A rainy Memorial Day in 1928 found three very elderly Civil War veterans present at ceremonies being held indoors that year at Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church due to the bad weather.

The three men, members of M.H. Barckley Post, No. 198 and the last of what had once been a sizable contingent, had been accompanied by a number of World War I veterans from the Helderberg Post American Legion and joined at the church by members of the public.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, which included a local judge’s patriotic address and music performed by the Clarksville band, American Legion members escorted the three veterans to Prospect Hill Cemetery to decorate the graves of the Civil War dead.

In 1862, while the Civil War was churning out its endless casualties affecting every community in the country, both North and South, the Prospect Hill Cemetery trustees set aside a section to be known as the Soldiers’ Lot where fallen Union soldiers could be interred without cost. Six years later, $650 was spent by the trustees to erect a memorial monument of a stone shaft surmounted by a bronze eagle in the midst of the Soldiers’ Lot.

As an Enterprise article noted in 1898, “A goodly number of those who fell in battle or died in service were brought home and their remains interred here so that today upwards of one hundred veterans are sleeping under its sod.”

Civil War deaths from both sides, the combined result of battle and diseases, especially dysentery and measles, totaled approximately 620,000. Surviving Union veterans, who often returned home suffering from physical or psychological effects of the conflict, began banding together, beginning in 1866, for support and fellowship in a veterans’ organization that became known as the Grand Army of the Republic. In the years that followed, thousands of veterans formed hundreds of GAR posts across the nation.

Chartered by local veterans on Jan. 24, 1881, Altamont’s new post was called the M.H. Barckley Post, No. 198, following GAR tradition of naming a post in honor of a local soldier who had fallen in battle. Lieutenant M.H. Barckley, a Knox resident who had served in the 7th New York Artillery Regiment, was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864 and died shortly after having his leg amputated. Post members included not only men from Guilderland, but Knox and other nearby towns and at its peak counted 49 members.

In 1868, Major-General John A. Logan, first national commander of the GAR, issued Order No. 11 proclaiming that May 30 should be observed annually as Memorial Day to remember and honor those who met death in the war with the words, “Let us gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of springtime … .”

Because Union regiments were recruited from local areas, many men from the same vicinity would be living and fighting together during the war. Twenty-five men from Guilderland and 14 from Knox served in the 7th with Barckley along with others from nearby towns.

Visiting cemeteries where the war dead were interred was a deeply felt emotional experience for the living because the dead men frequently had been the veterans’ schoolmates, friends, neighbors, or perhaps one of their relatives. Early Memorial Day ceremonies had real meaning for both veterans and community members who also had grieved for these losses as well.

The first Memorial Day service at Prospect Hill Cemetery was held in 1868, the year of Major-General Logan’s proclamation, but details of early observances aren’t available. Once The Enterprise began publication, a record of activities on Memorial Day (or Decoration Day as it was sometimes called) provided accounts of how the day was observed.

In the 1880s, with the newly organized Barckley GAR Post and the formation of community bands, more elaborate ceremonies could be staged. Each year in mid-May, the GAR post inserted an announcement in The Enterprise to solicit donations of flowers to decorate the graves.

Taking 1887 as a typical example of Memorial Day in Guilderland, in early morning a crowd began gathering in front of Sloan’s Hotel in the hamlet of Guilderland, waiting for the veterans to arrive. In the meantime, the GAR veterans had left Altamont with their flowers, stopping along the way at both Fairview and Guilderland cemeteries to decorate Civil War graves there, and then proceeded to Sloan’s.

That year, the Knowersville Band accompanied them, though in the years ahead many different bands played at the event. When they arrived in Guilderland, a parade was organized with a grand marshal in the lead, followed by both the Fullers and Knowersville cornet bands, the veterans from the Barckley Post, and lastly members of the public.

Marching along the Turnpike to the sounds of the bands that “discoursed excellent music,” the parade reached the cemetery where a large crowd had already gathered.

Entering the cemetery, their first stop was the Soldiers’ Lot where the proscribed ritual of reading aloud Major-General Logan’s Order No. 11 and strewing the graves with flowers opened the day’s ceremonies.

Next, the veterans, bands, and the crowd that had marched along the Turnpike moved to another section of the cemetery where dignitaries were seated on a platform and a much larger crowd awaited them to begin the program. Later, the estimate was given that there were 2,000 people present that day.

Once in place, as the combined bands played “America,” the crowd burst into song. Next, accompanied by an organ, a choir sang “We’ll Dress the Graves Today,” followed by a prayer offered by Rev. H.M. Voorhees.

A solo “The Empty Sleeve” was sung by Rev. J.C. Fisher, followed by a lengthy patriotic address given by Rev. T.J. Yost, Altamont’s Lutheran pastor, printed complete in the next week’s Enterprise. The program concluded with Henry Swann, the “conductor” of the exercises, making remarks, the choir singing “Tread Lightly on Their Graves” and finally a benediction was given by Rev. Dr. Belden.

     The program varied little over the next several years, but one addition in 1890 was the presence of the popular local poet Madelene LaGrange who probably brought tears to the eyes of many when she read her sentimental poem “The Tried and True,” which began:

We come today, remembering the loved, the tried and true,

To deck the place where lie in peace the boys who wore the blue;

Our boys who died that we might live in rest and peace today,

Who shouldered arms at war’s alarms and marched to join the fray… .

This ceremony became the pattern followed as long as the Civil War veterans were alive. After a few years, the address would be given by a political figure instead of a minister and the participating bands varied, but ministers always continued to play a part.

Choirs were usually from one of Guilderland’s churches. There were a few years when the Barckley Post went to Knox or stayed in Altamont for village Memorial Day ceremonies and Albany GAR posts participated instead, but most years Barckley Post members were an important feature of the Prospect Hill Memorial Day observances.

Large numbers of people poured into the hamlet of Guilderland and the cemetery itself for this annual event with no indication of what facilities were available for a crowd of that size. The traffic jam created by all those horse-drawn vehicles hauling spectators and the mess left by the horses must have been quite a sight.

An announcement came from the trustees in 1897 indicating a railing on study posts would be running the length of cemetery property along the Turnpike “for the purpose of tying horses.” In the later 1890s, it became possible to shelter your horse in either of the church sheds or in the hotel shed where for a moderate price a man would feed and water your horse.

Rain could interfere as it did in 1892, driving people indoors to Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church. Cemetery trustees took the preventative step of acquiring a tent that would shelter 1,000 people from inclement weather, making it known that spectators should not stay away because of rain or threat of bad weather because they would be kept dry under the big tent.

The GAR’s political power was such that Memorial Day was quickly made a national holiday after its initiation. From the beginning, most people considered it not only a day for solemn remembrance, but also an opportunity for leisure and recreation, something obvious from the columns of The Enterprise.

Traditionally, a baseball game was played in the hamlet of Guilderland on the Iosco team’s ballfield either before or after the ceremonies. An especially popular leisure activity that day for many people was visiting friends or relatives.

Some of the fellows went fishing. For others, taking one of the excursions offered by either the D & H or West Shore railroads or cruising on a Hudson River dayliner to Kingston Point for the day was a delightful way to enjoy the holiday.

One group of people who had little chance to relax were the women and the few men involved in putting on strawberry festivals or serving dinners, all to raise money. The strawberry festivals were held in the hamlet of Guilderland by the ladies of the Methodist and Presbyterians churches and the Templars at Red Men’s Hall. After the turn of the 20th Century, the church ladies began serving lunches or suppers instead of strawberries and ice cream.

The best food event was in Frenchs Hollow where, depending on the year, the Guilderland Center women from either St. Mark’s Lutheran Church or from the Helderberg Reformed Church alternated offering meals with fanciful names and entertainments in the late afternoon and early evening of Memorial Day at the empty old factory building there that had been used many years for community events.

For a modest price, people returning from the cemetery ceremonies could stop on the way home to dine and relax. In 1887, the Lutheran ladies served a supper with the additional attractions of the Knowersville Band’s music and a broom drill performed by a brigade of 12 young ladies in “appropriate” costumes, described the next week as “an interesting feature of the entertainment, each one performing her part admirably.” Seeing that the proceeds of the evening totaled $268, the supper must have been well patronized.

     The Japanese and Pink Tea Party, Orange Tea Party, Chocolate Tea Party, Rainbow Supper, Columbian Entertainment Supper, and New England Supper were samples of Memorial Day events at the old Frenchs Hollow factory sponsored by one or the other of the two churches. Finally, in 1901, the annual supper was to be held at Helderberg Reformed Church parlors in Guilderland Center instead of what had become the very rundown old factory building.

The comment was made, “There is general satisfaction that the Supper has been removed from the dangerous factory in French’s Hollow.”

The ladies of the two churches continued to offer Memorial Day suppers and entertainments for many years.

That time was creeping up on the veterans was indicated when, in 1899, The Enterprise commented “… the ranks of the old ‘vets’ have been materially thinned of late, some seven in this vicinity having answered the roll call and joined their comrades in the spirit world during the last year… .”

With the new century and the aging of the veterans, the annual ceremonies continued, but less attention was paid to the events at Prospect Hill. Whoever wrote the Guilderland column in the paper in the early 1900s never even mentioned the Memorial Day event unless it had to do with the church serving lunch or dinner that day.

The veterans who were able continued to solicit donations of flowers, and traveled to the cemetery as always to decorate the graves, where there would be the traditional band and speaker.

Cemetery officials proudly noted in 1915, “Guilderland gave freely of her boys during the Rebellion, many of whom never came home and for forty-six years in succession appropriate exercises have been held in their memory.”

By 1919, only 10 GAR men were present and now they were taken by automobile to the cemeteries while the Altamont Boy Scouts collected donated flowers and did the actual work of placing them on the graves.

In 1923, when only six veterans took part, the Boy Scouts not only decorated the graves, but did the traditional GAR readings. And finally, 1928’s observance saw the last of the Civil War veterans. The M.H. Barckley Post, No. 198 Altamont disbanded shortly afterward, bringing an end to an era.

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— Photo from Guilderland Historical Society

Trained bears and their wandering keepers, very possibly part of a traveling Gypsy group, were photographed as they performed for members of the Cook family, who summered at their farm on Dunnsville Road. Always attracting curious onlookers, the men were hoping for coins to reward their performance.

Any strangers observed passing through Guilderland during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were quickly spotted and carefully observed by the locals who were familiar with their own friends and neighbors. Respectable travelers and salesmen presented no problem, but certain other groups of transients were scrutinized warily: Gypsies, tramps, and thieves.

Gypsies, who today prefer to be called Roma, began immigrating to the United States from eastern Europe in large numbers after 1880. With the arrival of warm weather, bands of Gypsies, moving about in their brightly colored wagons, arrived on country roads, telling fortunes and trading horses.

Local columnists in The Enterprise often noted the presence of Gypsies, signaling to people in nearby communities that Gypsies were nearby and may be heading your way next. As early as 1886, the Guilderland column noted “plenty of Gypsies on the road nowadays.” People living along the Western Turnpike or Schoharie Road, Guilderland’s main roads at that time, were most likely to see outsiders wandering through.

Gypsies were regarded with both fascination and fear. The fascination was fueled by such stories as some printed in the early editions of  The Enterprise with titles like “The Gypsy Queen” (1884), “The Gypsy’s Story” (1887), and “A Gypsy’s Sad Life and Death” (1888).

Their reputation as fortune tellers attracted curious people to seek them out and for a time they set up fortune-telling tents at the Altamont Fair. Their mobile lifestyle, exotic dress, tents, and travel in their painted wagons may have even made local hard-working men and women leading their somewhat dull lives slightly envious of the excitement and constant change of scenery experienced by the Gypsies.

But there was also a dark side that caused communities to be quite wary. This may have been that era’s version of an urban legend, but children were seriously warned to beware of being kidnapped by the Gypsies, especially if there was one of their encampments in the area.

There was also fear of being cheated in sales, particularly that of horses. The story from South Berne of the man there who bargained for a horse from the Gypsies, and only “a few days after found the horse dead in the stable,” was enough to cause area farmers to be reluctant to have any business dealings with the Gypsies. When in 1908 the Guilderland Center correspondent noted that Gypsies were camping just outside the village near Becker’s Bridge, it may have been a coded warning.

Tramps were scorned or pitied

Tramps, the homeless men of that day who made up the second group of wanderers going through town singly or in groups, were greeted by the local residents with varying degrees of pity, scorn, and suspicion.

A Parkers Corners writer questioned, “Who will take care of all the tramps that are traveling the road and stopping at every house? They should be looked after by someone.”

In the opinion of the Fullers correspondent, “The alms house is the place for them.”

In one pathetic case, the body of a man characterized as an “imbecile tramp” who had been wandering in the area acting in a “strange and threatening manner,” was found on James B. Hilton’s farm near Altamont. After the coroner ruled that the unfortunate man probably died in a fit, he was interred in the Potter’s Field portion of Fairview Cemetery.

The Enterprise printed a piece of humor of the day, originating from an outside source written by a man who offered “a tramp suppressing or tramp dispensing device.” He suggested the tramp’s greatest fear is that of soap and water. Forcing a tramp to wash up will cause him to “dance, howl, shriek, and beat against his prison bars.” Once free he’ll make a “beeline” out of town, chalking a mark, warning away other tramps.

Tramps were viewed as nuisances, stopping by homes along the roads to ask for food. Their reputation for chalking mysterious symbols on fences or piling rocks a certain way to signal that food was usually available at this or that house was well known. Sometimes camping on farmers’ land, tramps caused problems as the one that occurred when their campfire set Ira Hurst’s woods on fire.

Suspicion was that, if opportunity presented itself, tramps would steal from householders and farmers. People in Fullers got the warning to “lock up your buildings as three or four old tramps are seen on the road daily.”

“A suspicious character” was noticed lurking around Meadowdale’s general store. Harvey A. Vosburgh, Overseer of the Poor, fed a tramp one night who repaid his hospitality by stealing money from the pocket of Vosburgh’s hired man, then sneaking away. In one of the few cases where a thief was actually apprehended, the tramp was taken before Esq. McKown who sentenced him to three months in the penitentiary.

In quest of a good meal, tramps commonly made thefts of defenseless hens leading many farmers to keep a goose or two whose loud honking would give warning if an unwanted visitor entered the henhouse after dark.

Thieves: local or professional

Reports of thefts occurring in various parts of town were noted in The Enterprise’s local columns sporadically over the years. The perpetrators seemed to fall into three categories: tramps, light fingered locals and professional thieves.

 A Meadowdale housewife, upon discovering a tramp climbing out through a window of her home, gave chase only to have him get away with two gold rings. Many of the petty thefts like this from houses and barns noted in local columns were likely to have been tramps who kept on the move and were never caught.

Some of the thefts were definitely pulled off by local neighbors. Someone absconded with a turkey from Keenholts’ Altamont market. The Village & Town column in the next issue of  The Enterprise carried a sharp warning to the mystery person that he was well know and better either return the turkey or $2 by Saturday or “he will be exposed by one who saw him do it.”

When Emmit Blessing’s watch was stolen from his house, suspicion “pointed to a young man living near here.” Then there was the Guilderland Center man who pulled a switch, substituting an old pump for a new one at H. Van Auken’s well. “We know who you are,” was the blunt statement in the next Guilderland Center column, warning the culprit to return the pump to save himself trouble and embarrassment.

The threat of public humiliation and ruined reputation was probably enough of a deterrent to keep most of the neighbors honest.

Major break-ins must have been the work of professional criminals. Petinger’s Guilderland Center general store was burglarized by blowing open the safe, netting the criminals $35 in silver and a large number of postage stamps.

Another time, burglars used explosives to crack the safe at Guilderland Foundry. For all their effort, their haul was a disappointing $8.

W.S. Pitts’ general store in Altamont was broken into through a side window. The three men who did it carried off a goodly quantity of merchandise and, even though witnesses saw them flee, they managed to get away.

Thieves in McKownville hit the jackpot when in one night they managed to enter the Albany Country Club’s Clubhouse, Witbeck’s Hotel, and the schoolhouse, removing $150 worth of valuable silverware, clothing, and cigars.

In the years before World War I, thefts and break-ins targeted chiefly homes, barns, and businesses, but schools, railroad depots, and St. Lucy’s Chapel were also victims at one time or another. Commonly taken were things like cash, postage stamps, jewelry, men’s clothing and shoes, harnesses, and horse blankets.

But who stole the altar wine from St. Lucy’s? Books were carried off from schools on Settles Hill and from Guilderland, while at Altamont High School the most bizarre loot was pilfered — all the drawing compasses in the school! Various general stores and the foundry had been burglarized multiple times over the years.

Townsmen blustered in print about the consequences if the “miscreants,”  “Midnight marauders,” or the “chicken thief fraternity” were to be apprehended. Threats came from all over town that “house revolvers should be kept handy” and “if captured (he) will be summarily dealt with” or “A warm reception awaits the next company of midnight marauders.”

One man stormed, “If he caught the fellow who did it, he would make it hot for him.” Another advised, “Our citizens should oil their rusty revolvers and be ready for business.”

Frank Spurr seemed to be the only man to actually manage to fire off shots at a fleeing burglar who had broken into the barber shop and store in Guilderland. He missed!

Year by year, in those horse-and-buggy days, life in Guilderland was actually very safe and quiet, but every now and again unwelcome strangers caused some excitement, giving the local residents something interesting to talk about over the back fence, after church, or around the potbelly stove at the local general store.  Comfortable with each other, they did not regard unwelcome strangers kindly.

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— Photo from Mary Ellen Johnson

After breaking a passage through heavy snow blocking the Delaware & Hudson tracks early in the 20th Century, this specially equipped locomotive plow had halted at the Meadowdale Station. Even if a unit this powerful had been available in 1888, many of the hard-packed drifts were so high, manual shoveling would probably have been necessary. The station, removed in the early 1930s, once stood near the Meadowdale railroad crossing.

“Spring is coming,” The Altamont  Enterprise editor announced in the March 10, 1888 “Home Matters” column. “Blue birds have been seen in various neighboring localities.” Local readers of the newspaper, having enjoyed the mild weather of recent days, were eagerly anticipating dry roads and spring planting, blissfully ignorant of the monster winter storm just then crossing the Great Plains.

As it reached the North Carolina coast, the storm combined with a coastal low, pulling in huge amounts of moisture. Simultaneously, an Arctic front thrust down from Canada, the blast of frigid air colliding with the moisture laden nor’easter. Once all these components were in place, the worst winter storm ever recorded on the East Coast aimed its vengeance at New York and New England.

Early Monday morning, March 12, as farmers tended to their chores in barns across Guilderland, the steady rain that had begun falling the night before quickly changed to snow as temperatures started to plummet. Within a few hours the winds picked up, reaching gale force as the night wore on.

Heavy powdery snow continued to fall all day Tuesday, whipped into huge hard-packed drifts by the ferocious wind, later estimated to have been a sustained 35 to 45 miles per hour. By Wednesday morning, the storm had subsided, but the near-zero temperatures remained.

Officially, 47 inches of snow fell in Albany during the three days of the storm, the most of any storm ever recorded in the immediate area. The East Coast from Chesapeake Bay to Maine was paralyzed for days afterwards with roads and rails blocked and telegraph lines down.

On Wednesday, in Guilderland’s various hamlets and on outlying farms, having been isolated by the huge drifts across roads and railroad tracks, the mammoth job of digging out began.

The last D & H train arrival in Altamont had been Monday, the day the storm began in earnest. The next scheduled train to roll into the station arrived at 6 p.m. Wednesday pulled by three locomotives necessary to push through the snow. Finally some mail and newspapers had arrived!

To clear the tracks in those days, men had to be hired to manually shovel. At Van Aernam’s Crossing, a 20-foot drift covered the D & H tracks for a quarter of a mile. A few days, later the D & H brought out a squad of Italians to shovel out its rail yards at Meadowdale.

Over on the West Shore, local men were hired for $1.50 per day to remove the drifts from the tracks. Unfortunately, several of them had their eyesight affected by the glare of the sun on the snow and were forced to quit. One tale passed down in later years was that the drifts were so high in places that sometimes it was possible to hang a coat on the top of a telegraph pole!

Stalled train

The first issue of The Enterprise after the blizzard ran a lengthy account in two 9-inch columns — very unusual to find a locally written story of this length in those early days of the newspaper — entitled, “The Storm.” It detailed the great adventure experienced by Altamont residents D.G. Staley, Chris Hart, I. Knower and Mr. Stafford, passengers on the D & H’s 6 p.m. Oneonta train that left Albany Monday evening with 24 riders on board.

Pulled by two locomotives through the snow, the train successfully climbed the steep gradient out of Albany, but became “embedded” in a huge drift somewhere between Elsmere and Delmar. All efforts to move the stalled train failed and within hours the raging storm had buried it under a blanket of snow. It turned out that the boiler of Engine No. 150 had developed a leak, lost steam, and, with that, power.

Engine No. 261, the second locomotive, did not have sufficient power to haul both the incapacitated locomotive and the cars through the already deep and drifted snow. Two D & H employees left the train to walk back to Albany to get help in spite of the dangerous conditions.

As hours passed with no help forthcoming, the hungry passengers began foraging, uncovering a barrel of bread “bound for Slingerlands,” several pounds of pork chops, a pail of oysters, a chunk of beef, a ham and four pounds of coffee. Mr. Baker of Slingerlands took over as caterer and, using a coal shovel to roast the meat, arranged “a splendid table d’hote.

As the night wore on, many of the passengers made themselves comfortable enough to sleep in the passenger cars, while others adjourned to the baggage car where they spent the next several hours “in songs and merriment of various kinds.”

Tuesday morning, a man who could see the stalled train from his house brought various eatables, another party also came with additional food for the stranded travelers. By 2 p.m., some D & H employees arrived with more provisions and the message that as soon as the storm abated D & H workers would be there to rescue the train.

Reaching the stranded train had taken them three-and-a-half hours to travel the three miles from Albany, the men becoming encrusted in ice by the time they arrived. When the snow finally ceased Wednesday, four engines and 60 workers arrived to extricate the stalled train, finally getting it pulled loose and returned to Albany. The four engines pushed on through the drifts, reaching Altamont at 2 p.m., the first train to arrive since Monday.

Hardships and heroes

In Guilderland’s hamlets residents dug themselves out and carried on with their chores and business with few comments about the effects of the storm on their daily lives. The Meadowdale correspondent apologized two weeks later for the dearth of news “on account of the blizzard” with no stories of how everyone was coping.

The postmaster of Guilderland complained that no mail had arrived in Guilderland between Saturday and Wednesday and, to make matters worse, he took in only 18 cents during the whole time. Three weeks after the blizzard, what the Guilderland writer considered the biggest drift in the town was to be seen on the Western Turnpike near S. Westfall’s.

In Fullers, the big blizzard news was that M.W. Siver’s wife had given birth to a 10-and-a-half pound boy during the storm. Mrs. Jacob Becker of Guilderland Center had hung some laundry to dry on their covered porch, only to have one of her sheets disappear during the height of the blizzard. Days later, it was found blown over half a mile, having landed in David Relyea’s hen yard.

The “Home Matters” column in the Altamont section of The Enterprise led off with the question, “Wasn’t a blizzard, though?” Praise was in order for the Knox-Berne stage that rolled into Altamont Monday morning, arriving on time in spite of the storm with the comment, “Jud is one of those fellows that don’t stop for wind or weather.”

Sympathizing with his correspondents, the editor understood that “due to the severe storm and blocked condition of the roads” they were unable to submit their columns. To the disappointment of Altamont’s teetotalers, the literary entertainment to have been put on by Mrs. Jesse Griswold at Temperance Hall, at first postponed because of the storm, was now cancelled indefinitely. It was noted that people living on Altamont’s Main Street really appreciated the efforts of little Allen Van Benscoten who shoveled through “the snow blockade” to open up the street.

Really hard hit were the farmers who had to be able to get out to their barns to feed their animals and where necessary, were forced to dig tunnels through the drifts to get there. Sometimes drifts were so high people had to crawl out second-story windows and in a few cases youngsters slid down from a second story window over a drift and out over the snow covered lawn.

When snows finally melted, some of the local fruit trees were discovered to have been damaged as the drifts that covered them settled and the weight cracked branches.

Overwhelmed or blasé?

Guilderland residents who actually lived through the Blizzard of 1888 seemed blasé as evidenced by the lack of commentary about it in The Enterprise except for the detailed description of the stranded train.

Perhaps then they were so overwhelmed they didn’t have much time to talk about it, but as the years went by many references were made to the storm in the press, either at the time of another big storm or on Blizzard of ’88 anniversaries such as the 25th or 50th.

By then, the survivors were aware they had lived through a historic event, the “Great White Hurricane” that took the lives of 400 people along its path, and began to provide details in The Enterprise never mentioned at the time it happened such as tunneling through the snow or sliding from the second-story windows.

Nothing has ever measured up to the greatest snowstorm of all. When another ferocious blizzard paralyzed Guilderland in February 1958, the headline that appeared in The Enterprise read, “Blizzard of ’88 Still Tops Says Weather Bureau.” The story continued, “The blizzard of ’58 can’t compare with the blizzard of ’88. That was the granddaddy of ’em all.”

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“Spring is coming,” The Altamont  Enterprise editor announced in the March 10, 1888 “Home Matters” column. “Blue birds have been seen in various neighboring localities.” Local readers of the newspaper, having enjoyed the mild weather of recent days, were eagerly anticipating dry roads and spring planting, blissfully ignorant of the monster winter storm just then crossing the Great Plains.

As it reached the North Carolina coast, the storm combined with a coastal low, pulling in huge amounts of moisture. Simultaneously, an Arctic front thrust down from Canada, the blast of frigid air colliding with the moisture laden nor’easter. Once all these components were in place, the worst winter storm ever recorded on the East Coast aimed its vengeance at New York and New England.

Early Monday morning, March 12, as farmers tended to their chores in barns across Guilderland, the steady rain that had begun falling the night before quickly changed to snow as temperatures started to plummet. Within a few hours the winds picked up, reaching gale force as the night wore on.

Heavy powdery snow continued to fall all day Tuesday, whipped into huge hard-packed drifts by the ferocious wind, later estimated to have been a sustained 35 to 45 miles per hour. By Wednesday morning, the storm had subsided, but the near-zero temperatures remained.

Officially, 47 inches of snow fell in Albany during the three days of the storm, the most of any storm ever recorded in the immediate area. The East Coast from Chesapeake Bay to Maine was paralyzed for days afterwards with roads and rails blocked and telegraph lines down.

On Wednesday, in Guilderland’s various hamlets and on outlying farms, having been isolated by the huge drifts across roads and railroad tracks, the mammoth job of digging out began.

The last D & H train arrival in Altamont had been Monday, the day the storm began in earnest. The next scheduled train to roll into the station arrived at 6 p.m. Wednesday pulled by three locomotives necessary to push through the snow. Finally, some mail and newspapers had arrived!

To clear the tracks in those days, men had to be hired to manually shovel. At Van Aernam’s Crossing, a 20-foot drift covered the D & H tracks for a quarter of a mile. A few days, later the D & H brought out a squad of Italians to shovel out its rail yards at Meadowdale.

Over on the West Shore, local men were hired for $1.50 per day to remove the drifts from the tracks. Unfortunately, several of them had their eyesight affected by the glare of the sun on the snow and were forced to quit. One tale passed down in later years was that the drifts were so high in places that sometimes it was possible to hang a coat on the top of a telegraph pole!

Stalled train

The first issue of The Enterprise after the blizzard ran a lengthy account in two 9-inch columns — very unusual to find a locally written story of this length in those early days of the newspaper — entitled, “The Storm.” It detailed the great adventure experienced by Altamont residents D.G. Staley, Chris Hart, I. Knower and Mr. Stafford, passengers on the D & H’s 6 p.m. Oneonta train that left Albany Monday evening with 24 riders on board.

Pulled by two locomotives through the snow, the train successfully climbed the steep gradient out of Albany, but became “embedded” in a huge drift somewhere between Elsmere and Delmar. All efforts to move the stalled train failed and within hours the raging storm had buried it under a blanket of snow. It turned out that the boiler of Engine No. 150 had developed a leak, lost steam, and, with that, power.

Engine No. 261, the second locomotive, did not have sufficient power to haul both the incapacitated locomotive and the cars through the already deep and drifted snow. Two D & H employees left the train to walk back to Albany to get help in spite of the dangerous conditions.

As hours passed with no help forthcoming, the hungry passengers began foraging, uncovering a barrel of bread “bound for Slingerlands,” several pounds of pork chops, a pail of oysters, a chunk of beef, a ham and four pounds of coffee. Mr. Baker of Slingerlands took over as caterer and, using a coal shovel to roast the meat, arranged “a splendid table d’hote.

As the night wore on, many of the passengers made themselves comfortable enough to sleep in the passenger cars, while others adjourned to the baggage car where they spent the next several hours “in songs and merriment of various kinds.”

Tuesday morning, a man who could see the stalled train from his house brought various eatables, another party also came with additional food for the stranded travelers. By 2 p.m., some D & H employees arrived with more provisions and the message that as soon as the storm abated D & H workers would be there to rescue the train.

Reaching the stranded train had taken them three-and-a-half hours to travel the three miles from Albany, the men becoming encrusted in ice by the time they arrived. When the snow finally ceased Wednesday, four engines and 60 workers arrived to extricate the stalled train, finally getting it pulled loose and returned to Albany. The four engines pushed on through the drifts, reaching Altamont at 2 p.m., the first train to arrive since Monday.

Hardships and heroes

In Guilderland’s hamlets residents dug themselves out and carried on with their chores and business with few comments about the effects of the storm on their daily lives. The Meadowdale correspondent apologized two weeks later for the dearth of news “on account of the blizzard” with no stories of how everyone was coping.

The postmaster of Guilderland complained that no mail had arrived in Guilderland between Saturday and Wednesday and, to make matters worse, he took in only 18 cents during the whole time. Three weeks after the blizzard, what the Guilderland writer considered the biggest drift in the town was to be seen on the Western Turnpike near S. Westfall’s.

In Fullers, the big blizzard news was that M.W. Siver’s wife had given birth to a 10-and-a-half pound boy during the storm. Mrs. Jacob Becker of Guilderland Center had hung some laundry to dry on their covered porch, only to have one of her sheets disappear during the height of the blizzard. Days later, it was found blown over half a mile, having landed in David Relyea’s hen yard.

The “Home Matters” column in the Altamont section of The Enterprise led off with the question, “Wasn’t a blizzard, though?” Praise was in order for the Knox-Berne stage that rolled into Altamont Monday morning, arriving on time in spite of the storm with the comment, “Jud is one of those fellows that don’t stop for wind or weather.”

Sympathizing with his correspondents, the editor understood that “due to the severe storm and blocked condition of the roads” they were unable to submit their columns. To the disappointment of Altamont’s teetotalers, the literary entertainment to have been put on by Mrs. Jesse Griswold at Temperance Hall, at first postponed because of the storm, was now cancelled indefinitely. It was noted that people living on Altamont’s Main Street really appreciated the efforts of little Allen Van Benscoten who shoveled through “the snow blockade” to open up the street.

Really hard hit were the farmers who had to be able to get out to their barns to feed their animals and where necessary, were forced to dig tunnels through the drifts to get there. Sometimes drifts were so high people had to crawl out second-story windows and in a few cases, youngsters slid down from a second story window over a drift and out over the snow-covered lawn.

When snows finally melted, some of the local fruit trees were discovered to have been damaged as the drifts that covered them settled and the weight cracked branches.

Overwhelmed or blasé?

Guilderland residents who actually lived through the Blizzard of 1888 seemed blasé as evidenced by the lack of commentary about it in The Enterprise except for the detailed description of the stranded train.

Perhaps then they were so overwhelmed they didn’t have much time to talk about it, but as the years went by many references were made to the storm in the press, either at the time of another big storm or on Blizzard of ’88 anniversaries such as the 25th or 50th.

By then, the survivors were aware they had lived through a historic event, the “Great White Hurricane” that took the lives of 400 people along its path, and began to provide details in The Enterprise never mentioned at the time it happened such as tunneling through the snow or sliding from the second-story windows.

Nothing has ever measured up to the greatest snowstorm of all. When another ferocious blizzard paralyzed Guilderland in February 1958, the headline that appeared in The Enterprise read, “Blizzard of ’88 Still Tops Says Weather Bureau.” The story continued, “The blizzard of ’58 can’t compare with the blizzard of ’88. That was the granddaddy of ’em all.”

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— Photo from Mary Ellen Johnson

The original banner carried by Guilderland’s Wide Awakes hung for decades in the cellar bar at the Mynderse-Frederick House. Over time, the deterioration of the fragile fabric led to its disintegration, leaving this circa-1970 photograph as the only visual evidence of Guilderland’s support for Lincoln in 1860.

Splintered over the contentious issue of slavery, the 1860 Democratic convention nominated Stephen A. Douglas as its presidential candidate while breakaway Democrats nominated J.C. Breckinridge and John Bell as alternative presidential candidates.

After Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln in May 1860, jeering Democrats called him nothing but a railsplitter. Describing Lincoln as a “third-rate country lawyer,” the Democratic New York Herald sneered he would be a “nullity” if elected. Others were of the opinion he was a coarse backwoodsman.

Thousands of Republicans rallied to his defense, working to secure a Republican victory in November, among them many Guilderland men. Of the town’s 1,600 males, a sizable number joined the Wide Awake movement to promote The Railsplitter — a Democratic jeer had become a Republican mark of pride!

The Wide Awakes had originated earlier that year in Connecticut when a crowd of supporters at a Republican gubernatorial campaign rally appeared in glazed caps and capes carrying torches, making an impressive display for the crowd. The Hartford Courant complimented them, describing the men as “wide awake.”

As soon as news of Lincoln’s nomination became known, Republican men began forming “clubs” adopting the name “Wide Awakes.” In our area, Albany was the first to organize, mustering in 200 men to march on the Capital for a Republican meeting.

Within two weeks, they claimed 1,000 members in the city. The club’s constitution and background information was printed in a form easily sent out to parties eager to initiate their own group of Wide Awakes. Thurlow Weed’s Albany Evening Journal, the Republican voice of the city, was filled with reports of Wide Awake activities all over the area including Guilderland in the few months before the election.

Near the end of August, a Wide Awake Club had “been formed and uniformed in the neighborhood of McGoun’s [McKown’s] in Guilderland. Three other clubs are to be organized in town, forthwith.”

A week later, another calling itself “Company B,” probably from the Guilderland Center section of town, had organized. The other two clubs were most likely from Dunnsville and Knowersville although there were no further notices of specific Guilderland groups forming.

The officers elected by the first two groups were listed and included several well known local men. “Seventy-four members have been enrolled. Guilderland will do its share in redeeming Albany County,” the Journal wrote.

“Paramilitary” is a 20th-Century term often used nowadays to describe these Wide Awake clubs. Members appeared in a standard uniform of oil-cloth cap and cape, had a hierarchy of officers, and studied Hardee’s Tactics to form lines of march to parade in formation.

However, instead of weapons they carried torches set on poles, the caps and capes meant to protect them from dripping oil and sparks. Disciplined groups of uniformed men marching through the streets could make citizens very uneasy, except as the New York Tribune pointed out, businessmen and professional men, highly respected in their communities, were very much involved in the Wide Awakes.

This was certainly true of Guilderland where M.H.Frederick, the Guilderland Center hotel keeper; Thomas Helme, the McKownville physician; and Peter Shaver and Elijah Spawn, both former town supervisors were Wide Awake club members. Stephen V. Frederick, described as “a worthy scion of the best Republican stock of Guilderland,” was elected supervisor the following year.

To pique everyone’s curiosity, meetings and rallies were announced ahead of time, usually being held at night for maximum effect. When the evening arrived, large crowds turned out to watch the spectacle as the Wide Awakes arrived, marching in parade formation, their oil cloth caps and capes glistening in the light of their torches.

Often they were accompanied by a band or were themselves singing Wide Awake songs such as this one:

       …Lift the banner on high, while from the mountains and plain

          The cheers of the people are sounded again,

          Hurrah! For our cause — of all causes the best!

          Hurrah! For Old Abe, Honest Abe of the West!

In describing a meeting at Princetown, just west of Dunnsville, the Albany Evening Journal reported, “The great feature and attraction of the evening were the Wide Awakes with their neat uniforms, their fine discipline, and their better singing. The clubs of Guilderland can take down the Albany boys in singing, and better yet they can make their own songs.”

In rural areas such as Guilderland, these meetings were held at local hotels. Kelly’s in Princetown is mentioned twice, Frederick’s Hotel in Guilderland Center and McKown’s Tavern in McKownville are also noted. Additional meetings were held in Dunnsville and Knowersville, where the location was called the “village hall,” most likely referring to the Inn of Jacob Crounse, the local community center in those times.

Crowds were so large that inevitably the gathering moved outdoors for the spectacle and speeches. The Oct. 26 Albany Evening Journal reported:

“The meeting at Knowersville last evening was the largest, most enthusiastic and effective meeting ever held in town. A fine Pole was raised, surmounted by a Beetle and Wedge, (both were tools used by railsplitters) and a magnificent banner, bearing the names of Lincoln and Hamlin was run up among cheers of the crowd. In the evening, the meeting was attempted to be held in the village hall, but it was found wholly inadequate to accommodate the multitude.

“On discovering there were more outside than inside the hall, the meeting was adjourned out of doors when stirring and eloquent speeches were made by Messrs. Raines of Ontario, Watson of California and Gerhard and Benedict of his city.

“The Town of Guilderland is in excellent trim. It will give the Republican Ticket a large majority.”

Frequently occurring at these meetings was the raising of a pole. In addition to the pole at Knowersville, one was erected at Kelly’s in Princetown, attended by Guilderland Wide Awakes, “from the top of which a streamer was thrown to the wind on which was inscribed the names of LINCOLN AND HAMLIN. That being done the pole was duly consecrated with three hearty cheers.”

Always part of the program was the presence of two or more speakers. Sometimes they were local men of prominence such as Dr. Fred Crounse Jr. who addressed the crowd at Kelly’s Hotel or Mr. Benedict, the district’s candidate for the State Assembly. Every now and then, an outsider like Mr. Watson of California was on the program. These local rallies often attracted large crowds; one at Kelly’s Hotel was estimated to be in the hundreds.

Think of the novelty, the excitement, the entertainment of torchlight parades, bands and male voices raised in song, speakers who sometimes came from far away, and poles being raised in these small hamlets. But the real spectacle was to be had when a nearby city hosted a huge rally and local Wide Awakes from the nearby towns of Guilderland, New Scotland, Bethlehem, and Knox were invited to join the big parade.

Hudson held the first out-of-town rally attended by Guilderland Wide Awakes when 21 “packed” railroad cars left Albany to take part and, among the hundreds on board, were 25 uniformed Guilderland Wide Awakes under Captain Martin J. Blessing. Shortly afterward, Albany scheduled its own rally.

The day after this event, the Evening Journal’s headlines screamed, “The Grand Wide Awake Demonstration,” “The Capital of the Empire State in a Blaze of Light,” and “Most Thrilling Torchlight Parade Ever Witnessed on the Continent.”

Claiming 50,000 people witnessed the 7,000 Wide Awakes who were marching in a “line of glittering torches, the river of dancing fire, roman candles without number were discharged.” The houses and businesses of sympathetic Republicans were illuminated along the parade route the paper said, and “Cheers and huzzas resounded and echoed, at times almost deafening.”

All that, and 19 brass bands of martial music accompanied Wide Awakes from as far away as Canajoharie, Gloversville, Saratoga, Ballston, and Kingston who came to parade. “Thousands of persons” came from country towns and surely the Wide Awakes and spectators from rural Albany County were there as well.

In the days immediately preceding the election, the Albany Evening Journal sternly preached to area Wide Awakes, “The time has gone by for mass meetings and big parades … attention to detail is needed.”

Wide Awakes were instructed to see that all Republicans were registered, act as poll watchers, challenge irregularities, and go out to bring in delinquent Republican voters. Election Day came and went.

Lincoln was victorious, but not in Albany County. In spite of their disappointment, the Wide Awakes marched in a victory parade in Albany, a notice in the Albany Evening Journal calling for Wide Awakes from city and county to participate. Numerous Wide Awake balls were planned.

Guilderland’s Republican men had been part of a national movement in one of this nation’s most important elections.

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