Monday, May 3, 2021

Our Towne Bethlehem May 2021: Streets of Selkirk

 Have you noticed I am on something of a street name kick?  This month I thought I’d explore some street names in Selkirk.  Thatcher Street has always intrigued me because I wonder if there is a connection to Thacher Park.  Hackett is interesting because I wonder about connections to Hackett Blvd in Albany. But Selkirk is not giving up its mysteries easily, if at all

Thatcher Street in Selkirk is one of those old streets that can still be traced on early maps of Bethlehem.  It is clearly there on the 1854 Gould, and 1866 and 1891 Beers maps with prominent property owners J. Elmendorf, A.J. Ten Eyck and of course Selkirk. Unfortunately, those early maps don’t include street names.  While often street names are connected to local family names, that is not working out here. Looking at the maps and in the Census, there are no families with the name Thatcher (or Thacher) living in the general Selkirk area.  None. There are members of the Thacher family living in Delmar, most prominently, Kenelem and Catherine, who moved there in the early 1940s.

While street identifications are hit or miss in the census records, there are some hints.  The 1920 U.S. Census uses the terms Selkirk Village and Selkirk Road, and in 1930 Hackett Gardens appears along with Selkirk State Road and Beaverdam Road.  In 1940, Thatcher Street appears, but no families named Thatcher. 

We are left to wonder. Is there a story connected to how a thatcher is a person who uses thatch to cover roofs?  Maybe there was someone in the hamlet who did that?  Maybe people just liked the name?  Maybe it goes back to Albany’s prominent Thacher family which included several mayors.  Maybe it is the road to Thacher Park – but that doesn’t really make sense.  Thatcher Park by the way, was donated to the state as a park in 1914 by Emma Treadwell Thacher in honor of her husband John Boyd Thacher (aunt and uncle of Kenelem Thacher mentioned above.)

And what about Hackett Gardens? It was a development that began when the Selkirk Rail Yards came through.  In 1926, there were frequent real estate ads in the Knickerbocker Press newspaper touting the “Land Boom” and that “Selkirk is the future city of the largest rail yards in the world.”  The exuberant ad goes on to say “A large city is being created at Hackett Gardens in Selkirk.  Property values will increase by leaps and bounds. But will you be among those to benefit by this large increase? Not unless you own real estate there.”  95 years later, you can look up the tax map for this area and see the paper streets of Vassar and Harvard, and the many lots that were laid out for Hackett Gardens, none of which were built on.

While Selkirk did not boom quite like the ads proclaimed, development did happen around Hackett Street and Whitehead Street.  Whitehead Street is named after Samuel G. Whitehead.  After he retired from the successful Whitehead Brothers sand company, Whitehead turned to building and developing Hackett Gardens.  In its February 3, 1928 issue, the Altamont Enterprise noted that “Hackett Gardens is prospering better than ever.  Mr. Whitehead sold two houses last week with prospects for a third soon. He has several houses to be put up in the spring.  He thinks in a few years Hackett Gardens will be quite a nice little settlement.” The previous summer, the Coeymans News Herald noted that eight new houses were going up at Hackett Gardens with seven of them being within three blocks of each other.  All of them were of different architectural styles.

A walk along Hackett and Whitehead Streets today reveals the varying architectural styles, from charming bungalows to sleek modern ranches.  It does not however, reveal the source of the name Hackett.  Again, there are no Hackett families to be found living in Selkirk around the time that Hackett Gardens got going. Perhaps inspiration was drawn from nearby Albany where Hackett Blvd was going strong, named after William Hackett another Albany mayor.

So, now we’ve got two Albany mayoral names, Thatcher and Hackett.  A theme perhaps?  Selkirk is hanging on to its mysteries.  Be sure to let me know if you know anything about this nice little settlement.

Behind this street sign are several Maple Avenue bungalows.
They are similar to the ones on Whitehead and Hackett. 

Flashes and Dashes

The Cedar Hill Schoolhouse Museum, home of the Bethlehem Historical Association is now OPEN Sunday afternoons from 2 to 4 PM.  Stop by and check out the new exhibits including Woman Suffrage, School Days, and Rivers, Roads & Rails.  BHA is also starting a new program called Saturday Family Time where a family can reserve the museum for their exclusive use with play-based learning activities for elementary aged children.

Second Saturday History Hikes and Paddles are underway hosted by yours truly.  Go to the BHA website for a schedule or look for the Bethlehem Parks & Recreation Department’s seasonal brochures  May 8 is a history hike at South Bethlehem and June 12 is a walk at Bethlehem Cemetery.

Mark Saturday, May 22 on your calendar for the inaugural Four Corners/Elsmere Self-Guided History Walking Tour.  As her Girl Scout gold award project, Isabella Richardson has researched and created a self-guided walking tour brochure through the Four Corners area, down Kenwood to Elsmere, along Herber and back to Delaware. Stop by her table at the municipal parking lot on Kenwood Avenue at the Four Corners between 10 and 2 pm and pick up a copy and take a walk.  Digital copies of the tour will be placed on the Historian's page on the town website as well.  Feel free to email me if you have questions,

And one more Selkirk bit...

While researching this article I took another look at a typewritten page in the town’s archives called “Houses in Selkirk after 1883, when the railroad came through.”  The undated page contains the remembrances of an unidentified Selkirk resident. Item number one reads: “Manlius Skinner had the first post office in 1883 and owned what is now Elmore’s store.  He married Ana Skinner, sister of Clifford’s father, and they both went on the Klondike Gold Rush 1897-8, when I presume they sold the store to John Vrooman, Anna’s father.” 

While there is a lot to unpack there, what intrigued me most was the reference to the Klondike Gold Rush. Usually, one reads about single men heading out on the hunt for gold but here we’ve got both Anna and Manlius going west.  What is their story?  How did it all turn out? I don’t know.  Despite the unique name of Manlius, my research so far has turned up nothing.  Always more questions than answers!

The Selkirk School, District #2, has been an anchor on Thatcher Street since it was built in 1928.

I so enjoy Selkirk social media circa 1928!

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Bethlehem Central High School Memorabilia - Class of '38

There hasn't been an entry in the ongoing saga of "things that just turn up on my desk" in quite a long time.  So I was thrilled to recently receive a giant envelope stuffed with Bethlehem Central High School memorabilia.  Here are some snapshots.  It all looks to be related to William Schoonmaker, president of the class of 1938.  Enjoy!

The pictures below are from the 1938 yearbook which you can access via the Bethlehem Public Library's Local History page.  Note that their Alma Mater is the modern day Middle School.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Our Towne Bethlehem April: The Retreat in Retreat House Road

 Have you wondered about the retreat in Retreat House Road? We’ll get to that, but first we have to explore the way the roads have changed in that area of town including the old hamlet of Kenwood, Old River Road, Old South Pearl Street and Old Route 9W. *

The modern-day landmark to start this discussion is the Cumberland Farms on Route 9W at the top of Corning Hill Road. As you probably guessed, Corning Hill Road gets its name from the Corning family.** The Corning property used to run along the entire south side of Corning Hill Road. Erastus Corning started buying up land here with the purchase of 136 acres from Angelica Van Rensselaer in 1833 eventually assembling an estate of hundreds of acres. Much can be said about the wealthy and influential Erastus Corning, from his railroad, banking and insurance investments to his active political life (N.Y. State Senate, U.S. Congressman, Mayor of Albany) to his involvement in Albany civic projects like heading Albany’s first water commission in 1850 or his plan for the All Saints Cathedral in 1871. The man was busy and made millions. At the time of his death in 1872 his estate was estimated at $12 million.

Look for the Corning name in this snip of the 1866 Beers map showing Kenwood. Look for the V shaped roads in the middle. That is the intersection of modern-day Corning Hill Road and Retreat House Road.  At that V, you can follow River Road north to the hamlet of Kenwood.  There is a prominent J.R. near the V – that is about where Cumberland Farms is today.  Another landmark is the spot marked J. Haswell at the lower left.  That is the brick Haswell house that still stands just north of Panera on 9W 1866 Beers Map. 

And what about that Bethlehem property? During Erastus and his wife Harriet’s time it was more of simple summer retreat. Their mansion was in Albany and their more elaborate summer places were in Newport, R.I. and Sachem’s Head, C.T. It was Erastus Corning, Jr and his love of all things flora and fauna, that turned the farm into a spectacular estate. He raised Jersey and Hereford cattle, Southdown sheep and thoroughbred race horses. He was particularly known for his orchids, his collection of moths and butterflies and the many exotic specimen plants he grew. Besides a large residence, the property had greenhouses, both hot and cold, stables, barns and even a horse racing track. When Erastus, Jr died, the estate was divided into two equal farms, the upper and the lower.

Edwin Corning and his wife Louise inherited the Upper Farm (these are the parents of Albany’s longest serving mayor, Erastus Corning). Nowadays, this is the land opposite Cumberland Farms. A large portion of it is protected in The Bio-Reserve, a not-for-profit biological field reserve of 68+ acres. The driveway to this property, and the lot containing Mayor Corning’s old house, is known as Old Route 9W.

The Lower Farm, modern day Retreat House Road and River Road area, came to Parker Corning and his wife Anne Cassin McClure. Parker began to rebuild the family’s wealth (Erastus, Jr managed to run through his entire multimillion-dollar inheritance – all those orchids were expensive!) especially through the development of the Albany Felt Company (later Albany International) which started as a small mill at Kenwood supplied by the fleece from the sheep his father raised. Paul Grondahl describes Parker as someone who moved easily from the worlds of agriculture to society to business to politics (he served in Congress from 1923 to 1937.) Especially after his marriage to Anne in 1910, the couple embarked on a lavish, high-society lifestyle. That lifestyle included swanky parties at their Lower Farm mansion. (They also had five other homes where they lived and entertained as the seasons dictated.)

Biographies often note the couple’s passion for race horses. One of their best-known thoroughbreds was Attention, who in 1941 beat the Triple Crown winner Whirlaway. The couple had one daughter together, Mary Parker Corning, who was born in 1912. Mary Parker enjoyed a privileged childhood, entering society with balls and dinner dances in New York City and Long Island culminating in her betrothal to Philip Lawrence Birrell Inglehart in 1933. Mary shared the Corning passion for high bred horses being a frequent visitor to the track and polo fields at Saratoga. Indeed, husband Philip was a polo player of some note.

Getting back to Retreat House Road, in1804, it was part of the Albany Bethlehem Turnpike road that went from South Pearl Street connecting up to River Road. Imagine, in the modern roadway, driving down Corning Hill Road by Cumberland Farms. Imagine where Retreat House Road comes in on the right. Back in the day, you could turn left and head towards Albany. This road with its bridge over the Normanskill would lead you to modern-day Old South Pearl Street and the long-gone hamlet of Kenwood.*** If you were to turn right onto Retreat House Road, this is the old route of the turnpike and River Road. Continuing down Retreat House, you come to modern day River Road. If you keep going south a little bit more, you could veer off onto Old River Road, another original section of the Albany Bethlehem Turnpike.

And that bit of River Road, the busy through fare that was the turnpike that is now Retreat House Road? It ran right in front of Parker and Anna Corning’s mansion. Bringing traffic and noise that they didn’t like. Sometime before 1935, the Cornings used their influence to have River Road moved east, preserving their privacy and creating the more direct route we know today that links River Road to South Pearl Street in a smooth transition.

Parker and Anna Corning both died in 1943 and the estate came to their daughter Mary Parker Corning Inglehart. In 1945, Mary donated 43 acres to the Catholic Diocese and it became a Jesuit Retreat House. Hence the retreat in Retreat House Road.  As the Jesuits noted in a history of the property, “Early in 1945 Mrs. Mary Parker Corning Inglehart, a Protestant, presented the beautiful Old Corning Manor House and Farm… as a gift.” They also noted its beautiful grounds and accessibility from downtown Albany. The Jesuits set about fixing up the old house. It was completely empty except for an old chair painted green and yellow, the Corning racing colors. They hosted many retreats for Catholic laymen over the years. One 1948 headline sums up nicely: “Many Catholic Laymen Find Seclusion to Meditate at Former Corning Estate, Where Gaiety Once Reigned.”

In 1968, the property no longer served the Jesuits’ needs and the retreat center was moved to Auriesville. For a brief time, the property served as the Center for Humanistic Education, loosely affiliated with S.U.N.Y, but by 1974, it had been purchased by the Emmanuel Community, now the Emmanuel Christian Church.

So now you know the back story of a unique street name. Take a drive on the old roads around Corning Hill, from the busy 9W to quiet, tree lined Retreat House Road. The old mansion is still there as are many out buildings. A little further down is the old Beth Emeth Cemetery, established about 1838.  And when you come out onto River Road you’ll be very near the entrance to the old Hurlbut estate at Halter Road – we talked about the Hurlbuts last month.

 * Now might be a good time to pull up a map. Start with your favorite modern one like Google maps. You can even check out the tax map for the area, 87.03. It still has the old roads on it. Easiest way to get there is to Google Albany County Tax Maps.  Because you are reading this online, I can add a link:

** I highly recommend Paul Grondahl’s book Mayor Corning: Albany Icon, Albany Enigma. While its main focus is Albany’s longest serving mayor, Erastus Corning III, mayor from 1942 until his death in 1983, the book has excellent information about the Bethlehem farm which Grondahl describes as “the family’s heart and soul, the place where it established a sense of permanency for successive generations.”

***Kenwood was a busy hamlet boasting the usual hamlet amenities like school (District 12), store and hotel. Over the years, and taking advantage of the water power available on the Normanskill, the area was home to a variety of industries from small scale saw mills and gristmills to the huge complex known as the Huyck’s Kenwood Mills. Huyck’s knitting and felting mill burned down spectacularly 1894.  Some of the old brick houses for Huyck’s workers are still standing on Old South Pearl Street.

 **** And also because you are reading this online and you've got this far, I can add a link to Paul G's recent Times Union story on the Bio-Reserve.  Its a good one!

A circa 1950 postcard of the Jesuit Retreat House

The house on March 19, 2021.

Mary Parker Corning with her favorite thoroughbreds, Red and Joy,
at the opening of the Washington Horse Show. Circa 1933. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Our Towne Bethlehem March 2021: Catherine and Elisha Hurlbut

This essay started out as an introduction to Elisha P. Hurlbut, New York Supreme Court Judge, accomplished lawyer, staunch advocate for the woman’s rights and abolition movements, and resident of Glenmont for almost 30 years. Chris Philippo of the Bethlehem Historical Association has done extensive research on the Judge and is in the process of securing a grant for a historic marker recognizing Hurlbut’s contributions to the Woman Suffrage Movement.  

 You can go online and find the masters thesis of Hurlbut descendant Jeffrey Dunnington entitled A Study of the Journal of Elisha P. Hurlbut, American Social Reformer, 1858-1887. Dunnington’s inspiration are the many journals that Hurlbut kept while residing at Glenmont. Hurlbut writes of his activities, his family, and his many opinions on the state of society. (Note the journals are dated 1858-1887. Hurlburt himself lived from 1807-1889.)

Elisha P. Hurlbut borrowed from Dunnington's work. 

 In amongst all of the masculine Hurlbut information, you will usually find a side note to the affect that Hurlbut married Catherine Van Vechten from the prominent Albany family. But what if the Hurlbut story were told from Catherine’s point of view? Shall we give it a try?

 Catherine Van Vechten was born June 8, 1826, the daughter of Teunis Van Vechten and Catherine Gansevoort. She had at least nine brothers and sisters. When she was 11 years old, her father was appointed Mayor of the City of Albany. He was a graduate of Union College and a prominent lawyer for the Van Rensselaer family. The Van Vechtens lived in Albany on Montgomery Street, around the corner from her father’s law office on Maiden Lane.

Catherine’s mother, Catherine Gansevoort, likely grew up at the famous Whitehall mansion. Her father Leonard purchased it, and about 1000 acres, in 1789, the same year she was born. (Modern day Whitehall Road is its namesake. The house was near where Whitehall, Delaware and Ten Eyck come together. Until 1916 this area was in the Town of Bethlehem.) One wonders if she heard the story growing up of how her aunt Magdalene Gansevoort’s thwarted suitor, a man named Sanders, instigated the terrible fire of 1793 that destroyed much of Albany. The family moved out to Whitehall after their city home burned down in the fire. After Leonard’s death in 1810, Whitehall came to Magdalene and her husband Jacob Ten Eyck.

For a time located in Bethlehem, the Whitehall Mansion was originally built in the 1760s, thought to be a Loyalist hideout during the Revolution and extensively rebuilt by Leonard Ganesevoort, Catherine Hurlbut’s grandfather. The image here is from Allison Bennett’s book The People’s Choice and is a mourning sampler made by Hester Gansevoort Ten Eyck in 1810. Bennett suggests that the two women in the portrait are Leonard’s daughters Magdalena and Catherine. 

One wonders if Catherine Van Vechten spent time at the elegant mansion, both before and after her marriage to Elisha Hurlbut. It would have belonged to her aunt and uncle. And how did Catherine meet Elisha? Probably through the interconnected social circles of those practicing law in Albany and New York City.  

Elisha was born in Herkimer County, New York on October 15, 1807, attended the Fairfield Academy and studied law under Arfaxus Loomis. In 1835 he moved to New York City. Dunnington summarizes well, “ As a young lawyer, Hurlbut enjoyed tremendous success, becoming well known across the state, and in law circles around the country. In one particular case, Bailey vs. The Mayor, he earned the largest fee ever obtained by a lawyer in New York City at the time. After a successful, lucrative, and brief law career, Hurlbut was elected to be a judge on the New York Supreme Court in 1847, the youngest person to achieve the honor.”  

 On the day her fiancĂ©e was nominated to the court, January 8, 1847, Catherine married Elisha. She was just 20 years old. Her new husband was 39.

 The Hurlbuts lived in New York City for few years before Elisha’s ill health prompted them to retire to the country. While Dunnington states they moved to Newport in Herkimer county and lived there for eight years, the 1850 U.S. Census captures them at Albany. The 1860 has them in Bethlehem. Catherine had four children: Jeanette born 1851, Bertha 1853, Gansevoort 1857 and Ernest 1863.

 While we have no words of Catherine’s own, Dunnington provides this description gleaned from Elisha’s journals:

While Mrs. Hurlbut was not afraid to voice her opinion on both political and family matters, she habitually deferred to her husband, following the era’s customs. Upon her death, Hurlbut wrote:

  "All her conduct shows that her family was her world—her children her jewels—and her husband her protector and unfailing reliance. She was not learned as a scholar—her headaches in youth having prevented study—but she had remarkable sense—great household economy—and was wholly devoted to her husband and children. She retained the simplicity of childhood through life. Her father called her “a child of nature” truly—and she lived and died uncorrupted by society.”

 Hurlbut claimed she brought order to his life by balancing out his negative attributes. Where Hurlbut was prone to fits of anger, Mrs. Hurlbut conveyed a calm and soothing temperament. She died of breast cancer November 13, 1880, at the age of fifty-five.


The Hurlbut Mansion in Glenmont was located at the end of modern-day Halter Road off of River Road. Surely Catherine influenced the elegant design decisions that are apparent in this photo. The house is seen here when it was owned by John Eddy (you might remember him from last month’s article.) It is no longer standing, having burned down in 1915, as this headline from the Albany Evening Journal announces: Old Hurlbut Manion Destroyed by Fire. Crowd Attracted by Spectacular Blaze at Glenmont – House Was Owned by John Eddy.

The Hurlbuts were a wealthy family. They owned the 12-acre estate in Glenmont. Inspired by the landscape marked by a hill and a glen, Hurlbut named it Glenmont on the Hudson. He also desired to distinguish the property, the former Abbey Farm, from the nearby, and rowdy, Abbey Hotel. 

The Hurlbuts also owned property in Albany.  I wonder if these Albany acres, which were across Delaware Avenue from the Whitehall mansion, were part of Catherine’s inheritance from her grandfather Leonard Gansevoort. As the crow flies, they are only a few miles from their Glenmont home. The Hurlbuts are remembered today in the names of Albany streets between Second Avenue and Delaware: Jeanette, Bertha, Van Vechten and of course Hurlbut.

1891 Beers map - the cross roads in the middle are modern day Whitehall Road, Delaware Avenue,
and Second Avenue.  On the green side of the line is Bethlehem, on the yellow Albany.

While I tried to highlight Catherine here, her husband Elisha P. Hurlbut truly was a fascinating character. You are encouraged to read more about him and his thoughts on civil rights, religion and phrenology in Dunnington’s work.

And that fire in 1793? The story is disturbing on many levels, from the catastrophic fire to the eventual death of two slaves, Bet and Dinah, charged with arson. Curious? Start with this page from the People of Colonial Albany Project:

Flashes and Dashes

I am getting back to walking and talking history with a series of Second Saturday events. First up on Saturday, March 13 is a walkabout in historic Slingerlands. Find more information at the Bethlehem Historical Association’s website and Bethlehem Parks & Recreation’s Seasonal Brochures.


Friday, February 19, 2021

I Spy My Hometown: Bethlehem, NY


This wonderful iSpy game from about 30 years ago surfaced today.  Enjoy the little poem clues. 

Sadly, as far as I can tell, the links and websites no longer work.

And I must admit, your historian is stumped.  I can figure out all of the clues, but pictures 8 and 15 are so similar!  I know which two properties they are, just not which is which!  Time for a road trip!

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Black History Month Story Walk

 This past weekend I was able to go over to Elm Avenue Park, check out the nature trails, and see how the Black History Month story walk was looking.  And it is looking good! Go see for yourself!

The trails are located opposite the playground.  As you drive in, the playground is on your right and the nature trails are on the left.  Look for the sledding hill, watch out for those zooming daredevils, and follow the walkway down the hill.  The story walk is the trail to the right.   

And as promised for those of you not anxious to try out the snowy footing, here are the pages I created.  There are more on the trail created by staff at the Parks Dept. that honor other African Americans.  

And a note before you get started, I fully recognize that just introducing a selection of Black people is a very simplistic endeavor.  There are layers and layers of context we could (and should) apply to each historic era represented here. There are so many questions for which I have no answers! If you would like to wonder together about what life was like for some of these Bethlehem people, I am happy to have those conversations with you. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Winter History Walk and Black History Month display

Two possibilities for you to get outside and enjoy some history this month.

A Winter History Hike

Saturday, February 13, 10 AM

Join Town Historian Susan Leath and bundle up for a brisk winter history hike at Henry Hudson Park. See what the leaves have been hiding all summer long like the Nicoll Sill House and Follywyck. Learn about the days of ice harvesting, steam boats and summer homes.  Meet at the gazebo for a loop through the park on the shores of the Hudson River and along Lyons and Barent Winne Roads.

You must pre-register with the Bethlehem Parks Department, online at or call 518-439-4955, option 7.

Check the website of the Bethlehem Historical Association for weather related cancellations, Questions: email Susan at

I took this picture in December 2007.  I bet there is more snow on the 13th!

Also taken in December 2007, we might see these remains on the walk. 
Low tide is about noon time, so it will be going out while we are walking. 

Story Walk at Elm Avenue Park

 In honor of Black History Month, please visit the Story Walk at Elm Avenue Park. I've compiled story boards about Bethlehem connections to Black History and Parks Department staff ones about influential African Americans on a national scale. 

The walk is located on the lower nature trail loop, opposite the playground, to the right of the sledding hill.  

And, yes, I will be posting my portion of the series in another blog post in the coming weeks.