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Spring 2000

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Hidden history:
Salvaging stories of lost communities

by Barbara A. Melville

The former tannery at Little Dublin, at the
time of this photo, had been converted to
a factory that produced overalls.

     New York’s Adirondack Mountains fairly ring with early American history. The French and the Indians, forests and fur-traders, redcoats and river forts all made that vast wilderness north of Saratoga County a magnificent backdrop for The Last of the Mohicans. But take a closer look at the social history of the region, as author and historian Amy Godine suggests, and you might see in the Adirondacks what she sees: “a landscape once brightly salted with immigrant industrial enclaves, a territory of striking ethnic diversity.”

     Intrigued, more than a dozen students learned all about it in Godine’s course “People in the Wilderness: Ethnic Groups in Upstate New York,” offered last fall through Skidmore’s University Without Walls. Looking at the land from a social historian’s perspective—a more local view of the past and its unsung, everyday people—her students even added a few new pages to what Godine calls “hidden history.”

     They studied Scots residents at colonial French Mountain, 19th-century Italian immigrants on Saratoga’s West Side, and an evangelical Quaker preacher in Queensbury in 1884. (The preacher’s unpublished memoir—turned up by computer technologist Michael Weeks on a history-archive Web site—was “quite a find!” laughs Godine. “Even the Queensbury town historian had never heard of him.”) Business major Alexis Stephens stumbled upon an African-American “bloomer”—a skilled ironworker—employed in 1859 at Merriam’s Forge, which once operated near her family’s summer home on Lake Champlain. Tiffany

     Currier came up with contemporary immigrants from India who work for General Electric in Schenectady—that’s upstate ethnic history in the making.

     But since hidden history is, well, hidden, none of these finds came easy. For starters, there was no textbook for the course. “No one writes about who built the buildings,” Stephens points out. “They write about who owned them.” As the builders were often illiterate, Godine explains, “they left no diaries or letters, and what we know about them isn’t much. How do we rescue the hidden stories of the non-elites? When the written record reveals so little of labor, ethnic, or women’s history, what are our sources?” By way of answer, Godine showed her students how to read census records, old property maps, insurance appraisals, street directories, even the “above-ground archaeology” of house foundations, porches, and backyard shrines. “These,” says Godine, “plus oral histories and community studies, are the kinds of research approaches that are animating history studies today. For inspiration, Godine invited UWW Director Cornel Reinhart, a historian himself, to share his findings on Isaac Johnson, a former slave who became a successful Adirondack stonemason. Then Godine sent forth her students to discover and document a community, individual, or industry hitherto unrecorded in formal historical accounts but significant enough to merit a roadside historical marker. How they did that is a story in itself.

     “A curious picture” in a historical-society pamphlet sent Frances Gabriele in search of Little Dublin, a vanished neighborhood of Irish tannery workers in Chestertown. “I’m half Irish, so it intrigued me,” says Gabriele, a nurse with a lifelong passion for history. “How and why did a group of Irish immigrants end up in rural, remote Chestertown in the mid-1800s?” Gabriele scoured the 1850 Warren County Census for the Town of Chester, searching for Irish names; among her finds were John Dolan, Patrick O’Hara, John Little, all listed with the birthplace “IRE.” Says Gabriele, “I knew I’d probably hit a boardinghouse when I found the names of several Irish men in their 20s living with a family. Then I went to the phone book looking for the same names and made some calls, hoping to reach their descendants.”

     She reached Ruth McDowell, whose grandparents, Robert and Esther Montgomery, had arrived in New York City in 1872. And the 90-year-old McDowell recounted wonderful details: “Since passage did not include sleeping accommodations, they brought their feather bed—a tick filled with chicken and goose feathers—with them and slept right on the deck of the ship.” Met at the boat by their cousin Richardson Little, who had lined up a job for Robert at the tannery, the Montgomerys traveled upstate and moved into a small frame house in Little Dublin, with “a little garden surrounded by handmade stone fences,” McDowell said. (Gabriele’s class report includes snapshots of two such cottages, still occupied today.)

     The newly arrived Irish worked six and a half days a week at the Robertson, Faxon, and Co. tannery. They scraped, soaked, limed, dehaired, and tanned animal hides in vats of steeped hemlock bark, then beat them smooth to be made into shoe soles. “The hours were long, and the smell and dirt could be unbearable,” McDowell told Gabriele. “How pleasant could removing stool and hair from animal hides be?” Still, it was a job. One of the first paying industries in the Town of Chester, the tannery in 1879 processed 30,000 hides worth $120,000—“considered a fair profit for the time,” writes Gabriele.

     Built in 1849, the tannery closed in 1898, when new chemical tanning agents made proximity to hemlock forests unnecessary. The tannery site now houses a log-cabin-building company, and the Silver Star diner stands where Little Dublin used to be. A few of the workers’ families, like the Montgomerys, remain in Chestertown, but most of the Irish immigrants moved on when the tannery closed, leaving little behind but the lifespans carved on their tombstones. For Gabriele, even that was an exhilarating find: when she came across the grave of Richardson Little, “it was history come to life! It was proof—yes, they existed, they were here.”

They scraped, soaked, dehaired and tanned the hides in vats of steeped hemlock bark.

     Gabriele also researched Green Mansions, a lakeside resort that once catered to a mostly Jewish clientele of affluent, educated, liberal-thinking New York City residents. From the 1930s—a time when Lake George’s elite Sagamore Hotel posted signs reading “No dogs, no Jews”—through its heyday in the ’50s, Green Mansions hosted a who’s who of American entertainment; among its guests and employees were playwrights Clifford Odets and Elia Kazan, modern-dance pioneers Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, actors Lloyd Bridges and Peter Cushing, and comedians Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett.

     Today Green Mansions is a private condominum complex, its playhouse and restaurant converted to apartments. And almost everything Gabriele needed to document its past—guest registers, menus, photos, sheet music, furnishings —was either lost in a fire, sold at tag sales, or sent to the dump. “We weren’t thinking of history in those days,” the current owner told Gabriele. When he bought the failing resort from its original owner in 1971, “We had enough furniture for 600 people, and it was costing us a fortune to store it. In the 1970s Art Deco furniture was not in demand, so we had tag sales and gave it away for nearly nothing.”

     Unlike the lost guest registers of Green Mansions, the old white-frame Cluett, Peabody & Co. shirt factory is still very much present, on Mill Street in Corinth, a hamlet northwest of Saratoga Springs. Many of the “factory girls” who still live there provided richly detailed oral histories for Nan and John Plantier, whose class project explored “the story of Cluett’s in Corinth [as] the story of women bringing a domestic skill into the marketplace.” But like every local story, Cluett’s was also a “national story writ small,” says Godine, “an approach to history that brings larger issues into clear, manageable focus.” In this case, the local shirt factory threw a gender-filtered light on labor and management in the mid-1900s.

     To set up that wider context, the Plantiers first described how the domestic skills of weaving and home sewing were transformed by power looms, mechanized bleaching, and printing in the late 1700s, allowing mills to turn out “cheap cloth in great quantities” for the production of ready-made clothing. By the 1860s, the newly invented removable shirt collar was transforming the small city of Troy, south of Saratoga Springs, into the “Collar City,” home to 15 shirt-collar factories. “The big thing about the detachable collar,” says Nan Plantier, whose grandmother worked in a Troy shirt factory, “was that it could be scrubbed”—an invaluable asset for “white-collar” workers employed in accounting, bookkeeping, and sales.

     By the 1940s, Cluett Peabody, maker of the popular Arrow brand, was the nation’s largest shirtmaker, with more than 4,000 employees. Some 250 of them were doing piecework in Corinth, one of the half-dozen sites into which the company had expanded at the turn of the century. “You got 21 cents a dozen for putting on pockets,” recalled Betty White, who started at Cluett in 1959. She told the Plantiers, “There was camaraderie. We had a good time.” Her mother, Virginia White, added that on special occasions the management “used to do a lot for the kids. We used to have big turkey dinners in the cafeteria downstairs.”

     “I couldn’t wait to get out of school and go to work. I really enjoyed the work,” said Kay Weaver, who worked on and off at Cluett beginning in 1936. In that pre-zoning, pre-industrial-park era, the mill was right in the neighborhood; the women could go home for lunch and check up on their children. Many had relatives working there, and management was local—the plant manager and his sister lived down the block. It made for “a seamless quality in these women’s stories” and a sense that Cluett was “an extended family as much as a place of work,” the Plantiers report. “This is remarkable,” they add, “when the actual working conditions are discussed.”

One day it got to 110 degrees. But they’d give you salt pills free. couldn’t afford to have you sick.

     For starters, it was noisy. “You really had to yell” to be heard over the machines, Betty White recalled. And it was difficult and dangerous, as workers operated as many as four machines at once. “We were [always] standing,” Virginia White admitted. “There was no air conditioning. This one day, I took this thermometer over to work and it got to 110. It was ungodly. It was what they call a sweatshop. It was. But you got used to it. They’d give you salt pills free. Couldn’t afford to have you sick. They provided.”

     Even so, “the noise and the heat and the pressure of piecework are not really in the foreground when you speak to them,” the Plantiers observed. “These women may be too ‘nice’ to be as critical as they could be”—which was something Godine had warned her apprentice historians about. “There’s a tendency in local history for people to tell you that everything was swell and everybody treated everybody well. If you do oral history, make several visits and be prepared to hear the stories change.”

     Sure enough, “after hours of nostalgia and fond memory, anger appeared,” the Plantiers found. “The factory shed its local, close-knit identity and a calculating, national enterprise emerged”—most nakedly when workers talked about how Cluett closed its Corinth factory one year before a 1976 federal statute would have guaranteed workers a vested right in their pension fund. “It wasn’t fair,” says Virginia White, who, after 30 years at Cluett, receives $32 a month instead of the $140 pension she expected. “There were years we didn’t get a raise because they said they were going to increase our retirement amount.” Like other industries at the time, Cluett Peabody “didn’t want to adhere to the vested rights, so they went out in ’75,” says White. “But it was just an era. You just pick up and go from there.”

     Does such philosophic acceptance seem astonishing? “They’re working-class women, used to having their rates cut if they worked too fast, used to noise and heat and injuries,” concluded the Plantiers, who found themselves admiring the women’s spirit. “They knew how arbitrary the terms of employment could be. They knew its hard edges. But we think they choose to think well of it.”

     No one will ever know what its workers thought of Glass Factory Mountain, where literally millions of bottles were made for Saratoga’s thriving mineral-water industry in the mid-1800s. The Adirondack glassworks and its village full of workers vanished almost overnight in 1871, when the owner moved it all, lock, stock, and barrel, into the outskirts of Saratoga Springs.

     Nonetheless, “I wanted to focus on the people,” says Dana Homick, an English major who at first was reluctant to tackle the last history credit she needed for her degree. In her efforts to mentally repopulate the glass-factory village of Mount Pleasant, Homick became fascinated with documents like an 1848 copy of the factory rules, floor plans for the glassblowers’ cottages, and even a temperance poem proclaimed (perhaps by the factory’s teetotaling owner) at the village’s July Fourth celebration of 1853.

These Irish worked from sun to sun and the prevailing wage was 75 cents a day.

     Glassmaking was one of America’s first major industries, Homick found. There were 40 glass factories in New York State when Oscar Granger established his glassworks on a 1,400-acre site near Greenfield Center in northern Saratoga County. In two years, he had built a complete factory town in that remote location, which was rich in the timber and sand needed to make glass, and was close to his client, the Congress and Empire Springwater Company in Saratoga Springs. By 1846, a state commissioners’ survey appraised the village’s sawmill, store, and houses of workers, owners, and overseers; it also listed “one School House, 139 acres for pasture and cultivation, and most importantly, 950 remaining acres of timber to be used as fuel for the glass furnaces, valued at $8 per acre.” Homick found in the 1850 Greenfield Town Census some 70 souls likely to have lived in Mount Pleasant, but she estimates its population may have reached 200.

Interior Glass Blowing

Glass blowing as depicted in Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary, 1877.

     Because it was hard to find native-born employees for work that was both highly skilled and physically grueling, Granger traveled to Ireland in the mid-1800s to recruit workers. Homick says the Irish cut lumber and stoked the furnaces, tended the swale grass that grew in the swampy areas and was used for cushioning the bottles in shipping, loaded wagons at the bottom of the mountain with sand to melt into glass, and packed the same wagons with finished bottles for the trip down the mountain into Saratoga. Homick found a 1947 interview in which Alice Irene Kilmer, a descendant of Irish workers, declared that “these Irish knew nothing of union eight-hour law, but worked from sun to sun and the prevailing wage was six shillings (75 cents) a day.”

     One of the most fascinating documents in Homick’s report was a copy of an 1851 indenture contract signed by one Ezra Drake, “aged 16 years and three months.” Among its conditions: “Taverns, Ale Houses, and Tippling Houses he shall not frequent. Fornication he shall not commit. Matrimony he shall not contract. In all things as a good and faithful servant [he] shall and will demean himself toward his said masters during the said term.” Drake would one day join the company of “gaffers” or glassblowers, sticking long slender rods through the glory holes of an 1,800-degree furnace to gather molten glass, rolling the gather on an anvil, cooling and shaping it enough to fit inside a hinged cast-metal bottle mold, and then quickly blowing into it until the glass filled out the mold’s outlines—a task likened to blowing up balloons all day long.

     Glass Factory Mountain became an instant ghost town in the winter of 1871, when Oscar Granger decided to move his operation into the Congressville area of Saratoga Springs. Granger had some 15 houses and the schoolhouse dragged off their foundations and down the frozen mountainside, using horses and skids. “It took just one weekend,” Homick reports. “The men were back at their jobs that Monday.” The glassworks finally closed in 1915, when bottlemaking became mechanized.

     Homick, the now-eager regional researcher, topped off her project by driving up to the abandoned village and trekking through the mud and undergrowth. All that’s left, she found, are the scattered stones of old building foundations, bits of broken bottles and glass slag, and the memories of Mount Pleasant descendants like 85-year-old Anna Mae Bennett. Bennett urged Homick, “Here, come see this glass. These ones here—see, they have bubbles in them. These bubbles would happen when the men would take an extra breath.”

     Ethnic history upstate can be as evanescent as a glassblower’s gasp, as hard to trace as the old plank road that once led down from the factory into Saratoga. But as Godine’s students found out, it’s still here, little pieces of it as tangible as the glass shards Homick picked up at the old factory site. When she shows them, neatly packed in small cardboard gift boxes, she says, “Be careful. They’re sharp.” Gleaming so dark a green they’re almost black, they are sharp—as sharp as the edge of time in the lost history they represent.

Staff writer Barbara Melville has lived near Glens Falls, at the southeastern corner of the Adirondacks, since 1976.


© 2000 Skidmore College