Norman Clute’s observations about Rotterdam at the turn of the 20th century range from the profound to the mundane.
The man who served stints as county sheriff, city treasurer and justice of the peace in Rotterdam during the 19th century kept many of his thoughts tucked away in a small journal. He recounts a murder in Rotterdam that sent a man to the gallows and soldiers from the area shipping off to fight in the Spanish-American War.
Clute, who was apparently in his 80s when the journal was written in 1898, also chronicles day-to-day life: The people who visit him, the direction the wind blows and the weather it brought in. He also tells of how he is slowing down and can’t do nearly as much work as he once could.
“It’s a real snapshot of life for that person and that year,” said Melisa Tacke, the Schenectady County Historical Society’s librarian.
But it’s a snapshot that came perilously close to never being seen again. Clute’s diary was among a trove of historical documents and photographs that was almost destroyed after the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene last summer.
The basement and bottom floor office of longtime Rotterdam Historian Dick Whalen’s home in Rotterdam Junction were badly flooded after the Mohawk River swept down Main Street on Aug. 29. Whalen’s basement and garage, where he kept three old refrigerators filled with historical documents, remained submerged in the fetid floodwater for nearly three days.
Tacke and several volunteers were able to salvage 47 binders from the collection, which were then put on ice in the Schenectady Museum’s lab freezer to prevent molding or any further deterioration.
Now Tacke and other volunteers are digitizing the salvaged material, ensuring copies of the collection will be protected and available to the public at the Grems Doolittle Library. Some of the material —now known as the Dick Whalen Collection —is already available on the library’s blog: A page from Clute’s diary, a 1937 photo of Woestina High School students performing in an operetta, a picture of former Rotterdam Supervisor John Kirvin marching in a parade on Hamburg Street in 1978, and a picture of Carman Fire Department members standing in front of the old station during the 1940s.
Whalen, who now lives in Schenectady, was thrilled to learn some of his old collection has been salvaged. He recalled pulling many of the binders from a trash pile that was formed as his relatives cleared his home and then hoping someone could save some of the materials.
The 83-year-old was also pleased the items will soon be in a format where they can be easily reviewed. And he suggested adding a few other books he was able to keep from getting doused in the floodwaters.
“I’m all for it,” he said Friday.
In total, the group has salvaged and digitized items from 44 albums. The process has been long and arduous, primarily because each album required roughly 72 hours to dry before volunteers could begin cleaning and scanning the material.
The cleaning also needed to take place in an area away from the main collection in a small stand-alone building on the Mabee Farm, since most of the materials being scanned are considered contaminated. The floodwater contained a toxic porridge of contaminants, including fuel, industrial solvents and wastewater —all of which can pose long-term health risks.
The contaminated items also couldn’t be adopted into the library’s main collection. The Northeast Document Conservation Center advised the library that the original items would need to be kept in a separate area if they were accepted to ensure they wouldn’t pose a health risk.
The material scanned already is large in size and won’t likely be kept online in its entirety. Tacke said each binder yielded anywhere between five and 100 images that are now being cataloged so they can be perused at the library.
“For anyone who is interest in the history of Rotterdam and particularly Rotterdam Junction, it’s a real treasure trove,” she said of the collection. “This is really solid documentation.”
Categories: Schenectady County