Capital Region Scrapbook: Exploring the county’s roots

Beginning Saturday, the Schenectady County Historical Society will present “The Most Beautiful Land:

Categories: Life & Arts

Charles Lewis and Newland Holmes Jr. were parts of the North and the South, respectively.

The Union College students followed their beliefs when the nation’s Civil War began in 1861.

Lewis joined the Union army and later fought in the Battle of Chancellorsville. New Orleans resident Holmes knew gray was in his future when news of shots fired at Fort Sumter reached Schenectady; before leaving the city, he and 10 other Southern students raised a Confederate flag at Liberty and Ferry streets.

Both men are now parts of Schenectady’s history. Their stories will be celebrated through early fall as the Schenectady County Historical Society presents “The Most Beautiful Land: Schenectady County’s History.” Photos and artifacts from Schenectady County’s first 200 years will be on display at the society’s headquarters, 32 Washington Ave.

The bicentennial history lesson begins Saturday, when the exhibit opens at 2 p.m. The first day will feature words by Edwin D. Reilly Jr., the society’s president, and Bill Buell, a Daily Gazette reporter whose book “Historic Schenectady County: A Bicentennial Celebration,” will be released in May.

The colorful exhibit is designed to inform. Stories, paintings and photos of the Mohawk Indians, the Erie Canal, city industry, county towns and people from the past are all part of the show. So is a restored wooden sign that once helped people find “Jacob Mabee’s Inn.”

“This is the first time in a long time that there is an exhibit on the entire history of Schenectady County,” said Kathryn Weller, the society’s curator. “People will get an idea of their own history and really the roots of Schenectady County from the first people here to the various immigrant groups that have come through the 18th and 19th centuries and the industrial history of the county during the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Display panels, fresh paint and new lighting are also part of the exhibit, made possible by a $12,500 grant secured from the New York State Council for the Humanities. Some people may notice relatives in some of the photographs — like the smiling women standing around and sitting upon the last M-7 tank built by the American Locomotive Co. during the 1940s.

There are also plenty of facts about the tank, which played a big part in the British victory in North Africa at the Battle of El Alamein. Before the heavy metal weapons were fired in World War II engagements, they were tested locally; residents often saw the tanks moving back and forth between the ALCO factory and the company’s testing grounds in Niskayuna.

Other photos may elicit smiles. A man whose name is forgotten to the ages once posed as Neptune on an 1865 carnival float. Members of Schenectady’s True Blue Society gave the sea king his trident, all in the name of city business spirit.

The proud Moses Viney is also on display. Viney escaped a life of slavery and found a new life in Schenectady, where he worked as Union College President’s Eliphalet Nott’s coachman and personal assistant.

A soldier’s story

Weller loves the Civil War stories of Lewis, who kept a journal of his life and times.

“Charles Lewis is a young man experiencing the Civil War first-hand,” Weller said. “It’s a local record of a very national event and some of his prejudices and feelings come through. He was a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln, but that wasn’t true of everyone in Schenectady.”

The display will run through early October and is free of charge. The society is open to the public Monday through Friday from 1 until 5 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. The society is closed Sunday.

Weller hopes both young people and older adults visit the county’s past.

“It’s geared toward both visitors to Schenectady County as well as locals,” she said. “I think there is something for both audiences. And if you’re totally new to Schenectady, this is a great introduction to the history of the community. But if you grew up here, this is a great way to rediscover things about your own community.”

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