Cudmore: The old days in Fort Hunter

Focus on History
The Fort Hunter Hotel, shown some time around the turn of the 20th century, is now The Downings International House.
The Fort Hunter Hotel, shown some time around the turn of the 20th century, is now The Downings International House.

Fort Hunter, the hamlet at the confluence of the Schoharie Creek and Mohawk River in the town of Florida, used to have a hotel, broom shops, stores, a coal yard and a military band.

Arnold Wittemeier was born in Fort Hunter in 1920. In an interview several months before his death in 2005, Wittemeier reminisced about the 1930s.

The West Shore Railroad did a thriving passenger business taking Roman Catholic pilgrims to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, near Fort Hunter.

So many people traveled to the Auriesville train station in the summer that rail sidings were occupied for miles with passenger trains waiting to take the pilgrims home. Every Sunday two big washtubs at the Shrine were filled with coins by the faithful.  Fort Hunter had a sweater and hosiery shop where nuns from the Shrine could buy black stockings.

Genealogist Theresa Moran has researched the 1859 creation of a Fort Hunter broom factory, Blood & Howard, founded by Ebenezer Howard and John D. Blood.  Moran said it was the first factory in the country to make brooms from corn.

Wittemeier recalled Fort Hunter had a broom maker called Premiere Broom and Brush Company in the 1930s.

Arnold’s father, Harold, owned Wittemeier’s, one of Montgomery County’s biggest coal companies. Wittemeier’s mother, Elsie Minch Wittemeier, took the train to Amsterdam many days to work in a button mill.

The coal for the family business came on the West Shore Railroad.  In the Depression, coal trains would speed through the valley in an effort to keep people from scooping coal from the hopper cars.
“It got so bad that cars of coal were having two tons of coal scooped off of them,” Wittemeier said.
Wittemeier recalled the names of three local stores: Brown’s, Quackenbush’s and Warner’s.  Fort Hunter once had an ice cream shop called Annie Brown’s.

In the summer of 1933, Wittemeier said the Schoharie Creek was so dry that big stones at the base of an old dam were visible in the creek bed near his home and never seen again.

Amateur musicians from Fort Hunter and Tribes Hill formed the Fort Hunter Military Band in the 1930s. Traditionally, a military band features drums and brass instruments, no stringed instruments.

Wittemeier said, “My father, who played cornet, and I don’t know how many others would go down to the firehouse around the potbelly stove and practice in the winter. Then in the summer, ice cream socials and such, they’d go out and play.”

Wittemeier’s father sold the coal business in 1944 after young Arnold contracted tuberculosis. He was treated at the Montgomery County Sanitarium, current site of a nursing home on Swart Hill Rad in the town of Amsterdam. His father died the next year.  With oil heat becoming popular, the coal business faded quickly and the coal yard closed.

In 1946, Wittemeier married Elizabeth Whalen of Fort Johnson, whose family operated a store in that village. The couple moved to Fort Johnson, where Wittemeier lived the rest of his life. He worked many years as a tool maker at General Electric. His wife died in 2003.

Wittemeier became assistant volunteer fire chief in Fort Johnson. He was a member of the Sir William Johnson Seniors and served as its tour leader. He belonged to the United Methodist Church of Amsterdam.  He died Aug. 18 in 2005 and was buried at Pine Grove Cemetery in Tribes Hill.


The recent column on the Great Sacandaga Lake had an incorrect first name for the engineer in charge of construction of that reservoir. His name was Edward H. Sargent.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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