Over many decades huge numbers of Town residents have experienced Tawasentha Park’s rolling hills  with its sweeping view of the Normanskill. Enjoying their recreational visit to the park, it’s the rare person who would stop to ponder that, like the other parts of the town, this spot and its environs must also have a history stretching back hundreds of years.

Imagine this scene 500 years ago. Silently, the Mohican hunters’ game-laden dugout canoe slipped through the clear waters of the wide creek bordered by vegetation and thick forest as they returned to their village on the river flats to the east.

With the arrival of the Dutch early in the 17th Century, the Mohicans began to be pushed off their traditional lands along the river that became known as the Hudson. No longer could they hunt and fish along this creek.

Archeological digs within our town along this waterway have proven indigenous peoples have camped, hunted, and fished at various spots along its banks in past centuries. Native Americans surely had their own name for this waterway teeming with fish and attractive to wildlife, emptying into the Hudson River to the east.

The Dutch establishment of the fur trade now brought Iroquois from the interior, their birch-bark canoes piled with furs navigating the creek as a route to Fort Orange. With the coming of the Dutch, the creek became known as the Normanskill after Albert Andriesen Bradt, a Norwegian who built a mill at the mouth near where it flowed into the Hudson River. Local Dutch settlers referred to him as “the Norman” leading to the waterway becoming the Normanskill.

Early in the 18th Century, the first Dutch settler known to have established a farm in Guilderland  along the Normanskill was Evert Bancker, Albany merchant, mayor of Albany, and Indian Commissioner, who retired here to farm, living on this land until his death in 1734. Bancker was reputed to have often paddled a canoe up the Normanskill to visit his farm rather than traveling along Native American trails.

According to later town historian William Brinkman’s research, Bancker’s farm was situated across Route 146 from the entrance to Tawasentha Park. It is possible that some of what is now parkland was also part of his farm. Look for the state historic marker on the opposite side of Route 146 as you drive by.



In 1712, German Palatines, seeking a refuge in the Colony of New York, New Netherland having passed to the control of the English in 1664, were given permission to settle in the Schoharie Valley. Trekking through the wilderness and traversing a Native American trail after branching off from the dirt road through the Pine Bush known as the Kings Highway, they followed a route that later became known as the Schoharie Road.

They followed a route that crossed what is now Western Turnpike Golf Course, either cutting  through what is now the park or passing nearby on their way to ford the Normanskill. The Palatines walked on foot on the narrow trail, but as years passed the route widened into a dirt road and for over a century was the approximate route used by most people traveling between Albany and Schoharie.

In 1849, the road was changed to connect more directly with the Great Western Turnpike when a group of investors laid out the Schoharie Plank Road to connect Schoharie with the Western Turnpike and Albany, improving the road with wooden planking. For this improvement, tolls were charged to travelers, there being a toll gate approximately opposite the entrance to the Tawasentha winter sports area parking lot.

And, for a few years after the Plank Road opened, there was a regularly scheduled stage coach passing by the farmland that eventually became Tawasentha Park. The construction of the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad through Altamont to Schoharie in 1863 put an end to the Plank Road and tolls, but the roadway continued to be used by local traffic, and eventually after some rerouting, was paved, now  Route 146 familiar to us.

For generations, the hill to be climbed after crossing the Normanskill past the winter sports area was first known as Bancker Hill, later Buncker Hill.


Farmland becomes parkland

Fast forward to the 20th Century when this area of Guilderland was farmland and the Schoharie Road had become paved Route 146. Claude and Lucy Durfee produced fruit and vegetables on nearby farmland in the vicinity of Evert Bancker’s long ago farm, where they operated a roadside farm stand on Route 146.

Their son Alton Durfee grew up on this farm, spending many boyhood hours nearby swimming in “Buster’s Hole” along the Normanskill and roaming the surrounding area, now all part of Tawasentha Park.

Years later, Alton Durfee, who worked for General Electric, was living on Carman Road. Remembering his boyhood haunts, he had the vision of creating a recreational park there along the Normanskill. In the 1930s, others had had the same concept, hoping to create a campground, but after purchasing the property were unable to bring their plan to fruition.

By 1954, Durfee managed to acquire title to their 55 acres including his childhood swimming hole and several years later had the opportunity to purchase an adjacent 55 acre parcel.

A hard worker, Durfee, over the winter of 1955-56, built 50 heavy picnic tables at his father’s fruit and vegetable stand relocated on Carman Road where the family had moved. Alton Durfee Jr., a bulldozer operator, worked to clear land and build roads on their newly acquired Normanskill property. After much preparation, their park opened for business in 1957.

Alton Durfee Sr. originated the name Tawasentha Park. The word dates back to prehistoric times as the name of a Native American burial ground near the mouth of the Normanskiil where it flows into the Hudson.

Its translation is supposed to mean “Hill of the Dead,” a location that had special meaning for both the Mohican and the Iroquois tribes.

Nineteenth-Century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, influenced by Guilderland native Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s studies of Native Americans, used the term “vale of Tawasentha” in his well-known poem “Song of Hiawatha.” Longfellow described the vale as a “green and pleasant valley, by the pleasant water-courses” in his epic.

Surveying Enterprise notices, one can see Mr. Durfee’s new park opened at just the right time to fulfill the need for a local recreation area, attracting over the next few years not only Guilderland residents, but those of nearby towns.

It was an extremely popular spot for family reunions, church groups, fire departments and their auxiliaries, school classes, fraternal groups, Sunday school classes, Scouts, businesses — you name it and some sort of organization announced a picnic, steak roast, or clam bake at Tawasentha Park over the next few years.

Under Durfee’s ownership, many improvements and attractions were added to the park’s appeal. The Durfees advertised their park in The Enterprise in the early 1960s as the “Fun Spot of the Capital District” with acres of picnic groves “in the rolling hills and ravines of the beautiful and scenic Vale of Tawasentha.” Certainly advertising would have appeared in other local publications as well seeking to attract visitors from the whole Capital District.

The Durfees offered to book and cater organizations’ outings and claimed it was a perfect location for school picnics. Within a few years of opening, there was a pavilion, rides, games, and a snack bar. The park was open seven days a week, and Durfee family members worked a punishing schedule during the months the park was open.

The added attraction with the most appeal was Paddock Pools’ installation in 1964 of a $40,000 swimming pool, which was 95-by-108 feet in size. In addition to daily visitors swimming, membership for seasonal pool use was also offered for one price including the use of a members-only picnic grove.

With the pool open to the public daily, lifeguards were required. In 1965, an American Red Cross lifesaving course was offered for high school juniors and seniors who were strong swimmers and were interested in doing lifesaving work during the summer. At the conclusion of the 1967 course, 37 students had completed the course. Eventually, the town began to sponsor a Red Cross Learn to Swim Program for elementary school children.

One improvement the Durfees sought to add to their park was the establishment of a regulation Go-Kart track for Go-Kart Association racing approved by the United States Go-Kart Association Inc. A public hearing was held in September 1961.

There was neighborhood opposition and the application was rejected. Alton Durfee applied again in January 1952 when it was again rejected by the town’s zoning board. However, park ads noted Go-Kart riding was allowed in the park, but there were no races.

The Durfees’ park was a huge success, but administering it meant they were putting in 90 to 100 hours a week operating the busy park during the months when it was open. By 1967, Alton Durfee began to think seriously about selling it.


Town park

Fortunately, Guilderland voters had elected forward-looking town Supervisor Carl Walters, who obtained a two-year option on the property. At that time, the price quoted was $295,000 and the town board gave its approval assuming that aid would be coming from both the state and federal governments.

The two-year time period was used to apply for governmental aid to pay three-quarters of the cost, leaving the town with about $73,000 to cover. This would result in a tax rate increase of 21 cents per $1,000.

Mention a tax-rate increase, no matter what the cause, and there will be people opposed. Not all Guilderland residents were thrilled about taking on the cost of owning a town park and swimming pool.

A group calling itself the Guilderland Civic Association claimed that it had collected 1,000 signatures on a petition calling for a public vote on the proposal. The town board rejected the petition.

Letters to the Enterprise editor reflected the opposition, some with arguments for a town referendum. One asked why the town wanted to take over the cost of a park when it was already available to the public at no cost to the taxpayers while another couldn’t understand why the town didn’t buy cheaper land in another part of Guilderland if it wanted a park.

The final closing was April 4, 1969. Tawasentha had become Guilderland’s town park, thanks to the foresight of Supervisor Walters and the town board members.

Since that time, additional land has been added to the park and there are many more attractions available to the public, including hiking trails, tennis courts, the band shell, community gardens, a climbing barn, the winter sports area, and a headquarters for the town’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Indeed, it is Guilderland’s gem, the latest chapter in the long history of that spot in our town.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The dam that created the Watervliet Reservoir was located upstream on the Normanskill from the West Shore Railroad trestle, visible in the background.

Rising in wetlands near Duanesburg, the Normanskill flows 45.4 miles downstream through the towns of Guilderland, New Scotland, and Bethlehem to its confluence with the Hudson River.

Native Americans called the stream Tawasentha or “place of the dead,” a name inspired by a sacred native burial ground near its mouth. Here they found abundant food supplies in its pristine waters and along its wooded banks, their presence proven by the numerous archeological remains found nearby.

Change came with the arrival of the Dutch in the early years of the 17th century. When, in the 1630s, Albert Andriessen Bradt established a mill at the creek’s mouth, the stream became known to European settlers as Norman’s Kill due to the Norwegian ancestry of Bradt, called the “Norman.” With the advent of the fur trade, the waterway became a major Native American trading route to Fort Orange where Albany is today.

Sometime before his death in 1734, Evert Bancker, the former Albany mayor and merchant, came up the Normanskill to establish what was likely the first farm in Guilderland. It was located along the creek approximately across from the entrance to modern-day Tawasentha Park. (A state historic marker denotes the place.)

He was followed by settlers such as Jacob Vrooman and Abraham Wemple who also established farms on the fertile lands along the waterway in the years before the American Revolution. Eighteenth-Century settlers were described as “of the Normanskill” in the absence of a more specific address.

After the Revolution, the fertile soil produced huge quantities of broom corn. Later farmers switched to hay, oats, and rye.


Frenchs Hollow

The waters of the melting Ice Age glacier had cut through bedrock to create a ravine that by 1800 had become known as Frenchs Hollow. Named after Abel French who, having taken advantage of the water power, had begun operating grist and saw mills in this location by the end of the 18th Century.

The grist mill remained in operation here until the early 20th Century. French’s early textile mill failed, replaced by Peter K. Broeck’s larger textile mill, erected nearby.

After the factory failed, the empty building became used for social gatherings until the turn of the 20th Century. The hollow itself was a place of natural beauty where generations of Guilderland residents fished, swam, and picnicked.


Watervliet seeks clean water

During the first decade of the 20th Century, typhoid had become an increasingly serious health issue in the city of Watervliet as the result of contamination of the city’s water supply. Watervliet’s water source was then the Mohawk River near Dunsbach Ferry, water which had become more impure as the upstream cities and industry expanded.

Searching for a replacement source of safe, pure water, in 1912 or 1913 the city fixed on the Normanskill in Guilderland where it would be practical to dam the Frenchs Hollow ravine. In addition, the area to be flooded behind the dam was relatively inexpensive farmland that could be acquired by eminent domain if necessary.

The Watervliet City Council agreed to purchase the land projected to be about 700 acres necessary for “not less than $477,000 or more than $562,000.”

November 1913 brought news in The Enterprise that surveyors were working at Frenchs Hollow because of Watervliet’s plans to locate a dam there. Yet the next summer, the project did not seem final when the Enterprise stated, “The City of Watervliet is again agitating the question of securing a new water supply from French’s Mills.”

A 1914 map entitled “Map of Watervliet, NY & Vicinity showing proposed Municipal Water Supply from the Normanskill at Frenchs Mills” was published. Watervliet taxpayers seemed to be objecting because of the high cost of securing water privileges and acquiring land, while the Watervliet Hydraulic Company, apparently a private entity supplying Watervliet’s water from the Mohawk, was also opposed.

A major expense had been added to the project when the New York State Conservation Department insisted on a requirement for the project that a filtration plant had to be constructed in addition to the dam and the infrastructure needed to pipe the water from the reservoir to the city of Watervliet. The cost of the whole project was estimated by the Enterprise’s editor to possibly run as high as $500,000.

The next year, 1915, brought another surveying crew who put up at Borst’s Hotel in Guilderland Center. Once Watervliet had acquired the old French property at the hollow, officials next purchased the nearby farms of Richard Van Heusen and Herman Vincent just outside of Guilderland Center.

A few months later, the notices of auctions scheduled to take place at their soon-to-be vacated farms for the dispersal of their farm equipment were advertised.


Construction underway

By then, the contract to construct a concrete dam 35 feet high at the hollow had been awarded to a New York City firm and work had begun by 1916. A notice of a man’s death on the West Shore tracks identified him as a “laborer on the construction work of the new reservoir for the City of Watervliet at Frenchs Hollow.”

Considering that, except for steam shovels and possibly dynamite, other work had to be done with hand tools, this was a major construction project that would take many months. The derelict factory building was demolished and a pumping station built on its site. The dam seemed to have been completed by 1917 at the latest.

Acquisition of more than 600 acres of land along the Normanskill and the Bozenkill, a major tributary, was necessary. Land purchases were still being negotiated in 1916 when the Enterprise editor commented that the price of farmland “has taken a big jump lately on account of the building of the new Watervliet Reservoir and dam.”

His update noted that some farms had been acquired or were about to be acquired. In the area which would become the upper end of the reservoir, a farmer named John Moore planned to relocate to a farm at Parkers Corners and at least three members of the Sharp family lost all or part of their ancestral farms.



However, members of the Woodrich family, the last owners of the historic Wemple farm in Fullers, were not about to be forced to give up their approximately 56 acres plus without a fight.

Designated the “Wodrich Estate” in the Enterprise’s two mentions of this dispute, Guilderland historian Arthur Gregg later identified the last owner of the historic property as Richard Woodrich.

The family seemed to be from out of town, seeing as they had not only hired two Albany lawyers, but additionally a New York City law firm to fight the proposed acquisition or possibly the price the Watervliet officials offered to pay for their land. Another lawyer represented the property’s tenant.

To settle the dispute, the Albany County Court appointed a three-man committee including William Brinkman of Dunnsville to view the property and take testimony. The matter went to the New York State Supreme Court where the Watervliet Water Board requested the condemnation of the Woodrich property.

With the city having the power of eminent domain, the Woodrich family didn’t stand a chance. The final outcome of the case received no mention in the Enterprise. In the 1930s, Gregg mentioned that the Woodrich Estate received $16,000 for 60 acres with the family retaining that part of the property along Route 20.

Writing in “Old Hellebergh,” Chapter 18, Gregg offered a poignant description of the demolition of that treasure of Guilderland’s heritage, the 18th-Century Wemple homestead:

“…The house was built by the Vroomans in 1780 out of very large, extra sized brick made right there out of the clay from the bank near the barn. Some of you witnessed the destruction of this solid old house at the construction of the reservoir twenty-five years ago, and marveled at its workmanship. The farm was known at various periods as the Wemple, the Sigsbee, the Myers Farm, and, at the time of the flooding, belonged to Frederick Woodrich.”

The town of Guilderland recently refurbished an historical marker to denote the site.

Election Day 1918 found Frederick J. Van Wormer seeking re-election as Guilderland town supervisor. A Republican Party advertisement characterized him as a “scrapper” for having taken on the city of Watervliet, managing to get the city to restore the damage done to town highways in the process of construction of the dam.

Also, never mentioned, but pipes had to be laid across town land and Route 20 to bring the water to Watervliet. In addition, the state of New York was forced to build a new higher iron bridge at the upper end of the reservoir due to the rising water levels at the point of the Normanskill’s flow into the reservoir where the Osborn Corners-Schenectady Road crossed it.

Now Route 158, the road had already become a state route at the time of the dam’s construction.

What right did Watervliet have to come into Guilderland, build a reservoir here ,and force local farmers to give up their farms? Obviously an agreement was made with the Guilderland Town Board in 1912 or 1913, but the details are unavailable.


Riparian rights?

In the years after 1960, when Guilderland’s rapid growth sent town officials on a quest for additional water supplies, the Watervliet Reservoir was again in the news. A statement by Guilderland Town Supervisor Carl J. Walters in 1977 announced that the town was limited by law as to how much water it could purchase from Watervliet.

He claimed, “This limitation of 2,000,000 gallons per day was set many years ago when Watervliet purchased the reservoir from the town. Hindsight tells us that the sale of the water supply was not a prudent move by the local officials at the time.”

The late Fred Abele, a very reliable local historian, focused on a different aspect when he claimed in a 1984 “McKownville: News and Comment” column that Watervliet had retained riparian rights dating from the time of the formation of the town of Guilderland in 1803.

(In 1788, the state of New York divided the entire state into towns; the town of Watervliet included most of what is now Albany county as well as most of what is now Niskayuna in Schenectady county.)

Apparently, when the town of Guilderland was created from the town of Watervliet, the water rights did not automatically pass to the new town. Noting he had been a member of the townwide Water Advisory Board for a number of years, perhaps Mr. Abele had access to information not generally known.

This legal point may be the reason why the Guilderland Town Board members of 1912 or 1913 acquiesced when the city of Watervliet announced its intention to create a reservoir in the midst of our town.

Today, a portion of Guilderland’s water supply comes from the reservoir. In addition, a hydroelectric plant generates power on the site. Perhaps, in the long run, it has worked out for the best for both Watervliet and Guilderland that the reservoir was created on the Normanskill.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

This is a view of the grist mill demolished in the 1920s and the covered bridge just beyond it. Both were gone by the early 1930s. You are looking downstream. The old factory building would have been down a bit beyond the bridge. This photo was most likely taken not long before the old mill in disrepair was razed.

A century or more ago, Frenchs Hollow would have been a familiar landmark to just about everyone in Guilderland, most of them having actually visited the scenic spot on one or more occasions. Today it is probable that the majority of Guilderland’s 37,000-plus residents have never even heard of the place, much less visited it.

Melting waters from the last Ice Age’s glacier carved through bedrock to create a narrow ravine. An ever-flowing creek later named the Normanskill followed the contour of the land to establish a streambed between the narrow banks. Evidence of Native American activities in this area have been uncovered by archeologists.

Here the rushing waters had the potential for water power, a key resource needed for early 18th-Century settlement, making the area attractive for a small number of Guilderland’s early settlers. The 18th- and early 19th-century history of the hollow is fragmentary.

Certainly by 1800 the spot had become known as Frenchs Hollow or Frenchs Mills due to the entrepreneurship of Abel French who had used the Normanskill’s water power to establish a saw mill, grist mill, and a cloth factory. Peter K. Broeck set up a woolen factory in 1795 as well.

Workers settled there, but Frenchs Hollow never was considered one of the town’s hamlets, lacking a one-room school, post office, church, or even a store. Guilderland Center or Fullers served the needs of Frenchs Hollow’s residents.


Revolutionary times

A tavern run by Jacob Aker, otherwise unknown, was supposed to have been in the hollow at an early period. Was it a meeting place for Revolutionary War Patriots?

According to French’s 1860 Gazetteer of New York State, to celebrate the good news of Burgoyne’s defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, at the top of the hill across the Normanskill a hollow chestnut tree was filled with a barrel of tar and set ablaze.

Another story associated with Burgoyne and Frenchs Hollow was recorded in an 1880s composition by a schoolgirl descendant of the Chesebro family who lived on the old Wemple farm not far west of the hollow.

It seems equipment carried by the defeated British forces was confiscated and brought south to Albany. Somehow one of these items, an oversized copper kettle with a “huge faucet as big as a man’s wrist” at the bottom, was obtained by Abel French.

French thought he’d find a use for it in his cloth factory, but eventually tossed it out into the lumber yard of his saw mill. A quarter of a century earlier, the girl’s grandfather as a schoolboy had measured the abandoned kettle, reporting it to be five feet deep and six feet across.


Changing uses

Early in the 19th Century, Abel French’s original cloth factory burned and the large brick building seen in late 19th-Century photographs was erected in its place. Supposedly the building wasn’t sturdy enough to accommodate later, heavier machinery so that it could no longer be used for manufacturing or weaving.

It is also likely that by the mid-19th Century, competition from other areas had an effect as well. The grist mill continued to operate into the early 20th Century because buckwheat and rye were important farm crops grown on Guilderland farms at that time. Locals called the buckwheat flour ground here “pancake timber.” The building was taken down in the early 1920s.

After Abel French’s death, the family continued to own the mill and factory building, leasing it out to others. Elijah Spawn and Son ran the grist mill and rented out the factory for social occasions, the scene of many a large gathering during the last decades of the 19th Century. However, it was still owned by the French Estate, a term used in The Enterprise.

Frenchs Hollow was located off of the Western Turnpike and the Schoharie Road, later called Schoharie Plank Road. Dirt roads connected to these main routes gave access to the mills there and today are designated Frenchs Hollow Road and Frenchs Mills Road.

It is no longer possible to access Frenchs Hollow from Route 146 by car as it once was because the Frenchs Mills Road railroad overpass is closed while the bridge over the Normanskill at the Hollow is now restricted to cyclists and pedestrians.

The Normanskill had to be bridged, but information about the earliest bridge is unknown. However, in 1869, a “spring freshet” washed out whatever bridge was there.

A Haupt style covered bridge, with a span of 62 feet, 8 inches, was built on the original stone abutments; this covered bridge is seen in many old photos. According to his descendants, Henry Witherwax was supposed to have constructed the trusses on open land near Fullers Tavern on the Western Turnpike, and then skidded them down to the Normanskill.

Twentieth-Century traffic took its toll and, in 1924, a motorbus’s rear wheels broke through the planking; it took five hours to get it unstuck. In 1933, the now inadequate covered bridge was demolished, replaced by a bridge that has been in turn judged inadequate and closed to motor traffic in 1987.

“Modern” technology encroached on Frenchs Hollow in 1865 when the Saratoga & Hudson Railroad was laid out, linking the New York Central tracks in South Schenectady with Athens, a village on the Hudson. Crossing the ravine at Frenchs Hollow was a major engineering and construction project for the time when a wooden trestle was built on stone abutments to support the tracks.

This first railroad was unprofitable, but the route was taken over by the New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railroad in 1883. Rebuilt more than once since that time to carry heavier and longer trains, the railroad trestle at Frenchs Hollow carries numerous, lengthy CSX freights daily and has never been out of use since the 1880s.


Social gatherings

During the 19th Century, Frenchs Hollow became a popular destination for social events, both indoors in the otherwise unused factory building and outdoors. It was a tradition for many years that the Sunday schools from the town’s churches join together there for a Town Picnic.

A popular spot at Frenchs Hollow, mentioned often in The Enterprise once it began publication in 1884, was Volkert Jacobsen’s two islands where there was a fine spring, spacious grounds, and plenty of shade. The exact location is unknown today, but the islands are probably now under the waters of the reservoir.

Elijah Spawn, who owned a farm there, also had a grove available for picnics. Food, ice cream, and baseball games were key features of the Sunday school picnics and, in 1889, it was estimated that 2,000 kids, parents, and friends attended with the Knowersville Band, and the Guilderland Center and Guilderland Drum Corps furnishing music “to the delight of all.”

In the 1890s, A.F. Spawn apparently remade his farm located on “the rapids” and likely under the waters of the reservoir today, into “Hillside Cottage,” a mini resort with a large tent adjacent and “Entertainment Hall,” probably the old factory building.

Guests, some traveling from nearby cities, others from nearby local hamlets, came to hear Sunday afternoon preaching or other entertainments in the tent or to attend dances in the “Hall.” All these activities were recorded in the Guilderland Center’s Enterprise column, although by the late 1890s mentions were no longer made of Hillside Cottage.

The old factory building, having been leased by Elijah Spawn and Son in the 1880s, had been repurposed into a venue for group gatherings. As early as the 1840s, before any of the town’s Methodist churches were built, Methodists had camp meetings at Frenchs Hollow, although they may have had open-air meetings rather than using the factory building.

A hugely popular event took place there the summer of 1887, just one example of the entertainments at Frenchs Hollow. It was given by the I.O. of G.T. (the International Organisation of Good Templars) of Guilderland Center where at 3:30 p.m. there was a baseball game, then a peach supper at reasonable cost, and an evening’s dramatic and musical program including two elocutionists from Amsterdam, and the Fullers Cornet Band and the Guilderland Center Boys Drum Corps to provide the music.

Let’s not forget that most arrived by horse and buggy and attendees were assured “two competent hands have been engaged to take care of the horses.”

A once well-known local poet, Magdalene LaGrange used one of these dinners followed by entertainment as the subject of a lengthy 120-line narrative poem composed in the 1880s entitled “The Drill.”

Beginning with, “An old factory three stories high, a basement below…,” it recorded the scene of one of these dinners with “The sandwiches, biscuits, pie and ham/ The cake, the preserves, the jelly and jam…” and told of the entertainment, describing a broom drill performed by “Twelve young ladies dressed in white/ Composed the drill we saw that night … The tall sweet leader’s name was Nell…” to the tune of “Bonnie Doon” played by a cornet band.

Both Guilderland Center’s Helderberg Reformed Church and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church made use of the building which Spawn advertised as “a large and commodious space” on two floors with “ample accommodation for horses.” The two churches alternated putting on suppers and entertainments there on Decoration Day (Memorial Day) for many years.

Finally, in 1901 the Reformed Church Ladies Social Union announced that the annual supper and entertainment would be at the church parlors in Guilderland Center, noting “for several years the old factory in Frenchs Hollow has generally felt to be unsafe and is generally felt that no considerable body of people should gather in the building.”


Factory demolished

The old factory building remained empty and decrepit until 1917 when it was taken down as part of the construction of the Watervliet Reservoir.

In 1917, the Watervliet Reservoir construction dammed the Normanskill after the city of Watervliet purchased much farmland in the area of Frenchs Hollow. As part of the reservoir project, the old factory building was removed and in its place a pumping station was built.

In the 20th Century, the hollow continued to be an outdoor recreation area for both children and adults. After the turn of the century, Sunday school picnics were more likely to be organized by individual churches, mainly Guilderland Center’s and Altamont’s.

Try to imagine the excitement of the 10 Altamont lads from Mrs. David Blessing’s Sunday school class who were crammed into Mr. Montford Sands’s touring car one summer day in 1908 to motor to Frenchs Hollow for a picnic.

Other picnickers over the years included Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and junior 4-H girls who were practicing campfire cooking. Hot-dog roasts were almost always mentioned as being on the menus. It was also a popular spot for adults to picnic informally and for decades the Normanskill provided a swimming hole attractive to all ages.

Over the centuries, Frenchs Hollow has evolved from what must have been an excellent hunting ground and fishing waters for Native Americans to a prosperous early American settlement based on water power.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the scenery attracted local folks as both an outdoor and indoor recreation spot. Once the mill, covered bridge, and old factory buildings were gone in the 20th Century, it was no longer so charming, but the popular swimming hole remained and that’s what many of today’s Guilderland’s residents associate with Frenchs Hollow.

— NBC Radio

Two white men — Freeman Gosden, left, and Charles Correll — portrayed Amos and Andy in the popular radio show that was emulated in local minstrel shows. In this 1938 publicity photo, they prepare to dig into a cake celebrating the 10th anniversary of their show, which ran until 1960.

Editor’s note: When writing about local social history, it’s important to examine the ugly parts as well as the heroic parts. In this column, Mary Ellen Johnson takes an unflinching look at a racist form of entertainment that Enterprise reports show was both unquestioned and popular as late as the 1950s.

During the 19th Century, minstrel shows were professional performances presented in theaters where paying audiences were entertained by white actors in blackface who sang, danced, and performed variety acts and comedy. Sometimes Black performers also participated.

The premise was to satirize and ridicule Black culture by imitating and exaggerating their dancing, manner of speech, supposed ignorance, and music. Today this type of performance would be considered outrageous and racist.

It simply wouldn’t be done, but until the 1960s and beyond the majority of Americans had little problem enjoying entertainment featuring this racist representation of Black Americans.

Since 1884 when it first began publication, The Altamont Enterprise has been the chief source of information about the social history of Guilderland and the surrounding towns. There are 771 references to minstrel shows in the paper’s digital index, proving minstrel shows were a highly popular and newsworthy form of entertainment, not only in Guilderland, but in all the local areas covered by the newspaper.

The last professional minstrel show to appear on Broadway in New York was in 1909. Before this time, references to minstrel shows in The Enterprise were rare. One of the paper’s earliest editions ran a short piece reprinted from some other publication titled “Actors in Burnt Cork” in which “two noted minstrels speak on different styles of fun” in what would now be unprintable racist terms.

Occasionally during these early years there was the opportunity to view touring Black performers locally. The Fullers Station correspondent reported in1889 that “a colored minstrel troupe with a donkey” had traveled through, stopping at the local one-room school to perform, noting that the people who attended agreed it was “well worth the price of admission.”

At the 1902 Altamont Fair, a “genuine colored troupe” was hired to perform “the latest Negro specialties.” A decade later, a “big colored company” put on “Way Down South in Dixie” at Altamont’s Masonic Hall, a show featuring “genuine southern scenes, dances and melodies.”

An early local exposure to a minstrel show occurred in 1894 when a group of Albany amateurs traveled to Altamont, performing at Union Hall on Maple Avenue. The evening’s proceeds were to benefit the Fresh Air Fund, beginning the tradition in this area at least, that raising money for an organization became the reason for future minstrel shows to be scheduled in the area.

When the Hamilton Union Church reported on the success in1922 of the minstrel show it put on at the old “town hall” in Guilderland Center, $83 had been taken in at the door. Obviously it had been a popular attraction.

Before 1920, there were few mentions of minstrel show performances, although the Altamont Athletic Association advertised one in 1914. As time went on, minstrel shows were noted in The Enterprise more frequently. Altamont’s Colony Club used “home talent” in 1920 for its show while a year later Guilderland Center Fire Department members were planning to perform at the old “town hall.”


Radio influence

Was the increasingly frequent mention of local groups in the 1920s putting on minstrel shows tied in with the popularity of movies and that new medium radio? Al Jolson appeared in blackface in several movies, the most famous being “The Jazz Singer,” a smash hit.

During the era’s silent movies, there was much stereotyping of Black culture in the same vein. Locally, WGY’s radio programs were listed weekly in The Enterprise. For the week of May 18, 1922 listed among the station’s offerings were:

— Introducing Some Darktown Humor;

— Georgia Minstrel Boys;

— Male Quartette: I Wish I Was in Dixie; and

— Humorous Dialogue: William Jackson & Washington Lee.

After going on the air in 1928 “Amos ’n’ Andy” quickly became the nation’s favorite radio comedy with two white actors playing two African-American men who had moved from the country to Chicago to start the Fresh Air Taxi Co. It lasted until the early days of TV in 1953.

Many white Americans saw nothing wrong in these comic characterizations of the Black community because racism was so prevalent in American life during these decades.

During the next three decades, groups from all over Guilderland and other area towns volunteered their time and talent to produce minstrel shows to amuse their neighbors and at the same time raise funds for their organizations. Several local churches, fire departments, clubs, and civic groups got into the act, sometimes giving repeat performances in different locations.

The minstrel show as a community activity and entertainment flourished until the civil rights movement and changing attitudes made this kind of performance untenable.


Three-part form

The Enterprise articles announcing upcoming minstrel shows almost always placed the advance publicity on the front page. In the publicity notices, terms were mentioned such as endmen and olios, unfamiliar to later generations.

The Altamont Entertainers Guild presented a minstrel show and olio in 1948. The audience applauded and laughed loudly at the endmen’s jokes and antics. A 1946 production put on by the Altamont Fire Company featured endmen named “Charcoal, Debris, Embers and Smokey.” Others in the cast included “Amos, Andy, Bones, Evelina, Heliotrope, Mandy, Rastus, Sambo and Violet,” all singing old-time musical numbers.

There was a three-part form to traditional minstrel shows. First, the full ensemble sat in a semicircle with Mr. Interlocutor in the center and blackface comedians at either end. These were the endmen who spoke in colloquial Black speech while Mr. Interlocutor used an exaggerated, elegant pattern of diction, both getting the comedy rolling.

After an intermission, the olio followed with a variety of songs and acts and a speech by one of the endmen poking fun at the issues and political figures that could be personalized to fit the community.

After a second intermission, there was another piece with the two endmen playing two Black buffoons, a country bumpkin type and a city slicker know-it-all who is easily tricked.

Local groups of differing sizes and talents may have followed their own pattern, but the basic element of characterizing Black culture remained the same. Many traditional minstrel songs reflected the image.

Some went all the way back to Stephen Foster’s melodies, while other were like the 1890s hit about a Black woman unable to choose between two suitors entitled “All C**** Look Alike To Me.”

A 1930 production put on by the Altamont Lady Minstrels not only had a cake walk contest, but songs by a sextet made up of “Turpentina, Vasolina, Listerina, Benzina, Gasolina and Energina.”


Friends on stage

The great attraction to the public was seeing their friends and neighbors in the cast and figuring out “who is who” was noted when the Goodfellowship Minstrels announced their show to be performed at Altamont’s Masonic Hall, promising it to “Be the Hit of the Season” in 1924.

Often it wasn’t that the comedy itself was all that hilarious, but the incongruous situation of a church elder, proper matron, or local businessman doing the nonsense involved.

The Guilderland Center Fire Department’s 1953 minstrel show with a cast of 40 assured the prospective audience “When you see Clyde S……. doing a ballet with Ormond B…. you will have tears rolling down your cheeks,” both men being well known in the community at that time.

This particular show was performed two nights in Guilderland Center, after which it was announced, “the Center Dixie Minstrels to Hit the Road,” giving two additional performances of two nights each in other locations.

Were these shows popular? A 1934 headline promoting an upcoming minstrel show said it all: “Advance Sale of Tickets Indicates a Capacity House.”

By the end of the decade of the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement and growing sensitivity about the treatment of America’s Black population led to the end of the local minstrel show.

Today, reading this description of the traditional minstrel shows performed in our own town makes us cringe, but it surely illustrates how this facet of racism was part of the fabric of life during the first half of the 20th Century.  No longer acceptable, minstrel shows have been relegated to our past social and racial history.

— From the Guilderland Historical Society

This pre-1927 photo of the original entrance to Guilderland Center as it was before the overpass was erected shows poles carrying electric lines down the main street. Residents living along the side roads waited for years for lines to reach their neighborhoods.

“De-lighted” was the general consensus when, at 4:37 p.m. on Jan. 20, 1916, electric current flowed through wires strung into Altamont by way of Voorheesville and Guilderland Center. Local folks were well aware of the convenience and superiority of electric power, eager to simply flip on a light switch.

After all, articles about the wonders of electricity had appeared in The Enterprise and other publications for decades and most townspeople at one time or another had hopped the train for Albany or for a holiday excursion on one of the local railroads to experience it for themselves.

However, much as with internet cable today, utilities such as the Municipal Gas Company of Albany would run electric lines only to sites where they could profitably reach a cluster of many potential customers in a small area. Altamont, and to a lesser degree Voorheesville and Guilderland Center, fit the bill and the company decided to connect with the line already reaching as far out of Albany as Slingerlands.

Initially, the Municipal Gas Company’s proposal to bring electric power to Altamont met with resistance due to the village’s own gas works. However, when the Albany Company arranged the sale and removal of the gas plant and streetlamps to a Coeymans’ man for $2,200 (approximately $56,100 in 2022 dollars) the franchise to bring in electric lines and put up streetlights was then awarded to the gas company by the Altamont Village Board.

With the agreement finalized, poles began to be set along the main road between Slingerlands and Altamont, about 15 per day on most days, covering about one-half mile daily. In anticipation of the power being turned on within coming weeks, many Altamont buildings including the Altamont Hotel, the Altamont Pharmacy, National Bank, The Enterprise, and several private homes were being wired for electricity.

Once the power would be turned on, gas production would cease, giving Altamont residents the choice of either wiring for electricity or reverting to kerosene lights.

Many homeowners opted to wire their homes as quickly as they could contract to get the job done, their names appearing week by week in the local columns for Altamont and Guilderland Center. The Reformed Churches in both Altamont and Guilderland Center and Altamont’s Lutheran Church immediately wired for electricity.

The cost of Guilderland Center’s Helderberg Reformed Church and parsonage was $500 (approximately $12,750 in today’s currency) and within a year was paid for.

Jesse Cowan and A.J. Manchester were the two Altamont electrical contractors who seemed to be doing almost all the wiring in Altamont and Guilderland Center and a few years later in the hamlet of Guilderland when power finally reached that section of town.

When Altamont’s 75 new streetlights came on, it was noted that the results surpassed residents’ fondest expectations. Previously, Altamont’s village streets had been dimly lit by 35 acetylene gas lamps provided by the Altamont Illuminating Company. Lit at dusk, they were extinguished at 10 p.m. except on moonlit nights when they remained dark.

In Guilderland Center, home and business owners who could afford wiring also immediately began investigating getting electric water pumps installed, allowing them to have running water, indoor plumbing, and flush toilets — no more hand pumping water or trips to the outhouse.

Altamont already had had a municipal water supply for years. The mention in the Guilderland Center column a few years later that one woman was “pleasantly surprised” with a birthday gift of an electric washer shows how delighted people were with these new labor saving devices.

A notice in The Enterprise alerted folks with newly wired buildings that their insurance would be void if they did not attach a “standard electricity permit” to their policy.


Innovations abound

Lighting was not only a boon to electrical contractors. At least two local young men became electrical engineers and left town to work for large companies.

The Enterprise had a bonanza selling ad space to contractors; the Municipal Gas Company of Albany, which ran large ads tempting consumers with all kinds of electrical appliances; and to Albany department stores — W.M. Whitney’s had a special sale on a set of lighting fixtures, enough for a six- to seven-room house, a $45 value for $29.95 (which would be $763 today).

Even the Altamont Pharmacy had begun to sell small appliances and electrical supplies including Christmas lights.

Schenectady’s General Electric plant was booming, providing employment for many local young men whose names were mentioned in the columns covering the different areas of town. Several times in 1917, G.E. actually placed help-wanted ads in The Enterprise, seeking office boys, young women between the ages of 18 and 30 needed to operate sensitive drill presses and do small assembly work, and young men with high school training.

Exciting innovations began to pop up. At a Christmas party at the “old town hall” in Guilderland Center, the “little tots” were mesmerized by the Christmas tree “bespangled with decorations and electric lights.”

In Altamont, a lighted sign advertising Forest City paints appeared in Lape’s Paint Store window. And at the Masonic Hall the 10-cent ($2.55 today) silent movies were now shown using the “new electrical apparatus,” which was “equal to any city theatre.”

Gaglioti’s barbershop boasted a lighted barber pole in front with not only interior lights but an electric massage machine. The pharmacy may have had a new electrical machine for shaking malted milk drinks, but topping that was the new corn-popping and peanut-roasting machine that was run, heated, and lit by electricity at Keenholts’ newsroom, a really big attraction for the curious.

Almost no one would argue that electricity was not an improvement over the past, especially when each year at the Altamont Fair all sorts of appliances and labor-saving devices were on display and demonstrated.

But installation, including wiring, fixtures, revision of insurance policies, and monthly utility bills, required a degree of affluence. Not every church could afford to do it immediately — Guilderland Center’s Lutheran Church took until 1920 and St. Lucy’s Church in Altamont was wired in 1922 when other renovations were being done.

Altamont’s high school building was finally wired in 1921 after taxpayers had voted it down once in spite of power having been available since 1916.


High demand, slow progress

What about other areas of Guilderland? One of Albany’s electric trolley lines ran out to the border of McKownville by the turn of the 20th Century, but no information could be uncovered telling just when power lines began to be extended along the Western Turnpike.

Since a 1918 letter to The Enterprise from “a citizen” mentioned electric lines had been installed to a point on the turnpike one mile east of the hamlet of Guilderland and stopped there, obviously by then McKownville had electricity.

It was only in 1920 that the mention of Guilderland individuals and the foundry installing electric wiring appeared in Guilderland’s Enterprise column.

There was such demand for power in the populated areas south of this part of New York State that in 1922 the New York Power and Light Company decided to run powerful transmission lines through Guilderland, carrying electric current from north of the Mohawk south into the Hudson Valley, its path cutting east of Dunnsville and continuing south across Guilderland into New Scotland.

The Enterprise’s Dunnsville correspondent gave a detailed description of the 70-foot-high transmission towers set 600 feet apart in an 18-foot square base of concrete seven feet below ground. To this day, transmission lines are still running along this route through Guilderland although today they are gigantic descendants of the originals.

It took over a decade after power originally reached Altamont and Guilderland Center for electric lines to reach out to Fullers and Dunnsville. Finally, in the spring of 1927, it was announced that poles were being set in along the turnpike.

Although in 1924 the Guilderland Town Board expanded the franchise to erect poles and erect power lines on all town roads instead of being limited to the main roads, the power company wasn’t interested and those living off of the main roads continued to use kerosene lights, scrub clothes over a washboard, pump water by hand, head out to the outhouse in all kinds of weather, and carry a lantern to the barn.

If you had the money, you could purchase one of the electric generators such as the “Silent Alamo Lighting Plant” or the “Delco-Light” using a gas engine and dynamo to generate current for your house and barn. The cost was $250 (which would be $6,375 today) less 5 percent if paying cash.

Even when electric lines were run along your road, if your house happened to be set back in a lane requiring two or three additional poles to carry the line into your house, utility companies usually expected the homeowner to pay the cost of these  poles, an extra expense some families were unable to afford, delaying the convenience of electricity.

It took the Roosevelt administration’s push for rural electrification to get power companies to extend their power lines out to more sparsely populated rural areas with the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.

At long last, the New York and Light Company, the successor to the Municipal Gas Company, began to wire up the outlying areas of Guilderland.

One two-mile line along “Crounse Road,” from its description probably now called Hawes Road, would be serving eight new customers, seven of them farms. A year later, 10 homes and farms along Meadowdale Road got power.

And finally, 22 years and two miles from Altamont in the last area of town to be electrified, in 1938 Settles Hill residents could finally turn on the lights.

— From the Guilderland Historical Society

Boys at Guilderland Center’s Cobblestone School enjoyed an active game while their male teacher looked on from the doorway. Girls, who had little opportunity for active games, were probably observing from the sidelines. Both were expected to be quietly working at their seats during class time until it was their turn to go up to the teacher to orally recite their lesson.

— From the Guilderland Historical Society

Anna Anthony posed with her students at the Fullers School. Teachers were expected to teach all grade levels with recitation and memorization considered an important part of a child’s education in the early 20th Century. Anthony, sixth from left, attended a summer session at the Oneonta Normal School after graduating from high school. That fall, at the age of 18, she was paid $15 weekly to teach at the Dunnsville School.

Life for rural Guilderland children in the early years of the 20th Century was still limited to travel by horse and wagon or train. Electricity and telephones were not yet available in their community, seeing a movie was a rare occurrence, and most children of that era had a very distinct memory of the first time they ever actually saw a car.

Children of 6 or 7 began attending one of Guilderland’s one-room common schools, although by then population growth in the communities of McKownville and Guilderland had led to the expansion of their schools to two rooms with a teacher in each room.

Altamont was by this time a Union Free School District, opening its impressive new building for grades 1 through 12 in 1902. Most of the town’s children never went beyond eighth grade, being competent enough with their common school education to farm or perform most of the jobs available at that time.

If they passed the seventh- and eighth-grade Regents (standardized tests are nothing new) to be awarded an eighth-grade diploma, there would be a special commencement ceremony.

In 1913, all eighth-graders who qualified from the “rural schools of the Town of Guilderland” graduated together at Guilderland ‘sPresbyterian Church. Quite an impressive ceremony, it opened with a prayer, followed by songs, declamations, readings, addresses, awarding of diplomas and a benediction — in all, 37 items. For parents it must have been a proud evening as each graduate had some part in what was a very lengthy program.

Altamont’s eighth-grade graduation took place in the Assembly Room of their new high school.


Special events

Certain special events of the school year relieved the monotony and were looked forward to with excitement, especially each school’s annual Christmas celebration when a special program was put on for the whole community.

Dunnsville school’s 1909 Christmas program brought out a standing-room-only crowd which heard songs, instrumental music, readings and recitations that were “carried out with intelligence and spirit,” bringing repeated cheers from the audience. The schoolroom had been decorated with a large Christmas tree in one corner.

Community Christmas gatherings and programs to which the public was invited would have gone on in all the schools in the town each year. The end-of-the-year school picnic was another tradition looked forward to by all the “scholars,” as they were always referred to in The Enterprise.


Challenges for teachers

Evaluating teachers? Regents results, the special events put on at school for the community, and their control in the classroom told people a great deal about their children’s teachers.

Discipline? Anna Anthony, as a new young teacher in Dunnsville, noticed all the children observing her closely one day and, when she eventually pulled open her desk drawer, there lay a dead mouse. A real rodent phobic, she managed to keep her cool, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the wastebasket and get on with her lesson.

But one young woman teacher at the Gardner Road School was overwhelmed by big, bad farm boys jumping out of the windows, falling off the recitation bench, in general creating chaos and preventing any learning from taking place. She was quickly replaced by a strong, tall Altamont High School senior boy who was given a temporary teaching certificate and a guarantee of his diploma to take her place and finish out the year.

Order was quickly restored when, at his arrival, he threatened to knock their heads together and legally could have done just that. Corporal punishment was the rule in those days in school or at home.

State mandates? All schools were expected to participate in an Arbor Day event in early May as mandated by the New York State Legislature. The state’s Department of Public Instruction issued suggestions for programs including recitations (memorization was considered a necessary skill in those days), songs, readings, and the planting of actual trees to beautify the schoolyard. Of course, the parents and public were invited to observe.


High school

Some of the children who received eighth-grade diplomas went on to high school. The roads being what they were at that time, commuting by rail was necessary at the student’s expense.

Fullers and Guilderland Center students rode the West Shore Railroad to attend Ravena High School, while those living along the D & H Railroad could go to Altamont High School. A few children in Guilderland and McKownville went into Albany for high school and, of course, the children who actually lived in Altamont had the easiest time.

Books were another expense paid for by the student so that many students at that time couldn’t afford to go to four years of high school. Since the course work in subjects such as Latin or plain geometry was meant for college preparation, a high school education wasn’t practical or necessary for them.

The number receiving diplomas from Altamont High the first decade the school was open ranged from three to 11 in a graduating class. Graduation ceremonies there included a baccalaureate service at one Altamont church and commencement at the other church.


Time with family

Children a century ago spent more time with family than in school. Locally, most boys and girls came from farm families who expected them to pitch in to share the work around the barn, fields, and farmhouse.

It was with family that most children attended one of Guilderland’s Protestant churches where there would be a special Children’s Day and Sunday school classes to provide religious instruction as well as offering Christmas celebrations and an annual picnic where the Sunday schools of several churches joined together for a really big gathering.

Sometimes children put on special programs for the public. McKownville Methodist “little folks” raised $24 in an entertainment program, offering choruses, solos, dialogues, recitations, and a Bo-peep drill.  Families often attended church-sponsored suppers, ice-cream socials, and special evening programs as leisure activities.

Occasionally, special traveling entertainment came to town with a reduced-admission price for children, usually 10 cents. One year, families who could afford the price could have seen Jess Camp Rose offering a humorous entertainment at Guilderland’s Presbyterian Church, while later that autumn at Altamont’s Keenholts Hall “a collection of panoramic views of 80 of the choicest sights to be seen on a tour around the world accompanied by an intensely interesting description of each…” was on view.

Rarely during the first decade of the 20th Century that new entertainment phenomenon made an appearance in town when in 1903 at Altamont’s Reformed Church “The World’s Greatest Moving Picture Exhibition” offered a variety of scenes including President William McKinley’s funeral and the crack Empire State Express racing at 80 miles per hour.

Two years later, a similar program of brief scenes was shown at Keenholts Hall. Admission was 15 cents for a child. A circus visited Altamont some years and always the Altamont Fair was a big attraction.


Differences for boys and girls

Girls’ lives were more restricted than boys’ due to custom and to girls’ cumbersome clothes. Boys could roam the woods and fields, drop their drawers on hot summer days to cool off in a secluded stretch of one of the town’s creeks, or play baseball.

In 1909, they were even invited by the Grand Army of the Republic members to parade with them as an escort to Prospect Hill Memorial Day services. Mischief there was, especially on Halloween.

The Altamont village trustees publicly warned children damaging property that they would be “severely dealt with,” but that didn’t stop the “spooks” and “goblins” from making their rounds in Altamont.

Boys, being as adventurous as they were, couldn’t resist a building under construction, leading Master Stanley Crocker and some of his friends to explore the big new building Irving Lainhart was in the process of finishing off on Maple Avenue in Altamont.

Coming down off a scaffold, little Stanley ran into a plate glass window, smashing it and requiring several stitches to close up his badly bleeding head. That mishap was reported in The Enterprise, probably to his parents’ mortification — their names were listed also. Very likely, till all was said and done, something else beside Stanley’s head hurt!

One social feature of childhood reported on, often in great detail in The Enterprise, were the birthday parties, almost always for girls. The honoree and her invited guests were named, once as many as 21 little girls, with food such as the “bountiful luncheon” one mother provided.

Cake was served, games were played, prizes won, and a wonderful time was had by all, except the uninvited classmates. Most of this detailed information had to have been submitted by the birthday girls’ or the occasional birthday boys’ mothers!


Dark side

Sadly, there was also a dark side to childhood in that era. Death for infants and children came much more frequently, reflected in the columns of The Enterprise.

At J.F. Mynderse’s Altamont store, a parent could buy Chamberlain’s Colic, Cholera and Diarrhoea medicine to be used if your child is “not expected to live from one hour to another.”

The same issue of the paper informed its readers that Elizabeth, the 6-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Gardner, was suffering from cerebro spinal meningitis for a month and had shown slight improvement. Alas, the next week’s issue offered sympathy to the grieving parents after Elizabeth “fell asleep” and “all that loving hands could do was hers, but the hand of the grim messenger could not be staid.”

Another set of heartbroken parents put this poem in The Enterprise after the death of their little boy: “A bud the Gardener gave to us/ A pure and lovely child/ He gave it to our keeping/ To cherish undefiled/ But just as it was opening to the glory of the day/ Down came the Heavenly Gardener/ And took our bud away.”

Mumps, whooping cough, measles went through the schools, but most dreaded of the contagious diseases was the deadly diphtheria, killer of many youngsters. When there were “a few cases” in Guilderland’s school, it was closed down for several weeks and the writer of that community’s column sounded relieved when he noted Archie Siver, one of the victims, was out playing in the street again.

Scarlet fever could also be deadly. Mr. and Mrs. George Clute of Fullers lost their 17-year-old daughter, Alice, followed two weeks later by their 4-year-old, Nellie, both to scarlet fever.

Children’s lives were sometimes disrupted by the death of a parent.

Typhoid was another dread disease that struck both children and adults. Peter Weaver, at age 35, succumbed to typhoid, leaving behind a widow and two young children.

Camillo Compe, an Italian D & H employee, living at Meadowdale with his wife and child, was clearing snow from a switch when he was fatally struck by a train, leaving his wife and child to face a bleak future.

Losing a parent could be a tragic event for a child because often the surviving parent had difficulty caring for a family without a spouse. Many times, children were parceled out to various extended family members or the surviving family members had to move in with relatives.

Women faced financial difficulties with few ways to earn money in those days and men needed someone to run the house, a very labor-intensive operation at that time.

Illness and accidents carried off many young parents, but most in Guilderland seemed to have extended family to help out, unlike other unfortunates in Albany County who ended up in the County Almshouse.

The saddest case in Guilderland was the 4-year-old from Sloans (Guilderland), an illegitimate child whose mother was judged “depraved” and who was placed in the Albany County Orphan Asylum. This information with actual names was listed in the 1906 Journal of the Board of Supervisors.

Life for a child in those simple days could be wonderful or tragic with so much depending on family finances, the health of parents, and good luck. While a child’s life is so different today, in those respects nothing has changed.

 — Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Ward’s store in the hamlet of Guilderland was also in business until the 1960s. Originally operated in the 19th Century as Olendorf’s, Thomas B. Ward operated it as a WGY store beginning in 1926. Both Petinger’s and Ward’s stores functioned as their communities’ post offices until their closing. Note that Ward’s had also added gas pumps. Petinger’s and Ward’s were the last of the many general stores that once had operated in town.

The Walmart and Amazon of yesteryear were the general stores found in almost every small community, crammed with an amazing assortment of goods.

The sight of the contents of Altamont’s F. & W.S. Pitts store in the 1890s would have boggled the minds of Guilderland’s 18th-Century settlers who were forced to be relatively self-sufficient except for a few necessities, items like tea, salt, or tobacco. Some of the town’s early tavern keepers, Nicholas Mynderse for one, sold or bartered these necessities in addition to selling alcohol and putting up travelers.

With the combination of Guilderland’s increasing population in the 1790s and the 1804 opening of the Western Turnpike, stores began to appear. Serving the small community of Hamilton near the glassworks early in the 19th Century, Christopher Batterman’s was probably the first.

Years later, when the 1845 New York State Census was taken in Guilderland, four grocers and seven merchants were counted. In addition to the hamlet of Guilderland, stores were recorded in Guilderland Center, Dunnsville, and Knowersville at that time. Jacob Crounse is known to have kept a store in Knowersville at this period.

The post-Civil War decades marked the heyday of the general store in rural America. Both the 1886 Howell & Tenney History of Albany County and Amasa Parker’s 1897 Landmarks of Albany County listed Guilderland’s general stores and their proprietors.

Dunnsville, Fullers, Meadowdale, Guilderland Hamlet, and Guilderland Center each had one, and Altamont had more than one. However, McKownville wasn’t mentioned in either volume, nor did a store show up there on the 1866 Beers Map. Perhaps a small store existed, but no record of it remains or an Albany store was in easy distance.


Catchy ads

Carrying a wide variety of goods, general stores sought to meet customer needs while emphasizing low prices, or at least the Guilderland stores were fixated on bargains, perhaps because of the numerous competitors in town. The coming of The Enterprise in 1884 provided the opportunity for clever advertising with lots of product variety and assurance of low prices aimed at drawing customers from the competition.

One simply stated “FIRST CLASS COUNTRY STORE.”

Several ads placed at the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898 by Altamont’s F. & S.W. Pitts were very eye-catching, especially since the headings were in a dark large font. “GREAT BATTLE! Not at HAVANA, but at ALTAMONT! Our battle is on high prices and we are confident of victory.” o

Another proclaimed “WAR! War has begun and almost everything is advancing. We offer the following at the same low prices.” Attached was a lengthy list of goods and prices.

The Pitts assured customers, “In placing bargains before the public, remember, we look, first of all to quality and then aim to sell it at lowest Albany or Schenectady prices.”

J.F. Mynderse sought to attract attention with “NOTICE: HOW TO SAVE MONEY.” Another ad stated, “SAVED anywhere from 20 to 50 dollars a year by trading at the ALTAMONT CASH STORE.”

Smaller stores in Dunnsville, Fullers, or Meadowdale where there was no competition didn’t advertise and they certainly didn’t carry the extent of merchandise the larger stores in Altamont or Guilderland Center did.

A selection of items listed in F. & W.S. Pitts’ ads illustrate a sample of the variety offered by the general store merchant. Food choices not available from the farm or backyard garden included cans of potted ham, olives, cans of salmon, pepper, raisins, currants, coffee, tea, codfish, molasses, candies, Malaga grapes and nuts.

Because baking bread and other baked goods was the housewives’ weekly chore, flour was always an important item, as well as baking powder, salt, and yeast regularly listed.

Personal needs were met by patent medicines, soap, gloves, shoes, rubber goods, overshoes, shirts, pants, ladies’ wrappers, various kinds of yard goods for home sewing, notions, tobacco, and jack knives. Household items included pots and pans, brooms, oil cloth, paints and wallpaper.

Not all of the town’s general stores would necessarily have carried so many foods and dry goods, some of which were probably considered luxury items for many farm families or a family where a laborer provided the sole income. And the stores with farmers as the majority of their customers carried fewer consumer goods and a good deal of animal feed, fertilizer, and items needed by farmers such as hay bands.

In 1900, when F. & W.S. Pitts when out of business, at their MAMMOTH CLOSING OUT SALE they offered “many thousands of dollars’ worth of goods” including  “dry goods, groceries, boots and shoes, flour, feed, patent medicines, paint, oils, wooden ware, stoneware (crocks), pants, shorts, underwear, umbrellas, whips, crockery, glassware, etc.”

Nowadays, Thanksgiving and Christmas or Hanukkah holiday shopping represent a key part of a retailer’s profitability, but during the heyday of Guilderland’s general stores, the holidays pass by with no special advertising even though Albany retailers advertising in The Enterprise were appealing to the turn-of-the-century Christmas shopper.


Pettinger prevailed

Down the road in Guilderland Center was P. Pettinger, whose general store probably operated the longest of any in town under one proprietor, from 1884 to 1927. His customer base must have included many farmers, leading him to carry an extensive line of animal feeds and items useful on the farm in addition to the usual groceries and dry goods.

An innovative merchandiser, Pettinger offered to deliver orders by wagon. The early 20th-Century years brought listing of his phone number, Altamont 9-F-14, allowing customers with a phone to call in orders, which he soon was delivering in an autotruck.

After a few years, he added auto supplies such as tires, tube, spark plugs, oils, and grease to his inventory. A Socony (now Mobil) gas pump, probably one of the earliest in Guilderland, was installed in front of his store. Pumps also appeared in front of J. Snyder’s store in Altamont and Ward’s Store in the Guilderland hamlet.

Petinger, who for some reason dropped one “t” from the spelling of his name in mid-1904, also had an arrangement with R. Van Allen, proprietor of the Fullers General Store, to pay cash for baled hay and straw to be shipped out from the hay barn next to a West Shore Railroad siding in Fullers. This arrangement was included in his regular advertising.


Rural mail delivery, easy transport ended era

General stores were the casualty of change. In 1890, the 65 percent of the population who lived in the nation’s rural areas were forced to pick up their mail at a local post office, which was very frequently located in the community’s general store, making the townspeople stopping by to get their mail a sure source of potential customers.

Much against the objections of local shopkeepers nationwide, the United States Post Office’s rural free delivery began on an experimental basis in 1896, and by 1902 all farmers were having mail delivered to the mailboxes in front of their farms. Parcel post home delivery soon followed.

Sears, Roebuck & Company issued its first catalog in 1894 and soon was offering every product imaginable, including canned goods at low prices, delivered right to the mailbox. They were only one of many mail order firms.

Once cars and buses became common, it was very convenient to travel to Schenectady or Albany where the stores had a huge selection of consumer goods and supermarkets offered lower prices.

One by one, the old general stores closed down and the ones that survived became mom-and-pop grocery stores, which in turn faced competition from the growth of supermarket chains. By 1928, Altamont had an A & P followed by a Grand Union in 1932. However, the mom-and-pop stores usually offered credit, unlike the supermarkets.

Internet shopping is only the latest innovation in the history of merchandising in this country.

— Courtesy of James E. Gardner

A period rendition of a proposed Main Street overpass in Altamont — next to the former train station, now the library — which never was built.

This is the second and final part of the history of local railroad overpasses and underpasses. The first part, “More autos, more crashes with trains — reduced with overpasses and underpasses,” was published on Sept. 22, 2021.

Stunned Altamont residents read the November 1928 announcement that their community was included on the New York State Public Service Commission’s list of 189 additional projects eliminating grade crossings. The prospect of either an overpass or underpass in the midst of their charming and tranquil village was upsetting in the extreme.

Guilderland’s other Delaware and Hudson Railroad crossings at Brandle, Gardner, Meadowdale, and Hennessey Roads had so few vehicles driving through they weren’t included.

Those in attendance at the first public hearing in Albany two months later listened as the state’s Department of Transportation made it clear that, according to their surveys, there was a definite need for crossing elimination.

The D & H spokesman responded negatively, presenting data that only two persons had been injured over a very lengthy period in spite of 1,500 vehicles and 800 daily pedestrian crossings daily, making crossing elimination unnecessary. In addition, during daytime hours, crossing gates were operated.

The D & H was well aware that it would be responsible for 50 percent of the cost of any project. Altamont Mayor Ernest Williamson and Guilderland Supervisor Earl Pangburn echoed the D & H’s contention that crossing elimination was unneeded, but obviously as far as the Department of Transportation was concerned, it was a done deal. A proposal would be brought to the next hearing.

The 15 concerned citizens in attendance at the April 1, 1929 hearing were presented with what must have been deeply disturbing news that the state planned an underpass south of the present Main Street, necessitating the demolition of the old Commercial Hotel building, by that time converted into the A & P store and three apartments.

In addition, the canopy of the D & H depot would be lopped off. The cut would connect the Altamont-Voorheesville Road (Altamont Boulevard) with Main Street opposite Maple Avenue on a diagonal curve, slicing 84 feet off of the park. The roadway, with sloping dirt banks, would be 30 feet wide with sidewalks.

In addition, an 18-foot wide driveway was to run through the park, allowing cars to enter Depot Square, the parking area adjacent to the railroad station. The D & H tracks would be raised five feet with a 48-foot span to carry them over the underpass.

In reporting about these plans in its next edition, The Enterprise commented that the plan seemed the most logical that could be devised and New York State Engineer E. W. Wendell had given careful consideration to present the best possible plan.

A week later, a box atop the front page announced a meeting at the Masonic Hall called by the Altamont Village Board where, “The question of elimination of the Main Street crossing will be discussed … Every Resident of Altamont … COME.” Citizens were urged to discuss the necessity or advisability of the proposed underpass.

At this evening meeting, blueprints of the projected underpass were on display for study, followed by discussion and suggestions for modifications such as constructing a retaining wall instead of a sloping bank that would result in less land being taken from the park, or a footbridge to make accessing the station more convenient.

Surprisingly, there seemed to be no active resistance, but perhaps it was due to a feeling of no recourse since communities in nearby towns that had fought to prevent grade-crossing eliminations failed against the overwhelming power of the New York Public Service Commission.


D & H has its own plans

The D & H, however, was not ready to give up, beginning its stalling tactics at the next hearing in May by offering an outrageous counter proposal of an overpass.

First the D & H claimed that raising the tracks five feet prevented the railroad from making full use of its Altamont facilities: the station, siding, water tower, and freight house. The Altamont taxpayers present at the third hearing must have been terrified at the thought of the consequences for the village after hearing the railroad spokesman describe its plan.

The railroad wanted the overpass to cross the tracks linking the Altamont-Voorheesville Road with Fairview Avenue (a residential street that runs parallel to Main Street) in front of Ackerman’s Mill, then a major Altamont business (now a vacant lot next to the Hayes House), by erecting a steel overhead highway bridge with the piers ending at Lark Street and an embankment carrying the road down to the corner of Grand Street where Altamont High School was located.

The result of this proposal would be to cut the village in two, ruin a lovely residential neighborhood where the front yards would face either steel piers or an embankment, and be dangerous for the village’s schoolchildren as all that traffic would exit to Main Street via Grand Street.

Mayor Fred Keenholts and Attorney Milton J. Ogsbury made their opposition clear, especially since in the 1920s there were many small Altamont businesses that provided goods and services to village residents and would be adversely affected by dividing the village.

There were 195 residents living on the west side of the tracks and 34 children who walked to Altamont High School, which in those days also included the elementary grades. A lengthy article in The Enterprise provided all the details.

The next week, a notice on the front page of The Enterprise urged as many residents as possible to show up at the May 13 Public Service Commission’s Albany hearing when the state plan and the D & H proposal would be discussed: “BE SURE TO ATTEND.”

At the hearing, the state had modified its original plan, taking into consideration local suggestions and met D & H objections by raising all the company’s structures to match the new level of the tracks. The railroad plan for an overpass was rejected.

Mayor Keenholts submitted a village board resolution favoring the state’s underpass plan.

Altamont residents heard no more until Jan. 23, 1930 when the Public Service Commission issued the order to the D & H that the underpass should be constructed as the state had designated.

In the meantime, the railroad came up with an even more outlandish overpass plan, this one north of Main Street. An overhead bridge would go over Prospect Terrace, the tracks and Maple Avenue linking the Altamont-Berne Road (Route 156) with Main Street at Lincoln Avenue.

Steep embankments at each end would lead up to the bridge. Several businesses and houses would be affected, some being demolished or losing part of their property, and others would be nearly under the bridge.

A petition filed by the railroad, requesting a rehearing by the Public Service Commission was granted, scheduled for April 1, 1930.


Villagers resist

Altamont’s new mayor was none other than E.W. Wendell, a Lincoln Avenue homeowner who also happened to be the New York State Engineer and who had designed the original proposed underpass.

With the possibility of the D & H’s desecration of the village with this latest overpass proposal, the next public meeting of concerned citizens drew about 100 people to Masonic Hall, many of them angry and of the opinion that the crossing wasn’t dangerous and any of the possible plans would mar the village.

At the April Public Service Commission hearing, a village petition signed by 371 persons was submitted claiming such a huge structure as proposed by the D & H would result in “irreparable and permanent damage to the village.”

This time, 30 residents traveled into Albany for the hearing. The commission agreed that the overpass would be unsightly and additionally, the steep grades and sharp curves would be hazardous especially in winter.

After months of waiting, in August 1930, the Public Service Commission rejected both of the D & H overpass proposals and ruled that the underpass order was still in place.

The D & H didn’t give up and now turned to the courts as another method of obstructing the commission. The railroad sought to have the crossing elimination order reversed by taking the case first to the New York State Appellate Division and then on to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, both of which, of course, upheld the Public Service Commission.

The lengthy legal maneuvering put the project in limbo for a few years.

Early in 1935, the D & H had to appear before the Public Service Commission on a show-cause order as to why the underpass hadn’t been constructed. The D & H responded with a petition, requesting that the crossing elimination be dropped, claiming that there were now only eight trains on weekdays and four on weekends, and that, in the depths of the Depression, the railroad was operating at a serious deficit.

Although two previous village administrations had passed resolutions approving the underpass plan, the current village board under Mayor George H. Martin passed a resolution urging that the crossing elimination order be canceled.

A petition containing almost 600 signatures, asking that the underpass plan be dropped, was submitted to the commission at the same time. Both based their contention on the lack of accidents, on depreciation of property values, and that all the expense could be avoided by dropping the whole plan.

At the same hearing, tension among neighbors was evident because Attorney Milton J. Ogsbury appeared representing himself and several other property owners, asserting that, if the underpass were to be blocked, a worse plan might be put into effect in the future.

Ogsbury spoke in “a sharp manner” when questioned. The Enterprise headline said it all: “Village Aroused As Fight Resumes Over Main Street Railroad Crossing Elimination.”

Rejecting the village board resolution and the citizen petition, the commission ruled in June 1935 that the underpass must be constructed. Any additional delay would mean the loss of federal funds.

Somehow the D & H stalled for additional months until in November 1936 it was announced that the railroad sought to have the order of 1930 “abrogated, set aside and rescinded” on the basis of the decline in rail traffic since 1930.

A rehearing of the case later that month brought out Village Attorney Earl Barkhuff supporting the D & H claims. But the Public Service Commission held firm — the crossing must go.

Relief came at last for both Altamont and the D & H on Jan. 1, 1937 when it was finally announced that the Public Service Commission was backing down and reversing itself on the basis of declining passenger rail traffic plus the fact that, for several years, D & H through freights had been switched off at Delanson and sent to Mechanicville via other tracks.

The reversal came with the stipulation that the maximum speed of any train passing through the Altamont crossing when no gatekeeper was on duty was to be 8 miles per hour.

It had been a close call. But for the stalling tactics of the D & H and the economic effect of the Great Depression resulting in the decline in rail traffic, Altamont would not be the charming, scenic village it remains today.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

This old postcard view shows the original grade-level crossing at Guilderland Center. The huge building on the right was the Hurst Feed Mill, which burned before it could be moved to make way for the 1927 overpass. On the left side of the road was a small West Shore station and the large building beyond was a hotel, which burned shortly after the empty feed mill. Today, this original road is a short dead end stopping at the tracks called Wagner Road. It branches off from Route 146 as you approach Guilderland Center.

At the Guilderland Center crossing, West Shore Railroad workers came on the run when the sound of an approaching pair of coupled locomotives was followed by a loud crash. Confronted by a horrific scene, the men looked 50 feet down the track to see, crushed in front of the now-halted locomotives, the remains of a demolished Dodge automobile, its engine hurled into a neighboring field.

Two men ejected by the impact lay crumpled near the tracks, one dead at the scene, the other so critically injured that he died five hours later at Albany Hospital.

Earlier that August 1919 Friday morning, the two men, Hartford Steam Boiler Insurance Co. employees, had been assigned to inspect boilers in Altamont, but tragically later that day the two had become statistics in the ever-increasing toll of grade crossing train-car collision fatalities.

In 1914, records show 199 people lost their lives at New York grade crossings; a year later, the fatality rate increased by 50 percent. By 1927, there were 668 fatalities during the first four months alone. With the explosive increase in automobile ownership, fatalities at grade crossings had become a major safety issue.


PSC intervenes

The recently formed New York State Public Service Commission quickly stepped in, insisting that construction of underpass or overpass crossings should replace grade-level railroad crossings and promised to make railroads pay for a good portion of the work.

Even if local residents were dead set against a crossing proposal, the Public Service Commission had the power to overrule them.

In our area, the initial focus was on the busiest D & H railroad crossings in Bethlehem and New Scotland, but by 1919 Guilderland had also caught the attention of the Public Service Commission. Ironically, earlier on the very day of the Guilderland Center double fatality, officials had been there photographing that very dangerous crossing, the site of other fatalities.

Crossing railroad tracks in those days was a challenging proposition for drivers whose noisy cars made it difficult to hear approaching trains, while their sight lines were often obstructed by buildings, brush and trees, or a curve in the tracks. Rarely were there gates, at that time requiring a railroad employee to operate them.

In Guilderland, only Altamont’s D & H railroad crossing had a part-time gatekeeper. Otherwise, drivers were on their own to stop, look, and listen.

A July 1925 Public Service Commission legal notice in The Enterprise notified residents that public safety required that the crossing at Guilderland Center be replaced with an overhead bridge to the north of the grade-level crossing.

At Fullers, the Western Turnpike (Route 20) would be carried underneath the track at the same site as the current grade crossing. There was to be a public hearing but, if there were any opposition, it would be overruled.

The Guilderland Center plan rerouting the road entering the village 175 feet to the north necessitated removal of Hurst’s Feed Mill. Before construction began, Hurst’s empty feed mill, recently purchased by a new owner who planned to move the building, burned before it could be relocated to make way for the overpass.

The cost of the overpass was estimated to be $120,000, half of it to be paid for by the New York Central Railroad Company, owner of the West Shore Railroad.

Work on the Guilderland Center project took place in the spring and summer of 1927. Artificial hills or inclines had to be built as approaches to the new overhead bridge and by midsummer the project was completed allowing traffic to move over it. The original road (now Wagner Road) dead ended as it approached the tracks.

Two lesser overhead bridges carrying roads over the West Shore tracks were also put in place at the same time, one over the tracks carrying the road to Frenchs Hollow (now Frenchs Mills Road), the other at McCormicks unpaved dirt road (now West Old State Road). Note that in the 1920s most local roads did not yet have officially designated names.


Countryside changed

Fullers’ situation physically disrupted that small community. The writer of a 1926 article pointed out the year before construction began, “The entire character of the countryside is to be changed.”

Being that the West Shore Railroad was a division of the New York Central Railroad, management made the decision that, as long as the Public Service Commission was forcing them to construct an above-ground crossing over Route 20, this would be a good time to bring this branch line up to main-line standards to speed up the movement of freight traffic.

Heading southbound toward Guilderland Center, freight trains approaching the trestle over the Normanskill at Frenchs Hollow had to climb a steep gradient. By the 1920s, freight trains had become longer and heavier, requiring a very slow climb to reach the level of the Normanskill trestle.

Therefore the plan was to lower the approach gradient by creating a long artificial incline to raise the track approaching this trestle gradually. Instead of a short steep climb to this trestle, the long approach would allow locomotives to keep up speed.

This would result in faster freight service on the West Shore, but at the same time artificial construction of a high dirt berm to carry the southbound track created a barrier that would now physically divide the hamlet of Fullers. Instead of the former grade-level crossing, the tracks would now cross Route 20 on two trestles, the higher one carrying the southbound track. Unfortunately the August 1926 Enterprise article detailing the Fullers proposal is extremely blurry, making the exact statistics of the gradients illegible.

In 1926, the contract for all four of these projects was awarded to the Walsh Construction Company, an experienced contractor who had worked on similar projects in surrounding areas. In preparation, they sent in surveyors and arranged for equipment such as steam shovels to be ready to work by April 1, 1927.

Houses were purchased or possibly built on both sites to be used as offices for project foremen. Charlie Quackenbush’s farm was rented as the location for their “camp” where their laborers would live while construction was underway. When the projects were completed, the houses were each later sold to local men.

In the meantime, the New York Central Railroad bought a farm in Guilderland Center adjacent to the railroad tracks just north of the bridge project there to be used as a gravel pit. It was necessary to acquire additional farmland in Fullers because of the extent of their project creating the huge incline and erecting the crossing trestles.

Early in April 1927, actual work began. Walsh brought in a crew of laborers, setting up the camp with Mr. and Mrs. John Mullaney doing the cooking and managing the camp. The type of worker housing is unknown, but establishing these camps at work sites seemed to be their standard practice, mentioned in relation to Walsh projects in the town of Bethlehem.

Andrew Wyatt, a Walsh employee, was in charge of 30 mules pastured on the Quackenbush farm, probably used in hauling wagon loads of dirt as the turnpike was dug out under the tracks. At dawn one morning, all 30 managed to take a jaunt out of the pasture, parading down the turnpike before being rounded up.

The Fullers project was more involved than the Guilderland Center overpass. First, a wooden trestle over the entire stretch of gradient was constructed, reportedly using timber from trees cut while clearing land for Albany Air Port.

Trains hauled in carloads of gravel dug on the Guilderland Center farm over tracks laid on the temporary trestle, dumping their loads on the wooden framework that was left in place and eventually rotted away. Work went on day and part of the night using electric light.

By July 1, the major project was complete, except for concrete work. Two trestles crossed above Route 20, one above the other while the road dipped down underneath.

Some sources have stated the higher of the two trestles was constructed at a later date, but this is inaccurate. A photograph appearing in the April 17, 1927 Knickerbocker News showed the construction project underway with both trestles in place.

Not only was Fullers transformed by the divisive berm and trestles, but once there was no longer fear of a collision at the grade crossing, cars could go racing at high speed along Route 20 through the little community.

In his Enterprise column, the Fullers’ correspondent bemoaned that the “changed appearance of the country with its trestle and huge banks of dirt is no improvement” and complained about “the rate of speed at which motorists tear through the new underground crossing at this place ….”

Digging an underpass without adequate drainage created an additional problem for Fullers. A February 1930 thaw accompanied by a rain storm flooded the underpass with more water and mud than the usual flooding.

Conditions became so bad the State Highway Department was called in with flagmen to warn approaching drivers, and trucks were sent in to pull out marooned cars and set up pumps that worked to lower water levels. Underpass flooding remained a periodic problem until the mid-1990s when an expensive reconstruction project there sought to end flooding on Route 20.

In 1941, the town of Guilderland purchased the land used to mine gravel to build the approaches to the Guilderland Center overpass and the huge berm to change the gradient of the tracks at Fullers. Today it is the location of the town highway department and town transfer station.

The original overpasses deteriorated due to age and use. In the 1980s, both the Frenchs Mills Road and West Old State Road overpasses were permanently closed to traffic while the heavily used Route 146 overpass at Guilderland Center was replaced in 1984 slightly to the south of the 1927 overpass with new entrances to the Northeastern Industrial Park.

Today, grade crossings such as those at Stone Road and County Line Road, the two West Shore crossings in Guilderland where the Public Service Commission did not insist that the New York Central construct a West Shore overpass or underpass, have modern-day electronic gates with sensors to automatically lower them when a train approaches, warning drivers.

The New York Central Railroad and its West Shore Division are long gone, but these tracks are currently used by numerous CSX freight trains daily. Drivers are grateful that with the Guilderland Center overpass and Route 20 underpass traffic moves quickly and safely instead of being stopped idling while a lengthy freight rolls through.

Editor’s note: Rail Safety Week runs from Sept. 20 to 26 in North America this year. About 2,000 serious deaths and injuries occur each year around railroad tracks and trains in the United States; last year, 19 New Yorkers lost their lives due to collisions with trains, according to New York State Operation Lifesaver.

The LaSalette Seminary’s whole new look after the 1925 remodeling makes it difficult to believe that it is the same building as the Kushaqua and Helderberg Inn. However, it was one and the same.

This is the second and final part telling the saga of the Kushaqua. The first part, “The Kushaqua: Colonel Church’s ‘mammoth hostelry’ rises on the shoulder of the Helderbergs,” was published on July 26, 2021.
Following Dr. F.J.H. Merrill’s decision in 1902 to lease his summer home, the Kushaqua reverted to its original function as a country resort hotel. H.B. Smith took over, investing in extensive renovations to update the building, renaming it the Helderberg Inn. His venture proved a failure with the inn going into receivership.

A large ad appeared in The Enterprise, announcing “Receiver’s Sale March 24, 1904” to be held in front of Albany City Hall. Parcel No. 2 was “the beautiful hotel property known as the Helderberg Inn situated at Altamont.”

Also listed were parcels 3 to 7, land and farms associated with the hotel. The following day at the inn itself, “all personal property contained in and about the hotel” was to be included at auction.

F.H. Peterson next attempted to make the hotel profitable, but after two years it was again a financial failure.

The affluent summer colony members who owned “cottages” in the hotel’s vicinity had grown increasingly nervous about the fate of the inn. A brief article appeared in The Enterprise on Oct. 7, 1907, announcing the sale of the hotel and surrounding land to a syndicate composed of eight men owning property nearby, including J.B. Thacher.

The Enterprise noted that their purchase came after “learning that it was to be sold, determined to become owners that the conduct of the hotel should be to their liking.” Perhaps it was to the relief of Altamont villagers as well, seeing as the article concluded, “The transfer of this property to these people is an assurance that it will be conducted as a high class hostelry.”

Rapidly, the automobile had become the favored form for transportation among affluent Americans, making the steep original road from the village to the hotel a challenge for early cars. Within a year after the syndicate’s hotel purchase, a new road with a grade of less than 7 percent was opened, which “fills a long felt want,” built through the efforts of syndicate member and Albany businessman Gardner C. Leonard.

The Helderberg Inn syndicate footed the bill. A year later, the state highway commissioners were entertained at dinner at the inn by syndicate members during which they discussed a proposed route for a state road from the village. By October, a survey had been made for the proposed road with a good grade that avoided sharp turns, finally completed in 1911.

A 25-page booklet or prospectus, undated but probably from 1914, gave a detailed description of the facility. Available for guests were 55 guest rooms, featuring hot and cold running water with modern plumbing in private or semi-private bathrooms.

The inn was warmed by steam heat and, as soon as electric lines were strung out to Altamont, the hotel was completely wired. Ample telephone facilities were provided. Fresh flowers from the hotel greenhouse were always placed throughout the public rooms.

Hotel guests had access to dining rooms, lounging rooms, a ballroom, a sun parlor, and the piazza. Indoors, energetic vacationers could bowl in the inn’s alley; play billiards, ping pong, or a game called bolero; or climb to the observation tower.

Sedentary folks could enjoy reading a book or magazine from the hotel’s 2,000-volume library or relax in front of one of the inn’s many fireplaces. Additional outdoor activities such as horseback riding, tennis, and camping were added over the years.

Meals and service were described in the brochure as “perfect.” Food was “delicate and delicious,” carefully served. There was no bar, but vintages in the cellar were available by request, seeking to please both temperance folks and tipplers alike.

Service was available day and night from servants “selected with care.” Each day, afternoon tea was served, weather permitting on the piazza or in the walled garden. Guests were assured that there was “all white service throughout,” reflecting the intense prejudice of the day.

During the years that the syndicate owned the inn, it was renovated and updated as a series of managers attempted to develop a profitable resort. There were always a number of long-term vacationers, but hardly enough to fill 55 rooms.

It had become increasingly common for Albanians to drive out for only the day or weekend. Hops, dances held each Saturday evening, and tea “dansants,” dances held at Saturday tea time, were fads in that era.

Many who had driven out remained for dinner and then danced the evening away to an orchestra at the hop, often remaining overnight. It became a destination for auto or driving parties who appreciated the “bountiful supply of well cooked food for their Saturday and Sunday outings.”

Catered banquets or luncheons, sometimes mentioned in The Enterprise, provided an additional source of income. The Altamont High School Alumni Association June banquet was held there several years, while a luncheon for 70 ladies, members of the Eastern New York Branch of Collegiate Alumnae Association took place one summer. The University Club of Albany came out one Saturday, played a pick-up game of baseball, staying on for a banquet and dancing.


Briefly, a golf club

As years went by, the resort hotel business, proving to be a losing proposition, resulted in the formation in October 1914 of the Helderberg Golf Club Inc. Gardner C. Leonard, whose summer home “Hardscrabble Farm” adjoined the hotel property, had designed a prospectus, describing the advantages of the hotel, grounds and plans for a golf course and winter spots.

Obviously the syndicate members hoped this would be a financial way forward. Local Rotary Club members were being approached by Leonard, who urged them to buy $100 bonds in the operation, automatically giving the membership in what was characterized as a “model golf club” by its promoters

The Albany Evening Journal, when describing the proposed golf club, noted the owners had purchased it “some time ago to maintain the character of the neighborhood.”

The spring of 1915 brought word that the Helderberg Golf Club was being “thoroughly overhauled with extensive alterations and improvements to the club building as well as the grounds” where a nine-hole golf course was constructed. When the club shut down for the season that year, “a most satisfactory season” was reported.

The club reopened in 1916, but there were very few references to it in The Enterprise and it can’t be determined if it operated in the summer of 1917. In December 1917, the property was again on the auction block, this time selling at a huge loss considering all the money that the syndicate had invested in maintenance and upgrades in the years since they had acquired it.

The $100 bondholders would have lost as well. The purchaser was Frank A. Ramsey, representing Ramsey and Co., real estate brokers of Albany, who paid $9,100 for a property valued at $100,000.


Convent of Mercy

It soon became apparent the new owner was the Catholic Diocese of Albany, which planned to use the former hotel as a summer residence for the Sisters of Mercy, nuns who did a tremendous amount of work in the diocese. The old Kushaqua now became known as the Convent of Mercy.

By 1918, the United States was deeply involved in World War I. As casualties began to mount, places of respite were needed where wounded and gassed soldiers could heal and recuperate.

Albany Bishop Thomas Cusack wrote directly to President Woodrow Wilson, offering him the property for these men, giving Wilson a description of the building and grounds.

The government had requested use of hospitals and summer resorts for these men, but nothing came of Cusack’s offer due to its location being far removed from coastal ports, making it too difficult to transport these seriously affected men to the site. Perhaps after gaining possession of the property, Bishop Cusack had now begun to realize just what the diocese had taken on.

The bishop’s prayers were answered when, in 1921, Rev. Simon Forestier, acting for the Missionaries of Our Lady of LaSalette, purchased the property from the Diocese of Albany with the plan that the property be used to train seminarians studying for the priesthood.

Four years later, the structure had been renovated, looking nothing like the original hotel building. For over 20 years, the building acted as a seminary, junior college, and novitiate for this order.

Early on the morning of Oct. 25, 1946, as the seminarians, resident priests, and lay brothers were eating breakfast in the first-floor dining room, the smell of smoke became obvious. A fire, which seemed to have begun in the attic, began raging, spreading rapidly throughout the old wooden building

Fire apparatus quickly rolled in from Altamont, Guilderland Center, and the Army depot. Two trucks were sent out from the Albany City Fire Department.

Even with the arrival of the firemen, within an hour the seminary was consumed by a blaze driven by high winds. Flames were reported to have shot up several hundred feet in the air. Inadequate water supplies simply could not quell the out-of-control blaze in the huge wooden structure.

Fortunately, because all the residents had been downstairs at breakfast when the fire broke out, there were no injuries, but a valuable library was destroyed and all personal property was lost.

The LaSalette Fathers immediately began to rebuild on the site and, in 1953, opened the current building that stands there today. It was used as a seminary until 1979, when the lack of men wishing to enter the priesthood led to a change in the use of the building.

For a time, it was known as LaSalette Christian Life Center and Shrine. But, in 1984, the LaSalette order sold the building and land on the west side of Route 156. Father Peter G. Young began to use it as a treatment center for alcoholics who had been convicted of nonviolent offenses, which operated there for many years.

In 1886, one of Colonel Walter S. Church’s original ads for the Kushaqua emphasized his resort’s healthy location and its role as a recuperative resting place. Twenty-eight years later, Gardner C. Leonard continued to emphasize the proposed golf club’s invigorating, healthy location with dry bracing air.

Today the Peter G. Young Health and Wellness Center continues this long tradition of seeking health there, begun 135 years ago.