Many decades ago, peals of bells housed in cupolas atop local schoolhouses signaled dawdling children that classes were about to begin.

Now an apartment building at 131 Maple Ave. in Altamont, the District 7 common school building, built in 1879, once stood on School Street (now Lincoln Avenue). After the Altamont Free Union School opened in 1902, James Keenholts bought the old school building at auction for $875 and had it moved to Maple Avenue.

America’s advances in technology and the growth of business activities at the opening of the 20th Century made it obvious that educational skills beyond those offered by the traditional eighth-grade common schools, then typical in New York’s rural communities, were needed.

Altamont’s School Street (later renamed Lincoln Avenue) had been the site of District 7 common school since 1879, but by 1901 many in this prosperous and expanding village were questioning the adequacy of the education received there by the village’s youth.

Calling a meeting of taxpayers in early April 1901, school trustees sought a consensus either to repair the current school building or to choose a different site and erect a new one. The trustees had heard complaints about the poor and limited quality of education available in the District 7 common school, often deterring outsiders from settling in the otherwise up-and-coming village and forcing villagers to send their children to board in the city if they wished them to get schooling beyond eighth grade.

The trustees made it clear they had hopes of winning approval for a new building large enough to allow Altamont to eventually become a union free school district permitting a high school department. Uneasy taxpayers were assured that enough non-resident students would attend a high school, paying tuition to defray any additional expenses.

The special meeting brought out a sizable number including a few taxpayers who were no happier at the thought of higher school taxes than taxpayers a century later. One suspicious attendee demanded to know why the meeting had been called.

In answer, one trustee read to the assembled group a letter received from the State Department “calling attention to the deplorable condition of the school building and grounds.” A resolution was made to raise $500 to repair the old school but, when it was pointed out that the meeting was not called according to a state law that mandated school meeting notices could only be issued by a person who is also a taxpayer, the resolution died.

With that, the meeting became an informal gathering where the talk drifted over to the need not only for a modern school building, but a school that would offer more advanced studies than the common school.  W.S. Keenholts, one of the school trustees who obviously had come prepared, immediately launched into the requirements that applied to a union free district, legally necessary to establish a high school in New York State.

At that, attendees signed a petition almost unanimously for the trustees to call a second meeting to have an official vote on becoming a union free district. The sentiment seemed clear that Altamont needed a new building offering a higher level of education to keep up with the times.

As the meeting approached when legally eligible voters would decide the question of becoming a union free district, arguments in favor appeared in The Enterprise. “Progressive up-to-date people of the district” not only felt it was a good business proposition, but would give more children the opportunity to get an advanced education.

The old attitude that the eight-grade common school was good enough for my father and good enough for me was “false reasoning.” A comparison between the old common school and the academic department of a union free school made it clear “more extensive book knowledge” was a necessity in “the professional, the industrial, the commercial and the political world” of that day.

The night of the meeting, Mr. Thomas E. Finnegan of the New York State Department of Public Instruction and two other men representing communities that already had become union free districts spoke of the advantages of this type of district.

Advocates of change triumphed when the votes in favor of the new type of district were 124 to 14. A board of education was elected to look into a site and plan for a new building.

By early July 1901, the board of education called a meeting with plans for a new school building and the necessity of raising the sum of $10,200 for construction costs. In addition, $1,800 would be needed for heating and sanitation, and $500 for furnishings in the new building. An additional $800 had to be raised to purchase a two-acre plot on the corner of Grand Street and Fairview Avenue. It was planned to issue bonds to be paid off $1,000 plus interest annually.

The building’s architect was Altamont resident Wilber D. Wright. The notice calling for contractors to submit bids called for an eight-room, two-story school building of solid brick, 50-by-78 feet with a basement. It was to have the capacity for 250 students.

No bid was as low as the figure set by the board of education but, after a way was found to get the additional $3,000, the construction contract was awarded to the lowest bidder, Mr. J.W. Packer of Oneonta.

The old school was auctioned off in 1902 once it was no longer needed, purchased by James Keenholts for $875. Soon after this, he had the building moved over vacant lots to Maple Avenue.

By October 1901, Crannell Brothers, then located in Altamont, had brought in D&H carloads of lumber and Rosendale cement. Work on a foundation of bluestone brought from Fred V. Whipple’s quarry was soon underway.

Many spectators walked over to Grand Street during the next few months to observe the construction progress. Once the exterior was complete, Altamont’s A.J. Manchester installed the heating and plumbing while George T. Weaver put in lathing and plastering. By early summer 1902, the building was completed and formally accepted by the board of education.

The principal of the new school was Professor Arthur Z. Boothby, who had already been hired by the district fresh out of Albany Normal School in 1900. His salary for 1901-02 was $540.40.

Also on the faculty were several women who earned in the $300 range. A janitor had also been hired. The total school budget adopted by the board of education for 1902-03 was $2,495.50.

With the school’s opening imminent, the school board put out publicity, encouraging out-of-town tuition-paying students to attend. Promoting the new school as having “all the latest in equipment in sanitary arrangements and provided with all necessary apparatus for pursuing higher studies,” enrolled students were to be taught by a “competent corps of instructors.”

Tuition rates for non-resident students were given per quarter: academic, $2.50; intermediate, $2.50; and primary, $1.75. For those living along the D&H line, commutation per month was: Delanson, $3.00; Duane, $2.50; Voorheesville, $3.00; and Meadowdale, $2.50. While the costs of construction, personnel, and commutation seem very low, these figures are for 1902 dollars.

A general invitation went out to Altamont’s villagers, urging them to attend the dedication ceremony on Sept. 18, 1902 when the school building would be open for people to wander through. Even though the weather that day turned out to be rainy and unpleasant, a large crowd turned out to participate in opening ceremonies held in the large assembly room.

The program included prayers; scripture readings; and speeches, followed by Dr. Jesse Crounse, president of the Board of Education, who reviewed the rules of the school including one holding the parent or guardian responsible for any damage done by a child to furniture or the building.

School opened Monday with an enrollment of 154 pupils (this number included Altamont’s elementary grades as well) including 10 non-residents. The high school’s first graduating class in 1905 had 11 graduates.

By rights, Altamont residents were extremely proud of their new school, built at great financial cost for such a small village. The school was in use until the centralization of Guilderland’s schools took place in 1950.

By 1953, the new Altamont Elementary School, built on the same plot of land as the old Union Free School, and a year later Guilderland Junior-Senior High School in Guilderland Center were open. The once-modern building in Altamont stood empty.

In December 1955, when it was decided there could be no possible future use for the structure, the board of education of the Guilderland Central School District awarded Jackson Tree Service a contract to demolish and remove the debris of the grand old building for a bid of $3,250.

A New York State Historic Marker stands on Grand Street to indicate where the Altamont Union Free School once stood. It is ironic to think the solidly constructed school was razed, replaced by a lawn and a marker, while the inadequate District 7 common school building is still standing today at 131 Maple Ave. and is now used for residences.

Location:

Just in from the west side of Meadowdale Road, the small Meadowdale Depot stood south of the D&H tracks behind the stationmaster’s house. This photograph of the station appeared on a postcard.

Without a GPS to route them to Meadowdale, Gardner, or Frederick roads, few current Guilderland residents could find their way to Meadowdale, and once there would wonder: What’s Meadowdale?

Although difficult for us to believe today, a century ago Meadowdale was one of Guilderland’s small hamlets with an identity all its own, reflected in its little weekly column in The Altamont Enterprise.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the locale was an area of scattered farms tenanted by leaseholders of the Van Rensselaer West Manor. With the Helderberg escarpment rising just to the west and the Black Creek meandering through the fertile farmland, it was a very scenic spot.

A site was chosen here to become the only stop on the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad between Voorheesville and Knowersville when the railroad laid track through that part of Guilderland in 1863.

Within a year, a small passenger depot and freight office was erected in a location where the tracks crossed a dirt road now called Meadowdale Road; the sign hanging from it identified the stop as Guilderland Station.

A few years later, the A&S Railroad was absorbed by the Delaware & Hudson Railroad. A sizable amount of the D&H’s profits stemmed from summer passenger service: group excursions, day trippers off to a scenic spot, urban vacationers either boarding at country hotels or with farm families who took in summer boarders for extra income.

The logic of D&H executives renaming the stop from its original pedestrian name Guilderland Station to the more attractive sounding Meadowdale is obvious. Annually, the company published the “D&H Directory of Summer Hotels and Boarding Houses” where the prospect of stopping at Meadowdale would certainly seem lots more appealing to prospective visitors.

Each sunny weekend, numerous day trippers came out from Albany to the little depot, planning to hike the two to three miles up the “old road” through Indian Ladder Pass to the top of the escarpment. An Altamont livery stable owner usually would send over one of his wagons to transport for a small fee those who were unable to do the vigorous hike themselves up the escarpment road. At the end of the day, the weary hikers journeyed back to Albany after their day in the country.

Boarding houses on Thompson’s Lake would often send a wagon to pick up expected guests as well. And farmers came by to pick up boarders who were coming to stay a week or more at their farms.

In later years, many Boy Scout troops came to hike up and camp out on top of the escarpment. Local trains were frequent and inexpensive with a 1909 timetable listing fares with the price of a round-trip ticket from Albany to Meadowdale 79 cents while one way was 42 cents.

By 1900, the area around the little depot had become a much bigger railroad complex with a water tower across the tracks, a necessity in those days of steam locomotives. Nearby was a utility shed for storage of track maintenance equipment and across the tracks from the depot was a freight yard where numerous freight cars that brought up coal from Pennsylvania mines could be parked until the fuel was needed to feed the fire boxes of D&H locomotives.

For many years, large quantities of hay was shipped out of Meadowdale, a major profit-making crop for local farmers during those horse-drawn years.

In the 1886 Howell & Tenney History of Albany County, the name is still given as Guilderland Station, characterized as “a hamlet of about 100 people,” with two dealers in cut hay, a blacksmith and a “general merchant.”

A few years later, in 1897, when Landmarks of Albany County was published, rather confusingly Guilderland Station get a one-line paragraph saying it was a small hamlet with no post office with a second one-line paragraph following, mentioning Meadow Dale as a hamlet with a post office in the “extreme southern part of town” — strange since both the store and the postmaster who ran the post office in his own home were only a few hundred feet from the depot.

Soon after the opening of the depot, a Guilderland Station post office was established there in August 1864 and renamed Meadowdale in 1887. While at first the post office was actually in the railroad station, it was later either in the postmaster’s house or more commonly in the community’s general store.

Most of the mail was generated by summer visitors who hiked up the escarpment or were boarding with local farmers. The photograph of the railroad depot appeared on an early 20th Century postcard, one of many sent out with a Meadowdale postmark, though most were of scenes of the Indian Ladder Road or from atop the escarpment.

The general store, for many years run by William Schoolcraft and his wife, not only served folks as the post office, for groceries and other farm necessities, but also as a gathering place to exchange news and gossip. Schoolcraft traveled the area from Voorheesville to Altamont, selling groceries and picking up fresh produce.

School-age children trekked to Gardner Road to the District No. 8 one-room schoolhouse built in 1885 to replace an earlier building. The schoolhouse was not only used for education, but often hosted Sunday afternoon religious services and served as the meeting place for a Christian Endeavor group as well.

A little record book exists labeled “Meadowdale Union Bible School list of membership 1910 – 1912.”  No church was ever built in Meadowdale, and probably most people had membership in either an Altamont or Guilderland Center church, but in the horse-and-buggy era, especially in bad weather, it wasn’t feasible to go that far.

In spite of the population being spread out on farms, having the general store on one road, the schoolhouse on another, and no real center to Meadowdale, the people who lived there definitely identified as being from Meadowdale. The little Meadowdale column that appeared with regularity in The Enterprise listed the births, illnesses and deaths, farm news, social events, and endless visits back and forth.

The appearance of the automobile and the rapid growth of travel by car spelled the end of Meadowdale’s prosperity and identity. People no longer rode the train to board with local farmers or to walk up to Thacher Park as the area atop the escarpment had become by that time.

No longer having a market for hay, farmers had to switch to dairy farming or raising chickens or get out of farming entirely. Meadowdale’s store became obsolete once a short drive to Altamont’s A&P or Grand Union markets became possible. During the mid-1920s, the building that once housed the general store was dismantled and reconstructed in Voorheesville.

In 1925, the D&H Railroad, facing a major decline in profits from passenger travel, went before the New York State Public Service Commission, claiming the year before the revenue generated by the Meadowdale station was $1,424.15 while pay for the station agent there cost them $1,779.03.

In 1924, there were only 17 freight cars forwarded and one received because area agricultural production was declining. The D&H’s chief engineer presented the information that there were only six dwellings and a combination store and dwelling with a graveled road (Meadowdale Road) running through.

Seven residents appeared to protest removing the station agent and only opening the station when a train was expected, but the Public Service Commission granted the D&H’s request.

By 1931, passenger trains no longer stopped in Meadowdale and shortly after the station was taken down and the utility building moved down Meadowdale Road a short distance for someone else’s use. Today there is no trace of the station, water tower, or rail yards, though a single track still cuts across Gardner and Meadowdale roads.

In 1926, the post office was closed and residents began to receive mail delivered by Rural Free Delivery to their mail boxes. The one-room District No. 8 School educated the local children for many years, eventually becoming part of the Voorheesville Central School District.

Farmers continued to hang on in the Meadowdale area, struggling with the changes and competition in farming and the challenge of surviving the 1930s Depression.

May Crounse Kinney, written about by Melissa Hale-Spencer in The Altamont Enterprise, grew up in the Gardner Road area, attending the District No. 8 Gardner Road School until she was 14. She married local farmer Solen Kinney, farming his Gardner Road farm with him until 1949.

Her description of working 365 days a year, running her house and helping with the heavy work on the farm, planting harvesting, getting firewood, caring for animals as well as putting up 300 jars of fruit and vegetables, churning butter and sewing clothes illustrated the lives of Meadowdale farmers and their wives during the early decades of the 20th Century.

All this without electricity or telephone service until the 1940s. The first electrical lines were run out to the Meadowdale area only in 1936 by New York Power and Light Corp.

The Kinneys gave up farming when the price of newer farm machinery cost more than they could possibly afford, which is the story of most of the farmers in our area.

Today, you can drive along Meadowdale, Gardner, and Frederick roads and still see the old farmhouses and cross the railroad tracks, but Meadowdale as a community exists only in memory.

Location:

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The adult craze for wheeling came to an abrupt end when the first automobiles began rolling into towns and chugging out past the farms on country roads. This postcard view of Altamont’s Lainhart block tells the story. After that time, bicycles were for children. The Lainhart block, on Maple Avenue, not far from Main Street, burned in the late 20th Century; a public parking lot fills the space today.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

These three youngsters posed with their bicycles in front of the Dunnsville Hotel’s crowded porch. The photo is probably about the same vintage as the Altamont postcard view.

One September weekend in the mid-1890s found Fred DeGraff of Guilderland Hamlet and four friends mounting their wheels, pedaling over to Pittstown to visit a friend while, on another I.K. Stafford, Fred Keenholts and Andrew Oliver traveled from Altamont to New Jersey to Asbury Park for an extensive cycle tour.

They reported to The Enterprise, “The wheeling in New Jersey was very fine.” As interest and participation in cycling spread, The Enterprise was abuzz with local bicycle news during the decade of the 1890s, often called the Golden Age of the Bicycle.

This craze for wheels, as bicycles were then commonly called, took off in the 1890s as the technological advances of the previous decade came together to create a practical modern bicycle. It began with the concept of two spoked wheels of equal size on a tubular frame followed by the invention of pneumatic tires to provide a smoother ride and propulsion from pedals connected to a chain driven sprocket.

However, early braking systems were less than adequate until the invention of the coaster brake in 1898. Wheels didn’t come cheap, ranging from $25 for a used bicycle in the mid-1890s to over $100 for the finest models in 1890s’ dollars, a luxury for most people at that time.

Advertisements of bicycles for sale showed up in The Enterprise as early as 1890, some inserted by the manufacturers themselves. Monarch Cycle Co.’s appeared frequently, claiming theirs was “absolutely the best” with elegant designs and unsurpassed workmanship using the finest materials.

H.A. Lozier & Co. not only bragged about the Cleveland bicycle’s construction, but added the practical information that its “resilient” tire could be repaired “quicker and easier than any other tire in the market.” Several Albany dealers jumped into the market and, sensing a good business opportunity, some Altamont men began selling wheels and advertising their wares in the paper as well.

“Notes From Gotham,” a July 1893 Enterprise front-page column, noted there was “a growing interest in bicycling as an amusement,” claiming that there was “a popular craze” for the sport, “destined to be the most popular form of outdoor entertainment that has ever engaged the American people.”

While bicycle owners could be found in all parts of Guilderland, by far most cyclists seemed to be concentrated in Altamont, so many that in 1893 sixteen men joined together to organize “The Altamont Wheelmen.” After electing officers headed by I.K. Stafford, plans were made to find club rooms.

Soon they moved into “commodious” and “airy” rooms on the second floor of J.S. Secors new warehouse where a new coal stove supplied not only heat but hot water for the bathtub they installed! It was claimed that they had a “very cozy room and it makes a pleasant place to spend one’s evenings, if they must be spent from home.” A year later for reasons not given, they moved to space over the post office

Immediately after the club’s formation, its members began planning runs to Amsterdam, Albany via Voorheesville, Guilderland Center, Averill Park, South Bethlehem, Slingerlands, and Sloan’s (now Guilderland Hamlet). Remembering the dirt roads of that time, this was an ambitious undertaking but reports in the ensuing weeks indicate that they really did pedal their wheels to these destinations.

As 1894 came to a close, 36 men had been voted into membership, especially once it was made known that actually being a wheelman wasn’t a requirement to becoming a member. The Wheelmen had become not only a cycle club, but a male social club as well.

At the last meeting of 1894, members were treated to an oyster supper, followed by “soft drinks” and cigars, all this hosted for the 25 men present by the club’s president I.K. Stafford and Altamont bicycle dealer Fred Keenholts.

Another dinner the next year mentions an “elaborate spread, merriment and good cheer.” Another type of social function were “smokers” where the men entertained themselves with reminiscences of the past season’s cycling “through columns of smoke.”

“Bicycle Notes,” a sporadic column appearing in The Enterprise, related the latest bicycle chatter from around town, including the names of those who had recently purchased a new or used bicycle. Abe Tygert got a high-grade Niagara while Andrew Ostrander purchased a 22-pound Relay — those were just two of the many proud owners identified over the decade.

If used, the previous owner’s name was also listed: “Lucius Frederick is the possessor of a wheel, having purchased the one ridden by Aaron Oliver last season, and Chas. Stevell who now rides the wheel which J. Van Benscoten rode during 1894.”

Ladies, too

Appearance and manners were topics once touched on in “Bicycle Notes” when the writer, pleased that more riders were sitting upright, described any rider as “silly” to “hump” himself over the handlebars unless racing. And ladies should always sit upright so as not to “stoop in the slightest degree.”

Noting that pedestrians had the right of way, cyclists were to respect them and, in addition, to avoid running down children and old people. His parting comment was, “There are all sorts of road hogs in the world and it is regretted some of them ride bicycles … Young boys and fresh young men are the greatest offenders.”

A rumor appeared in “Bicycle Notes” that some of the ladies were learning to ride and soon their names began to show up in print. Miss Blanche Warner’s wheel was a “handsome new Remington,” while Miss J. Libbie Osborn chose an Erie. Herbert Winne finally bought a used bike to enable him to accompany his wife, the experienced rider of the family. Unlike the men, women were never mentioned riding any distance from home.

Risky business

Racing appealed greatly to younger, athletic riders and quickly became a popular local spectator sport with the racetrack at the fairgrounds the perfect venue for competition. Independence Day, the Altamont Hose Company’s Field Day and Clam Bake, and the Altamont Fair itself all became occasions for bicycle races.

Prizes were given in cash, objects such as a $5 clock or certificates for merchandise at Albany stores. Often local wheelmen traveled out of town to participate in races. Pity Lew Hart who lost count of the number of laps in a Cobleskill race and missed being one of the winners.

Being a wheelman was a risky business due to inadequate brakes; locally hilly, rutted roads; and in some cases the riders’ own inexperience. One time at the fairgrounds, three entrants tangled during a race resulting in bruises and badly mangled bicycles. During another race, Elias Stafford had his ego rather than his body bruised after a spill at the race track when the paper commented the next week, “The spectacle was too ludicrous for anything.”

Guilderland Center resident John Stewart took a bad spill on the curvy hill at Frenchs Hollow, but the most tragic accident befell an Albany man out riding with James Keenholts near Altamont. He was seriously injured after losing control as he turned his wheel, going down off a bridge near Altamont onto some rocks below.

After Dr. Barton tended to his obvious injuries, he was helped to board the evening train heading to Albany. “It is feared he is hurt internally” was the comment in the next week’s Enterprise.

L.A.W. and order

The League of American Wheelmen, an organization promoting cycling and good roads, had been formed in the 1880s. So many Americans were swept up in the bicycle craze that by 1898 membership in L.A.W. topped 102,000 including some of the Altamont Wheelmen. I.K. Stafford, one of the founders and president of the Altamont Wheelmen, became sanctioned by L.A.W. to officiate bicycle races, which he did at the Altamont Fair for many, many years.

Long before automobiles were traveling the nation’s highways, L.A.W. began to press for improved roads for cyclists, preferably paved. Locally, there was a call for cycle paths, at that time more commonly called sidepaths.

By 1898, pressure from wheelmen forced the Albany County Board of Supervisors to create a County Sidepath Commission. Routes out of Albany were being considered and of course, a route to Altamont through Guilderland Hamlet and Guilderland Center was hoped for by residents here.

A sidepath went out as far as Albany Country Club (now the University at Albany campus) east of McKownville with William Witbeck extending it west as far as his tavern (site of present day Burger King), but it never went beyond that, although sidepaths were laid out from Albany to Schenectady and from Albany to Slingerlands.

The Enterprise reported the discovery that, not only did the cyclists like the sidepaths, but pedestrians found “that it makes a very desirable walk.” In 1902, it was reported the Albany County Sidepath Commission had spent $5,000 building new paths and repairing old ones. License badges — “same price as last year” — had to be attached to bicycles.

Wheeling was difficult enough over the poor country roads, but the lack of signs made finding your way, once out of your own immediate area, maddening. By 1896, The Enterprise demanded that “sign boards should be erected at every crossroad in the town” for travelers and especially the many out-of-town cyclists who passed through.

Within a few months, it was announced that L.A.W. would begin placing in all parts of the state blue metal road signs with raised yellow lettering that would identify the village or hamlet and give the distance to the next one.

As is typical of developments in American technology, prices of wheels came down, the market became saturated, owning a bicycle was no longer so fashionable, and a new technology had arrived to take the bicycle’s place. If he felt there was nothing “to be compared with the exhilarating excitement in riding a light running and responsive wheel,” wait until the wheelman had his first automobile ride!

Within a few years membership fell so low that L.A.W. and the Altamont Wheelmen were disbanded and bicycles were relegated to children.

Location:

 One September weekend in the mid-1890s found Fred DeGraff of Guilderland Hamlet and four friends mounting their wheels, pedaling over to Pittstown to visit a friend while, on another I.K. Stafford, Fred Keenholts and Andrew Oliver traveled from Altamont to New Jersey to Asbury Park for an extensive cycle tour.

They reported to The Enterprise, “The wheeling in New Jersey was very fine.” As interest and participation in cycling spread, The Enterprise was abuzz with local bicycle news during the decade of the 1890s, often called the Golden Age of the Bicycle.

This craze for wheels, as bicycles were then commonly called, took off in the 1890s as the technological advances of the previous decade came together to create a practical modern bicycle. It began with the concept of two spoked wheels of equal size on a tubular frame followed by the invention of pneumatic tires to provide a smoother ride and propulsion from pedals connected to a chain driven sprocket.

However, early braking systems were less than adequate until the invention of the coaster brake in 1898. Wheels didn’t come cheap, ranging from $25 for a used bicycle in the mid-1890s to over $100 for the finest models in 1890s’ dollars, a luxury for most people at that time.

Advertisements of bicycles for sale showed up in The Enterprise as early as 1890, some inserted by the manufacturers themselves. Monarch Cycle Co.’s appeared frequently, claiming theirs was “absolutely the best” with elegant designs and unsurpassed workmanship using the finest materials.

H.A. Lozier & Co. not only bragged about the Cleveland bicycle’s construction, but added the practical information that its “resilient” tire could be repaired “quicker and easier than any other tire in the market.” Several Albany dealers jumped into the market and, sensing a good business opportunity, some Altamont men began selling wheels and advertising their wares in the paper as well.

“Notes From Gotham,” a July 1893 Enterprise front-page column, noted there was “a growing interest in bicycling as an amusement,” claiming that there was “a popular craze” for the sport, “destined to be the most popular form of outdoor entertainment that has ever engaged the American people.”

While bicycle owners could be found in all parts of Guilderland, by far most cyclists seemed to be concentrated in Altamont, so many that in 1893 sixteen men joined together to organize “The Altamont Wheelmen.” After electing officers headed by I.K. Stafford, plans were made to find club rooms.

Soon they moved into “commodious” and “airy” rooms on the second floor of J.S. Secors new warehouse where a new coal stove supplied not only heat but hot water for the bathtub they installed! It was claimed that they had a “very cozy room and it makes a pleasant place to spend one’s evenings, if they must be spent from home.” A year later for reasons not given, they moved to space over the post office

Immediately after the club’s formation, its members began planning runs to Amsterdam, Albany via Voorheesville, Guilderland Center, Averill Park, South Bethlehem, Slingerlands, and Sloan’s (now Guilderland Hamlet). Remembering the dirt roads of that time, this was an ambitious undertaking but reports in the ensuing weeks indicate that they really did pedal their wheels to these destinations.

As 1894 came to a close, 36 men had been voted into membership, especially once it was made known that actually being a wheelman wasn’t a requirement to becoming a member. The Wheelmen had become not only a cycle club, but a male social club as well.

At the last meeting of 1894, members were treated to an oyster supper, followed by “soft drinks” and cigars, all this hosted for the 25 men present by the club’s president I.K. Stafford and Altamont bicycle dealer Fred Keenholts.

Another dinner the next year mentions an “elaborate spread, merriment and good cheer.” Another type of social function were “smokers” where the men entertained themselves with reminiscences of the past season’s cycling “through columns of smoke.”

“Bicycle Notes,” a sporadic column appearing in The Enterprise, related the latest bicycle chatter from around town, including the names of those who had recently purchased a new or used bicycle. Abe Tygert got a high-grade Niagara while Andrew Ostrander purchased a 22-pound Relay — those were just two of the many proud owners identified over the decade.

If used, the previous owner’s name was also listed: “Lucius Frederick is the possessor of a wheel, having purchased the one ridden by Aaron Oliver last season, and Chas. Stevell who now rides the wheel which J. Van Benscoten rode during 1894.”

Ladies, too

Appearance and manners were topics once touched on in “Bicycle Notes” when the writer, pleased that more riders were sitting upright, described any rider as “silly” to “hump” himself over the handlebars unless racing. And ladies should always sit upright so as not to “stoop in the slightest degree.”

Noting that pedestrians had the right of way, cyclists were to respect them and, in addition, to avoid running down children and old people. His parting comment was, “There are all sorts of road hogs in the world and it is regretted some of them ride bicycles … Young boys and fresh young men are the greatest offenders.”

A rumor appeared in “Bicycle Notes” that some of the ladies were learning to ride and soon their names began to show up in print. Miss Blanche Warner’s wheel was a “handsome new Remington,” while Miss J. Libbie Osborn chose an Erie. Herbert Winne finally bought a used bike to enable him to accompany his wife, the experienced rider of the family. Unlike the men, women were never mentioned riding any distance from home.

Risky business

Racing appealed greatly to younger, athletic riders and quickly became a popular local spectator sport with the racetrack at the fairgrounds the perfect venue for competition. Independence Day, the Altamont Hose Company’s Field Day and Clam Bake, and the Altamont Fair itself all became occasions for bicycle races.

Prizes were given in cash, objects such as a $5 clock or certificates for merchandise at Albany stores. Often local wheelmen traveled out of town to participate in races. Pity Lew Hart who lost count of the number of laps in a Cobleskill race and missed being one of the winners.

Being a wheelman was a risky business due to inadequate brakes; locally hilly, rutted roads; and in some cases the riders’ own inexperience. One time at the fairgrounds, three entrants tangled during a race resulting in bruises and badly mangled bicycles. During another race, Elias Stafford had his ego rather than his body bruised after a spill at the race track when the paper commented the next week, “The spectacle was too ludicrous for anything.”

Guilderland Center resident John Stewart took a bad spill on the curvy hill at Frenchs Hollow, but the most tragic accident befell an Albany man out riding with James Keenholts near Altamont. He was seriously injured after losing control as he turned his wheel, going down off a bridge near Altamont onto some rocks below.

After Dr. Barton tended to his obvious injuries, he was helped to board the evening train heading to Albany. “It is feared he is hurt internally” was the comment in the next week’s Enterprise.

L.A.W. and order

The League of American Wheelmen, an organization promoting cycling and good roads, had been formed in the 1880s. So many Americans were swept up in the bicycle craze that by 1898 membership in L.A.W. topped 102,000 including some of the Altamont Wheelmen. I.K. Stafford, one of the founders and president of the Altamont Wheelmen, became sanctioned by L.A.W. to officiate bicycle races, which he did at the Altamont Fair for many, many years.

Long before automobiles were traveling the nation’s highways, L.A.W. began to press for improved roads for cyclists, preferably paved. Locally, there was a call for cycle paths, at that time more commonly called sidepaths.

By 1898, pressure from wheelmen forced the Albany County Board of Supervisors to create a County Sidepath Commission. Routes out of Albany were being considered and of course, a route to Altamont through Guilderland Hamlet and Guilderland Center was hoped for by residents here.

A sidepath went out as far as Albany Country Club (now the University at Albany campus) east of McKownville with William Witbeck extending it west as far as his tavern (site of present day Burger King), but it never went beyond that, although sidepaths were laid out from Albany to Schenectady and from Albany to Slingerlands.

The Enterprise reported the discovery that, not only did the cyclists like the sidepaths, but pedestrians found “that it makes a very desirable walk.” In 1902, it was reported the Albany County Sidepath Commission had spent $5,000 building new paths and repairing old ones. License badges — “same price as last year” — had to be attached to bicycles.

Wheeling was difficult enough over the poor country roads, but the lack of signs made finding your way, once out of your own immediate area, maddening. By 1896, The Enterprise demanded that “sign boards should be erected at every crossroad in the town” for travelers and especially the many out-of-town cyclists who passed through.

Within a few months, it was announced that L.A.W. would begin placing in all parts of the state blue metal road signs with raised yellow lettering that would identify the village or hamlet and give the distance to the next one.

As is typical of developments in American technology, prices of wheels came down, the market became saturated, owning a bicycle was no longer so fashionable, and a new technology had arrived to take the bicycle’s place. If he felt there was nothing “to be compared with the exhilarating excitement in riding a light running and responsive wheel,” wait until the wheelman had his first automobile ride!

Within a few years, membership fell so low that L.A.W. and the Altamont Wheelmen were disbanded and bicycles were relegated to children.

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