— 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.


— From the Library of Congress

This early artist sketch of the Kushaqua paired with a panoramic view of Altamont illustrated the hotel when first opened. Helderberg Avenue is visible going up a steep incline, creating difficulties first in construction and after the hotel’s opening in shuttling guests and luggage from the D & H depot to the hotel.

Perhaps it was the influence of the comments of an 1881 Albany Evening Journal writer who claimed, “Tourists and summer boarders have flooded to the Helderbergs,” where local homes and hotels were “crowded to their utmost capacity.” It was a puzzle to him why no enterprising man had erected a summer hotel on such a “splendid site” in the hills, noting that wealthy Albanians had already begun building summer cottages in this beautiful, healthy location, easily reached by a short train ride from Albany.

Col. Walter S. Church, no stranger to the Helderbergs, seized the opportunity to be that man, taking on the project of erecting a fine resort hotel designed to appeal to an affluent crowd. In 1885, construction began on the crest of the escarpment overlooking the village of Knowersvillle, while below the hill curious locals followed periodic reports about what was initially referred to as “Colonel Church’s boarding house.”

His name had become linked to the area decades earlier when in 1853 he purchased leases to farms in the Hilltowns and surrounding area from the Van Rensselaer estate, planning to profit from dunning tenant farmers to pay both back and current rents. Over the next 32 years, through endless court cases and severe law enforcement by a succession of sheriffs and the New York State National Guard, he aroused the enmity of local farmers.

Anti-rent agitation ran high, but Church, a forerunner of the modern lobbyist, both forestalled any proposed anti-rent legislation at the Capitol and influenced the outcome of court cases by royally entertaining legislators and judges at his Albany home. Now he turned to creating a luxury resort to be called the Kushaqua, not only to be profitable, but probably to be his monument.


Building big

Construction of the hotel began in the autumn of 1885 when workmen began excavating the foundation on what had been farmland. Reports circulated that Church was building a three-story, 40-by-60-foot building. Excavation was complete by December and foundation work would begin, using the barrels of cement and carloads of sand that came through the D & H depot.

Hauling construction materials up steep Helderberg Avenue, the only road to the top at that time, was a major project in itself. By January 1886, the foundation was laid. Huge quantities of lumber had been shipped in and, as the structure neared rough completion, the windows arrived.

Spring brought Col. Church, accompanied by surveyors, to plot the location of a reservoir, using nearby streams and springs to supply hotel needs. Around this time, The Enterprise reported the colonel was expanding the size of the yet-unopened hotel an additional 84 feet because the original guest rooms were already booked. Within the walls of his new hotel, he had included parts of the original early 19th-Century farmhouse that had stood on the site.

Next Church secured an agreement with the Hudson River Telephone Company, paying the company to run a line out from Albany to his new hotel. At the time of the Enterprise report, the wire had already been strung out to Guilderland with the intention of running it out the turnpike to Dunnsville and then over to Knowersville.

Simultaneously, the two Knowersville hotels installed telephones as well. “Hello, hello!” was first heard in Knowersville when the Albany County Clerk called Church at his soon-to-be-opened hotel, according to a report in the Albany Argus.

Whatever amount Col. Church paid the phone company to run lines out to his hotel was repaid many times over three years later when fire was discovered in the hotel kitchen with smoke beginning to pour out the north wing windows. A hurried telephone message for help to Altamont (the village’s name changed in November 1887) brought a crowd of volunteers racing up Helderberg Avenue to man a bucket brigade from the hotel reservoir. Discovery that the fire’s location had started near a bakery oven and was beneath the floor brought it under control by ripping up the floorboards and saturating it.


Diverse attractions

Vacationers arriving on opening day in mid-June 1886 found reception and dining rooms on the first floor along with private parlors, card and supply rooms, and a barber shop. After registering, they would have been shown to one of the more than 50 guest bedrooms on the second and third floors, advertised to have “absolutely perfect sanitation conveniences.” The cuisine “would tempt the most exacting.”

In the basement level could be found a billiard room, children’s and servants’ dining rooms, kitchen, and storerooms. Available to guests were facilities for croquet, lawn tennis, and bowling. At the time of the Kushuqua’s opening, The Enterprise noted, “We have no doubt that Colonel Church is sparing no expense in the fitting up of this mammoth hostelry, and we have no doubt it will be well patronized the coming season.”

In addition to its newness, the main attraction of a stay at the hotel was its spectacular setting at almost 1,000 feet elevation. Bringing refreshing, cooling, healthy breezes, the site provided sweeping views over to the new capitol and church spires of Albany, east to Vermont’s Green Mountains and toward Schenectady where snatches of the Mohawk River could be seen.

Conveniently located only a half-hour train ride from Albany, The hotel welcomed arriving guests at the depot with conveyances to transfer them up to the hotel, their luggage hauled behind by wagon.

Rest and recreation were the key aspects of resort experience in the 1880s and ’90s. Strolling or lounging on the piazza to see and be seen took up time each day.

It was important to have reports seen in Albany newspapers that someone as important as Governor David Bennett Hill and his secretary, prominent Albanian Colonel Wiliam Gorham Rice, were walking on the piazza at the Kushaqua to attract future patrons. Landscaped grounds had paths for walking about, lawn tennis and croquet for the younger set, and “rambles” on local country roads.

Evenings at the hotel brought entertainment, often “hops,” the name given to informal dances in those days, when an orchestra was brought in. There were private parties such as the one given by the young woman who arranged to have a hop for 50 of her friends who then dined on an “elegant spread” afterward.

Guests seemed to greatly enjoy participating in entertaining themselves and were delighted to see their names reported in the Albany papers. One woman sang a selection of sacred music “most exquisitely rendered.”

Another evening, guests presented a series of “tableaux vivant” with people posing in costume to form a living picture such as the “bachelor’s reverie” displaying a “succession of really beautiful girls hovering in fascinating spirit form over a young man, presumably in a state of mental inertia;” while the “cabbage patch” proved to be a “galaxy of maidens peering through green paper tissue haloes,” etc. For this event, local people were invited up from the village.

An elocutionist gave readings and ladies performed charades, two more samples of the types of activities found at a resort hotel of the era. On occasion, an outside group such as the Knowersville Band was invited to perform. The Albany Evening Journal described life at the hotel one summer as “quite gay” with “entertainments of a high order.”

Newspaper reports told of nothing but success for the hotel. After the Kushaqua’s first season, The Enterprise claimed it was a “decided hit” certain to be one of the “most frequented resorts in the country in the future.”

The Albany Evening Journal reported in 1888 that the hotel had “unprecedented success the whole season.” A year later, a cool, wet summer didn’t seem to affect the visitors to the Kushaqua, which had its most successful season. Things always seemed to be going well at the Kushaqua.


Money pit

Yet in December 1890, after a short illness, Col. Church died, bankrupted by the overwhelming expenses of constructing and running the huge hotel. Resorts such as Saratoga, Lake George, and even Round Lake received much more coverage in the Albany newspapers and provided many more attractions than the Kushaqua.

Leased the next year by the Church estate to two New York City hotel keepers, additional money was invested in the building when steam heat was installed. In spite of the improvement, their venture failed and in 1892 the hotel was sold at a huge loss.

Unfortunately, Church underestimated the financial drain when, back in 1885, he was quoted as saying to a friend, “I don’t know I have gone in too strong, but I guess I can make a go of it.”

The hotel’s purchaser was Dr. F.J.H. Merrill of Albany who intended to use the building and surrounding grounds as his summer cottage. He paid $15,250 for the hotel, outbuildings, and property that had cost Col. Church between $60,000 and $75,000 (estimates ranged as high as $100,000). The hotel furniture was removed and shipped to Albany for auction.

Dr. Merrill, the director of the New York State Museum, was a geologist who shortly after was named State Geologist. Immediately, Merrill began making improvements to transform the hotel into a comfortable country home.

Employing almost 25 men at one point to make repairs, he added a new kitchen and laundry while the interior was rearranged for a reception room or hall through the center. Most of the old house that Church had kept within the hotel walls was removed.

At the same time, the large addition Church had added for the accommodation of hotel workers and a laundry was torn down. Merrill also ran the farm that was part of the property, even entering animals at the Altamont Fair.

Additional purchases of land were added to the property and cottages built with plans to rent them out to summer vacationers. The Merrills retained the former name Kushaqua for their summer “cottage.”

Similar to other residents of Altamont’s summer colony, the Merrills sometimes entertained on a scale unlike the locals. On one occasion, a trainload of Albanians arrived in Altamont, were transported up to Merrill’s cottage for a tea party. Most of the guests returned to the city after the refreshments, but a select group remained on for dancing to an orchestra. Governor Benjamin Barker and his wife were guests on another occasion.

Professor Merrill’s ownership of the Kushaqua suffered the same fate as Col. Church’s — their wonderful summer home and estate had become a money pit. The autumn of 1902 brought the announcement that it had been leased by H.J. Smith to be operated in the future as the Helderberg Inn.

Editor’s note: The saga of the Kushaqua will be continued in Mary Ellen Johnson’s next column.

— From the Guilderland Historical Society

This photo of the rear of the Freeman House was taken as part of the 1930s Historic American Buildings Survey. The original Dutch door remains on the front and the house has been carefully preserved. Once a Dutch barn stood nearby, but it burned in the early 20th Century.

Contemporary Guilderland’s familiar landscape is for the most part suburban developments, strip malls, shopping centers, paved roads and parking lots, and apartment complexes. From our vantage point in time, it’s almost impossible to visualize our hometown 200 or 250 years ago, covered in virgin forest or pine bush, broken here and there by streams and swamps.
Once part of New Netherland, the colony established along the Hudson in the early 1600s by the Dutch West India Company, the area was taken over by the English in 1664 and renamed New York.

Evert Bancker of Albany, reputed to be the town’s earliest settler traveled up the Normanskill by canoe, establishing a farm in the area near today’s Tawasentha Park. Followed by other Dutch settlers and a few Germans, farms began to be scattered about in what is now Guilderland. All were tenants on the West Manor of Rensselaerwyck, expected to pay an annual rent in crops to the Van Rensselaer family.

While it is difficult to picture Guilderland’s physical surroundings in the 18th Century, the people themselves are so distant from us as to challenge our imagination. Looking back to this period, what can we reconstruct of the lives of these early settlers?



Dutch and German were their first languages and their early church records were in those languages. Dutch settlers, members of the Dutch Reformed religion, and German settlers, adherents of the Lutheran religion, were each visited sporadically by circuit-riding ministers. The Dutch Reformed Church had its formal beginnings in 1767 when the first church building was erected, but even earlier there had been a log meeting house used. Services were in Dutch until 1788 and their written records were kept in Dutch until 1796.

St. James Lutheran Church officially began as St. Jacobus in 1787 by the town’s German settlers with the erection of a small church building. Within a few years, the name was anglicized to St. James. Previously, when the minister came to our area, he held services in local homes. Pastor Sommer noted (the original in German) in August 1762, “I preached below the Helleberg in Michael Friederichs’s house and administered the Lord’s Supper.”

The earliest written records from St. James were in German as well. An indenture written for Patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer with the Minister and Deacons of the Reformed Protestant Dutch 
Church of the Helleberg mentions Low Dutch and German language services.



Although some of the early settlers here were German, they originated in that part of Germany that is adjacent to the Netherlands, and shared much material culture. Few of their early homes survive in Guilderland, unlike some other areas in the Hudson Valley, but fortunately a few photographs survive showing the Dutch influence on one early farmhouse.

Built of locally made brick and laid in the traditional Dutch style, a house photographed in the 1930s has been covered with stucco, but a later picture shows the stucco removed and the bricks clearly showing. Possibly built around 1700, it is the oldest house in Guilderland. But, since the 1930s photograph, owners did extensive remodeling, changing the character of the house.

Another early Dutch house was the Wemple house, taken down when Watervliet Reservoir flooded its location.

The oldest frame house in town is the Freeman House in Guilderland Center, reputed to have been built in 1734. In a 1966 interview, Mrs. Robert Davis, who with her husband were then owners of the house, mentioned the original Dutch door and that they had uncovered Delft tiles in the fireplace when they uncovered it. The Dutch typically had jambless fireplaces, having no mantel or sides, decorated with Dutch tiles.

A 1930s photo showed that the house still had its front stoop, another characteristic of Dutch houses.

The gambrel roofs on two of them reflect English influence, however. It’s possible there are other old houses in Guilderland that have some evidence of Dutch influence, but it has often been obliterated by later additions or remodeling.



Beginning with Evert Bancker, farmers needed barns to store crops and keep their animals. Early farmhouses were small, but nearby there would have been a large Dutch barn, the predominant barn style in our area as late as the 1820s.

These barns had a framework of beams that was a series of H’s supporting the roof. No nails were used, only wooden pegs. At the gable ends were wide doors to allow wagons to enter and exit. Small doors on each side of the front corners let animals in and out.

The side walls were low and the barn had a boxy shape. At the gable peak were holes called martin holes to allow swallows to fly in and out.

In the interior, a wide center aisle ran the length of the Dutch barn, a space where wagons could be unloaded and grain could be threshed using a flail or with horses dragging a length of wood over the wheat in a circular direction. On each side of the center aisle was a space for equipment storage or to house livestock. By laying saplings across the beams, farmers could lay sheaves of grain or hay for storage.

These barns were extremely well built using the virgin timber available at that time and, if maintained, have lasted until the present day, including several in the town of Guilderland.

Near the barn would have been a hay barrack, a structure with five upright poles and a roof that could be raised and lowered depending on the amount of hay to be stored and kept dry. This storage method was typical in the Netherlands and was copied over here, often being mentioned in descriptions by travelers.

Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm traveled through the Albany area in 1748, mentioning that everywhere he could see that type of “haystacks with moveable roofs.”



Mixed farming was the rule, with wheat the predominant crop needed to pay rent to Van Rensselaer for the farm. In addition to wheat, farmers raised garden produce, herbs, fruit, corn, oats, “pease,” and barley.

Kalm noted that around Albany local farmers could produce from 12 to 20 bushels of wheat from sowing one bushel. Every farm had livestock: horses, cows, sheep, chickens, geese, and pigs.

Dutch farms had definite differences from the English type of farm in New England. Grain and hay were cut by swinging a sith or scythe with a short handle in one hand and, holding a mathook in the other, supporting the crop upright to make it easy to cut. The farmer did not have to bend as low as he would have with an English-style sickle and, as a result, could harvest an acre in a day, two or three times as much as he could have with an English sickle.

Dutch wagons were also unique, having rear wheels larger than the front wheels. The front board was larger than the rear and spindles ran along the sides.

Dutch plows were also different from English plows, having a pyramidal plowshare, one handle and two wheels. Another observer visiting the Albany area in 1769 wrote that farmers “used wheeled plows mostly with 3 horses abreast & plow and harrow sometimes on a full trot, a boy sitting on one horse.”

Is there any evidence that this material culture was typical of Guilderland’s early farmers? In 1813, when George Severson, the proprietor of the Wayside Tavern on the “Schohary” Road (located where the Stewart’s Shop in Altamont’s is located today) and a farmer of the land surrounding his tavern died, an extensive inventory was taken of all his possessions and farm equipment.

A lumber wagon worth $40 and a pleasure wagon valued at $30 are listed, though there is no way of knowing whether either of them was a Dutch-style wagon. There is listed, however, one wheeled plow worth $10. Ten sythes are listed for $5 and three sythesnaths for $1.50, these being handles for the sythes, as well as two small hooks valued at 25 cents.

Also included was a skipple measure, this being a Dutch measure used instead of an English bushel. Since he also had half-bushel and peck measures, perhaps the skipple measure was no longer used by 1813.

Also listed were horses, sheep, cows, hogs, fowls, and geese along with two bee hives. Severson raised a variety of crops with amounts of wheat, oats, pease, flax, barley, hay on hand, and must have had an apple orchard since a “cyder” press was among his possessions.


Enslaved people

Dutch settlers had no qualms about owning enslaved people. Slaves had been brought into the Colony of New Netherland by the mid-1600s and the custom of slave ownership spread throughout the colony, continuing after the English takeover in 1664.

Sadly, in the midst of George Severson’s inventory of his possessions were two enslaved women who were sold at auction for $191. In 1810, the census showed that there were 66 slaves in Guilderland while in 1820 the number had dropped slightly to 47.

Certainly not every Guilderland family owned one or more slaves, but the 1810 and 1820 census records recorded which families did, how many and their ages. Finally, in 1827, New York State emancipated slaves within the state.


Fading Dutch culture

Gradually, by 1800, the Dutch culture had slowly faded, but it’s still possible to find bits of our Dutch heritage with place names such as Bozenkill, Normanskill, and Hungerkill, which still continue to be used. However, at some point, the Schwartzkill was anglicized to Black Creek.

When the town government was formed in 1803, it was given the name of Guilderland after Gelderland, the Dutch province that was the original home of the Van Rensselaer family. Old families anglicized their names: Oxburgers became Ogsburys, Friederichs became Fredericks, and Crans or Cranse or Crounce became Crounse.

The Helderberg Reformed and Altamont Reformed churches are direct heirs of the original Dutch Reformed Church while St. John’s Lutheran Church originated in St. James Lutheran Church.

A few of our town’s Dutch barns have survived to the present day, though sadly all too many have disappeared due to neglect or fire. When a 1947 wildfire that threatened the hamlet of Guilderland Center destroyed the orchards of Edward Griffith, wiping out his livelihood, he talked sadly about his great loss — his barn, which he said was historically valuable, dating from the 1700s, constructed of hand-hewn timbers with wooden pegs and its original doors.

Other Dutch barns have been removed to be re-erected elsewhere. The 200-year-old Ogsbury barn from just outside of Guilderland Center was taken apart in 1982 and moved to the Philipsburg Manor historic site in Westchester County to replace another Dutch barn that burned.

Fortunately, the Dutch Barn Society has been working since 1985 to record existing Dutch barns and to encourage their preservation in the areas of Dutch-German settlement.

While some residents in our town can claim to have had Dutch or German ancestors from among our town’s earliest settlers, sadly most modern-day residents are unaware of the town’s Dutch beginnings or even that the name Guilderland comes from a Dutch province.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The only image of the Albany Glassworks known is this 1815 view of the glasshouse when it had been expanded from the time of the de Neufvilles’ operation. It is illustrated on script that would have been paid to a worker who could have used it to purchase goods in the community.

While this tale begins in 18th-Century Amsterdam, prosperous trading city of the Netherlands, it ends as a chapter of Guilderland’s history. Jean de Neufville and Leendert, his son and business partner, were among Amsterdam’s numerous wealthy merchants and bankers whose financial success was based on ownership of merchant ships, warehouses, and banks.

Descendants of Protestant Huguenots who fled French religious persecution in the previous century, the family prospered in the Netherlands. Jean de Neufville was an Amsterdam merchant who in the 1760s and 1770s traded in the Caribbean, and for several years was part owner of a coffee plantation on a Dutch island there.

As his wealth grew, he acquired a warehouse, a fine canal-side house at 224 Keizersgracht, and the estate Saxenburg at Wester-Amstel outside the city. Putting his profits to work, he established a banking partnership with his now-adult son.

The year 1776 brought the revolt of 13 of England’s North American colonies. Shortly after its outbreak, American representatives sailed to Europe, seeking financial aid and war materials to enable them to carry on their conflict against the British. While initially they turned to wealthy, powerful France, the prosperity of prominent Dutch bankers beckoned.


Loan not repaid

Jean de Neufville was sympathetic to the Patriot cause and in 1778 began shipping goods, including guns, to the United States. He had contact with the American representative William Lee and, acting on their own, the two signed a secret agreement. De Neufville had it approved by a Dutch magistrate and it was sent off to America on “The Mercury.”

Intercepted by the British, the attempt was made to throw the papers overboard, but they were retrieved. Sent back to England, the furious British precipitated the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War over the incident.

John Adams, then serving with Benjamin Franklin in France, was sent to the Netherlands in hopes of obtaining loans from Dutch bankers. One of the first bankers he met was deNeufville. The banker loaned Congress one million florins and also made a substantial loan to the state of South Carolina.

During this period, there was correspondence between de Neufville and both John Adams and Benjamin Franklin regarding the loan. At the war’s end unfortunately these loans and the lack of repayment led to the de Neufvilles’ bankruptcy in 1783.

Their homes and warehouse were sold. The de Neufvilles’ affluence, influence, and place in Dutch society were gone.

Jean de Neufville corresponded with George Washington in 1783, bemoaning “the ruin of credit of his house.” While some of the American loan had been repaid, South Carolina totally defaulted.

Washington responded in January 1784, “The disaster which happened to your house with which you were connected must be affecting to every true American, especially as your great zeal in the cause of liberty & your unwearied efforts to promote the interest of the United States are well known to the Citizens of the republic.”

Washington added, “I have the pleasure of being acquainted with your son.” If de Neufville had written to Washington, hoping to get some sort of favor, he received only pleasant words.


Opening a glassworks

Turning to the United States as the place to revive their fortunes, first Leendert and two years later, his father, Jean, and stepmother arrived in the United States. Here they became Leonard and John de Neufville.

In 1785, Leonard was in Albany County in a virtual wilderness on the bank of the Hungerkill on the edge of the pine bush west of Albany. On May 12, 1785, Leonard de Neufville signed an agreement with partners Jan Heefke and Ferdinand Walfahrt to open a glassworks in this location.

The site would provide sand for glass manufacture, pine to fuel the furnaces, and the Hungerkill’s steadily flowing water for use in the glass-making process or power equipment if needed. The potash needed in the manufacture of glass was readily available from local farmers who were beginning to clear trees from the surrounding countryside.

The probable motivation of the three partners was that, with the population growth and settlement of new areas in the new nation, there would be a demand for window glass.

De Neufville sadly underestimated the difficulties he would face in restoring his fortune by manufacturing glass in a wilderness spot two miles away from the King’s Highway, the main road into Albany. The connecting road was a narrow dirt track called the Schoharie Road. The Western Turnpike, which eventually provided a more direct connection, was years in the future.

It isn’t known where the three men got the capital — was it theirs or was it from silent American partners? — to build a glasshouse with furnaces and the necessary equipment. Money was given to Heefke to travel to German to recruit 24 or 25 glassblowers while in the meantime the glasshouse was being erected.

Their location was given the name of Dowesburgh or Dowesborough, the first of many names given to the hamlet of Guilderland.

By spring 1786, glassblowing could begin at the glasshouse with Heefke acting as the company agent and Walfahrt as the manager. Production consisted of small panes of window glass — measuring 6-by-8 inches and 7 by 9 inches — and of bottles ranging in size from small snuff bottles to large demijohns.

Native Americans living near the Wildehaus Kill at Dunnsville were paid to weave willow coverings for the demijohns — large glass bottles with small necks — to prevent breakage in shipment.

The glass was taken by ox cart over the Schoharie Road to the King’s Highway, then into Albany for sales there and for shipments to be sent downriver to New York City.

Their Albany agent was Wm. John Van Schaick who handled sales and shipping. Cash flow must have been limited as one of his letters related accepting two barrels of pork and 10 barrels of beef in return for a window-glass sale.

Jean, or John as he became known, followed his son to the United States, moving to Dowesborough in 1787. His optimistic letter to Colonel Clement Dibble of Philadelphia let him know that things were going well at the glasshouse, as they were able to match the prices and quality of imported British glass although he admitted the public considered the British glass to be superior.

He also noted that unfortunately the Hudson’s winter freezing delayed shipments to New York City, but in the meantime production was being stockpiled for spring shipping.



However, a year later a different picture emerged when John was visited where he was living in Dowesborough by Elkanah Watson. Watson was a prominent businessman, a founder of the State Bank of Albany and promoter of canals.

During the Revolution he had been in the Netherlands and France while in the employ of a Providence, Rhode Island merchant and was also involved in his own business there. While in Europe he apparently met the then-wealthy de Neufville and had kept in touch.

After his visit to de Neufville in 1788, Watson left a written commentary that he had “found him in solitary seclusion living in a miserable log cabin furnished with a single deal [pine] table and two common arm chairs, destitute of the ordinary comforts of life.”

Watson, who had grown progressively more affluent as he aged, must have been saddened seeing the reverses suffered by de Neufville.

Earlier in 1788, the three glasshouse partners — Leonard de Neufville, Jan Heefke, and Ferdinand Walfahrt — petitioned New York State Legislature for aid, justifying their request with the statistic that 30,000 pounds (dollars had not yet become part of our monetary system at this date) were being drained from the state by being paid to English glassmakers instead of being spent on state-made window glass.

Although their petition was ignored, the next year the partners repeated the petition. By the time the state finally came through with a loan, the glasshouse had become bankrupt under their ownership. Surviving letters tell of unfilled orders, lack of credit, and legal problems leading to the bankruptcy which seemed to have occurred by 1789.

Other investors took over the glassworks operation and achieved profitability until readily available fuel ran out in 1815 when the works were shut down permanently.

John de Neufville and his wife moved into Albany where he died in poverty in 1796. Leonard had a mental breakdown, supposedly one of several during his lifetime.

Likely the stress of trying to make a success of a glassworks in the wilderness was a factor in his final breakdown. He died in 1812 in a Pennsylvania institution.

After John’s death, the United States Congress agreed to award John’s impoverished widow a grant of $3,000 in recognition of her husband’s contribution to our victory in the Revolution.


Largely forgotten

Drivers on Foundry Road in Guilderland barely notice the historic marker, pointing out the approximate location of the glassworks that began there in the mid-1780s. The men who established it are obscure and their efforts met with failure. Leonard’s other two partners get no credit whatsoever.

Today, few know that the de Neufvilles played an important role in our victory over England in 1781 and seemed to be known to many of our founding fathers. Because of their support, the de Neufvilles lost their fortune, and in coming to America ended their lives in poverty.

Yet, they were among the first to settle in what is now the hamlet of Guilderland and, by establishing a glassworks and bringing in glassblowers, created a small community that has continued to grow.

While the de Neufvilles’ personal story was a tragic one, Guilderland residents can appreciate their contribution to the late 18th-Century history of our town.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Altamont’s Masonic Hall on Maple Avenue opened in 1913. Within a year, movies began to be shown on the second floor and, with some breaks, ran for four decades. The church next door, St. John’s, had been the site of Altamont’s first film entertainment, through a Bioscope in 1897.

Primitive systems of filming motion to be projected on a screen had been developed by the 1890s. Guilderland’s first opportunity to sample the new technology came in October 1897 when the St. John’s Ladies Aid Society sponsored a Bioscope entertainment two evenings in the Sunday School Room.

Advance publicity in The Altamont Enterprise claimed that the Bioscope, never before shown in the vicinity, was “the wonder of the age.” For an admission of 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children, viewers could see the surging waters of Niagara Falls and President William McKinley on Inauguration Day.

But the main attraction was the New York Central’s Empire State Express filmed approaching at the rate of a mile a minute, making the onlooker “involuntarily scramble to get out of the way of the train. The wonderful realism of the picture makes the most unimaginative person shiver.” Front-row thrills were available for 35-cent reserved seats.

Noted in the next week’s Enterprise that the performances were “quite well attended and while the views were not brought out as clearly as wished for, owing to the operator being obliged to use gas instead of electric light, yet the wonder of the invention was fully demonstrated and the exhibition proved quite satisfactory.”

Their appetite for movies whetted, local filmgoers were able to see competing motion-picture technology when itinerant projectionists Hicks and Thomas Co. brought Edison’s Kinetoscope to the church a few months later. The audience must have been satisfied because the next week’s Enterprise judged that it was “the best in its line that ever visited our village.”

In 1903, at the Altamont Reformed Church, J.W. Achenbach was presenting a program billed as “The World’s Greatest Moving Picture Exhibition.” Viewers had the opportunity to see clips of Our Martyred President McKinley’s funeral, a Yale vs. Harvard football game, Little Red Riding Hood, a trip to the moon, and the Empire State Express at 80 miles per hour.

Attendees were guaranteed thrilling realism and no flicker or their money back. Admission was 25 cents for adults, and 15 cents for children.


Regular shows

The occasional motion picture was offered in Altamont and Guilderland Center over the next few years.  With the opening of Altamont’s new Masonic Temple, regular, local moving-going became possible.

An April 1914 notice in The Enterprise announced to the public that Willard J. Ogsbury and Newton Stafford would offer an ambitious program of moving pictures, allowing viewers to see five reels for only 10 cents on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings.

“First class,” and “giving general satisfaction” was the paper’s judgement the next week, noting the new venture had met “with good results as far as attendance is concerned.”

Quality improved quickly when within weeks a new lens was installed in their machine that projected a 9-by-12-foot picture on the screen, producing a larger and clearer image. In 1915, electrical lines were run into Altamont, allowing installation of a new electrical apparatus using an arc light that promised to show pictures “equal to any city theatre.”

Later that year, the eight-reel, big-budget spectacular “The Last Days of Pompeii” was shown by W.J. Ogsbury, now apparently the sole proprietor of the venture. Residents from Altamont and the surrounding area must have been entranced by scenes far from their everyday experience, watching fighting gladiators, chariot races, lions turned loose, and a vivid scene of the Mt. Vesuvius eruption engulfing Pompeii — all for 15 cents.

In 1915, a large notice appearing in The Enterprise advertised that the moving pictures were “Under the Management and for the Benefit of NOAH LODGE.” Five reels were to be shown regularly with an “expert operator in charge” on Saturday nights, for 10-cent admission.

By December 1915, shows were suspended due to lack of patronage, but must have been resumed at some point since, during the polio outbreak of 1916, a Board of Health order banning children under the age of 16 from attending public gatherings caused another suspension in moving picture shows at the Masonic Hall. “The management feels to continue the show under the present conditions would be unprofitable.”

The United States entrance into World War I was brought home to the local folks in 1918 when a movie benefitting the Red Cross was screened showing scenes of life in American training camps, activities of the army in France, and Red Cross personnel working behind the lines.

Charles H. VanValkenburgh, the theater manager, promised two reels of drama, two reels of comedy, and one reel of real life for 10 cents every Saturday night.

As the decade of the 1920s opened, movie-going had become established as popular entertainment for all ages. The Masonic Hall Theater, as it had become officially called, ran the longer features Hollywood had begun to produce.

Each week, the Village Notes column included the name of the next coming attraction, a synopsis of the plot, and listed those who were playing the leading roles.

Most of the films viewed no longer exist because, to the regret of film scholars, the material substance of early film has caused a huge number of them to deteriorate and crumble into dust in the cans where they were stored.

With Enterprise information, at least the names and plots survive of such long-forgotten movies as “The Night Horseman,” “Darling Mine,” “Whispering Wire,” “The Unknown,” or “A Stage Romance.” Occasionally, a film still considered a classic flickered across Altamont’s screen as when John Gilbert and Greta Garbo starred in the passionate romance “Flesh and the Devil.”


Talking pictures

“The Jazz Singer,” a 1927 movie that introduced the breakthrough of sound to audiences, changed movie history. Studios had been at first reluctant to adopt the new technology due to the high cost of new equipment to film the productions and then to theatres, which would have to refit with expensive new sound-projection machines.

But the audiences were clamoring for talking pictures, forcing the studios and theaters to move on. Most of “The Jazz Singer” was silent except for a few portions of sound recorded on discs that had to be played as the film ran, the operator carefully synchronizing the record to the film.

When “Saturday Night Kid” played in Altamont in December 1930, featuring Clara Bow’s “lovable, slangy, sloppy chatter,” Ray Rau handled the accompanying discs.

A brief announcement in June 1929 informed the public there would be no movies over the summer, though they were back in operation in September, managed by a party from Albany. In spite of the warning, “If Altamont people want their shows continued, they should support them by attendance.” By December, the unnamed Albany operator closed down the theater due to lack of patronage.

A week later, movies resumed under the management of Roy F. Peugh, who was joined by Ray Rau.

The issue of sound had reached a point where the decision had to be made: Close down or invest in new equipment to show sound-on-film productions.

In March 1930, a committee of Masons had been in Schenectady checking out a “sound outfit” there with the idea of running talking movies regularly. By December, it was announced that a talking-picture outfit was to be installed at once.

Finally, on Feb. 20, 1931, a front-page headline said “Altamont Sound Movies To Start With a Free Show.” Two Simplex projectors and a crystal-beaded sound screen were ordered by managers Peugh and Rau. The walls were padded with Celotex panels to provide the proper acoustics, all at a cost of $2,000. 

Installed were seat cushions for everyone’s comfort with the seats tilted back one inch for better viewing. To operate all the new equipment, a second electrical power line had to be run into the building.

A public-inspection night was free, but the regular price of admission would now be 35 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. With the coming of warmer weather, patrons were assured not to worry about the heat since electric fans were now available.

Headlined “Talking Movies Big Success in Altamont,” The Enterprise reported the free demonstration night brought out 300 people who packed the hall, delighted at the perfect synchronization of voice and picture. Although at first only one projector was in operation that night, causing a delay between reels of “Cuckoos,” in time for the next Saturday’s showing the second projector would be in place for a non-stop performance.


Second life

Thus began the second life of Altamont’s little movie theatre.

The headline “Talking Movies Capture Altamont and Vicinity” reflected the enthusiasm the public from the village and the surrounding area felt about having talking pictures offered locally. Large audiences crowded the house.

During the Depression, the public turned to movies for escape and the modest admission cost at Altamont brought in a steady audience throughout the 1930s. Movies came to Altamont after their first-run showing in city theaters.

“Gone With The Wind,” one of the most successful and popular movies of all time, opened in 1939. Two years later, it finally arrived in Altamont for a two-day run. “Full Length Nothing Cut But The Price” read the half-page ad in The Enterprise.

During the war years, the theater provided much-needed escapist fare, but war-related films were often part of the schedule, some to boost morale as when the 1942 production “Our America At War” was added to the bill with the regular feature “Look Who’s Laughing.”

Others were far more serious; when and how to handle incendiary bombs was the topic of one shown to Civil Defense workers and volunteer firemen.

Movies continued through the 1940s and into the 1950s. Attendance had reached new lows by early 1957 and it seemed as if the show was over at the Masonic Temple.

In February 1957, an announcement appeared in The Enterprise that Jack Jalet, at the time a well-known Altamont resident, had the approval of the Altamont Business Association to manage the theater, being aware of “the need for entertainment in this village, especially for young people. Saturday matinees will be enjoyed by all.”

Jalet commented, “Hearing that plans were underway to remove the projectors from the Masonic Hall caused me to present a plan to bring back regular shows to Altamont.”

He proposed that each Saturday’s schedule was to include a two-and-a-half-hour matinée with the feature film and five to eight additional cartoons, then running an adult performance in the evening.

A week later, he wrote “An Open Letter to Teen Agers” in The Enterprise, requesting them to be quiet during the movies to allow the adults present to hear the dialogue. These customers would then return for future programs to help keep the theater open.

For a few weeks, longer movies were offered. However, in a blurb about the April 6 feature “A Yank in the RAF,” Mr. Jalet reported attendance was very disappointing and, unless more adults attended, movies would come to an end with the last show scheduled April1 13, a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy, “Pardners.”

Because The Enterprise ran no additional movie ads or mention of movies in the next few months, it seems the Masonic Hall Theater shows had come to an end.

Competition from TV, drive-ins, and more advanced film and sound systems in bigger city theaters put an end to our local show, just as happened to many small neighborhood movie theaters in towns and cities all over America at this time.

For over 40 years, the little theater had brought pleasure and entertainment to the people of Altamont and the surrounding area.