink pretty much every chance they got.

If our convivium does take place — and I am there — my first question to the gathered throng will be: Does your town have a life? And to those who say yes, I will ask: Who were the mother and father of that life, who were its grandparents and those who came before them? Has the social DNA of those times affected who we are today?

In my capacity as village historian, I was asked to provide an historical snapshot of our community in days-gone-by for the “Village of Voorheesville Comprehensive Plan,” which village officials adopted on June 26, 2018.

I did, and in it I said that the Voorheesville of 2018 was different from its self in 1910. I wrote, “Of course, [today] the churches maintain sub-communities which are important to the social cohesion of the whole — though there are changes in that sphere as well — but in the second decade of the new millennium, a face-to-face community-wide sense of community remains absent.”  

When the plan came out, one of my neighbors called this assessment somber, bordering on depressing. Was I saying Voorheesvillians were bowling alone?

And, if that is true, how would we bowlers know? What are the criteria by which to assess such a thing? And how might such a problem be solved? And if we, at the local level, cannot devise ways to respond to community, how can we expect a nation — bowled over by diversity — to set its ship aright?

What follows is the result of my research into what happened in our town in 1905 and, as you will see, some Voorheesvillians were involved. Is what happened then still with us or did the social genes of that era die with it?   

I love Voorheesville and I love our town, despite their disparate selves, and in this love affair I remain perplexed by our law-and-order league of old and by the man who lived two doors down. Are we they? Are they us?