First-time visitors to the Margaret Reaney Memorial Library and Museum in St. Johnsville often have trouble focusing on their reading. In this yellow-and- gray brick building constructed in 1909, the written word often takes a back seat to the visual wonderland on display.
“When people come in for the first time, they are very surprised at what they see and how much we have here,” said Dawn Lamphere Capece, director of the library. “It looks a lot different than other libraries. We are very, very proud of our building.”
There are more than 50 paintings by European and American artists on display, all of them originally part of the collection of Joseph H. Reaney. A native of Jersey City, N.J., Reaney moved to St. Johnsville in 1892 and became a wealthy man through his work in the textile industry. He built the library in 1909 and dedicated it to the memory of his mother, Margaret.
But the feast for art lovers doesn’t end with the large paintings that adorn every wall in the building.
Once they get past the front room with its original tin ceiling, visitors can squeeze by the front counter and head to the Memorial Room in the back of the building.
Part of the 1936 addition that Reaney oversaw, the Memorial Room is reminiscent of the Victorian Era and along with its paintings includes several sculptures and a Tabriz Palace Carpet measuring 37 feet long.
“Mr. Reaney was a world traveler, and he bought much of the art himself and also had friends send him many of the items,” said Capece. “He bought much of the stuff for their house right across the street and purchased some of the items specifically for the library. Most of the things you see in the Memorial Room are personal items from the family.”
Above the first floor is a small attic space used for storage, while the basement consists of five rooms that make up the library’s museum. The collection includes a large number of Native American artifacts as well as other items
pertaining to local history, such as the German Palatines who first settled the area, the Erie Canal and the American Revolution.
On the grounds just east of the library is a large Civil War monument, a memorial to Reaney’s father, also named Joseph. He died in 1870 and had fought with the 5th New York Duryee Zouaves during the war. Upon his death, Margaret and the family moved back to her hometown, Utica, and it was 20 years later that her son Joseph showed up in St. Johnsville with a nest egg of $600 looking to make his mark in life.
Previously a traveling salesman, Reaney decided to start selling his own goods — underwear — and he purchased a small factory on North Division Street in St. Johnsville and equipped it with six knitting machines. In 1895, with the assistance of a partner by the name of Clarence Taylor, Reaney expanded and built a larger factory on Lion Avenue. By 1897, his association with Taylor was over, but his success continued and he built two more plants in St. Johnsville and in 1902 another in Herkimer under the name of the Royal Gem Mill Company.
“He’s the guy who put the pants on America,” said Anita Smith, historian for both the town and village of St. Johnsville. “He built factories up and down the Mohawk Valley, and he ended up marrying one of the Horn girls from St. Johnsville. He became very successful and was the largest benefactor of our village. He did a lot for the community other than just building the library.”
Reaney married Gertrude K. Horn in 1898 and served his new hometown in many ways, including as president of the local bank and school board, a water commissioner and a village trustee. He was a Mason of the 32nd degree, and according to his April 2, 1947, obituary in the Schenectady Gazette, he had given more than $1 million to charity. Reaney and his wife had no children. While he was obviously very philanthropic, Capece said she knows very little about his manner and disposition.
“We really don’t know too much about his personality,” said Capece, who is one of two full-time library employees along with Marta Zimmerman, the assistant director. “We do have these old films of garden parties that he and his wife had, and it is fun to see him alive and moving, as Marta likes to say. But we just don’t know that much about him in that way. We do know that they both cared very much about the church and the community. They were involved in a lot of things. It wasn’t just the library.”
Original book club
The library’s roots go back to 1900 to a book club that was formed with the help of Margaret Reamer and met at various homes in the village.
“They had a reading room, not at our site, and the women paid 10 or 15 cents a month and they would get together and exchange books and talk about them,” said Capece. “When Margaret passed away, it was her son who decided that we needed a proper public library.”
Along with his mills in St. Johnsville, Reaney had factories in Hudson, Catskill, Mechanicville and Herkimer. He also oversaw the running of textile plants in Fall River, Taunton and New Bedford, Mass.
The first decade of the 20th century was a busy time for St. Johnsville. The community, just west of the Herkimer County line in Montgomery County, was first settled by the German Palatines around 1775. It was named for Alexander St. John, an early surveyor and commissioner.
“St. Johnsville’s been quite a busy place over the years,” said Smith, who was the Montgomery County historian from 1977-83. “Around 1905 to 1915 were the peak years when we had Reaney’s mills and the Engleharts, who were builders of pianos. In 1900, they were the leading manufacturers of pianos in the world, so St. Johnsville used to have a lot going on.”
Things stay pretty busy these days at the library, where on Monday mornings Capece puts on a program for 2-year-olds. Tuesday afternoons is “Story Time,” aimed at ages 3-4, while there are also weekly or bi-monthly events directed for adults, such as the Nifty Needles program and two different book groups.
“Our chartered service area is the village, but we get people from the whole St. Johnsville area, as well as Fort Plain, Canajoharie, Little Falls and actually the whole Mohawk Valley,” said Capece. “The building is old — it’s more than a hundred — and when you have a building that age you always have some issues. But we try to maintain it as best we can, and we haven’t had any major problems.”
Capece has been at the library for 34 years, Zimmerman for 32 years. There are also two part-time employees, a groundskeeper and a housekeeper and two volunteers who help with librarian duties.
“We also get a lot of people coming in to do family genealogy and research local history, and Marta handles a lot of that,” said Capece. “We have church records, cemetery records, a large surname file and an index to birth, obituary and marriage records from the Courier Standard Enterprise, which dates back to when it was the St. Johnsville Enterprise in 1901. If people can’t come in themselves, Marta will help them through email.”
Information on history
For those who are fascinated with local history, the American Revolution in particular, the Reamer Library is a wealth of information, according to Smith, who grew up in Canajoharie and recently produced a book titled “Village of St. Johnsville: Sesquicentennial History.” Of particular interest to her is the Hartley Collection of American Revolutionary War buttons housed in the museum.
“I guess Mr. Hartley needed the money, so Mr. Reaney bought half of his collection and the New York Historical Society bought the other half,” said Smith. “The re-enactors that come to Fort Klock, especially the British troops from Canada, love to go over that collection of buttons, as well as the Rufus Grider powder horn drawings. Much of the war was fought right here in the Mohawk Valley, so the library is a wonderful place to get into that history.”
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: Life and Arts, News