THE FORT FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHS: 1897-1900
Dr. Paul Loatman Jr. – Mechanicville City Historian
On August 14, 1885, The Mechanicville Mercury reported that Charles Farnam had rescued seven-year old Sidney Fort from drowning after he had fallen into the Champlain Canal. At the time of the incident, the young boy was assisting his father and Farnam in unloading a canal packet a short distance from C. M. Fort’s grocery store located one block east of the Canal on North Main St. Rereading that news item with the advantage of hindsight today is somewhat akin to viewing the modern-day film-classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Retrieved from a barn in central New York and donated to the City by local historian Peter Betz, of Fort Johnson, New York, these photos offer a unique and personal glimpse into family and civic life in late nineteenth-century Mechanicville. Each photo was signed and dated, sometimes by day, more often by year, and numbered by the young amateur photographer, Sidney Fort. (A few, for unknown reasons, were lettered rather than numbered.) The range of numbers suggests that there were at least 98 pictures in the collection, possibly more. Thus, we are able to view less than half of the original shots.
With few exceptions, all of these prints were produced from glass-plate negatives by a young man pursuing a personal hobby. Beginning in the 1880s, professional photographers ran advertisements regularly in Mechanicville’s weekly newspaper offering to take posed pictures in “sitting parlors.” However, none of those photos surviving into our own era reflect the sense of intimacy displayed by the Fort collection. Some brief historical background on the origins of photography may help us to better appreciate this.
George Eastman had invented the Kodak in 1888, and with the subsequent development of clear film, amateur photography quickly became a hobby pursued by millions of Americans. However, the exposure time necessary to make glass-plate negatives often required sitters to remain unnaturally rigid for extended periods. Consequently, early photographs depict subjects with an air of stiffness and formality mistakenly ascribed to the social conventions of the day rather than to the limitations of the existing technology. While it may be true that all photos are “posed,” many of those shown here exhibit heightened qualities of naturalness and spontaneity. Thus, in a couple of instances, the careful viewer will discern apparition-like figures whose movements made them all but invisible to the camera, reminding us of the difficulties of capturing candid shots at that time.
According to census reports, Sidney Fort was born in 1878, the son of Cornelius M. and Margaret Fort, also the parents of Ida (nee-1874) and Florence (nee-1884). C.M. Fort, listed as a “businessman” in state and federal census returns recorded between 1870 and 1925, opened the “C.M. Fort Store” in Mechanicville in 1875. His son Sid joined the firm in 1901 when his father told the public that failing health and the need to “add some push” to the business led him to convert the store to “C. M. Fort and Son.” Specializing initially in the sale of canned goods, the turn-of-the century public also could purchase shoes, crockery, seeds, jewelry, and glassware there. In 1930, C. M. Fort & Son advertised “home furnishings” as its primary line of business in the Mechanicville City Directory. Twenty-five years later, the firm adjusted to changing markets by specializing in the sales of “paints, wallpaper, and electrical appliances.”
Initially located at the corner of Park Ave. and Main St., C. M. Fort later removed the business to 19 North Main St., the site of “the cobblestone house.” In the late 18th century, this building had served as the home of Dr. John Cuerdon, a British surgeon who accompanied General John Burgoyne’s army on its fateful trek in 1777. Following his marriage to a local woman, Cuerdon’s home served as a wayfarer’s inn situated on “the King’s Highway,” modern-day Route 4, the colonial post road that connected Albany with Montreal. George Washington and the Baron de Lafayette are said to have quenched their thirst at “Cuerdon’s Spring” next to the “cobblestone house” while visiting the area to view Revolutionary battlefields in the 1780s. In 1883, the Methodist Society erected a new church adjacent to the Cuerdon property on North Main St. and covered the spring with a flagstone walkway at the entrance to the church.
When a successor firm decided in 1969 to move the business to another site, “the cobblestone house” was sold by the local postmaster, S.V. Fort, Jr., to the local Urban Renewal Agency which demolished the structure to make way for a parking lot for the Methodist Church. New York Times architectural critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, decried this step as the wanton destruction of one of the few buildings in Mechanicville possessing both historical and architectural significance. Many local residents shared Huxtable’s sense of outrage, but fund-raising efforts to save the building proved unsuccessful. Thus, seventy years after our young photographer snapped his first shot, the last remaining vestige of the family business disappeared from the local landscape.
The captions accompanying these photos rely upon information derived from a variety of sources. New York State and federal census returns help us to date some of the people and sites displayed here. A booklet marking a regional convention of railroad conductors held in Mechanicville in 1899, as well as a 1902 “souvenir” of a tri-county volunteer firemen’s convention held here contain a number of contemporaneous photos. None of the pictures printed in either of these ephemeral publications are attributed to any specific photographer. However, similarities shared by these prints with those shown in the above-referenced journals strongly suggest that this collection was tapped regularly by civic leaders who wanted to present “attractive views” to firemen, railroad conductors, and other visitors to their community.
As was typical of many turn-of-the-century communities, picture-postcards portraying scenes of Mechanicville were published regularly, and those that survive today have attracted the interest of many collectors. They present an interesting contrast with the Fort collection. Almost exclusively, the postcards captured landscapes rather than shots of individuals or groups of people. Furthermore, these colored photos were “doctored” at times to remove details such as telephone poles and wires that were considered unseemly or distracting to the viewer. However, they do provide us with valuable glimpses of a country village then on the threshold of becoming a booming milltown.
A great deal of background information about the community can also be found in eight Sanborn Insurance Maps made of Mechanicville. Large-scale plans of over 12,000 American towns and cities were drawn by the Sanborn Map Co. at a scale of 50 feet to an inch between 1867 and 1970. Created to assist fire insurance companies in insuring a particular property, the maps list street blocks and building numbers in use at the time the map was made, as well as previous numbers used. Maps of Mechanicville were created in 1884, 1887, 1892, 1897, 1904, 1911, 1927, and 1927-1949. The most recent edition was updated by local insurance brokers using special cloth-paper provided by the Sanborn Company. Brookside, the Saratoga County History Museum, owns a number of these maps, while the entire collection is available at the New York State Library in Albany. The author possesses original copies of the 1887, 1911, and 1927-1959 editions for Mechanicville. In some cases, the maps include parts of the Towns of Stillwater and Halfmoon, as well as the hamlet of Hemstreet Park located across the Hudson River in the Rensselaer County Town of Schaghticoke. Obviously, the Sanborn collection depicts changes in the physical development of the community over time and are an irreplaceable resource for the local historian.
Various weekly newspapers published here sporadically between 1854 and 1920 provide the single greatest source of information regarding life in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Mechanicville. These include The Mechanicville Star [1853-1854], [1870-1871], The Mechanicville Times [1872-1873], The Mechanicville Golden Era [1882-1883], and The Mechanicville (Saturday) Mercury [1883-1920]. The Mercury (it became The Saturday Mercury in 1894) was edited by Farrington L. Mead during its entire publication run, making it, along with census returns, the most important resource available for the study of Mechanicville history.
Editor Mead’s prickly personality manifested itself in the strong opinions he often published, and many times, local public officials found themselves raked over the coals in his columns. When “city fathers” attempted to conduct business “out of public view,” Mead aggressively demanded that they produce records of their actions. Usually, he succeeded in finding what they were up to, probably because his reputation for fairness among the larger public would not let them ignore his demands. An oft-repeated tale contends that Mead always carried a cane while walking the streets in order to ward off readers whom he may have offended. Threatened with a libel suit in 1893 for falsely accusing a political candidate of having been a Civil War draft-dodger, the editor could hardly bring himself to apologize to avoid the litigation, yet he seemed to relish the opportunity to repeat his libel once more in print, even while denying its veracity.
Mead emphatically believed that it was the job of the small-town newspaper editor to devote himself exclusively to the trials and travails of local business and politics. National and international events might be within the purview of large metropolitan newspapers, he claimed; but only rarely would they get more than a passing nod of recognition in his columns. Thus, while readers of The Saturday Mercury could learn how economic activities in February of 1898 might be expected to impact local growth in the immediate future, it would be many months before they even got a hint that the battleship Maine had been sunk and the United States had declared war on Spain. Such parochialism well may have had its disadvantages, but being oblivious to the minutiae of local affairs was not among them. A broader outlook may have overlooked the fact, for instance, that young Sid Fort barely escaped drowning in the Champlain Canal in 1885.
Copies of these and some other invaluable local newspapers were microfilmed with the assistance of a grant from the New York State Newspaper Project. The microfilm is available at the NYS Library in Albany and at the Mechanicville Public Library on North Main St. where it is on permanent loan from the City Historian. Having established some general background information about the community, the reader may now wish to look at some of the specific views captured by the lens of young Sid Fort.
C. W. ORCUTT ON KING’S POINT #CC [undated]
The Orcutt family had been engaged in the sash and blind industry since the Civil War era in Mechanicville, selling window sash, blinds, and wood doors to builders throughout the Northeast. Photography for the amateur was still such an innovation in 1900 that the subject sees fit to be pictured with his own camera. Orcutt had joined a Hudson River “day excursion” sponsored by the Strang textile mill, an enterprise founded by E.H. Strang in 1893 that operated into the 1940s. This photo is undated, and unlike almost all others in the collection, it is also unnumbered. Other members of the Orcutt family were employed by the Department of the Treasury in the nation’s capital and provided Editor Mead with an insider’s “Washington Report” that appeared regularly in The Mercury throughout the 1880s.
OLD EPISCOPAL CHURCH BEFORE BEING MOVED BACK #9 1897
When the Mechanicville Saturday Mercury reprinted the recently-probated will of Dr. Newton H. Ballou of Lansingburgh in its September 14, 1895 edition, it caused a sensation. The former local resident and one-time Trustee of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church left a bequest to replace Mechanicville’s first house of worship with a new Indiana limestone edifice modeled on a structure Dr. Ballou had seen while touring Europe.
There were restrictive codicils in the will, however, including one requiring the new church to be built within three years of probate. Furthermore, no other building could be erected on church property other than the new house of worship. Thus, the original structure and adjacent parsonage had to be removed onto an adjoining lot temporarily leased from Mrs. Ocie Howland while the new building was being erected. Fortunately for us, our young photographer captured the moment when the historic 1830 wooden structure was relocated. As far as is known, these are the only extant photographs of Mechanicville’s first house of worship that originally had served as a “community church” open to all denominations. It was consecrated as an Episcopal church in 1832.
We also are provided with a partial view of the Mechanicville School District’s first consolidated school building, erected in the early 1890s following the organization of the district in November 1887. Replacing separate buildings maintained by the Stillwater School District on William St. and by their Halfmoon counterparts on School St., the new school incorporated classes Kindergarten through twelfth grade. Following a disastrous fire in the World War I era, this structure was replaced by School 1, serving K through grade 5. That building was closed and ultimately torn down in the mid-1970s. Today, St. Luke’s Church is bounded by the abandoned Mechanicville High School to the north (built in 1913), and by the local Community Center to the south (erected in the 1980s).
OLD EPISCOPAL CHURCH AFTER MOVED BACK #10 1897
A fuller and clearer view of part of the original Mechanicville School is apparent here, as is the effort needed to move both the church and the parsonage. Note, horsepower and manpower are the only forces utilized in the operations, and other than the lone cyclist, horse and wagon were the only apparent means of transportation. However, as we shall see in some later pictures, the wires evident on the telephone poles in the foreground provided motive power for the Hudson Valley Railway trolley cars that connected Mechanicville with an extensive network of electric rail lines that ran from Hudson to the south to Lake George and Warrensburgh to the north. The Hudson Valley line had recently bought out the Stillwater and Mechanicville Street Railway that had been organized as horse-drawn streetcar line in 1883.
Relocating buildings may not have been routine, but The Mercury carried at least one listing every week of local businesses that performed these services on a regular basis. The weight and flexibility of wooden structures, the primary mode of building until the late 19th century, as well as a lack of concern about interfering with “traffic” and electric lines, made the relocation of buildings much more common at that time than it has been in our own day.
FRANK WOODWORTH GOT UP FOR MURDER OF POLICEMAN MONTESALL #55 1898
Besides the obscurity of the grammar, there are more mysteries connected to this picture than to any other in the collection. The Mechanicville Saturday Mercury never mentions either Mr. Woodworth or the murder of Officer Montesall. We must surmise that his crime occurred elsewhere. How and why such a desperado was permitted to pose for the young amateur photographer is also open to question. The fact that this picture was created in an “opportunistic moment” can also be gleaned from a number of details. Looking closely to the left of the young boy and his companion in the wagon at the right-center of the photo, one can barely discern the blurred image of a man walking down what appears to be a lowered entryway to a building on North Main St.
We can determine the location of the scene from the white wall sign visible above the subject’s left shoulder. Enough evidence can be discerned to reveal that the building housed Gem Pharmacy, owned in 1898 by G. W. Whitney, a local pharmacist later elected to the New York State Senate. A long-time local pharmacist, Whitney purchased his business from Dr. A.C. Kniskern, a medical practitioner who gave up his practice to open a store in the mid-1880s at North Main and River Sts. on the site of the current-day Kennedy Apartments.
Shot from the east side of North Main St., the “lock-up” was located outside the camera’s range on the right near the site of present-day City Hall. This photo depicts the properties of the Ross and VanSchoonhoven milling company, an enterprise that succeeded the American Linen Thread Co. after it had moved to Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts, in 1883. For the most part, Ross and VanSchoonhoven conducted milling operations along the Tenendehowa Creek, both at the stream’s mouth in the Hudson River and along the mill race created by the partial diversion of the stream a few blocks to the north. Grist and sawmill operations had been introduced locally as early as 1764, a step that laid the basis for the establishment of the community that would be incorporated as a village in 1859. Shortly after this picture was taken, all of these buildings were torn down and replaced by a large brick block, most of which still stands today. The structures pictured here were erected prior to the War of 1812, according to Farrington Mead.
MARY COLLINS AND WOODWORTH’S HORSE #56 1898
How and why Ms. Collins got to display the bad-man’s horse is anyone’s guess, but we may suspect that the poor quadruped had no foreknowledge of the imputed murder. Mary’s posture suggests that either she had something to do with the capture of the criminal who had been at large, or simply that she is a determined woman insistent about getting her picture taken. We can assume that she was a friend of the Fort family, given the fact that another Collins, possibly her brother, turns up in another photo. Also, other photographs suggest that this picture was taken in the backyard of the Fort homestead.
JOHN BARRY AND FRANK CARPENTER IN BAKE SHOP #64 1898
There were a number of locally-owned bakeries that thrived here before the emergence of large-scale consolidated baking companies that ultimately doomed smaller operations like this one. No one by the name of either “Barry” or “Carpenter” is listed in contemporaneous records as a baking proprietor, so it is difficult to fix the exact location of these men’s place of employment. However, their relaxed demeanor and unselfconsciousness about posing suggest that the photographer and his subjects were quite familiar with one another. Viewing a number of background details pictured here suggests that public alarm about the conditions under which food was processed had yet to emerge. Bakers worked as many as fifteen hours a day, and the New York State legislature sought to ameliorate the situation by limiting their work hours to 55 per week. However, the act was struck down in 1905 by the U.S. Supreme Court which declared it an unnatural interference in economic markets.
CHARLIE ELMS IN ROW BOAT DOWN ON CANAL #65 1898
The Champlain Canal was carved through Mechanicville in the early 1820s along a route now followed by Central Avenue. The original four-foot deep ditch was relocated in the Hudson River between 1910 and 1915. For a number of years after that, the old waterway served as an unofficial garbage dump. When New York State offered to sell the old canal bed to the City after World War I, Editor Mead urged the City Commission to take quick action. (The Village received a City Charter in 1915.) Soon after bonds were issued to make the purchase, a roadway covering the old canal bed was built. Oriented from SW to NE, this picture may have captured the spot where our young photographer had nearly drowned in 1885. Besides providing boating opportunities for local residents, ice-skating on the frozen surface of the canal was a winter past-time enjoyed by Mechanicvillians for decades. The Elms family name appears in the local 1892 and 1905 census returns, but “Charlie” is not listed among them.
RUINS OF HOTEL TALLMADGE #52 1898
Located on the east side of South Main St. near the “Dutch Gap,” a hotel had been erected on this site in the late 18th century and reportedly housed the engineers and workmen who built the Champlain Canal in the 1820s. Known at various times as “Burnap’s” or the “Saratoga Hotel,” William Tallmadge owned it at the time of the fire. A local Justice of the Peace and influential Republican political figure, the Judge subdivided building lots he owned on Mechanicville’s West Side in the 1880s and 1890s, and laid out a number of streets that were later turned over to the municipal corporation. His private driving park on the West Side hosted local horse races and baseball contests that drew large crowds of spectators, as well as numerous gamblers, in the late nineteenth century.
Following some hesitancy on the part of the Village Board to accept the gift, the Judge donated Tallmadge Park to the municipality in 1895 after truncating its northern portion on Park Avenue between 4th and 5th Avenues. He then subdivided this property into building lots. To the present day, deeds to these properties retain a restrictive covenant requiring home-owners to maintain twenty foot setbacks from the municipal streets. Purchasers also must pay a small retainer to Tallmadge’s descendants to gain clear title to their property.
In his later years, Judge Tallmadge listed his occupation as “gentleman” in census returns. On January 18, 1884, the local newspaper published an extensive report of the wedding of Sarah N. Tallmadge, the Judge’s only child, to Dr. A.C. Kniskern, whom Editor Mead described as “the enterprising proprietor of the ‘Gem Pharmacy’ in this village.” At the time of the fire, Editor Mead reported that Tallmadge had allowed his insurance to lapse and that he was unlikely to rebuild. No other hotel was ever built in the community’s south end after this date.
JOE DODD’S SHOP WITH JOHN HURD & FATHER #17 1897
Joseph Dodd, an English immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1849, listed himself as a wheelwright and harness-maker in census reports. His name, along with that of his wife, appeared in the 1880, 1892, and 1905 local census returns, his last reported age, 66. John Hurd’s name appears in both the 1892 and 1925 lists, age 44 at the latter date. His father listed himself as a blacksmith in the 1905 census. Dodd advertised blacksmithing services and the sale of wagons, carriages, and sleighs in a local business journal in 1899 without including an address for his establishment. An 1884 Sanborn Map situated his operation on the southeast corner of Park Ave. just past the lift- bridge that crossed the Champlain Canal at the time (present-day Central Ave.). However, the 1897 insurance map depicts other businesses there.
The clear and direct gaze of the subjects at the camera indicates that these skilled craftsmen were comfortable having their picture taken, and they were proud of their craft. This is not a portrait of members of a nameless industrial proletariat who were mere cogs in the wheel of a large corporation. Interestingly, although hundreds of works labored at the local paper mill and railroad yards at this time, their activities may not have been captured on film by Fort. Whether this resulted from his own choice or from the unwillingness of large corporations to have their operations photographed is unknown. Of course, the carriage-making and black-smith trades disappeared with the coming of the automobile. Accordingly, John Hurd listed his place of employment as the local paper mill in 1925.
ALBERT BOUCHER IN FRONT OF HIS STORE AND INDIAN: PAPER NEGATIVE #37 1897
This dapper gentleman’s name never appears in any local census records, and the location of the presumptive cigar store with the requisite Indian standing guard is not known. However, the sidewalk brick pattern and storefront appearance suggest that it was part of the Ross and Van Schoonhoven block shown in photo #55 above. The Ladies Home Journal and Leslie’s Weekly, staples of middle class women’s reading material in the Victorian era, are visible in the store’s window. While the clothing style may be familiar even today to most Americans, the tight cuffing (pegged) of the pants indicates that Mr. Boucher was a “wheelman” who protected his clothing from getting caught in the chain of his bicycle.
In another vein, our subject’s contact with Amerindians was probably limited to leaning on this statue. However, journals on sale in his store recounted tales of the “Wild West” and the recently ended Indian wars on the Great Plains. Mechanicville was included on the circuit of communities that hosted “Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Shows.” Typically, one Mechanicville butcher distinguished himself in 1898 by proudly advertising that he procured his meat products only from locally raised stock, unlike his competitors who imported “wild beef” from the American West.
HARRY DENNIS’S BARBERSHOP #5 1897
Like other subjects in this collection, Harry Dennis’s name does not appear in any census returns from that era. This reinforces the fact that geographical mobility typified emerging industrial milltown populations in expanding communities like Mechanicville at the time. Families like the Forts who lived here for four generations were atypical. An 1898 booklet published as part of a fund-raising effort by the newly-formed Strang Hose Company advertised a number of local barber shops, but Mr. Dennis’s was not included among them. Within a few decades, barber shops proliferated in Mechanicville, almost all of them manned by Italian immigrants. Today, “hair stylists” have supplanted traditional hair-cutters and practice their craft in unisex salons. Consequently, an institution that once functioned as an intergenerational men’s club (note the seven men and boys pictured here), has all but disappeared. Mr. Dennis’s customers had the advantage of traversing a new sidewalk, but note the absence of street paving.
COLLINS FREEZING ICE CREAM BACK OF HALL’S PHARMACY #6 1897
Was this subject the brother of Mary Collins, featured in #56 above holding the imputed murder’s horse? The Collins surname has appeared numerous times in census returns across the decades, and without a first name, it is hard to tell which branch of the family our “ice-creamer” represents. Hall’s Pharmacy was located on Park Avenue near the lift-bridge on the site of the present-day McDonald’s Restaurant. Many older people will recall that soda fountains offering flavored drinks and ice cream sundaes were a regular feature of pharmacies. They began disappearing in the 1960s when locally-owned establishments were replaced by chain-stores. Look closely under the right arm of the unnamed subject standing in the doorstep and you can make out the smiling face of someone else trying to get into the picture. As is the case with most subjects in this collection, facial expressions are natural and relaxed, probably indicating a social connection with the photographer.
STRANG HOSE HOUSE #23 1897
Taken shortly after the building was opened, this photo features the new home of Mechanicville’s third volunteer fire company located on the west side of Third St. between Grand St. and Broadway. E. H. Strang was a prominent banker and manufacturer who opened a textile mill here in 1893. His son, A.L. Strang, later took over the business that produced child sleepwear and sweat shirts before going out of business in the 1940s. In 1897, the elder Strang spearheaded the move to organize a new fire company on the community’s developing West Side.
The Strangs were active Methodists and E.H.’s grand-daughter, Laura Strang Burgoyne, taught Sunday School here until she passed away in 2002. The family homestead, located around the corner from the Hose Company, is intact today, having outlived the fire house that was demolished when it threatened to collapse in 2003.
The Strangs also promoted prohibition and led the local Methodist campaign promoting alcohol reform from the 1890s through the 1930s. Volunteer fire companies played a prominent social role in small communities, and the Strang Hose Company appealed especially to Protestants who predominated on the West Side. Shortly after this picture was taken, Village President, T.J. Finnegan warned that he would organize an exclusive “sons of St. Patrick” company if his fellow-Irishmen continued to be “blackballed” from joining the fire brigades. The issue appears to have been resolved in 1904 when the Village Board commissioned the John L. Short Co., named in honor of the son of the first prominent Irish Catholic immigrant who settled here in 1830. However, controversy arose again when Italian immigrants who came to dominate the City’s North End after 1900 were similarly “blackballed” from the department until the 1960s.
HORSE AND SLEIGH BEHIND STORE #35 1898
C. M. Fort prepares to make a delivery via the primary means of winter travel in the 1890s: horse and sleigh. He may have been carrying “Dr. G. H. Dow’s Standard Herbal Remedy” to an ill patron, an alternative compound reputed to be “the best blood purifier known.” Such remedies were worse than the disorders for which they were prescribed since they were often laced with alcohol and opium derivatives. Horse-drawn sleighs were used for pleasure as well as business in the 1890s. Mechanicville’s annual social calendar included many overnight sleigh rides to Troy and other surrounding communities that were popular with young couples.
C.M. FORT MANSION #33 1898
The Fort home located on the northeast corner of Hazel (renamed Second) St. and Park Ave., looks today much as it did when it was built in 1896, absent the windmill on the roof. The clapboard has been covered with slate tile. Originally a single-family dwelling, it has been converted into a two-family unit. Telephone poles still line the streets of Mechanicville, but they no longer carry wires visible in the upper portion of the picture that powered the Hudson Valley Railway trolley cars as they did in the 1890s.
The Forts introduced indoor plumbing in Mechanicville, an innovation then costing $281.55, according to a contract signed by S. V. Fort on July 13, 1896 with the local contracting firm of Sheehan and Smith. The Village of Mechanicville had organized a Board Of Sewer Commissioners in 1892, but construction of the system did not begin until September 10,1895, according to local newspaper reports. Editor Mead frequently decried the reluctance of owners of existing homes to hook up to the system in its early years. However, following outbreaks of typhoid fever and other communicable diseases, the Board of Health Commissioners eventually succeeded in banning backyard privies and soon, all homes in the Village were connected to the system.
SNOW PLOW CLEANING TROLLEY TRACK #36 1898
This view was taken from Fort’s front porch, facing northwest onto Second Street. The two newly-built homes in the background have been replaced since then by two-family units, while the residence on the far right still stands today. It appears that the snowfall amounted to nearly three feet, given the height of the fence in the foreground. Although the local trolleys were powered by electricity as early as 1895, there was still no substitute for raw animal power when it came to clearing the streets of snow.
FLORENCE AND WHEEL IN BACK YARD #1 1897
Interestingly, Sid Fort began his photographic career by posing his younger sister, Florence, then aged 12 or 13, with her “wheel.” The newly-developed safety bicycle permitted women and girls to participate in vigorous physical recreational activity for the first time. Every community had its own team of competitive “wheelmen,” and the public’s interest in these competitions was such that large metropolitan newspapers such as The New York Times carried daily racing results from around the country. Costing as much as $100 each, bicycle purchases were limited to the middle and upper classes at a time when a skilled craftsman earned between $750 and $1,000 a year. Day laborers, who composed a majority of the work-force at the time, might make as little as $1.50 to $2.00 a day, and there was no guarantee that they could find work on a regular basis. The Mechanicville Saturday Mercury, a four-page folio weekly, carried three or four prominent bicycle advertisements per week in its issues in the 1890s.
MYSELF AND WHEEL IN BACK YARD #3 1897
Our dapper young photographer focused on the “wheel” theme in his earliest pictures, often presenting posed rather than candid shots in such instances. Note that the men’s “wheel” does not contain a number of safety features like a chain-guard or fender that are evident on Flora’s bicycle. Younger cyclists might obtain a “Crescent Juvenile” for $25, but other more elaborate vehicles could run anywhere from $60 to $100, a significant expenditure for anyone at the time. The creation of the modern-day credit society has often been attributed to Henry Ford’s decision in 1913 to sell his Model T on credit. However, weekly advertisements in The Mercury offered installment plans to potential buyers of the Crescent and other “wheels.”
WHEEL I RODE 20 LBS #38 1898
Exactly what the “20 lbs.” reference alludes to is obscure, but possibly, this “wheel” was ridden by Sid rode in a local competition. It is the only photo we have that does not contain a human element, again suggesting the importance of “wheels” in the late nineteenth century. Cycling teams from neighboring communities competed with each other on newly-macadamized roads connecting them. In winter months, racing continued in establishments such as Crosby’s Opera House, located on Mabbett Street, where spectators paid admission to watch the wheelmen go round and round.
A couple of Fort’s photos are lettered rather than numbered, with no descriptions written on the back of them. The significance of this is not apparent. This “wheelman” may have been proud to have had his picture taken, but we can assume that he did not race in such formal attire. Beginning in the 1890s, The Mercury editor advocated the building of paved roadways as an effort to have Mechanicville become a “forward-thinking community.” The macadamizing of roadways had originated in the late 1870s and local cycling clubs pushed for its adoption in their towns. Prior to the development of the “safety bicycles,” large-wheeled devices were a staple of balancing acts limited to circus performers. Paved streets greatly enhanced the safety of the sport then gaining widespread popularity, as did the recommendation made by national labor leader, Samuel Gompers, that workers would benefit from the relaxation provided by cycling.
Although he did not gain notice in the local press, one Mechanicville “wheelman” had riveted the country’s attention by bicycling from California to New York City in record time in 1893. Frank Beedleson Sumner garnered national attention, not only because he was the first cyclist to peddle his way through the “snow chutes” lining the transcontinental railway’s right-of-way through the Rocky Mountains. More astoundingly, Beedleson set a new speed record despite the fact that he had only one leg, having lost the other one in a railroad accident when he was a boy.
A railroad telegrapher, Beedleson was aided by fellow-trainmen who supplied him with food and water as he pedaled his way eastward. His journey had been ignored by the public until he reached Chicago, where newsmen covering the Columbian Exposition began to file regular reports of his trek. Cycling enthusiasts in Rochester and Syracuse who had helped to sponsor his ride fed reports of his progress to the large metropolitan newspapers, and local clubs escorted him through their communities with great fanfare as he made his way to his destination in New York City. Public interest grew tremendously as Beedleson continued to pedal his way in record time.
Fifty years following this triumph, Frank Beedleson repeated the story of his famous ride in such a low-keyed manner that local Rotarians who heard him were as much impressed by his humility as by his feat. Buried in Hudson View Cemetery following his death in 1956, the once-famous rider’s obituary made no reference to his 1893 adventure.
Unintentionally, cycling enthusiasts like Beedleson helped to pave the way for the coming of the automobile by pressuring local governments to macadamize their streets. Municipal franchises granted to trolley lines such as the one secured by the Stillwater and Mechanicville Street Railway in 1883 also required them to pave a portion of the roadway on each side of the tracks they laid on public streets, usually to a width of six feet.
Personal transportation preferences were not limited to bicycles, of course. Here, our well-dressed gentleman appears to be showing off his pride and joy, one we can assume that he rode for pleasure rather than for racing purposes. Note that neither the street nor the sidewalk is paved. None of the buildings pictured here are recognizable today.
FLORENCE AND BANTIES #13 1897
Somewhat blurred, this most intimate shot of his younger sister may have been young Sid’s first attempt at portraiture. Obviously, Florence enjoys the moment, but what the chickens felt about their fifteen minutes of fame is not recorded. The birds were kept as children’s pets at this time. However, as communities expanded and society came to have a better understanding of disease vectors, municipalities forbade the harboring of animals within their corporate limits. Antique collectors will immediately focus on the lamp in the background.
FLASH IN DINING ROOM #14 1897
Once she disposed of her banties, Florence joined other family members in sitting for a group portrait (she is seated on the lower right). Sid’s mother is standing in the center, but the others are not indentifiable. Possibly, his older sister Ida and grandmother are included here. All of the trappings of the middle-class Victorian home are evident: the tea bureau with mirror, the silver tea service, the Persian-style rug, elaborate wall paper, stile and rail wood doors, and the pictures on the wall. Other than the doors, which were probably produced at the local Pruyn Lumber Co.’s yard on Viall Avenue, all of these items were products of a mass-market international economy. Indeed, it is likely that many of them were offered for sale at C.M. Fort’s own store.
FLORENCE, MARY AND SILA IN BACKYARD #15 1897
Our three young subjects seem less than thrilled to be posing here, possibly because big brother made them dress in formal clothes they preferred wearing only on special occasions. We may notice that while high ankle shoes were still the order of the day, hemlines were beginning to trend upward.
FLASH LIGHT IN PARLOR #16 1897
C.M. Fort is reading the newspaper while his wife Margaret leans to the center to insure that she is included in the shot. Although we do not know for sure, the other two subjects appear to be Sid’s sister, Ida, and her unidentified husband. The lamp, paintings, wallpaper, mantle piece, and piano, again, were all staples of the well-appointed middle-class 1890s household. Note that the two women are wearing full-length dresses, in contrast to the three younger girls pictured in the previous photo.
FLASH IN KITCHEN #34 1898
Florence appears somewhat bored; (great?)-grandmother cannot keep her eye off of the camera; and grandson Cornelius looks surprised, while other family members happily gaze at the new addition. Again-the contrasting hemlines of older and younger women indicate that the times, they were a’changin’. The latest in indoor cooking and hot water heating is represented here by the cast-iron Glen Andes stove on the left, an item advertised for sale regularly in The Mechanicville Mercury.
C. M. FORT AND LITTLE CORNELIUS IN THE PARLOR #AA 1898
The proud grandfather does not mind holding the pose- or the baby- for long. The formal clothing and lengthy baby’s garment may indicate a special occasion such as the child’s baptism. Again-why this photo was lettered rather than numbered cannot be determined.
2 SPIDERS AND MYSELF #41 1898
Sid had no brothers, according to census returns, so the young “spiders” may have been cousins or neighbors. Younger boys at the time regularly wore knickers, while Sid’s full-length pants are “pegged” or bound at the ankle. Again- this would allow him to ride his “wheel” without catching his cuff in the bicycle chain. The unanswered question, of course, is who shot the picture when the usual photographer was the subject himself? Straw boaters were the order of the day for men while caps were commonly worn by young boys.
E. BOSTWICK IN RUSSELL’S PARLOR #49 1898
The name of Egbert Bostwick appears in the 1915 and 1925 local census returns, when he reported his ages at 39 and 50, respectively. Could this be that same young man at about age 22? Many “Russells” appear in the censuses of that era, but without a first name, it is a mere guess as to whose parlor we are viewing. Again, note the oriental rug, drapes, furniture, and pictures typical of Victorian middle-class households. Cigarette smoking became widespread in the early twentieth century, but in the “gay nineties,” cigar smoking predominated to the point that a United States Senator became famous by remarking that “what this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.” Mr. Bostwick appears to be enjoying his smoke, a tobacco product rolled most likely by local cigar makers. Mass-production of national brands had not yet become the order of the day. The largest local producers, “Hickey and Sweeney” cigar-makers, advertised their wares weekly in The Mechanicville Mercury at this time.
C.S. MOODY IN CARRIAGE #51 1898
Although the subject is not explicitly identified as such, we may assume from his initials and resemblance to other photos that he is C. M.’s grandson, Cornelius, who appears in # 34 and AA above. The absence of rubber tires and the large wheel rims would have permitted the carriage to be pushed across rough terrain, recognizing the fact that many streets and sidewalks were not fully paved at the time. Although it must have weighed much more than a similar carriage would today, the “passenger compartment” looks as if it could be lifted entirely from the rest of the vehicle, a convenience for mothers then as it is now.
FLASH AT THE CARPENTERS #74 1898
Photographer Fort apparently could not resist taking pictures of family gatherings wherever they might appear, and his subjects seem more than willing to comply with his requests to pose. There were a number of "Carpenters" listed in census returns of that era, but we cannot identify this group specifically. C. M. Fort, his wife, and presumptive mother-in-law are seated in the middle row, and just about every possible human emotion is present on one or another of the subject’s faces. Just what-and why- the young man standing in the rear decided to pose with an unidentifiable object in his hand is anyone’s guess.
IN KITCHEN #76 AUGUST 8, 1899
Our little boy does not seem too pleased about posing. The significance of the exact dating is not clear, but it is safe to assume that we are looking at a picture of the young Cornelius who appears in previous photos taken one year earlier.
CASEY IN THE BACKYARD #77 AUGUST 8, 1899
Casey, apparently Cornelius’s nickname, still has that tentative look at the cameraman. His apparel was not unusual, given the fact that gendered clothing did not become distinguishable until boys and girls reached the age of four or five. This practice extended well into the twentieth century.
FLASH IN THE KITCHEN #81 AUGUST 8, 1899
Our photographer poses with other family subjects who were captured in photo #76. Two features are noteworthy- a slight movement appears to obscure young Fort’s right hand. And yes, that is a Glen Andes coal-burning stove/hot water heater to the left, the most modern kitchen appliance then available to late nineteenth century housewives. They could also “keep their irons on the fire,” two of which are seen here. Given the dating and the gap in the numbering between this picture and the previous one, we can only speculate about the three “missing” photos.
FLASH LIGHT IN WENDELL’S SCHOOL HOUSE #7 1897
Earlier in his career, young Fort experimented with shots of his young colleagues. These boys look as if they were caught in the act, but it may just be that they had never been photographed before. We cannot locate “Wendell’s school,” but the supposition has to be that our scholars were not turning in their homework early. By 1897, Mechanicville had constructed a centralized school, K through grade 12, on South Main St., just south of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, as shown in earlier photos. The building shown here appears to be a typical one-room schoolhouse, possibly located in Round Lake, Willow Glen, or across the Hudson River in nearby Schaghticoke.
In another vein, despite the fact that facial hair had been the order of the day for men since the Civil War era, the younger generation had begun to favor the clean-shaven look. Every American President elected between 1860 and 1908 displayed facial hair, with Woodrow Wilson breaking the tradition in 1912. In like manner, a photo of the Mechanicville Village Board for 1901 shows that only four of the seventeen village officials were clean-shaven.
MAIN STREET BENSON VERMONT #58 1898
And you thought Mechanicville was small? Benson is located west of Rutland, Vermont on the southeast shore of Lake Champlain. The telephone poles appear to indicate that electricity was available, at least in some locations. The prominence of the American flag may have been an expression of the patriotism that manifested itself across the country as the United States successfully prosecuted its war against Spain in Cuba and the Philippines.
FLASH LIGHT CAMP OFIL AROUND DRESDEN VERMONT #BB AUGUST 17, 1898
Dresden, a community so small that it does not show up in modern-day atlases, was located near Benson. Apparently someone in the group had a camp in the area, a facility that by all appearances required the boys to “rough it.”
CAMP OFIL DRESDEN, VERMONT NEAR BENSON, VT. #61 1898
Our man in the center appears ready to “shoot the shooter.” Young Fort appears to have taken more than one camera with him while "roughing it” with the boys in the wilds of Vermont. The accommodations contrast sharply with the well-appointed parlors depicted earlier in the Fort homestead on Park Avenue.
DRESDEN, VERMONT FROM TOP OF GRAVEL PIT NEAR CAMP OFIL #63 1898
Nineteenth-century Dresden appears to have been little more than a rural cross-roads. Vermont lost population throughout the late nineteenth century as farmers discouraged by long winters and rocky soil sought out more fertile fields or industrial work elsewhere. As a result, many small towns simply disappeared.
EATING WATERMELONS AT B.W. BAKER’S #84 1899
A Currier and Ives calendar staple of this time depicted African-Americans eating watermelons, perpetuating an ethnic stereotype that has persisted for decades. A famous political cartoon of the era lampooned Teddy Roosevelt by portraying him in black-face and holding a watermelon. Was Fort playing against type here? We cannot tell, but upstate New York Caucasians seem as interested in the sweet fruit as any Southerner-black or white. The Baker farm was located in the Town of Stillwater north of Mechanicville above Hulin Heights in the community’s North End.
EATING WATERMELONS AT BILL BAKER’S MECHANICVILLE AREA #85 1899
The older gentlemen preferred derbies, while their younger counterparts displayed a variety of tastes in covering their heads. Is that Albert Boucher in the far-right rear? See #37, 1897 above for comparison. Suspenders are another clothing staple displayed by our subjects here, an item long-since out of fashion. There appears to be only one “community cup” shared by our gang, and what the pail contained is anyone’s guess, but it probably was not “mother’s milk.”
T.C. WALRATH’S HOUSE #90 1900
This photo has generated much discussion and debate as to the whereabouts of the home depicted, although it is agreed that it is located on the West Side of Mechanicville. Property in that area was initially subdivided in the 1890s, with William Tallmadge particularly active in selling off the lots and opening streets in the area west of the Delaware & Hudson’s railroad tracks and north of Park Avenue. The reflections in the windows indicate that the photo was shot from a southeasterly orientation.
DR. SHOSSY AND HORSE #92 1900
How and why Dr. Shossy was persuaded to pose with his horse we cannot say. We know from notations on the back that the photo was shot locally, but no one named Shossy appeared in the census returns of the time. Although it was common for local doctors to advertise in the weekly newspaper, Dr. Shossy was not among those who did so.
DR. SHOSSY AND HORSE AND WAGON #94 1900
Again, the rationale for taking this photo is unknown, and the scene it depicts cannot be located, other than that it was shot in Mechanicville. How long it took the good doctor to harness his steed to the wagon, and why he did so are questions that must remain unanswered. All that we might suppose is that he was not making a house call.
SEYMOUR WENDELL #82 1899
Modern-day assumptions regarding Victorian prudery are belied by this picture, leading us to conclude that regardless of the era, “boys will be boys.” Our aptly-named subject does indeed live up to his moniker by letting us “see more” than we probably want. Could he be the same character displayed in “#7- FLASH IN WENDELL’S SCHOOLHOUSE,” shown above? While our batsman patiently awaits the end of the shoot, Seymour takes care to keep his hat on. Thus, this candid shot marks the end of the “Fort Collection,” a unique collection that sheds a wealth of information on life in Mechanicville in the late nineteenth century.