— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Witbeck’s Hotel, originally the old McKown Tavern, stood on the Western Turnpike until it burned in 1917. The porches would probably have been added by William H. Witbeck. In the early 1970s, when King’s Service Station, which then stood on the site, was excavating for a new underground tank, part of the original foundation and burned timbers of the old tavern were found. Today, Burger King stands on the site.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

A deed to one of the houses erected on plots laid out for Country Club Hills has the owners’ names redacted. Note the first paragraph with Pitkins’s and Witbeck’s names.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The Country Club Trolley Line reached out into Guilderland soon after the Albany Country Club opened, making McKownville easily accessible to the city, which probably helped to make McKown Grove a popular destination. The trolley also contributed to McKownville’s beginnings as an Albany suburb. Buses replaced the trolley line by the 1920s. 

GUILDERLAND — A century ago, it would have been a rare Guilderland resident who was unaware of the Witbecks. The Whitbecks vied with the McKowns as McKownville’s best-known family and played a very active role in community life for several decades.

Today, there is no reminder in McKownville that the Witbecks ever lived there, except that their name appears on deeds to property on certain McKownville streets.

Originally from Rensselaer County, the Witbecks surfaced in McKownville when William H. Witbeck leased the old McKown Tavern and surrounding acreage in 1884. When William McKown built the tavern in the 1790s, he also acquired a parcel of 113 acres, all of this sometimes being referred to as the McKown Tavern and Farm. The tavern was well supplied with water brought from dams on the Krum Kill put in by William McKown.

After 1884, the McKown family was no longer actively involved, and the old tavern became known as Witbeck’s Hotel. William H. Witbeck was listed as “farmer and hotel” in an 1888 Guilderland directory. The Witbeck name began to be mentioned often in The Altamont Enterprise as the hotel keeper became involved with community affairs.

A baseball fan, Witbeck began to sponsor a team. An 1897 notice in the newspaper announced, “The Witbeck baseball club will give a picnic and field day at McKown’s Grove Saturday, August 14th. There will be dancing in the afternoon and evening. Joe Marone’s orchestra has been secured. In the afternoon there will be athletic sports including a ball game between Witbeck’s and Slingerlands. A good game may be expected.”

Witbeck’s sponsorship of a hometown ball team certainly added to social life in the hamlet for many years and brought much good will as well as thirsty players and spectators to his hotel.

Another sport that became popular in the 1890s was cycling. In 1898, Witbeck began to lay out a cycle path from his hotel to the Albany line and another from the Albany Country Club to his place, providing a service for the wheelmen as well as the potential of thirsty customers for his hotel bar.

Public events sometimes took place on the grounds around the hotel, attracting a crowd; some from the crowd surely imbibed at Witbeck’s. In August 1895, the Tenth Battalion left its Albany armory, marching as far as the field adjoining Witbeck’s Hotel where the soldiers camped overnight. That evening, they performed a drill followed by “a fine concert” played by the regimental band and “witnessed by a large crowd.”

Another occasion noted in The Enterprise was the jolly crowd of “nearly 200 persons” who assembled at the hotel before marching nearby to serenade a newly married couple just returned from their honeymoon, a common custom in those days.

Although considered an astute businessman and well known in Guilderland, Witbeck never ran for office. Instead, he worked behind the scenes being very involved in local Republican politics in a day when Guilderland was dominated by the Republican Party.

He used his influence to organize and chair the nominating caucus to choose local candidates who did run for office. His hotel was always one spot where the town’s tax collector would set up to collect taxes when they were due.

Another of his local activities for many years was to serve as president of the Town of Guilderland Protective Association. This group inserted notices in The Altamont Enterprise under his name, offering a reward of $25 for the arrest and conviction of anyone stealing personal property from a member of the Guilderland Mutual Protective Association.

After Witbeck’s death in 1935, William A. Brinkman, on behalf of the board of directors of the Guilderland Mutual Insurance Association of the Town of Guilderland, inserted a notice mourning his loss and referring to Witbeck as a “faithful and wise counselor who was always ready with his time and advice.”

Benjamin Witbeck

William H. Witbeck, who was the father of several children, became closely involved in business with his son Benjamin and Benjamin’s business partner, Arthur F. Pitkin. In 1907, William had purchased the hotel and, five years later, he gave title of the Witbeck Hotel and farm to his son Benjamin and his business partner, Pitkin.

Change had come to that area in the 1890s when the Albany Country Club purchased a large area of farmland near McKownville to create a posh country club where the uptown campus of the University at Albany is now located.

Soon after, a trolley line was run along the old turnpike approximately to the current entrance to the university, making it possible to commute back and forth from downtown Albany. Being adjacent to an exclusive country club, the Witbeck property had become much more valuable.

When they took over ownership, the first thing B. Witbeck and Pitkin did was to have the land surveyed by Leslie Allen and laid out in streets and lots. These streets became Norwood, Glenwood, Parkwood, and Elmwood Streets.

This proposed residential area was named “Country Club Highlands,” probably the first named development in Guilderland. A 1913 note in The Altamont Enterprise mentioned “two new houses are going up near the car line.” One of these was being built by Benjamin Witbeck.

Fire company forms

Around McKownville at this time, people began to discuss the need for fire protection. After holding an initial meeting at the two-room McKownville School, a petition was circulated, and with the resulting show of support, on April 18, 1916 a group of men met at the Witbeck Hotel to organize a volunteer fire department.

Within three weeks, Benjamin Witbeck was a member of a four-man committee to begin investigating the purchase of fire equipment. The next year, the McKownville Fire District was established, and by 1918 the department was incorporated. During the two-year period leading up to incorporation, William H. Witbeck had served as chief of an ad hoc fire company and was one of the signers of the original charter.

In 1918, Benjamin Witbeck supplied a Graham Paige car to tow the two-wheeled fire cart with its attached chemical tank. In the early days of the fire company, the department’s first apparatus was housed in a carriage house, part of the Witbeck Hotel complex, while a steel locomotive tire hanging in front of the hotel served as the community fire alarm.

Between 1918 and 1929, William H. Witbeck was a fire commissioner, and Arthur W. Witbeck, another of his sons, was a line officer. At the July 1918 Firemen’s Field Day at McKown Grove, Mrs. Arthur Witbeck took charge of the Ice Cream Booth.

Ironically, as a fire company was in the process of being organized, during the early hours of a night in the first week of October 1917, Witbeck’s Hotel went up in flames at a loss of $20,000. The three people asleep in the hotel escaped as the hotel “burned like tinder” and was quickly destroyed in spite of a bucket brigade of neighbors.

Another building on the property then substituted for meetings and tax collection and for many years operated as a small eatery after Prohibition went into effect.

Village of Witbeck?

With the numerous Witbecks so prominent in McKownville at this time, a petition circulated to drop the name McKownville, create a new identity for the hamlet, and rename it Incorporated Village of Witbeck. Opponents to the name and the establishment of village government hired lawyers to take the case to court in March 1917.

The case was known as “The Matter of the Incorporation of the Village of Witbeck, Out of Part of the Town of Guilderland.” Those opposed claimed that Benjamin Witbeck had circulated the petition for his father.

Initially a hearing was held before Town Supervisor F.J. Van Wormer with the opponents bringing along their attorneys Bookstein and Dugan. Described in The Altamont Enterprise as “a lively session,” Van Wormer declared the petition was a valid one in spite of the claims of the opposing attorney and comments by residents who were against the idea. At this, “the Witbeck clan was jubilant.”

Apparently, this whole idea had been hotly disputed in the McKownville area for months, becoming increasingly bitter as time went on. The matter didn’t end with Van Wormer’s decision.

Attorneys Dugan and Bookstein appealed to the County Court on the basis of failure to put down a $50 deposit at the time the petition was filed and furthermore had left out the word “adult” in the petition

The Witbecks had secured representation by hiring Attorney John J. Haggerty. The county judge’s verdict was to declare the petition invalid, stating a new petition must be circulated before incorporation could be considered.

The Altamont Enterprise commented that several of the original signers had now changed their minds, realizing that a village government would mean increased taxes, making it unlikely that the Witbecks would succeed. Even if they had managed to file another petition, the question would then have to be put to a vote and the opponents were not planning to give up without a fight.

This setback did not bring an end to their involvement with the community. William McKown had dammed the Krum Kill early in the 19th Century to provide water for his tavern. Beginning in 1910, William H. Witbeck set about improving the old McKown water supply, an effort that led in 1922 to the establishment of a private water company offering a steady water supply.

Using McKownville Reservoir, water lines were laid down to supply homes while the fire department paid to establish fire hydrants that remained in use until 1949.

In 1926, Pitkin and Benjamin Witbeck formally set up the Pitkin-Witbeck Realty Company to continue building houses on the streets they had laid out years before. The trolley line ended operations the year before, but had been replaced by a bus line that extended out as far as Fuller Road allowing residents to continue commuting to Albany

Houses in Country Club Hills were individually built, being of substantial construction and stylish architecture.

Early in March 1935, William H. Witbeck died at age 76 at his Western Avenue home, survived by his four sons. The Witbeck family, headed by William H., played a huge role in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in shaping McKownville into what The Altamont Enterprise described in an article at the time of his death as “one of the most attractive residential communities on the outskirts of Albany.”

Location:

— Photographs from the Guilderland Historical Society

Few women took up driving in the early days since automobiles had to be cranked to start. Here a member of Dr. Cook’s family posed in an early automobile, date and model unknown, and she may have been one of the few spunky females locally who learned to drive at that time. The Cooks summered on the farm that is today Altamont Orchards.

— Photographs from the Guilderland Historical Society

Local Brush owners posed in 1910 in front of Sands Bottling Works in Altamont. The Brush Runabout was produced from 1907 to 1912.

— Photographs from the Guilderland Historical Society

Touring cars, pictured on a postcard showing “Road To Helderberg Mts.,” would have been the type of high-priced car driven by wealthy Albanians heading to their summer cottages or to the Helderberg Inn, formerly the Kushaqua.

Martin Blessing’s cry, “Hurry out! A horseless carriage is coming by,” alerted family members to rush out front of their farm on the turnpike in Fullers. Frightened by the commotion, his small daughter peeped out from behind her mother’s skirt as the strange contraption rolled by.

Anna Anthony, recalling this event in her old age, never forgot her first sight of a car. Perhaps it had been the Locomobile Steamer Arthur Barton, living on a farm a few miles west on the turnpike, remembered as his first car, describing it as “a whooshing, bouncing carriage-like affair careening ‘madly’ down the old plank road in a cloud of dust and steam.”

Even those who had not yet seen an automobile were aware of their development after reading articles such as “The Horseless Carriage” published in a September 1899 Enterprise. As the first decade of the 20th Century unfolded, more and more attention was given to local automobiles and their owners in the pages of The Enterprise.

Owning a car in that era was not for the faint of heart. City folk seemed to become car owners before those in more rural areas and it seems out-of-towners were the first to pass through Guilderland. In 1904, Mr. and Mrs. Tompkins of New York City stopped by in Altamont while on their way to their summer home near Berne, disgusted that rain delayed them in the mid-Hudson area when the normal running time between New York City and Albany would have been only 12 hours.

A year later, they arrived with another couple in a second car headed for Berne. When, as they climbed the steep hill out of the village (now Helderberg Avenue), the Tompkins’ auto stalled, its brakes failed, and the car began rolling backward. The wife jumped out, and the husband ended up partly overturned against an embankment.

Neither were injured, the car was righted, the engine was cranked up, and these hardy motorists were on their way.

That same year, George Crounse was intending to visit his sister Mrs. E.H. York of Guilderland Center, when his car’s engine died in Gallupville, causing the humiliation of having to hire a farmer and team of horses to tow him to Altamont where he had to telephone to Albany for “a professional” to come out to fix the problem.

Not only was driving an automobile an adventure, it was an expensive one!

Early automobiles had to be hand cranked to start (electronic starters were in the future); had limited horsepower; were forced to travel for miles on wretched roads, causing frequent flat tires; and, outside of cities, there were very few places to buy gasoline or find mechanical help. A few of the very early cars operated on steam power, which had its own set of problems.

The identities of the very first car owners in Guilderland are unknown, but by 1906 drives by Altamont’s Charles Beebe and W.H. Whipple were noted in The Enterprise. There were surely others. “Auto parties” were noted at that time, passing through on their way to enjoy the amenities of the Helderberg Inn.

Sands sales

Eugene and Montford Sands got it right when they stated, “the automobile is here to stay” in one of their Sands Sons’ advertisements. Already successful Altamont grain and coal merchants, the two entrepreneurs opened an auto agency in 1907.

An early offering included, for $275, a Success runabout (a two-passenger open car) featuring a “powerful” 4-horsepower engine with wheel steer (several very early cars had tillers for steering); for $600, a Federal runabout with a 15- to 18-h.p. engine; or for a big spender willing to part with $1,250 the Model, a 2-h.p. two cylinder automobile with a removable rear seat that could carry five persons — “a wonder for the price.”

During the early automobile years, there were many companies manufacturing cars with brands that within a few years were out of business, making the brands unfamiliar today. Among the automobiles acquired by local men were Reo, Overland, Locomobile, Columbia, Brush, and Great Western.

Sands advertised others such as the Success and Model and it’s assumed that they were purchased by local drivers. Fords and Buicks were also locally owned as well.

By 1908, the popularity of the automobile was firmly established, appearing on local roads with increasing frequency. Sands Sons cleverly whipped up enthusiasm for the new technology not only with announcements and advertising in The Enterprise, but by exhibiting automobiles at the Altamont Fair where the brothers touted the merits of the new 1909 Great Western five-passenger touring car to over “200 prospective” buyers during Fair Week.

The Village and Town column in The Enterprise announced that Messrs. Clickman  acquired one of them. Earlier in May 1908, the two car salesmen had focused attention on the trophy won in Menands, their Great Western coming in first for the fastest time its class for five-passenger, $1,250 cars in a steep hill-climbing contest.

Soon they were promoting a new $1,600 Great Western 30-h.p. model, which had the advantage of being converted into a gentleman’s roadster by detaching the tonneau and substituting a rumble seat. Their sales pitch ended with, “Watch out for this car as it will create a stir among auto enthusiasts.” And the really affluent man with an extra $3,500 could drive away from their dealership in a 50-h.p Great Western.

Aware that only a limited number of local men were wealthy enough to purchase a large touring car, Sands Sons introduced a two-passenger Brush runabout, claiming the runabout not only had gas mileage of 25 to 40 miles, but that a woman could drive it easily.

These two car salesmen assured prospective buyers this “very neat and easy running car” was capable of climbing any hill in the area, announcing an Albany dealer had plans to drive a Brush up the Capitol steps. New York State authorities put the kibosh on that publicity stunt and it never happened.

Many years later, it was recalled that sometimes the Brush ran well, other times the engine made a hill climb sputtering, “I think I can, I think I can, I thought I could, I thought I could ... I can’t!”

Erecting a big tent at the 1910 fair, Sands Sons continued to push the Brush, assuring would-be buyers that, if they made a purchase during Fair Week, the Sandses would give them a “special figure.” Current Brush owners were invited to use the tent as their fair headquarters.

Two people who at some point purchased Brush runabouts were Eugene Gallop, who was the mailman on a rural route, and Irving Lainhart, who delivered groceries in his Brush until 1918 when he traded it in for a Ford.

In addition to selling cars, Sands Sons also advertised that they had supplies of batteries, lubricating oils, gasoline, etc. for automobile owners and chauffeurs.

Dangers and delights

Automobile owners of the era were a versatile group, changing their own tires and dealing with simple mechanical problems, but for things more serious a mechanic was needed.

The demand was quickly met in 1907 when Mr. James Bradley opened up shop in the rear of Lape’s Paint Store in Altamont, advertising himself as an experienced mechanic who could repair automobiles.

At this time, Guilderland’s large population of upset, unhappy horses (and their owners!) were usually terrified when approached or overtaken by these noisy, smelly behemoths, especially since the roads were very narrow, putting car and horse in close clearance of each other.

Guilderland Center’s F.C. Wormer ended up painfully, but not seriously, hurt when his horses, spooked by a passing car, took off, dumping the unfortunate F.C. in the road.

As Dr. Fred Crounse was driving his auto to Meadowdale, he began passing Cyrus Crounse whose skittish horses became so terrified by the car, they rushed toward it and one ended by jumping on part of the car, “smashing some of the fixtures on the driver’s side. A few dollars in repairs made the machine as good as new,” but no mention was made whether they were Dr. Crounse’s dollars or Cyrus Crounse’s.

As automobiles proliferated, another problem became obvious. As early as 1907, the Guilderland Center correspondent wanted to know why there was no speed limit out in the country, claiming that the previous Sunday morning “there came tearing down through the Centre an auto at a velocity of speed that would put a western cyclone to blush,” showering people on their way to church with dust and grit and endangering the children.

On another occasion, an auto driven “wildly” through Guilderland Center struck and killed Seymour Borst’s pet dog. Again a call was made for more strict laws against those “speed fiends who rush madly down our streets.”

Automobiles had become a permanent part of childhood experience. Marshall Crounse, 9-year-old son of Dr. and Mrs. Fred Crounse, ran in front of a car while on vacation with his parents in Florida and was knocked down with at least one wheel rolling over his legs just below his hips. Miraculously escaping serious injury, Marshall was fine by the time of his family’s return to Altamont.

Ten other children had a more positive experience when Mrs. David Blessing, their Sunday School teacher, arranged for Montford Sand to cram all 10 into his big touring car for a drive to a picnic at Frenchs Hollow.

The danger of fire became evident. A very expensive touring car driven by summer-cottage owner Gardner C. Leonard’s chauffeur burst into flames a mile-and-a-half east of Altamont.

The chauffeur threw himself out of the car just in time, for when the fire was out, the only thing left were the two front wheels. The frames of those early cars were of wood, causing them to burn rapidly once the gasoline was ignited.

When another auto fire destroyed a vehicle on the Western Turnpike in what is now Westmere, it was noted the owner had insurance.

“Death in Auto Accident” headlined the most tragic fire in 1911 when Mrs. William Waterman, out with her husband for a drive near Altamont’s Commercial Hotel on Main Street, suddenly screamed she was on fire. Her light summer clothes quickly blazed up, resulting in her death the next morning.

Although The Enterprise said the cause of the fire was gasoline, the car itself didn’t burn. Many years later, a recollection of the incident claimed the car was a Locomobile Steamer, an early car where paraffin or naphtha provided the fuel for the fire to heat the water to make steam to power the automobile. These impractical cars quickly went out of production.

One August 1911 morning, William Whipple, driving the Sands’ autotruck, pulled out of Altamont carrying Montford Sand in the passenger seat. While traveling down “church hill” past the entrance to Fairview Cemetery (now Weaver Road), the autotruck encountered two women approaching in a horse-drawn buggy.

The skittish horse panicked, jumped into the ditch, and overturned the rig, throwing the women out. Seeing their plight, Sand immediately leaped out of the autotruck, stumbled and fell, striking his head. Unconscious, he was carried back to his Altamont home where he died hours later.

The automobile by 1911 was an everyday part of local life whether for pleasure or for work. The dangers of automobile ownership had already become apparent and it was a tragedy that Montford Sand, one of the brothers who did the most in the very early days to popularize the automobile in Guilderland, died in an automobile-related accident.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

This picture seems to have been taken the day of Altamont’s dedication ceremony. The plaque’s empty space filled quickly.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Altamont’s Honor Roll grew wings to accommodate the names of all those who served.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

A crowd gathered at the dedication of Guilderland’s service flag and Honor Roll plaque. The Schoolcraft House, at that time the Magill family home, is visible in the background.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Guilderland’s Honor Roll had been dedicated the day this picture was taken.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Guilderland Center’s service flag hung on a special frame above the fire department’s locomotive ring that once called out the community’s firemen to fight a fire. It stood just outside the firehouse in the “old town hall” building on the main street, now Route 146, opposite the Cobblestone School.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Guilderland Center’s honor roll was erected just outside the “old town hall.”

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Some historically minded person not only snapped these photos to record the parade and dedication of Westmere’s Honor Roll, but in addition jotted explanatory notes on the back side of each snapshot. Marching in their dedication parade on Route 20 in 1943 were the Westmere Fire Department Ladies’ Auxiliary and the local Boy Scout troop.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

At Westmere’s dedication ceremony, Mary Johnston and Goldie Gipp raised the flag.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Posed in front of Westmere’s Honor Roll plaque after the dedication were Goldie Gipp, Minnie Benjamin, Mary Johnston, Alice Desino, Mrs. Hettenger, and Mildred Molliton.

The spring of 1942 found the United States at war with Japan and Germany. Japan, rapidly expanding its empire in the Pacific, was seemingly unstoppable.

The Japanese had not only had battered the American fleet at Pearl Harbor months before, but by early April had forced the surrender of American troops at Bataan in the Philippines, followed a month later by their taking Corregidor. Coming closer to our mainland in June, the Japanese landed in the Aleutians off the coast of Alaska.

In Europe, Adolf Hitler’s armies had occupied most of the continent and were sending endless bombing raids in an attempt to pound Britain into submission. Hitler’s June invasion of the Soviet Union was rapidly advancing. With ever worsening news from abroad, these were dark days for Americans.

In August 1940, with the threat of war looming, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called reservists and National Guard members to active duty, and that September Congress passed the first peacetime draft in our history, for men between the ages of 21 to 35.

By the spring of 1942, every community saw large numbers of its young men volunteering or being drafted. As the war went on, the draft expanded its classifications.

Local families whose sons and sometimes daughters were in the military hung rectangular service flags in a window, the blue stars representing their family members in the military and, as the tragic toll of war mounted, gold stars for family members killed in the war.

Communities, feeling the absence of so many of their young men and wanting to recognize their service, began displaying service flags and erecting wooden plaques or honor rolls in a public place for all to see. The honor rolls listed the names of all the local men and the occasional women who were in the armed forces.

Private Orsini MIA

as Altamont honors servicemen

The May 29, 1942 Enterprise had two front-page headlines, one reading “Honor Roll Plaque To Be Placed in Park, Plan Parade, Addresses,” while adjoining it was the lead headline “Altamont Man In Corregidor Area, When Island Fell/ War Dept. Waits Word From Japanese For Names of Prisoners Taken.”

The young Altamont man was Private Millard Orsini. Scheduled for June 21 in the park, the committee had already begun planning a parade and dedication ceremony, including all ages and groups, particularly recognizing the mothers of servicemen by seating them at the front of the dedication ceremony.

With the fate of the young Orsini serviceman hanging in the balance, Altamont’s dedication was probably the most emotional of all the local dedications.

On dedication day, the parade started from the fairgrounds down Grand Street to the Main Street, right on Lincoln Avenue, over to Western Avenue and then across Maple Avenue past the reviewing stand there and over to Depot Square and the park. Along the route, all the homeowners had been requested to display their American flags.

Four divisions marched in the parade, the first including Grand Marshall John Walker, a World War I veteran who had fought with the British and was a member of the Helderberg Post American Legion, followed by the ceremony speakers, village trustees, color guard, the British Empire War Veterans Kiltie Band, American Legion and its auxiliary, Red Cross members and their ambulance, Army jeeps and their representatives.

The second division had the Altamont Fire Department members and auxiliary and other  groups. The third division was headed by the chief air-raid warden and included the Altamont High School Band, air-raid wardens, and fraternal and civic groups. The fourth division was led by the chairman of the local Boy Scout committee, leading Boy Scout and Girl Scout units.

Once at the park, the large honor roll plaque was unveiled and dedicated. It listed 52 names with space for additional names to be added as the war continued.

The ceremony began and ended with invocation and benediction by Altamont’s two Protestant ministers with additional words from a LaSalette priest. A local woman sang “America,” followed by a welcome from the village mayor.

The actual dedication was led by Margaret Rickard and Ken Orsini, assisted by Margaret Orsini, Mary Rau, and the color guard. After the president of the fire department read off the names on the honor roll, General Ames T. Brown was the principal speaker. Mothers of servicemen were presented with service pins at the end of the ceremony.

Hamlet has plaque

on church lawn

July 1942 brought other honor-roll dedications in Guilderland’s communities.

Hamlet of Guilderland residents gathered on the lawn of the Presbyterian Church for the dedication of their honor-roll plaque, listing the names of 26 men in that election district. Both the plaque and a service flag with stars representing the 26 men had been erected on a corner of the Magill property next door to the church.

Today we know this as the Schoolcraft House, but the Magills lived there for many years in the 20th Century. There was no parade, but a dedication service was held in front of the plaque.

Opening the program, the orchestra of the Federated Sunday School played a march, followed by an invocation given by the Federated Presbyterian Church’s Rev. DeGraff and two solos, “America” and “Recessional” were sung.

Guilderland Center’s Rev. W.D. Worman of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church offered a prayer, then remarks were made by Aaron Bradt, a Spanish-American War veteran, and Rev. DeGraff offered a prayer.

The Home Bureau presented to the community a service flag that was accepted by Guilderland’s fire chief. To one side of the honor-roll plaque had been erected a flag pole to hold an American flag with the service flag hanging horizontally.

Next, many community organizations marched to the honor-roll plaque: Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts, a color guard, Sunday School children carrying flags, relatives of servicemen, Home Bureau members, the Red Cross, the Order of Red Men and their Pocahontas auxiliary (this was a fraternal organization based in the hamlet).

Next, the director of the Girl Scouts, assisted by her brother-in-law, a naval storekeeper third class, unveiled the honor-roll plaque. A Boy Scout presented the American flag and a Girl Scout presented the 26-star service flag, which were then raised by a member of the Order of Red Men. The ceremony concluded with Rev. Worman offering benediction.

Parade starts

Guilderland Center ceremony

The next weekend, Guilderland Center dedicated a service flag sponsored by its fire department. The event began with a parade headed by the 50-piece Roesselville Band (this high school preceded Colonie Central High School).

As he had been in Altamont, World War I veteran John Walker had been invited to be Grand Marshall.

In front of the Cobblestone School, an invocation given by Helderberg Reformed Church’s Rev. James Moffit was followed by a solo of “America,” a welcome, then the guest speaker Past Commander of the Albany County American Legion, followed by a few words from Fr. Dillon of LaSalette Seminary.

The main address was made by Col. John Chambliss, the officer in charge of the Voorheesville Holding and Reconsignment Point (the official name of the Army Depot).

Then the service flag was presented and the names of those on the roll of honor were read, a bugle call to the colors sounded out, and the audience recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The flag was formally accepted for the community.

Then auxiliary members of the Guilderland Center Fire Department presented service pins to mothers of servicemen and the dedication service culminated in the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” and a benediction offered by Rev. Worman of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.

In Westmere: A promise to

‘have a good America waiting’

The community of Westmere dedicated its own honor-roll plaque in June of 1943, recognizing the 90 men from that fire district serving in the armed forces with a parade on Route 20 and a ceremony at the Westmere firehouse.

It was noted that this was the first time in history a parade had been held in Westmere.

One of the speakers was the Albany chairman of the Joint War Veterans’ Advisory Board who looked to the future saying, “Let us promise those men in uniform that we will have a good America waiting when they return … .”

The president of the Albany Chamber of Commerce also spoke, warning the present war is “an all-out struggle for our way of life.” Reverend Carothers had opened the ceremonies with a prayer and town Supervisor Earle B. Conklin of McKownville also spoke.

Honor rolls grow

In Altamont, July 4, 1943 was marked with a parade and rededication of their honor-roll plaque, which was so filled with names that two side panels had to be added to provide space to list nearly three times the number of the original names.

The list given in The Enterprise article included one man who had died in service; one woman; and, next to Millard Orsini’s name: “held prisoner by the Japanese according to report of the International Red Cross.”

One of the seven Orsini brothers who fought in World War II, Millard survived the war and came home to Altamont. The American flag he fashioned as a prisoner of war, risking his life to do it, is now displayed at Altamont’s Home Front Café.

Two flag poles had been donated, one for an American flag and the other for a service flag erected on each side of the now expanded plaque. A man volunteered to repaint the weathered names on the original plaque and add the new names.

The rededication ceremony was similar to previous ones with clergy, civic groups, the Altamont High School Band, and officials taking part. Later that year and again in 1944, notices appeared urging anyone knowing of an armed-forces member from that vicinity not listed to make officials aware so his name could be added.

In 1944, Guilderland Center folks were raising money to enlarge the service plaque, while in Guilderland the Home Bureau was raising money to get new flags and enlarge its honor-roll plaque. If McKownville had an honor roll or service flag, there seemed to be no mention of it in The Enterprise.

These patriotic dedication parades and ceremonies served not only to honor and support the men and women in the armed forces, but also to raise morale on the home front. As members of the community came together, the ceremonies fueled their determination, no matter their ages, to do what it would take to win the war.

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— From Mary Ellen Johnson

This engraving of an oil well illustrated a share of the French Creek Petroleum Company, incorporated in New York State in 1865. It illustrates an oil derrick, probably much like the structure erected on the Severson farm in Knowersville in 1886. In the place of the oil storage drum shown, there would have been a shed to protect the engine from weather. This stock was made out to Annie Trainor, a young Irish servant girl who worked for a wealthy family in West Haverstraw, New York during the 1860s. Probably it was a gift given to her from the family, but unfortunately the company was no more successful than the Armstrong Company was in Knowersville. Mary Ellen Johnson, Annie Trainor’s great-granddaughter, still owns the share of stock.

— From the United States Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy

Early percussion rigs were used in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s.

Once upon a time, a tiny village dreamed of a natural-resource discovery that would lead to growth, development, and prosperity. The Dec. 12, 1885 Knowersville Enterprise headlines summarized it all: “A Great Scheme, A Plan Which May bring Untold Wealth to Knowersville, Hunting For Natural Gas Wells Among The Helderbergs.”

Imagine the astonishment, excitement, and probably skepticism and controversy in the little hamlet when Mr. W.H. Granby, representing the Pennsylvania Gas Company, showed up in town to announce that the company intended to drill at the base of the Helderbergs for oil and natural gas, chiefly gas.

Based on their theory that the Knowersville area was directly east of that part of Pennsylvania where gas and oil had been found only 26 years earlier, the company, also known as Armstrong & Co., proposed to lease local mineral rights to five- or six-thousand acres. The proposed leases included a nominal sum to be paid to the property owners, including the promise of “a fair percentage of the profits.”

To prevent any rival companies from drilling nearby wells in the event of a productive well being discovered, the company felt it necessary to lease such extensive acreage from the local farmers.

Enterprise Editor J.D. Ogsbury noted the many advantages that would occur with gas’s discovery. Property would be quadrupled in value, then followed by extensive development in the area, raising the population to “more desirable proportions.”

The nearby cities of Albany, Troy, and Schenectady would demand this “wonderfully cheap new fuel” and much of the money they spent for it “will find its way into the opulent pockets of the sturdy farmers around us.” Ogsbury couldn’t imagine why any landowner would refuse to sign one of the leases. He concluded by quoting in detail the favorable opinions of prominent men in the community, all in favor of signing the leases.

By the end of February 1886, Mr. Granby returned after having obtained leases to 10,000 acres northwest of Catskill, now prepared to sign up landowners in the Knowersville area. The Enterprise added, “The company, we learn from various sources, is most reliable, and we are well satisfied that no one need hesitate a moment to execute a lease with them … With a gas well in successful operation  in Knowersville there would be such a rush of manufacturers to this place as would give it a large city’s growth in a very few years.”

By early March, mineral rights to two- to three-thousand acres had been obtained from farmers coming in to sign leases, but “some are holding back” (italics in the original). Pressure began to be put on the skeptics who refused to be rushed into such a big decision.

Trying to push them, the newspaper claimed only the Pennsylvania Company had the capital to finance the $8,000 it would cost to drill the well and the $100,000 capital to utilize the gas if it were discovered.  

Within a few weeks, Mr. Granby announced that considering almost all the land needed had been leased, the order for drilling equipment had been put in. However, there were still a few stubborn holdouts refusing to sign, and increased pressure was put on the reluctant signers. The Enterprise warned that the company might abandon its efforts as a result of their unwillingness to commit.

The next week’s edition was relieved that “Mr. George Dutcher, after standing out some time, leased his farm to Mr. Granby and so have others since our last issue,” giving his company control over 5,511 acres. At this stage, Mr. Granby was busy negotiating for timber necessary to build the drill framework.

Two weeks later, Mr. Granby’s efforts were rewarded by additional leases being signed. The drilling equipment and timber were on order. In the meantime the drilling site had been selected.

Earlier, The Enterprise had speculated that the drilling would take place either at the base of Indian Ladder or in Alexander Crounse’s gully, but finally the part of the Severson farm just back of the village was selected as the drilling site (in the area of present-day Severson Avenue). Early May was the target date for drilling to begin.

Impatience was growing the next week when Mr. Granby was called out of town to meet with gas-company executives and confer with the men who would be doing the drilling. Returning, he assured locals that the materials for building and operating the derrick would soon reach Knowersville. Enterprise readers were told “next week” would see real activity begin.

Next week became two weeks, but finally the lumber having arrived, was unloaded from the (railroad) “cars.” Skilled workmen were due to arrive any day, then “in two or three days.” Finally, at the end of May, Mr. Granby and his workers were preparing to really get started, but unfortunately the rig iron and other materials were still in transit.

Early June brought great excitement as at last the derrick was erected. A carload of drilling components had come and drilling was expected to begin in days, but first it was necessary to build an engine house to protect the machinery from the weather. All that was needed now was the engine.

Drilling had not yet begun when, in the last week of June, Mr. Granby announced that he had discovered a spring two miles from Knowersville that he refused to identify more closely. He claimed to have noticed traces of sulphur, bailed out the spring, inserted a pipe down a few feet, lit a match and “we soon had a tiny flame of gas.”

Drilling begins, hopes high

Singed leaves and branches were displayed as proof for skeptics. Soon after this teaser, the engine, drills, and four skilled “drill men” arrived. Work could finally begin! It was now the end of June.

The arrival of the big day soon found the workers drilling through solid rock. At press time, The Enterprise reported they had drilled down 100 feet still pushing through solid rock, but soon another complication interfered with progress.

In 1886, the engine powering the drill was a steam engine requiring a steady supply of water. Quickly it became necessary to sink a second well in an attempt to find an additional water source. As it was, water was being carried in by the barrelful, slowing drilling considerably. The water problem dealt with, drilling resumed, reaching a depth of 300 feet.

“Gas At Last, A Big Flame Is Burning In The Ravine” were the excited headlines in the July 17 Enterprise. At the depth of between 500 and 600 feet, a vein of gas was struck that flamed up in the nearby ravine where Mr. Philley’s picnic grounds were located, “a novel and interesting sight and justly caused considerable excitement among our townsmen … .”

The drillers themselves were surprised at finding gas at such a depth and intended going down to 1,500 feet, seeking a stronger flow of gas. Editor Ogsbury bragged, “…it is now reasonably certain that Knowersville is destined to become the centre of a great gas producing region.”

Drilling continued to a depth of 1,300 feet in the quest for the sand rock where drillers could expect to locate gas. A week later, a depth of 1,600 feet had been reached, but having run out of rope, drillers were forced to wait for the arrival of additional rope to allow them to get down to 2,200 feet.

In the meantime, State Geologist Professor Hall made the pronouncement that any gas found so far was useless marsh gas (methane), and no supplies of natural gas would be found. The Enterprise pooh-poohed this, calling Professor Hall’s comments, “bosh.”

With the arrival of additional rope, drilling reached 1,900 feet, but it was slow going, half the progress as formerly. The drillers were not yet discouraged, having run into similar rock stratum elsewhere.

Next, the gas company was forced to make further investment to repair the derrick, replacing the original wheel with a much larger one that “greatly supplements the power of the engine, and they are ready for heavy drilling.”

After two months of unsuccessful drilling, it was now the end of August. A week later, a report that one of the shafts connected to the derrick’s large “band-wheel” had broken, resulting in suspension of drilling for several days.

It was no surprise that The Enterprise reported people in the vicinity were getting discouraged with the unsuccessful well, but quoted the highly experienced crew boss who said, “he was losing confidence in the present well, he was confident that there was an abundant supply of gas within a short distance.” But mid-September brought fresh encouragement when the drillers got through the black rock, hitting gray “lime rock” at a depth of almost 2,000 feet.

Drilling stops, dreams die

Three weeks later, drilling activity at the well had stopped. Knowersville’s dreams of growth, wealth, and importance came to an end shortly afterwards.

News spreading in the village and vicinity that the well would be exploded attracted people to the site of the well to witness the event. A slight jar was felt and, as expected by the drillers, this last-ditch effort brought no sign of gas.

The 12 empty cans with glycerine remnants were then taken back to the woods to be exploded. “The report was terrific” and at first onlookers thought it was from the well itself, but were disappointed. The company then moved on to the Knox farm of James Finch to try again.

The only benefit to come from the gas exploration was that the farmers who had leased their land to the company earned a rental payment of 12 ½ cents per acre, paid in early November by Messrs. Armstrong, Hindman & Co. who then dropped the leases.

The Enterprise was forced to return to reporting more mundane events in the little village, which grew and prospered at a slower rate than if their natural gas dreams had come true!

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Key to the Knowersville section of the 1866 Beers Map of Guilderland: l. Bozen Kill; 2. House of Dr. Frederick Crounse; 3. Knower Homestead; 4. Hotel of James Keenholts (Inn of Jacob Crounse on the State Historic Marker); 5. Hotel (Was this one later run by Jacob Crounse as competition for James Keenholts who was now in the original Crounse Inn?); 6. Store (probably the one run by Jacob Crounse containing the post office); 7. Blacksmith shop; 8. Probably a wheelwright shop; 9. Albany-Schoharie Plank Road, originally the old Schoharie Road, now Route 146 until it branches off to the right as Schoharie Plank Road; and 10. Modern day Gun Club Road. Note that by 1866 the railroad had been in operation three years and buildings had begun to appear west of the original Knowersville.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

This was the Doctor Crounse House as it was in the 1990s. Efforts to preserve it as a historic site have so far been unsuccessful.

Almost anyone with an interest in our local history is aware Altamont was once known as Knowersville, but few realize that the original hamlet of Knowersville was located to the east of the present village until  the beginning of a new chapter in the village’s history in 1863 with the arrival of the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad.

Beginning in the 18th Century, the old Schoharie Road passed where Severson’s Tavern (site of Altamont’s Stewart’s) was the last stopping place before the arduous ascent up the escarpment on the route to Schoharie. West Guilderland was the name given to the location when a United States Post Office was established at the tavern in 1829.

East of the tavern, the land was very sparsely settled until, in 1795, Myndert A. Wimple leased a large piece of property from Stephen Van Rensselaer along the old road. A few years later, he transferred this land to the successful Albanian Benjamin Knower, who built a grand stylish house fronting the road. With its large size, fireplaces, and interior woodwork, it could be classified as a mansion compared to other Guilderland homes of the era.

On land behind his house along the Bozenkill, Knower built a hat factory. He retailed the hats at his store at 421 South Market Street in Albany where he did a steady business selling hats that had been subjected to a secret waterproofing process, allowing them to keep their shape when wet from rain or snow.

His secret process consisted of immersing the hats in the Bozenkill’s cold water for a certain period of time in a deep spot in the creek called “Hatter’s Hole” by local residents. As Knower became a wealthy man, he became involved with the management of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank in Albany, establishing himself as a man of prominence in the early years of the 19th Century.

In 1824, his daughter Cornelia married William L. Marcy, later governor of New York. Our late town historian Arthur Gregg, relying on Knower family oral tradition passed along by the last family member to live in the house, felt the wedding took place at the West Guilderland house. However, he admitted he had not been able to find any documentary proof except a newspaper announcement stating they had been married.

Writing in 1934, Gregg mentioned James Matthews, still alive at the time of his article, had worked at the hat factory when it closed down at the end of the Civil War. Another man David Andrews reminisced to Gregg that he bought a hat there when a boy. Eventually the village of Altamont bought the property used in hat manufacture in 1918 for a water treatment plant.

Even though Knower was actively involved in Albany affairs, he also put down roots in West Guilderland. A short distance east along the Schoharie Road was St. James Lutheran Church (site of the modern entrance to Fairview Cemetery) which received from Knower an annual donation of $10, this being the largest single donation received during these early years.

Knower died in 1839, and being held in high esteem by the tiny community that had grown up around his house and hat factory, residents renamed their little hamlet Knowersville. The post office was moved from West Guilderland at the Severson Tavern to Jacob Crounse’s store in 1840 in what was now Knowersville.

The Crounse family

In 1833, two members of the Crounse family, father and son, settled in the vicinity of the Knower mansion and hat factory. The father, Jacob Crounse, acquired nearby property from Benjamin Knower to build a tavern, which would be about halfway between Albany and Schoharie.

Arthur Gregg, writing in 1933, quotes Webb Whipple who had grown up in the neighborhood, repeating information that had been passed down to him that the foundation stones of the old inn had been hauled from Howes Cave with the timber cut in the Helderbergs for its construction.

Across the road, Jacob Crounse ran a store and from 1840 until the Civil War served as the postmaster of the newly named Knowersville Post Office there.

At some point, Jacob Crounse either sold his hotel or lost it because of financial difficulties; its new owner was James Keenholts. The 1855 New York State Census lists J. Keenholts as “hotel keeper” and Jacob Crounse as “merchant.”

However, in a 1959 article about the Albany-Schoharie Plank Road, Arthur Gregg mentions, “Running in opposition [to the Keenholts Hotel] was the Crounse hotel across the way, later remodeled into the three houses that stand there now.” It seems probable that he acquired the hotel across the road and continued in the business at least for a time.

Later in life, Jacob Crounse is supposed to have moved in with his son, Dr. Frederick Crounse, busying himself making coffins in the barn.

That same year that Jacob had built his inn on the Schoharie Road, his son, Dr. Frederick Crounse, also obtained land from Benjamin Knower to the west of Knower’s house. There he built a house and a smaller, separate two-room office with an attic where at least for a time, he had an African-American servant living.

This parcel was on the corner of what is now Route 146 and Gun Club Road. For over 60 years, Dr. Crounse  practiced medicine, traveling to his patients on horseback or driving his gig.

Both Crounses were firm supporters of the Anti-Rent Movement against the Van Rensselaer interests. Dr. Crounse also made a speech in 1860 at one of Guilderland’s Wide Awake rallies supporting Lincoln.

In 1849, the improved Albany-Schoharie Plank Road was constructed through the midst of Knowersville, but it no longer totally followed the route of the old Schoharie Road. Not far beyond Dr. Crounse’s house, the plank road veered to the right to take a different path up the escarpment, putting Severson’s, the original tavern in the area, out of business.

The plank road, a turnpike built for investors’ profits from tolls, was constructed of a lane of thick planks laid over parallel sills. A dirt lane ran along the side to allow one driver to pass another.

The two Knowersville hotels thrived from the increased traffic carried by the improved road. The Albany-Schoharie stagecoach made a daily trip between the two places during the years the Schoharie Plank Road was in operation.

The stagecoach stopped at the Keenholts Hotel where the horse teams were changed and passengers were refreshed. (The modern day New York State Historic Marker in front calls it Inn of Jacob Crounse.)

The election of 1860 saw political demonstrations at both the Crounse and Keenholts hotels supporting either Lincoln or Douglas with poles, banners, bands, speeches, and crowds. Shortly after Lincoln’s victory and inauguration, the Civil War began and was soon brought home to the people living in Knowersville.

Volunteer regiments were forming in the northern states. In Schoharie, the 134th New York State Volunteer Infantry trained, then marched to Albany over the Albany-Schoharie Road, stopping halfway for the night in Knowersville.

Webb Whipple remembered the soldiers sleeping in the fields around the neighborhood. A 134th veteran reminiscenced in the 20th Century, mentioning sleeping under the hotel sheds at Knowersville. Probably men were anywhere they could bed down, while that night Dr. Crounse tended the weary; footsore; and, in some cases, sick men. Later, he would tend any wounded men returning home on the stagecoach.

Both of Dr. Crounse’s sons enlisted. Tragically, Eddie Crounse suffered a head injury while helping to build a fortification. A Schoharie woman who was nursing in one of the military hospitals found him there, and notified his father.

Dr. Crounse traveled south to bring his son home, but Eddie Crounse never fully recovered. One day, the suffering young man was discovered face down in the Bozenkill behind his parents’ home.

The railroad changes everything

Sept. 16, 1863 marked the beginning of the end of the importance of the little community on the Plank Road. The first train to run on the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad passed over a right-of-way granted by the Seversons — revenge is sweet!

Within two years, a railroad station stood along the tracks, the Seversons had built a new hotel across the tracks, and a new commercial building stood nearby beside the tracks (where the Home Front Café is today).

The Knowersville post office was moved to the new railroad depot and, where there had only been two farmhouses, a building boom commenced and a new village arose. In the meantime, in 1867, rail competition forced the board of directors to disband the Plank Road Company.

What of the original Knowersville, that stretch of the Schoharie Plank Road where Keenholts’s hotel, Crounse’s store and Dr. Frederick Crounse’s home and office stood?

Now that the center of the village had shifted to the area of new hotels, businesses, and residences near what had become the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, the original Knowersville had become a backwater.

An 1884 Enterprise ad stated W.S. Waterman would repair watches, clocks, and jewelry “promptly and neatly at his residence, Old Knowersville, NY.” In 1890, when the village of Altamont incorporated, the old village was not included in the village boundaries.

And, in 1902, The Enterprise reported, “There was a large attendance at the auction sale at the Knower Homestead at the old village Monday afternoon.” Held after the death of George Knower, the last heir, it was as if a chapter had ended.

Today the three historic markers along Route 146 noting the Inn of Jacob Crounse, the Knower Homestead, and sadly, what remains of Dr. Crounse’s house are the only clues that this was once the 19th-Century community of Knowersville.

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— Archives of Ontario

In the same era that an illegal still was being run in Guilderland, Canadian police raided a still in Elk Lake Ontario in 1925, destroying 160 kegs. Canadian prohibition was enacted through laws passed by the provinces.

—  Orange County Archives

Sheriff’s deputies dump illegal alcohol during a raid in Orange County California in 1932 while a trio of dour women watch. Prohibition in the United States began in 1920 when the 18th Amendment went into effect and was repealed in 1933 with the ratification of the 21st Amendment.

— National Archives and Records Administration

Detroit police inspect equipment found in a clandestine brewery during the Prohibition era. Similar equipment was used in a Guilderland still.

Mug shot: The Philadelphia police took this picture of bootlegger Legs Diamond in 1929.

Feb. 1, 1927 found Robert and Joseph Battaglia in business as Battaglia Bros. Poultry Farm in a secluded spot on the portion of West Lydius Street between Carman Road and Church Road, in what is now the Fort Hunter area of Guilderland, raising chickens on acreage owned by a New York City in-law.

Approached that day by three men, one introducing himself as John Mitchell of Albany, and accompanied by a John Smith and a third man never identified, Robert Battaglia was offered a deal. Mitchell proposed to lease the farm’s unused 40-by-60-foot barn situated behind the chicken coops along with a small area of land around it, agreeing to pay a rental of $30 monthly.

The three men claimed to need a location where they would be “experimenting” to produce their product, which was to be “sauerkraut” (quotes in the original news story).

In the weeks ahead, under the cover of darkness, trucks drove in and out, with the doings in the barn cloaked in secrecy. Off limits to the Battaglias, the barn, where the doors were always barred, saw much activity.

John Mitchell and associates were actually creating an illegal, but very professional, high capacity still at great expense. Several huge copper vats, each capable of holding several hundred gallons of alcohol were carried in, in pieces, to be reassembled inside. A huge steam boiler was set up as part of the operation.

In the midst of the nation’s futile attempt at Prohibition, gangsters were producing huge quantities of illegal alcohol in stills frequently situated in isolated rural areas. The Battaglia farm was the perfect site off a rarely traveled dirt country road, yet easily accessible to Albany via Carman Road to Route 20 or to Schenectady via Church Road/Helderberg Avenue.

The gangsters of that era were ruthless (think Legs Diamond or Dutch Schultz and their hit men), and the men involved in setting up this still were definitely professional criminals. The Battaglias were probably well aware of what was unfolding on their farm, but wouldn’t have seen, heard, or known anything if they wanted to remain healthy.

Under the Volstead Act, the nation’s Prohibition statute passed by Congress in 1919, property could be confiscated if illegal alcohol was being made or sold there. Perhaps it was this knowledge that may have motivated Robert Battaglia to demand that John Mitchell buy the barn and four acres surrounding it.

After getting permission from his New York City relatives to sell the property, on Feb. 16 Mitchell paid Battaglia $500 down and agreed to a $2,500 mortgage held by Battaglia. Schenectady Attorney Hannibal Pardi handled the legal details. Mitchell then “disappeared.”

Explosion

Around noon on March 10, Joseph Battaglia was tossing feed to a flock of clucking hens. He later claimed that, due to the sounds of the chickens, he was barely aware of an explosion out back by the barn or the sounds of men calling out in excruciating pain. He claimed it was some time before he realized something was amiss.

Several yards behind the hen house, the explosion in the barn was shortly followed by a second blast and a fiery inferno. After the first blast, a man came staggering out of the barn, his clothes afire. As he threw himself into snow remaining on the ground, another man rushed to his aid, only to be knocked down, his clothes in flames from the second blast. A third man also suffered burns but not so extensively.

The two critically burned men were placed in a Chevrolet touring car, sped to Ellis Hospital, and dropped off at the dispensary door with no explanation to hospital staff. The driver hurried away before he could be questioned.

The third victim was supposedly driven to Kingston for treatment, but it was also possible he was taken to a Schenectady doctor on State Street. Accounts differed.

Conscious in spite of their terrible injuries, the two men, when questioned, refused to identify themselves, giving conflicting accounts of how they acquired such severe burns. When it became obvious that one was about to die, the coroner was called in an attempt to get information. Finally, the dying man admitted to being John Smith, rooming at 405 Union Street in Schenectady.

With difficulty, the undersheriff and accompanying newsmen found the location of the blast. Parked by the charred ruins was the dead man’s Chevrolet touring car.

Identities revealed

Tracing the license plate revealed John Smith was actually a bootlegger named Carmen Tuosto from Rome, New York, out on $5,000 bail after having been indicted by a federal grand jury in Rome in January. An experienced still operator, Tuosto ran a still near Rome worth $100,000, capable of producing $15,000 worth of liquor weekly.

Tuosto’s family refused to give authorities any additional information, only requesting that his body be shipped back for burial.

After examining the fire scene, Undersheriff Lopen estimated the Guilderland still’s potential capacity would have been 1,750 gallons with each vat holding 250 gallons. The value of the still itself would have been $20,000. Several five-gallon gasoline cans and a large steam engine were visible in the barn’s charred ruins.

The second severely burned man turned out to be Dominick Frederick, a contractor living at 107 Foster Avenue in Schenectady, who told authorities he visited the Battaglia farm several times weekly to buy a couple of dozen eggs.

He just happened to be there when the blast occurred, rushing over to help the unfortunate burn victim writhing in agony in the snow when he, too was set on fire by the second blast. His death at Ellis was reported three days after the blast and fire.

“THIRD MAN IN RUM STILL BLOWUP HELD” read a huge banner headline across the front page of the April 1 edition of the Schenectady Union-Star, while a slightly smaller two-column headline below informed readers, “Say Jack Rocco Owned Big Plant in Guilderland.”

Claiming that authorities were certain John Mitchell was an alias used by Jack Della Rocco, also known as Jack Della, the lengthy article added that Della Rocco had been arrested on a warrant from the Albany District Prohibition Office.

Two days later, he was arraigned before United States Commissioner Charles E. Parker and charged with the manufacture of illicit beverages, a violation of the Volstead Act. Della Rocco was released on $2,500 bail.

Della Rocco, who was less seriously burned in the March 10 still explosion, was rumored to have either been driven to Kingston for treatment or taken to a doctor in Schenectady after the other two were left at Ellis.

Certainly in April, he was in Schenectady under the care of Dr. Fred McDonald, who convinced authorities to delay arresting Della Rocco until his burns healed. Before the explosion, he had been rooming with a family on Ingersoll Avenue in Schenectady.

Only at this time did the identity of the mystery driver who had left the two fatally burned men at Ellis become known. He was Fred Adams, described as a neighbor of the Battaglias. Adams refused to make any further comments.

Courts and coverage

Police and Prohibition officers searched extensively for John Mitchell, finally coming to the conclusion Mitchell and Della Rocco were the same man. Unfortunately any witnesses who could verify the suspicion either were dead or weren’t talking.

Robert Battaglia denied that they were the same man, having begun a legal process to foreclose on Mitchell’s title to the four acres he had purchased in February.

An announcement made by the Albany District Prohibition chief stated the federal grand jury might consider the case of Jack Della Rocco. United States Commissioner Parker conducted a hearing, but reserved his decision.

Even if indicted, Della Rocco’s conviction would seem unlikely with key witnesses unwilling to testify against him. Government officials attempting to enforce the Volstead Act were rarely successful in obtaining guilty verdicts.Silence, evasion, inconsistencies, lies, witness tampering or threats; all of these prevented convictions during Prohibition years.

This Guilderland Prohibition tale was pieced together from the many articles in the Schenectady newspapers, both the Union-Star and the Gazette. Heavy coverage was likely because all three men were living in Schenectady and because in 1927 these papers seemed to be regularly carrying news from the area of western Guilderland including Altamont and Guilderland Center.

Even though the explosion occurred in Albany County, the Albany Times-Union didn’t cover it and the Knickerbocker Press’s coverage was minimal. Nothing about this incident appeared in The Altamont Enterprise.

A postscript to this tale appeared in a Nov. 15, 2015 Schenectady Gazette feature article “The Bootlegger’s Daughter.” Centenarian Agnes Frederick Tripolo, Dominic Frederick’s daughter, shared her memories of her Schenectady childhood in the 1920s.

Her father, born in Italy as Domenico Frederico, later anglicized his name to Dominick Frederick. Agnes remembered that he had a still in Guilderland, bringing home the distilled liquor to be stored in a secure place in the cellar of their Foster Avenue home. He then made deliveries to local taverns operating speakeasies. He drove one of his Studebakers, often taking his daughter or wife along to make it seem like a normal drive.

As she reminisced with reporter Karen Bjornland, Mrs. Tripolo said it wasn’t unusual for the mayor, policemen, and musicians to share a meal at their home. Dominick Frederic prospered until the explosion brought his successful bootlegging operation and his life to an end.

In an email to the Gazette reporter, Dominick Frederick’s grandson Joseph Tripolo offered his opinion: “My take on it all was his death and his operation, a million dollar still, was wanted out of the way by some unsavory types trying to control market share.” And that was very likely the real story.

Location:

“Aaron F. Pangburn and Peter J. Ogsbury are building ice houses for the purpose of further advancing their interests in the creamery this coming season,” noted the Jan. 5, 1889 Enterprise.

Eagerly anticipating a string of subzero nights freezing nearby creeks and ponds to maximum thickness, these two were among the many farmers in Guilderland and other Albany County towns who were ready to begin the backbreaking, tedious chore of harvesting the ice crop, then hauling the ice cakes to their ice houses to be packed in to last through the warm months ahead.

“The order of the day is harvesting ice” or “the local ice crop has been harvested” appeared repeatedly during the months of January and February from the mid-1880s when The Enterprise began publication until the 1930s. To 21st-Century minds the terms “ice,” “crop,” and “harvest” just do not go together in the same sentence, unlike a century or more ago when the idea made perfect sense.

Like Peter J. Ogsbury, many farmers were fortunate enough to have a natural pond or were able to create one on their own property. Otherwise in Guilderland ice came from creeks such as the Bozenkill or Normanskill or from large ponds, the most frequently mentioned being Tygert’s pond on the outskirts of Guilderland Center created by damming the Black Creek.

Batterman’s mill pond in the Guilderland hamlet (today the silted in pond is still visible from Route 20 not far west from its intersection with Willow Street) also provided large quantities of ice.

In McKownville behind the McKownville Methodist Church was Henderson’s pond, reputed to have been created as a pond to provide ice. Also in McKownville was Witbeck’s pond and possibly the McKown’s Grove pond.

In the Altamont area, ice was cut at Sitterly’s, Hokirk’s and Conrad Crounse’s ponds as well as the village reservoir, although after 1910 fear of contamination caused the village to forbid reservoir ice-harvesting. The Kushaqua Hotel had its own reservoir where ice was cut and stored for its summer use.

Stephen Lainhart, who farmed his ancestral acres on what is now Lainhart Road and regularly kept a diary throughout his adult life, wrote frequent references to ice-harvesting. “Drawing ice,” “got four loads of ice from Wesley’s pond,” (Wesley Schoolcraft was his neighbor),”we worked at ice out of the Bozenkill,” “got two jags (obsolete term for loads) of ice from the covered bridge in the afternoon,” (it’s not clear which covered bridge) are a few examples.

Just as Peter Ogsbury had done, Lainhart in 1891 dug out his own pond, citing figures of cutting 203 cakes of ice there in 1901, and 180 in 1902. Even with a supply of ice from his own pond, he packed additional ice from the Bozenkill and from Tygert’s pond into his ice house.

Tools and techniques

Necessary for ice-cutting were special tools and techniques.

First, any snow on the ice’s surface was cleared as soon as the ice was thick enough to bear a man’s weight in order to remove an insulating blanket from the ice, allowing the intensely frigid nights to freeze the ice to maximum thickness.

A sharp deep freeze with no snow or wind to ruffle the water’s surface produced crystal-clear ice. The late Everett Rau recalled his father holding up a cake of ice, and putting his watch behind it to make it possible for Everett to clearly make out the watch’s numerals through the foot-thick piece of ice.

Often mentioned in the comments about ice-harvesting were both the ice’s quality, the best being “fine and clear,” and the thickness with the figures ranging from a low of 8 inches in 1890 to 26 inches at the Kushaqua’s reservoir and 24 inches at Tygert’s pond in 1888. Most years the thickness seemed to run between 10 to 14 inches.

An Enterprise contributor, who called himself “Anonymous,” wrote sporadic columns appearing in 1971 and 1972. In one, he described ice-cutting on his family’s farm pond, which seemed to have been in the McKownville vicinity.

To begin, their team pulled an “ice plow” with a sharpened blade to make a four-inch deep groove across the pond. Using that cut as a guide, the plow was pulled to make parallel grooves in the area to be cut.

A hole was cut through at the shore to put in a chute to allow the cakes of cut ice to be slid out up the bank. The blocks were then loaded onto sleds or, in the 20th-Century, in trucks to be taken to their ice house.

Once the grooves had been made, long ice saws with big teeth cut off cakes and a “spud,” a tool used to crack free the cake from the groove, allowed the cake to float freely. Then men with long pikes pushed the floating cake to the chute or slide to allow it to be removed from the pond.

During the days between Jan. 28 and Feb. 9,  1887, Stephen Lainhart tells us he “went into Knowersville for a load of sawdust,” “ Irving (his son) went after ice tongs,” “ I went to Alex Tygert’s after sawdust,” “I drawed ice, Uncle Peter and Charley helped,” “put 30 cakes in the ice house,” “drawed two loads of ice,” “Irving and myself put ice in the ice house,” “ I drawed one load of ice in the forenoon,” “I finished drawing ice. Irving helped me put some in the icehouse.”

The ice house

A skill in itself, correctly positioning the ice in the ice house so as to have minimal melting during the warmer months was key. The loads of sawdust Stephen acquired were needed to insulate the ice.

After packing the floor with sawdust, the ice cakes were then piled in layers with space left between the ice and walls to then be filled with sawdust and sometimes straw. Before the next year’s ice could be stored, the sawdust from the year before had to be cleaned out; fresh sawdust was used for the new ice crop.

The ice house constructed by Peter Ogsbury in 1889 had double doors, one set above the other, where the top half opened separately from the bottom half.  When the top of the bottom half-door was reached, sawdust had to be placed between the walls and the ice and between the ice and the closed door.

Then a ladder that had been built at the same time as the ice house was used to pile in the top layers of ice until the ice house was full. Additional sawdust was put between upper layers of ice and walls, the top of the ice, and the closed door.

The ladder was used to remove the upper ice layers when they were to be used later on. If any of the ice cakes fused together, farmers had a special crowbar-type tool to pry them apart. Any sawdust stuck to an ice cake washed right off.

Profits

Money could be made cutting and selling ice and sometimes the owner of a pond would sell the rights to someone else to cut and sell the ice. Alex. Tygert did this in 1890 when Frederick Mynderse “purchased the ice on Tygert’s pond which he will sell by the load or otherwise.”

Altamont’s Sand & Sons were noted as the village ice dealers, though they were never mentioned as being involved with harvesting itself. Others filled the ice houses of village residents: Mayor Hiram Griggs contracted with William Hokirk to fill his, while the Ward Boys filled Mr. D. G. Staley’s ice house.

Wealthy cottagers on the escarpment had theirs filled with ice from Thompson’s Lake in preparation for their summer stays. However, friends, neighbors, and relatives freely helped individual farmers fill their ice houses knowing they would reciprocate.

Innumerable enterprising young men from Guilderland and other nearby towns traveled over to the Hudson to Cedar Creek, Selkirk, or Coxsackie where commercial ice-harvesting was a major employer for a few weeks each winter when tons of ice were cut from the river, and stored in huge ice houses that could warehouse up to 50,000 tons of ice.

The ice was later shipped to New York City in specially-constructed insulated barges. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 men were employed each winter cutting Hudson River ice between Kingston and Albany.

Even though men like A. Lincoln Frederick and E.J. Severson, just to name two local men mentioned as working on the Hudson at different times over the years, had to pay room and board while there for one to three weeks, the $1.75 daily wage must have made it worthwhile.

Near Guilderland in Karners, located in the Town of Colonie, the New York Central Railroad owned two large ponds where ice was harvested and stored to be used to chill the Central Railroad’s refrigerated cars, another location where local young men went to earn cash cutting ice.

Dangerous work

Ice cutting could be dangerous work as Philip Schemerhorn discovered in 1888 when he slipped and went into the icy water in the Guilderland hamlet. Men could prevent this by wearing felt boots or cork soles.

Sometimes a team of horses came to disaster falling in. Fortunately, when Meadowdale’s William P. Crounse’s horses broke through the ice, they were able to be rescued though “with difficulty.” There were times when men or teams of horses drowned, though this does not seem to have happened in Guilderland. Men were also injured by dropped ice cakes.

A creamery

A major motivation to building ice houses was the possibility of selling milk, especially once railroads gave easy access to nearby cities. Altamont area farmers joined together to build a creamery in Altamont in 1888, an initial success, but a year later it failed due to a big drop in butter prices.

In the meantime, there was more demand for ice with the building of local hotels and the rapid increase in summer visitors here who built “cottages” on the escarpment, stayed at the town’s hotels, or boarded with area farm families.

Local butchers and fish venders needed ice as well. Ice cream became a popular summer treat. In the early 20th Century, milk stations requiring ice were being set up by big diaries where milk was picked up and farmers earned cash.

Once electrical refrigeration became common in the 1920s, commercial ice-harvesting became history. Gradually, ice-harvesting by Guilderland farmers became less and less common as use of electricity grew. By the 1930s, it would have become a rarely seen activity and it’s not likely farmers missed what was once a common cold-weather chore.

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— From the United States Library of Congress

In Washington, once Rufus Wheeler Peckham took his position on the court, he neither mingled socially nor gave any public speeches. After 1899 he was known to be grieving the loss of first his older son and a few years later his younger son, too.

— From the National Archives and Records Administration.

President Grover Cleveland’s Dec. 3, 1895 nomination of Rufus Peckham to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

— Photo from Postdlf

Rufus Wheeler Peckham, who lived from 1838 to 1909, is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands. There is also in that plot a cenotaph or marker for Peckham's father, New York State Court of Appeals Judge Rufus Wheeler Peckham, and his stepmother who were lost in the sinking of the Atlantic steamer Ville du  Havre in 1873. The elder Peckham was also a prominent Albany lawyer.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Coolmore, Rufus Peckham’s summer home, where he died in 1909, was bought by Bernard Cobb, a utilities magnate, who named it Woodlands. After Cobb died in 1957, his daughters donated the property to the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary who ran the Cobb Memorial School there for children with disabilities, adding modern buildings and a playground to the campus. The 65.3-acre property (most of it in Guilderland with about 13 acres in Knox) has a full-market value of $2.7 million, according to the Albany County assessment rolls. Although the Cobb Memorial School is now closed, “The property is not for sale. The sisters use it for retreats and vacations,” said Marcia Hansen, reached at the sisters’ Haswell Road location in Watervliet. “They’re there all the time.”

Who was Rufus Wheeler Peckham?

The short answer is: A United States Supreme Court associate justice.

He was appointed in 1895 by Democratic President Grover Cleveland; his confirmation followed six days later by a voice vote of the Republican majority Senate — the last time for this political occurrence.

Rufus W. Peckham is making an appearance in The Enterprise because he happened to be an Albany native, a member of the city’s wealthy, prominent elite, who was also a longtime resident of Altamont’s summer colony.

Born in 1838 to a father who was a very successful, well known attorney and judge, Rufus Peckham received a classical education at Albany Academy, then traveled to Philadelphia for additional studies. After a lengthy tour of Europe accompanied by his brother, he returned to Albany where he resumed his studies. Admitted to the bar in 1859, he joined his father’s law firm, beginning a very successful legal trajectory that ended at the summit of an attorney’s career.

His private clients, being chiefly banks, insurance companies, and corporations such as the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad, earned him a reputation for being an effective attorney who almost always won his cases. He was reputed to be on personal terms with such moguls as J. Pierpont Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D.  Rockefeller. In later years, as he served on the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, and then on the U.S. Supreme Court, he definitely seemed to favor business interests.

Within 10 years of joining his father’s firm, the young lawyer became district attorney for the city and county of Albany. In addition, he served as special assistant to the New York State Attorney General from 1869 to 1872. During these years, he dealt with a series of criminal cases where his success at trial proved to be equal to his competency at corporate law.

In spite of his busy legal commitments, Peckham was a staunch Democrat, becoming acquainted with prominent politicians, and was especially friendly with Governor Grover Cleveland in the years before his election to the presidency. Peckham served as a delegate in both the 1876 and 1880 Democratic conventions.

In 1883, he was elected to the New York State Supreme Court, the lowest court in the state’s three-tiered system. Three years later, he became a judge of the Court of Appeals where he remained until his 1895 appointment to the United States Supreme Court. At that time, Peckham is supposed to have exclaimed, “If I have got to be put away on the shelf, I supposed I might as well be on the top shelf.”

Coolmore

Personally, Peckham was described by his contemporaries as “vigorous, of forceful character, frank, and outspoken.” Physically, he was described as having a “cameo face and piercing eyes,” while in company he was considered “an agreeable, entertaining conversationalist.”

Married in 1866 to a New York City woman, Peckham became the father of two sons, Rufus Jr. and Henry, always called Harry. The family home was on Albany’s lower State Street adjacent to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

In 1884, when his sons were in their teens, Peckham’s decision to acquire a large tract of land brought the family to the escarpment above Knowersville. After the construction of the Peckhams’ large summer home, sometimes referred to as a “villa” in The Enterprise, the name “Coolmore” was given to the estate.

The spectacular outlook from the property, described by Fletcher Battershall, a friend of Peckham’s sons who had been a frequent guest at Coolmore, was an “unbroken view of the valley of the Hudson stretching to the foothills of the Berkshires,” while “behind stretches the rocky Helderberg tableland, rolling and diversified by woods, farms, and isolated hamlets.”

It was “an ideal place for growing boys and their pleasures,” and the Peckham sons were welcome to entertain their young friends as regular visitors at the estate. Summer neighbors included other wealthy and well-connected Albanians James D. Wesson, Mrs. William (Lucie) Cassidy, and Charles L. Pruyn who also had children.

In those early years, a steady stream of guests were entertained at Coolmore, stirring the recollection of the Peckham sons’ friend who reminisced, “There were good times on the hills of Altamont.”

In one instance, Harry and Edward Cassidy imported Belgian hares, let them go in the surrounding woods and fields, inviting their young adult friends to pursue the hares with a pack of beagles. At other times, they hunted raccoons by moonlight. Much tennis was played and exploration of the nearby countryside was another pastime.

The summer colony’s attractions not only included lovely scenery, healthy air, and pure water, but its location was easily accessible, only an hour away from Albany on the frequently scheduled D&H locals. Commuting was feasible for those with professional or social commitments in town. D&H Conductor Joseph Zimmerman, obviously highly thought of by regular riders, was gifted with “a beautiful conductor’s lantern with his name neatly inscribed.” Among the contributors was Judge Peckham.

Judge Peckham apparently purchased his tract of land not solely as the site of a summer home, but also for a farm to be supervised by a local farmer, particularly to provide a sizable hay crop. Having had a strictly urban background, Judge Peckham while inspecting his farm during haying season one day was puzzled by the piles of grass all over his fields. It had to be explained to him that it wasn’t refuse littering his land, but freshly cut hay drying before being taken to the barn.

Peckham, like the other wealthy summer colony residents, provided employment for local men on his property and patronized nearby businesses, earning the good will of Knowersville’s (as Altamont was called until incorporated in 1890) residents and certainly helped to boost the village’s economy.

Men were hired for farm work and as farm managers and, in addition, an estate supervisor was employed. The names of various men who worked for the Peckhams were often mentioned in the Enterprise’s village column.

Note was also made that lumber for an 1895 expansion of the Peckhams’ cottage was being supplied locally and at least one wagon was purchased in the village. And at the end, the services of the Altamont doctor and undertaker were provided.

What’s in a name?

A few years after the Peckham family became regular summer residents, there was difficulty with mail delivery, due to the name Knowersville being frequently confused with a village in the western part of the state having a similar name, leading to a movement to rename the community.

A piece appeared in The Enterprise asking, “Shall it Be Peckham?” offering the suggestion that the village should be designated “Peckham” in Rufus’s honor. After all, the writer argued, he was a Court of Appeals judge; “Peckham” was easier to write than “Knowersville”; and besides, the judge might “honor himself and the village in some substantial manner.” It ended with, “By all means, let it be called Peckham.”

A protesting, upset citizen responded a week later, representing a faction not in agreement with the thought of living in Peckham, New York. Very shortly, the discussion became a moot point because Lucie Cassidy had used her influence with President Cleveland to rename the village Altamont.

Upon becoming a Supreme Court justice, Peckham sold his Albany home, moving to Washington, but he continued to summer each year at Coolmore where he died in 1909.

Laissez-faire decisions

As an associate justice on the Supreme Court, he was best known for writing the majority opinion Lochner vs. New York State in 1905 when the court ruled, 5 to 4, that the New York Bakeshop Act, a law prohibiting bakers from working more than a 10-hour day, six days per week, was unconstitutional.

Peckham’s opinion put forth the argument, “The freedom of master and employees to contract with each other … cannot be prohibited or interfered without violating the 14th Amendment.” This case has been mentioned unfavorably in mainstream newspaper and magazine articles about the Supreme Court in recent years and on occasion Peckham’s name is also mentioned.

Peckham also voted with the majority in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896, upholding the constitutionality of southern Jim Crow laws.

Justice Peckham, who considered himself a strict constitutionalist, is today remembered by legal scholars and students of the Constitution as a “nonentity, “a pygmy of the Court,” his reasoning described as “unfathomable,” the Lochner case “notorious.” His approval of Jim Crow laws is held against him. Peckhams’s extremely conservative thinking does not resonate with modern sensibilities.

The demise of High Point Farm

When the two Peckham sons were grown, each became a lawyer. Harry had developed a deep love of the land and a genuine interest in agriculture. Even though he was active in his father’s Albany law firm, he purchased a farm on the same ridge as Coolmore to the east of his father’s property which he named “High Point Farm.”

Registered stock including bulls, cows, pigs, geese, duck, and turkeys — some imported — found a home at this farm. Running a serious agricultural operation, Harry commuted out of Albany to work on his beloved High Point Farm whenever he had the opportunity and employed several hired farm workers.

Ads appeared in The Enterprise during 1899 and 1900 with the offer that for a dollar local farmers could have their cows serviced by one of his pedigreed bulls. Pigs and poultry were also for sale.

Unfortunately, a disastrous fire broke out in June 1900 when the hay barn, stables, wagon and tool house, pig pen and other buildings, equipment and much stock were all destroyed. Harry did not rebuild because by this time his health had begun to fail.

Sadly, Harry seemed to have developed consumption, now known as tuberculosis, a disease that in those days was fatal to rich as well as poor. He moved to Saranac Lake, then a center for treatment, later relocating to the west in a desperate attempt to revive his health. Harry died in 1907 in California. His brokenhearted parents had already buried Rufus Jr., also a promising young lawyer who had died at Coolmore after a lengthy illness in 1899.

Mourned by the president

As usual, Justice Peckham returned to Coolmore for the summer of 1909. Despite his health being a cause for concern, he was planning to return to Washington in the fall. However, his heart failed and he died at the summer home he had visited for a quarter of a century. At his death, tributes and messages of sympathy poured in.

Justice John Marshall Harlan referred to him as “one of the ablest jurists who ever sat on the American bench.” President William Howard Taft and Governor Charles Evans Hughes (who the next year became an associate justice himself and later the chief justice of the Supreme Court) each sent his widow their condolences.

At his impressive funeral at Albany’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the eight surviving Supreme Court justices were in attendance. Rufus Wheeler Peckham was interred in the family plot at Albany Rural Cemetery.

Locally, Peckham has been almost entirely forgotten, though he was once the most important of the area’s summer residents. The Peckhams must have loved their summer home, which remained in the family from 1884 until Justice Peckham’s death there in 1909.

In the early 1920s, the estate came into the possession of the Cobb family who renamed the property “Woodlands.” In 1958, after Bernard Cobb’s death, his daughters donated the 32-room house and 40-acre tract of land to the Albany Catholic Diocese.

Location:

No man’s land on the western front: The open attack at St. Mihiel was portrayed by Lucien Hector Jonas.

— United States National Archives and Records

“Dreadful scenes”: In the midst of the Meuse-Argonne Forest Offensive, Major Frank H. Hurst was gassed with phosgene, a compound of carbon monoxide and chlorine, and was carried on a stretcher to a base hospital. This Department of Defense photograph shows a gun crew from Regimental Headquarters Company, 23rd Infantry, firing during an advance against German entrenched positions at Meuse-Argonne.

— United States National Archives and Records

“Dr. F.H. Hurst Is In Thick of the Fighting” was the Altamont Enterprise headline, describing the Guilderland Center doctor helping the wounded in September 1918 after the Battle of St. Mihiel. Hurst in August had been transferred from a British regiment to the American Expeditionary Forces. This Army photograph shows the American Engineers returning from the front at St. Mihiel.

Dr. Frank H. Hurst was a Guilderland Center boy who became a doctor, graduating from Albany Medical College in 1895, followed by two years in Europe where he continued his medical studies. Returning home, he opened his practice in Guilderland Center in 1903 and served as the community’s physician until 1945, except for the years from 1917 to 1919.

August 1914 saw the opening shots of catastrophic World War I in Europe, a war that resulted in millions of casualties, a war in which the United States wanted no involvement. The nation adopted the official policy of neutrality.

When the Germans, who began unrestricted submarine warfare to prevent food supplies and war materiel from reaching Britain, started sinking American merchant ships in early 1917, the United States declared war on April 6. Having only a small regular army and an inadequate medical corps, the nation was ill prepared for all-out war. Many volunteers immediately came forward, including 44-year-old Dr. Hurst.

An early June Enterprise announcement informed everyone Dr. Hurst was leaving that day for Ft. Washington in D.C. where he would become part of the medical corps of the regular army, having been given the rank of lieutenant weeks before. Six weeks later, readers were assured the newly promoted Captain Hurst had reached France safely.

“Dr. Hurst Writes” was a front-page feature in early November 1917, penned in response to an Enterprise request to his wife for information. In a very lengthy letter written directly to the newspaper, Dr. Hurst gave details of his early months in service.

His Atlantic voyage had been uneventful under beautiful weather aboard an ocean liner he couldn’t name due to wartime censorship in a convoy protected by American and British destroyers. Upon landing at a British port he couldn’t name, he took a train to London where his accommodations at the “fashionable Hotel Curzon” in a posh neighborhood were provided by the British.

Free for the next few days, Hurst took the opportunity to “visit haunts of his medical school days” as well as doing considerable sightseeing, all described in detail in his letter.

At week’s end, when his orders came through to report to ------------ (because of censorship, lines replaced specific information) in France, he boarded a troop train to ----------, a seaport on the south coast of England where they embarked on a troop ship. After a very rough voyage across the stormy English Channel when half of the 1,300 men on board were seasick, they landed at ------------, a French seaport.

Dr. Hurst had a few leisurely days for sightseeing and a swim in the ocean at a nearby beach. During that time, the fresh troops were being taught how to wear the protective “tin hat” (Dr. Hurst’s quotes), the helmet worn by British soldiers, and how to wear the gas mask so crucial against German poison gas attacks.

Dr. Hurst, although a captain in the American Expeditionary Force, was assigned to a British regiment and would serve with the British until the summer of 1918 when he was reassigned to an American unit. This came about because, immediately after the Americans declared war, the British sent over the Balfour Mission seeking aid, including at least 1,000 doctors.

In a mutual agreement, Dr. Hurst was one of the American doctors and other medical personnel who would be aiding the British in dealing with mass casualties by filling out their depleted medical corps while at the same time learning from British experience in treating the wounded.

His lengthy letter continued that, after being assigned to a unit, they were loaded on a troop train moving only at night, everything darkened; otherwise German planes would have bombed them. Met by automobile, he was driven to headquarters of the 4th Cavalry Division of the Third Army where he was met by “fine British officers” who were “gentlemen,” fed a big breakfast and enjoyed an after-breakfast smoke.

At first, Dr. Hurst was assigned as the medical officer of the Division Advanced Supply Column, then, after several weeks, he was transferred to a British Field Hospital in charge of six wards and given his own operating room. His promotion to captain had come at this time.

Soon after the 1914 outbreak of the war, the Western front became a stalemate between the British and French against the Germans. Each side dug miles of deep trenches through Belgium and France with a no man’s land between them, the trenches protected by rolls of barbed wire.

For long periods of time, soldiers lived in these trenches often in terrible conditions. The strategy of generals on both sides was to initiate attacks with huge artillery bombardments of the enemy, followed by ordering the men out of the trenches to race across no man’s land through the barbed wire to attack the entrenched enemy in the face of machine gun fire, shrapnel, and after 1915 poison gas.

Casualty rates were catastrophic and by war’s end the British alone counted 487,994 dead. In his references to actual combat Captain Hurst (for the remainder of the war, this is how he signed his letters) refers to “carnage” and “roar of the battle,” additionally mentioning the constant strain from the danger of shrapnel, bombs, shot and shell, and poison gas.

Because his hospital was near an aerodrome, Captain Hurst often treated aviators who were sick or wounded, making friends with many of them. He didn’t hesitate when offered the opportunity to fly numerous times, once to the altitude of 16,500 feet, which he noted in his letter was about the distance from Guilderland Center to Altamont. He claimed the sight of the sky when flying above the clouds was “one of the finest experiences of my life.”

After time on the front line, he was given leave, and always the intrepid sightseer, he visited Paris and Rouen, observing that almost every woman whom he saw was dressed in mourning. He did admit that sleeping in a real bed and enjoying a real hot tub bath was deeply appreciated.

Captain Hurst’s letter ended with his address, giving the folks at home the opportunity to write the latest hometown news. His letter was actually the length of a magazine article, not what you would ordinarily think of as a letter.

New year in a wasteland

The next of his published letters was written soon after New Year’s Day in 1918 to the Guilderland Center Red Cross branch that he had helped to establish before he shipped out, leaving his wife in charge for the duration of the war. Appearing in the Jan. 11, 1918 edition of The Altamont Enterprise, the letter came from “somewhere in France.”

He thanked Enterprise readers for their Christmas greetings, giving assurances he had read and reread them. After characterizing the Germans as “ruthless” and “insidious,” he let the Red Cross members know how much the troops appreciated the items that had been sent over to them.

Describing the devastated countryside as being in complete ruin, there were few comforts for the troops in the trenches, “just the bare necessities of coarse food, scant shelter from the elements and only enough fire to keep from actually suffering in the wintery atmosphere and when in actual fighting not even that.”

While giving no specifics of the recent fighting on the front lines, he let his correspondents know by telling them if they had followed the activities of the cavalry from Nov. 19 to Dec. 6, they could get an idea of his surroundings.

Those who followed the war news would realize that it had been the Battle of Cambrai in France where the British Third Army bombarded the enemy’s Hindenburg Line firing 1,000 pieces of artillery, and then had ordered thousands of men and 476 tanks to attack the Germans along a five mile front. There had been huge losses on each side with little gain.

Captain Hurst’s dedication to the cause was clear when he wrote, “I am not complaining, for before I offered myself for the common cause, I knew full well all the privations and hardships and suffering that were before me.”

Brush with death

March 1918 saw a note in The Enterprise that Captain Hurst, while with the British army 10 miles back from the firing line, had had a close brush with death, when just after dismounting his horse, as he turned to speak to someone, a shot killed the horse.

Also recently he had been under fire on the front line when tending to a wounded soldier in a shell crater where he was trapped from early morning until after dark when he was able to crawl through the mud back to British lines.

The front page headline of May 3 read, “United States Medical Unit Was Captured,”  “Captain Frank H. Hurst of Guilderland Center Says Only Self and Major Escaped Somme Fight — Was Wounded in The Hand.”

Mrs. Hurst had notified the editor that Dr. Hurst and the major were the only two in their medical unit who weren’t killed or captured. He was wounded in the hand while evacuating wounded under shell fire on March 23 and by the 24th all had been captured or killed except himself and a major.

This attack was part of General Erich Ludendorff’s huge offensive to reach the English Channel by breaking out between the British and French armies. At first, the Germans successfully managed to push the British back 12 miles, hence the need to evacuate British wounded from the onslaught of the Germans. The German strategy was unsuccessful and their desperate attempt failed.

Soon after the offensive came to an end, Captain Hurst wrote to Mr. and Mrs. John Scrafford in Altamont on April 6, thanking them for cookies he had received the day before after having been without mail for 16 days dues to the German attack. Cookies were a real treat after all those days of eating nothing but hard tack and corned beef.

With an apology for writing the letter in pencil, Captain Hurst explained, “Please excuse my using pencil, for I cannot hold a pen, having been wounded in my right hand by a piece of bursting shrapnel, as we were evacuating our patients while under fire from the enemy as he was advancing on_____________, where our hospital was located. We were under fire the entire time, and as I was directing the loading of patients in next to the last car, a shrapnel burst just as my side, and one piece hit me.

“It is fortunate it was no worse. I held my wound with my left hand until I had finished loading, then jumped on the last car, and as we drove away, I applied First-Aid Dressing to myself and it was 10 o’clock at night, after we had all our patients under canvas on stretchers, that I found time to go to a CCS [Casualty Clearing Station] near our new camp to have my wound treated. But we had saved all our patients. Next morning we had to evacuate again as the enemy was still advancing, and my Colonel sent me to No.2 Stationary Hospital.”

After five days in the hospital, Captain Hurst requested he be sent back to his unit and was happy to report the Germans were being pushed back.

Joining other Americans

Captain Hurst was finally transferred to the American Expeditionary Forces in a different part of France in August 1918. His wife assured the Enterprise editor that her husband was pleased to be with American troops.

“Dr. F.H. Hurst Is In Thick of the Fighting” was the headline describing another letter shared by Mrs. Hurst. Writing in mid-September, he had been reassigned to the 89th Division’s 314th sanitary train, after having first been ordered to the 2nd Cavalry to “get their medical equipment in shape.”

Explaining that the 314th sanitary train corresponded to the field ambulance he had been attached to with the British, Captain Hurst went on to relate his first experience of battle with American troops.

Amazingly, he was writing on “Boche” paper left behind in the German field hospital his division had just captured, following “so closely on their heels that they left practically everything — even the water was hot on the stove in the sterilizer.”

The 89th had been part of the American army’s advance and capture of the St. Mihiel salient, a bulge in the German line held for four years of German occupation. This offensive from Sept. 12 to 16 was the first for the green American soldiers involved.

Captain Hurst’s wife was told not to worry about him if he didn’t communicate for a time, he was so busy dressing wounded that he barely had time or eat or snatch a little nap, noting, “I have been in the thick of it.” He had had no mail and hoped to send this letter out with an ambulance driver. He claimed to be well, and feeling fine, only very tired.

Captain Hurst sent a second letter a few days later, this time on a German officer’s stationery, unsure if she had received his earlier letter. He was terribly upset that, while he and others were fighting in the St. Mihiel offensive, thieves had entered the barracks they left behind and had ransacked it.

“I have lost my trunk and all my souvenirs and postcards, as well as my two good and almost new uniforms, everything I had except my old uniform I had on last spring when I was in the British retreat,” wrote Captain Hurst.

He also complained of losing his shaving kit and bedding roll. However, his most regretted loss was his diary. The two letters appeared in the Oct. 25, 1918 edition of The Enterprise.

Within a month, the 89th Division was relocated to the Verdun sector where they were heavily engaged in the Meuse-Argonne Forest Offensive, one of French Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s efforts to force the Germans to retreat from their defensive Hindenburg Line. Combining forces, the United States and France threw in 37 divisions but, while the Germans were pushed back, their line held and no breakthrough was achieved.

Major Hurst is gassed

In the midst of this battle, Major Hurst was gassed by phosgene, a compound of carbon monoxide and chlorine, and was carried on a stretcher to a base hospital where he lay for three weeks.

“Major Frank H. Hurst of Guilderland Center Tells How He Was Gassed” was the headline in the Dec. 13 Enterprise, updating readers about his promotion in rank and his latest news from the battlefield.

Unable to lift his head from the pillow for three weeks, and overcome with faintness if he tried, his heart had been weakened from the effects of the gas. According to his doctors, it would be a month before he would feel stronger.

Having been wounded twice previously, Major Hurst commented, “Nothing compared to this, the Huns nearly got me this time.”

His letter says that he had actually been gassed twice, the first time light enough to keep tending the wounded, but the second time weakness overcame him and hemorrhaging began from his lungs. Now that he was in a hospital bed away from the sound of guns, the quiet came as a relief after having been in constant warfare for over a month.

A second letter penned a few days later was also included in the paper. Now reporting much improvement, he was now able to sit up in a wheelchair, but was not yet allowed to walk.

As soon as his heart was stronger, he was going to be transferred to Cannes on the Mediterranean for further recuperation. As it was, the current hospital’s location was peaceful and beautifully located, one of 10 hospitals 40 miles from Dijon able to accommodate 20,000 patients.

A letter written Nov. 1 brought news that Major Hurst had walked the length of the ward, gaining strength so rapidly that, by the following day, he had walked around the pavilion outside. He expressed a wish that peace would come.

Armistice brings joy

The Armistice ending the fighting was to take effect at 11 a.m. — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month: Nov. 11, 1918.

In Major Hurst’s next letter, written 11 days after the armistice had been signed and peace had come to the trenches, his expression of relief was obvious. “When I am well again,” he wrote, “I will not have to go back to those dreadful scenes.”

He followed this with a description of the rejoicing following news of the armistice in the nearby small village of Allavey, where there were parades and flags, singing and shouting, guns being fired off from the fort on the nearby mountain and from ships in the harbor while ecstatic Frenchmen shook hands and the women, weeping tears of joy, handed out flowers and kissed them, all in gratitude for American aid in winning the war.

The celebration went on far into the night. Now that he was in Cannes in southern France, Major Hurst felt the balmy climate was restoring his health. The time spent on the beach under the palm trees or sailing and fishing with other officers was just what was needed.

Early in January 1919, orders had come through for Major Hurst to report to the commanding general at Bordeaux who ordered him to take command of the 500-bed Camp Hospital No. 79, situated in a beautiful 600-year-old chateaux at St. Andre de Cuzal. He was feeling well, but still coughing at night, fearing it would be some time before embarkation home.

His next letter, written on Easter morning, mentioned his disappointment at not being sent home and discharged in spite of putting in for it, but he was hoping he’d be home by July or August.

He proudly related that, “General Noble, the Commanding General here at Bordeaux, told me I have established the finest hospital — large or small — that he’d seen in France, and he wants me to keep charge of it. We take care of the boys who are taken sick while here in the area awaiting embarkation; we get them in shape and well, to send them home to their people healthy.”

Finally released from active duty, Major Hurst sailed on the liner Saxonia, leaving Brest for the United States and finally reaching American shores in July. After getting his final discharge, he resumed his medical practice in the Guilderland Center area immediately.

However, his military career wasn’t over quite yet. In early January 1920, it was announced that he had been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in recognition of his faithful and distinguished work for medical services while in the war zone. He then served in the Army Medical Corps Reserve and during the next few years periodically reported for duty. He finally retired from the reserves in 1925.

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— From the Guilderland Historical Society

Written in pencil on the reverse of this photograph is: “Baldwin apple tree on farm of Martin Blessing, Fullers, N.Y., yield in 1903 ten barrels of apples.”

— From the Guilderland Historical Society

Leininger’s Cider Mill on Carman Road, north of Old State Road, was an autumn destination for large numbers of cider lovers until 1989. Today a medical building occupies the site. This photo was taken in about 1942.

“Hank Apple’s tap” was immortalized by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in his Anti-Rent War narrative poem “Helderbergia” when he has innkeeper Apple “replace the feast, while gin its reign resumes.”

The local men, travelers, and drovers frequenting one of Guilderland’s many late 18th- or early 19th-century taverns did imbibe gin, brandy, rum, and whiskey. However, it was also very likely that cheap, locally-made hard cider or applejack flowed from the “taps.”

An 1814 bar book from the Severson Tavern, once located at the base of the Helderberg escarpment in what is now Altamont, recorded that Wm. Truax owed 9 pence for 1½ mugs of cider; Lot Hurst drank 1½ mugs of cider at a cost of 9¼ cts.; Jacob Zimmer spent 18¾ cts. for 3 mugs of cider; and Evert Barkley downed 1 cider eggnog, an extravagance of 12½ cts.

The drink of choice among all age groups during these years, cider was widely produced by local farmers from the plentiful apple trees thriving in Guilderland and wherever farmers had settled in New York State. Although Esopus Spitzenburgs, Northern Spy, Yellow Newtown, and Lady Sweet were among the apple varieties that could be found at that time in the state, most early farmers had little concern about named varieties or their apples’ attractive appearance as long as the trees on their farms produced flavorful fruit.

During these early year,s most apples not eaten fresh were crushed into cider by family members or they dried slices chiefly for their own use. However, sometimes they bartered these for goods or services.

According to John Winne’s account book of 1810-1818 recording the transactions of his Dunnsville store and tavern, local families could barter one bushel of dried apples for $1.50 worth of merchandise at his store or one barrel of cider for the value of $1.00. A day’s labor for Winne earned only $.50 credit, illustrating the economic importance of apples at that time.

Knowersville’s Dr. Frederick Crounse was willing to accept a barrel of cider in exchange of $1.50 worth of medical treatment and for that price would “excise a tumor.”

The cider those hardy folks drank was not the pasteurized stuff we drink today. In those days, the sugar content of the pressed apple juice rapidly fermented, creating the low alcohol content of “hard cider.”

The hard cider could further be distilled into potent apple brandy or applejack. Old timers could put out a pail of hard cider on a bitterly cold winter’s night and, come morning, the water content would be frozen, leaving a small amount of highly alcoholic applejack.

Later in the 19th and early 20th centuries, local farmers could make their families’ cider supply with inexpensive cider mills such as “The Little Giant Cider Mill” for $7.65 that could be ordered from the 1897 Sears, Roebuck Catalog. Or they could buy a barrel of cider already pressed from W. D. Frederick for $2.88 as noted in his 1888 account book or at other cider mills in the area.

Another product of cider was vinegar. In the 1880s, A.V. Mynderse was a “manufacturer of and wholesale and retail dealer in cider and vinegar” in Guilderland Center.

Cider and vinegar producers advertised in The Enterprise, urging farmers to bring in their apples at what were much lower prices than for high-quality fruit. However, for drops or a farmer with only a few trees, it was a way to earn ready cash even if the price per bushel was under $1.

During the last years of the 19th Century, larger scale apple production had turned into an important source of cash income for town farmers. Paying calls at local farms, out-of-town buyers sought good quality fruit to be shipped out by rail to big-city markets.

One year, Fullers farmers were visited by a Utica buyer purchasing apples to be sent to Philadelphia. A.M. LaGrange, a farmer living in that part of town, sold 100 barrels in 1889. He had “the reputation of growing some of the finest apples in this locality.”

Each of the town’s four railroad depots were the scenes of the departure of carloads of apples destined for East Coast cities. Reporting from Guilderland Center in 1901, “The first installment of apples purchased here…was shipped from this station to New York last Saturday.”

Prices for either grade of apples varied, depending on scarcity and demand. In 1892, farmers received $2.25 for a bushel of fine quality apples, but it was unusual to receive that much per bushel. In 1896, The Enterprise noted, “Apples are cheaper this year than ever before in our recollection, prices ranging from $.50 to $.75 per barrel for nice choice fruit.”

After 1890, area apple-growing farmers found a steady market for their apple crop when Charles H. Burton and A. Elmer Cory of Albany opened up a cider and vinegar manufacturing plant near the D&H tracks in Voorheesville capable of crushing 9,000 pounds of apples daily. Named the Empire Cider and Vinegar Company in 1891, it was eventually known as Duffy-Mott.

It was an immediate success and, within a year after opening, several 1,000-gallon tanks were added to the operation. Advertisements in The Altamont Enterprise urged farmers to bring their apples to the Fullers and Altamont railroad stations for shipment to the new processing plant.

By 1900, three-thousand bushels were pressed daily during a 70-day season. In later years, apple juice and applesauce were added to the product line. Duffy-Mott closed down the plant in 1955, striking a serious economic blow to farmers who lost a ready market for their apple crops.

At first, the variety of apples didn’t seem to matter much for individual farmers. In 1895, apple trees of no particular variety could be purchased very inexpensively from Jas. Hallenbeck of Altamont when he offered 5½- to 7-foot trees for only $.15 each.

This casual attitude changed as buyers grew increasingly picky about quality. Diseases affecting trees and fruit such as scab and codling moths and by the 1920s the “skeletonizer” disease had appeared, making “arsenical applications” necessary to save the apple crop.

Until the mid-1950s, extensive acreage in and around Guilderland Center was devoted to apple orchards. A wildfire that threatened the drought-stricken hamlet in 1947 succeeded in destroying the 1,000-tree fruit orchard of Edward Griffiths on the western end of the village.

However, a 1950 aerial view of Guilderland Center appearing as part of a Knickerbocker News article revealed row upon row of apple trees on the site where today stand the firehouse, the school bus garage, the high school and its playing fields, and houses — all once owned by A.V. Mynderse, the vinegar-maker.

With the closing of the Duffy-Mott plant and the pressure of development, all of Guilderland’s orchards are gone now except one. Altamont Orchards remains to carry on our town’s apple tradition.

The original orchard was planted by Dr. Daniel H. Cook, a prominent Albany doctor who used the land as his summer home and gentleman’s farm. He was a serious agriculturalist who planted 3,000 apple, pear, and plum trees, considered a very fine orchard in 1899.

In 1967, the Abbruzzese family took over the property, opening up a farmstand in addition to running the orchards. Operating a profitable apple orchard today is a tremendous challenge, requiring the owners to do more than tend the trees.The competition from other states and countries is fierce.

State health regulations control the making of cider, now requiring it to be pasteurized. There is no more amateur hard cider, although professionally produced hard cider has had a revival recently.

Today, in addition to their farm stand and orchard, the Abbruzzese family has established a golf course and restaurant on the property in order to stay in business.

Solely depending on income from an apple orchard is not practical these days for a farmer in Guilderland unless other avenues of profit are explored. The time may come when Guilderland’s apple history is all past history.

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