Hard history is great, but while conducting research, I’m constantly collecting odd and unlikely stories on a variety of subjects. I like to think of them as the offbeat side of history (stretching the definition of history to include all news items from the past) … of little value to historians, but certainly entertaining. Collecting them helps relieve the (sometimes) tedious job of searching hundreds of pages for a few nuggets of information.
Take, for instance, the subject of North Country linemen, those workers who climb utility poles to make connections or repairs. Their daily routine might be as boring as any other job most of the time, but linemen have a measure of danger built into their profession, beginning with working high above the ground. When something goes wrong, the results can be spectacular. Continue reading
In June, Nyack Hospital and Montefiore Health System issued a joint press release announcing a merger. When the process is complete, Nyack will have a medical institution informed by over two centuries of history in health care. Will the philanthropic and progressive impulses that characterized the creation of nonprofit hospitals in nineteenth-century America endure?
A moment of reflection seems to be in order. Here’s a snapshot of the origins and early days of each health care institution that may provide some prologue and set expectations for what will follow. Nyack Hospital was incorporated in 1895. Initial funds were raised by an initiative called “Kirmess,” that drew inspiration from medieval festivals that used merrymaking to accomplish good. Continue reading
In 1968 the conflict that erupted over community control of the New York City public schools was centered in the black and Puerto Rican community of Ocean Hill–Brownsville. It triggered what remains the longest teachers’ strike in US history.
That clash, between the city’s communities of color and the white, predominantly Jewish teachers’ union, paralyzed the nation’s largest school system, undermined the city’s economy, and heightened racial tensions, ultimately transforming the national conversation about race relations. A new memoir, Inside Ocean Hill–Brownsville: A Teacher’s Education, 1968-69 (SUNY Press, 2014) has been written by Charles S. Isaacs, a teacher who crossed the picket lines. Continue reading
Remember the hit song, “Sixteen Tons,” taken to #1 by Tennessee Ernie Ford many decades ago? Most people are familiar with the famous line, “St. Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the Company Store,” meaning, “Hey, I can’t die … I’ve got debt to pay.”
The line referred to Company Towns of the coal-mining industry, where the company owned everything: coal, land, and houses. Workers were paid with scrip―coupons redeemable only at the Company Store, where prices were artificially inflated. Continue reading
The nation’s first bona-fide all-female union was formed in Troy 150 years ago under the leadership of a young Irish immigrant, Kate Mullany, and her colleague, Esther Keegan, in reaction to low wages, 12- to 14-hour workdays and unsafe conditions in the collar factories.
Local writer and director Ruth Henry dramatizes the story in a new musical, “Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot.” Continue reading
What happens when a giant high-tech corporation opens a massive new plant on the outskirts of a small, rural, historic city? And what happens when it just as suddenly leaves?
In Kingston: The IBM Years (Friends of Historic Kingston, 2014), three prominent college professors, an award-winning novelist, a longtime Ulster County journalist, and two former IBM Kingston employees examine the history of the IBM complex and the work that was conducted there, the impact the facility had on Kingston and its surroundings, what life was like as an “IBMer,” how it influenced regional architecture and thrust a colonial city into the modern age, and the effect of a “boom and bust” cycle on a rural, traditional community. Continue reading
Historian Jim Mackin will present “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Copake Iron Works But Were Afraid to Ask” at a lecture and slide show on Saturday, June 21st at 2pm at the Roeliff Jansen Community Library, 9091 Route 22 in Copake, Columbia County, NY, followed by a reception and tour of the Iron Works.
Mackin will also host guided tours of the Copake Iron Works Historic District throughout the summer, beginning on June 8th as part of New York State’s Path Through History Weekend. Continue reading
For a century, the world’s best iron ore was produced by a small Clinton County village in upstate New York. That remarkable legacy is shared in the Lyon Mountain Mining and Railroad Museum, housed in the town’s former railroad depot building. The cost to visitors “can’t be beat,” as they say—admission is free.
This community project developed into a remarkable facility dedicated to regional and town history. The focus is on iron mining, once a dominant force in the region’s economy. Continue reading
The Chapman Historical Museum’s new exhibit, At the Lake, which runs through August 31, presents different perspectives on what it has meant to be at Lake George over the past 150 years. Included in the exhibit are the stories of groups that camped on the lake’s many islands, families that built grand homes on the lake, and others who constructed more modest camps.
To diversify the story the exhibit also includes the experiences of people who lived on the lake and worked there each summer as waitresses, cooks, laundry workers, guides and boatmen. Continue reading
Red Hook’s historic Lehigh Barge #79 will play host to the exhibit From Shore to Shore, which explores the worlds of craftsmen and the places where boats and ships are still being worked on today. Thirteen exhibition panels, accompanying audio video interviews and a timeline highlight profiles of master craftsmen, their tools and the historic boat yards where they work.
On May 3rd from 2 to 4 pm there will be a reception featuring curators Nancy Solomon and Tom Van Buren along with invited boat builders, boatyard owners, and waterfront preservation specialists. Continue reading
Volunteers are being sought to help excavate at Wiawaka Holiday House at the southern end of Lake George to help document the early years of the Holiday House by looking at the materials the visitors, staff, and organizers left behind. Wiawaka Holiday House was founded in 1903 to provide affordable vacations for the working women in the factories of Troy and Cohoes, New York. The work is being directed by Megan Springate, a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland working on her dissertation looking at the intersections of class and gender in the early twentieth century.
No previous archaeological experience is necessary. Participants will learn archaeological techniques hands-on at the site. All equipment will be provided. Accommodation and meals are available at Wiawaka Holiday House for a fee.* There is no charge to volunteer. Those without previous archaeological experience are asked to volunteer for three or more days. You must be 18 years of age or older. Excavation Dates: Monday to Friday, June 16 through July 11, 2014. Continue reading
Today, the owner of 51 and 53 West 19th Street in the Ladies’ Mile Historic District in New York City will request the Landmarks Preservation Commission for permission to demolish two buildings and to construct a 14-story building in their place. Unfortunately, this is not an April’s Fool joke.
51 and 53 West 19th Street are five-story, residential buildings built in 1854 which were converted to commercial and/or manufacturing use in the 1920s. Such a history is very much in keeping with the Ladies’ Mile Historic District. In fact, the designation report lists “converted dwellings” as a building type in the district along with “residential construction”, “office buildings”, “store and loft buildings”, and “retail stores/department stores.” The report points out that after World War I, the shopping district had moved north and the area’s focus shifted to manufacturing. The 1916 zoning resolution had prohibited the construction of tall buildings on mid-block sites, and so instead the surviving residential buildings were converted. Converted dwellings are obviously a part of the fabric of the district, and these two nicely-designed buildings are good examples of this typology. Continue reading
Any recognition of influential and famous American women should include Frances Perkins and rank her close to the top of such a list. Perkins was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s secretary of labor during his entire time in office, from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman cabinet member in our history.
Although she is largely unknown to most Americans, many historians credit Perkins as being the architect and driving force responsible for the key achievements of FDR’s New Deal program during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Continue reading
Described here is a real-life scenario that was once possible. The timeline might be tough to follow, but it’s early May, and we’re strolling down the main street of a North Country community, running several errands. First stop: the Peoples Bank, where we make a deposit and then exit at exactly 1:15 pm. Down the street, we stop at the Citizens Bank to open an account, but the sign on the door says they’re closed for lunch until 1 pm. Glancing inside the restaurant next door, we see several bank employees eating lunch beneath a wall clock that says 12:20 pm. Rather than wait, we move on.
Down the street, we pick up a few items at the US Brush Company, leaving there at 1:30 pm. Next stop: the post office, to buy some stamps. But the door is locked. On the knob hangs a sign stating that the clerks will return at 1 pm.
Off we go to the nearby grocery, picking up a few items and exiting the store at 1:40 pm. Just a few doors down, we stop at the Star Theater to pick up tickets for tonight’s play. But the ticket window hours are 1–4 pm, and the clock inside says 12:45 pm, so we move on to the Muslin Underwear Company and buy a new supply of unmentionables. Continue reading
As the national debate over the extension of chattel slavery into the territories heated up in February and March of 1860, women’s rights advocates were storming the capitol in Albany demanding an end to what they felt was another form of slavery—wage slavery for married women.
Under the law in effect until March 20, 1860 in New York State, married women did not have legal control over any money they earned working for themselves or others. All of it belonged to their husbands! As Lucy Stone explained it to the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1853, “unless by cunning she can keep her earnings away from him, he can and does take them to pay the drunkard’s bill, and to squander upon abandoned women.”
According to women’s rights supporters, there were tens of thousands of these kinds of ne’er-do-well husbands, most of whom were cigar-smoking drunkards and/or womanizers, who paid their bills with money they took from their wives’ bank accounts without their permission. Continue reading
The Rensselaer County Historical Society (RCHS) is hosting a special event this Saturday, February 22nd commemorating the 150th anniversary of Kate Mullany’s historic formation of the Collar Laundry Union in Troy. The event begins at 11am at RCHS and includes a walk from RCHS to the Troy Farmers Market at 12pm and concludes with speeches at the Farmers Market at 12:30. This event is free to the public.
At the age of 23 Kate Mullany organized 300 of her fellow laundry workers to strike for higher wages and improved working conditions in the collar laundries. This Saturday, February 22nd, RCHS will commemorate Mullany’s creation of the 1st sustained female labor union in America’s history. The event begins at 11am at RCHS (57 Second St., Troy, NY) where the public will be invited to create strike signs in keeping with the historic celebration of the strike. Continue reading
Utilizing oral history excerpts, union and corporate archival documents, state police files, and newspapers, Dr. Gerald Zahavi will explore the beginning of aggressive communist organizing in Schenectady during the Great Depression and afterward.
Zahavi will focus on the men and women in the party as well as those who actively fought it — opponents in state and local government, unions and corporations (especially General Electric), religious organizations, and civil rights groups. Continue reading
In the world of women’s rights, there has been great progress across many issues that are still being debated. A North Country native stands at the forefront of the ongoing battle, taking on a number of concerns: jobs for single mothers; equal pay for equal work; the negative effects of drugs and cigarettes on young women; the horrors of trafficking in women for sexual purposes; food labeling; the restriction of food additives; the rights to patented and copyrighted works; women’s ability to serve in the military; and the issues faced by families of soldiers serving overseas.
If you follow the news, you’ll recognize most of those topics from current or recent headlines. They are the very same issues that were current between 1880 and 1900, when St. Lawrence County’s Charlotte Smith was American’s groundbreaking and leading reformer in the fight for women’s rights. Continue reading
I enjoy all kinds of stories, and true “Oops!” moments are among them. Like the time my dad, always a do-it-yourselfer (and a good one), was working on the house, and with hammer in hand, instinctively tried to shoo away a nuisance bee buzzing around his head. The result? Let’s just say an empty hand would have worked much better. Or when a friend of mine, a nice guy who didn’t always think things through, made the surprise announcement that he had bought a jeep from a buddy. I knew he couldn’t afford it, but he loved the open-air concept of the Wrangler.
As it turned out, during the tryout phase, he decided to cut some old trees for firewood, and yes, he managed to drop a tree on the jeep. You break it, you bought it.
I’ve collected a few North Country Oops! stories over the years. Here are some involving dynamite, leaving behind few injuries but plenty of red faces. Continue reading
From 10 AM to 4 PM on Saturday and Sunday, July 13 – 14, 2013, learn “how it’s made” 18th century style at a special Artificers’ Weekend at Saratoga National Historical Park, located between Routes 4 and 32 in Stillwater, NY.
What’s an artificer? Eighteenth century artificers were professional tradesmen working with armies to provide or repair supplies needed by the troops. Blacksmiths made and repaired iron and steel implements. Tailors sewed uniforms for soldiers. Woodworkers built or fixed wooden items like boxes, benches, or tool handles. Tinsmiths made or fixed canteens, cups. bowls, or lanterns. Continue reading