How Albany’s Celery King Transformed the Victorian Thanksgiving Table

It’s time to take a look back in time to an Albany Thanksgiving table in the 1860s. Most of the foods would be familiar – turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, biscuits and, importantly- celery!! Yes – it wasn’t a Thanksgiving without celery. Really.

Why celery? It’s was a fussy, difficult to cultivate vegetable. As a result it was an expensive treat. (A food blogger – Hannah Arndt Anderson calls it the “Avocado Toast” of the Victorian Age.) And because it was such a luxury, it was displayed proudly on the Thanksgiving dinner table in a glass vase, stalk end down, leaves up. The wealthy always had intricately carved crystal vases (the really rich had sterling silver celery vases), but by the 1850s pressed glass started to be manufactured and celery vases for the masses were within the reach of the middle class. Cooks cleaned and scraped raw stalks, and then put them in cold water in the vases. The celery was a symbol of prestige and confirmed a family’s status as the celery vase was passed around the table. Etiquette books of the time identify where the celery should be placed in a table-setting.

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Enter Albany’s Theophilus Roessle

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Roessle was born 1811 in Germany and emigrated to the U.S. in 1825. He came to Albany penniless. He said he was offered a place to say by the father of match girl he met on the street. The next morning he borrowed a shovel from the old man, found work and was paid a meager sum. But he was off and running towards making his fortune.

Back in Germany his father was a market gardener. Roessle worked at odd jobs for about 5 years and finally leased property near the Western Turnpike from his employer, Dr. Wendell, and started a market garden. Over time he learned landscaping and saved every penny.

Roessle began to buy land along the Albany-Schenectady Turnpike (now Central Avenue between the city line and Wolf Road) and continued farming. His cash crop was celery, which had been a notoriously finicky item to grow. But grow it did for Roessle. By 1840 he was selling a thousand bunches a day, mostly to restaurants in Albany and Saratoga, but as far south as the Fulton Market in NYC. He began with 7 acres and soon had over 100, devoted almost exclusively to celery.

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(This area would later become the hamlet of Roessleville. As his wealth increased, Theophilus Roessle built a large, elegant Italianate mansion, the entrance road flanked by stone lions, near present-day Elmhurst Ave. The Mansion is long since gone.)

Roessle then embarks on a new career. Around 1850 he buys the Delavan House hotel in Albany on Broadway, near the train station. (Having spent much time selling produce to the hotel he thought he could make a better profit than the current owner, Edward Delavan.)* Roessle’s celery became legendary far and wide across the country as travelers passed through Albany and stayed at the Delavan. It becomes the premier hotel in the city. (The Roessle family sold the Delavan in the early 1890s and it was, sadly, destroyed in a horrible fire in 1894. The destruction of the hotel paved the way for the construction of Union Station.)

Meanwhile Roessle knew so much about celery, he literally writes the book, “How to Cultivate and Preserve Celery” in 1860. Farmers everywhere started to grow celery using the Roessle method. But Roessle kept growing celery (there’s an ad in an Albany paper in 1876 in which he advertises 200,000 bunches for sale).

Roessle also continues the hotel business, acquiring and substantially improving and enlarging the Fort William Henry Hotel in Lake George, and later taking over the Arlington Hotel in Washington, D.C., known as one of the most opulent and exclusive hotels in the District.

Roessle’s hotels were huge successes, which is a good thing, since by now everyone in the country was growing celery and it was no longer the “thing” it had once been. Celery had now become accessible to the masses.. it’s a huge deal. There’s a celery frenzy. All sorts of celery recipes make their way into cookbooks of the late 1800s. (I was raised by grandmother who fed us stewed and creamed celery in the 1950s – a particular unappealing holdover from the late 1890s when anything was fair game for inclusion in a white sauce.)

Celery vases were relegated to back cupboards and celery stalks took their rightful place on “relish dishes” with pickles and green olives (which became the newest thing, shipped from California) on Thanksgiving tables by the early 1900s. (According to food historians, the next – and only appearance- of the upright celery stalk is in the Bloody Mary cocktail in the 1950s.)

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Theophilus Roessle died in 1890, He’s buried in the South Ridge of Albany Rural Cemetery; a massive granite shaft marks his grave. (Paula Lemire, the Cemetery Historian, says she’s actually seen celery, rather than flowers, left at his gravesite.)

*Roessle was far more than just the celery king and hotel mogul. There are strong indications he was an active, albeit somewhat silent supporter of the anti-slavery movement in Albany. He had a close relationship with Edward Delavan, the previous owner of the hotel and a wealthy abolitionist. Stephen Myers, the head of the Underground Railroad in Albany worked at the Delavan. If you look through old city directories, many of the Black men involved in the city’s anti-slavery movement worked in some capacity at the Delavan. Additionally, there was a very close relationship between Roessle and Adam Blake, son of slave, who first owned the Congress Hotel (where the Capitol is located today) and who then owned the Kenmore Hotel on N. Pearl. When Blake died the flag on the Delavan House was flown at half staff.

Julie O’Connor (thanks to Paula Lemire for her help)

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The Douw Building: A Collateral Demolition

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The Douw Building was at 36 State Street, on the corner of Broadway. Built 1842, it once housed the mercantile establishment of Voickert Peter Douw. The Douw family history dates back to the days of the early Patroons. The site of the Douw building was in the family’s possession since the early days of Albany. They were descendants of the Van Rensselaers.

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In 1946, the building was sold to Honigsbaum’s, ending more than 200 years of ownership by Douw family. Occupants at time of sale included the Cordelia Shop, the Interstate Bus Terminal, the Post Office Cafeteria and the Dixson Shoe Rebuilders.

Whatever Honigsbaum’s plans were for the Douw Building, they were never realized.

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In 1961 it was again sold, this time to the adjacent Hampton Hotel. Occupants at that time included the Interstate Plaza Bus Terminal, Mike’s Food Market, the Interstate Luncheonette Restaurant, the White Eagle Bakery, and the Corner News. The Hampton said they planned on remodeling the building and using it as part of the hotel; this never came to be.

Meanwhile, in the early 1900’s, George Douglas Miller built an eight-story structure on part of his wife’s property on Beaver Street in the midst of the Hampton Hotel complex. The unique thing about Miller’s building, or folly, is that it never was occupied and was supposedly built to spite the Hampton Hotel. Thus its name, “Spite Building.”

Bob Stronach, Staff Writer for the Times-Union, picks up the story, from this article of August 12, 1969:

“The Beaver Street building of the hotel complex had a beautiful roof garden with a magnificent view of the Hudson River Valley. But Miller erected his building alongside it, hoping the hotel would buy his structure as an annex. When the hotel owners refused to purchase the addition. Miller raised his roof so it blocked the roof garden view.

“Still unbeaten, the Hampton owners added a story to the roof garden, and once again there was a delightful view. But then, the undaunted Miller again raised his roof and shut out the view. At this point, the hotel owners quit and the Beaver Street property was never used again – except as a cote for the Plaza pigeons.

“Since then, “Miller’s Folly” has become a fire hazard, with a caved-in roof and broken windows. Mayor Corning said the structure now belongs to Albany County and is being demolished to eliminate the fire hazard. What will be done with the land it stands on is not yet known, he added.

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“State Broadway Corp of 38 State Street, purchased the Hampton Hotel last January and signed a lease with the Albany Housing Authority to renovate the complex and operate it as a public housing facility for senior citizens. The hotel units are expected to be converted into about 100 one-bedroom apartments.

““The important thing,” spokesman for State Broadway said, “is that the mayor, Mr. Bender (housing authority director), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the State Broadway Corp. have worked diligently toward alleviating the housing shortage for the elderly and all the above have every confidence that these efforts will be fruitful.”

“State Broadway Corp. also owns “The Douw Building” at State and Broadway, which had belonged to Miller’s wife. The corporation is tearing it down.

“Demolition teams removing “Miller’s Folly” said the bottom half of the narrow building was “solidly built” but the upper half was unfinished inside and quite unsafe.”

Miller never got as far as installing steps in his building; progress to the top was only obtained by a series of connecting ladders.

No reason was ever given for the demolition of the Douw Building. However, we can probably assume that because the Hampton had failed to renovate or use the structure, when it became property of the Albany Housing Authority, it simply became a white elephant, too costly to renovate.

Becker the Wrecker razed Douw Building in the fall of 1969. It was one of Albany’s oldest surviving structures.

By Al Quaglieri from hisAlbany blog, https://alcue.wordpress.com/author/alcue/

 

 

Miller’s Nook-Albany Rural Cemetery –

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Prior to the acquisition of the land by the Albany Cemetery Association between 1841 and 1844, a portion of the grounds in and around the south ravine was occupied by several buildings, most notably a mill and a small schoolhouse.

According to Charles Heisler, a past Superintendent of the Cemetery who compiled an extremely detailed handwritten record of all the land purchases that comprise the present Cemetery site, about half of the original acres purchased by the Albany Cemetery Association had been owned by John Hillhouse, a West Point graduate and the engineer who did some of the earliest survey work on the site.

Hillhouse had inherited his portion of the site from his father, Thomas, and John attended the little school on the south bank of what became Consecration Lake. This land is described as “the South Ridge from about Section 104 east to the Chapel and from the southern boundary north to Moordanaer’s Kill, the stream between the South and Middle Ridges.” He also left behind a detailed account of what existed on this land prior to the laying out of the Cemetery:

“The brook (called by the old Dutch inhabitants of the valley ‘Moordenaer’s kill,’ from a tradition of a murder committed near the bridge that crossed its mouth at the time the road between Albany and Troy ran along the river bank), originally hugged the base of the hills bounding the dell on its northerly side. The school-house stood directly on its bank on the south side, at the base of the most prominent of these hills, whose top was crowned with a lofty pine. The mill was further up the stream, on the same side with the school-house, just at the point where it emerged from the ravine and entered the open dell. A bridge now occupies its site. It was called the “old oil mill,” and was originally built by my father for the purpose of preparing oil-cake for the fattening of cattle. The house was for the miller’s use. There were two dams on the creek above for the supply of water for the mill, one at the bend just beyond the high bridge, the other on the site of the present dam at the outlet of the lake above. From the former the water was conveyed in an open plank race carried along the slope of the hill, and discharged through a long, high trough upon the over-shot wheel. The mill and dwelling were erected about 1816. How long they served their original purpose I am not able to say exactly, but probably some five or six years….

About 1829, the mill, having been leased to some parties for the manufacture of printers’ ink, the school, with its fixtures and dunce-block, was removed to the new school building, which my father built and which is still standing on the south side of the Cemetery avenue. The manufacture of ink not proving a success, the work was abandoned and the school-house became thereafter the home of one of the farm laborers, while the mill was given up to the bats and flying squirrels, and suffered to go to decay. In this state they continued until 1846, when, in the purchase made by Gov. Wm. L. Marcy and Thomas W. Olcott for the Albany Rural Cemetery, they became the property and passed into the possession of that most worthy association and fell before the tide of improvement.”

Nothing, of course, survives of the “old oil mill.” The last traces of it appear on the first published map of the Cemetery in 1845. Just to the north of Consecration Lake, a curved open space is identified as “Miller’s Nook” (now the area of the Spaulding and Springsteen family plots in Section 62, Lots 97 and 98) and the site of the present stone bridge is called “Mill Side Bridge.” By 1858, however, when “Churchill’s Guide Through The Albany Rural Cemetery” was published, these names had disappeared completely from the new map.

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1880s view of the area of the “old oil mill.” The stone bridge is just behind the large tree to the left of the fountain. The “Miller’s Nook” is on the right just behind the man on the shore of Consecration Lake.
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The waterfall on the Moordanaer’s Kill.
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The Hillhouse family plot in Section 4, Lot 1. The large monument on the left is reportedly the first granite one erected in the Cemetery.

From Albany Rural Cemetery- Beyond the Graves

Albany’s Dr. Woodbury and His Soap: “ A Skin You Love to Touch”

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While John Woodbury wasn’t born in Albany, it was during the 15 or so years he lived here that he created a product that endured for almost a century and a cosmetic surgery empire.

Woodbury was born in 1851 in New Hampshire into an old New England family. He came to Albany when he was about 23 in 1874 and established himself as Dr. Woodbury – chiropodist (podiatrist) at 70 State St. at the corner of State and N. Pearl (in what was then the Dexter Building).

His first newspaper ads indicate that he’d previously practiced with Nehemiah Kennison in Boston – the father of modern podiatry in the U.S. (“Dr.” Kennison was so well known he was the subject of satire in the “Harvard Lampoon” in the 1870s.) Woodbury’s offices were large – 3 parlors; we assume that he may have had some financing from a member of his mother’s family – a cousin – Charles Tenney – an very wealthy NYC hat manufacturer.

3.1At the same time Dr.Woodbury was practicing podiatry he was selling soap. Lots of soap, and not just any soap, but a facial soap-guaranteed to enhance and beautify – Woodbury Soap. In the Gilded Age, the beauty product and cosmetic market was just taking off. Most soaps had been made from primarily from harsh caustic alkalis – like lye and ash. Dr. Woodbury’s facial soap was special – it was “toilet soap” made with oil and perfumed. It was a small luxury item a shop girl or factory worker could afford. Dr. Waterbury perfected the product and advertised like crazy in newspapers all over the country – becoming the dominant brand in marketplace. He created the “Woodbury” brand that would endure for another 100 years.


2His practice thrived; soap sales thrived. He moved his offices – first to 40 N. Pearl (the Ten Eyck Plaza is there today), and then across the street – to 39 N. Pearl. By 1877 his office were next door at 37 N. Pearl – 6 rooms with 3 separate parlors for ladies. Soap sales boomed and he was now selling a book on dermatology and skin care through the mail.

 

 

Financially secure, Woodbury married a young woman, Ada Kelley also from New Hampshire, in 1877, and they lived above the offices. It was the beginning of a perfect domestic and business life. Their future was bright. Sadly, she died the next year at age 22.

It appears that Woodbury threw himself into his businesses after her death, selling more soap and patenting an orthotic device, while living as a boarder on lower Chestnut St. It was during this time Dr. Woodbury expanded his practice to include dermatology. It was quite successful. Recent research* has identified Dr. Woodbury as the one of the pioneers of modern cosmetic surgery – performing everything from brow lifts to nose bobs to face lifts using cocaine anesthetic in his offices in Albany. Who knew? Meanwhile, the soap business grew and the Woodbury name was quickly becoming synonymous with facial soap (in the way we would say “Kleenex” for tissues today).

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5.3Woodbury re-married in 1882, to Cora Landon from Sharon Springs and they move back to the rooms at 37 N. Pearl. In 1889, looking for a bigger market, he moved to New York City to concentrate on dermatology (he published his first article on cosmetic surgery procedures in 1892), selling soap and an expanding his brand of personal care products – powders and creams.

 

 

 

6In NYC in 1897 he opened the Dermatological Institute. In 1899 he runs into legal problems – New York State sues Woodbury for advertising a medical practice while not being a licensed physician. Woodbury wins and expands his business. By now Woodbury soap is an entrenched national brand – sold by druggists all over the country. He sells the iconic soap (his face is on the wrapper) to the Andrew Jergens Co. in 1901 (Woodbury retains 10% royalty) and uses the money to maintain the expansion of the Dermatological Institute in 4 cities – double chins begone!

 

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But soon there is more legal wrangling over the use of the name “Woodbury” between the Dr. and the Jergens Co. (Woodbury was now selling “Woodbury’s New Skin Soap.) There was malpractice litigation. And again, in 1908, Woodbury was sued for practicing medicine without a license- this time he lost. (The argument that the Institute was a corporation and not an individual failed to prevail, and set NYS precedent about the corporate practice of medicine.) The Institute went into bankruptcy.

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Finally in 1909 Dr. John Woodbury commits suicide at an hotel in Coney Island.

8But the soap he created and refined in Albany is his legacy. The named remains, but Jergens takes his picture off the wrapper and launches a major magazine campaign targeted explicitly to women. In 1911 Jergens strikes gold; it hires J. Walter Thompson, one of the pioneering ad agencies. A Thompson employee, Helen Lansdowne Resor, the first female copywriter in the country (Yay!) comes up with the slogan, “A Skin you love to touch”. Sex sells and sales of Woodbury soap skyrocket.

 

The marketing campaign continues until the 1930s when Jergens breaks another barrier (Dr. Woodbury, I think, would have approved.) Jergens pairs the tag “Filtered Sunshine” with totally tasteful semi-nude photos of women (by the world renowned photographer Edward Steichen) in a national advertising campaign.

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But over the next 40 or so years competition appears, the advertising loses its spark, and Woodbury came to be viewed as an “old fashioned” brand (did your Grandma use? Mine did.) Despite spiffy new graphic packaging, sales flag. Finally, when Jergens is acquired by another company in 1970, the Woodbury brand slowly disappears.

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But next time you’re downtown, and walk by the southeast corner of N. Pearl and Pine St., think about the fact that this was location of what was probably the first nose job performed in the U.S. in 1887!  Another Albany first. There really needs to be an historic marker.

*”The 19th Century Origins of Facial Cosmetic
Surgery and John H. Woodbury”, Keith Denkler, MD, Plastic Surgery, Larkspur, CA, UCSF Medical Center and Rosalind F. Hudson, MD, “Aesthetic Surgery Journal”
2015, Vol 35(7) 878-889

 

A Brief History of Albany’s New Scotland Avenue and How it Grew

At the beginning of the 1800s there was nothing on the New Scotland Plank Rd. but farmland, woods and fields. The first buildings we know are an inn, the Log Tavern* at the corner of Krumkill Rd.-a stopping point for the farmers going to and from the city, and a couple of farmhouses. The Plank Rd. was a toll road with several tollgates – one just beyond Ontario St. and another near what’s now the Golf Course.

3In 1826 the Almshouse (poor house) was established in the area that today is bounded by New Scotland Ave., Holland Ave., Hackett Blvd. and Academy Rd. (Back then the other 3 streets didn’t exist.) The next building to be constructed, in the 1840s, was the Penitentiary. (The VA Hospital is there now; built in the late 1940s, after the Penitentiary was razed in the 1930s.)

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In the 1870s William Hurst established Pleasure Park, a popular and successful horse race trotting track and picnic area near Whitehall Rd. and New Scotland Ave. (He later went on to own the Log Tavern.)

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2But Albany was growing – moving west, out Lydius St. (now Madison Ave.). In the early 1860s the area around the intersection of Madison and New Scotland started to see development, and a little stub of New Scotland Rd. from Madison to Myrtle Ave. was known briefly (for about 15 years) as Lexington Ave. In 1871 Washington Park opened and the area became fashionable. By the 1880s the Park trustees decided build a house for the Park’s Superintendent, as well as an array of greenhouses, on what is now the corner of Holland Ave. and New Scotland.

zzzzYet development west of Myrtle Ave. was slow. In 1893 the Dudley Observatory ** moved from Arbor Hill to New Scotland and South Lake Ave. In the late 1890s Albany Hospital was bursting at the seams in its downtown location at Eagle and Howard Streets, and moved to New Scotland Ave. About a decade later the Albany Orphan Asylum moved to what is now the corner of Academy Rd. and New Scotland Ave. (from Robin St. and Western Ave.). Today the buildings house the Sage College of Albany. It was originally known as the Junior College of Albany when it first opened in 1959.)***

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5.1But within the decade residential and commercial growth exploded. Much of the land near the intersections of South Lake Ave. and Academy Rd. **** was owned by the Albany Driving Association, a private club that had a track for trotter horse races to the west of Academy Rd. The members decided to sell their vast tract of land (between New Scotland and what is now Hackett Blvd. and Forest Ave.) and established the Woodlawn Park development.

7Steadily residential growth pushed west. Yet there was no trolley service. The first bus service started about1914 – the “terminal” was at the intersection of South Allen St. and New Scotland. But this was a “suburban” area deliberately designed to accommodate the automobile as the primary means of transportation.

 

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5By 1920 the Troop B Armory was constructed next to the Orphan Asylum. (Today it’s part of the Sage College Campus.) In 1921 Memorial Grove (the corner of South Lake and New Scotland) was created to honor the men who died in World War I.

 

7.1And that’s how New Scotland Ave. grew. By the mid-1920s there was a fire house, a public school, and Catholic Church. By the early 1930s St. Peter’s Hospital re-located to its current spot, from North Albany. The Depression initially halted residential development, but by the late 1930s the area beyond Manning Blvd. became a highly desirable location. It was zoned residential and the municipal golf course had been built just outside the city limits in 1931. Well-off families flocked to developments with enticing names -Golden Acres, Heldervale and Buckingham Gardens. Albany annexed land in Slingerlands several times and the city border pushed close to Whitehall Rd.

1930s New Scotland Ave

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University Heights

20In the early 1930s Holland Ave. was created. ( It was once the route for the Mohawk- Hudson Railroad, chugging from the Point at Madison and Western Avenues. to downtown.) The Almshouse was demolished, making way for the Law School to move from State St,. the Pharmacy College from Eagle St. and a NYS Health Dept. Laboratory was built across from the Hospital. University Heights was almost complete. Then Christian Brothers Academy moved uptown from Howard St. and the Fort Orange American Legion Post ** was built next to Memorial Grove.

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1940s and 1950s

33The next spurt of development began after World War II. There was a severe post-war housing crisis in Albany – the last farm within the city limits was sold in 1947 for the Weiss Rd. apartments. Hundreds of houses were constructed in the area surrounding New Scotland Ave. west of Manning to accommodate growing families with baby boomers. Two churches, St. Catherine’s Roman Catholic (now Mater Christi) and Bethany Reformed, were built in the 1950s and Temple Israel re-located to New Scotland in 1953. Maria College opened in 1965.

1,1After the annexation of Karlsfeld and Hurstville in 1967 New Scotland Ave. was complete and extended to the Normanskill.

 

 

 

 

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1960s and 1970s

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2000s

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*The Log Tavern morphed into the Hurst Hotel, and became a favorite romantic rendezvous and “love nest”, especially for politicians’. It was destroyed by fire on election night, 1929. (Oh the irony.)

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** The Dudley Observatory and Bender Laboratory (behind the Obeservatory) and the Legion post were demolished in 1970 to build the Capital District Psych Center and the attached parking garage.

***In the 1959 Russell Sage College purchased some of the buildings of what was then known as the Albany Home for Children and established the Junior College of Albany. In 2001 the College began offering 4 year degrees at the site, as the Sage College of Albany.

**** Academy Rd. was initially known as Highland Ave. – the name changed in the 1930s when Boy’s Academy moved from downtown.

Frederick Douglass on the Albany of 1847

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The remarkable and legendary Abolitionist was a frequent visitor to Albany. In 1845 he placed his oldest daughter, Rosetta, with 2 Quaker sisters, Abigail and Lydia Mott, who lived on Maiden Lane near Broadway; she lived quite comfortably for about 5 years under their care and tutelage. (They were cousins of Lucretia Mott, the women’s rights activist and abolitionist; they too were politically active and were conductors in Albany’s Underground Railroad.)

In 1847 Douglass wrote a description of Albany to a friend. (In 1845 he had become world famous after publication of his memoir about his life as a slave and flight to freedom in 1838.)

By way of background: at the time he wrote the letter Albany was the 10th largest city in the U.S., with a population of about 50,000. In the period between 1820 and 1850 the population of Albany exploded. Between 1820 and 1830, it doubled, due to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Between 1830 and 1850 the population doubled again.

There were signs of growing pains all over the City that was bursting at the seams in 1847.

The staid Old Dutch village has been overrun by businessman and politicians. Its geography worked for and against it. The Canal had been the catalyst for a manufacturing hub in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. The last slaves in New York State had been freed 20 years before; Albany has been the largest slave holding county in the State for at least 100 years previous. There were many free persons of color struggling to get a foothold in the middle class, while simultaneously advancing the cause of Abolition elsewhere in the country and providing a path to freedom in Canada for those poor souls in slave states. Immigrant populations (mostly German and Jewish) had begun pouring into country through the harbors of New York and Boston. Many made their way to Albany, as a gateway to the vast lands of the west; some stayed here. Like any Boomtown, It became a mecca for hucksters, grifters and speculators.

In the fall of 1847 Douglass had traveled to Albany (and Troy) for a series of meetings and speeches. And while Douglass found a few things here to praise — it’s fair to say he came away rather unimpressed by the city of Albany, which at the time was a key center for politics and transportation.

From a letter Douglass wrote to the abolitionist Sydney Gay in October of that year after leaving the city:

“Situated on the banks of the noble Hudson, near the head of navigation, Albany is the grand junction of eastern and western travel. Its people have a restless, unstable, and irresponsible appearance, altogether unfavourable to reform. A flood of immorality and disgusting brutality is poured into the city through the great Erie Canal, and the very cheap travel on the Hudson facilitates the egress of a swarm of loafers and rum-suckers from New York. I have received more of insult, and encountered more of low black-guardism in the streets of this city in one day than I should meet with in Boston during a whole month.”

Douglass touches on the history of slavery in Albany and the city’s apparent inertia in the face of reform.

“Like most other metropolitan towns and cities, Albany is by no means remarkable for either the depth or intensity of its interest in reform. No great cause was ever much indebted to Albany for assistance. Many reasons might be given, accounting for the tardiness of its people in matters of reform in general, and Anti-Slavery reform in particular. I believe that many of its wealthiest and most influential families have either been slaveholders, or are connected with slaveholders by family ties, and it is not too much to presume that they have not been entirely purified and cleansed of the old leaven. Their influence is yet visible on the face of this community.”

“The evil that men do lives after them.” Thirty years ago, and slaves were held, bought and sold, in this same goodly city; and in the darkness of midnight, the panting fugitive, running from steeples and [d]omes, swam the cold waters of the Hudson, and sought a refuge from Albany man-hunters, in the old Bay State. The beautiful Hudson as then to the slaves of this State, what the Ohio is to slaves in Virginia and Kentucky. The foul upas has been cut down for nearly thirty years, and yet its roots of poison and bitterness may be felt in the moral soil of this community, obstructing the plough of reform, and disheartening the humble labourer. Many efforts have been made to awaken the sympathies, quicken the moral sense, and rouse the energies of this community in the Anti-Slavery cause — but to very little purpose. many of the best and ablest advocates of the slave, including George Thompson, of London, have wrought here, but apparently in vain. So hard and so dead are its community considered to be, our lecturers pass through it from year to year without dreaming of the utility of holding a meeting in it; all are disposed to think Slavery may be abolished in the United States without aid of Albany. Like Webster, of New Hampshire, they think this a good place to emigrate from.

Situated on the banks of the noble Hudson, near the head of navigation, Albany is the grand junction of eastern and western travel. Its people have a restless, unstable, and irresponsible appearance, altogether unfavourable to reform. A flood of immorality and disgusting brutality is poured into the city through the great Erie Canal, and the very cheap travel on the Hudson facilitates the egress of a swarm of loafers and rum-suckers from New York. I have received more of insult, and encountered more of low black-guardism in the streets of this city in one day than I should meet with in Boston during a whole month.

Excerpted in part from a February 2, 2016 post in All Over Albany.com

How the Van Rensselaer Manor Vanished from Albany

Most of you know that the “Patroon” originally owned the vast area around Albany called Rensselaerwyck. (Basically, Patroon means “land owner” in Dutch.) The first Patroon was Killian Van Rensselaer, a pearl and diamond merchant, who acquired the land from the Dutch West India Co. (DWIC) in 1630. Think of the DWIC as a group of venture capitalists and speculators.. betting on the New World, using a traditional form of Dutch land ownership for revenue generation and capital formation.

Rensselaerwyck was one of several patroonships in the New Netherlands, but the only one that proved successful*. The original grant that encompassed land on both sides of the River was soon expanded by acquisition of additional lands from the Indians. In exchange for the land the Patroon had to establish a functioning colony (over which he had almost total power). (Much like IDA grants today, the Patroon got a tax break for the first decade.) Rensselaerwyck was a feudal manor and the Patroon was literally Lord of the Manor, except for Albany, which was at the time Fort Orange, a wholly owned subsidiary of the DWIC.

1.4There’s no evidence that the first Patroon ever visited his fiefdom. Business was conducted in his name by agents, from a large house and cluster of buildings north of the Fort on Broadway, near the Patroon Creek, a tributary of the Hudson River. In 1666 the compound was destroyed by a flood and rebuilt by Jeremias Van Rensselaer. (Jeremias was the third son of Killian and the first Patroon to establish permanent residence in Rensselaerwyck.)

 

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2According to Steve Belinski (the “Colonial Albany Social History Project”) the new building was constructed in the “Country Style” with the entrance on the long side and attached outbuildings. (Think a Patroon “compound” and the seat of government for the Manor.) A century later in 1765 a new and grand Manor House would be built on the same grounds by Stephen Van Rensselaer II, the Patroon and 3rd Lord of the Manor for his new wife, Catherine Livingston, daughter of Philip Livingston (signer of the Declaration of Independence). It was a large Georgian Mansion – one of the grandest homes in the country at the time – nestled amid a forest setting and lush, well-tended gardens. It was a thriving, mostly self-sufficient plantation, including slaves.

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14There were changes made to this Manor House around 1820 and again in the early 1840’s the existing structure underwent major renovation by architect Richard Upjohn (he designed the existing St. Peter’s Church on State St.), preserving the Georgian features of the original Manor House. It was still a gracious baronial manse – but it would be the home of the Last Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV.

 

14.1The days of the Patroon were coming to an end. The Anti-Rent Wars had already started in the late 1830s. The Patroon’s thousands of tenants were protesting what was still a feudal system of land ownership in which the Patroon held all the cards. The Wars would continue until 1846** when the NYS Constitution was amended to abolish the Patroon system and Van Rensselaer would start selling off his property – in Albany and across the Manor. ***

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20The Last Patroon died in 1868. By then the Manor House was hemmed in by the Erie Canal and the railroads on the east and the growing city and its factories on the west. By the 1870s the great Manor House was abandoned. There were attempts by the family to have the structure declared a New York State landmark of sorts. There were efforts made by some citizens to move the building to Washington Park. These failed.

 

 

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Finally, in the early 1890s Albany’s great architect, Marcus Reynolds (Banker’s Trust, the D&H Building and the Delaware Ave. fire house) and young Van Rensselaer cousin, convinced the family to agree to have the Manor disassembled. He transported the exteriors and the Manor House was “re-built” as the Sigma Phi fraternity house (Van Rensselaer Hall) at Williams College. (Reynolds was an 1890 graduate of Williams.) The interiors were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and are currently on display in Gallery 752 in the American Wing.

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Van Rensselaer Hall survived until 1973 when it was demolished for a new Williams College library.

The last evidence of the Patroons in Albany survived into the 20th century on Broadway near Tivoli St. Alas, circa 1918 the Patroon’s Office (where the Patroon’s agents conducted business for almost 200 years) was demolished to accommodate the expansion of the International Harvester franchise.

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Today there’s no trace the Patroons were ever here, except for an historical marker on Clinton Ave. that identifies it as the former Patroon St., the original dividing line between the Patroon’s land and Albany. There’s no historic marker … nothing, nada, zip, zilch ….at 950 Broadway, near Manor St., the address of the Manor House. (This was one of the pet peeves of the late Warren Roberts, History Prof. at U Albany and author of the great book, “A Place in History; Albany in the Age of Revolution 1775-1825”. )

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And that’s how the Van Rensselaer Manor House vanished.

* A 10th G Grandfather, Cornelius Melyn, was the Patroon of Staten Island. It didn’t work out. There were wars with several Indian tribes, and battles with the DWIC and the successive Director Generals of the colony, including Peter Stuyvesant, over the dictatorial nature of the DWIC. He was a cranky rebel and a thorn in the side. Great Grandpa Corny ended up in the English New Haven Colony, took an oath of loyalty to the Crown and relinquished his right to the Patroonship of Staten Island. The last vestige of Corny is a mural in the Staten Island Borough Hall.

**The Anti-Rent Wars are fictionalized in the novel, “Dragonwyck” by Anya Seton (1944) and in a movie of the same name (1946) with Gene Tierney, Vincent Price and Walter Huston. Vincent Price is the perfect arrogant Dutch Patroon villain.. “You must pay the rent.”

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*** A GG grandfather purchased land in the 200 block of Livingston Ave. (then Lumber St.) in 1850 as part of the Patroon’s property sell-off.

The Building of the NYS Capitol in Albany – Labor Day

Recently we were looking at photos of the New York State Capitol in Albany; then we went to look at old photographs during its construction in the late 1800s. We started to think about the men who built it and who they were.

Most discussion of the Capitol focuses on the architecture and design of the building we see today that dominates downtown. It’s an engineering marvel, built through the blood, sweat and toil of thousands of men over decades.

Albany Becomes the Capital of New York State

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Albany became the capital of New York State in 1797. For the first years the Legislature met in the Albany Stadt Huys (City Hall) on Broadway near Hudson Ave. – sharing space with Albany Common Council. The need for new digs led to the construction of a specifically dedicated building. The site selected was the top of State St. hill in an area designated as a public square – after the demolition of Fort Frederick.

1.6The new Capitol was designed by Philip Hooker, an Albany native and the pre-eminent architect of this area at the time. (First Church on N. Pearl near Clinton and the Joseph Henry Memorial Building, originally constructed for Albany Academy remain as an examples of his design.) It was a simple, yet elegant building, almost church-like – four square with a cupola, surrounded by a pretty, tidy park. It was occupied circa 1809.

But as early the 1840s there was a growing sense that the existing building was inadequate. It was cramped and crowded. A new State Hall, across the way on Eagle St. was completed in 1842. (It now houses the NYS Court of Appeals – it’s a gorgeous Greek revival temple.) Other offices were located in the State Hall on the southwest corner of State and Lodge. And there was a perception among NYS officials and many Albany citizens that the existing Capitol was.. just too simple, too modest. It didn’t befit and reflect the growing wealth and importance of New York, first among all states ad Albany (which was at that point the 10the largest city in America. (Honestly, it simply wasn’t sufficiently grand and ostentatious in a Victorian age of extremes.)

The New Capitol

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This sentiment grew, but the Civil War intervened. Once the War was over the NYS Legislature hurried to authorize the construction of a new building in Fall 1865. The area behind the existing building was selected, on land owned by the City. A plan was approved in late 1867 and excavation began in December 1867. We’ve read that hundreds of Irish laborers were immediately sent out to dig in the semi- frozen ground. Brutally hard work, but it meant money for a Christmas.

Then came the acquisition and demolition of surrounding buildings in 1868 After that, 400 men and 200 teams of horses continued the process of removing the excavated earth and debris and dumping down the side of the ravine at Swan and St. and Sheridan Ave. (then Canal St.) The cornerstone was dedicated in 1871 (BTW.. it appears to have been lost to the mists of time.. it was never marked.)

Work progressed.. and sometimes not, depending on the availability of funding. The Panic of 1873 sent most of the country into a deep economic depression that lasted for 8 years. But Albany had one of the biggest public works programs in the nation. Capitol construction was a massive economic engine that kept the city puttering along, although there were hiccups from time to time – money ran out and men were out of work for months at a time. There were fears responsibility for their maintenance would fall on the Superintendent of Albany’s poor.

Labor
Hundreds of men from across the country and Western Europe flocked to the City. (The City’s population grew by almost over 20% from 1870 to 1890.) It became home to stone cutters, stone carvers, masons and brick workers from all over. Men were needed on the railroad to haul limestone from Kingston and Tribes Hill, sandstone from Potsdam, bluestone from Ulster County and materials from Newark. Knoxville and Ohio. On the docks huge shipments of granite.. so much granite…. were unloaded daily – mostly from Maine quarries. As construction progressed and work on the interior started there were exotic woods from South America, onyx from Mexico and marble from Italy.

The work was back breaking and grueling. In the first days of the build, the construction techniques hadn’t changed much from the middle ages. The massive pieces of granite were dressed, hoisted and maneuvered into place using cranes, pulleys, ramps, winches, blocks and tackles, with mostly the human and horse power. (Steam operated equipment was used set the massive foundation stones, but its use didn’t become common until the 1880s – by then most of the heavy lifting was over.) When work was progressing at full speed as many as 1,000 men toiling on any given day. The construction site became a tourist attraction.

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It’s worth noting that much of the labor was organized. The stonecutters union is one of the oldest in America and it represented about 80% of the workers. But there were also blacksmiths, masons, tool carriers, mechanics, bricklayers, iron workers – and in the later days – tile setters, plumbers and electricians, carpenters and cabinetmakers, stone carvers (it’s said there were over 500 – mostly from Wales, England, Scotland and Italy) when interior work was underway. But it was the members of the stonecutter’s union – mostly Irish – who set the labor agenda.

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Many of the men were single or left their families at home. As wealthy families moved away from the construction site, their large homes became boarding houses – on Washington Ave, across from the site. But there were men crammed into what is now Sheridan Hollow, on streets demolished for the Empire State Plaza and in Martinville – the tenement slum in what is now Lincoln Park. The number of saloons grew exponentially and the police force increased in size to deal with the influx.

But there were men with families – who lived in Arbor Hill, North Albany, Little Italy, and in the South End. Edmund Gibbons, Bishop of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese in the early part of the 20th century, was the son of a mason who moved from Westchester County to Albany. They lived on Lafayette St., a narrow alley, long gone, that ran between Elk St. and Washington Ave, and which housed many of the barns where horses were stabled. Both the public and parochial school systems grew.

State government moved into the Capitol in stages – long before it was completed.

The building was first occupied in 1879; there was a reception for 8,000 given by the “Citizens of Albany’ (we doubt whether any of the men who built it were invited). In 1883, the remaining occupants of the old State Capitol were moved out into the new Capitol and the building was demolished.

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But wait!

The new Capitol, despite 5 architects and 3 building plans, still wasn’t complete. Finally in 1899, then Governor Teddy Roosevelt said, “Enough”.. 32 years and $25 million (about $750,000,000 today) later, making it the most costly State Capitol in the country. (Would you expect anything less from New York.) What other building has a “Million Dollar Staircase”?

The decision to change architects midstream makes it “one of the most architecturally interesting government buildings in the United States”. Italian Renaissance meets Romanesque with a French Renaissance fling; the lavishly decorated dramatic interior is more “Moorish Gothic” – a unique style. The 500 stone carvers had a field day. In some instances they were given free rein – it’s been said you can find images of their friends and family, people they saw on the street, some of children of the wealthiest men in Albany for a fee and even a small image of Satan on the main staircase.

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The History of the Albany County (Altamont) Fair: Not Just Deep-Fried Twinkies

 

There’s almost nothing as All-American as a County Fair and Albany County had one of the first in the nation; 205 years later it’s still going strong.

The first County Fair is said to have been organized in Pittsfield by Elkanah Watson* in 1807 when he took his two prized Merino sheep to Park Square; the display quickly drew a sizable crowd of admirers and, just like that, the seeds of the modern agricultural fair were sown. He then organized the Berkshire Agricultural Society, which held its first fair in 1811.

1Word traveled rapidly; Albany quickly followed suit and the first Fair in Albany was sponsored by the Albany (County) Agricultural Society two years later in 1813. The initial fairs (primarily animal shows) were held in Washington Square. Subsequent fairs were held in the Parade Grounds, just beyond the Square. (Both areas are now within Washington Park.) By the 1840s the exhibits moved beyond cattle, horses and chickens to include all sorts of local crops and agricultural products.

 

 

3 (2)Around 1850 the New York State Agricultural Society constructed a semi-permanent fairground in Menands. For about 20 years the site was also used for the Albany County Fair. (There are some wonderful prints of this Fair in that location- make sure you take a look at the images attached to this post.) It was during this time the Fair came into its own. There were horse races, floral exhibits, pie making and cake competitions, quilts and other textiles; almost everything you would come to expect from a county fair.

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3.(3)By 1855 the Industrial Revolution had made its way into the Fair. Exhibition Halls were too small to accommodate the vast array of agricultural implements (plows and seed planters), stoves, sewing machines, pianofortes, looking glasses and other “diverse domestic manufactures”. By the 1860s the Fair locations moved around Albany County – back to the Washington Parade Grounds, Babcock Corners in the Town of Bethlehem, near Cohoes in the northern part of the County and even Slingerlands – including what is now Albany – the locationof Mater Christi (St. Catherine’s) Church and grounds in Hurstville.

 

4.1Finally the Fair moved to Altamont in Guilderland (a central location). The Altamont Driving Park and Fair Association was incorporated on May 20, 1893. Within a month the Board of Directors also approved the purchase 24.5 acres of land in Altamont for the “Altamont Fair Grounds.”

The first fair was held from September 12 through 15, 1893. Admission was 25 cents for adults, and the net receipts for the four days was $884.13. A racetrack was built in front of the Grandstand. One of the first buildings, the Flower & Fine Arts a Building, is on the State and National Registers of Historic Sites. A year later the name was changed to the Albany County Agricultural Society and Exposition.

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The Modern County Fair is Born

4In addition to the agricultural, animal and domestic arts competitions and exhibitions, the Fair has, through the years, incorporated other attractions. Carnival rides and a Midway were added. Auto racing was started in 1915 and continued through the 1990s.** The first airplane rides were also started in 1915.- alas the propeller of the plane hit a wall and it never got off the ground. A flea circus was a popular attraction in the early 1900s. There have been singing dogs, dancing bears, wrestling, concerts, boxing, vaudeville shows, rodeo and dramatic readings. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) booth was a mainstay before Prohibition. Politicians and political candidates made obligatory appearances. Electric lights were added in the 1920s and it became a favorite place for canoodling Flappers and their swains at night.

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16Here are a couple of my favorites during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s – a guided missile display by GE, real Marines re-enacted a famous battle, a Fall-out shelter exhibit and an Atlas Missile was displayed. The 60s saw demonstrations by NY Telephone of cable slicing, a fife and drum competition and a Battle of the Bands. Cars have been won and in 1964 a new house supplied by the Albany County Realtor’s Assoc. was raffled.

The exhibits and demonstrations have changed with the times, but it’s still a summer tradition.

Note: today the Fair is a Tri-County Fair, including Albany, Greene and Schenectady Counties.

*Watson, a wealthy man, previously lived in Albany – it’s been said he was too progressive and creative for our city, and retired to Massachusetts to raise sheep.

**The Fair wasn’t cancelled in World War II. It was considered part of the War effort – with canning, preserving and Victory Garden exhibits and demonstrations to show women how to make do and make over old clothing during rationing. However, since gasoline was rationed, the car raced using propane tanks.

Yay Yay It’s National Waffle Day!

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Why? Today in 1869 Cornelius Swartout, then working in Troy, patented the waffle iron. Swartout came from an old Dutch family that settled in the New Netherlands in the mid 1600s. It appears they first came to New Amsterdam, and then wended their way up the Hudson to Kingston. By the 1700s we find most of Cornelius’ family living in the Hilltowns of Westerlo and Berne. By the 1800s many, including Cornelius and some of his siblings, become Flatlanders and make their way to Albany.

waffle 4We can thank the Dutch for Waffles. They were probably invented in the 1400s. They were so yummy there is evidence that they had already been adopted by the English and references appear in the early days of Plymouth colony in Massachusetts. But they are a Dutch thing. Wafel (sic) irons are among the staples you find in inventories of New Netherland households in the 1600s. They continue to appear regularly in store ads in newspapers in Albany well into the 1800s.

 

 

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Making waffles is labor intensive, so they were treats. But they always made appearances on St. Nicholas Day and other holidays as integral part of those feasts. They were so special that by 1744 there is a surviving letter from a young woman in which she describes her attendance at a “Waffle Frolic”!

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No self-respecting Dutch housewife was without a “Wafle” recipe. We’ve included 2 from about 1800. The first is from the Lefferts family, Dutch settlers in Flatbush around the 1680s. The other is from Alida Bogert, who was born in the mid-1700s in Albany and lived on N Pearl, probably near Maiden Lane with her husband Barent and her many children.

 

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So.. the Dutch gave us not only donuts and cookies, but waffles as well! AWESOME!!!

Another thing Albany needs to add to its event list – the Annual Albany Frolic