Thursday, January 22, 2015

Civil Defense and Civil Disobedience: Operation Alert in Schenectady in 1960

Protesters assembled in Veterans Park (then Crescent Park) at 1:45 p.m. on May 3, 1960, and remained holdings signs through the take-cover drill, which was in effect all over Schenectady from 2:15-2:30 p.m. The protesters carried leaflets criticizing civil defense efforts and urged efforts toward peace and an end to the nuclear arms race. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

At 2:15 p.m. on May 3, 1960, in response to an alarm that rang all over the city, Schenectadians rushed to cover to protect themselves from a nuclear attack. In downtown Schenectady, cars vacated the streets and pedestrians moved indoors. In minutes, Schenectady's downtown transformed from bustling to ghostly still. Although the response was rapid, the threat was not real. This was a drill as part of the city's efforts for Operation Alert, a nationwide civil defense exercise.

Operation Alert originated in 1954, under the auspices of the United States Federal Civil Defense Agency. Operation Alert took place in over 100 cities across America. Citizens in the "target" areas were required to take cover for 15 minutes. The drills also provided an opportunity for civil defense officials, hospitals, schools, and police departments to test their response times, communication systems, and overall readiness to respond to an attack. The day following a drill, newspapers in "target" areas would often publish articles reporting on the fictitious attacks, including the numbers of bombs dropped, cities and towns hit, and casualties.

Congested traffic and scores of pedestrians throng State Street on the afternoon of May 3, 1960, moments before a take-cover drill was held. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

Schenectady Police Department patrolman Harold McConvery stands at the nearly deserted intersection of State Street and Lafayette Street on May 3, 1960, overseeing the take-cover drill as part of Operation Alert. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

Schenectady participated in several Operation Alerts, from the first exercise in 1954 until the last in 1961. However, the Operation Alert held in 1960 was significant in that appears to be the only year that a public demonstration was staged in the city to protest the civil defense exercise. Civil defense efforts in New York State were taken very seriously. Beginning in 1955, failure to take cover during an Operation Alert drill was punishable with a fine of up to $500 and a year in jail under New York State law.

The public was informed of the timing of the take cover drill -- the only portion of Operation Alert activity that demanded the cooperation of the entire public -- in the days before the exercises began. A notice in the Schenectady Gazette read, "public participation is mandatory, under federal orders." The take-cover signal, described as "giving a fluctuating or warbling tone," was to commence at 2:15 p.m. At that time, all vehicular traffic would be stopped and pedestrians were to take cover in the doorways of stores, offices, and public buildings. 150 street intersections were manned by police to enforce the take-cover drill. William Dunn, Schenectady postmaster and the county's acting civil defense director, coordinated the exercises.

Protesters are ordered to disperse and take cover by an unidentified Schenectady police officer. The demonstrators could have been fined and/or jailed for failure to take cover during a civil defense drill under New York State law. Local police chose not to arrest the protesters. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

During the take-cover drill, approximately 25 people, 20 of whom were Union College students, stood in Veterans Park at the intersection of State Street and Lafayette Street. Some carried signs that read "Civil Defense is Futile" and "Remember There Will Be No Survivors." They protesters carried leaflets that criticized the futility of civil defense measures, citing the ability of one medium-sized hydrogen bomb blast in the area to decimate the entire Capital Region. "The air raid drill creates a psychological expectation for atomic war, " the leaflet read, "and by preparing for war it destroys the movement for peace."

Front cover of a Schenectady County civil defense brochure. The brochure focused on evacuation in case of a nuclear attack. Image from the Grems-Doolittle Library Documents Collection.

In an article written after 1960's Operation Alert was over, drill coordinator William Dunn was quoted as saying "I recognize and sympathize with the right of any United States citizen to hold an opinion and express that opinion. I was encouraged, however, to note the size of the demonstration." "We tolerated the demonstration," Police Captain Frank Barrett was quoted as saying in the Schenectady Gazette. Barrett explained that the decision was made not to arrest the protesters as doing so would "build up the protest and make 'martyrs' of the demonstrators."

On May 6, an editorial appeared in the Schenectady Gazette criticizing the Union College students who had participated in the protest. "We wonder if [the students] would be happy to see everyone else use the same tactic to register disagreement with other things the government is doing or not doing," the editorial read. "Isn't it obvious that the result would be chaos and anarchy?" The writer closed the editorial by saying, "numerous Americans are dissatisfied or in doubt about the wisdom of the government's nuclear or civil defense policies, but most of them refrain from taking the unnecessary path of defiance to express themselves."

The intersection of Erie Boulevard and State Street, usually busy in the afternoon, is nearly empty after the take-cover alarm was sounded at 2:15 p.m. Note the pedestrians taking cover in the doorways of local businesses, as if shielding themselves from a brief rain shower. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

A letter to the editor was soon published in response. The writer, identified only as F.G.L. of Scotia, responded to the editorial's argument that a handful of local college students were the only local people opposed to Operation Alert. "Several mothers of children in grade school were concerned about their children being frightened by being herded into hallways and told to cover their eyes," F.G.L. wrote. "I think it is unscrupulous and immoral to involve little children in power politics. I would expect this to happen in Russia or China, but it doesn't have to happen here. How can we act morally superior unless we are?"

Local high school students also had the opportunity to weigh in on Operation Alert in 1960. A guest article in the Schenectady Gazette by Niskayuna High School student Vickie Mindel asked if the protesters were representative of the majority of young people in the area. Taking on a survey of local high school students, Mindel noted that "the majority of young people questioned felt that in case of attack everyone in this area would be killed. They expressed the futility of standing before lockers or sitting at desks." A junior at Linton High School said of Operation Alert, "It's a bunch of nonsense, because we would die anyway. Sitting at desks won't help."

The same day as the small protest in Schenectady, a number of other protests were held in cities and on college campuses around the country. In New York City, a protest in City Hall Park drew hundreds of people, including celebrities such as Norman Mailer. The following year, as Operation Alert was held again in the spring of 1961, protests proliferated in cities, towns, and college campuses nationwide (seemingly not in Schenectady, however, where newspapers did not report protest of any kind). The New York City protest grew to over 2,000 people. 1961 turned out to be the last year for Operation Alert. In 1962, it was permanently canceled.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew

Portion of exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew, on display at the Mabee Farm Historic Site through March 13, 2015. 

From the moment beer first entered New York in 1609 aboard Henry Hudson's Halve Maen, it has shaped our history, our laws, our culture, and changed many lives. The exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew explores the impact beer has had in the area, from the early Dutch settlers and winding through history to the two Schenectady County microbreweries of today.

In this 1670 land agreement, the oldest original document in the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library, the Mohawks gave a tract of land to the Dutch settlers in exchange for sewant, beer, and gunpowder. Image from Historic Manuscripts Collection (LM 384).  

Beer was instrumental in the local community from the earliest days of European settlement. In fact, beer helped to purchase much of the land now in Schenectady County. In 1670, the Mohawk gave a sizable tract of land to the Dutch in exchange for beer and other trade goods. As to who was the first brewer in Schenectady, there is no clear answer. The most likely candidate would be a miller. They often took a portion, normally 1/10th, of the grain as payment and converting the grain to beer was a common practice. A 1698 map of Schenectady shows a brew house as one a few labeled buildings. The first documented brew house in Schenectady is from 1706, owned by Johannes Sanderse Glen, although he was likely not the first. Breweries became so prolific along Union Street that prior to the Revolutionary War, parts of Union Street were known as “Brewer’s Street.”

Inn sign for Jacob Mabee's Inn, which was once located at the Mabee Farm Historic Site. Taverns and inns were a place for people to gather together, in addition to getting a drink. From the collections of the Schenectady County Historical Society. 

Early taverns and inns like the one found at the Mabee Farm were immensely important in pre- and post-Revolutionary America. They were a place where people gathered to argue politics, conduct business, eat a warm meal, exchange the news of the day, find safe refuge while traveling, or simply enjoy a cool, refreshing drink with family or friends. Because these venues were so popular, brewers traveled between these business and brewed large batches of two hundred gallons or more at a time. Innkeepers then kept these in storage and served small quantities to their patrons.

Brewing supplies on display in exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew.

As Schenectady grew through the 19th century, beer continued to be an integral part of daily life. The 19th Century saw the rise of the neighborhood brewery in the Capital Region. The names of names of many area brewers in this era are known, thanks to newspapers, city directories, and other sources; however, there is little detail about or their beer. We do know from Daniel Shumay's book Utica Beer that Schenectady beer was "rated as the best around," and sold for the then-hefty sum of $5.00 per barrel.

Beer bottles made for local and regional bottlers, on display in the exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew.

You can learn more about the role of beer and brewing in Schenectady County's past at the exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew, now on display through February 7, 2015, at the Franchere Education Center at the Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction. A peek at the exhibit and some of the artifacts, documents, and images on display are included here. For more information about the exhibit, please contact our Educator/Assistant Curator Jenna Peterson or call 518-887-5073.

Another view of a portion of the exhibit in exhibit Hops & Hogsheads: Beer from Colonial to Craft Brew, on display at the Mabee Farm Historic Site through March 13, 2015. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

"Mont Pleasant's Main Street": A Look Back at Crane Street

Postcard of Crane Street, ca. 1915. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

In a long letter of reminiscences about the Mont Pleasant neighborhood in Schenectady to Schenectady Gazette reporter Larry Hart, S.S. Stern wrote that Crane Street "always has been Mont Pleasant's main street." Stern listed a number of businesses that populated Crane Street in the 1920s and 1930s, from Hank Fligel's drugstore at the corner of Crane Street and Main Street, to Harry Checheck's department store at Crane Street and Fifth Street, to the Van Dyke Coffee Shop on Crane Street between Fourth Street and Main Street.

The neighborhood was first populated around the turn of the century. Italian and, especially, Polish immigrants flocked to the neighborhood, which was more spacious than other city wards. By 1910, more foreign-born Polish people resided in Mont Pleasant (the Ninth Ward of the city) than in any of the city's other wards. Hungarian and Czech families also moved to the neighborhood during the early 20th century.

The Mont Pleasant neighborhood lies roughly between the CSX railroad line to the west; to the east by Interstate 890; the Rotterdam town line serves as the neighborhood's southern boundary; Broadway serves as its northern boundary. Crane Street runs through the neighborhood, from Broadway to the Rotterdam town line.

Shared here are a number of historic photographs of Crane Street. Interested in learning more about the history of Schenectady through photographs? Visit our Library or contact our Librarian.

The intersection of Crane Street and Van Velsen Street around the turn of the 20th century. "Stop paying rent," a billboard proclaims. "Own your own home -- Buy a building lot." Home construction in the Mont Pleasant neighborhood accelerated around 1900. An Evening Star article from 1899 noted that "the sound of saw and hammer [could be] heard on all sides of the hill suburb." Image from Larry Hart Collection.    

The intersection of Crane Street and Chrisler Avenue, looking south, ca. 1915. From the neighborhood's earliest days, this has been one of Crane Street's major commercial intersections. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Mont Pleasant neighborhood residents crowd outside the Empire Market at 1012 Crane Street for the business' grand opening on April 5, 1950. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

The Crane Street railroad overpass bridge in 1957. The J.C. Dearstine Lumber Company, on nearby Catalyn Street, is visible in the background. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

The intersection of Crane Street and Chrisler Avenue, looking north on Crane Street, in 1965. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Schenectady's City Seal

Reverse image of Schenectady city seal. Image from Seal of Schenectady clipping file, collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library.  

Marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, proclamations, resolutions, and bonds are just a few of the many documents that have been embossed with official seals. Cities and towns use seals to show that a document has been authorized or authored by a government entity.

Schenectady's official seal was adopted on January 3, 1801. Here are some fun facts about the city seal, as we celebrate its 214th birthday:
  • The sheaf of wheat in Schenectady's seal is taken from the coat of arms of the Joseph C. Yates family. Yates was the city's first mayor and the eighth governor of New York State. The city had used Yates' family crest as its unofficial seal from the years 1798-1801, before an official city seal was adopted. 
  • William Corlett was the man commissioned to have a proper official seal engraved, which was to incorporate a sheaf of wheat. Perhaps thinking that two was better than one, Corlett added a second sheaf to the design before sending it to an engraver. Upon receipt of the engraving, the city fathers rejected Corlett's image and had a seal remade with only one sheaf of wheat. 
  • In Schenectady's City Hall, all of the doorknobs and the backs of chairs, and many of the doorways are finished with the city seal. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Young Man's Mathematics Lessons

Pages of calculations and problem-solving in the lesson book of Daniel Toll. Image from Glen-Sanders Papers, collection on microfilm in the Grems-Doolittle Library (originals at New-York Historical Society in New York City). 

This blog entry is written by Schenectady County Historical Society trustee John Gearing.

Among the manuscript treasures of the Grems-Doolittle Library lies an oft-overlooked gem: the Glen-Sanders Papers. Members of the Glen and Sanders families resided in Scotia's eponymous mansion for over 200 years. In the mid-twentieth century the estate was broken up and the remaining Glen-Sanders papers came into the possession of the New-York Historical Society. The Schenectady County Historical Society has a copy of the papers on eighteen reels of microfilm. The collection includes correspondence and notes (the earliest of which is dated 1674), account books, maps, wills, and genealogical records.

A careful reading of such papers can help us better understand what life was like in Schenectady in earlier times. While one could be excused for assuming that eighteenth century life was far simpler and much less sophisticated than it is today, a mathematics lesson book in the Glen-Sanders papers suggests otherwise. The book bears the name of Daniel Toll and is dated 1790. The mathematics taught were practical in nature and covered topics essential to every successful merchant.

The first exercise taught young Mr. Toll how to subtract the weight of a container, the “tare,” to determine the weight its contents. For example, flour was sold at the wholesale level in barrels. This sounds simple, but some goods were sold in units of “hundredweights” (or 112 pounds) and tare was sometimes set at a percentage of the whole rather than the actual weight of the container. Conversions were often necessary. Also covered was the calculation of “Brokage,” which Toll defined as “the percentage charge levied by those called Brokers who find customers and selling them the goods of other men whether strangers or natives.” A budding merchant needed to calculate “tret” as well. Tret was the amount (typically 4 pounds per hundredweight) allowed for the wastage of goods during shipment.

Page dealing with the subjects of tare and tret in the lesson book of Daniel Toll. Image from Glen-Sanders Papers, collection on microfilm in the Grems-Doolittle Library (originals at New-York Historical Society in New York City).

Both simple and compound interest were covered in Daniel Toll's subjects. He was taught how to compute interest when the percentage was not a whole number, and how to compute either the return, the term, the principal, or the percentage when the other three factors were given. Fractions, both “vulgar” and decimal, were covered, along with multiplication.

The lessons were taught using pounds, shillings, and pence. Instead of being a decimal system like today's dollar, this system was based on multiples of twelve. Twenty pennies made one shilling, and twelve shillings made a pound. Merchants' calculations required converting pounds to shillings and pence, and vice versa. Some problems required converting everything to pence, completing the calculation in pence, and then reconverting the answer to pounds, shillings and pence.

Complex computations were taught using a sort of algorithm. For example, to determine the present value of a amount due to be paid in the future, Toll wrote:

1. As 12 months are to the rate percent
So is the time proposed to a fourth number

2. Add that fourth number to ₤100

3. As that sum is to the fourth number
So is the given sum to the rebate

4. Subtract the rebate from the given sum
and the remainder is the present worth.”

Although this “answer” may be mystifying to modern eyes, a careful perusal of the Toll's sample problem shows that four steps above were easily translated into arithmetical calculations by students of the day.

Assuming the dates (1790 and 1793) in the lesson book are accurate, Daniel Toll would have been between 14 and 17 years old when learning the practical mathematics shown in this lesson book. The difficulty and complexity of Toll's math curriculum seems to compare favorably to that of today's students of the same age, suggesting that Schenectadians 224 years ago were not all that much different, in some respects, than we are today. Assuming that Jonathan Pearson's information is correct in his Genealogies of the Descendants of the First Settlers of Schenectady, Daniel Toll, it seems, grew up to be a physician, and not a merchant after all.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas and the Erie Canal in Schenectady

Youngsters ice-skate on the frozen Erie Canal in this photograph taken circa 1910. The skating area, just south of State Street on what is now Erie Boulevard, was a popular place for children and families to have fun during the holidays. On the weekends before Christmas, lanterns and music were brought in to make skating an even jollier affair. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Larry Hart wrote in his "Tales of Old Dorp" newspaper column in 1980 that local resident Lew McCue, who grew up in Schenectady and worked on the canal in his younger days, "had a canal story or poem for almost any occasion." Christmas was no exception. McCue shared with Hart his memories of Christmas days during the canal era.

This image of Lewis "Lew" McCue, circa 1950, was taken by Schenectady Gazette photographer Ed Schultz. McCue, who shared his memories of the Erie Canal with local historian and newspaper reporter Larry Hart, died in 1965 at the age of 82. Image from McCue surname file.   

McCue shared his memories of his 1880s boyhood in Schenectady; he credited the canal with making the Christmas season brighter. Special and exotic goods arrived in Schenectady, brought to town by shippers operating on the canal, right before the November closing of the canal each winter. These shipments made fruits such as bananas, oranges, figs, grapefruits, and pineapples plentiful during the holiday season. The canal barges also brought wine, cheeses, nuts, ginger, molasses, books, hardware, cloth, and stationery from faraway places. While everyone appreciated these special goods flowing into town just in time for the holidays, McCue noted that those who remembered life in Schenectady before the canal opened in 1825 were especially awed by the range of goods that the canal made it possible to be brought into town.

In this image of the Erie Canal, taken from the State Street canal bridge sometime before 1887, barges can be seen lined up along the warehouses that lined the canal. Just before the closing of the canal each November, barges would bring large shipments of goods up from New York City wholesalers, just in time for the holiday season. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

The canal also offered a special holiday delight in the form of recreation. On the weekends just before Christmas, McCue remembered, Schenectady's merchants provided funds to have Japanese lanterns hung along the ice skating area of the canal (the area just south of State Street on what is now Erie Boulevard), and hired bands to perform music for the skaters. Wintertime horse races were also held along a mile length of the canal from the Washington Avenue bridge westward.

Local men bundle up to watch horses race on the frozen bed of the Erie Canal in this undated photograph. Horse racing and ice skating were popular wintertime pursuits along the canal; Lew McCue especially associated these activities with Christmastime in the area. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

While local kids used the canal for ice skating, they also imagined that the canal provided a means for Santa Claus to hasten his travels across New York State. McCue shared with Hart that the children in Schenectady in the late 1800s believed that, rather than traveling with flying reindeer in the sky, Santa Claus' reindeer drew his sled along the frozen canal.

While a youth working on the canal, McCue also learned a holiday song from other canal workers, the lyrics of which he passed along to Larry Hart, who published them in his "Tales of Old Dorp" column:

There was always a Santa Claus on the Erie Canal, 
Mrs. Claus powdered her nose and joined in as well. 
There were cargoes of spice, nuts and logwood for toys, 
And many other things for girls and boys, 
And tons and tons of molasses, with a Christmas smell. 
Yes, there was always a Santa Claus on the Erie Canal.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"The Shopping Center of the Mohawk Valley": Wallace's Department Store

This colorful 1924 postcard shows how well the 1911 addition to the Wallace Building, on the left, matched  the facade of the earlier building on the right. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Ann Eignor. 

Wallace's Department Store, a landmark at 413-417 State Street for many years, began as William McManus Dry Goods. The dry goods store first opened at 39 Ferry Street in 1822. It prospered and moved to what was then 101 State Street. In 1840, the McManus Building, constructed in brick, was erected at 137-143 State Street. At the time, it was considered one of the finest buildings in Schenectady; the building was razed in 1951 to make way for Schenectady Savings and Loan.

Taken circa 1919, this photo shows the Wallace Company store after the 1911 expansion which doubled its size. Image from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

1875 saw the William T. McManus store sold to a group of partners led by Thomas H. Reeves. Among the partners were E.W. Veeder, Charles F. Veeder, and Charles Luffman. From 1875 until 1909 the store was known by various names -- T.H. Reeves, Reeves-Luffman, and Reeves-Veeder. Charles Veeder was responsible for moving the store "uptown" to 417 State Street. This was then the first large business to be located east of the railroad tracks, which were then at street level.

A 1921 advertisement for an August fur sale appealed to the fashionable Schenectadian. Furs purchased during the sale could be kept in storage free of charge until November 1. Image from the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library. 

The Wallace name first appears in 1909 when the store was purchased by Andrew Wallace of Springfield, Massachusetts. It then became part of Consolidated Dry Goods, which owned department stores in several cities in New York and Massachusetts. Under the new owners, the the store doubled in size. The house next door, once the residence of the former mayor T. Low Barhydt, was demolished. In its stead a building arose with a facade that duplicated that of the existing store. Thus was created the Wallace Building at 415-417 State Street. Among the attractions of the expanded Wallace's in 1911 were elevators to take you to the upper floors. It was said that "the long skirted, tight-waisted lady clerks of the day seemed thrilled to greet new and old customers."

The Wallace Company building took on a patriotic look, festooned with bunting and flags, in honor of the Liberty Loan Drive in Schenectady in 1917. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

An advertisement in October 8, 1919, offered satin blouses at $6.98, trimmed hats for dress wear starting at $7.98, and linoleum from $1.69-$3.50 per square yard. In 1925, Wallace's declared as their standard "Always Reliable" (meaning, no seconds or irregular merchandise). By 1941, they boasted "you can dress the family better for less at Wallace's." As suburbanization began to take its toll on downtown Schenectady, Wallace's reached out by declaring itself "The Shopping Center of the Mohawk Valley."

A modern facade was built in the 1950s, obscuring the classic Wallace Building. This photo shows the start of demolition, with the dismantling of the store's awning, in December 1977. 

Further modernization occurred in the 1950s, as three escalators capable of carrying 5,000 people per hour were added. A new, modern facade was also constructed. The 1960s saw the decline of downtown shopping throughout the country, and Schenectady was not immune. Wallace's closed its doors in 1973. The building's facade was demolished in 1977, restoring the classic look for the building. Today, you can find a CVS Pharmacy at the department store's former site.

This 1981 State Street scene shows a number of businesses, including the CVS Pharmacy located in the former Wallace Building. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.