Friday, March 30, 2018

Emmett House on River Road - UPDATED!

One of the best parts of my job is when I get to visit historic Bethlehem homes.  Yesterday I got the chance to go through the Samaritan Shelters property on River Road.  Samaritan is closing up shop and they are looking for a buyer.  I, of course, was more interested in the historic house (built circa 1837!) and the families who lived there.

This view is circa 1900 (sorry for the bad quality - it is a snapshot of xerox copy!)

This view is stolen from Google Maps.
Samaritan has been here about 40 years providing a vital service for troubled youths.  They purchased the property from the Schmitt sisters - Claire and Marie.

Local lore, says the two sisters grew to despise each other and literally walled the house in half, Marie on one side and Claire on the other.   At some point the addition on the rear was made - maybe in the 1950s - in an attempt to run a boarding house for teachers.   Both Claire and Marie were teachers in the Bethlehem Central School District.  Claire from 1931 to 1965 and  Marie taught at St. Anne's School in Albany from 1928 to 1935 and then at Elsmere School from 1935 to 1969.

From census records, it looks like the family landed on the farm as early as 1905 when they show up in the NY census.  In the 1910 US census, they are clearly on the property.  We've got George and Mary Schmitt (both 39 years old married for 10 years, he's a farmer) and four kids: Claire, Marie, George Jr and Eva.   In 1920, they are still there, but baby Eva (who was 2 in 1910) is no longer on the family list.  She probably passed away but I couldn't find a record of that.  Local lore does say that one child died young, and perhaps haunts the place.  Is this Eva?   The 1920 census also indicates that Anna, a daughter aged 5, has joined the family.  Right up to the 1940 census (the last one available to the public) the Schmitt's are living in the house: George and Mary, Claire, Marie and George Jr.  Anna is in the 1930 census but not in the 1940.  By that time, she has likely become the Mrs. Jacob Nester mentioned in the obituaries I found.

Mary died at the house in November 15, 1951 (she was a Dettinger by the way) and George the following March, 1952.  Of the teaching sisters, Claire died in 1976, and Marie hung in there until 1993.

This is the barn that was on the property until about 1980.
A 1916 reports says George and Mary grew hay on the 140 acres that they owned. 

But who owned the house before the Schmitt tenancy? This is where things get murky.  I've been promised a copy of the deed, which goes back to the Patroon era, but I haven't seen it yet.

The 1891 Beers map is interesting because it has a Mrs. Smith on the spot where the house is and there is a an J. Dettinger just around the corner (on today's Bask Road).  Remember Mary was a Dettinger.  The 1866 Beers map has A.E. Sweet, and the 1854 map has  D. Winne.

The house itself has good bones.  It is solid brick. In the basement, great wooden beams, as well as steel ones, hold up the 200+ year old sections.  While the walls upstairs have been paneled over and the floors carpeted, there are plenty of signs of old wood work and moulding including a marble fire place surround.  There is still an old carriage barn on the property, altho the big barn was removed years ago.

All in all, it is an intriguing historic property in Bethlehem!

PS: Samaritan Shelters named the place Emmett House.  As far as I know, there were no Emmetts that lived there.

UPDATES - I've got a copy of the deed!
(posted August 30, 2018)

The deed for this property came my way several months ago and it does trace the property back to Hugh Alexander who leased 200 acres on both sides of the river road from the patron Stephen VanRensselaer on September 17, 1792. 

The links and chains descriptions are some of the best I've read in a long time.  The transfer is dated April 1, 1853 between Hugh Alexander (and a bunch of relatives) to Adeline Winne, wife of David Winne. It begins at the "northeast corner of the Brick Dwelling House of the late James Alexander, deceased and runs from said point... E 11.83 chains to a wild plumb tree" And continues with a "marked walnut tree" and "a stake and stones".  But my favorite is " E. 5.73 chains to a point in the Albany and Green Turnpike Road where a butternut tree formerly stood"  You read that right, a tree that used to stand in the middle of the road! 

From Adeline Winne it went to the Albany Exchange Bank and thence to Benjamin Sweet (in 1863 - it is not clear how long Adeline owned the property)   Benjamin Sweet went bankrupt about 1876 and the property transferred to Matthew Read as assignee in the bankruptcy.  From there it went to Thomas Bagley in 1877.  In 1879 it went to Andrew Dettinger and then in 1901 to his daughter, Mary Schmitt, wife of George Schmitt.  Interestingly, Andrew Schmitt's will left the house and property to daughter Mary and a monthly annuity of $65 to his other daughter Anna.  In 1948 it went to Mary's daughters Marie and Claire.

And thankfully, all of the above info from the deed goes along with what the maps and even the house itself told me!

Oh and a final note, there was an easement granted in 1914 to the New York Telephone Company for them run poles  - I am hoping that the Schmitt's had a phone in 1914!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Slavery In Bethlehem: Remembering Names

     Have you caught the Times Union's recent series called Slavery Unearthed?  Pop over to their web page and put Slavery Unearthed in the search box for a variety of articles on the topic.  Look for Amy Biancolli's very well written articles including "New York's slave past unearthed" subtitled "Trove of records detailing state's era of bondage, and lives of the enslaved, accessible in database"
     Part of the impetus for the article is the release of the New York Slavery Records Index, a searchable database put out by John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  It contains "Records of Enslaved Persons and Slave Holders in New York from 1525 though the Civil War."
     So of course I had to search for Bethlehem related stuff.  You can too, pop over to  and search away your afternoon.
     I couldn't find a huge amount for Bethlehem.  Just two "records of enslaved persons" which came from Albany's Manumissions and Registrations. That would be Tom and Gin.  Tom was registered in 1801 when he was about 57 years old by his holder John D. Winne of Bethlehem.  The 1803 record for Gin says she was sold to James Sinacre for $30 for a term of 21 years. Her holder was Jurian Hogan.
     I've written previously about Bethlehem's own record of slaves book.  (Shameless plug - the article is Chapter 32 in my book Historic Tales of Bethlehem New York.)   The handwritten account book dates from 1799 to 1827 and records births and manumissions of slaves right here in Bethlehem. I even made a spreadsheet of all the names of both slaves and owners.
     One wonders about the story of Jack, Nat, Dick, Charity and Sally, all slaves manumitted and set free by Francis Nicoll on December 26, 1814.  Earlier in the year, on May 1, he set free Dian and Tim. Or the story of Bett.  The births of her three children, Mink, Deyann and Gin, were recorded by John Hogboom October 6, 1821. The children were born in 1813, 1817 and 1820.
     To get another look at slavery in Bethlehem, I turned to the 1800 census.  Basically, it has four main columns: Free White Males, Free White Females (these two are further divided by age brackets), All Other Free Persons except Indians Not Taxed, and Slaves.  The very first entry is for Maria V Rensselaer whose household had 6 white males, 2 white females, 0 other free, and 6 slaves.  That very first page also records the household of Cezar Wood a "free Negro" which had three people.

This is the start of the Bethlehem page of the 1800 census.

     Going to the very end of the Bethlehem section we find the totals for the whole town (remember that at that time Bethlehem was twice as big as today and included all of the town of New Scotland.)
1769 free white males, 1692 free white females, 13 other free persons, and 254 slaves.  Don't you wonder about the stories that lie hidden in those numbers?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt - Revisited

Last night I returned from vacationing in Asheville, North Carolina.  It is a very beautiful place and I had to do all the touristy things including a trolley tour and visit to the Biltmore Estate. And I had an awesome "Bethlehem History Moment" while mixing with the hoards of people touring the famous mansion.

First, here's a picture of the house taken from their website (  It doesn't show the five million people that were there the day we were. (If you don't like crowds don't go on a Saturday.  Altho I must say, the place is very well run and we had a very nice experience!)

As you go along the self-guided tour, you come to the Tapestry Room.  My eyes were already starting to glaze over a little by this point, but I did turn around to look behind me and saw these portraits on either side of the door.  Who are they?  I wondered.

So I read the tour book, and lo and behold, the woman on the left is our very own Maria Louisa Kissam! She married William Henry Vanderbilt right here in Bethlehem on September 28, 1841. Pop over to this blog post from last year for the story about how they met.

What a fun surprise!

That's Maria Louisa - portrait by John Singer Sargent.
And that's her son George Vanderbilt - who had this whole amazing Biltmore Estate built -
portrait also by Sargent
The portrait on the right is Edith Vanderbilt - daughter-in-law of Maria Louisa.
So, then I started imagining this young woman, who grew up in Coeymans (!) and her experiences in this particular house. Her son's home. 

Below is the whole write up that appeared in the New York Times when Maria Louisa died in 1896. I copied and pasted from because I really want you to read it!  I don't think she ever forgot her roots and upbringing in rural Albany County. 

Mrs. W. H. Vanderbilt Dead.

Stricken with heart failure at Scarborough.

Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt died suddenly yesterday afternoon at the country residence of her daughter, Mrs. Eliott F. Shepard, at Scarborough, N. Y. of heart failure. She had suffered from a weak heart for several years, but her demise was entirely unexpected. Mrs. Vanderbilt had been at Mrs. Shepard's house for about three weeks, and was present at the wedding of her grand-daughter, Edith Shepard, to Ernesto Fabbri. About noon yesterday she dressed for her daily drive and appeared to be in good health. But just before the carriage arrived she had an attack of heart failure, and decided to abandon the drive. She went back up stairs, and about 1:30 o'clock her heart failed to act and in a moment she was dead. The end came painlessly. Dr. Constant, a local physician, was summoned when the attack came, but his efforts to prolong life were unavailing. Dr. James W. McLane of 51 West Thirty-eight Street, the family physician in New York, was notified by telegraph. He hastened to Scarborough as fast as a special engine could convey him, but Mrs. Vanderbilt was dead when he arrived. The only relatives with Mrs. Vanderbilt when she died were her daughter, Mrs. Shepard, and her sister, Mrs. Bromley, Cornelius Vanderbilt is at Newport convalescing from his recent attack of paralysis. He will be unable to go to Scarborough, but will come to New York for the funeral. William K. Vanderbilt was in New York. George Vanderbilt is at Biltmore, N.C. and Frederick was at Hyde Park, on the Hudson. Mrs. William D. Sloane, another daughter, is at Lenox, Mass; Mrs. Seward Webb is at Shelbourne, Mrs. Fabbri is on her way to England, Mrs. H. McK. Twombly was at Madison, N. J. and Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, who was Gertrude Vanderbilt, is in Japan. All members of the family who were near New York arrived at Scarborough last evening. Chauncey M. Depew and James Hatmaker, Cornelius Vanderbilt's private secretary, went to Scarborough yesterday afternoon. Dr. Depew said last night no arrangements for the funeral had been made. The body will probably be brought to New York to day and the funeral will be held from the home at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street Monday or Tuesday. Definite arrangements for the funeral cannot be made until the members of the family meet. The body will be buried in the family vault at New Dorp, Staten Island. The life of Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt was one of Aladdin like changes. She passed through every saga from a poor farmer's wife on Staten Island to a palace on Fifth Avenue and the distinction of being the wife of one of the wealthiest men in the world.

She was married to William H. Vanderbilt in 1841. Her husband at that time was a clerk in the office of Dean Robinson & Co., bankers in Wall Street, at a salary of $16.00 per week. The old Commodore took very little notice of either his son or his daughter-in-law. William was bound to "go to the dogs" anyway, he thought, and he did not intend to waste his substance and energy in trying to prevent the inevitable. The young people did not have sufficient means to furnish a house, so they boarded in East Broadway, which was then a very good part of the city, living happily on their small income. The additional responsibility impelled the young husband to devote greater energies to business. Indeed, the firm was seriously considering the advisability of taking him into partnership, when he was obliged to give up indoor work on account of the failure of his health. His father, realizing that, unless he did something, his son would soon die, purchased for him a little farm at New Dorp, Staten Island, and told him to make the best of it. Thither the young wife accompanied her husband. They found the farm to be seventy acres of unimproved land. They were both ignorant of farm life, but together they undertook a calling which required patience, sagacity, economy, and untiring energy. The motto of the husband was never to attempt what he could not do, and never to fail where work would win. The wife, with a thrift inherited from her sturdy ancestor, aided him in every way. In these early struggles, William H. Vanderbilt often said, her influence was potent for great good, and to that influence he attributed much of his courage at this period of his life. Under the combined efforts of the two the barren little farm was transformed and soon brought in a good income. Life became easier for the young wife. Her husband, by his energy, soon had 350 acres under cultivation. Then came the reconciliation of the father and son. The Commodore at last believed there might be "something in William." From that time there was no more farm work for the young wife. Her husband was soon after made receiver for the insolvent Staten Island Railroad. So well did he handle this property that from on extreme the father went to the other. Nothing was too good for him. Position after position was given him, until, in the old age of the Commodore, William H. Vanderbilt was his father's confidential adviser-at his death the principal heir. During these changes the wife steadily devoted herself to her household and her increasing family of children. She was exceedingly simple in her mode of life. She rose early and after attending to her household duties spent most of her time in the care of her children. After they were married she took the same interest in her grandchildren, visiting them or having some of them brought to her every day. Before she became enfeebled she was accustomed to take a drive in Central Park every afternoon, accompanied by one of her daughters. She always dined very quietly and retired early. Mrs. Vanderbilt was of a religious disposition and very regular in her attendance at St. Bartholomew's Church, Fifth Avenue. She was charitable, but in an unostentatious way. Her name seldom appeared in the list of the leading charities, but it is known that she contributed largely to them in a quiet manner. It is said she generally requested that her name should not be mentioned with her contributions.

From the New York Times November 7, 1896.

And finally,

Further along in the tour, in the Oak Sitting Room is the portrait below.  The guide book says this is "Mr. Vanderbilt's aunt, Mrs. Benjamin Kissam." So a sister-in-law to Maria Louisa.  It was also painted by John Singer Sargent.

Stage Finds

In the ongoing saga of things that turn up on my desk I give you the picture above.

Did you know that they are working on the stage area in the auditorium at Town Hall? (It became structurally unsound, so the space is being renovated to accommodate the food pantry and rework the area where the Town Board sits.)

Do you remember that Town Hall is the former Delmar Grade School?

The items above were all found "under" the stage, a couple of them were actually crammed into the wood work.

As always I wonder what the story was.

This blue tin looks to be a cigarette box.  Edgeworth Extra High Grade Ready-Rubbed was manufactured by Larus and Brother Company of Richmond, Virginia.  Probably from the 1930s.  I imagine kids sneaking a smoke under the stage after school!

The calendar is for the year 1933 and I wish it still had the picture in the middle.  It advertises the Delmar Dry Cleaners, 337 Delaware Avenue.  Dial 9-832.   Love that phone number!

How about this bus schedule from 1926? Catch a ride in Albany at 10 AM and arrive in Delmar 26 minutes later.  I really wonder where the specific bus stops were for Albany, Normansville, Elsmere and Delmar.  Obviously along Delaware Avenue, but where exactly?

This is an envelope from the Home Savings Bank in Albany - wish we could still get the 4 1/2 % interest rate!

And finally, this sheet that looks to be a page of spelling homework.

I would really like to know if anyone remembers Stephen Gates and how his fourth grade paper ended up stuffed in the wood work under the stage!  Let's see, if he was around 9 years old in 1964 that makes him about 63 today. And because I can not help myself, here's his BCSD 1972 yearbook picture.  That's him, top left.

Many thanks to the folks working on the project who rescued these items.  You saved some fun bits of Bethlehem history!