Friday, August 29, 2014

School Days from Schenectady County's Past


Students at their desks in a classroom at Elmer Avenue School in Schenectady, ca. 1910. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 


For many people in the United States, Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer. For kids and teenagers in Schenectady County, school starts within a day or two after the holiday. In celebration of the return of school days (coming right around the corner!), we're highlighting images of school days from Schenectady County's past.

Interested in learning more about Schenectady County's past in photographs? Visit our Library or contact our Librarian.


Students congregate around Bigsbee School in Rotterdam in this 1953 photo. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 


Students slated to graduate from the Union Classical Institute, a Schenectady high school, pose elegantly in this 1878 photograph. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 


Students at Mohawk School in Scotia participate in a school play in this photograph from the 1950s. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 


Teacher Delta Relyea and her pupils pose outside of the Glenville District #7 schoolhouse at the corner of Swaggertown Road and Spring Road in this photo ca. 1910. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 


Children line up to enjoy the slide at the Edison School in Schenectady in this undated photo. image from Larry Hart Collection. 


The 1911 Schenectady High School girls' basketball team poses for their yearbook photo. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 


This 1954 photo shows the A.M. Kindergarten class at Van Corlaer Elementary School in Schenectady. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 


Students from grades 5, 6, and 7 at the Zion Lutheran Church private school in Schenectady pose with an instructor outside their school building in this 1917 photograph. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"No Roughnecks Allowed": The Schenectady Newsboys' Association

This 1916 photo shows the members of the Schenectady Newsboys' Association Fife and Drum Corps. The Fife and Drum Corps was first organized in April 1916 with 35 boys from the Newsboys' Association. By the following year, the group had grown to 58. During World War I, the Schenectady Newsboys' Association Fife and Drums Corps marched in uniform in patriotic and military parades. Image from the Larry Hart Collection. 


Around the turn of the twentieth century, local boys sold newspapers on Schenectady's city streets. In Schenectady, as in cities around the country, these boys and young men, known as "newsboys" or "newsies," were one of the main distribution means of newspapers to the public. Newsboys did not work for one particular newspaper, but were independent agents who purchased newspapers from the publishers and sold them around the city. Since they were not allowed to return unsold papers to the publisher, newsboys worked hard to sell all of their newspapers and make a profit. Boys protected their territories and competed vigorously, especially for the potential customers who headed to work at G.E. each day. Maria Giacchini, whose father was a newsboy in Schenectady, shared her recollections of her father's stories of his newsboy days: "I recall his telling of early morning routine, rising at 4:00 a.m. trying not to disturb the rest of the family while getting ready to leave the house to sell papers in the streets. When he sold all his papers, the highlight of the morning was to use some of the profit he had earned from the half-cent per paper return and stop at the baker shop for a piece of pie or a doughnut ... He gave the rest of his earnings to his mother, but she would always check his pockets to be sure he didn't forget to give it all to her."


A small group of Schenectady newsboys sell papers in the afternoon - after school hours - in this February 1910 photograph. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine. Image from the records of the National Child Labor Committee, in the collections of the Library of Congress


In 1910 in Schenectady, boys as young as 10 were permitted to sell papers during the day. Teenage boys age 14 and older could sell at night. Girls under the age of 16 were barred from selling newspapers altogether. Each newsboy under the age of 14 was required to register with the Schenectady Superintendent of Schools and wear a badge proving he was registered. The law changed in January 1914, raising the minimum age for newsboys to 12 and permitting only boys age 14 and older to sell papers before 6:00 a.m. or after 8:00 a.m. Regardless of the law, some of the boys were as young as 8 when they began to sell papers. In 1914, the Secretary of the Schenectady's Board of Education reported that there were nearly 1,000 registered newsboys in the city.

The loud calls of the newsies advertising papers for sale could be heard throughout the city at all hours, a feature of city life that often prompted complaints. An article dated December 14, 1911 in the Schenectady Gazette reported, "a number of complaints have been received of the many boys who [at late hours] are on the streets at night selling newspapers. They gather about the waiting room [of the downtown trolley station] and other public places and cause considerable annoyance to pedestrians and persons waiting for cars." Other articles in local newspapers noted the complaints of Schenectadians about the shouts of newsboys on Sunday mornings in particular.


Undated National Newsboys Association membership card of Clarence White. The mission of the organization was the self-improvement of the young men; it eventually evolved into the Boys and Girls Club that exists today. By signing the membership card, a boy certifies that "he does not approve of swearing, lying, stealing, gambling, drinking intoxicating liquors or smoking cigarettes" and as such is entitled to "the respect and esteem of the public." Image from Larry Hart Collection.


Although on the whole newsboys were simply hard-working young people trying to help their families survive, they were characterized nationwide in the public mind as loud, ill-behaved, unruly boys who caused trouble, fought, and stole. Max Hutten, who at age 95 recalled his days as a turn-of-the-century newsboy, allowed that this characterization was not entirely off-base. "In those days, the newsboys were pretty rough," Hutten told Daily Gazette reporter Patrick Kurp in 1996. "We were kind of a gang, but we just fought with our fists. We didn't fight with guns like they do today."

In July 1915, Police Justice John J. McMullen founded the Schenectady Newsboys' Association to curb the city's youth street gangs. The police and city officials hoped to redirect these young men and give them harmless outlets for their energy. A July 19, 1915 editorial in the Schenectady Gazette posited that the organization was an excellent idea: "It should at the very least have a strong influence toward preventing various petty misdemeanors among the boys. As a means of keeping the members out of trouble it is by no means as unimportant as it may seem at first thought." The writer of the editorial further asserted that in running the organization, the boys would also learn "citizenship on a small scale."

Portrait of John J. McMullen, the local judge who was instrumental in the founding of the Schenectady Newsboys' Association. Image from History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene. Accessed via the Schenectady Digital History Archive.


The Schenectady Newsboys' Association began formally on July 23, 1915, with 28 boys in its membership. The 15-year-old president of the organization, Joseph Guarnier, remarked upon the creation of the group, "we will try to show that boys can rule themselves as well as grown people, and perhaps better ... We are going to cut out all gambling, swearing, cheating, and slang, and show the grown-ups how to act." The initial slogan of the organization was reported as being "No Roughnecks Allowed"; it would soon change to "Honesty -- Honor". A week after its formation, membership swelled to 91 and would rise to 125 by mid-September of 1915. At its peak in 1917, the organization had 225 members. In its earliest months, the organization met in the State Street clubrooms of the Women's Political Union, a local women's suffrage group, who also sponsored parties and entertainment for the boys. In September, members of the local Carpenters' Union stepped in to create space for the boys in the basement of the YMCA building, which was then at the corner of State Street and Ferry Street. Over the years, the boys added a Victrola, pool table, punching bag, and other amusements to their space. The YWCA remained the meeting place and lounge for the Newsboys' Association members until 1921, when the YMCA moved to its lower State Street location and the Newsboys' Association lost its meeting space. Having no regular place to meet, the group soon disbanded.


The first Christmas Dinner of the Schenectady Newsboys' Association, held in December 1915. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 


In the weeks following the establishment of the Newsboys' Association in 1915, articles began to appear in local newspapers citing the integrity of the newsboys in returning lost items to their owners and in breaking up fights. Newsboys were also reported as standing up for their rights. When a customer rudely snatched a paper from a newsboy and tossed a penny to the ground, another newsboy stood in the path of the customer, looked him in the eye, and said, "I beg your pardon." The customer picked up the penny, handed it to the newsboy he had treated badly, and apologized to him. In another case, members of the Schenectady Newsboys' Association chased down a fellow newsboy who had stolen a customer's change and forced him to return it. "We won't stand for any crooks among the newsboys of this city," said the organization's vice-president, Julius Goldstein, to a Gazette reporter following the incident. "Almost all the boys are honest, but any of them who tries any underhanded work is going to be punished. Every newsboy in the city has got to give the people a square deal or there will be trouble." The organization also established a peer court to address mischief and petty crimes among the newsboy ranks. One year after the formation of the group, an article in the Schenectady Gazette reflected on the first year of the existence of the Newsboys' Association: "through help given by the members of the association, Police Judge McMullen has been enabled to break up several gangs of unruly boys, who had in the past consistently committed various acts of vandalism, and now the city can boast of having one of the finest lot of newsboys of any city in the state." In addition to regulating the behavior of the newsboys, the Schenectady Newsboys' Association also provided a means for fun and recreation. The Newsboys' Association held numerous sports events, picnics, dinners, and camping trips, and visited local amusement parks. They participated in local parades and celebrations. The organization also created its own Fife and Drum Corps.

When Judge John McMullen died in March 1944, his obituary in the Schenectady Gazette highlighted his work in establishing the Schenectady Newsboys' Association. Articles claimed that the Newsboys' Association was "instrumental in the lowering of the juvenile delinquency rate in the city," and said of the newsboys that had grown into men that "many members of the original club now hold important positions in the professions and in business and industry." The pallbearers selected for McMullen's funeral were all former members of the Newsboys' Association. Although the organization lasted less than ten years, it surely shaped the lives of hundreds of local boys as they grew into men.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Schenectady Musicians: A Look Back

The Schenectady Italian Band poses for this photo taken ca. 1910. The ethnic fraternal organizations that proliferated from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century emphasized social activities, and the array of dances, dinners, picnics, parades, and other celebrations they held often featured music. The Schenectady Italian Band played in the area for over 20 years before changing their name to the Western Gateway Band. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 


Music has been a part of community life in Schenectady County for as long as humans have inhabited the area. Music is a valuable means for people to communicate, educate, entertain, explore creativity, tell stories, preserve cultural traditions, ease the burdens of work, enhance events such as weddings, parades, and dances, motivate troops at war, and simply for fun and pleasure. Featured here are a number of images from our photograph collections that showcase music and musicians in Schenectady County.

Interested in learning more about Schenectady County's past in photographs? Visit our Library or contact our Librarian.


Salvation Army musicians perform on State Street in Schenectady in December 1986 to kick off their holiday season fundraising efforts. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

This photograph from June of 1925 shows Kalteux's Collegians playing at the dance pavilion in Schenectady's Central Park. A note on the back of the photograph shares a recollection of the concerts they played:  "That was the in the days of 10 cents a dance. The Union rate of the orchestra was $8.00 per night from 9:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. Three tough hours playing with no intermission. Any other night was $5.00 per man for three hours." Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

A crowd gathers around a band performing in front of the Hotel Vendome on State Street in Schenectady, ca. 1895. One brazen boy has inserted himself into the middle of the circle of musicians to get a better view. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Family bands were very popular and common in the early part of the 20th century, both for simple evenings at home and to share music with others. In this 1901 photo, members of the Wilson family pose with their instruments. From left to right are father Randall Wicks Wilson and his sons Byron Wilson, Archie Wilson, and Morris Wilson. The family lived on Shannon Street in the Bellevue neighborhood in Schenectady. The daughter of Byron Wilson wrote on the back of the photo that the family musical group "discontinued interest when jazz made its appearance." Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

The Schenectady City Band poses on the lawn at Union College in this photograph, taken ca. 1890. The Schenectady City Band is mentioned in local newspapers as early as 1865, the year that they played an Independence Day celebration in Schenectady. In addition to playing at local events, city and town band often traveled throughout the region to entertain in other locales. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

A German-American sextet plays music at the corner of State Street and Western Parkway in 1911. Around the turn of the twentieth century, some Schenectadians objected to street musicians and saw them as a nuisance. Commentary decrying the street musicians appeared in local newspapers around the turn of the century. Such articles and letters often employed a xenophobic tone, characterizing street musicians as low-class, ignorant, and unmistakably "foreign." Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra poses on the stage of Mont Pleasant High School in this photograph, taken in February of 1936. The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra was a new organization at that time, having given their first concert a year earlier. Nearly 80 years later, the organization is still in existence today. The people playing in the orchestra include paid professional musicians and non-paid amateur musicians. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

The Niskayuna Band poses in front of the Niskayuna Reformed Church in this 1902 photo. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Schenectady's Riverside Park

Picture postcard of Riverside Park, ca. 1915. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 


Riverside Park, which lies along the Mohawk River north of Schenectady's Stockade neighborhood, was established during the administration of George Lunn, the city's first and only Socialist Mayor. Riverside Park was established in 1913, as were many of Schenectady's other parks, including Central Park, Pleasant Valley Park, and Hillhurst Park.


Winter fun in Riverfront Park, ca. 1920, as seen from the bridge that used to run between the foot of Washington Avenue and Scotia. Image from Grems-Doolittle library Photograph Collection. 


As Schenectady's new parks were created, city residents suggested a variety of names for the new parks. The Schenectady Gazette collected suggestions and published them during the spring of 1914. Suggested names for Riverside Park included Mohawk Park, Uncas, Handalaer Park, The Strand, Washington Park, The Esplanade, Iroquois Terrace, Governor's Garden, Western Gateway Park, Electric City Park, Edgewater Park, Erie Park, Beach Park, Bouwlandts, and Holland Park. The park was officially named Riverside Park in December 1914. Its official name was changed to Rotundo Park in 1949 to honor Dominick Rotundo, a member of the Schenectady County Board of Supervisors who died that year. While this name change was official, it didn't catch on with the public, and in 1999 the name of the park was changed again -- officially -- to Riverside Park.


Silhouettes of parkgoers can be seen in this view of Riverside Park in the 1920s. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 


In his 1919 report, Park Superintendent Daniel J. Sweeney lauded the establishment of a playground in Riverside Park, emphasizing that the municipal playground "not only stimulates interest and develops understanding and skill, but advances the physical and moral growth of the individual, brings the individuals participating closer together and facilitates unity of purposed and action. It also eliminates the unclean and unfair practice of the unguided and undeveloped youth." He also described his recommendations for the further development of Riverside Park, including the installation of a merry-go-round and swimming pool, and that the city should acquire land adjacent to the park to build a baseball diamond.

This undated view of the entrance to Riverside Park at the foot of Washington Avenue shows a much narrower footpath than the path that currently runs through the park. Image from Grems-Doolittle library Photograph Collection. 


The history of the cannon in Riverside Park is a mystery, and was a mystery even when the cannon was moved to the park in 1919 at the request of Stockade residents. Prior to its being in Riverside Park, the cannon was used as a hitching post for horse at the corner of State Street and Broadway. Local historian John J. Birch claimed that the cannon was dug up near the corner of State Street and Nott Terrace, while local historian Larry Hart claimed that the cannon was unearthed in the Stockade, near the corner of Front Street and Ferry Street. The cannon was thought to be of French make, and historians hypothesized that it may have been brought to Schenectady as a trophy of the French and Indian Wars. The cannon is said to have been fired in celebration at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. Reverend Dr. B. W. R. Taylor, president of Schenectady's Park Board when the cannon was installed in Riverside Park, said of the cannon, "It has at last found congenial resting place in Riverside Park and directly under the flag which floats from the tall staff adjacent to it. It will never speak again! It is too modest to tell its own history."


This 1970 view of Riverside Park shows the park at a still and silent time. Image from Grems-Doolittle library Photograph Collection. 


Thursday, July 31, 2014

The McWilliam, Parkhill, and Simpson Family Papers


Image from the McWilliam, Parkhill, and Simpson Family Papers in the collections of the Schenectady County Historical Society.  


This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Jason Thomas.

A new addition to the Schenectady County Historical Society's holdings is the McWilliam, Parkhill, and Simpson Family Papers, 1790-2006. The family papers contain photographs, correspondence, financial records, legal documents, and genealogical resources including family bibles and detailed family histories. The bulk of the material is dated between the 1880s and 1910 and represents material collected by Hawley Bell McWilliam, Sr. The only documents in the collection that date post-1950 are family histories.

Image from the McWilliam, Parkhill, and Simpson Family Papers in the collections of the Schenectady County Historical Society. 


The family story begins when George McWilliam (1749-1812) left the Parish of Whitman in the Shire of Galloway, Scotland, and arrived in America in 1774 with several other Scottish Families. George McWilliam settled on a 114 acre farm in the Charlton-Galway area of New York. He married Mary Millory (1772-1840) and had a son, Robert A. McWilliam (1804-1883). Robert married Jane Ann Wemple, a descendant of the Dutch Wemple family who were a founding family of Schenectady, in 1828. Robert and Jane McWilliam had six children: Mydert Wemple McWilliam (1829-1910); Margaret M. (1831-1837); Elizabeth A. (1833-1888); John McWilliam (1837-1850); Margaret M. (1841-1881); and George McWilliam (1844-?).  Mydert lived on the farm for much of his life but never held active ownership of it as his parents lived until the 1880s. Mydert married Mary E. Bell (?-?) in 1856. Mydert and Mary had two children: Jennie A (1858-?) and Hawley Bell McWilliam (1863-1918). Hawley took over ownership of the farm after the death of his grandfather Robert. He married Alberta Parkhill Simpson (1868-1954) in 1890. Hawley and Alberta had five children: Jennie Louella (1890-); Alberta Cornelia (1892-); Robert S (1894-1894); Hawley Bell Jr. (1907-1967); and Mary Elizabeth (1909-).  Hawley Bell McWilliam Jr. married Florence Young (?-?). The marriage did not result in any children and the McWilliam family name died out with Hawley’s death in 1967. The family farm was sold in 1968.

Click here for a complete finding aid for the McWilliam, Parkhill, and Simpson Family Papers.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"The Most Destructive We Have Ever Witnessed": Schenectady's Great Fire of 1819

This blog entry is written by Library Volunteer Victoria Bohm. 

Throughout its 350-plus years of history, Schenectady has had its fair share of destructive fires. Like most cities grown from colonial times built for the most part of wood, the threat of fire was familiar and inevitable. The lack of building codes and standards and zoning laws only enhanced that threat.

The great fire of 1819 was a particularly destructive event in Schenectady’s history. Firefighting -- its techniques, equipment, and manpower -- was still fairly primitive. The wooden structures creating the crowded, unregulated urban sprawl were an architectural tinder box wanting only that first spark. On November 17, 1819, between the hours of 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning, that spark was ignited in Isaac Haight’s currying shop on Water Street. By the time the fire was finally out, most of the city between State Street and the Mohawk Bridge (itself barely saved) lay in ashes. It was one of the worst disasters since the Massacre of 1690.


Len Tantillo's painting Schenectady Harbor renders the city as it may have looked in 1814, just a few years before many of Schenectady's buildings were destroyed by fire. 


The winds were definitely a major factor in 1819; the fire quickly jumped to John Moyston’s home and store, on the opposite side of the street from Mr. Haight's currying shop, and went almost immediately out of control. From there, adjoining buildings were quickly engulfed in the flames. As the stiff south-easterly wind swept the fire along, many buildings in the city between State Street and the Mohawk River burned to the ground; the pitiful remains smoldered on for days.

Injury to the firefighters and to all those who put themselves in harm’s way to help those directly threatened and affected, their persons and their possessions, was severe. About 160 buildings, including homes, storefronts, offices, barns, and other outbuildings, were simply destroyed, along with most of the personal property in them. Trees, grain supplies, and other provisions were destroyed. An article in the Schenectady Cabinet following the fire estimated the damage at over $150,000.00 (over $2.7 million today). Water Street, State Street, Church Street, Union Street, Washington Street, and Front Street all suffered massive damage. Fortunately, not one life was lost in the blaze. Those left homeless had to look to friends, relatives, and charity for help. Union College students were among the largest group who came to the aid of those in need, in helping to protect homes from being burned and in assisting those suffering from the losses after the fire. The town of Glenville started a succession of regional aid actions to bring the basic necessities to the victims, especially those who escaped with only the clothes on their backs in frigid November weather. The region’s Shaker Communities also stepped up to offer aid and comfort, and David Tomlinson and Joseph C. Yates headed up a relief drive in Schenectady.


Certificate signed by Henry Yates, mayor of Schenectady, appointing Daniel Vedder, Bartholomew Schermerhorn, Nicholas Bradt, and John Pangburn as Relief Collectors in Rotterdam (then referred to as the Third Ward of Schenectady) immediately following the fire of 1819. The collections were intended to help those "who, by an awful visitation of Providence, have been suddenly deprived of their dwellings, and in many cases of their all -- and who are thus cast, without a shelter, without cloathing [sic] and without bread, upon the charity of those friends and neighbors whom the devouring element has spared." Image from the Historic Manuscripts Collection, LM 323, Grems-Doolittle Library.


Schenectady in 1819 had only two fire trucks which, given the scope of the fire coupled with the wind and weather, proved almost useless. There were neither the material resources nor the technology to battle such a fire. And, it was later discovered that the winds had blown bits of burning shingles and other materials as far away as Charlton, a distance of about nine miles! Attempting to save personal property, even with so many able bodies, including the students from Union College, also proved for the most part futile. The best solution found with spur-of-the-moment desperation, was to heave furniture and other items onto any available flat-bottom boat and float out into the middle of the Mohawk River and stay along the banks to which the fire did not reach. The smoldering aftermath revealed yet another sad fact; very few of the buildings destroyed were in any way insured.


These notes of thanks, from people whose homes were saved by the efforts of volunteers who battled the fire in Schenectady, appeared in the Schenectady Cabinet newspaper on November 24, 1819, a few days after the fire destroyed a number of homes in the city. Image from 1819 Fire clipping file.


Jonathan Pearson’s History of the Schenectady Patent cites the 1819 fire as a catalyst for bringing in a newer, more modern style of architecture as the city rebuilt itself, specifically the English style replacing the original Dutch style. In his 1902 book Schenectady County, New York: Its History to the Close of the Nineteenth Century, author and historian Austin Yates claimed that no truly official documented historical record was ever made regarding the 1819 fire, and that most information about the fire came from eye-witness accounts jotted down before the witnesses died out. Yates then offered another re-telling of those extant descriptions collected through the years for articles and books.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Schenectady After Dark

The hustle and bustle of nightlife in Schenectady's downtown can be seen in this 1957 color picture postcard. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 


As the city that lit and hauled the world, Schenectady showed off its lights -- streetlamps and neon -- for the world to see. These nighttime images of Schenectady's downtown from the turn of the last century to the 1950s capture the city at both its bustling and quiet moments.  

Interested in learning more about Schenectady County's past in photographs? Visit our Library or contact our Librarian.


State Street gleams in this image taken around the turn of the century. The numerous flags and banners visible in the photograph suggest the image was taken around Memorial Day or Independence Day. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

This 1954 view shows Jay Street looking toward the intersection with State Street. This section of Jay Street is now a pedestrian area. Image from Larry Hart Collection. 

The darkened street highlights the Carl Company window display on State Street in this photograph taken during the 1920s. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.  

This 1909 view of lower State Street was taken to show the newly-installed G-I Flame Arc Lamps made by the General Electric Company. Image from Grems-Doolittle Photograph Collection. 

In this photo of the newly-completed City Hall building on Jay Street in 1931, the moon, clock, and streetlights compete to shine brightest. Image from Larry Hart Collection.