Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Hungarian General Benevolent Society in Schenectady

A recent donation of material related to the Hungarian General Benevolent Society was a great addition to the collections of local ethnic societies that we have at the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives. While Hungarians did not immigrate to Schenectady in the numbers that Italians and Poles did, their culture had still had quite an impact on the area.

Some marvelous mustaches on display in this unlabeled photo. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
The Hungarian Benevolent Society was founded in 1895 when a group of Hungarians sent a petition to the Department of Insurance of the State of New York for permission to organize and legally carry on the benevolent work of its members. They were granted permission to do so as well as a charter. The 60th Anniversary booklet of the society gives a short history, stating that "These high-minded Hungarians knew that 'there is strength in unity' and that by uniting with each other in a fraternal organization they would realize their aims more fully in giving aid to each other when sickness or death visited their families." Unfortunately, shortly after they formed, the group disbanded. The booklet mentions that it was possible that the members had to look for work elsewhere.
This collection has some great colorized photos. This one shows members of the Benevolent Society in traditional Hungarian dress. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
Another group of Hungarians would reform the society at the turn of the century. This group would grow and by the late 1910s, they bought a hall in order to "express their cultural and social life more fully." The hall was located at 933 Pleasant St. and was named the Hungarian Hall. It would become the center of the society's activities and Hungarian culture. It was also the location of the frequently occurring Hungarian Grape Festival which was first held in 1910.

The Caravan Gypsies were one of the more popular Hungarian music groups. The group was led by Julius Desmond Csegezy. Included in the group was Steve Hidegh, Joseph Palmer, John Skoda, Illes Sebestyen, and Paul Oleshak. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
An article from the September 21, 1954 issue of the Schenectady Gazette (https://goo.gl/BGD4KM) describes the Grape Festival in great detail. Hungarian gypsy music was one of the highlights of the festival which featured Illes Sebestyen playing the cymbalom (a hammered dulcimer), two fiddlers, a cellist, and a double bass player. The festival was opened with a goulash dinner which took place in the garden in the back of the hall. An arbor was constructed from birch trees, it was covered with bunches of grapes and apples. After the dinner, the band led costumed participants in a march around the garden.

"Onlookers had a chance to observe the white skirted men with their fancy black boots and the women with their voluminous white skirts, smartly embroidered bodices, colorful shawls and posied headdresses. The Hungarian tri-color, red, white and green, was in the sashes worn by the men and the decorative designs of the women's skirts." - D.E. Ritz, Reporter from the Schenectady Gazette

Dancers and musicians on stage at one of the Hungarian Grape Festivals. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
The author goes on to write that they were taught to dance by Deszo Simonovich, a survivor of the Dachau Concentration Camp. He was described as a "marvelous dancer he whirled us through the 'fris' or quickstep and the preceding 'lassu' or slow movement." The dancers would spin around "until they felt like the inside of a spiral, then unwhirled in the other direction." After dancing, everyone was hungry again and went inside for more food and even more dancing.

The Hungarian Hall was not the only meeting place for Schenectady's Hungarian population. The Hungarian Tavern on 1423 Broadway opened on Saturday, October 22, 1938. Couretsy of fultonhistory.com.
Hardships would hit the society after World War I and during the depression. In early 1943 the Benevolent Society would merge with the Hungarian Men's and Women's Social Society to form the Hungarian General Benevolent Society. After World War II, the area saw an influx of Hungarian immigrants who escaped from the Communist rule of Mátyás Rákosi. 

This was a great concern for Schenectady's Hungarian population. There are several form letters to various American political figures from Andrew Toth, the society's president throughout much of the 1950s. In the letter, Toth writes that "For ten years this godless rein plundering the country and holding the people in terror and slavery. Tens of thousands are in prison, concentration and slave labor-camps." He received responses from many of the politicians he wrote to, one in particular came from the Department of State. This response included a statement from President Eisenhower, United Nations sessions regarding the situation in Hungary and a letter to the president of the U.N. Security Council from Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. regarding Hungary.

This collection also includes photos from the Grape Festival and other celebrations that were organized by the Benevolent Society. Although small, this collection is a great example of the culture that Hungarians brought to Schenectady.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

George H. Fort: The Ex-Governor's Biggest Fan

Headline from the August 13, 1913 issue of the Rome Daily Sentinel. Courtesy of fultonhistory.com.
Tammany Hall boss "Silent Charlie" Murphy once said that "It is the fate of political leaders to be reviled." Former New York Governor, William "Plain Bill" Sulzer was certainly reviled, although it seemed like he was hated more by Murphy and Tammany Hall than by the public. Sulzer was elected Governor of New York in November, 1912. He was not Governor for very long as he would become the only New York Governor to be impeached and removed from office. A common belief was that Sulzer's impeachment was caused by his break from Tammany politics shortly after taking office. After being impeached in 1913, Sulzer stayed in politics and ran for Governor once again in the 1914 New York State Election under the Prohibition Party. Some saw injustice in Sulzer's impeachment and over 10,000 people came to bid farewell to Sulzer at his last night in the Executive Mansion in Albany. Despite his impeachment, he still had many fans locally, one such fan was Schenectady's George H. Fort, an employee at General Electric.

Photo of William Sulzer courtesy of  http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/mssc/sulzer/index.html.
As we all know, politics can often be extremely personal and this was the case for George Fort. Fort had quite a bit of faith in Sulzer and fully believed that Sulzer's impeachment was due to the involvement of Tammany Hall. A collection of correspondence in our library between George Fort and William Sulzer shows just how much Fort cared for the causes that he and the former governor shared. The correspondence mainly deals with a speech that Sulzer agrees to give to the Brotherhood of the Albany Street Methodist Episcopal Church, a group that Fort was heavily involved with. In addition to the correspondence between Fort and Sulzer, the collection also includes some personal material from George Fort. This material gives us an idea of who George Fort was and what he cared about.

George Fort's Watcher's Certificate for the Prohibition Party. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Collection.

Fort was deeply religious and involved with the Prohibition Party. He taught adult Sunday School
The Methodist Church's
endorsement for Sulzer.
Courtesy of the
Grems-Doolittle
Library Collection.
(referred to as the Win One Class) at the Albany Street Methodist Church and a couple of his lessons are included in this collection. Fort's religious involvement seems to be tied directly to his political beliefs. A page from the Methodist Church's newsletter titled "The Church In Action Against The Saloon On Election Day" serves as a guide for Methodist Church supported political candidates. William Sulzer is represented on this page as "The Only Candidate Who 'Rings True' on Prohibition." Fort followed this cause and became a poll watcher for the Prohibition Party. A letter dated October 31, 1914 from Sulzer to Fort encouraged Fort to "Impress upon all our friends that the fight has narrowed down to a contest between Whitman and myself -- Glynn is hopelessly beaten -- and if the Sulzerites throughout the State will not be mislead by the political canards of the Republican and the Democratic campaign managers, I will beat Whitman by at least 75,000 votes." Sulzer was right about one thing, Glynn did get hopelessly beaten, but it was by Whitman. Sulzer came in third and did not even manage to get 75,000 votes.

The bright side to this election for Sulzer was that Tammany backed Martin Glynn lost! Sulzer saw this as a "moral victory" and an end to Democratic Machine politics. Fort also saw the positive in Sulzer's loss and rejoiced in the defeat of Martin Glynn. In this same letter, Fort compares Sulzer's impeachment to the trial of Jesus in Pontius Pilate's court stating that "The parties on trial in both instances were innocent of the accusations with which they were charged." Fort would compare Sulzer to Jesus again later in this same letter writing that,

"Though our Hero has been twice crucified by his enemies, he is still outside the tomb and very much alive and the probabilities are, that in the days to come, many more grafters will be taking up their residences in other countries, if they are fortunate to escape justice."


Sulzer's platform for his second run for Governor.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Collection
Most of the letters describe Fort's wishes to have Sulzer as a guest speaker at the Albany Street Church and Sulzer's acceptance. The speech took place on March 24th, 1915 where Sulzer would speak about "Timely Topics." Although there isn't a transcript of Sulzer's speech, we do have George Fort's introduction of Sulzer which was quite fiery. He used some of the same rhetoric and comparisons to Jesus as seen in a previous letter stating that "neither crucifixion nor money can check his influence for good or bar them from going where God opens the way."

Shortly after his success with getting Sulzer to speak at his church, Fort wrote a letter to Theodore Roosevelt. Fort writes that "We should love to hear from his lips a description of the narration of some of the perilous adventures of the man who had the courage and spirit to face the terrors of the African Jungles hunting its wild and ferocious beasts..." There was no response to this letter in our collection.

Fort's last letter to Sulzer was written on November 12th, 1915. Fort inquires about Sulzer being the Prohibition Party's "Armour Bearer in the Presidential Campaign of 1916" as well as another invitation to speak in Schenectady. It's apparent that his admiration for Sulzer had not diminished, even months after Sulzer's speech in Schenectady. Fort's enthusiasm for Sulzer was not contagious across the Prohibition Party though. Sulzer ran in the 1916 Prohibition Party primary, but was defeated by Indiana Governor Frank Hanly.


"My dear Mr. Sulzer: It has been a long while since I have received a letter from you, but there is scarcely a day goes by but that I think of the great man whom I love to claim as my friend."

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Photos of Schenectady's Army Depot during World War I

Former Rotterdam town historian Dick Whalen's home and collection was severely damaged during Hurricane Irene. Former SCHS librarian Melissa Tacke, along with SCHS volunteers worked to salvage as much of his collection as they could (see: http://gremsdoolittlelibrary.blogspot.com/2012/08/a-first-look-at-dick-whalen-collection.html). His collection was a treasure trove of photos and documents from Rotterdam and Rotterdam Junction. Part of the photo collection shows soldiers during WWI at the former army depot in Rotterdam/South Schenectady. The photos mainly show the depot during 1917, but by 1918 it had become a hotbed for the Spanish Flu. By October 1, 1918, 40 men at the depot had caught the flu with 3 dying from it. These photos are an interesting snapshot of what life was like at the depot during World War I.

After the war, the depot was involved with receiving returned material from overseas bases and posts, often being sold through surplus sales. From 1933 to 1940, the base was a headquarters for supplying 55 Civilian Conservation Camps. This new function of the depot allowed it to transition for greater expansion during the outbreak of World War II. Expansion happened again during the Korean War  when 1,300 additional employees were utilized and several more buildings were constructed. The land that the depot was on changed hands a few times after the Korean War and is now part of the Northeast Industrial Park.









Friday, October 27, 2017

Schenectady's Community Cookbooks

This post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone.

In recent years, historians have taken an interest in community cookbooks as valuable primary sources for understanding not only foods and cuisine over time, but also the larger life of the communities from which these texts originated.  Community cookbooks, also called charities, have a history stretching back to the Civil War, when Maria J. Moss assembled recipes for what became A Poetical Cook-Book (1864), which was sold to raise funds for wounded soldiers.  Her brainchild became so popular that, according to Feeding America, from 1864 to 1922 a variety of community groups produced over 3,000 charity cookbooks (Stoller-Conrad). Charitable causes included helping wounded veterans, widows and orphans.  Still others were motivated by social and political issues such as temperance, poverty, and suffrage.  Almost exclusively run by women, many, though not all, of these groups were religious in nature. The development of cheap printing techniques in the first half of the twentieth century led to greater popularity of the community cookbook, defined as follows in the McIntosh Cookery Collection at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The typical community cookbook was a profoundly local affair, produced by church or community groups, fraternal organizations, or charities using recipes submitted by members, and edited and published locally, aimed almost exclusively at a local audience” (“Community Cookbooks”).


The five texts under consideration (see insert above) are community cookbooks produced by local groups—four church-affiliated—in the city of Schenectady.  Of the group, the Tabernacle Housewives’Guide is the only title not in the Grems-Doolittle Library collection, although available online, as is the 1903 text.

These texts reveal considerable information about food, recipes, and cooking techniques over a period of eighty-nine years, from 1890 to 1979.  One of the most obvious features of the recipes is the manner in which they are presented.  In the earliest books, each recipe is laid out in paragraph form.  An example is a recipe in the Schenectady Cook Book (1903): “Muffins. — One pint sweet milk, two eggs, one tablespoonful of melted butter, three cups flour, pinch of salt, three teaspoonfuls baking powder. — 0. B.” Both the 1890 and 1903 texts (see photo above) follow this paragraph format, which sometimes omits instructions, and at other times includes them. The 1913 text, however, is transitional; while it features some recipes in paragraphs, it also includes those which list ingredients first, followed by preparation instructions.  This is the format used today. This change was influenced by the rise of cooking schools, and particularly by Fanny Farmer – author of the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896) – whose scientific approach to teaching cooking had a major impact on its future direction.

A review of the books also reveals a change in the foods consumed over the years.  One of a number of notable differences is in the popularity of oysters in the early cookbooks.  Recipes for this popular shellfish abound in the 1890 and 1903 cookbooks.  Other recipes from 1890 include tripe (stomach lining, often of a cow) and sweetbreads (thymus and pancreas, usually of a calf or lamb), which are not popular today.   An assortment of puddings is found in the earlier texts.  The 1903 cookbook contains 69 puddings, many with ingredients such as suet and bread crumbs, which contemporary Americans do not associate with their conception of pudding as a sweet and creamy milk-based dessert  

Another major feature of the three early cookbooks is the prevalence of recipes for catsups (the term “ketchup” is more often used today) ; pickles; and jellies and preserves.  While most households around the turn of the twentieth century had access to a wide variety of store-bought comestibles, food preservation was still popular among housewives of means.  The recipes are varied, including plum catsup, cucumber catsup, mustard dressing, and other items not currently thought of as catsup.  The variety of pickles is also quite varied.  Although Americans are familiar primarily with pickled cucumbers, earlier cookbooks include recipes for items such as pickled string beans, oyster pickles, and mustard pickles.

The more recent cookbooks, from 1948 and 1979, reflect culinary changes resulting from new food technology.  One example is a 1979 chicken and rice recipe, which calls for “1 can celery soup, 1 envelope dry onion soup, 1.5 cups minute rice, 1 can mushroom soup.”  It was not until 1897 that Campbell introduced condensed soups, which were widely distributed by 1911. Kraft began marketing Minute Rice only in 1946.  A recipe for Spinach Torte required 3 packages of frozen spinach, available only in 1930, when Clarence Birdseye introduced frozen food to consumers.

Later cookbooks also include recipes that reflect changes in society.  World War II exposed American GIs to exotic foods overseas, which influenced post-war cuisine.  Furthermore, decades of immigration led to greater familiarity with ethnic foods. The GE cookbook offers recipes for Pizza Sauce, Chop Suey, and Italian Spaghetti.  Filling the “International Fare” chapter in the 1979 text are recipes such as Chicken Kiev, Tamale Pie, Flank Steak Teriyaki, and Chicken Orientale.  The chapter on “Meatless Main Dishes” reflects the rise of vegetarianism in the 1960s and 70s, given impetus by Frances Moore Lappe’s 1971 groundbreaking book, Diet for a Small Planet.  Another post-war change was the growing popularity of the cocktail party, made fashionable by renowned American chef James Beard, author of Hors D'Oeuvre and Canapes: With a Key to the Cocktail Party (1940). The 1979 book includes appropriate chapters titled “Appetizers” and “Cooking for Crowds.”

The introduction of the gas stove around the turn of the 20th century changed the way food was cooked.  The early cookbooks, probably written with coal-burning ovens in mind, do not include oven temperatures, which would have been very difficult to determine. Instead, instructions include statements such as the following, in The First Reformed Church Cook Book (1903): “Have a hot oven at first, then decrease the heat,”  “Bake 35 minutes or until rhubarb is done,” “Bake in slow oven,” and “Place in an oven of moderate heat.”  Some recipes omit oven instructions entirely.  The 1948 and 1979 cookbooks include cooking temperatures for gas and electric appliances.


Measurements changed over the years as well. Prior to the twentieth century, people often used everyday utensils to measure food quantities.  Thus, occasionally sprinkled among the recipes in the early books are quantities such as “one gill of melted butter,” “one teacup of molasses,” “one coffee cup of sour milk,” and “butter size of an egg.” With the publication of Fanny Farmer’s cookbook in 1896, exact measurements became the norm. The three early cookbooks reflect the growing importance of these new standards in their “Weights and Measures” sections, which convert commonly used utensils into the newly accepted measures.  Thus, we learn the following: 4 salt spoons equals 1 teaspoon, four gills equal 1 pint, and 12 tablespoons equal 1 teacupful.  The above photo shows both a gill and a ½ gill measure (Joshknauer at English Wikipedia).

Examples of the types of ads in our community cookbooks. From the 1890 Schenectady Cook Book.
Full-page advertisements pepper the three early texts.  The growth of packaged foods, combined with the expansion of the railroads toward the latter part of the nineteenth century, led to the widespread distribution of new products around the country.  Sales were bolstered by ads, which are often seen in community cookbooks, sometimes helping offset the books’ production costs. Royal Baking Powder was one of the largest advertisers.  The Schenectady Cookbook (1890) features a full page ad for this popular leavening agent.  Another favorite product was Knox Gelatine, created by Charles Knox, who revolutionized the time-consuming gelatin-making process.  This new packaged item made it easy for any cook to create molds and aspics.  The top of almost every page of the Tabernacle Housewives’ Guide features a catchy phrase, such as the following, acclaiming the value of this product: “For dainty delicious desserts use Knox Gelatine.”

Advertising also crept into the recipes.  The 1903 recipe for clear bouillon includes “Durkey's or Bell's mixed seasoning,” and the 1913 publication cites Quaker Oatmeal as an ingredient for oatmeal bread and Coleman’s Mustard for salad dressing.  The later books, which do not include advertising space, feature even more brand names in their recipes: Uncle Ben’s Wild Rice, Wesson Oil, Crisco, Miracle Whip Salad Dressing, Campbell’s Soup, La Choy Soy Sauce, and Velveeta Cheese.


While community cookbooks offer glimpses into culinary habits, they also provide insight into society. The three early texts are directed toward women of means, as many of the ads suggest.  Among those offering goods and services are jewelers, piano teachers, picture framers, hotels, photographers, homebuilders, and other providers of what would be considered luxuries for the average working class family at the time.  That many of these women employed hired help is indicated by two 1903 ads which feature cooks, one an African-American woman stereotyped in the most racist way. 

Unlike cookbooks today, their earlier counterparts include sections which contain “recipes” for a wide variety of domestic chores.  The 1890 Schenectady Cook Book offers in its “Miscellaneous” section instructions on how to blanch almonds, remove ink stains, make laundry detergent, and whiten one’s hands. 
Interestingly, these early books also advise the woman of the house—generally the caretaker—on coping with a variety of ailments.  This information would have been useful at a time when infant and childhood mortality rates were much higher than today, and people convalesced at home.  Included in the 1890 and 1903 books are recipes for the following: cough syrups; preventing cholera; curing felon (infection of the fingertip); and treating dizziness, scrofula (a tuberculosis infection of the neck’s lymph nodes), and erysipelas (a streptococcal skin infection).  The Tabernacle Housewives’ Guide features a section titled “Invalid Cookery,” with recipes for bran tea, beef tea, cornmeal gruel, and barley water.  The other two earlier books offer “Eggs for Invalids,” which the 1903 cookbook points out, “…will not distress even sensitive stomachs.”

Earlier cookbooks are often strewn with literary quotations.  As Janet Theofano writes of the cookbook authors in Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote, “Primarily conscientious and busy housekeepers attending to the needs of their families, they displayed their education and their knowledge of elite culture even in cookery books” (142).  The 1890 and 1914 texts preface many chapters with quotations, often Classical or Shakespearian, generally related to the genre of food being introduced.  For example, the soup chapter in 1914 is begun with an excerpt from Cicero: “Hunger is the best seasoning,” and a Longfellow couplet adorns the chapter on pies.  The salad chapter in 1890 begins with a passage from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “My salad days when I was green in judgment.”

Religion played an important role in women’s lives in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were expected to be models of correct behavior for their husbands and children.  Although the early cookbooks in this survey do not contain many overt references to religion, the 1890 and 1903 texts feature a recipe for Scripture Cake, a common item at the time, mixing ingredients with specific biblical passages, so that the lady of the house can study scripture while cooking.   The recipe, as presented in 1903, begins as follows: “One cup butter, Is. 7:15; three cups sugar, Jer. 6:20; three and one-half cups flour, I. Kings, 4:22.” Although written much later in the century, The Episcopal Church Women’s Cook Book of 1979 was also compiled by a church-affiliated group, and states at the outset that “Hospitality is one form of worship.” It lovingly incorporates religion into the text, with a section on a history of foods from Bible lands (see photo above), including recipes, and a story of wheat and grapes, commemorating the Eucharist.

Women of a century ago were expected to behave as good wives and mothers. Typical of period cookbooks are life recipes, which advise women on upholding one’s role as the moral center of the household.  The 1914 text includes the recipe, “How to Grow Meek and Patient: Take two small, irrepressible boys to your heart, and home. After ten years, if you are not meek as Moses and as patient as Job, it will be because you have not improved your opportunities.” One of the more common “recipes” often featured in early community cookbooks is titled “How to Preserve a Husband.”  Interestingly, this appears only in the 1948 text, placed before the table of contents, perhaps as a quaint reminder of earlier times. It reads:

"Be careful in your selection.  Do not choose too young and take only such varieties as have been reared in a good moral atmosphere.  When once decided upon and selected, let that part remain forever settled and give your entire thought to preparation for domestic use.  Poor varieties may be made sweet and tender by garnishing them with patience well sweetened with smiles and flavored with kisses to taste; then wrap them well in a mantle of charity, keep warm with a steady fire of devotion and serve with peaches and cream.  When thus prepared they will keep for years."



These women were also expected to manage a household efficiently.  Many ads promoted this belief.  The Van De Carr Spice Company’s 1890 ad tells potential customers that “Economy is wealth.”  According to a 1903 ad for The Schenectady Trust Company, “Modern women of intelligence and standing find a bank account absolutely necessary for their personal and household affairs.” A knowledge of cooking was essential for any lady of the house.  Gracing the inside cover of the same cookbook is a bookstore ad, featuring a poem, “She Could not Cook.”  The bride in the poem “…went to a book-store and bought a cook-book as every wife ought.”  Another company, Barhyte & Devenpeck, purveyors of baking flour, will “Guarantee light bread/And pastry, and light-/hearted women.” Another important aspect of running a home is the subject of an ad in the 1914 cookbook by Guarantee Polishing & Plating: “Look over your silver. – Would you feel ashamed of it if you were entertaining?”

Community cookbooks also reveal information on local society.  In the five texts under consideration, the names of the recipe contributors and in some cases, the cookbook committee members, are indicated; this can be an aid in examining the activities of Schenectady citizens.  In the earlier books, the numerous ads provide insight into the variety and locations of businesses operating in Schenectady and other localities over a specific time period.  The most interesting source for local history is the Episcopal Church Women’s Cook Book of 1979, which offers a brief overview of inns, taverns, breweries and bakeries operated by parishioners throughout the history of the church.  It also traces the role of the St George’s Ladies Industrious Society in raising funds, since 1833, for a variety of projects, including a church, Sunday School, a new church tower, a parish house, and church restoration. 

Community cookbooks are a wonderful resource for tracing the evolution of food trends, as well as the life of society at both national and regional levels.  Today, online kits have made self-publishing easier than ever.  Perhaps future readers will comb them for historical gems, as we do today.

Works Cited

"Community Cookbooks." Special Collections and University Archives UMass Amherst
Libraries, 2017, http://scua.library.umass.edu/cookbooks/?page_id=202.

Stoller-Conrad, Jessica. "Long Before Social Networking, Community Cookbooks Ruled The   
Stove." Northeast Public Radio, 20 July 2012, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/ 
2012/07/18/156983942/long-before-social-networking-community-cookbooks-ruled-the-stove.

Theofano, Janet. Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They
Wrote. Palgrave, 2002.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mayor Ellis' Excellent Adventures

Schenectady native Malcom Ellis was mayor of Schenectady throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s. Judging by a collection of Ellis' publicity photos in our library, he sure seemed to have a good time during his run as mayor. Prior to his political career, Ellis had management experience at several Grand Union Company locations. He was also a partner at the Jewell and Ellis Funeral Home which he bought in 1950s, changing the name to Ellis Funeral Home. Ellis was first elected mayor in 1960, 5 years after a short stint on the Schenectady County Board of Representatives.

Accomplishments that were made during Ellis' run as mayor included computerizing assessments, taxes, payroll, and parking tickets, completing the 22-block urban renewal project, upgrading housing code enforcement, and developing downtown Schenectady. He also had a pretty good publicity department. It wasn't all positives for Ellis, but as Art Isabel and Larry Hart wrote in their April 9th, 1971 column The Art and Hart of Politics "Ellis is a good campaigner; he photographs well both for newspapers and the tube; he shows up at as many social events as possible and has probably cut more ribbons, issued more proclamations and named more patroons than any mayor in Schenectady's history." Our photo collection of Ellis prove this statement to be true.

Ellis was mayor during the time when there was both a city manager and a mayor, which he felt gave the mayor responsibility for fixing things, but little authority. Unfortunately, this wouldn't change until the late 1970s when Schenectady city government changed from a City Manager and Mayor to a Strong Mayor.

Despite his problems with the city manager/mayor system in Schenectady, Ellis seemed to have a good sense of humor with his job. As shown in the photos below, Mayor Ellis was rarely seen without a smile. This collection takes us around Schenectady to see ribbon cuttings, Patroonships, declarations, proclamations, and even inside City Hall to visit Ellis and his staff. Unfortunately, many of the photos are unlabeled. So besides Mayor Ellis, we don't know who is in the photos, or in some cases, where they were taken. Still they're a fun tour through early 1970s Schenectady and show the lighter side of what must have been a stressful job.

Mayor Ellis (in full suit) trying out his skills at a local dojo.
The back of this photo reads "It's that time again." Our detective skills indicate that "that time" refers to Christmas time. Ellis is second from the right.
Ellis at the ribbon cutting of the Golden Dragon Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge.

Shucking corn at the Glenville Sesquicentennital with Scotia Mayor John Ryan (second from right)

Hey! That building looks familiar and I think we can name everyone in the photo. From left to right: Gertrude Naylon, Ann George, Mary De Julio (Former Executive Director of SCHS), Wayne Harvey (Former President of SCHS), Larry Hart (Schenectady City and County Historian), and Mayor Malcom Ellis.
Mayor Ellis hanging out with Schenectady's youth and attempting to hold a reluctant looking baby.

Probably the best photo in the whole collection. Did Mayor Ellis eat this sandwich himself, or did he bring it back to staff? We'll never know!
A nice shot of Ellis and his staff.
This photo ran in the April 28, 1971 edition of the Schenectady Gazette. It was captioned "12 Years is Enough" In the accompanying article, Ellis stated that after his last meeting as mayor, he would like to "devote more time to my business (Ellis Funeral Home, golf, bowl and some curling."

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

It's Not Easy Being Green's

This post is written by library volunteer Ann Eignor

There have been several songs written about Schenectady - "I Can't Spell Schenectady," It's Forty Miles From Schenectady to Troy," "Our Schenectady," and a few others. One of the most unusual is "Joe Green's Clothes Shop."



Credit for the music is given to Charles E. Benham, a local printer. The words are based on the text of the advertisement below which appeared in the May 22, 1924 issue of the Schenectady Gazette. Notice the ads for the two different Green's.

Green's Clothing Store was tricky in it's advertising, stating that it was a new location rather than a whole new store. It also looks like Joe had a bigger advertising budget. Joe Green's ad included a photo of Joe, just in case you wanted to put a face to the song.
Joe Green's Clothes Shop first appears in the 1918 City Directory at 412 State Street. At that time George Green (possibly a brother or cousin to Joe) is listed as a tailor at that establishment. Since Joe and George were both listed as living on Summit Ave. so it seems likely that they were related. By 1921 it seems that George had his fill of being a tailor at Joe's shop and struck out on his own. In the 1921 Schenectady City Directory, George Green is listed as the President of Green's Clothing Store Inc. located at 306 State Street while Joe Green's Clothes Shop remained at 412 State Street.

Lyrics to "Joe Green's Clothes Shop!"
Notice; statement to the public
Don't be fooled, there is only one Joe Green
One Store, No branch,
Look for the name Joe at the old established place
Look for the big number Four Hundred Twelve
State Street before you enter
Joe Green's Clothes Shop,
Joe Green's Clothes Shop,
Joe Green's Clothes Shop,
Over the Worthy Lunch,
Opposite the Wallace Company
Same block as Carl Company,
over the Worthy Lunch
Jooooeeeee Greeeeeennnn (editorial note)


It would seem that Joe Green was not pleased with this new competition who used a similar name, sold similar items, and was located just a block away. The words of the 1924 advertisement make Joe Green's dissatisfaction quite clear. Once the words became song lyrics in 1924, no one should have confused the two stores. The sheet music was probably given out as a "Souvenir of Schenectady" to Joe Green's customers, State Street pedestrians, and was available "at all music dealers." It was not a best seller.

In the battle of the Green's, Joe outlasted George. George Green's Clothing Store was no longer listed in the 1933 City Directory, but Joe's was still going strong. Was the song a deciding factor for Joe's success? We may never know. Joe remained in business until selling to his employee Jerome Oppenheimer in 1938. The store was renamed The Rochester Pants Company which continued in business for several years 


"Don't be fooled - There is only one Joe Green!"

Monday, September 25, 2017

James Cuff Swits – Herbalist and Gentle Giant

This blog post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.


In April of 1946, a group of “old-timers” gathered at the Schenectady County Historical Society to swap yarns of days gone by. The 12 well known Schenectadians shared their recollections with a packed house in the Historical Society library. According to the Schenectady Gazette, the average age of the group was “more than 75 years”. They began by reminiscing about State Street in the 1880’s – the many stores and groceries, hotels, trolleys, gas lamps and barber shops as well as sharing memories of the Blizzard of 1888. Conversation soon turned to Jim Cuff, a well-known character from the 1800’s.

Jim Cuff was a familiar figure on the streets of Schenectady. His lanky 6’7” frame and odd shuffling gait made him instantly recognizable. He looked even taller than he was because of his unusual clothing. He wore cast offs that were too short leaving his wrists and ankles exposed and an old “plug” hat that added to his height. He always wore a neckerchief fastened with a piece of carved bone and rubbers or galoshes year-round. He carried himself proudly and one of the presenters said of him “how pathetic a figure – such fierce pride coupled with such superb dignity”.

Jim’s heritage is a bit sketchy. He was born sometime after 1800 on the farm of Henry Swits located where Proctors now stands and the area beyond. By most accounts, his father was James Hartley, a black man, and his mother, according to Jim, was the last of the Schoharie (probably Oneida) Indians. Both of his parents worked on the farm as sharecroppers and one or both may have been a slave of Henry Swits. He was named James Hartley Swits but was referred to as Jim Cuff, Cuff being a "Negro name of significance" at the time.
This portrait of Jim Cuff was taken by professional photographer Joseph A. O’Neill in his Jay Street studio, without payment, for the posterity of the city. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Jim made his meager living as an herb peddler, often called an "herb doctor or "medicine man" around town. Most mornings from early spring to late fall he roamed the Rotterdam Hills, now Coldbrook, as well as the river flats along the old Campbell Road collecting herbs, roots and bark. He peddled the "yarbs", as he called them, door to door to housewives who bought them to make their own remedies. His gaunt figure was a fixture standing in front of the Ellis Building on State Street selling watercress, wild mushrooms, spearmint, fox glove, sunflower and poppy seeds, milkweed and berries out of his huge basket. 

A one room shanty in Cotton Hollow was what Jim called home. He built the shack himself from found materials and reportedly had just one piece of furniture, a cast off chair. Jim slept on the dirt floor near his only source of heat, a fire built in a hollow dug into the floor. The shanty is believed to have been located in the vicinity of the current Lincoln School, between State and Albany Streets.

Jim was a gruff but kind and gentle man who was welcomed into the homes of his customers. If
Jim Cuff standing in front of what is believed to be his shanty. 
Courtesy of fultonhistory.com
children sometimes taunted him, he would loudly shuffle his feet to shoo them away. Several people looked out for him. Dr. Harlan Swits, a descendent of Henry Swits, had Jim deliver a standing order of herbs to his State Street office and kept an eye on his well-being. He stopped by Colonel A.W. Toll's home most mornings and was given breakfast that he ate in the woodshed. The tollgate keepers on the old Scotia bridge let him pass without cost. He was an avid fisherman and spent many hours fishing at Sanders Lake and along the Mohawk. Jim regularly visited the Wallace Stonecutters where he would shoot the breeze with his friend Tom Wallace. His kindness was exemplified in a story told by Dr. Swits. Once, when a circus came to town, there was a parade on State Street. Horses and buggies were lined up along the curb and people were told to rein in their horses. The parade spooked the horse of one buggy with a young girl at the reins. The horse crashed into the canal bridge and ran off along the bridge as the girl fell to the floor. Jim Cuff rushed from the crowd and grabbed the bridle, calming the horse then carrying the girl out of the damaged buggy. Called a hero by many onlookers, Jim cared only about the well-being of the girl.

He didn't attend church, saying his clothes weren’t fine enough but Jim had his own kind of spirituality. He believed that there was a better place after death, often saying "Someday we shall all be in equal skies". In his declining years, he was destitute and relied on help from some of his friends and customers. When one of his customers didn't see him out with his herbs for several days he checked on Jim and found him in his shack, quite ill. An item in the Schenectady Gazette, dated February 26, 1893, stated “Schenectady’s big Indian, Jim Cuff, who has been ill of consumption and lung hemorrhages, was today removed from his hut to the county almshouse on Steuben Street”. He died there a few days later on March 4, 1893. Dr. William Clute signed the death certificate for "James Cuff Swits" noting the cause of death as pneumonia and giving an estimated age of 72 although many thought he could have been closer to 90. Jim was buried in the Potters Field section of Vale Cemetery in Schenectady. 


James Cuff Swits grave as it now appears in Vale Cemetery. Courtesy of Gail Denisoff.
Jim's story doesn't end with his death. His friend Tom Wallace carved Jim's likeness in bas relief on his headstone, the only such stone in Potters Field. Under his name and date of death, Wallace carved the words "Admitted to that Equal Sky". Forty years after Jim's death, a local physician, to alleviate his guilt, anonymously gave an account to the Schenectady Gazette regarding the placement of that headstone. The physician, a medical student in Albany at the time, decided that Jim's skeleton would be an exceptional specimen for study since Jim claimed to be the last of the Mohawks and was close to seven feet tall. When he got wind that other medical students had the same idea, the physician went to Potters Field at night and switched Jim's headstone with that of a woman who had died about the same time. A few nights later, he returned to dig up the grave. According to his account, the sight of the dead Cuff so unnerved him that he quickly refilled the grave and left the cemetery without the body or switching back the headstones. He claimed not to remember which was the other headstone he switched. Other accounts have Union College students removing Jim's body for autopsy. Whether either of these stories are true is the subject of speculation. Jim may not be lying beneath his headstone but he is not forgotten.

Photos and information for this blog from the Schenectady County Historical Society holdings and the Fulton History collection.