“Blind Tom” at Albany’s Tweddle Hall in 1866

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Blind Tom

Thomas Greene Wiggins was born in 1849 to Mungo and Charity Wiggins, slaves on a Georgia plantation. He was blind and autistic, but a musical genius with a phenomenal memory. In 1850 Tom, his parents, and two brothers were sold to James Neil Bethune, a lawyer and newspaper editor in Columbus, Georgia. Tom made his concert debut at eight, performing in Atlanta.

In 1859, age of 10, he became the first African American performer to play at the White House for President James Buchanan. His piano pieces “Oliver Galop” and “Virginia Polka” were published in 1860. During the Civil War he was used to raise funds for Confederate relief. By 1865 16-year-old Tom Wiggins, now “indentured” to James Bethune, could play difficult works of Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Thalberg. He also played pieces after one hearing, and memorized poems and text in foreign languages.

Bethune took Tom on a concert tour in Europe and he became an internationally recognized performer. By 1868 Tom and the Bethune family lived on a Virginia farm in the summer, while touring the United States and Canada the rest of the year, averaging $50,000 annually in concert revenue. James Bethune eventually lost custody of Tom to his late son’s ex-wife, Eliza Bethune. Charity Wiggins, Tom’s mother, was a party to the suit, but she did not win control of her son or his income.

Blind Tom Wiggins gave his last performance in 1905. (excerpted from www.blackpast.org)

Tweddle Hall

Tweddle Hall was the pre-eminent concert venue in Albany on the corner of State St. and North Pearl St. for decades (a Citizen’s Bank is there today). It was mostly destroyed by fire in 1883, and then re-built as the Tweddle Building several years later, housing office and stores. (By now there were other concert venues.) The Tweddle Building was demolished circa 1912 to accomodate the expansion of the Ten Eyck Hotel, which was demolished circa 1970 for the bank,

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The Corner of State and Pearl.. a/k/a “The Old Elm Tree Corner”

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For over 300 years, the northwest corner of State and N. Pearl has been a very special part of Albany. In the late 1600s it was originally the site of the home of Nicholas Van Rensselaer and Alida Schuyler. After Nicholas died, Alida married Robert Livingston in 1679 (her husband’s former bookkeeper) and the Livingstons remained in the house on the corner. In 1735, Philip Livingston, future signer of the Declaration of Independence, planted what was to become the famous “Old Elm Tree” in front of that house.

Prior to the Revolution, the corner housed the “Blue Bell Tavern “and a number of stores. By 1794, it was known as Webster’s Corner. The Webster Brothers bookstore and printing house published the “Albany Gazette” and “The Albany Journal” and cartloads of Noah Webster’s spelling books and dictionary were dispersed throughout the Northeast. In the mid 1830s, the Boardman & Gray Piano Showroom and factory set up on the corner. And the Elm Tree remained.

In 1860 the grand Tweddle Hall opened, with shops and offices on the bottom floor and a large theater/hall above. However, by 1877, Mr. Tweddle (president of the Merchants Bank) finally gave into progress, and when N. Pearl St. was to be widened, he allowed the ancient “Old Elm Tree” to be cut down.

Maybe karma… maybe not… but in 1883, Tweddle Hall was destroyed by a disastrous fire. Tweddle re-built on the site, the Tweddle Building, without the hall, but again home to numerous stores and offices.

In 1915, Tweddle Hall was demolished for expansion of the Ten Eyck Hotel. just above it, facing State St. The hotel stood on that corner for another almost another 60 years.
Throughout most of the 20th century, it was the most famous trolley/bus stop in Albany and a meeting place for anyone Downtown.

During the 1950s and 1960s almost every bus in the City stopped at the corner. The sidewalk was wide and at 5pm there could be as many as 200 people crammed on the corner at any given time, waiting for “their bus,” one of a long line that often stretched several blocks. There was a Walgreen’s drugstore in the bottom of the Ten Eyck, the perfect place, if you were a kid, to dash in to buy a nickel Hershey bar… or if an adult, a copy of the Knickerbocker News, Albany’s evening newspaper for the bus ride home.
The Ten Eyck Hotel closed in around 1969 and the building was demolished, along with the Albany Savings Bank next door, for a new bank building of astoundingly modern architecture built in the early 1970s.

There was a plaque paying tribute to the Old Elm.Tree. but that has vanished over time; today’s plaque commemorates Philip Livingston, but not the tree he planted that stood for 130 some odd years.

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Mark Twain and Albany

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His first major nationwide lecture tour began in 1868; near the end of that tour he made his first appearance in Albany on January 10, 1870, at Tweddle Hall (the northwest corner of State and N. Pearl). At the last minute, Twain changed the subject of his lecture to his favorite: “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands”, based on his stay in Hawaii.

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The lecture was part of a subscription series in Albany sponsored by Union Veterans to raise money for the widows and orphans of dead Union soldiers. In his letter of January 10 to the love of his life, Olivia (who was to become his wife less than a month later) he says that he expects the lecture’s audience to be the largest of season’s tour.

Twain appeared in Albany several more times; lecturing in 1871 and testifying before the NYS Assembly on behalf of the osteopathic profession in 1901.

One more Twain/Albany delicious tidbit: Twain’s first novel, “Innocents Abroad” (1869) lampoons American tourists in Europe and the Holy Land, and is based on a trip Twain took in 1867. One of the characters, The Oracle (a know-it-all windbag who spouts all sorts of wrong information at the drop of a hat with great authority), was modeled on Albany’s Dr. E.Andrews, a passenger on the trip. Maybe that’s why he switched the topic of lecture?

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(BTW: Twain was, for many years, fast friends with Albany’s own Bret Harte, writer of “The Outcasts of Poker Flats”, and other wonderful short stories, but in the 1870s that friendship foundered on money issues. More about Bret at a later date.)

Albany’s First Dollar Store

15941115_1196465237068403_3097582177788813151_nThere can be no doubt that in 1870, a “Dollar Store” had a different meaning than it does today. The Tweddle Hall Dollar Store of Albany, located in the bottom of Tweddle Hall at the corner of State and N. Pearl was proud of its white metal show cases, its “immence” stock of beautiful and desirable articles, and, perhaps not least, its polite and attentive young ladies. Dollar stores started to pop in large cities in the mid-1860s, but didn’t come to Albany until a couple of years later. They were such a marvel they were recommended in sightseeing guides. The Dollar Stores sold every conceivable household utensil, ornament, notion and fancy good – from books to umbrellas. Up until this time, most of the store clerks were men, but the Dollar Stores wanted to appeal to men, so they employed young women. It was said that in some of the Dollar Stores in NYC, young women worked for free in the hopes of meeting a husband. By the mid 1870’s the novelty of the Dollar Store wore off and in Albany (as elsewhere in the country) enterprising businessmen, like Mr. Myers and Mr. Whitney, who previously sold only dry goods, were opening department stores on N. Pearl Street, with a broader range of better quality goods and a more uniform and stable inventory (unlike the Dollar Store that sourced its goods on an ad hoc and random basis to get good wholesale prices). By 1876 the Dollar Store moved out of the prestigious Tweddle Hall address and down the street to 55 N. Pearl St. and re-styled itself as the Variety Bazaar. The Bazaar lasted only a short time- within 5 years it closed, soon replaced by Mr. Woolworth and his five and ten cent store in the same block. Sidenote: Tweddle Hall caught fire in 1883 – it was re-built and named the Tweddle Building – just another office building. That was demolished in 1916 to make way for an addition to the Ten Eyck Hotel next door. The Hotel was demolished around 1973 and a Citizen’s Bank is located there today. BUT the building to which the Dollar Store moved on N. Pearl remains. In the first half (and then some) of the 20th century it was a swanky women’s apparel store called Muhlfelders. Today it’s the Capitol American Eatery and Lounge. Thanks to Laura Northrup-the Consumerist.com and Carl Johnson – Hoxie.org

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