The Perfect Storm of 1969

People talk about the Blizzard of March 1888 as the worst winter storm that ever hit Albany. But they tend to ignore the storms of Christmas week 1969.

The first storm started on 12/23 and dropped between 15” to 2 feet of snow in Albany and surrounding area; it came down in a white out. But by Christmas Eve day, the 24th, the skies were clear. And then late in the day on Christmas it started snowing again. It snowed and snowed, and then when you thought it had stopped, it snowed some more over the next 3 days.

It was the coldest Christmas to date; minus 22 degrees. (So much for the old adage, “it’s too cold to snow”). The wind whipped at a steady 20 mph with gusts around 40 mph.

When the snow finally stopped on 12/28 there was between 4 to 4 1/2 ft.on the ground. Albany and the surrounding area ground to a halt. Buses stopped running, most stores were closed for days, and many of the grocery stores that did open ran out of food. (Why you see Albanians rushing to markets when a snow storm is predicted – it’s “collective memory”.)

Even cars with studded snow tires (now prohibited) and chains on tires couldn’t make it through. People whose front door was close to ground were trapped; they couldn’t get out of their houses. There were cars abandoned in the middle of streets where they had become stuck.

he city was paralyzed; snowmobiles and skis were about the only way to move around. The silence was eerie until the snow stopped. And then the snow filled streets came alive with blocks of neighbors coming together to shovel out sidewalks AND streets. If you owned one of the new “snow blowers” you were a god. Strong young boys made fortunes moving from house to house shoveling.

Housewives with kids compared inventories, and shared what they had for a couple of days. (“I have extra peanut butter, do you have bread or crackers?”) Powdered milk was worth its weight in gold.

Everyone who lived through the storm has a story. But the most poignant is that of a 19 year old boy who was visiting his parents in Albany on leave from bootcamp. He couldn’t make it back to his base in time, and rather than being deployed to Germany as was the plan, he was shipped to Vietnam. He was killed in action on April 13, 1970, less than 4 months later.

The problem was that Albany didn’t have snow removal and towing equipment. It relied mostly on private contractors. And that didn’t work. On New Year’s Eve major streets were still one lane. More than a week later after the storm began, on January 2, 1970, only half of the United Traction Co. buses were running because the streets were not passable, and it took double and triple time to complete a route. 15 foot snowbanks were the norm, and people put little colored styrofoam balls on their extended car aerials, to avert accidents, so others could see the car around a corner snowbank.

And it got worse. It snowed some more. By January 10 there was over 5 feet of snow on the ground. Finally the city hired enough equipment. This was a major concession by Mayor Erastus Corning whose approach to snow removal is variously quoted as “We have the best snow removal equipment in the world-the sun.” Or “God put it there, God will take it away.”

But there was no place to put the snow. The city was filled with mini parades of equipment residents had never seen – huge machines that sliced through snowbanks, followed by trucks that would take the snow and dump it into the Hudson River. By the third week in January most city streets were passable, although some off the beaten path were never cleared, except by residents.

When all was said and done the City had to borrow over $2 million for clean up.

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

Albany’s 1930 Winter Carnival

It was held in Lincoln Park in January, 1930, , and was a one time event. (While the stock market had crashed 4 months earlier in October 1929, no one understood just how difficult times would become in the “Great Depression”.)

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

Paul Robeson and Albany

Why is Robeson important to Albany history?

In 1947 Robeson was at the center of a great political and legal battle that took place in Albany – watched by all of America and the world. He was booked to sing in the auditorium of Philip Livingston Jr. High in Arbor Hill by a black cultural organization in the city. (Livingston was often a venue for large concerts and theatrical productions.. it had a big auditorium and parking space.)


Robeson had previously been questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (under Senator Joe McCarthy) as being a potential communist. The Albany School Board, appointed by Mayor Erastus Corning (and at the direction of the Mayor) said Robeson could not use the school venue because Robeson was a communist. A huge political crisis ensued.

Local attorney Arthur Harvey, known for his civil rights work for decades , took the Board to court. (Much of the legal expense was funded by the local unions.)

A decision was rendered in favor of Robeson and the concert took place. (One the few times Mayor Corning lost a fight.)

paul 1

It’s a story that has been lost to time, but as relevant today as it was 70 plus years ago.

Robeson was an amazing man – an athlete and a lawyer, turned actor and singer – who began to stand up for civil rights and against fascism before it was fashionable. If you would like to know more about him, click here for a summary of his life prepared by the New York Public Library.

And if you can wait, there’s a Robeson biopic in the works with Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) collaborating with Harry Belafonte.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

The Albany Jail’s Most Notorious Resident – “Count” Shinburn – the King of Crooks

14990303775_fbedff53b7_bThe old city jail, on Maiden Lane just behind City Hall, “hosted” one of the most notorious bank robbers of his age, Maximilian Shinburn, in the 1890s.  The July 22, 1895 edition of the “Albany Morning Express” published a story on a then-current denizen of the old Maiden Lane jail.   The headline read,

“Slickest Robber in America, Is Maximilian Shinburn Whom the Jail Harbors. His Methods Are all His Own. He is a Man of Patience and Strategy; Not of Violence.”




Master Criminal

Shinburn was notorious. According to “Professional Criminals of America,” (an 1895 tome), he was recognized for 30 years all over the world as the “King of Bank Burglars.” “He is an American product, in the criminal sense, having begun his ‘professional’ work here early in the sixties (1860s) as a leader of that great galaxy of safe breaking stars…” Shinburn was wildly successful –he left America with a half a million dollars of ill-gotten gains.  He returned to the U.S. in the early 1890s, organized a new band of burglars, and went to work. When he was arrested there was “vast amount of evidence is in the hands of authorities indicating that his is the genius which substituted nitro-glycerine for the safe breaking appliances of earlier date.”

“Under a dozen aliases and over a period of thirty years he has stolen millions, evaded countless pursuits, broken out of a dozen prisons, lived in luxury, purchased a foreign title, engineered the greatest robberies of the age, and fairly won the title of the century’s greatest thief.”

In June 1895 he was arrested by the Pinkertons in NYC for robbing the First National Bank at Middleburg in April 1895, “but this is only one of a hundred crimes perpetrated by him during an unparalleled record.” Shinburn was taken to Middleburg under heavy guard, and transferred to Albany for safe keeping (so to speak). In the previous two years, his band of robbers were believed to have robbed banks across the U.S. and Canada.

How You Get To Be the World’s Greatest Safe Cracker Genius

Shinburn immigrated to America from Germany before he was 17.” He allegedly had “wonderful skill” as a locksmith. He embarked on a criminal career before he reached 18, falling in with a rogue’s gallery of rogues and went on a safecracking spree, beginning with a New Jersey bank. “He progressed rapidly,” the Los Angeles Herald later reported,” and as his ability became known in the ‘crook’ world his services were in constant demand.” He soon started organizing his own heists, always through safe cracking”.

“At that time the only safe in general use in banks and business houses in this country was that made by the Lillie Company (founded in Troy NY). Shinburn figured that a man who could master the Lillie combination lock could loot every Lilly safe in the country.” So, he did what any clever criminal machinist locksmith would do – he went to work for Lillie.


“It took him over a year to obtain all the knowledge he needed” – about lock tumblers and combinations. (Think of the skill set of the  character played by Charlize Theron in “The Italian Job”.) Using this information “Shinburn and his associates plundered Lilly safes all over the country, finally driving the Lillie out of business.”

Escape Artist

Shinburn was arrested in Saratoga in 1865 for a robbery in New Hampshire, but escaped the first night of his sentence. He wasn’t recaptured until 1868 while making an attempt on a bank in St. Albans, Vt. He served 9 months and escaped. He robbed a coal company in 1867, was arrested and handcuffed to a detective, but escaped while his captor slept. There were more robberies, more arrests, more escapes.

He invested in the stock market, made a killing, and sailed for Belgium, where he lived large in Europe for fifteen years until he was penniless again. In Paris, he met some American crooks, planned a robbery in Belgium, got caught and jailed . . . and escaped. He returned to the U.S. and began the spree that would see him arrested for the Middleburgh robbery.

Shinburn’s Stay in Albany’s Lock Up

14803741057_156ee27c50_bDuring his stay in the Maiden Lane slammer Shinburn impressed the “Albany Morning Express”:

“Even a casual observer at the little window or peek hole, will at once pick Shinburn out from 30 or 40 other prisoners. He dresses neatly, always wear a clean white shirt and goes about in his shirt sleeves. He keeps his hat on and remains most of the time in the rear portion of the corridor.. The officers at the jail, however, know his record pretty well and there is no time at which his movements are not watched.”

14990317515_b2911d8b45_bDespite the supposed security of the Albany jail, Shinburn tried to escape. In December 1895 he slipped out the cell door, but was grabbed by the sheriff’s wife at the outer door. “The sheriff’s wife is quite a large woman and the sheriff quite a good man, but Shinburn dragged them both about 100 feet, where all three fell over an iron fence. Mrs. Loveland’s cries were heard at this time and several men from the hotel ran to the scene. Shinburn, when he saw help coming, immediately gave himself up and was taken back to jail. The sheriff supposed that the cell door was locked, but Shinburn must have sawed off the lock during the afternoon, as the sheriff thought he heard a squeaking in the jail, but imagined it was the bed in the cell.” On a later occasion, being transported to Schoharie, Shinburn got into a fight and kicked Sheriff Loveland in the face.

Love Comes to Max

Newspapers reported Shinburn found love in jail.   He had many female admirers and won the heart of a young woman stenographer, whose desk in the county clerk’s office was directly opposite his cell window. So ardent was the flirtation which Shinburn carried on across the street which separated the two that the girl became infatuated. “There followed a long period of correspondence, notes being exchanged by means of a long cord which the prisoner let fall to his waiting sweetheart in the street below.” Shinburn finally got the girl’s promise to wait for him outside the door leading from the jail yard at 5 o’clock on a certain afternoon. She was to bring with her a loaded revolver and some money.

Shinburn figured out an ingenious way to escape from his cell, and armed himself with a broom. His jailer foiled the plot. He was a quick man with his revolver, and a shot rang out.  “The love-sick maiden was waiting outside as Shinburn had told her but she fled in dismay when she heard the revolver shot and the cries of pain that followed. Her friends prevented her attempting to communicate with the prisoner again.”

Shinburn Pays the Piper

After 11months in Albany Shinburn was sentenced to Dannemora. He served some time, but he was granted a retrial, and returned to the Maiden Lane jail in March 1898.  He was again convicted, sentenced and returned to Dannemora. He served his sentence, but immediately on his release he was rearrested him for his jail break in New Hampshire in 1866. He defense was “they got the wrong guy”, but he ended up in prison in Concord, N.H.  He was freed from Concord in 1908, and according to an article datelined Boston, April 22, “The aged robber enjoyed barely 24 hours of liberty after serving eight years in the New Hampshire state prison before he was arrested on the charge of stealing $200. He protested his innocence.” He was alleged to have taken the money from another man in the lodging house where he was to stay.

Max died in 1915 under his preferred alias” Henry Moebus”: in Boston in a home for reformed criminals.

(The jail was demolished in 1904 and all prisoners transferred to the Penitentiary (on Delaware Ave./Myrtle Ave) across from what is now Lincoln Park.)

Excerpted from the Carl Johnson’s blog,

Albany’s Crime of the Century – the Kidnapping of Little Johnny Conway


One morning on a hot August day in 1897 5-year-old Johnny Conway went to play outside his home on Colonie St. (between North Swan and Lark, in Arbor Hill). Mr. Conway was a dispatcher for the NYCRR railroad; Mrs. Conway a homemaker. Little Johnny was the youngest of three children. Mrs. Conway was in the house while she thought Johnny was playing with his friends.

Several hours later a note was delivered to her by a “street urchin”. It said that Johnny had been kidnapped. If a $3,000 ransom was not placed in the hollow of the old tree close to the toll-gate on the Troy Road that evening they would never see their child again. The parents were warned not to contact the police. A frantic Mr. Conway immediately went to the 3rd Precinct on N. Pearl St. between Livingston Ave. and Colonie St.

3After consultation with the police Mr. Conway left a dummy package near the tollgate in what is now Menands (just beyond the city boundaries), while police staked out the area. No one appeared to retrieve it.

Word of the kidnapping spread; extra editions were published by the local newspapers and the story was picked up by papers across the nation. Fear metastasized through the city. The only other known kidnapping for ransom had occurred about 25 years before in Pennsylvania – the child was never found. Terror struck the parents of Albany. Who were these fiends? Could it happen to their children?

conway 1897 - 5860 1A reward was announced by Mayor Thacher and the “Albany Argus” newspaper; additional police were called up and search parties dispatched. They scoured the area around Tivoli Lake, the woods to the north in Tivoli Hollow, the old Dudley Observatory grounds and beyond, and to the west of the city on the Schenectady Rd. and the Pine Barrens. The street in the vicinity of the Conway home (a tidy, but unpretentious house) was filled constantly with an excited throng who grasped at each new rumor. Hundreds filed through the desolate home, offering sympathy, financial aid and personal services.

From the day the Conways received the ransom note, the story of the kidnapping gripped the nation, from Boston to Topeka to San Francisco. Readers across America awaited word of Johnny’s fate.

The next day another message was received by the Conways from the evil-doers. It reiterated the demand for the ransom and said the kidnappers were willing to keep the boy alive for a couple more days if the parents were willing to negotiate through advertisements in a local newspaper.

Meanwhile the police and reporters from the “Albany Argus” searched for clues about the kidnappers’ identities. Who would kidnap the son of a railroad dispatcher who made a modest wage for ransom when there were plenty of rich men in the city? A relative who had some knowledge of family finances? The note instructed Conway to withdraw the money from the bank. Who knew Mr. Conway had a bank account? The boy’s uncle, Joseph Hardy, who had previously asked Mr. Conway for money, was a prime suspect and taken into custody.

Soon a confederate of Hardy, Henry Blake, was located and escorted by newspaper staff to the office of the Argus. In what became a daring cat and mouse game an Argus reporter convinced Blake to reveal the location of the boy in exchange for $2,000 and a promise that there would be no police retribution. John Farrell, the reporter, went ran throughout downtown, raising the money from local merchants who emptied their safes to save the child.

Blake set out with Farrell, two disguised policemen and a private detective in a surrey. He lead them to a location in the country on the Schenectady Rd. (today, it’s about a half mile beyond Wolf Rd. on Central Ave). Blake went into the woods accompanied by Farrell. They went round in circles for a while, and then all heck broke loose. Blake disappeared deeper in the wood and Farrell heard angry voices. Johnny managed to crawl away and was scooped up by one of the policemen. Farrell, Blake and the other kidnapper argued about getting the money and escaping without police interference. Finally Farrell, the boy and the others made a dash to the surrey. Shots rang out, directed at the surrey, and Farrell applied the whip the horses.. urging them away from danger.

They drove down State Street at 9 am – “thousands of people were on the streets,” and the rescuers called out they had the boy. “Men, women and children followed the wagon with shouts of joy to the Argus office on Broadway, where Little Johnny Conway was held up to the window for the benefit of the admiring and joyous crowd.” The Conway’s local parish priest from St. Joseph’s was waiting at the Argus offices; he was dispatched to tell Mrs. Conway the news. Johnnie was dirty, shaken, scared and suffering from exposure, yet had not been physically harmed by the kidnappers. Although faily legend  has it that his nights in the woods  permamently damaged his lungs and he spent the next years of his life in frail health.


But the kidnappers, save Hardy, were still at large. So there was more sleuthing by the reporters. In the camp in the cluster of woods where Johnnie had been held were food remnants and horse-blankets which had been taken from the rented carriages used to abduct the boy. The blankets were traced to the Eiliff livery stable on Union St. (about where Liberty Park is today); a carriage had been rented about 8:30 on the morning of the kidnapping. The candy used to lure Johnny into kidnapper’s clutches was traced through wrappers from Anderson’s confectionary on South Pearl St. While these clues didn’t help find the other kidnappers, they solidified the case.

Working on a hunch, Farrell found Blake at the Schenectady train depot. Once again, Farrell managed to manipulate Blake and induced him to return to Albany, where he was turned over to the police.

The third kidnapper, a NYC attorney named Albert Warner, mastermind of the evil plot, was tracked to the Schenectady train station somewhat later, but eluded capture. He was ultimately found in Kansas. All three men were convicted and sentenced to 14 years and change in Dannemora. The judge condemned the three men for their “fiendish, diabolical and nefarious” deed.


The people of Albany hugged their children tighter for many months thereafter.

Little Johnny grew up to be an auditor for the State of New York in the Comptroller’s Office.

Epilogue: Smalbany – 1 Degree of Separation

I learned the story of Little Johnny’s kidnapping from my grandmother when I was about 6, after I wandered away from home. Upon my return Gram was beside herself and told me the Conway story. My great grandparents lived in Arbor Hill and my great grandfather was Michael Conway’s barber. When Little Johnny was kidnapped apparently my great grandmother, like most other parents in Albany, went nuts and almost put her kids under lock and key. The story was sort of terrifying (deliberately so – on several levels). I may have changed my wandering ways for a while before I backslid into my normal free range behavior, but the story stuck with me forever.

Flash forward a number of decades. In a discussion with my husband I made a flip remark, “Did you think I was Little Johnny Conway and was kidnapped?” And he replied, “No, no one would pay ransom for you. By the way, Johnny Conway was my great uncle.” Yowser! Turns out my husband’s Grandma Rhea was Little Johnny’s sister. So Smalbany!

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Amazing Gold Rush Piano and its Connection to the Donner Party

A recent post by Carl Johnson (part of the Friends of Albany History blogger community) in caught our attention. There was a nugget of a story about a piano made in Albany that sailed around Cape Horn and made its way to California in 1849. It was called the “Pioneer Piano” since it was one of the first pianos to come to California.

Yikes!! That’s interesting. We needed to know more about this piano made in Albany that traveled 6,000 miles around the tip of South America in 1849, and ended up some 40 years later on the California coast.

The trail starts with a reference to a newspaper account, “Her Pioneer Piano” from the 1884 “Santa Cruz Daily Surf” by Mrs. Frank Lewis. With some research we pieced together one of the most fascinating stories we’ve come across in a while.

First, let’s talk about the piano

francis_putnam_burns_(pianos_and_their_makers)Albany was a hub of piano manufacture dating back to the early 1800s and a magnet for young men who wanted to go into the business. The man who made the piano was Francis Putnam (known as F.P.) Burns, born in Galway in 1807. He was probably in his early 20s when he came to Albany to learn cabinet making and piano manufacture.

In 1833 Burns married Myra Cole, from Duanesburg, and went out on his own in 1835. Burns was said to be “…of an artistic temperament and an excellent mechanic …would never permit piecework in his shop, impressing his workmen with the idea that a piano is a work of art, requiring the most painstaking efforts, without regard to time consumed in its construction.” Within a decade his pianos were winning awards in NYC (1842) and Albany (1848).

F.P. appears to have been moderately successful in selling his excellent quality pianos (his pianos cost between $100 – $500) despite intense competition in Albany. Francis and Myra has 5 children, 4 of whom survived to adulthood. By 1860 Edward, his only son, joined the business. But the Civil War intervened. Edward enlisted and had a successful military career. Upon his return from the Army Edward went back to piano making. But when his father died in 1868, Edward closed the firm, married a young woman from Middleville in Herkimer Co. and went into her father’s leather tanning business. And so the F. P Burns piano co. came to an end.

Why and how did the piano get to California? (The plot thickens)

Gold was discovered in January, 1848 at Sutter’s Mill just east of Sacramento. Within 6 months men were flocking to the West. President Polk announced the momentous discovery to Congress in December, 1848. Gold fever spread throughout America and the entire world. Men from Albany were not immune and hundreds of men in the Albany area set out for California to make their fortunes.

Some went alone or in twos or threes, and started a trek westward across the country with a small grubstake, pickax and a bedroll. Others, with more means, formed companies to support major expeditions.

The Albany Mining Association was created by 100 men from Albany and its environs who bought “shares” for $300 to finance the venture and make their fortune. The Association purchased the ship “Nautilus” (for about $9,000) and retained Capt. Wilson as master. In late February, 1849 75 mostly young men from the Association set sail for San Francisco from the New York docks. (The total passenger complement was 93.) It was a major event reported in the NYC and Albany newspapers.

The ship was fitted and provisioned for a two year mining venture. (The prices of tools, etc., would be double, triple or quadruple in California than if purchased in Albany.) Significantly, for our story, items that would make their anticipated 4-5 month trip more pleasurable were loaded on the “Nautilus”; these included musical instruments for a ship’s band and a piano!

The story of the voyage is documented in journals kept by 2 members of the party – James L. Pangburn – from Schoharie (now in the San Francisco Maritime Museum) and Dudley E, Jones, from Clifton Park (University of Arkansas archives) They describe the hours of enjoyment derived from the piano. Its “delightful strains” eased the monotony of the journey down one side of South America, around Cape Horn and up the other, with a stop at Rio de Janiero. The “Nautilus” landed over 7 months later in San Francisco in late October, 1849.

Well, what happened to the piano in California?

1849 burnsThe “Nautilus” was sold, as well as other items that would not be used for the mining enterprise. The money would be put towards the purchase of provisions and other necessaries for the miners. (Capt. Wilson had Gold Fever and had agreed to to join members of the company.) James Reed bought the piano from Capt. Wilson, for $1000, for his daughter Patty in November, 1849. “It was regarded as a great curiosity when it arrived in San Francisco and crowds flocked to see the instrument and listen to its melody”. (Patty later became Mrs, Frank Lewis, the owner of the “Pioneer Piano”.)

The Donner Party Connection

downloadMrs. Lewis started out life in Illinois as Martha Jane “Patty” Reed, daughter of John Frazier Reed – one of the organizers of the Donner Party – “the infamous wagon train caught in the early winter of 1846-47”. Reed had a fiery temper and killed a man during an argument while on the trail. He was banished from the group in October, before the winter snows started to fall. The group he left behind, including his wife and 4 children, was trapped in what is now called Donner Pass, northwest of Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Mountains. Reed tried several times to reach his family and the others with whom they were stranded. Finally in February 1847, he and several other relief parties rescued the 47 survivors, including his wife and children.

The family recuperated and settled in San Jose. But Reed heard reports of gold and headed back to the Sierras. He found his fortune near Placerville, about 80 miles from the location where his family has been trapped in the winter of 1846-47. Reed hit pay dirt. He was said to have returned with many saddle bags bulging with gold. More than enough to pay for a piano for a daughter whom he had once abandoned to hellish circumstances.

The 1884 newspaper article describes the piano as “.. a square, rather plain in finish, unostentatious in appearance and made of rosewood. It has not lost its pristine sweetness of tone through age as was evidence yesterday afternoon when a (Daily) Surf representative listened to some of the old time airs that Mrs. Lewis kindly reproduced. So highly was this piano respected for its early associations that for the 5 years it was in San Jose it was omitted from the assessor’s roll, that official facetiously remarking that as old men are exempt from paying poll tax, why should not this instrument be free from taxation on account of its age and valuable services.”

(Based on research by Heather Morris, the F. P. Burns Albany piano was the 4th piano to arrive in California; 3 others were delivered to Spanish grandees in the early 1840s.)

After Mrs. Lewis’ death, the piano went to Sutter’s Fort Historic Park in 1946—to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of her family’s ordeal. Today, the piano is said to be the California State Archives warehouse in Sacramento.

Thanks to Heather Morris and her blog –“The beginnings of my search for the first piano to come to California” April 2014 and “The Bad Luck and Good Luck of James Frazier Reed”, James D. Houston, Oakland Museum of Ca.,

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

Twelfth Night in Colonial Albany.. It’s All about the Cake

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In early January, if you lived in colonial Albany in early 1700s what we would think of as December festivities- St Nicholas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s festivities would be winding down. But wait, there’s more – what we have come to know as Twelfth Night. Its origins are in a Roman festival called Saturnalia surrounding the winter solstice. In the Christian era the 12th day after Christmas was designated as the date of the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the Christ child. But over time, and due in large part to the Protestant Reformation, January 6th became more of a secular holiday.. more than a bit of a blowout.. it was off the hook.

Curiously, there’s no documentation of the celebrations in the early New York colony, although there are passing references to the holiday. But many historians think that keeping traditions would have been very important for people who crossed the Atlantic and came to a new world.

So the colonists of Albany, whether Dutch, Walloon (Protestant French emigres) or German or English or Scandinavian would have all whooped it up. The English called it Twelfth Night, the other colonists would have referred to it as variation of “Three Kings Day”. In some cultures the festivities started the eve of Epiphany (January 5) and in others Epiphany Day (January 6).

Whenever the celebrations started it was a rollicking bout of good cheer, with much food and drink ..lots of drink. All sorts of treats piled the tables of Albany homes and taverns (in Dutch homes they would have included doughnuts, cookies, waffles, and pancakes), but the cake was the thing. If you had come from England, a bean might have been inserted into one side of the cake and pea on the other side. The male who got the slice with the bean became king for a day, the female the queen. If you were Dutch there probably was only one bean, and that person became the king. There might be a designated “fool” or jester whose job it was to amuse and entertain. There would have been games and drinking (if only they had known about beer pong) and often music.

Paintings of The Three Kings celebration in the Netherlands in the 17th century, were a favorite subject during the “Golden Age” of Dutch painting. It was wild and crazy.. mischief and mayhem.

There was no single Twelfth Night cake recipe – but most of them were a version of a fruit cake. One food historian has concluded that by the mid-1700s the most often used Twelfth night cake recipe was also used for a “Bride’s Cake” – another cake recipe designed to serve a large crowd. In fact, George and Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night and her anniversary cake did double duty. (Google “Martha Washington anniversary cake” for updated versions). However the French emigres took a different approach and made a “Gallette des Rois” (cake of the kings”) – a large rough puff pastry filled with almond cream.




The celebration of Twelfth Night died out in America by the 1850s, as Christmas and New Year’s took center stage. (Descriptions of lovely winter scenes in American literature in the early 1800s are often compared to the white icing and sugar decorations of Twelfth Night cakes which tell about the refinement of the cake.) But try as we might, we found no ads for bakeries or bake houses selling Twelfth Night cakes in America in the early 1830s. (We need to do more research.)

15The “Godey Lady Book” (America’s most popular woman’s magazine of the 19th century ) described Queen Victoria’s Twelfth Night Cake at Windsor Castle in 1848 – “..a miracle of confectionary skill” – 3’ in diameter and 4’ tall – with lavish sugar decorations that included a working music box and mechanical fish and figures of “Chinese persons” that beat time to the music.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

St. Nicholas Day in Colonial Albany

If you were living in colonial Albany today in the early 1700s you and your family would probably be preparing for the arrival of St. Nicholas on December 6th.

St. Nicholas was a real person – a 4th century bishop who lived in what’s now Turkey. He provided for the poor and the sick, and became the patron saint of children (he’s also the patron saint of pawnbrokers – go figure). He was much admired and loved throughout Europe.

Over time the legend of St. Nicholas grew and his religious feast day became a celebration that extended beyond the church walls and incorporated regional pagan myths. Each country (and regions within countries) developed their own St. Nicholas traditions, but there are 2 commonalities – St. Nicholas arriving the night before before his feast day, leaving presents for the children (usually left in their shoes) and the women of the house in a baking frenzy- special treats for this festive and special day.


In some areas St. Nicholas arrived by boat from Spain (much of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany was under Spanish rule in the 16th and 17th centuries). In other mostly Germanic regions he flies on a white horse; in some places he comes into town riding a horse or walking beside a donkey carrying a load of gifts. Scandinavians had mythical little creatures “tomte” or “nisse” (suspiciously like elves) that assisted with December festivities. (And in pagan tradition, there’s often a creature called a Krampus – part Devil/part goat – that punishes bad children and sometimes leaves coal instead of gifts.)


There’s no documentation of exactly how the Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated in colonial Albany (although cookbooks yield some interesting info), but there is historical documentation for the same time period for the countries from which the citizens of Albany emigrated. Some scholars think the people who came here abandoned their traditions in the New World. We know that in the earliest days of the New Netherlands Colony, Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor, was quite straight laced and adhered to his own sense of the Dutch Reformed dogma – basically old peg leg was a bit of a religious fanatic. But after the early 1670s, when the colony was finally in the hands of the British, people were free to celebrate as they wished (more or less).

So we theorize the traditions would have been more important for people so far from “home”, but what did happen was probably a mixing of cultural traditions. There were Germans, Scots, Swedes, and Walloons and Huguenots (French Protestants), English and Norwegians. They lived next to one another and they intermarried * and traditions melded as cultures blended.

But Albany was still predominantly Dutch in the early 1700s. So most of the children would be waiting for “Sinterklaas” (the Dutch name for St. Nicholas) on St. Nicholas eve called “Sinterklaasavond”. Then all the children, giddy with excitement, would put out their wooden shoes (wooden shoes, except for the very rich – were a cultural thing in most of western Europe and Scandinavia – sabots among the French, clogs in the Norse countries land, klomp and Klompen among the Dutch and Germans.

The toys would be homemade in anticipation of just this night – wood or cornhusk dolls, tops, hockey sticks, whistles, stick horses, ninepin and balls, ice skates – lovingly crafted by parents. In addition to the toys, there would sweets and chocolate and maybe a coin. And probably an orange – the global trade of the Dutch had made exotic fruits like oranges high prized special delicacies (orange is the color of the Royal Dutch family – the House of Orange). An old Dutch poem about St. Nicholas even mentions oranges specifically.

“Saint Nicholas, good holy man!
Put on the Tabard, best you can,
Go, therewith, to Amsterdam,
From Amsterdam to Spain,
Where apples bright of Orange,
And likewise those granate surnam’d,
Roll through the streets, all free unclaim’d”

The women of the families in each ethnic group would bake their specialties. For the Dutch that meant a cookie call a Speculaas – a highly spiced shortbread (it’s still probably the national cookie of the Netherlands), crunchy little cookies called Kruidnuten (sometimes called Ginger Nuts – mini-speculaas)** and Peppernoten (Pepper Nuts) – small, chewy and also made with exotic spices. The lucrative East Indies spice trade had a dramatic impact on Dutch (and other European baking and cooking) and used spices that could only come from Southeast Asia in the “Spice islands”. The cookies would be rolled and dough placed in special forms.***The forms were usually made of wood, intricately carved and passed down through generations.

Fast running sloops would bring the spices, sugar, cacao, molasses and oranges up the Hudson to Albany to the docks about where Madison Ave. meets Quay St. today. They would have been off-loaded from larger ships in New York harbor, bringing the cargo from Asia, the British and Dutch Islands in the Caribbean and the colonies of British Honduras (now Belize) and Surinam, which was owned by the Dutch, in Central America.

German women would have made Stutenkerl (also called Nikolaus) – sweetened dough shaped into the form of St. Nicholas (with the Reformation, the dough men looked less bishop- like). And Scandinavian women would have made Pepparkakor – crisp ginger cookies cut in shapes of stars and hearts.

(I’m of the opinion that a German Haufrau was visiting a Swedish Hemmafrau and decided she would make a ginger cookie St. Nicholas (or visa versa) and that was the origin of the gingerbread man.)

Meanwhile Brits and the Scots brought little to the table. The religious wars in Scotland and England for over a century ended with a Protestant ban on saint day celebrations. And Christmas (save for a church service) was a no no. Except for religious services, Holiday traditions had taken a huge nose dive. So, they took to it like duck to water and by the early 1770s Sinterklaas is now Santa Claus and associated with Christmas.

As you’ve been reading along you can see how the Feast of St. Nicholas evolved into American Christmas, but that’s a whole other story we’ll save for another time.

*My Dutch 10th great grandmother married an English soldier and her daughter married a Swede (by way of Holland) who was a ship captain – all within 40 years of the family settling in New Netherlands in the 1650s. And my Walloon ancestors quickly married Germans and Dutch.

** Ginger nuts are still featured in Albany bakery ads of the 1850s.

***Speculaas are still made (in the Nertherlands you buy a Speculaas spice mix – rather than the individual spices) and the windmill cookies you like are actually speculaas.


Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany Cakes for Christmas? So Many Kinds -So Little Time

‘Tis the season for baking and what better than an Albany Cake? But which Albany Cake? The pudding? The cookies? Or an actual cake?

From the early 1800s to the early 1900s Albany Cake was a thing. Well, actually, many things. English cookbooks equate Albany cakes to “Dutch Pudding” in 1810. In the 1840s-1860s it appears Albany Cake was really a large soft cookie.. more like tea cakes. We found Albany newspaper ads for bakeries in 1841 – Albany Cakes are sold alongside “Lafayette Jumbles” – jam filled small sponge cakes and “Jackson Snaps” – crisp, thin lemon cookies, Plum Pudding and Dutch New Year’s Cake – caraway seed cookies.

1841 albany cake.JPG

1841 b

As we looked through old books and newspapers from the 19th and early 20th century for Albany Cake we found at least a dozen different recipes for pudding, cookies and cakes.

Here are four – from 1810 to 1922

“Dutch Pudding, or Albany Cake”
Mix 2 lbs. or less of good flour with a lb. of butter melted in ½ pint of milk. Add to this 6 eggs, separately well beaten, ½ lb. of fine sifted sugar, 1 lb. of cleaned currants and a few chopped almonds, or a little candied orange peel, chopped fine. Put into it 4 spoonfuls of yeast. Cover it up for an hour or two, and bake for an hour in a wide flattish dish. When cold it eats well as cake (“New London Cookery”, Esther Copley, London 1810)



Albany Cake
1 ½ lbs. of flour, ½ lb. of powdered sugar, ½ lb. butter, ½ pint black molasses, ¼ pint sweet milk, ½ teacup brandy, ½ yeast cake, cinnamon, cloves, ½ lb. of raisins, ½ lb. currants. This cake demands rather a long baking in a moderate oven. If iced it will keep for weeks. (“Harper’s Bazaar” 1905)

Albany Cakes
1 lb. sugar, ½ lb. butter and lard mixed, 1 egg, ½ pint sour cream. ½ tsp. soda and 1 ¼ lb. flour. Let stand in ice box overnight. In the morning roll in long pieces and twist around to form a cookie. Sprinkle top with granulated sugar. (“The All-American Cookbook”, 1922)

Luckily, a young food blogger recently converted an 1840 recipe (from a Canadian author) for Albany Cake to a contemporary form so you can try it out for the Holidays – icing and sprinkles would be very festive. (The Canadian author lived just west of Buffalo in Ontario.)

Julia Baird – Cloud 9 Cookery – Albany Cake

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

National Dutch-American Day Albany


November 16, is  National Dutch-American Heritage Day when we celebrate our Dutch roots. Without the Dutch there would probably be no Albany.


We were discovered in 1609 by Henry Hudson, exploring for the Dutch East India Co. By 1624 there was a settlement surrounding Fort Orange.


The village came to be known as Beverwyck (basically Beaverville). In 1664 the English came into possession of the entire New Netherlands colony and Beverwyck became Albany, but the streets of Albany retained their Dutch names for many years.


When Martin Van Buren was elected our 8th president in 1837 his primary language was Dutch, although he’d been born in 1782, after the American Revolution. It was common in the early 1800s for there to be “English” schools in Albany where kids from Dutch speaking families could learn English. Into the 1880s there were still members of old Albany Dutch families who spoke Dutch at home (old habits die hard).

We are surrounded by our Dutch heritage in our place names, from Guilderland, to the Krumkill and Normanskill Creeks, to Feura Bush and Watervliet.

Few vestiges of our original Dutch architecture exist – the oldest is the Van Ostrand- Radcliffe house at 48 Hudson Ave. that dates back to the 1720s. (Johannes Van Ostrand came to Albany from a Dutch family outside Kingston and Johannes Radcliffe was the grandson of one of the original Dutch settler families and a British soldier who arrived to garrison the Fort.) Another is the Quackenbush House on Broadway, built in the 1730s – currently home of the Old English Pub. The Dutch style of building remained popular long Dutch officials left the Colony. Fort Crailo across the river was built in the Dutch style in 1707. There’s also the Ariaanje Coeymans House, Coeymans, built in the Dutch style circa 1700, the Peter Winne house in Bethlehem, the Yates House in Schenectady and the Van Loon house in Athens – all examples of original Dutch buildings.

We pay homage to our history through our more current architecture. – the fire House on Delaware Ave and the old AFD fire signal building are the best known examples of our Dutch heritage, although built in the 20th century.



Today, Albany pays tribute to its Dutch Heritage during the Tulip Festival every May when the streets are scrubbed in the old Dutch manner and we crown the Queen of the Dutch flowers.

While the official presence of the Dutch in America ended over 300 years ago, they brought us food, traditions and words we use in everyday life. Santa Claus was originally the Dutch Sinterklaus (a/k/a St. Nicholas). We eat yummy Dutch foods: waffles, donuts and cookies, and use Dutch ovens to cook. Where would we be without the words: aardvark, bazooka, brandy, caboose, coleslaw, cruller, dollar. hooky, iceberg, pickle and smuggle? And there’s “Dutch courage” (alcohol aided bravery), a stern “Dutch Uncle” and “Going Dutch” (homage to legendery Dutch parsimony).


You might be surprised how strong and pervasive Dutch roots are in America and how many people have Dutch ancestors despite the relatively few original Dutch settlers. Famous Americans with Dutch roots include FDR, Tiger Woods, Dick Van Dyke, Marlon Brando, Robert DiNiro, Christine Aguilera, Anderson Cooper, Walter Cronkite, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Diane Keaton,Jane Fonda, Taylor Swift , the Kardashians and the Boss.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor