A Spy in their midst

For the past 50 years, there’s been espionage in the Stockade. Locals can thank James D.J. Schmitt a

Residents of Schenectady’s celebrated Stockade always know when new people move into the neighborhood.

They know what’s playing at the Schenectady Civic Playhouse on South Church Street. When fresh paint is on Front and College streets, people always find out.

For the past 50 years, there’s been espionage in the Stockade. Locals can thank James D.J. Schmitt and Werner L. Feibes for the regular intelligence reports.

Schmitt and Feibes founded “The Stockade Spy” in 1961. The compact newspaper lets residents know what’s happening on their streets. If St. George’s Episcopal Church on North Ferry Street is conducting a special service, The Spy has the details. When people want to check schedules for trash collection, they’ll see them in The Spy.

Stockade residents Schmitt, Feibes and current Spy editor Sylvie Briber will celebrate the paper’s golden anniversary Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at The Stockade Inn at Church and Union streets. Staff members from the past and present will mark the years with appetizers and cake. The toasts will be followed at 7:30 p.m. by the general meeting of the Stockade Association.

Community resolve

Schmitt said the newspaper was one way to help Stockade residents preserve historic streets and houses. The Stockade Association had formed in 1957.

“Our goal was that we would become the first historic district in the state of New York,” Schmitt said, “because there were none.”

The Spy was designed to push the preservation agenda and strengthen neighborhood resolve.

“Anything that happened in the community, like the playhouse and Arthur’s [grocery market], shopping opportunities, whatever could be done to promote the idea that this is a community, it’s not just a bunch of houses,” Feibes said.

The first issue was put together at the architectural firm Feibes and Schmitt owned with Giles Yates van der Bogert. Feibes designed the distinctive newspaper masthead, which included St. George’s Church, First Presbyterian Church and a sampling of Stockade houses. It’s still used today.

Feibes said in addition to preservation information — what people could and couldn’t do with their property — social notices also became part of the monthly edition.

“It was what was going on, they were having parties and Fourth of July picnics,” Feibes said. “We felt at one point, this is overshadowing the message it was created for. But we were told, ‘Well, you may think that, but it’s strengthening the community and that will help promote the idea of preservation.’ So the two were helping each other.”

Schmitt remembers The Spy helped rally residents.

“It wasn’t really a close-knit neighborhood at the time,” he said, adding he was once approached by a young boy who thanked him for promoting in print the streets and houses of the area. The boy said he had endured barbs from classmates for living “downtown.” New thinking from Stockade residents had made the youngster proud to live in the area.

Unifying ideas

The Spy didn’t always make people smile. Schmitt said the newspaper used to run a drawing based on the 1754 Ben Franklin “Join or Die” cartoon from Franklin’s famous Pennsylvania Gazette. Ben’s version featured a snake chopped to pieces and each piece labeled with the initials of a British American colony or region. The Spy’s version had the same snake, but replaced the colonies with names of Stockade streets. Unity was the main idea behind both pieces of artwork … but the “Join or Die” admonishment made some residents uncomfortable.

Schmitt said another idea was asking residents to find out which flag would have been flying over the Stockade during the year of their home’s construction, and fly that flag — whether it was the King’s Colors, Betsy Ross, Stars and Stripes or other banner — once again.

During the early 1960s, The Spy had a circulation of about 800. Among the first features was van der Bogert’s “Walls Have Ears,” columns that gave readers insight into Stockade buildings. The columns were later collected in hard- and soft-cover books.

“People all wanted to participate, they wanted to write articles, they realized they had a mouthpiece in which they could give their opinions,” Feibes said.

Plenty of material

Schmitt and Feibes helped get the publication off the ground and then handed off to editors. Barrie Covert was the first. Most editors spent one, two or three years on the job and always found copy for columns.

The December 1968 edition of The Spy — with a snowy night sky in the masthead with the same buildings — included details on Stockade church histories and holiday schedules, drawings of Stockade houses, a piece about the Red Cross and its blood drive operation and a collection of holiday poems and stories written by children.

In June 1969, minutes for the Stockade Association’s May meeting were published. A report on the Memorial Day picnic in Riverside Park was printed; so was a remembrance of Stockade resident William LeRoy Emmet.

R. Michaela French took over as editor in 1988 and stayed into 1996. Briber and Bette Brunelle took over as chiefs that year and were joined in 1997 by Elayne and Trevor Murphy. Briber has been the sole editor since 1998.

Feibes said there’s still a need for a Spy in the Stockade.

“There are still a lot of issues that are misunderstood, that need to be clarified,” he said. “New people move in to buy property. There are, unfortunately, a lot of absentee landlords. The message is never complete. We have to continue to drum away at preservation and conservation. It’s a never-ending story.”

Pride and passion

Briber is glad to carry on with tradition. The Spy, she believes, helps instill pride and inspires passion for history.

“And since we have the Schenectady County Historical Society right here, with a lot of the families, a lot of the original families that lived here, a lot about the buildings,” she said, “you can find out about your own house.”

Briber is always trying to recruit new contributors. When she walks her dog in Riverside Park and meets other people, she finds time to Spy.

“I’ll strike up a conversation, some topic will come up and I’ll say, ‘Can I put that in The Spy?’” Briber said. “Or, ‘Would you be willing to write that up?’ I met a woman in the park who was crazy about dogs, so she’s been doing a column about different dogs in the Stockade.”

Briber prints 1,000 Spy newspapers each month from September through May. Businesses, called Spy patroons, help pay publication costs through advertisements that are generally just business cards. The Stockade Association will also contribute.

Ten people are currently on staff. Briber can’t say how long it takes to put each issue together.

“It’s hard to say because I’m kind of always working on it,” she said. “When I take the dog for a walk in the park, I’m sort of working on it. I meet a neighbor on the street, I’m working on it. I find out some bit of something or the other, it’s sort of meshed into my life.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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