People who know the Mohawk Valley know the story of Isadore Demsky.
Demsky grew up in Amsterdam, became interested in drama and eventually hit the movies as Kirk Douglas.
History followers might not remember other folks and other stories. Fritz Vogt was a homeless man who slept in barns and became a traveling artist, putting farms, churches and other buildings to paper. Mary Leszczynski was a strong-willed farm woman who raised her large family under difficult circumstances. And Amsterdam’s Benjamin Paul Blood was a philosopher and poet who entertained psychedelic notions.
Bob Cudmore of Glenville knows all the stories. He’s collected them in his new book, “Stories from the Mohawk Valley: The Painted Rocks, the Good Benedict Arnold & More” that’s now available in book stores.
Cudmore, 65, is a native of Amsterdam who has made communications a career. His Saturday newspaper column, “Focus on History,” has been published in The Daily Gazette since 2000. He has hosted the morning drive program on Amsterdam radio station Lite 104.7/1570 AM WVTL for the past seven years, From 1980 to 1993, he hosted the nightly “Contact” radio show on WGY radio.
Cudmore is also an adjunct instructor in media at the College of Saint Rose in Albany and has worked in public relations for the State University of New York system. He’s happy to be bringing the stories of Fritz, Mary and Paul to the general public.
The book is available at The Open Door in Schenectady and at the Book Hound and Old Peddler’s Wagon in Amsterdam.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A: I was approached by the publisher, which is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen to me very often. I have an idea that the publisher, which is History Press of Charleston, S.C., kind of trolls newspapers around the country to find out who is doing local history columns.
Q: The valley must be a treasure chest for history stories.
A: Yes it is. The Mohawk Valley has a long history. In fact, if you count the Mohawks and those who preceded them, you can go back thousands of years. We have one story in the book The Gazette has reported on separate and apart from my column, having to do with the archeological dig that’s been taking place in Amsterdam down by the river. The archeologist who did it dates some of the projectile points he found to, I think, 5,000 years ago. When I asked him “When was that?” he said, “Well, that’s when the first pyramids were being built.” Obviously, people have lived in the valley for a long time. I’m writing the most about the history that has happened in my lifetime, or maybe the lifetime of my parents. That’s what seems to work best with the column. And specifically Amsterdam, which I honestly do write about the most, was this thriving, carpet-making, broom-making, knitted goods-making mill town.
Q: Are some of the stories rooted in some of your newspaper columns?
A: Some are expansions of columns. And kind of compilations of some of the separate columns I’ve done over the years. I have a chapter on the Sanford family and their carpet mill in Amsterdam and another chapter on Mohawk Carpets, those were the two major carpet-making firms in Amsterdam. It probably combines several of the Gazette columns I did on that topic.
Q: How about a favorite story from the book?
A: It didn’t make it into the title, which was History Press’ decision, but my favorite is the story about Benjamin Paul Blood, the psychedelic philosopher. I find it remarkable that many years before Dr. Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, there were these guys in Amsterdam and all over the world, really, who were using nitrous oxide to get high so they could write about their experiences. We’re not talking about just any old guys or just Benjamin Paul Blood himself, who was sort of an eccentric who lived in Amsterdam and wrote about philosophy and poetry, but this attracted the attention of William James, Henry’s brother. William James is sort of a proto-psychiatrist, a philosophy professor at Harvard, and comes to Amsterdam in the early years of the 1900s to meet Benjamin Paul Blood. They have this ongoing correspondence. I just found the whole thing very interesting. And I still, like with any of these topics, I still don’t know everything I’d like to know about B.P. Blood.
Q: People love old pictures, and you’ve got bunches of them. Hard to find them?
A: Pictures are not my long suit. I had a lot of help, specifically from a man named Gerald Snyder. He’s a collector of pictures, I believe an engineer by trade, but he’s very interested in Amsterdam history. He and the Amsterdam city historian R.H. von Hasseln are co-authors of a postcard history book about Amsterdam using a lot of Gerry’s pictures.
There are other place to get pictures, primarily the Walter Elwood Museum . . . the book was in the process of being printed when the floods hit, and two of the places I write about were badly damaged by the floods, Old Fort Johnson and the Elwood Museum. It just so happens there are some artifacts at the Elwood Museum that weren’t damaged because they were in my possession, going back and forth between South Carolina.
Q: Must have been fun to put entertainers like Arlene Fontana and the Daiquiris into your pages, especially when some people might not remember them. Was it?
A: Arlene Fontana is a really interesting story. She was on the old “Teenage Barn” show on WRGB Television and her dad, Marty Fontana, was also a musician. And he was in radio sales, sold air time on the radio, very interested in show business. He really kind of fostered his daughter’s career and she had a wonderful career. Alas, she developed cancer and died when she was still kind of at her prime performing. She was a singer, a dancer, she did television, she did night clubs, but never kind of forgot her Amsterdam roots.
The Daiquiris, different story. They were a very good, 1960s-era rock ’n’ roll band and they played in local bars and taverns. All of the members of the Daiquiris went on to other careers, a couple of them were lawyers. The one thing that really appealed to me about the Daiquiris is the picture I use in the book, which was taken in downtown Amsterdam showing the downtown buildings behind the Daiquiris. They stopped traffic to take the picture, it was at the time the Beatles were doing, at the time, their sort of avant-garde pictures.
I thought it was such a remarkable thing that many of the buildings in the picture are gone, but the Daiquiris still survive, the guys are still around. But a lot of the buildings were torn down for urban renewal in Amsterdam.
Q: Will people talk about history on your radio show?
A: Yes, they do. It’s kind of an ongoing topic because people know I’m interested in history. I would say generally there’s been kind of a renaissance. There are a number of books that have come out in the past few years specifically about the eastern Mohawk Valley.
Sometimes it will surprise me what we’ll talk about. The other day, a gentleman called who wanted to know about a restaurant that followed a tavern that followed a card store in a certain part of town. Then other people will have memories. In terms of response I get from readers, I get more reactions from things that have happened in their lifetimes, things that they were told, maybe, as children.
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