The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Altamont’s Masonic Hall on Maple Avenue opened in 1913. Within a year, movies began to be shown on the second floor and, with some breaks, ran for four decades. The church next door, St. John’s, had been the site of Altamont’s first film entertainment, through a Bioscope in 1897.

Primitive systems of filming motion to be projected on a screen had been developed by the 1890s. Guilderland’s first opportunity to sample the new technology came in October 1897 when the St. John’s Ladies Aid Society sponsored a Bioscope entertainment two evenings in the Sunday School Room.

Advance publicity in The Altamont Enterprise claimed that the Bioscope, never before shown in the vicinity, was “the wonder of the age.” For an admission of 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children, viewers could see the surging waters of Niagara Falls and President William McKinley on Inauguration Day.

But the main attraction was the New York Central’s Empire State Express filmed approaching at the rate of a mile a minute, making the onlooker “involuntarily scramble to get out of the way of the train. The wonderful realism of the picture makes the most unimaginative person shiver.” Front-row thrills were available for 35-cent reserved seats.

Noted in the next week’s Enterprise that the performances were “quite well attended and while the views were not brought out as clearly as wished for, owing to the operator being obliged to use gas instead of electric light, yet the wonder of the invention was fully demonstrated and the exhibition proved quite satisfactory.”

Their appetite for movies whetted, local filmgoers were able to see competing motion-picture technology when itinerant projectionists Hicks and Thomas Co. brought Edison’s Kinetoscope to the church a few months later. The audience must have been satisfied because the next week’s Enterprise judged that it was “the best in its line that ever visited our village.”

In 1903, at the Altamont Reformed Church, J.W. Achenbach was presenting a program billed as “The World’s Greatest Moving Picture Exhibition.” Viewers had the opportunity to see clips of Our Martyred President McKinley’s funeral, a Yale vs. Harvard football game, Little Red Riding Hood, a trip to the moon, and the Empire State Express at 80 miles per hour.

Attendees were guaranteed thrilling realism and no flicker or their money back. Admission was 25 cents for adults, and 15 cents for children.

 

Regular shows

The occasional motion picture was offered in Altamont and Guilderland Center over the next few years.  With the opening of Altamont’s new Masonic Temple, regular, local moving-going became possible.

An April 1914 notice in The Enterprise announced to the public that Willard J. Ogsbury and Newton Stafford would offer an ambitious program of moving pictures, allowing viewers to see five reels for only 10 cents on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings.

“First class,” and “giving general satisfaction” was the paper’s judgement the next week, noting the new venture had met “with good results as far as attendance is concerned.”

Quality improved quickly when within weeks a new lens was installed in their machine that projected a 9-by-12-foot picture on the screen, producing a larger and clearer image. In 1915, electrical lines were run into Altamont, allowing installation of a new electrical apparatus using an arc light that promised to show pictures “equal to any city theatre.”

Later that year, the eight-reel, big-budget spectacular “The Last Days of Pompeii” was shown by W.J. Ogsbury, now apparently the sole proprietor of the venture. Residents from Altamont and the surrounding area must have been entranced by scenes far from their everyday experience, watching fighting gladiators, chariot races, lions turned loose, and a vivid scene of the Mt. Vesuvius eruption engulfing Pompeii — all for 15 cents.

In 1915, a large notice appearing in The Enterprise advertised that the moving pictures were “Under the Management and for the Benefit of NOAH LODGE.” Five reels were to be shown regularly with an “expert operator in charge” on Saturday nights, for 10-cent admission.

By December 1915, shows were suspended due to lack of patronage, but must have been resumed at some point since, during the polio outbreak of 1916, a Board of Health order banning children under the age of 16 from attending public gatherings caused another suspension in moving picture shows at the Masonic Hall. “The management feels to continue the show under the present conditions would be unprofitable.”

The United States entrance into World War I was brought home to the local folks in 1918 when a movie benefitting the Red Cross was screened showing scenes of life in American training camps, activities of the army in France, and Red Cross personnel working behind the lines.

Charles H. VanValkenburgh, the theater manager, promised two reels of drama, two reels of comedy, and one reel of real life for 10 cents every Saturday night.

As the decade of the 1920s opened, movie-going had become established as popular entertainment for all ages. The Masonic Hall Theater, as it had become officially called, ran the longer features Hollywood had begun to produce.

Each week, the Village Notes column included the name of the next coming attraction, a synopsis of the plot, and listed those who were playing the leading roles.

Most of the films viewed no longer exist because, to the regret of film scholars, the material substance of early film has caused a huge number of them to deteriorate and crumble into dust in the cans where they were stored.

With Enterprise information, at least the names and plots survive of such long-forgotten movies as “The Night Horseman,” “Darling Mine,” “Whispering Wire,” “The Unknown,” or “A Stage Romance.” Occasionally, a film still considered a classic flickered across Altamont’s screen as when John Gilbert and Greta Garbo starred in the passionate romance “Flesh and the Devil.”

 

Talking pictures

“The Jazz Singer,” a 1927 movie that introduced the breakthrough of sound to audiences, changed movie history. Studios had been at first reluctant to adopt the new technology due to the high cost of new equipment to film the productions and then to theatres, which would have to refit with expensive new sound-projection machines.

But the audiences were clamoring for talking pictures, forcing the studios and theaters to move on. Most of “The Jazz Singer” was silent except for a few portions of sound recorded on discs that had to be played as the film ran, the operator carefully synchronizing the record to the film.

When “Saturday Night Kid” played in Altamont in December 1930, featuring Clara Bow’s “lovable, slangy, sloppy chatter,” Ray Rau handled the accompanying discs.

A brief announcement in June 1929 informed the public there would be no movies over the summer, though they were back in operation in September, managed by a party from Albany. In spite of the warning, “If Altamont people want their shows continued, they should support them by attendance.” By December, the unnamed Albany operator closed down the theater due to lack of patronage.

A week later, movies resumed under the management of Roy F. Peugh, who was joined by Ray Rau.

The issue of sound had reached a point where the decision had to be made: Close down or invest in new equipment to show sound-on-film productions.

In March 1930, a committee of Masons had been in Schenectady checking out a “sound outfit” there with the idea of running talking movies regularly. By December, it was announced that a talking-picture outfit was to be installed at once.

Finally, on Feb. 20, 1931, a front-page headline said “Altamont Sound Movies To Start With a Free Show.” Two Simplex projectors and a crystal-beaded sound screen were ordered by managers Peugh and Rau. The walls were padded with Celotex panels to provide the proper acoustics, all at a cost of $2,000. 

Installed were seat cushions for everyone’s comfort with the seats tilted back one inch for better viewing. To operate all the new equipment, a second electrical power line had to be run into the building.

A public-inspection night was free, but the regular price of admission would now be 35 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. With the coming of warmer weather, patrons were assured not to worry about the heat since electric fans were now available.

Headlined “Talking Movies Big Success in Altamont,” The Enterprise reported the free demonstration night brought out 300 people who packed the hall, delighted at the perfect synchronization of voice and picture. Although at first only one projector was in operation that night, causing a delay between reels of “Cuckoos,” in time for the next Saturday’s showing the second projector would be in place for a non-stop performance.

 

Second life

Thus began the second life of Altamont’s little movie theatre.

The headline “Talking Movies Capture Altamont and Vicinity” reflected the enthusiasm the public from the village and the surrounding area felt about having talking pictures offered locally. Large audiences crowded the house.

During the Depression, the public turned to movies for escape and the modest admission cost at Altamont brought in a steady audience throughout the 1930s. Movies came to Altamont after their first-run showing in city theaters.

“Gone With The Wind,” one of the most successful and popular movies of all time, opened in 1939. Two years later, it finally arrived in Altamont for a two-day run. “Full Length Nothing Cut But The Price” read the half-page ad in The Enterprise.

During the war years, the theater provided much-needed escapist fare, but war-related films were often part of the schedule, some to boost morale as when the 1942 production “Our America At War” was added to the bill with the regular feature “Look Who’s Laughing.”

Others were far more serious; when and how to handle incendiary bombs was the topic of one shown to Civil Defense workers and volunteer firemen.

Movies continued through the 1940s and into the 1950s. Attendance had reached new lows by early 1957 and it seemed as if the show was over at the Masonic Temple.

In February 1957, an announcement appeared in The Enterprise that Jack Jalet, at the time a well-known Altamont resident, had the approval of the Altamont Business Association to manage the theater, being aware of “the need for entertainment in this village, especially for young people. Saturday matinees will be enjoyed by all.”

Jalet commented, “Hearing that plans were underway to remove the projectors from the Masonic Hall caused me to present a plan to bring back regular shows to Altamont.”

He proposed that each Saturday’s schedule was to include a two-and-a-half-hour matinée with the feature film and five to eight additional cartoons, then running an adult performance in the evening.

A week later, he wrote “An Open Letter to Teen Agers” in The Enterprise, requesting them to be quiet during the movies to allow the adults present to hear the dialogue. These customers would then return for future programs to help keep the theater open.

For a few weeks, longer movies were offered. However, in a blurb about the April 6 feature “A Yank in the RAF,” Mr. Jalet reported attendance was very disappointing and, unless more adults attended, movies would come to an end with the last show scheduled April1 13, a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy, “Pardners.”

Because The Enterprise ran no additional movie ads or mention of movies in the next few months, it seems the Masonic Hall Theater shows had come to an end.

Competition from TV, drive-ins, and more advanced film and sound systems in bigger city theaters put an end to our local show, just as happened to many small neighborhood movie theaters in towns and cities all over America at this time.

For over 40 years, the little theater had brought pleasure and entertainment to the people of Altamont and the surrounding area.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The Case Tavern was one of the earliest of the Western Turnpike taverns and remained as a private home in the Case family until the 1940s. It burned in 1950. Its accompanying farm is now Western Turnpike Golf Course while the M and M Motel is located on the tavern site.

GUILDERLAND — The sight of a roadside tavern ahead meant an oasis where both weary travelers and their tired beasts could find respite and refreshment. In the 18th Century, very few taverns had been established in this sparsely populated area.

As years passed and traffic increased, it became obvious profits could be made from running a tavern, even if it were only a home’s front room or cellar where food and drink could be provided. Some were small establishments, while others were especially built as large taverns with ample room for overnight accommodations.

Palatines trekking to Schoharie created the Schoharie road, a dirt track road connecting the King’s Highway through what became Guilderland, Guilderland Center, and Altamont where the steep Helderberg escarpment had to be climbed to go on to Schoharie.

Guilderland’s first taverns appeared along this route, the earliest being Hendrick Apple’s tavern, which was noted on the 1767 Bleecker Map of the West Manor of Rensselaerwyck. In operation for decades, this tavern enjoyed local patronage as well as that of passing strangers and was the scene of Guilderland’s first town board meeting in 1803.

 

“Good moral character”

Apple’s tavern was one of many established along the Schoharie road. A list of tavern owners, having been judged “of good moral character,” who received licenses or permits in 1803 included Christopher Batterman in the hamlet of Guilderland where John Schoolcraft also ran a tavern although his name does not appear on this list. Nicholas V. Mynderse received a permit only, perhaps because his new building (now the Mynderse-Frederick House) was listed as a store, not a tavern.

It’s not known where the taverns that belonged to Nicholas Beyer, John Banker, Frederick Seger, Frederick Friedendall, and James LaGrange were located. George Severson’s Altamont tavern (now the site of Stewart’s) at the base of the escarpment had been in operation since the 1790s.

The licenses ranged in price from $5 to the $7.50 paid by George Severson. Henry Apple paid $9, which perhaps indicated fees depended on the quantity or perhaps varieties of liquor sold. Nicholas Mynderse’s permit carried no fee though a year later he paid $5.

A law had been passed by the Legislature of the State of New York on the first day of March 1788 entitled “An Act to lay a duty of excise on strong liquors and for the better regulating Inns and Taverns,” hence the “good moral character” qualification.

Another tavern owner, cited in J.H. French’s 1860 Gazetteer of New York, was Jacob Aker who ran an inn in Frenchs Hollow at the time of the Revolution. That seems to be the only reference to this tavern.

A second road running west from Albany through Guilderland out toward the Mohawk region was called the State road. The Guilderland section is today known as Old State Road.

Several men there received licenses at this time including Philip Schell, Peter Bowman, John F. Quackenbush, Jacob Totten, Abraham Truax, Wait Barrett, Benj. Howe, Frederick Ramsey, and John Wever.

The location of John Wever’s Tavern, in operation during the last quarter of the 18th Century, was known to be on the State road north of Fullers. In 1803, he met the qualification of “good moral character” and was permitted “to keep a public Inn or Tavern on the State road in the home where he now lives ….”

 

Pounds instead of dollars

Historian Arthur Gregg, having access to old documents relating to Wever, cited a 1792 receipt from liquor merchants Ten Eyck & Lansing of Albany for spirits purchased by Wever for his tavern: 6 shillings for 3 quarts of rum, 2 pounds for 5 gallons of wine, 1 pound for 3 gallons of Jamaica (rum?), 3 shillings for one bunch of segars and 1 shilling for1 pound of Bohea tea.

Old tavern account books recorded English denominations into the early years of the 19th Century. While the relatively new United States Congress had established the dollar as the unit of American currency and passed a coinage act in 1792, it took time before Americans in country places fully adopted the new federal money system.

Albany merchants must have had easy profits from supplying the multitude of country taverns in Guilderland and nearby towns, but with a shortage of specie they were willing to accept 21 sheppels of peas plus 3 pounds and 3 shillings cash from Wever in payment. (A sheppel was an old Dutch measurement.)

 

Great Western Turnpike

A few individuals received licenses for locations not clear to us today. Ezra Spaulding was on the Normanskill Road while Peter Taber was on the road to Schenectady. Gerritt G. Van Zandt was listed as being on the “new turnpike road,” the first of a large number of turnpike taverns along the route of the Great Western Turnpike.

During the later years of the 18th Century, William McKown, a tavern keeper on the King’s Highway between Albany and Schenectady, became acquainted with insider information that a group of investors planned to build a turnpike between Albany and Cherry Valley, an area attractive for new settlement.

He moved quickly to purchase a large tract of wilderness land on the proposed route of the new Great Western Turnpike. In 1793, when it was still wilderness, he built a large tavern there and shrewdly gave the investors financing the turnpike a right of way through his land, past the front door of his new tavern.

An adequate water supply was an absolute necessity for any tavern. Travelers may have been drinking liquor, but their animals needed water. McKown had a bountiful spring nearby and was also able to dam the Krum Kill in a few spots.

He cleverly used hollowed logs acting as pipes to bring a steady supply of water to his tavern and to the pens where animals were kept while their owners or keepers were at the tavern.

Entering a tavern, a man would find a variety of individuals in the room. Some were traveling for commercial reasons, others for personal reasons.

Certain large taverns would have had the regularly scheduled stagecoaches between Albany and Cherry Valley stop to change horses or spend the night. Other men were drovers who accompanied herds of sheep, cows, pigs or flocks of turkeys on foot to the markets in Albany.

Pulled by oxen and guided by teamsters, freight wagons came through, hauling loads of farm produce to market and hauling back commodities unavailable on the frontier. Local men also came in at times, and the air would be heavy with the smell of people and tobacco smoke.

Politics were great topics of discussion, debate, or argument. The Federalists and Democratic Republicans of that day definitely did not see eye to eye about policy or elected officials.

Local government meetings, political rallies, and voting all took place in various taverns. The few women who traveled for any reason would not have been in this mix of men, but in their own “ladies’ parlor,” away from the sounds, smells, and alcohol of the tap room.

When the Great Western Turnpike’s first section opened, it was the main road into southwestern New York and soon extended beyond Cherry Valley, carrying what for that day was heavy traffic of men, horse- or oxen-drawn vehicles, and a variety of beasts.

One author stated there were 62 turnpike taverns along the original 51 miles between Albany and Cherry Valley to serve the traveling public.

Going west in Guilderland, starting with McKown’s tavern in McKownville, a half-mile beyond was a tavern that would have been located just to the west of today’s McKownville Methodist Church. Known as Gibb’s Tavern, that may not have been its original name.

Possibly it was the one noted as being run by George Brown and/or Frederick Fallock. Or one of these men may have been the original owner of the structure later known as the Jackson tavern.

Moving on into the hamlet of Guilderland were Batterman’s and Schoolcraft’s taverns, which were also considered Schoharie road taverns. A mile beyond was Russell Case’s tavern, the next two places were run by men now forgotten, and another was at the house that until recent years stood opposite the Guilderland Town Hall.

Nicholas Beyer’s was next. Then came Traber’s, later called Fuller’s tavern. There was Gilbert Sharp’s and Jewell’s in the vicinity of Sharps Corners. Next came John Meyers, and then Simon Relyea.

At Dunnsville, there was John Winne’s tavern and store, Peter Gorman’s, Christopher Dunn’s and farther west a man named Slingerland ran a tavern. There may well have been additional taverns that have slipped through the historic cracks.

 

Costs

Assuming a traveler stopped for refreshment or for overnight lodging, what were the costs? Historian Arthur Gregg had access to an account book kept in the Severson tavern on the Schoharie road, the last stop before the arduous climb to the top of the escarpment

While travelers were the mainstay of big taverns such as McKown’s, locals also frequented taverns for news; to debate politics; in the case of Severson’s, to pick up mail; and, of course, quench their thirst.

An unnamed traveler stopping at Severson’s spent l shilling for a gill of whiskey (a gill is a quarter of a pint), 4 shillings for supper, 2 shillings to keep his horse, 1 shilling for his lodging for the night, 1 shilling for oats, and 6 pence for a gill of whiskey.

Mr. Lot Hurst came across with 16½ cents total for 1½ mugs of cider, 1 gill of whiskey, and 1 segar. The 1792 Coinage Act permitted half cents and many of the amounts charged included a half cent. John Wemple ordered a brandy grog for 12½ cents. There seemed to be no consistency in the prices charged.

Some of these taverns were also stores selling much needed goods that could not be produced on the farm. John Winne’s Dunnsville tavern/store sold items such as 1 pound of sugar for 12½ cents, a black tea pot for 35 cents, 5 yards of calico for $3.03, and 1 pound of candles for 25 cents.

Since a shortage of specie was common during this time, bartering was acceptable and Winne was willing to accept a cord of wood to equal $1, or 8 pounds of butterfor $1, or two dozen eggs for 18 cents, a day’s labor for 50 cents, 3 turkeys for 75 cents — all to be put toward merchandise available in his store.

 

End of an era

Taverns were reputed in their day to be good moneymakers, supposedly equal to two farms. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the development of rail travel after 1832, the heyday of turnpikes and their taverns came to an end.

A few survived to become hotels such as the Dunnsville Hotel and the McKown Tavern, but for most an era had come to a close. With the passage of time, we no longer know where many of these taverns were even located and, one by one, Guilderland’s few old buildings known to have been taverns have disappeared.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Meadowdale Station, once located next to the tracks on Meadowdale Road, was one of the Delaware & Hudson’s smaller depots. Notice the telegraph poles in the background. The National Telegraph Company had run lines between Albany and Binghamton along the railroad route.

Victory at Yorktown; ratification of the Constitution; George Washington’s death; the British invasion of Washington, D.C.; election of Andrew Jackson; outbreak of the Civil War; assassination of Lincoln — when and how did 18th- and 19th-century Guilderland residents learn of these events?

Even though Albany was just a few miles away, Guilderland’s 18th-Century residents were quite isolated. As anti-British agitation increased during the 1770s, there were discussions pro and con after church services and at local taverns.

A few Guilderland men were likely members of the secret Committees of Correspondence, headquartered in both Albany and Schenectady. Minutes of the Schenectady Committee mention “information having been given to the Board …” meant either in letter form or orally. Eventually some of this would have orally filtered down to the public.

An additional way of learning information was the broadsheet, a printed single sheet that could be posted or circulated, and this is known to have been used to spread the contents of the Declaration of Independence quickly in 1776. It is on record that the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud to an Albany crowd from the steps of the old Stadt Huys on July 19 and within days news could have reached most people in the area.

Although the Albany Gazette, the city’s earliest newspaper, was briefly published from 1771 to 1776, after 1782 there was always one Albany newspaper or another, usually circulating beyond its original purchaser. Newspapers were frequently left on tavern tables by travelers or local subscribers well into the 19th Century and occasionally out-of-the-area papers would show up.

Discussion and debates over national issues, as between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over whether the proposed 1789 Constitution should be ratified, were very heated. As political parties emerged, newspapers were partisan sources of what was going on in government and also included bits of foreign news.

In an era when we can actually view an event as it happens, a look back at the Oct. 4, 1814 Albany Register is instructive as it shows early 19th-Century Guilderland residents learned of news well after the fact. With the War of 1812 still ongoing, reports of British threats and actions at Sackets Harbor and Lake Champlain near Plattsburgh were described in letters sent to Albany, taking only a week to appear in print.

In the Sept. 30 Albany Register, there was the reprint of song stanzas which began with “O, say can you see by the dawn’s early light ….,” composed by a “gentleman” as he watched the Sept. 13 to 14 British shelling of Fort McHenry.

Foreign news of that era revolved around Napoleon. The description of his “dethronement” and exile to Elba after his defeat in April eventually appeared in the June 14th Register.

Whether or not the Register reached any readers in Guilderland isn’t known, but it could have been left on a Western Turnpike tavern table by a traveler or purchased by a Guilderland resident who had journeyed into Albany.

Attendance at church was not only spiritual, but an opportunity for the exchange of both personal and local news or to discuss issues affecting the state or nation. Records of the Helderberg Reformed Church indicate that, in 1795, the sum of 5 pounds, 7 shillings was collected for prisoners of the Algerians “to Redeem and Ransom the unhappy sufferers from America in Bondage now in Algeria.”

They had obviously become aware of the problems caused by the Barbary pirates raiding American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean, a foreign policy problem that plagued our early presidents.

Roads and the post office

Communications in the early republic improved with the road-building boom following the Revolutionary War years. Beginning in 1799, the construction of the Great Western Turnpike running through Guilderland to connect Albany and Cherry Valley brought a constant flow of travelers who shared all sorts of news and opinions in the many taverns lining the road.

Local men also frequented these taverns where politics was a popular and often contentious subject of conversation and debate. Numerous taverns were located along the Schoharie Road as well.

During Washington’s administration, the creation of the Post Office led to the establishment of post offices, located first in densely populated areas, then gradually out into the rural areas of the nation. 

Guilderland’s first post office, although established in Hamilton, was named Guilderland in 1815. It was followed by West Guilderland in 1829 at Severson’s Tavern, Guilderland Center in 1831, and Dunnsville in 1833.

In order for news and information to circulate in the fledgling democracy, Washington’s administration deliberately set low postal rates for publications with the result that newspapers flourished, providing the chief source of state, national, and foreign news for 19th-Century Americans.

In 1833, there were several local men who subscribed to the following titles: Lutheran Observer, Albany Weekly Journal, Albany Gazette, Reflector and Schenectady Democrat, Christian Advocate and Journal, Methodist Weekly, New York Baptist Register, Mothers’ Monthly Journal, Albany Argus, New York Weekly Messenger, and Philadelphia Courier — all delivered to the West Guilderland Severson’s Tavern Post Office.

Records of deliveries at Guilderland, Guilderland Center, and Dunnsville at this period no longer exist, but surely people in those areas received publications as well and much of this print passed from hand to hand or ended up on tavern tables instead of being discarded by the original recipients. Reports of events in the outside world circulated slowly, but eventually did reach into this rural area.

 

Rail and telegraph

Beginning in 1831, railroad building speeded up communication, both in carrying newspapers from cities and providing faster mail delivery. Not that these changes occurred quickly, especially for outlying rural areas.

It took until 1863 for the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad, later Delaware & Hudson, to connect Knowersville (no longer West Guilderland) to Albany. Two years later, passing through Guilderland Center and Fullers, was the Saratoga and Hudson, later becoming part of the New York Central’s West Shore Railroad.

Along with rail lines came telegraph lines. Originally demonstrated successfully in 1844, within two years a telegraph line connected Albany and New York City.

Usually running alongside railroad roadbeds and tracks, the wire was connected to depots. Each one of Guilderland’s four depots eventually had its own telegrapher, allowing important national news to spread quickly.

The word of Abraham Lincoln’s death would have been known within a day or two by anyone living near Knowersville depot if the telegraph line there had been already established by 1865.

Foreign news arrived by ship weeks after the event until 1867 when a permanent trans-Atlantic cable was laid and cut the time to telegraph news between the United States and Europe to hours. In 1901, over half of the Albany Argus’ front page was given over to detailed news of Queen Victoria’s death one day after her passing.

 

Newspapers

After the mid-19th-Century, most Guilderland newspaper readers either subscribed to the Albany Evening Journal or the Albany Argus. The two major Albany dailies were unashamedly partisan, the Journal being definitely in the Whig/Republican camp while The Argus was firmly Democratic.

Newspapers offered subscriptions for  biweekly or weekly editions, probably more convenient and reasonably priced than the daily paper. Nine dollars brought an annual weekly subscription to the Albany Evening Journal, while The Argus was six dollars.

With the passage of the Rural Free Delivery Act by Congress in 1896, mail began to be delivered directly to rural farms, although it took until 1902 for all of Guilderland to have rural mail delivery. With this, it made subscribing to an Albany weekly or biweekly or possibly daily newspaper practical.

Locally, in 1877, Rev. N. Klock founded a short-lived four-page newspaper called the Golden Era, which he published until he left the area in 1882. An 1880 copy included area news that kept readers of the paper in touch with the doings of their neighbors. Whether from bankruptcy or just the desire to move on, Mr. Klock left town and the newspaper died.

Within two years, David Crowe established a new four-page weekly newspaper to be called The Knowersville Enterprise. The editor ran a column in the second issue entitled “A Spicy Little Paper,” where he claimed to want to make The Enterprise “a readable journal” that would cover “the doings and happenings in all the surrounding towns and world.”

Coverage was to include “who has left town and who has arrived, who preaches, who teaches, who raises the best crops, who keeps the finest stock, who has bought a farm and who has sold it, who has begun life and who has left it ….” His plan was to have this information supplied by local people in the area to be covered.

His publishing venture occurred at the right place at the right time! News immediately began to be submitted from as far away as Gallupville and, to the editor’s delight, the subscription list so far had “exceeded our most sanguine expectations.”

True to its mission, news in the first few issues included such items as, “The little daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Pangburn is seriously ill with diphtheria.” Sadly, the following week the announcement appeared that 11-year-old Maggie Pangburn had died.

“Charles Shoudy raised 623 bushels of oats from 33 bushels sown without using any fertilizer, who can beat it?” “Foss Coon’s dog was killed by being run over by the Saratoga Limited express … his loss is to be regretted.”

For the next several decades, these personal tidbits were the major selling point of The Enterprise not only for Guilderland, but also the Hilltowns and New Scotland and even points beyond. It was the Facebook of that day!

 

Phones, movies, and radio

Just as the invention of the telegraph speeded news, the technology breakthrough of the telephone improved communications. Its first appearance in Knowersville was in 1886 with the building of the resort hotel the Kushaqua.

Wealthy Albanians demanding access to a telephone resulted in a line being strung out from Albany to the Kushaqua and to the two hotels. Newspaper reporting became more up-to-the-minute once journalists had access to phones.

A second technology breakthrough appeared in Guilderland when the Ladies Aid Society of St. John’s Church sponsored an October 1897 showing of the first movie seen in town. There was no plot, only a series of brief scenes, but for the first time average citizens could see an actual event or important person.

One of the scenes viewed that day was of President William McKinley taking the oath of office. For a brief moment, the onlookers were made to feel as if they were there, even though this was six months after the actual event.

The development of newsreels later, in the 1920s, would allow citizens to have a more personal impression of events and people in the news.

Once radio became part of daily life in the 20th Century, Americans really could begin to hear news of national and foreign events within a very short time.

While it took weeks for the news of George Washington’s death to circulate, a very few days for everyone to hear of Lincoln’s assassination, FDR’s sudden death in 1945 was broadcast nationwide within minutes of the information being released.

Breaking news had become part of American life.

 

The Fullers Band

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

  The Fullers Band seemed to have performed frequently during the few years of its existence, playing at Sunday school picnics, church suppers, parades, Memorial Day observances, and at its own fundraising events.

For eons, an integral part of human existence has been making music. Until relatively recent times, it was necessary to be physically present to perform or listen to music. Early references to music-making in Guilderland are few.

An 1835 poster announcing a Fourth of July celebration listed a procession to St. James Lutheran Church (located where Fairview Cemetery is today) concluding in a ceremony where the hymn “Ode on Science” was sung. 

A collection of letters written by the Chesebro brothers in the 1840s included mention of Methodist camp meetings in Frenchs Hollow, events that very likely included hymn singing as part of the worship services. It is also likely that congregational singing was part of both Reformed and Lutheran services, and at some point formal choirs began to be established.

When George Chesebro was invited to a New Year’s Party in 1846, he hauled a sleigh load of friends to Frenchs Hollow. In describing his letter, the late Guilderland historian Arthur Gregg imagined that, as they glided over the snow, Chesebro and his friends were singing the early 19th-Century song, “Cousin Jedidiah” chorusing, “Oh, won’t we have a jolly time. Oh, won’t we have a jolly time. Jerusha, put the kettle on, we’ll all have tea.”

 

Singing schools

George Chesebro was a member of a singing school. An institution dating back to New England colonial days, a singing school was not an actual school, but rather an informal singing group for anyone who wanted to join, begun by a person who had some musical ability.

Not only were there new songs to be learned and the pleasure that comes from community singing, but a big incentive for younger people was the opportunity to mingle with the opposite sex. Stephen Lainhart, a single young man from Settles Hill in the 1860s, was also a singing-school enthusiast, noting in his diary at one point that he attended singing school twice weekly and once noted dropping by the Glasshouse (Guilderland hamlet) singing school.

With The Enterprise beginning publication in 1884, notices of the formation of a singing school occasionally appeared. “Mr. Osborn will reopen his singing school at (Knowersville) Witherwax hall,” proposing to meet each Thursday evening.

Two years later, Prof. Geo. J. Hallenbeck led a singing school in the Guilderland hamlet and in 1890 announced they were preparing for a concert. Rev. G.I. Sweet organized a singing school at State Road Methodist Church at Parkers Corners every Friday evening, which perhaps answered the prayers of “the young people of this place (who) are in want of a good singing school teacher for the coming winter.”

The notices for singing schools faded by the mid1890s.

 

Church choirs

Providing an outlet for those who loved to sing were church choirs. Serious preparation was taken for concerts and services particularly at Easter, their performances often mentioned in the next week’s Enterprise.

Easter 1898 found the singing of the Altamont Reformed Church’s choir “deserves commendation of the manner in which they performed their part, showing their ability to execute ably different music.” At the same time, Guilderland Center’s St. Mark’s Lutheran choir’s singing on Easter morning 1899 “was of a high order” with “solos rendered in a most pleasing manner.”

Those who attended the Easter service at the Guilderland Methodist Church were pleased by the “excellent” singing.

The public was sometimes invited to a special concert of religious music offered by a local church choir such as the sacred cantata of song “King Triumphant” offered by the McKownville Methodist Church choir in 1898.

Church choirs were included in a variety of secular events. Fourth of July celebrations often found a choir involved.

Teachers’ Institutes, week-long meetings requiring area teachers’ attendance at sessions to improve their instructional techniques, were held in various churches where one feature would be entertainment by that church’s choir.

Guilderland’s Memorial Day was the occasion for a major ceremony at Prospect Hill Cemetery, a secular event with strong religious overtones. The growing prohibition movement brought frequent visits to local churches by ministers or other speakers seeking to promote temperance and included participation by the church’s choir.

 

Community music

Beginning in the 1880s, community musical activities were becoming an important part of American life. In Guilderland, this was especially evident with an outburst of musical activity in Altamont.

Villagers lived within easy walking distance of churches and meeting rooms, allowing them to form musical groups, rehearse, or attend performances — all with little effort.

Having talent, organizational skills, and the ability to stir up enthusiasm and participation, Mrs. Jesse Crounse and Montford Sand were each very involved in initiating village musical activities. This does not mean that music wasn’t going on in other parts of town but efforts there to form musical groups weren’t as successful.

Extremely popular during the last quarter of the 19th and early 20th centuries were community bands. They played at a variety of public events, usually for a modest fee to cover their expenses, to be paid by the sponsoring organization.

Knowersville’s band organized about 1885, followed within a year or two by the Fullers Cornet Band. Unfortunately, Guilderland Center’s attempt to organize its own band failed for lack of participation.

Within a year of its formation, Knowersville band members offered “grand entertainments,” first in one, then the other of the village’s hotels.

At the time, band members were described by the editor of the Enterprise as “some of our most promising young men,” who had been “organized scarcely a year, a credit to the village” and “in every way entitled to our support.”

Attendees at their fall concert would enjoy an oyster supper followed by full band choruses, and cornet and clarinet solos. Admission to this special evening was 40 cents.

The band announced that it was prepared “to furnish music for picnics, excursions, festivals, etc.”

For the next several years, the Knowersville band was in demand for both Republican and Democratic rallies, annual Lutheran reunions, excursions, church and temperance fundraising events, the Altamont Fair, Memorial Day, and Fourth of July observances, and the town’s big annual Sunday school picnics.

Historian Gregg described one of these Sunday school picnics when excited Altamont children sat perched on hay wagons with the band in the lead. The children sat and played on three-seated lumber wagons as they headed toward the picnic grove where they met children from other Sunday schools.

Young men from Fullers and the surrounding area also organized a band in the late 1880s that also played at a variety of town events for a few years. One of the band’s evening events was held at Wormer’s Hall in Guilderland Center. The admission of 25 cents brought entertainment from the band as well as farces, clogs, song and dance, male quartets, and comic sketches.

After 1891, the Fullers band seemed to have disbanded.

Around this time, drum corps were organized in Guilderland Center, Dunnsville, the hamlet of Guilderland, and Altamont. For a few years, one or another participated with either the Knowersville Band or Fullers Band at Sunday school picnics or Memorial Day ceremonies.

After 1898, there was a lapse of several years when the Knowersville/Altamont Band’s name disappeared from the Enterprise’s pages until 1908 brought about a revival of the village’s band, remaining active until 1918 when it was no longer mentioned.

The band’s performances must have been a rousing success, both in Guilderland and nearby communities where they performed at events as varied as the Altamont baseball team’s season opener, political rallies for either party, marching in parades, the cornerstone laying of Noah Lodge’s new Masonic Temple, at benefit events for churches and temperance organizations, Sunday school picnics, a Hose Company entertainment and for their field day and picnic.

 

Village orchestra

The year 1885 saw the formation of an orchestra in Altamont, which began with 10 members. A Fourth of July concert brought 600 people to the Reformed Church to listen to the choir, a vocal quartet, and the Knowersville orchestra.

That same month, when the temperance group Triumph Lodge took a cruise on the Steamer “Lotta,” the orchestra supplied the music. During the next few years, performances were few until in 1889 an announcement appeared that the orchestra, which had been reorganized with an additional violinist, was holding frequent rehearsals.

In 1890 and 1891, the Library Association’s dramatic performances of “Placer Gold” and “Laura the Pauper” included the orchestra providing the music. The last mention of the original orchestra appeared in 1897.

Revived in 1911, the new orchestra’s first public performance was at the Voorheesville Odd Fellows Fair where “the numbers were played with spirit.” Most of their performances between 1911 and 1917 were playing for dances, often outside of Guilderland.

 

Musical Association

An ambitious undertaking was the formation of Altamont’s Musical Association in 1895. Within a year, the association combined with the Altamont Orchestra for a concert at the Reformed church, although shortly after they faced disbanding because of “indifference.”

After a period of inactivity, 1898 brought new projects beginning with a rehearsal of the “Peasant Wedding March.” During the winter months, the Musical Association brought in outside, more professional talent to perform, among them the Capital City Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar Club.

The association was complemented by The Enterprise “for the amount of variety and general excellence of the entertainment we are enjoying this winter which are furnished at an exceedingly low price.” A year later, the group put on an elaborate comic opera, though it was made clear that half of “Princess Bonnie” was in dialogue.

The year 1900 brought “Merry Milkmaids” followed by “Pauline” in 1901. By 1902, the group no longer seemed to be mentioned.

In 1900, Altamont’s newly formed Mandolin and Guitar Club made its debut at the musical association’s costume production “The Merry Milkmaids.” After the performance, it was judged “they did exceptionally well.” The group played at church bazaars and gave occasional concerts for the next few years.

 

Music at home

While formal musical groups were not as much a feature of life in other Guilderland communities during these years, music had become a popular pastime at home with the popularity of affordable upright pianos and small pump organs. Schenectady and Albany music stores advertised instruments for sale in The Enterprise while local columns often reported the names of proud new owners of pianos and organs in various parts of town.

However, a music revolution had begun with the invention of the phonograph. Already in 1890, Wm. Keenholts was working as an agent for Edison’s phonograph.

Back in the village for a visit, he gave demonstrations of “the marvel of the age” in Altamont, Guilderland Center, and the hamlet of Guilderland. This was probably the first time most local folks had ever heard the sound of a full orchestra or an opera singer.

This represented the beginning of American’s opportunity to hear professionally rendered music of their own choosing at their own convenience. Soon local columns listed the names of lucky new owners of phonographs.

While the coming of radio also brought a choice of endless professional musical performances, amateurs  continued to perform in churches and schools and local musical groups. Today’s listeners are no longer limited to listening to live music, but have an endless choice our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.

 

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Farmers and their family members were often working in the fields or barns away from an unlocked house, providing easy daytime entry for pilferers. Here the Chapell family of Parkers Corners is in the field at harvest time.

Town justices of the peace in the 1890s and early 1900s had an easy time hearing the relatively few cases that arose here each year.

Guilderland’s rural area of scattered farms interspersed with a few hamlets and the village of Altamont was inhabited by a homogenous population composed chiefly of white, native-born, Protestant Americans, almost all of whom were law-abiding citizens. As in any community, there were a few whose criminal or antisocial behavior sometimes caused problems.

The town’s major complication was that Guilderland was crisscrossed by both the D & H and West Shore Railroads and by the Western and Schoharie Turnpikes bordered by the city of Albany on the east and Schenectady not far to its northwest. Many strangers, who were occasionally dishonest or sometimes desperately poor, passed through these routes, giving them easy access to the town’s vulnerable homes, farms, and businesses.

An informal survey of many issues of The Altamont Enterprise from the 1890s and early 1900s gives some idea of law and order and the types of cases the town justices were hearing.

The 1886 Howell and Tenney History of Albany County lists the town’s elected officials from the time of Guilderland’s formation until the 1880s. Elected justices of the peace don’t show up on record until 1830, although elected constables were part of town law enforcement since 1803.

No regular stipend seemed to be paid, but each year justices and all other town officials billed for expenses. In 1906, Justice Wm. A. Brinkman claimed $40.90 and Justice Wm. S. Wagoner claimed $39.45.

These figures probably represent the costs created by holding hearings, notifying jurors in the occasional town-level case when a jury was needed, renting space in a local hotel for a trial, and possibly transportation to the county seat. More serious crimes were tried at the county level and those suspects arrested and held were sent to Albany County Jail. Justices operated out of their own homes, there being no town hall in those days.

 

Just one murder

Violent crime in Guilderland was a rarity.

In 1895, when 70-year-old Philip Richtmyer, “an honest and faithful laborer,” was murdered late one evening in McKownville there was great “excitement” in town. Lured from the house of his employer, Fred Swartz, where he was boarding, Richtmyer was shot, his body dumped near the McKownville’s school, discovered a few days later by a small boy picking berries nearby.

George Smith, arrested shortly after in Rensselaer County, admitted to having shot Richtmyer for a few dollars and his watch. Smith was sent to Albany County Jail, but the outcome of his case is unknown. This murder seemed to have been the only serious crime in town during those years.

 

Assault cases

Periodically, an assault case came before a justice, some cases more violent than others. A fight between two Italian laborers named Burillo and Spinella escalated from a friendly argument to blows followed by one pulling out a razor and the other a pistol. Neither was injured.

Five witnesses were subpoenaed, but only one appeared and offered such contradictory testimony that Justice Livingston decided to dismiss the case, giving the two men a severe reprimand.

Another Italian, a laborer for a man (neither named in The Enterprise) living a mile from the hamlet of Guilderland, attempted to shoot his employer through his bedroom window but, his aim being too high, the bullet missed his victim.

Soon after, the shooter was arrested by Constable Warner and, after a hearing presided over by Justice Capron, the laborer was taken off to Albany County Jail to await the action of Albany County Court. Anyone who was Italian was an outsider and was considered suspicious by local residents at that time. They were often laborers on the two railroads in town.

Other assault cases were simply local men throwing punches. One night, Allen Settle, a local farm worker, went to the Altamont Hotel for a drink or two.

Bullied in the barroom when one of the fellows drinking there tossed a lighted cigar into the new hat that Settle was carrying in his hand, he accused Charles Ward of damaging his hat. A furious Settle then punched Ward hard enough that Ward tripped, the back of his head slamming against the bar railing, resulting in what was called a skull fracture that required the attention of two doctors.

His condition was considered critical. Settle’s case of second-degree assault was heard by Justice Osborn over at least two, possibly three, days in Altamont’s Commercial Hotel Hall, interviewing witnesses first and then Settle himself.

By this time, Ward had recovered enough to be back out and about. Finding insufficient evidence, the judge discharged the case. This case must have excited much local interest because the details appeared in The Enterprise three weeks in a row.

Other assault cases occurred every now and again, usually resulting in dismissal or in a $15 fine or the possibility of 15 days in the county jail.

 

Burglaries

Easily the most common criminal activity during those years was burglaries, some perpetrated by tramps, the more serious losses caused by professional criminals who probably fenced their loot in Albany or Schenectady. And there were likely a few town residents who were either having hard times or who were just dishonest and disreputable as well.

Chickens were often the helpless victims of tramps who sneaked into a henhouse in the middle of the night, wrung a few necks, made a fast getaway, and enjoyed roasting a fresh chicken in an isolated spot when they had gotten a few miles down the road, destroying the evidence in the process.

Other chicken thieves, professionals who arrived with horse and wagon, could wipe out a large flock. Forty hens were hauled away from Charles Gemlich’s McKownville henhouse. Having left 23 other hens dead in the road, the thieves must have been scared off before they could load the others.

The “chicken thief fraternity” hit Fred Wormer’s Guilderland Center hennery for 30 of his hens and these two thefts were just two examples of large-scale chicken thefts mentioned, a real financial loss to the farmers involved. After thefts of this size, city butchers were probably selling those chickens the next day.

In addition to the amounts of cash stolen, a huge variety of property was carried off during those years. Among the missing were foodstuffs of various kinds: a turkey, a roast beef, a jug of cider, sacks of salt and flour, fruit, a barrel of corn, canned goods, “provisions,” a pig, a cow, and gum and candy from the slot machines in Guilderland Center’s railroad station.

Horse and carriage items disappeared too: harnesses, horse blankets, carriage robes, and at least three horses. Other property that walked off included barbering, blacksmithing and wheel-making tools; school books and drawing compasses, postage stamps, jewelry, cigars, silverware, and much men’s clothing and shoes.

Among the more unusual items that disappeared were two bushels of grass seed; a quantity of stone; and, from St. Lucy’s Chapel, the altar wine replaced by water.

Several homes, stores, schools, farm buildings, and craftsmen’s shops were broken into over the years, some of the stores and shops more than once. Every part of town was hit, but communities and farms on a transportation artery suffered worst.

Occasionally thieves were seen escaping. Mrs. Handy saw a tramp intruder just as he was slipping out of a window in her Meadowdale home. It was soon obvious he had gotten away with gold rings.

Three strangers at the Altamont depot, suspected of being thieves, apparently realizing they were about to be arrested, “the birds took leg bail,” each heading off in a different direction, managing to escape.

Two men were seen running in the direction of Voorheesville after blowing open the safe in Petinger’s Guilderland Center store, getting away with $35. Crooks blew open the safe at the Guilderland Foundry, but weren’t so lucky. Their efforts paid off with a paltry $8.

 

Citizen threats

Did any of these thieves ever get caught? Rarely, it seems, though George L. Barnard and Charles Vinhout were both charged at different times with burglarizing Pitts’ store in Altamont and another. Also, Delville Staats faced charges for stealing a bicycle from Keenholts and Warner’s store in Altamont.

Occasionally, suspicions that a thief was a neighbor led to pointed threats of public exposure in The Enterprise.

Someone in Guilderland Center who substituted an old hand pump for a new one in someone’s yard was warned “we know who you are” on being instructed to return the new one to save himself some trouble and to keep his name from being made public.

The person who removed a turkey from Keenholts market should return the turkey or $2 or he would “be exposed by one who saw him do it.”

Threats of taking the law into their own hands if burglars were caught on their property appeared with some regularity, sometimes making Guilderland sound like the Wild West.

It was highly unlikely the actual thieves were reading these threats in the paper, but it made the locals feel in some control as when one farmer threatened he would “make it hot for him” if he ever caught the man who stole his pig.

Perhaps the crooks might have been a bit more nervous if they knew citizens were being advised to “oil up their trusty revolver and be ready for business” or “house revolvers should be kept handy for use as burglars are prowling about” or “keep your shootin’ irons in order and if they call on you at night let ’em have it” — that last advice from a town justice no less.

Actually the suggestion, “Keep a good watch dog about the premises to keep tramps and burglars away” made the most sense.

It’s very possible some farmers let go with a shotgun or townspeople roughed up a suspicious character skulking about, but it’s very unlikely they’d insert the news in their local column in the paper although the gold-bowed spectacles incident did appear.

One day, a peddler stopped by the Dunnsville home of Mrs. Henry Shaver who at the time was entertaining some of her lady friends. After the peddler had gone on his way, one woman realized her gold wire spectacles were missing.

The loss was discovered quite some time after the peddler had left but local men followed him, eventually catching up to him. When questioned, he admitted to having taken the spectacles and immediately after was the recipient of a severe “booting,” which his pursuers hoped made him “wiser and sorer.” And yes, the lady got her gold-bowed spectacles back!

 

Swindlers and pickpockets

Other crimes in those days included the loss of cash to pickpockets or silver-tongued swindlers, often when the Altamont Fair was in session or a traveling circus or show stopped in town.

A 1908 visit to Altamont by a traveling circus resulted in one elderly Guilderland Center gentleman being talked out of $200 while another man was “flimflammed” out of $56 by the ticket seller.

Another swindle involved a cow that had been purchased on the hill, brought down into Altamont, and left off at the Altamont Hotel stable temporarily until the new owner would come back to retrieve it.  A drover who was walking a number of cows to market stopped at the hotel, saw the cow and inquired about it.

After enjoying dinner there, the drover slickly explained he was picking up the cow for its owner, mingling the purloined cow among his other cows and was on his way to market. When the real owner, Alonzo Strope, came back to the hotel to claim his cow, it was long gone.

Senior citizens, then as now, were targeted. Civil War veterans were warned that a man who claimed he represented the G.A.R., the Grand Army of the Republic, the national Union veterans’ organization, was a fake.

 

Punishments

Punishments for convictions included fines or jail time if fines were not paid. Illegal train-riding was a $5 fine while assault was $15, though many cases were discharged for lack of evidence.

Prejudice against individuals probably played a part in sentences handed out. Tramps, the name given to wandering homeless people of the day, and Italians probably were treated more harshly than a hometown fellow, especially if he had the right connections.

However, a local man, formerly of Voorheesville, one of three brothers with an “unsavory reputation” accused of stealing a new wheel (bicycle) was quickly sent off to county jail for the grand jury to consider his case.

Most times, it seems the justice who heard the case decided the outcome, but there were times when a jury was seated, often in civil cases such as the one involving Sands Sons of Altamont, businessmen who sued Datus Wood for the balance of money owed for a gasoline engine Woods had purchased.

This case was serious enough that lawyers were involved. From the bits of information recorded in The Enterprise, it’s difficult to tell how often lawyers were represented plaintiffs or defendants.

At the turn of the 20th Century, life in a rural community was less complicated in so many ways, including dealing with crime, justice, and punishment. With the coming of the automobile, prohibition, and population growth, things changed rapidly.

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— Painting by John R. Williams

 Jacob Van Aernam, Revolutionary war hero, and his barn, still standing on Brandle Road, just outside of Altamont, was painted by John R. Williams of Knox for a Van Aernam descendant. The Van Aernam cemetery is still there, too. Jacob Van Aernam is waving to Sam, an enslaved person whom, family lore has it, saved Van Aernam’s life.

Most New Yorkers know that slavery once existed here, but few are aware that not only the wealthy, but a large number of ordinary New Yorkers benefited from the labor of enslaved men and women.  For two centuries or longer, slaves were toiling on many of Guilderland’s farms or in local taverns, their names and labors long forgotten.

Within a short time after the Dutch established the Colony of New Netherland in the 1600s, Africans were imported, beginning a history of slavery in New York that lasted until 1827. In the colony, and after 1776 the State of New York, slaves were more numerous than in any of the other northern states in the new republic.

In 1771, shortly before the American Revolution, Albany County counted 3,877 Blacks, almost all of whom would have been slaves.

A glimpse of slavery and the contemporary attitudes of Albany’s white citizens were provided by Mrs. Anne Grant in her 1808 “Memoirs of An American Lady.” Having resided in Albany for many years in the last decades of the 18th Century, she had ample opportunity to observe life there, concluding that local slaves were “happy in servitude, being generally hardworking and loyal to their masters.”

According to her portrayal, physical punishments were rare, but for the few who were really wayward slaves, neglecting their duties, stealing, being disloyal or partial to alcohol, the threat of being shipped to Jamaica to work on the sugar plantations kept most of them in line, she wrote.

Slave ownership did not seem immoral or to have bothered the consciences of Albany County slave owners. In their view, religious beliefs did not preclude people from slave ownership and, since mention of slavery had appeared in the Bible, slave owners “had not the smallest scruple of conscience with regard to the right by which they held them in subjection,” Mrs. Grant wrote.

Her conclusion that “the slaves were usually faithful and true to their masters and mistresses, as aside from their being bond slaves and chattels, their lot was comparatively happy” was an opinion that would have been typical of most New York slave owners of the time.

By the mid-1700s, early settlers had begun to establish homes in the area of Albany County that eventually became the town of Guilderland. Arthur Gregg, our late town historian wrote, “The old settlers seemed to have easily absorbed the idea of slavery and took pride in the rapidity with which they could afford them.”

Jacob Van Aernam was a colonial settler known to have owned at least one slave at the time of the Revolutionary War. Van Aernam family tradition claimed that, while an enslaved person named Sam — only his first name is given — was working with Jacob Van Aernam in one of his fields, Sam became aware of a rustling sound in the brush and immediately alerted his master. Van Aernam quickly seized the gun he always carried with him in those troubled times and, thanks to Sam’s warning, managed to rout a stealthily approaching band of Tories.

With the ratification of the Constitution, the extent of slavery in Guilderland becomes more carefully documented by the decennial censuses beginning in 1790. With 3,929 enslaved persons and 170 free Blacks, Albany County had more slaves than any other county in the state except New York City.

While at that time Gulderland was still part of the town of Watervliet, familiar Guilderland names stand out among a much longer list of Watervliet’s population. Henry Appel, owner of the Appel Inn, owned one slave; Jacob Van Aernam owned three, and Barent Mynderse owned four.

The 1800 census enumerated 412 enslaved persons living in the town of Watervliet. At this time, Henry Appel, Frederick Crounse, and Jacob Van Aernam each possessed five slaves, while Lucas Veeder and Barent Mynderse each owned four. Many others owned one or two.

Barent Mynderse, like Jacob Van Aernam, had been a local patriot who played an important part in the Revolutionary War. He was born and lived as an adult in the Freeman House, owning a sizable piece of land there.

His son was Nicholas V. Mynderse, who built the tavern that is now called the Mynderse-Frederick House in 1802 and a year later was elected first town supervisor when Guilderland officially became a separate town.

In the 1790 and 1800 censuses, Nicholas Mynderse does not show up in the records, probably because he was still part of his father’s household. Only the names of heads of households were listed in early United States census records; other family members were listed by sex, age, and race. By the time of the 1810 census, he had died. The question of whether his father’s slaves helped to construct or serve in his tavern cannot be answered without further documentation.

The northern antislavery movement became stronger in the years after the Revolutionary War, leading to the other northern states abolishing slavery one by one. In New York after the Revolutionary War, the number of enslaved persons actually increased with 21,000 slaves in servitude in the late 18th Century.

Although some New York citizens were in favor of emancipation, freedom for the slaves came slowly with much opposition especially from rural areas. Manumission — an owner freeing his slaves — became a major divisive political issue of the day.

 

Gradual emancipation

Finally, in 1799, the New York State Legislature passed an act gradually freeing slaves. The complicated law stated slaves born before July 4, 1799 would remain as lifelong slaves unless freed by their owner. However, a male born after that date remained a slave until his 28th birthday while a female remained a slave until her 25th birthday, both serving their mother’s master.

Included in the 1799 slave legislation was the provision that babies born of slaves after this time must be registered with the state. Also included was a clause allowing masters to collect a stipend if slave babies were freed within a year of their birth.

As a result, these children were paupers, allowing the overseer of the poor to make them bond servants of the masters who were then paid a monthly fee of $3.50 for each. This explains why in our early town records the following notices are quoted in the Howell and Tenney 1886 “History of Albany County, NY”:

“I do hereby give notice that my Negro wench Dianna was, on the 20th day of May, in the year of our Lord 1802, delivered of a male child named Simon, and that I shall abandon the said child agreeable to the act in that case made and provided. Dated this 28th day of April 1803. Frederick Crounse”

Similar notices were given by Peter Veeder, abandoning his slave Susan’s female child named Gin, and John Howard, abandoning his slave Gin’s male child named Yeat. Henry Appel abandoned three babies, all children of his slave Maria, born between 1801 and 1803, two boys named Jan and Joe and a girl named Gin. And James LaGrange abandoned a male child named Jock, son of Phoebe.

This law was so popular with slave owners that by 1804 the state had paid out over $20,000, a huge sum at that time. The legislature quickly revoked that clause of the law.

Slaves continued to be legally bought and sold in the state until the final emancipation law of 1827. In the Guilderland Historical Society Archives may be seen a 1793 sales contract between Casper M. Halenbeek of Coxsackie who was selling a “certain Negro wench named Zann (Fann?) aged twenty two years together with her child named Maria nearly two years old soundly without any ailments or old disorder” to Hendrick Shavier (Henry Shave?) of the Town of Watervliet for 65 pounds (Americans frequently continued to use English denominations in the years shortly after the Revolution).

George Severson operated a tavern at the base of the escarpment on the Old Schoharie Road (now the site of Altamont’s Stewart’s Shop) with the help of slaves. A Severson family member remembered a story told of an enslaved woman named “old Gin,” spinning before the fire in the late 1700s in the basement of the tavern.

When George Severson died in 1814, all of his worldly goods were inventoried in preparation for a public auction. Listed between 6 brooms with an estimated worth of $.75 and 7 feather beds estimated to be worth $70 was “1 Negro wench estimated to be worth $70 and l Negro girl $40.”

A year earlier, Severson had purchased the approximately 37-year-old Nan for $100 from a Schoharie man; the bill of sale and complete inventory are found in Chapter XXVII of Arthur Gregg’s “Old Hellebergh.” At the auction, both Nan and the nameless girl were purchased by one-time town Supervisor Peter Van Patten for $191, higher than the inventory estimate. Being that he paid a higher price than the estimate, it is likely one or more persons also bid against him to own these two women.

Although it was illegal to do so, in the years just before the end of slavery in New York, slaves were often sold South where they were in great demand. It is not known if any slaves in Guilderland suffered this fate.

 

Death

As chattel or personal property, enslaved people were part of a deceased person’s estate and were very often passed down to heirs. Jacob Van Aernam’s 1812 will left his slave Sam, his protector during the Revolution, to his sons, John and Thomas, and to his single daughter, Nancy, while to his daughter, Lany, “my young female slave named Chris” and to his daughter Nancy “my youngest Negro slave named Gannet.”

When enslaved African Americans died, finally finding rest and peace, their bodies were interred in the individual family burial grounds on their owners’ farms that existed before large cemeteries were established.

Arthur Gregg mentions the Severson family cemetery where “the graves of slaves are marked with simple fieldstones.” As for the Crounses, “south of their own graveyard may be seen that reserved for the Crounse slaves after their toil was over.”

William Brinkman, an earlier Guilderland town historian, wrote that on the Lainhart farm “colored people are buried in the southeast corner of the plot.” Since the 1810 census lists 37 Guilderland residents owning 66 slaves, there were certainly many other family plots where slaves had been laid to rest over the decades that slavery existed in Guilderland.

 

Finally, freedom

The 1810 census shows that, in addition to the 66 slaves in Guilderland, there were 54 “free Negroes,” the term used to describe Blacks at that time. Many households had a combination of slave and free Blacks.

Matthew Frederick’s household had one slave and two free Negroes while Barent Mynderse had three slaves and one free Negro. A few residents, such as innkeeper William McKown and John Fryer, each had one free Black person in their households.

Slowly, slavery was dying out. In 1820, the number of slaves had dropped to 47 with 25 free Negroes in town.

Political agitation to totally end slavery continued with strong dissention between the Federalist and Republican parties until finally, under pressure from Governor Daniel D. Tompkins, in 1817, the New York State Legislature passed a law freeing all slaves including those born before 1799 on July 4, 1827.

As sort of a postscript to slavery in Guilderland, in May 1894, an announcement of the death of “old aunt Dinah Wilda, colored,” appeared in the Guilderland column of The Altamont Enterprise. It explained she had been born in 1800 and purchased as a 6-year-old by a grandfather of Dr. Abram DeGraff, Guilderland’s well known doctor.

She remained with the family after the abolition of slavery for three generations and, according to the writer, “was much respected by all who knew her and was always treated as one of the family.” She wasn’t living in Guilderland at the time of her death, but her body was returned to her original home, where her funeral took place at Hamilton Presbyterian Church and burial followed in the DeGraff family plot in Prospect Cemetery.

Later in the 19th Century, as descendants of the original slave owners looked back, their attitude would have been much the same as Mrs. Grant’s. Their ancestors’ slaves were treated kindly and were happy with their lot in life, they maintained.

Howell and Tenney described the institution as “mild” in Guilderland. We know better.

Just imagine yourself being in the situation of the enslaved, overworked Sam or Maria or Nan. Imagine the fear for her future of the unnamed young girl who was auctioned off or of that terrified little 6-year-old Dinah purchased by Dr. DeGraff’s grandfather — and judge for yourself.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Ward’s Store on Route 20 in Guilderland was one of many stores in operation during the Great Depression. Not only did it offer food, but served as the post office and had gas pumps as well. Note the WGY sign about the entry. In recent years, the building was taken down for Guilderland Fire Department expansion.  ​

Imagine a family of four seated at their dinner table, sharing one or two frankfurters sliced into a bowl of macaroni covered with a tomato soup sauce accompanied by a side dish of a can of green beans or corn. Sound far-fetched?

During the 1930s, such a meal would not have been unusual for a family headed by an unemployed breadwinner or one whose wages and hours had been cut. While not every family in Guilderland was so impoverished, there were others who were suffering.

The following notice appeared in the Village Notes column in the Nov. 4, 1932 Enterprise: “While the thoughts of many of our residents are on unemployment relief, it might be well to remind ourselves that there are many others in need of help at this time of the year. The Enterprise knows of one case, not far from Altamont, where a middle-aged woman, who is caring for her little nephew, is almost destitute.

“She has been unable to obtain work of any kind. If this notice strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of those who read it, the Enterprise will be glad to furnish the name of the person needing help — or the Enterprise will receive and dispense gifts received from our readers. The need for help is urgent.”

By 1932, the unemployment rate in the United States had risen to 23.6 percent and a year later hit an all-time high of 24.9 percent.

Examples of local charity for the truly destitute made its way into the pages of The Enterprise at times, often involving young people. A Dec. 1, 1933 headline read, “Local High School Pupils Bring Thanksgiving Cheer.” The story described the efforts of Altamont High School students who raised $30, allowing them to fill 11 baskets with chickens, vegetables, and fruit to be distributed to needy families.

The committee for the 1932 Sunday School and congregational Christmas party at St John’s Lutheran Church requested that attendees bring a donation to be given to the needy. Earlier, the church’s primary Bible Classes had run a food sale with proceeds dedicated to purchasing Christmas gifts and food for the needy.

The public was urged to “buy and help encourage the young folks in well doing.” A tremendous amount of charity was done quietly over those Depression years, much of the time individuals helping to assist friends or family members who were in dire financial straits.

Even for those steadily employed, average wages were low. Workers such as farm hands, waiters, and dressmakers earned under $1,000 each year at a time when the average annual wage was estimated to be $1,368. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set the minimum hourly wage at 25 cents.

Even though the 1933 dollar had the buying power of $19.61 in 2020 dollars, enabling the fortunate few who had high wages or salaries to live well, the average American found it challenging to meet everyday expenses, especially putting food on the table.

 

Home grown

Family farms, still very common in 1930s Guilderland, could easily supply their owners much of their own food. Even townspeople in local hamlets and the village of Altamont often had large backyard gardens and fruit trees.

For anyone without a garden, some local farmers, themselves trying to earn some income, opened farm stands. William Hartmann set up opposite the McKownville Methodist Church; his stand was open six days a week — even evenings. In Altamont, Charles H. Britton, a Parkers Corners’ farmer, offered his “full line of fresh vegetables each day” and at “very reasonable prices.”

Other farmers such as Oakley V. Crounse sold fruit, dairy products, chickens, and eggs from their own farms. Kolenska Dairy Farm in Guilderland offered both raw and pasteurized milk and would deliver.

Come winter, fresh fruits and vegetables were a rarity, forcing everyone to turn to canned foods, either grocery-store brands or for the lucky ones, home-canned fruits and vegetables. By mid- to late summer home-canning supplies were a common feature in supermarket ads running in The Enterprise.

The Super Market offered Ball quart jars at 62 cents per dozen and pints at 52 cents per dozen, while at Central Markets prices were 4 cents for one dozen jar rubbers, 21 cents for one dozen Mason jar tops, 9 cents for a large package of parowax, 23 cents for Certo and 62 cents for one dozen quart Mason jars.

If canning pickles were on the agenda, pure cider vinegar was 17 cents (plus jug deposit) and cans of spices were 10 cents each. In 1938, The Enterprise writer from Guilderland Center noted in her column, “Vlasta Drahos is again champion canner of this vicinity. She was awarded first prize in the 4-H department of the Altamont Fair for canned fruit, for tomatoes and tomato juice and second prize for vegetables.”

 

“These days of thrift”

Deciding what to feed the family was made easier for housewives who could turn on their radios for food programs that offered recipes and suggestions. On WGY, there was Food Talk with Col. Goodbody, WGY Household Chats, the Radio Household Institute or the A & P program. For years, the United States Bureau of Home Economics sponsored a radio show where “Aunt Sammy” discussed housekeeping and feeding the family.

By the early 1930s, the U.S. Printing Office had produced several hundred thousand copies of Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes, available free to help housewives through what the government called, “these perilous times,” “these days of thrift,” “this frugal period.”

Appearing periodically in The Enterprise were menu suggestions from Ann Page, “spokeswoman” for the A & P supermarket chain. Tactfully appealing to all levels of income, here is a sample of “her” suggestions: For a low-cost dinner, serve braised lamb shanks, potatoes, mashed yellow turnip, bread and butter, vanilla pudding with preserves, tea or coffee, and milk while for a medium cost dinner the housewife could serve chicken fricassee, boiled rice, carrots and peas, bread and butter, chocolate cream pie, tea or coffee or milk. A very special dinner suggestion was cranberry and orange-juice cocktail, chicken pie, browned sweet potatoes, creamed onions, green salad, French dressing, hot rolls and butter, jelly roll, tea or coffee or milk.

Even the most self-sufficient housewife or farm wife was forced at least some of the time to shop at a local grocery store or supermarket.

Both Empie’s Market in Guilderland Center and Ward’s Store in Guilderland were affiliated with the WGY buying network, actually named after the radio station, but not connected with it. The increased buying power of this large group of independently owned stores allowed the local WGY grocers to offer weekly specials and regularly advertise in The Enterprise.

Altamont had independently-owned stores such as Hudson Food Store, Altamont Cash Market, and Pangburn’s Food Store, although they may not have all operated during the same years. Altamont Cash Market offered a pound of soup bones for 5 cents, stew beef  for10 cents per pound, stew veal for 10 cents per pound, lamb stew for 10 cents per pound, and butt or shank ham ends for 22 cents per pound.

Cash Store butcher Charles Ricci was selling a pound of shoulder veal for 25 cents or a pound of veal chops for 28 cents to those who could afford prime meat. These small stores faced stiff competition from two national chain super markets, the A & P and the Grand Union, both of which had expanded their chains into Altamont

Compared to modern supermarkets, these were relatively small stores but had great buying power and were able to offer lower prices than local independently-owned markets. To their advantage, the locally-owned markets offered credit to customers who didn’t always have ready cash and they would make deliveries. Neither the Grand Union nor the A & P advertised regularly in The Enterprise.

Two Schenectady-based supermarkets did seek to attract Guilderland customers, possibly because a certain number of local people worked at General Electric or other jobs in the Schenectady area and traveled back and forth. Advertising regularly in The Enterprise were The Super Market with two Schenectady stores on Broadway and Central Market, and the two local Golub stores that grew to become the Market 32/Price Chopper chain today.

Closest to Guilderland was their store at 2600 Guilderland Avenue, touted in their ads as “most convenient if you live in or near Altamont.” “Shop the easy basket way” meant serving yourself but, if you didn’t mind traveling a few miles and had cash to pay, a budget-minded customer could snag some real bargains.

Central Market’s clever merchandising included staying open until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights and assuring shoppers there were plenty of parking spaces. Quoted in one of its 1934 ads was, “For the past year my friends have talked about nothing but Central Market and their easy prices. Now I’m talking Central, too.”

A three-store Albany chain called Trading Port also appeared in The Enterprise, appealing to McKownville folks with the slogan, “Every day a bargain day, shop and save the basket way.” Its location was 1237 Western Ave. at the city line.

Unlike the local independent stores, both Schenectady supermarkets offered prices with half cents. Central Market was selling cans of fancy pumpkin for seven-and-a -half cents, a pound of Maxwell House coffee for twenty-four-and-a-half cents and genuine Long Island ducklings for nineteen-and-a-half cents per pound.

Some samples from The Super Market were pork loin roast for eighteen-and-a-half cents per pound, a package of Grape Nuts Flakes for nine-and-a-half cents and California sardines for seven-and-a-half cents.

 

Dining out

Dining out was another option that families could enjoy, although restaurant dining seemed rare and few restaurant ads ever appeared during those years. Scanning the local columns of The Enterprise shows a tremendous amount of visiting among friends and relatives, often with dinner or luncheon mentioned.

For families with some spare cash, church suppers offered the dual opportunity to socialize, and to dine out at a reasonable cost. In 1932, when the Ladies’ Aid Society of St. John’s Lutheran Church put on its annual chicken and waffle supper, approximately 200 attended.

The Village Notes column pointed out, “…while the patronage fell off fully a third from last year due to current conditions, the supper was reported a success and a considerable sum of money raised.”

The coming-events columns frequently mentioned church dinners. McKownville Methodist Church, Hamilton Presbyterian Church, Parkers Corners Methodist Church, and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church all had dinners or food sales of some sort.

For 75 cents in early October 1935, you could stop by the Hamilton Presbyterian Church for a chicken dinner with chicken, biscuits, dressing, mashed potatoes, buttered carrots, cabbage salad, jello, rolls, apple and pumpkin pies, and coffee on the menu.

A few weeks earlier, the Parkers Corners Methodist Church was charging adults 50 cents and children under 12 could eat for 25 cents. The Harvest Home Supper menu: roast lamb, mashed potatoes, corn, pickles, rolls, coffee, and jello.

At times, other groups such as the 4-H and Altamont Businessmen’s Bowling League also offered suppers as well.

Like the rest of America, some of Guilderland’s families sailed through the Great Depression easily and could take advantage of the depressed prices to live very well.

Most were forced to be very thrifty to manage to eat, pay the rent or property taxes, run their car and heat their house, while there were others in our town who suffered poverty, deprivation, and sometimes malnutrition.

For most Americans, the Great Depression years were a very trying time.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Imagine the stereographic or magic-lantern views of the coming Robbins Circus shown on the piazza of the Knowersville House (later called the Altamont Hotel). What a way to stir up anticipation in 1885! This building was set beside the railroad tracks facing Main Street. Today, a gas station and convenience store is on the site.

News in the 1880s and ’90s that a traveling circus was stopping in town created an air of anticipation and excitement among all ages. Normally, the daily lives of that era’s country folks were monotonously routine, making the novelty and glamour of the circus’s arrival an event to remember.

Advance news in The Enterprise in July 1885 that Frank A. Robbins Circus and Menagerie was about to appear not only stirred up interest in Knowersville (after 1887, the name was changed to Altamont), but in the surrounding hamlets as well. Knowersville, conveniently located on the busy D&H rail line, was the perfect spot for a one-ring circus to set up and attract paying customers from a wide area.

Using what was advanced technology of the time, the event was promoted with stereopticon views of the coming circus from the piazza of the Knowersville House. The exact location where the circuses that visited Knowersville/Altamont set up their tents and menageries was never specifically identified, but there was certainly much open land adjacent to the village at that time.

When the big day arrived, the village was packed with circus-goers “from near and far” filling village streets to view the circus parade. Circus parades were an American tradition acting as free come-ons, but the cost of admission of this or any of the other circuses over the years was never publicized in The Enterprise.

Following the Robbins’s circus parade were two performances, afternoon and evening, attended by large audiences. In the next week’s edition, The Enterprise editor commented approvingly that “it was the first time in our experience with a show of this kind in town, the program as advertised was carried out.”

Again in 1889, Frank A. Robbins Circus made a stop in Altamont, now with additional attractions including a Wild West hippodrome and a museum in addition to his circus and menagerie. Enterprise readers were advised, “Do not fail to visit this wonderful show … a good circus and an extensive collection of wild animals.”

With the arrival of the Robbins Circus, the village was described as “being in a flutter of excitement” with small boys as well as many of mature years out in force. The next week’s edition noted that the circus had come and gone except for a mound of earth in the shape of a ring … .”

Apparently the day they were leaving town, mention was made by departing circus workers that some reptiles had escaped. No one took it too seriously until one of Mrs. Wm. M. Lainhart’s family members encountered, what The Enterprise described, an “immense snake coiled up near the Old Schoharie Plank Road.”

After being alerted about this discovery, Jacob Van Auken dispatched the unfortunate serpent with an ax. When stretched out full length, it measured eight feet long, attracting many curious onlookers over the next few days.

 

Sad tale

Circus life in the small one-ring circuses that crossed rural America was fraught with insecurity and uncertainty. The expenses of feeding and paying performers and other workers, feeding animals, covering transportation costs, keeping up the conditions of equipment and tent, and providing a profit for the owner had to be met from ticket sales.

The visit of Rice’s Circus to Altamont proved to be one of the last chapters in the sad tale of a circus down on its luck.

The visit was scheduled for July 1887. The Enterprise announced that the advance car of J.H. Rice’s Circus and Menagerie had arrived, making preparations for a show later that week. The editor claimed, “The show is highly endorsed by the press and we have no hesitancy in speaking in its favor.”

The arrival of the Rice circus caused a stir in the village. Although the outfit had many wagons and other material, the condition of their tent was “torn and dilapidated.” Circus officials brushed it off, claiming the conditions were “due to being hit by a cyclone,” but The Enterprise’s snide comment was, “That gave them away.”

The performers carried on like troupers with the paper admitting many of the acts were “quite meritorious,” but unfortunately the audience attendance was rather small. Rice’s Circus moved on to Albany “where it was reported it was sold to Jacobs & Proctor, who give outdoor 10 cent shows.”

“The Circus Again” was an article appearing the next week continuing the sad saga and fate of Rice’s Circus after leaving Altamont. Setting up in Albany, the circus first suffered disaster when its elephant “Empress” nearly killed a circus-goer.

The circus, which had been operating at a loss, had hoped to “retrieve their fortune” on reaching Albany, but no luck. Manager J.O. O’Brien ordered a quiet street parade, no band playing, moving south out of the city, intending to head for Philadelphia.

Skipping town, leaving behind unpaid and angry creditors, the circus arrived in Coxsackie where the troupe gave a performance. They then, apparently on foot and in wagons, made it to Jersey City.

Here an employee named Edward Welch, went to court, seeking his unpaid salary and also charged “cruelty to dumb animals,” claiming the horses, camels, elephant, lion, and bulls had not been fed since they left Albany and that one of the camels died of starvation.

An arrest warrant went out for O’Brien, but, seemingly an expert on skipping town, he was nowhere to be found. The remains of his circus was moved on to Philadelphia, perhaps where it had originated.

Huge numbers of animals, both domestic and exotic, traveled with these circuses, and at that time their treatment was not an issue except among a very few. In 1907, a short article appeared in The Enterprise, illustrating concern for the poor treatment of circus animals. 

“Trained By Cruelty” claimed that “animals as a rule were taught tricks through torture,” adding that some members of the circus community “speak with horror of the methods of some trainers.” Animal welfare was not an issue for most circus-goers and it was unusual to see reference to this topic in those years.

 

Circuses grow

One-ring circuses continued to stop in Altamont on and off for the next few years.1892 brought Chas. Lee’s Monster London Circus with acrobats, gymnasts, trapeze artists, a clown, and performing dogs and horses.

The circus was described as “strictly first class” with a “splendid street parade,” and as being “entirely free from fakirs, gamblers or other objectionable features.” Chas. Lee’s circus returned the next year with a show “better than many that charge twice the admission.”

Disreputable hangers-on or dishonest circus employees often used the honest and naïve circus-goers encountered at these rural stops as chickens ready to be plucked.

In 1908, after a visit by Frank A. Robbins Circus, an Enterprise article titled “Robbery and Flim-Flam Game” mentioned one “aged and respected citizen lost $200 to a “slick individual,” while a young man was flim-flammed out of $56 by the ticket seller.

Others were robbed of smaller amounts, making the promise of respectable behavior by circus employees in advance publicity a plus for potential customers.

In all the promotion of visiting circuses, there is never a mention of the cost of admission whether for one of the small one-ring circuses that visited Altamont or the really big shows that appeared in Albany. Certainly not everyone could afford to go to the circus, though the street parades were free for the public.

While in 1893 Sautelle & Ewer’s Circus set up in Altamont, playing to large crowds, a decade later Sautelle’s Circus was described as a “mammoth affair,” bypassing Altamont to set up in Albany. Now expanded into a two-ring circus and traveling on 26 railroad cars, there were the usual circus acts and menagerie.

New additions included the royal Roman hippodrome and a historical Wild West Show. The acts were “all new and novel and original,” many being described as “highly sensational.”

Not only was there a 63 horse and pony act, but the unique “earth’s only pony riding lion named Nero performing wonderful feats.” A mile-long street parade promised to be a brilliant pageant of lustrous chariots, dens of wild beasts, bands, a steam calliope and “more big things than ever was witnessed before in a street procession.”

Competition between the two huge circuses Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. that were traveling from one large city to another forced each of them to become more elaborate each year. In turn, their shows put pressure on smaller circuses to expand or like Rice’s, be pushed into bankruptcy.

Albany and occasionally Schenectady or Troy became the setting for an annual visit of one or both of these big circuses. Hoping to attract large audiences, the circuses put out detailed publicity notices describing their new and novel attractions for that year, inserted in all the newspapers while railroads put on special excursion trains for patrons to travel at reduced rates to attend the circus.

At this stage, smaller circuses were relegated to performing in more outlying rural areas.

Using the 1912 Barnum & Bailey Circus’s publicity announcing their appearance in Albany as an example, here are the details of their fabulous show for that year. Their performance was now expanded with a cast of 1,250 characters; a grand opera chorus of 100 voices; an orchestra of 100 musicians; a 350-dancing-girl ballet; 650 horses; five herds of elephants; caravans of camels; and an entire trainload of special scenery, costumes, and stage effects.

There was to be a lengthy parade and their spectacle “Cleopatra.” The circus traveled on a train more than a mile in length and would cover 14 acres when set up.

There were 110 cages in the menagerie and over 2,000 wagons and other vehicles. This circus has nearly 1,500 employees, 700 horses, and nearly two-thirds of all the elephants in America.

Barnum & Bailey promised what you saw in Albany would be the same as the performance the audience experienced in Madison Square Garden. They guaranteed, “This is the greatest spectacular theatrical and circus event in the history of amusements in America.”

Both Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. changed their spectacles annually plus added new exotic animals and acts to get audiences to return each year.

(Just an aside: With all those animals and all those people, can you imagine the unsanitary conditions left behind when the circus left town back in those days?)

 

Fair attractions

And what about the performers in the small fading or bankrupt circuses who didn’t have the talent or unusual act to be in the big-time circuses? By the turn of the 20 Century, county fairs were in their heyday and troupes of former circus performers found a new venue. 

In 1908, Altamont fair-goers could see several free attractions including the Ethiopian Black Birds, Bilyck’s Educated Sea Lions, The Trained Chimpanzee, The Four Famous Dieke Sisters, The Double Jointed Midget, and The Famous Gila Monsters. Each year, similar attractions traveled the county fair circuit, becoming part of each fair’s attractions.

Circus-going in the later 19th Century and during a large part of the 20th Century was a popular pastime for those who could afford admission. In those times, very few ever raised concerns about the treatment of the animals or the working conditions of performers and other workers employed setting up or breaking down the circus on arrival and departure.

The free and lengthy and elaborate street parades created a spectacle for everyone. With the excitement and glamour, is it any wonder so many kids wanted to run away to join the circus and a few adults secretly wished they had?

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— From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Red Cross volunteers in Boston: Massachusetts had been drained of doctors and nurses due to calls for military service, and no longer had enough personnel to meet the civilian demand for health care during the 1918 flu pandemic. Governor Samuel Walker McCall asked every able-bodied person across the state with medical training to offer their aid in fighting the epidemic. Boston Red Cross volunteers assembled gauze influenza masks for use at hard-hit Camp Devens in Massachusetts.

— From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Red Cross volunteers in Detroit: Motor Corps and Canteen volunteers from the Detroit chapter of the Red Cross take a break from delivering supplies to flu victims. To prepare Detroit for what was to come from the pandemic, the Red Cross and Department of Health nurses cooperated together for home visits, food preparation, and child care.

— From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A New York city street sweeper wears a mask while on the job in October 1918. Street sweepers were also arranged to work as grave diggers to assist with the bodies of influenza victims.

— From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Open-air police court in San Francisco: As the number of influenza cases in San Francisco rose sharply, the City Board of Health issued a series of recommendations to the public on how to avoid contracting influenza including avoiding the use of streetcars during rush hour, avoiding crowds, and paying attention to personal hygiene. To prevent crowding indoors, judges held outdoor court sessions. The Board of Health recommended all services and socials be held in the open air, if they weren’t cancelled.

— From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Ambulance duty in St. Louis: The Motor Corps of St. Louis chapter of the American Red Cross was on ambulance duty during the influenza epidemic in October 1918. The Red Cross motor corps recruited volunteer drivers and automobiles to supplement ambulances and chauffeur nurses from one quarantined house to the next. Through this volunteer system, approximately 40 nurses cared for about 3,000 patients who otherwise had no access to private nursing.

The normally pleasant days of late summer 1918 were overshadowed by an outbreak of Spanish influenza, initially affecting a naval training base near Boston, next a nearby army camp, then rapidly infecting Boston’s civilian population. Quickly reaching epidemic proportions and spreading out along the nation’s rail lines, wide swaths of the country were soon overwhelmed by the disease.

The disease originally surfaced in Spain in February 1918 as a somewhat milder form of influenza with widely scattered outbreaks over the summer, only to erupt in a second wave during the last weeks of August in a more contagious and virulent form. Not only was there a high death rate among the very young and old, unusually, a high mortality rate affected otherwise healthy 20- to 40-year-olds.

A tragic coincidence was, in late August, for the fifth year, World War I was raging in Europe. A huge military build-up had begun in this country after our declaration of war on Germany in 1917.

Since the United States had virtually no army at that time, training camps were immediately established, each housing 25,000 to 50,000 men — both volunteers and draftees — often crowded over capacity. Once training was complete, jammed troop trains transported the men to ports to be shipped to European battlefields in close quarters on troop ships, a perfect scenario for spreading the influenza virus.

Among these troops, there were many men from Guilderland and the surrounding area.

Local life as usual

As usual, life was good for most of Guilderland during August that year. Those fortunate enough to own an automobile were out on motoring trips. Others stayed close to home, visiting friends and relatives, attending church services, or socializing at meetings or events like the ice cream social at St. Mark’s in Guilderland Center.

However, it was noted in that community’s Enterprise column that, during the last week of August, five women were ill, though with no details. Otherwise, life seemed normal.

Endless local events were on tap to make September a very busy month. The Altamont Fair ran from Sept. 17 to 20 that year, on one day attracting 10,000 people. Guilderland voters gathered at the polls on Sept. 14 to vote on the local option to turn the town “dry.” A large turnout, including newly enfranchised women, cast their ballots at the only polling place at the town’s recently acquired building in Guilderland Center.

School openings, numerous church services and activities, meetings of Red Cross groups, family reunions, Saturday night movies at the Masonic Hall, the usual social calls all led to an amazing amount of social interaction among town residents. But only the Guilderland Center and Parkers Corners columns mentioned illness, again nothing specific.

However, in nearby Albany, influenza cases suddenly spiked during late September and it’s very likely many cases had begun to crop up in Guilderland unannounced in the local columns.

Most newspapers, whether weeklies like The Enterprise or city dailies, gave limited coverage of the epidemic, which by mid-September was raging not only in Boston or Philadelphia, a city that was particularly hard hit, but also in smaller cities like Albany where, by early November, 7,091 cases were reported.

Freedom of the press was limited during World War I. Federal legislation forbade any reports critical of or disloyal toward the government, anything unpatriotic, or anything that would hurt the war effort. Stiff penalties could be imposed. Papers tread carefully, fearing too much news about the epidemic would have a bad effect on morale.

Albany’s Health Officer seemed to believe it was not a serious epidemic, forcing Dr. Herman Biggs, the New York State Health Commissioner, to issue a letter to newspapers of the state on Sept. 27, 1918, asking them to warn their readership “to brace for the epidemic.” He also requested that physicians report cases of influenza and pneumonia in their locality. This message did not appear in either of the next two weeks’ editions of The Enterprise although anyone who read an Albany daily surely would have been aware of it.

Guilderland readers took notice on Oct. 4 when, at the bottom of The Enterprise’s front page, a report of a Coeyman’s soldier’s death from influenza and pneumonia appeared. That fall, he was the first of local soldiers in our immediate area to die of influenza rather than war wounds.

That same edition of The Enterprise reported that Earl Becker, stationed at the naval recruiting station in New Haven, Connecticut, came home to Altamont on a 48-hour furlough, and, having contracted Spanish influenza on his way home, was quite ill. He fortunately recovered and returned to duty.

Otherwise in Guilderland, that first week of October life went on as usual. At the Masonic Hall, a traveling stock group performed a different play each night for five successive nights, attracting large audiences. Church groups and fraternal organizations met, church services were held, and children attended school. Only the Dunnsville and Guilderland Center columns reported a small number ill, but with no mention of influenza.

Hit with a vengeance

The disease hit town with a vengeance during that week because, by the time the next week’s Enterprise was in the hands of readers, churches and schools had closed. At the bottom of page one, a short notice stated that, at the request of the Board of Health, no public gatherings could take place in Altamont for several days.

“Both of the churches will be closed all day Sunday, the movies, lodges, prayer meetings, Sunday Schools and society meetings will be discontinued on account of the prevalence of the Spanish influenza which has made its appearance here,” The Enterprise reported. According to the notice, only a few cases had been reported in the village and it was thought these rules would help to halt the spread of the disease.

Page five of the same edition carried a brief notice from the Surgeon-General of the United States Public Health Service that he had issued a publication dealing with the Spanish influenza, which contained all known available information regarding the disease. Anyone interested could send for the publication by mail.

In the meantime, there were already thousands dead in East Coast cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. In 1918, the federal government was not very involved with national health issues but, as the situation worsened, the Surgeon-General sent out a communique to newspapers across the nation.

Prominently headlined atop page one of the Oct. 18 Enterprise was: “Uncle Sam Gives Advice on the ‘Flu’” with the warning that “droplets” from sneezing, coughing, or even hardy laughter could infect others. It was the local officials, however, who actually stepped in to take action to prevent the spread of the disease and, in urban areas, also dealt with the huge number of deaths.

At this time, Guilderland Center’s correspondent reported, “The epidemic of grippe (the old-fashioned word for influenza) is so prevalent in our village there is scarcely a home which has not had someone ill.” Church services were cancelled as were meetings of the Red Cross, Christian Endeavor, and Sunday School lessons. The Liberty Bond Drive meeting with its out-of-town speaker also had to be cancelled because the speaker had the disease.

Although several McKownville residents had been stricken, it didn’t stop that community’s baseball team who “rung down the curtain on the season” with a dinner at Albany’s Keeler’s Restaurant. This must have taken place before Oct. 9 though, because the epidemic had become so critical in Albany that on that date everything was shut down as cases there mounted into the thousands.

Another complication of our involvement in the war was that, out on the Western Turnpike in Fullers, there were two couples under the care of Voorheesville’s Dr. Joslin. During October 1918, about 38,000 American doctors were either serving overseas — such as Guilderland Center’s Dr. Hurst — or at military training camps, placing an additional burden on the doctors remaining at home.

It was reported that, in one day that October, Dr. Joslin treated 58 influenza cases, obviously traveling far afield if he were paying house calls from Voorheesville over to Fullers.

Numerous names of influenza sufferers are mentioned in the various Enterprise columns from all parts of town, but the progress of one case described repeatedly was that of Millard Cowan, a well-known Altamont resident first reported suffering from influenza in the Village Notes column Oct. 25. He was under the care of Dr. Cullen and a trained nurse.

A week later, even though it was cited that the epidemic of influenza in Altamont had practically ceased to spread, the most serious case was Millard Cowan, “critically” ill for more than a week. Developing pneumonia as a complication, “for several days his life was in the balance. We are now informed that hopes are entertained of his recovery although it will be several days before he is out of danger of a relapse.”

The next week, Cowan was slowly recovering. “Of the many cases in this vicinity, Mr. Cowan’s was the most serious of all,” the columnist wrote. It was predicted he would be around again in a few weeks’ time. 

Another week later, he was “recovering very nicely,” the columnist wrote, noting it was four weeks ago Thursday that he had come down with the illness. His nurse, Miss Hadley, left Monday, seeing he was considered out of danger. Thursday he sat up for the first time.

Cowan didn’t return to his job in Albany until the second week of January. In the meantime, his wife had received the tragic news that her brother on duty with the army in Europe had died of influenza and pneumonia.

Schools close

Schools closed at various times in various parts of town. Those that were noted suspending classes were Guilderland Center, Guilderland, Dunnsville, Meadowdale, Parkers Corners, and Fullers. Altamont’s school, which housed grades one through twelve, closed on Oct. 14.

Dr. Cullen ordered Altamont’s school to remain closed even though other activities in the village were allowed to resume. After three weeks, the school was permitted to reopen, but grades one and two and grades five and six (at that time two grades to a classroom) were dismissed on Tuesday for the remainder of that week due to sickness. Even Prof. Hook, the high school principal, had had the flu.

Flu kills soldiers

Into early November, Guilderland was fortunate that, while much of the population had had the influenza, there seemed to have been no fatalities here. However, it was reported in the Nov. 8 Meadowdale column that “a telegram was received here Saturday stating that Matthew Hennessey was seriously ill at Camp Wheeler, Ga.”

The next week, word came that Harry Mesick of Altamont “who was inducted into service about three weeks ago and sent to Camp Wheeler, Ga. with a number of other young men of this vicinity, was taken sick shortly after arrival, died last week. His body was buried near the camp. His sudden death came as a shock to his friends here, who deeply sympathize with his family.”

The next week, news came that “Matthew Hennessy died on Tuesday, November 5 at a base hospital in Georgia, age 21 years. His funeral was held at St. Matthew’s Church.” These two men and the Coeymans soldier were among the 43,000 servicemen who died in the influenza pandemic, more than the number of Americans who were killed in battle during World War I.

Winding down

During the month of November, there were still many local cases of influenza reported, but the number seemed to be winding down. December brought virtually no reports of new cases.

However, in January 1919, there were many new cases. Settles Hill farmer Walter Gray died early in the month. and a few weeks later Clarence Osterhout, age 34, died at his home in Altamont after being ill less than a week.

Then, the numbers dropped and by spring Spanish influenza seemed to have disappeared from town.

To this day, the actual origin of Spanish influenza isn’t definitely known — certainly not Spain. Some researchers claim China; others theorize it all began in Kansas.

Estimates run as high as 50 million people or more who died worldwide; of those, 675,000 were Americans. While Albany suffered over 450 deaths, Guilderland’s comparatively low mortality rate — and it’s possible there were additional deaths not listed in The Enterprise — was probably due to its rural character and cancellation of activities.

Location:

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Clayton Ogsbury’s gilt-framed portrait hangs at Enterprise Printing and Photo at 123 Maple Ave., long the home of The Altamont Enterprise, which has since moved across the street to 120 Maple. Clayton Ogsbury was the brother of John D. Ogsbury who had owned The Enterprise. 

Newly discovered veins of gold and silver in the western territories attracted hordes of fortune seekers in the years immediately following the Civil War. Joining the exodus west was David Clayton Ogsbury, a 22-year-old who had grown up with his brothers and sister on the Settles Hill farm worked by generations of Ogsburys since the 1790s.

Feeling there was little future for him in this area, the adventurous Clayt decided to relocate to the Colorado Territory in 1869. Before boarding the Albany & Susquehanna train at Knowersville, he made his goodbyes to his parents, brothers, and sister. Rev. William P. Davis, pastor of the Helderberg Reformed Church where Clayton had always attended services, had also come along to wish him godspeed.

Denver, Clayt Ogsbury’s new home, had become a bustling town within a few short years of its founding. Quickly obtaining employment, Clayt Ogsbury began to invest in mine shares. A few years before, gold and silver discoveries in the mountains of southwestern Colorado had led to the establishment of several small settlements in that area.

Rumors of rich silver lodes supplying amounts as much as 500 ounces per ton had reached Denver, inspiring the ambitious young Clayt Ogsbury to relocate to the rough mining town of Silverton, a community high in the mountains, reachable only by trails, some years cut off for months by heavy winter blizzards.

In 1877, before the winter snows blocked the mountain passes, Clayt returned to Denver where he began the rail trip east to visit his childhood haunts around Knowersville. He reconnected with family and friends, bringing with him a souvenir, an engraving of Silverton and the surrounding mountains.

Drawn from a recent landscape painting, the print would enable everyone back in Guilderland to visualize the spectacular scenery and mining operations of his new home.

On his arrival, family and friends, delighted to have him back in their midst, found a mature, self-confident, successful man, who impressed everyone with his demeanor. Assuring his father that he was now quite prosperous, Clayt promised to pay off the mortgage on the Ogsbury farm, handing over several gold nuggets to his elderly father with the promise of more to come.

The first documentary evidence of his residence in Silverton was a liquor license dated 1879, a common way to make a living in a mining town of that period. During the next two years, Clayt was also mining some claims in nearby Ophir with the colorful names of Little Dora, Empire, Cocktail, and Ajax.

Ogsbury named marshal

In Silverton, his reputation of being a sober, hardworking, responsible man of integrity led to his being named in 1880 as court bailiff. A year later, on May 9, 1881, Clate (as his name was always spelled in Colorado) Ogsbury was appointed town marshal of Silverton.

Almost immediately, he made his first arrest, a fugitive robber on the lam from another county. At the same time, he continued his mining ventures with a new claim called “Crown Jewel.”

Silverton in 1881 was a typical western mining town, its main street lined with a mix of saloons, dance halls, and gambling dens frequented not only by the locals, a rough bunch in themselves, but also by  tough hombres passing through. The Diamond Saloon was perhaps the most disreputable of the lot, offering drinks and dancing with the “ladies” employed there, all under the watchful eye of “Broncho Louisa.”

An unsuspecting patron, unaware that the usual customers were the roughest element in the town, complained to Marshal Ogsbury after discovering he had been stripped of all his valuables. The marshal promptly arrested “Broncho Louisa,” who, after spending a night in jail, soon made her outraged feelings known to the regulars at her saloon.

By coincidence, riding into town late that same day were Burt Wilkinson, Dyson Eskridge, and an African American known as the “Copper-Colored Kid” — three cowboy members of the notorious Stockton-Eskridge gang. All three had a price on their heads, the result of misdeeds in Durango in a nearby county.

The Copper-Colored Kid was also wanted in Texas, where a $1,200 reward had been posted. First stabling their horses in a livery stable several blocks up the street, the three headed for the toughest dive in Silverton, the Diamond Saloon where the angry clientele was still seething over Marshal Ogsbury’s treatment of their “Broncho Louisa.”

Early on the evening of Aug. 24, 1881, Luke Hunter trotted into Silverton. He was the sheriff of La Plata County, where Durango is located, and he carried warrants for the arrest of Wilkinson, Eskridge, and the Copper-Colored Kid.

This man of no integrity and little courage let all and sundry know that he had the warrants, most likely to warn the outlaws to hightail it out of town, sparing him any unpleasantness. However, the action at “Broncho Louisa’s” must have been just too good because the three gang members decided to stay put.

Shot in the line of duty

When Hunter went to find Ogsbury to inform him of the warrants, the marshal wanted to get additional backup, but the sheriff, who may have thought the three outlaws would be gone by then, insisted that there would be no problems.

Hunter, Ogsbury, and a man named E.W. Hodges began to walk down Silverton’s main street. Approaching the Diamond Saloon, Ogsbury became aware of a man lurking in the shadows. As he peered to get a better look, there was the explosive sound of a shot.

Ogsbury crumpled, falling face forward with a bullet lodged just above his heart. When Hunter and Hodges turned Ogsbury on his back, he groaned. But as more shots were fired from the saloon, they quickly retreated without ever returning fire. Clayt Ogsbury died in the dusty street.

Cut off from their horses at the livery stable down the street, the three desperadoes fled on foot and were able to get out of town without having one shot fired at them. A short time later, they sent the Copper-Colored Kid back into town to retrieve their horses, but he was quickly captured, arrested, and put in jail.

The next evening, angry locals stormed into the jail, “overpowered the jailer,” and lynched the “Kid” in his jail cell. The local newspaper later reported the incident in racist terms.

Clayton Ogsbury’s funeral was attended by 500 people. Afterward, his body lay in state in the courthouse for several hours and then a huge procession followed it to the cemetery. All of Silverton’s businesses had closed in his memory.

That very day, a telegram arrived from Dunnsville, New York with Ogsbury’s family requesting the return of the marshal’s body. It was disinterred, embalmed, and the coffin taken over mountain trails to the nearest railroad to begin the long journey home, accompanied by Rev. Harlan Page Roberts, the minister of Silverton.

With the common belief in Silverton that Burt Wilkinson was Ogsbury’s killer, reward money reached the sum of $4,000 for his capture. Wilkinson and Eskridge had escaped, hiking on foot, finally getting shelter at a friendly ranch.

Ike Stockton, leader of their gang, had no qualms about “arresting” Wilkinson and turning him in for the reward money. Within 24 hours after being jailed, the locals “overpowered the jailer” and as they had the Copper-Colored Kid,the locals hanged him in his cell.

At about the same time, in early September, a solemn crowd of over 100 people gathered along the D & H tracks by the tiny Knowersville depot, waiting to pay their respects as the train carrying Clayton Ogsbury’s coffin pulled in.

The Helderberg Reformed Church was packed to capacity the day of his funeral when Rev. H.P. Roberts of Silverton, assisted by the church’s pastor Rev. Samuel Gamble, led the service. After the funeral, the crowd followed the coffin across the road, climbing the hill to the cemetery for burial. At his gravesite a stone was later erected with a carving of his marshal’s badge prominent on top where it stands to this day.

Settling his estate

In October 1881, J.H. Ogsbury and John Ogsbury, Clayt’s father and brother, showed up in Silverton to settleClayton’s estate.  According to the San Juan County Historical Society’s archivist writing in 1986, the estate records are incomplete.

According to the late Arthur Gregg, Guilderland’s town historian, Ogsbury’s father had delayed going west until spring. When he went to Silverton, he took with him a “country justice of the peace” who was not competent to deal with the complexities of mining claims. Clayt’s father received only a few gold nuggets and enough from a bank account to pay off the mortgage on the Ogsbury farm.

Arthur Gregg would have known both John D. and his son, Howard, very well and would have gotten family information from them. Ogsbury family members claimed it was an incompetent lawyer (who very well may have also been a justice of the peace) because there should have been rich mining interests as part of this estate.

With the amount of lawlessness in that area at that time, it is very likely Clayton Ogsbury’s mining interests were taken by someone else before his family had a chance to establish their claim, losing out on what could have been a fortune.

John D. Ogsbury, Clayton’s brother, became the owner of The Altamont Enterprise and hung Clayton’s photograph and the engraving of Silverton that Clayt had brought with him when he visited in 1877 on the wall where he could see it as he worked at the press and where they remain to this day, a memorial to a man who died doing his duty.

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