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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An Albany Family Story; a Rise to Fortune from Slave to Hotel Mogul.

2Adam Blake Sr. was born about 1773 in an area south of Albany (possibly New York City) and brought to Albany as a slave by a local merchant Jacob Lansing as a young boy to serve the Van Rensselaer estate. (In the NYS 1790 census, there are 15 slaves listed on the estate.) As an adult, Blake was manager of the household staff at Van Rensselaer Manor, home of the Stephen Van Rensselaer III (the “Last Patroon”). In 1803 he married Sarah Richards in the Dutch Reformed Church (now known as the First Reformed Church) on North Pearl St. (Notably, this was the same church attended by Alexander Hamilton while he was in Albany and there is no doubt their paths crossed.)

The relationship between Van Rensselaer and Blake appears to have been more than slave and master. Blake was a trusted confident, yet Van Rensselaer didn’t free Blake until about 1811 or later, despite the fact that Blake had married a young woman, Sarah Richards, probably another Van Rensselaer slave in 1803. In later years Van Rensselaer confessed deeply regretting his failure to free Blake at an earlier date, but made no explanation.) Nonetheless, when Van Rensselaer died, Adam Blake led his funeral procession.

After becoming a free person of color Blake continued in the employ of Van Rensselaer although his obituary refers to connections with Governor DeWitt Clinton. Blake enjoyed a position of esteem throughout the Albany community, among both White and Afro-Americans citizens; he was, by all accounts, a very elegant (he was called the “Beau Brummel of Albany”, intelligent and charming man.

3He and his family lived in the 100 block of Third St. between Lark and S. Swan, on land that was previously part of Patroon holdings (probably given to him by Van Rensselaer) and owned several adjacent lots (107, 109 and 111). Blake was a major figure in the Afro-American community in Albany, involved in the first African school in Albany in the early 1800s. He was immersed in abolitionist activities; he was one of the notable speakers during the 1827 Albany celebration of the abolition of slavery in New York State and was a key figure in the National Colored Peoples Convention held in Albany in 1840.

Blake’s son, Adam Jr. was adopted – we know nothing of his birth parents or antecedents. He was raised at the Van Rensselaer Manor, where he received his early schooling by the side of the Van Rensselaer children. He would become one of the most successful businessmen and entrepreneurs in the 1800s in Albany of either race. While in his 20’s he worked his way up to the position of head waiter at the famous Delavan House on Broadway. Blake rapidly built his reputation as a restaurant proprietor with the opening of his own restaurant on Beaver and Green Streets in 1851. Over the next 14 years he opened two more establishments, first on James St. and the next on State St., each one more upscale. His restaurants were favorite haunts of the young swells, NYS legislators, and diverse governmentos of all stripes. He catered private parties, assemblies, balls and picnics. Young Blake appears to have been a naturally genial, gracious and discreet host. We have a vision of a man who could cater an elegant reception for Albany’s society women or organize a back room dinner for politicians with equal ease – the “prince of caterers”.

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6In 1865 Blake secured the lease for the Congress Hall Hotel, adjacent to the Old Capitol on the corner of Park St and Washington Ave. This was a fabled landmark (Lafayette stayed the night during his 1824 Albany visit), but fallen on hard times. . He acquired 3 adjacent buildings (Gregory’s Row) combined them with the Hotel, and spent a large sum furnishing it in a sumptuous fashion, The Hall was a lucrative concession – its location was favored by legislators and other politicians for lodgings, meals, receptions and meetings.

In 1878 the Hall needed to be demolished for the new Capitol building; Blake received $190,000 compensation from New York State. He used the money to open a large hotel on N. Pearl St. that remains today. The hotel was built for Blake by the son of the late Dr. James McNaughton (former president of the Albany Medical Society) on land they owned; it was named the Kenmore after the small village in Scotland in which McNaughton was born. The hotel was designed by the Ogden and Wright, leading Albany architects, and no expense was spared

7Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, while the Kenmore was under construction, Blake took over the management of the Averill Park Hotel across the river for the summer of 1879.

 

 

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McNaughton’s willingness to build the Kenmore for Blake to his specifications speaks volumes about the general estimation of his business acumen and confidence in potential for its success. While he benefited greatly from his father’s connections and those of the Patroon, he clearly had natural and innate ability.

9The Kenmore Hotel opened in 1880. It was Adam Blake’s dream- a marvel of modern technology and comfort; it was called “the most elegant structure on the finest street in Albany”. It was wildly successful, not only for its convenience, but for its level of service. It included hot and cold running water (and new-fangled water closets), an elevator, telephones and, of course a fine and palatial dining room.

 

 

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Throughout his life Adam Jr. moved easily among both the Afro –American and white communities, and was as widely respected as his father had been. He apprenticed a number of young Afro-American men who went on to manage major hotels throughout the New York State, including the Clarendon Hotel in Saratoga Springs; Leonard Jerome and family were guests (daughter Jenny would marry Lord Randolph Churchill and give birth to Winston.) While James Matthews (the first Afro=American judge elected in the U.S.) was in Albany Law school, Blake employed him as a bookkeeper in the Congress Hotel. He used his community standing to advance Afro-American causes whenever possible. In the early 1870s he hosted and promoted an appearance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choral group that toured to raise funds for one of the first Afro-American college in Tennessee. Several years later he worked diligently in the fight to desegregate Albany’s public schools.

He was known as a generous man “who never turned away a stranger or neighbor in need”. In 1881 beautiful stained glass memorial window was dedicated in the Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton St (the oldest Afro-American church in Albany, established in 1828). Adam Jr.’s activities in the Abolitionist movement are not documented as are his father’s, but the Blake family houses on Third St. we’re situated directly behind that of Stephen Myers on Livingston Ave., leading figure in Albany’s Underground Railroad, and at one point Blake lived at 198 Lumber St. (now Livingston), 2 doors away from the Myers’ house at 194 Lumber. It is improbable to think that neither father nor son was not involved in the Railroad. Upon the dedication of the church window, Dr. William Johnson delivered a speech commemorating Blake, in which he said:

“He loved liberty and abhorred slavery. He believed in the equality of all, in the manhood of all and in the common brotherhood of all. He was identified with Frederick Douglass, Stephen Myers, Drs., Smith and Pennington and their compatriots, in untiring efforts tending to the overthrow of slavery…. he took active part in state and national councils of the oppressed and served in honorable official capacity in the Equal Rights League of the state….”

Unfortunately, Blake died an untimely death in 1881 at the age of 51. He didn’t really get to revel in his success. At the time of his death his private fortune was estimated in excess of $100,000, an astonishing sum for anyone, let alone the son of a slave. For the next seven years the Hotel was managed by his widow, Catherine, who was equally good at business, accumulating real estate all over the Albany, including 2 row houses on Spring St. near Lark St. that stand today When the lease on the Kenmore Hotel expired in 1887, Catherine left the hotel business, selling the furnishing and the Hotel’s goodwill for a tidy sum to the new owners. While the Blakes were involved with the Kenmore, they lived on Columbia St., but when Mrs. Blake gave up the Kenmore, she moved to First St to an elegant townhouse (that also remains today), between S. Hawk St. and S. Swan St., taking her place among the other wealthy families of Albany, just above the Ten Broeck Triangle.

Thanks to Paula Lemire https://www.facebook.com/ARCbeyondthegraves/ and her contributions to the research on the lives of both Adam Sr. and Jr.