Author Archives: carljohnson

War stories

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In journalism school, we always referred to tales of ink-stained wretches and newspapers gone by told by our professors as “war stories.” But a teacher of French at the Albany Female Academy in the 1830s had some real war stories to tell: General Henri La Fayette Villaume Ducoudray Holstein.

He was a native of Germany who entered the French service and acquired the confidence of Napoleon and had a relationship with Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. Joel Munsell reports that on the restoration of the Bourbons, he went to South America, “where he found scope for his military skill.” That’s shorthand for a plot to liberate Puerto Rico from Spain, establish it as the Republic of Boricua, and turn a profit. This became known as the Ducoudray Holstein Expedition. The Spanish got wind of it, asked the Dutch government of neutral port Curacao to intercede, and Ducoudray Holstein found himself under arrest in Curacao. Over a series of trials and appeals, he was found guilty of mercenary acts and sailing under false Dutch papers, and sentenced to death. It is said that Lafayette and the government of the United States interceded with the Netherlands on his behalf, and Ducoudray Holstein found himself sailing for a new home in the United States. After a time teaching military tactics, he settled his family in remote upstate New York, where he became a professor of the French, Spanish and German languages and literature at Geneva College in Ontario County.

The General taught there for a number of years and then came to the Albany Female Academy (now known as the Albany Academy for Girls), where he taught French for six years until his death, and (again according to Munsell), “won the esteem of all who knew him.” While in Albany he wrote “The New French Reader, for the use of Universities, Colleges, Academies and Schools,containing original and selected anecdotes, biographical sketches and character portraits of persons distinguished by their genius and their knowledge.” And that was just the title. Luckily, the rest is available to us through Google Books.  He also contributed to a periodical called “The Zodiac.” He died May 23, 1839, at the age of 76, and was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

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At the intersection of science and art

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James Eights.pngA couple of weeks ago, I wrote about all the other Albanies that were named for our Albany. One of the most distant places on the planet was named, not for Albany, but for a prominent Albany native: The Eights Coast of Antarctica was named for prominent scientist and artist James Eights.

His exact year and place of birth are in question, but it’s fair to say he was born around 1798. The son of a physician (and possibly a physician himself; he was often referred to as “Doctor”), Eights was early associated with Amos Eaton‘s exploration and collection of the geology of the Erie Canal, and was on the board of the Albany Lyceum of Natural History, formed in 1823. He showed great skill as a draftsman, contributing detailed drawings of Lyceum specimens. He also helped in the development of the Albany Institute of History and Art.

He moved on to New York City, where he was involved with the Sketch Club, an artists’ gathering, and the New York Lyceum. With the support of Stephen Van Rensselaer (Amos Eaton’s partner in the creation of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), Eights was appointed as naturalist on an expedition to explore the South Seas that set out in October, 1829. While this was a time when the continent of Antarctica was still hypothetical, his investigations in the South Shetland Islands turned up the first fossils from that region. In honor of that early exploration, the Eights Coast of Antarctica was named in his honor more than a century later.

His South Seas exploits hardly registered here in Albany, but he is remembered for the paintings he made of Old Albany. Later in his life, around 1850, he made a series of paintings from memory of how Albany looked when he was a boy. These beautiful watercolors are in many instances the only references we have for the long-lost old Dutch city.

A very detailed life of James Eights by Daniel McKinley is available here.

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Edward Willett, hat-maker and poet

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Joel Munsell’s “Annals of Albany, Vol. 10” from 1859 includes items of interest from the newspapers of the years gone by, including this delightful bit of commercial doggerel attached to an item from Nov. 13, 1835:

The hat factory of Edward S. Willett, corner of Green and Basset streets, was burnt. He was the first to commence the manufacture of silk hats in this city. To show that Mr. Willett was not alone a man of fur merely, but also a poet, his advertisement is introduced. As a man of law he can speak for himself.

If e’er a man in earnest sought
To make a hat as workmen ought,
Substantial, and with beauty fraught,
            ‘Tis Willett.

And well may he take pains to please
When hosts of Fashion’s devotees
Are daily swarming like bees,
            At Willett’s.

Hundreds and hundreds who’ve surveyed
The hats in other stores displayed,
Have left them all and come to trade
            At Willett’s.

Ask the genteel where’er you go,
Who made that elegant chapeau?
And ten to one he’ll say, I trow,
            ‘Twas Willett.

Who showed those hats, so rich and rare,
That took the prize
twice at the fair,
Causing the craft to wince and stare?
            ‘Twas Willett.

The Eagle with the hat that won
The prize that dimm’d a certain
Sun,
Displays a taste that’s touch’d by none
            But Willett.

The corner of Green and Bassett, an old, old part of the city, doesn’t retain much of its 1835 look today.

Coincidence? I think not…

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Ran across this intriguing pair of articles about the Schenectady Savings Bank that were published in the New York Times on June 15, 1894. First, a dispatch from Albany stating that the Superintendent of Banks had found a shortage in the bank’s accounts upward of $10,000. And then, immediately below, offered without irony or explanation, a story from Schenectady telling us that August Henke, chief accountant of the Schenectady Savings Bank, was found dead at the aqueduct. He had apparently long suffered from heart disease, and there was certainly no reason, not even simple typographical proximity, to think these two stories had anything to do with each other.

The next day, the Times reported that “Three experts made an exhaustive examination today of the accounts of the Schenectady Savings Bank, whose head accountant, August Henke, killed himself Wednesday night. The investigation disclosed that Henke’s method was to make false entries in the transfer of accounts from the individual to the general ledger. The peculations were in small amounts.”

If you wondered why Mr. Henke felt the need to wander all the way up to Aqueduct to take his life — he was the treasurer of the Schenectady Canoe Club and presumably familiar with the Mohawk River in that stretch, which is still popular with canoeists.

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That doesn’t sound like Saratoga

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Still from 1973 — the copy editor who wrote this headline in the Schenectady Gazette probably sensed that the writer had buried the lead; without that head, most readers wouldn’t have gotten through the tax exemption and housing code amendments to that part about the topless waitresses. Okay, so, topless waitresses, and the Mayor appears not to want them, but also there’s some storm drainage and traffic lights and a street sweeper to get to, so you can see why the reporter felt the whole topless waitress thing wasn’t worth a lot of copy.

I’m just going to go ahead and assume that ban passed.

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Would $1,400 change your life?

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In 1973, Capital Financial Services wanted to know if $1,400 would change your life. Considering that later in the paper, you could find an ad for a four-year-old Ford LTD at $1495, it’s hard to imagine that $1,400 was really a “big money” loan.

This company was way out in a strip plaza on Gerling Street that still exists.

Top of the sevens, ma!

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1973 was a year of inflation — even before President Ford’s famous “Whip Inflation Now” pins (they didn’t work), the prices of meat, gasoline and other staples of life were growing at an incredible pace. Schenectady Savings Bank, where passbook savings accounts ran at about 5% in the previous years, was here advertising savings certificates (CDs) at as much as 7.9%. Of course, if you could earn that much on savings, it meant that borrowing money cost many points more. A quick survey of certificates of deposit today, at a time when a mortgage might run at 3.5%, shows rates just barely north of 1%. So, upside, downside.

For many years ads for Schenectady Savings Bank featured a cut of their main building and the slogan, “Where Clinton Crosses State.” The bank was chartered in 1834, and was taken over by Northeast Savings sometime in the mid-1980s. Then it was decided that being a savings bank wasn’t cool, and the bank changed format and was acquired by another bank, which was acquired by another bank, and so essentially the institution we knew as Schenectady Savings is long gone. Its main branch had a clean, classy look inside, not as grand as some of the other old banks but stately and assured. It is now a Bank of America branch that looks like every other branch, though perhaps a bit more run down.

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Hoxsie does politics!

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Actually, Hoxsie never does politics. There’s enough of that in this town. But if we’re celebrating 1973 week and we run across a “before he was a star” article, we’re going to print it. And so here from March 1973 is an article announcing Hugh Farley’s intention to run for a second term on the Niskayuna town council. Just three years later, he would run for State Senate, where he has served the Senate district covering Schenectady ever since.

Grant’s fights inflation!

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I’ll admit this one confused me at first — I had no recollection that W.T. Grant’s, the old department store chain, had expanded its lunch counters (and every department store had a lunch counter back then) into full-fledged restaurants. But apparently they did. In 1973, Grant’s was running two Bradford House restaurants in its strip mall stores in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, even as the downtown Grant’s was preparing to close.

Bradford, named for the Pennsylvania county where W.T. Grant was born, was the name for many of Grant’s in-house lines, including its appliances. We had several Bradford appliances growing up, and they seemed to be eternal. We bought a Bradford air conditioner in 1968 that was still running when my mother sold her house in 2000, and by all appearances it’s still there.