Remembering Witbeck and son, who laid out Guilderland’s first named development

— 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 Witbecks 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.”