By the early 1900s, the town board was appointing constables, one of whom, in 1924, was David R. Main. Main served until his death in 1949 becoming well known for patrolling the Four Corners on foot with his white bulldog at his side. His cases were frequently mentioned in the newspapers, from rounding up lost heifers in South Bethlehem to dealing with an aggressive “cat burglar” who was breaking into homes in Delmar, Elsmere and beyond. He described that criminal as the meanest burglar he had ever had to contend with. Missing persons, peeping toms, and fire investigations are all mentioned.
In 1941, the town transitioned from a constabulary to a formal Police Department, with Main appointed the first chief. Also transitioning over were constables, now patrolmen, C. Arthur Blodgett and John A. Hotaling. A police department of three was deemed sufficient by the town board for the growing suburbs of Delmar, Elsmere and Slingerlands, and the more rural Glenmont, South Bethlehem and Selkirk. Officers worked closely with the New York State Police on keeping the proverbial peace. The Bethlehem Police Department has gone on to grow and professionalize. It became one of the first to be accredited by the New York State Law Enforcement Accreditation Program in 1990, a recognition that is still in place today.
Bethlehem residents’ concern for law and order was also realized in two different mutual aid organizations: the Bethlehem Conscript Society and the Bethlehem Mutual Protective Association.
The Bethlehem Conscript Society was organized in 1874 to pursue and recover horses and wagons stolen from members. Founders included former town supervisor Albertus Becker and former town clerk William Kimmey. The Society met for at least 20 years as evidenced by their August 31, 1895 annual meeting announced in the Coeyman’s Herald. At that time William Kimmey was still the treasurer of the group. Such banding together for the mutual aid was not that unusual in rural, upstate New York. The Kinderhook Conscript Society was formed in 1808 for the pursuit of horse thieves. It continued until at least 1934 when one newspaper writer wondered “why the Kinderhook Society did not adapt itself to the changing conditions and start chasing automobile thieves…but there are traditions which gave the society the right or privilege to round up snatchers of horses, while to the police is left the job of recovering motor vehicles.”
The Bethlehem Mutual Protective Association was incorporated in 1909 with the express purpose of guarding against theft, trespass and malicious mischief. At the beginning there were several hundred members, most of whom were farmers, from Coeymans, Bethlehem and New Scotland. A snippet in the October 28, 1910 Altamont Enterprise sums up why someone would join the group. “Mr. Van Wie was unfortunate in having his horse stolen last Wednesday night, but had the good fortune to recover the horse and outfit after considerable trouble and expense. He contemplates joining the Bethlehem Mutual Protective Association”
The group pursued offenders both big and small, sometimes offering rewards, like the $50 award offered in 1911 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the parties who stole the chickens from John Patterson, Glenmont, or the $50 offered in 1914 for the person who stole the horse from the pasture of Elisha Stoff. They were active in the apprehension of Chicken Charlie, Charles Rathke, an unrepentant chick stealer. 1917 brought a rash of “automobile parties with motor cars, cycles and hunters making raids upon orchards and gardens and helping themselves to fruits and vegetables.” Drugstore robberies and blanket thefts are also mentioned in the papers.
Besides pursuing criminals, the group promoted community efforts like “contributing food stuffs to the Empty Stocking Fund” and an effort in 1933 to remove unsightly billboards. The Association met annually to conduct business, elect officers and enjoy a clambake or turkey dinner. They were active at least until the late 1930s.
A word of note, the various newspaper clippings sometimes refer to members of the Bethlehem Mutual Protective Association as officers, even using the word police officer on occasion. This group was a private organization, representing their members, not the Town of Bethlehem. Indeed, at one annual meeting of the Guilderland Mutual Protection Association, after being addressed by Surrogate Glenn who told of the work of the Bethlehem group and “how thievery had compelled the farmers to organize for mutual protection and the excellent results therefrom,” Attorney Barkhuff then spoke at length, and “emphasized the fact that the Protective association stood for Americanism, law and order. He made a plea for the proper administration of justice, rather than take the law in our own hands.” (Altamont Enterprise, October 21, 1921)
The Bethlehem Conscript Society and the Bethlehem Mutual Protective Association are part of a long line of community groups that organized around a perceived need. As Floyd Brewer wrote in concluding the Community Organizations chapter of Bethlehem Revisited, “Looking back over the mass of data on community organizations assembled for this chapter, one is struck by the enduring quality of a large number of Bethlehem groups… many were founded by forceful leaders who left a legacy of group structure to fill varying needs, to resolve problems and to enhance the cultural life of a dynamic, growing community... In short, citizens will find ways of addressing their problems and needs through organizations in every age.”
Sgt. John Van Nosdall is seen here in April 1965 with Calico, Bethlehem’s very own police cat. Calico took up residence in town hall, bedding down in Police Headquarters, patrolling the various offices and attending town board meetings. She was known for her diet of cat food and fish. The occasional mouse was consumed, according to Capt. Robert Foster, “Only if they violated the law.”
Police Chief David Main, left, is seen here at a 1942 Lincoln Day dinner at the Ten Eyck Hotel along with Bethlehem Judge William Comstock and his wife. Next to her is Arthur Blodgett, a Bethlehem police officer, who served as chief after Main, and retired from the force in 1959.
Members of the Bethlehem Mutual Protective Association posted signs as a warning to would be thieves and trespassers.