Summer re-runs: Bobsledding in Albany

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I originally posted this on My Non-Urban Life back in 2010.

Last run
The folks at All Over Albany dug up an amazing test of the knowledge of eighth-graders in Albany in 1882. Not least amazing, besides the assumption that schoolchildren should know how to divide opium to the smallest scruple, was this instruction: “Write an exercise of 15 lines on the pass time of bobsledding.”

Several years ago, it was asserted that scenic Albany, New York, and not scenic St. Moritz, Switzerland, was the original home of the bobsleigh. Writing on the debate back in 2002, the Times Union’s Tim Farkas said a report from Albany City Historian Virginia Bowers listed the year of origin as 1885. This test would make it clear it was on the minds of Albanians at least three years earlier than that. The story goes that the earliest bob sleds were adapted from their use as lumber sleds, where two short (“bobbed”) sleds were linked together and hitched to teams of horses that could carry enormous loads of lumber.
It certainly makes sense –

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Summer reruns: How Menands Got Its Name

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(A version of this was previously published at All Over Albany.)

So, what is a Menand?

Well, the question really is, who was Menand?

For the answer, you’d have to look back to the late 1800s, when everyone from well-to-do collectors of exotic flora, to prosperous homeowners with gardens, to cemetery visitors who wanted to pay tribute
to a loved one — would go to Menand’s.

Louis Menand.jpgLouis Menand was the son of a gardener in Chalons, Burgundy, France. As early as he could remember, he was fascinated by horticulture. “I was eight or nine years old,” he later wrote, “when I began to try to grow plants from cuttings. I have always been fond of cutting, properly or figuratively speaking, except cutting my fingers.”

Eventually Louis became an estate gardener in Paris and later in the Champagne region. In 1837 he came to New York and went to work at nurseries in Halett’s Cove, which would later become Astoria. There he met a young piano teacher from Albany named Adelaide Jackson. They fell in love and were married in her family home on Park Place in Albany, and soon took up residence in what they called “the haunted house” on the Albany-Troy Road (Broadway). Louis began selling plants. After a rough first year (“more than modest, that is to say meagre, I might say miserable!!”), things began to pick up.

Menand had a fair collection of “hardy perennial plants,” which had become pretty popular in the Albany/Troy area. Later he sold Norway spruces, balsam firs and other popular trees and shrubs. In 1847 he was able to buy several acres of land on what is now Menand Road, where Ganser-Smith Park is now located, for his greenhouses and nursery.

Louis Menand Home

He cultivated plants that, no doubt, had never before been seen in this old Dutch town – camellias, palm ferns, cacti, and orchids, among others. Forty years later, an article in The Gardeners’ Monthly and Horticulturist would proclaim:

“It is Mr. Menand’s aim to exhibit at least one specimen of every known variety ; and whenever a new one is produced in any quarter of the world, it will not be long before it may be found at Menand’s. Thus it often happens that persons who search in vain for rare specimens in New York and elsewhere, are generally directed to ‘a crazy Frenchman at Albany,’ where they are sure to find what they want and carry it away, provided their purse is long enough. In fact, it is Mr. Menand’s aim to furnish anything from a strawberry to a tree.”

He was noted for importing exotic plants from Europe, and commanded an impressive price for his best camellias: “a little plant four inches high would sell for $25.”

Menand won significant awards for his plants through the years, and continued to grow. He bought 31 acres near the entrance to Albany Rural Cemetery, where he set up his son with a half dozen hot houses devoted to growing cut flowers, roses, carnations, pansies, geraniums and “an almost endless variety of other species suitable for cemetery decoration.” These included all manner of shrubs, which no doubt still influence the scenery in the cemetery.

His greenhouses were so popular that the Albany and Northern Railroad added a stop there in 1856, named “Menand’s Crossing,” which the succeeding Delaware and Hudson Railroad renamed “Menand’s Station.”

Louis set about telling the story of his life in an autobiography, with the snappy title, Autobiography and Recollections of Incidents Connected With Horticultural Affairs, Etc., From 1807 up to this day 1898 With Portrait and Allegorical Figures. ‘By an ever practical wisdom seeker,’ L. Menand. With an appendix of retrospective incidents omitted or forgotten.

The title is about as direct as the rest of the book, originally published in 1892 and then updated in 1898. The ramblings of this “crazy Frenchman at Albany” shed very little light on the actual events of his life but give an incredible sense of the energetic character of Louis Menand. There are exuberant paeans to his wife Adelaide, whom he
calls “Phanerogyne,” meaning “remarkable woman,” who died in 1890. There are rambling thoughts on the various revolutions and republics in France, a scathing appraisal of his arrival in a free land “where slavery was flourishing as carnations,” and tales of intrigues at flower exhibitions, all told in the least linear style imaginable. (The version available here on Google Books includes several handwritten notes by Louis.)

Louis Menand died in 1900 at the age of 94. It wasn’t until 1924 that the apostrophe-free name of Menands became official, when the village was incorporated.

Albany Wire Cloth and Sieve Manufactory

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There are people who, because of the predominance of government in Albany’s economic and civic life today, think that Albany was never much of a manufacturing town. Quite the opposite is true, and it’s hard to imagine how a town that had so much manufacturing could have changed so completely. In 1858, “all kinds of heavy and light wire cloth suitable for breweries, and flour and paper mills” was being manufactured right on Beaver Street.

Albany Iron and Saw Works

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Albany Iron and Saw Works.pngPruyn’s Albany Iron and Saw Works down on Pruyn Street was a substantial operation when this ad ran in 1858. The iron works manufactured just about everything that could be manufactured from iron, from boilers to bridges to bedsteads, and the saw works made tools ranging from tobacco cutters to water wheels to saws of every description. Pruyn’s sprawling factory also had some role in the early production of celluloid products, as the Albany Embossing Company shared space down on Pruyn Street.

 

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Bonnet Bleaching

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Ladies! What to do when your beloved Barnum Blake bonnet becomes besmirched, bespotted or besoiled? Best betake yon bonnet to the Boston Bonnet Bleachery, where ladies’ straw, leghorn, chip and neapolitan bonnets were bleached and pressed in the best manner. N. Ware would gladly bleach and press them at short notice, and make them over into fashionable shapes, if required. His 1858 location at Union Street is lost to us now; Union was formerly Cow Lane, running parallel to and between Green and Liberty streets.

Albany Eye and Ear Infirmary

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Knowing what we now know about what doctors didn’t know in the mid-19th century, it’s easy to imagine the Albany Eye and Ear Infirmary of 1858 as a chamber of horrors that could have involved a combination of bloodletting and mercury poisoning. And pneumatic extraction. “Dr. Gilbert’s celebrated Combination Pneumatic Extractor and Ear Syringe, for the permanent cure of deafness, sent to any part of the world.” Still, if you were in need of their services, perhaps an artificial eye or ear drum inserted, and you were down on your luck, Drs. Gilbert and Graves were open to charity cases six hours a week. Lydius Street was the stretch of what is now Madison Avenue between the river and Pearl Street.

Albany Brush Factory

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1858. J.B. Armour, Brush Manufacturer, keeps constantly on hand a large assortment of brushes of all kinds and descriptions. When I was growing up, brushes were still a big thing. There were still Fuller brush salesmen, going door to door. Today, even though we still use brushes for all sorts of things, it seems like they’ve gone underground, or aren’t thought of as a class of object. My shoe brush, bottle brush, toilet brush all came from different places (and, originally, from China). Not from Armour’s Albany Brush Factory.

Fuller Brush, by the way, had a Capital District presence. Its plastic bottle and toothbrush factory was in Philmont, Columbia County, and at some point Fuller bought out the Mohawk Brush Co., then in the Industrial Building at 1031 Broadway, which made hairbrushes and industrial floor brushes.

Washington under the elms

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Washington Elm
Once upon a time, there was an elm tree in Albany’s Lafayette Park (just across from the Capitol). That tree’s grandparent (whatever that may mean) was a leafy witness to history.

“Washington first took command of the American Army under the grandparent of this elm at Cambridge, Mass. July 3, 1775

Raised
and presented by Maryland D.A.R. Marked by New York State D.A.R. This
tree is planted as part of the 200th anniversary of the birth of George
Washington 1732-1932.”

The tree, sadly, is no longer there, no doubt felled by Dutch elm disease, which did almost as much to change the look of our cities as urban renewal did.

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