Does Albany still have characters? The old Dutch town used to be awash in them. One such character, way back when, was Dr. Dodge, a pitchman familiar to thousands who walked State Street hill.
The Times-Union on Sept. 6, 1934, warned on its front page that “Dr. Dodge, Famed for Hat Collection, Seriously Ill.” The story indicated that “Doctor” (always in quotes) W. Croxton Dodge was a familiar figure about Albany streets for the past 20 years, and had become critically ill in the hospital at the Ann Lee home, where little hope was held for his recovery.
“With his Inverness cape, his square rigged derby and his buttonhole carnation, ‘Dr.’ Dodge has been practically an institution in Albany. For years he has had the distinction of being the first to open the straw hat season, exchanging his winter headgear for a Panama soon after the first robin was reported.
“’Dr.’ Dodge maintained modest quarters in a Jay street rooming house. His calling was that of a guide and counsellor, his cards and handbills stating: ‘Ask Dr. Dodge, confidential messenger to all parts of the city.’
“The ‘doctor’s’ collection of hats stood absolutely without parallel. It included silk tiles, opera hats, black and brown derbies which dated back to Bryan’s first campaign, Homburgs, boater straws and Panamas.
“The ‘doctor’ came to Albany from Brooklyn about two decades ago. He has a sister still living in the latter city.”
Indeed, Dodge died just a day later, on Sept. 7, 1934, at the age of 70. “’Dr.’ Dodge, possessor of an extensive wardrobe, suited for almost every occasion, had made his livelihood by serving as a messenger and by distributing handbills. He was known, at least by sight, to thousands of Albanians.
In 1933, The Billboard of New York, NY, said that
“Every now and then newspapers of Albany, N.Y. carry human interest stories with Walter Croxton Dodge (veteran former pitchman) featured. Walter has been at Albany about 10 years and his slogan is: ‘Ask Mr. Dodge.’ A recent newspaper story on this man of many services started as follows: ‘You’ve seen him. Everyone who has walked up and down State street hill more than twice has probably seen him. He’s a one-man array of businesses.’”
In October of that year, The Billboard said anyone looking for proof of the change in seasons should “just glance at Dr. W. Croxton Dodge, Albany’s one and only official guide. The doctor has put away his panama hat, his linen suits and his gay summer neckwear and is now to be seen in his black broadcloth morning coat, with necktie to match, and his high-crowned ‘iron hat,’ which is alternated daily with a silk topper, dependent upon his mood. What surer harbinger of frosty weather can there be? Get out your overcoats, you laggards. Air them free of moth-ball scent. You’ll be needing ‘em.”
The T-U’s story on his death said he was born in Minnesota, moved to Summit, N.J. and then to Brooklyn before coming to Albany. “Although affable and pleasant, he never revealed many facts concerning his past.” He was an inveterate reader, with “hundreds and even thousands” of acquaintances in Albany, “but very few intimates.” “Several years ago he gained wide publicity when he expressed the opinion he was entitled to a share in the $4,000,000 estate of Mrs. Mary S. Croxson of Brooklyn.”
The story on his death concluded, “For years Mr. Dodge was Albany’s first harbinger of summer. He made it a point to be the first in the city to wear a straw hat and not infrequently appeared in one while the snow was still clearing from the streets.”
While we haven’t found too many more notes on Dr. Dodge, Albany’s told-time old-times columnist Edgar S. VanOlinda did do him honor in a 1964 column titled “Colorful Characters Gone, Not Forgotten.” He wrote:
“I miss the real harbinger of the vernal season as represented by the late ‘Dr.’ Walter Croxton Dodge, wearing the first straw hat of the season and sporting a fresh carnation in his coat buttonhole every day, the headgear exhibiting a slight saffron coloration as befits a holdover of many years,.
“‘Dr.’ Dodge always carried a brief case, but what it contained, none ever discovered. It was probably the receptacle which contained his supply of corn salve, which gave him his title; the latest editions of his advertising throwaways which motorists would eventually find stuffed behind their windshield wipers. His ruddy complexion, morning coat, striped trousers and gray spats, plus his bamboo cane made him a standout on the streets of Albany.
“There were many interesting legends concerning the ‘doctor.’ One in particular, his concern for the better things of life. One of his many activities was conducting a messenger service. It is told of him that once a year he would engage a suite in the Ten Eyck Hotel there to indulge his penchant for a short period of luxury. He would order his meals sent to his room where he dined in regal splendor for 24 hours.
“He never jeopardized his business standing through absenteeism. He left word with the desk clerk that if anyone wanted a message or a package delivered, to be sure to call his room and he would see that everything was taken care of. He was a millionaire for a day, and his efforts to establish himself in his proper sphere were not without a foundation of fact.
“‘Dr.’ Dodge just missed being an affluent Albanian through a legal technicality. He retained in Albany lawyer to present his claim to an estate of nearly four million dollars left by an aunt, related to him by marriage. Everything looked bright for the potential man of affairs until the Supreme Court ruled that his claim was in valid in that blood relatives took precedence over those acquired through the process of becoming an ‘in-law.’ So ‘Dr.’ Dodge’s gigantic bubble of financial independence burst and he returned to his prescribed daily routine which should be an example to someone or other about something or other.”