Cudmore: Walter Elwood was museum founder, playwright and novelist

Walter Elwood had a “fund of knowledge” said Amsterdam school library supervisor, the late Evelyn Riccio, adding that Elwood “liked nothing more than to talk about his travels, birds and seashells.”

Elwood, who lived from 1886 to 1955, had a deep gravelly voice. A nature educator, he was well-respected by his students.

He created the Amsterdam museum that now bears his name. He wrote two novels and collaborated for a time in New York City with theatrical lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Elwood wrote one act nature plays for children and a three act melodrama.

Elwood’s plays are now published in a book created by Colbert Nepaulsingh, a University at Albany professor emeritus who is scholar in residence at the Elwood Museum.

“Walter Elwood: Glitter and Other Unpublished Plays” also includes a brief biography of Elwood.

Born on his family’s farm in the town of Florida, Elwood was valedictorian of the class of 1904 at Amsterdam High School. He earned a degree on scholarship at Cornell University in 1908 and then departed for the Philippines where he supervised teachers until returning to America in 1911.

In 1915 he published a novel about a Filipino man titled “Guimo.” Nepaulsingh said, “Elwood’s novel was way ahead of its time in terms of race relations and the desire for independence from colonial oppression.”
Elwood’s play “Glitter” was written in the 1920s when Elwood was dividing his time between the family farm in Florida and New York City.

Nepaulsingh said, “Elwood tells a cautionary story in three acts about the tragic end of those United States citizens who went to the Philippines not to improve the educational system there but to search greedily and obsessively for gold, especially the gold at the bottom of the ocean in sunken Spanish galleons.”

The Beechwood Players of Briarcliff Manor 30 miles north of New York City performed the play for three successive nights in 1923 and it was very well received.

Also in the 1920s Elwood wrote a novel, “Those Terrible Teenenfelters,” set in the Mohawk Valley in the late 1800s.

Elwood married Anne Bevillard Mack, who was originally from Chicago, in 1926. Nepaulsingh said, “Elwood’s novel remained unpublished until his wife found his manuscript after he died. She arranged to have it published and it appeared in 1959.”

Elwood’s one-act nature plays were performed for students in Amsterdam and other cities. Nepaulsingh includes the scripts for 16 of these plays in his book.

Elwood worked with the women of the Amsterdam Century Club to form the Sassafras Bird Sanctuary, its Woodland Theater and Trailside Museum.

In 1940 he founded the Amsterdam Public Schools Museum, at first located in the Fifth Ward school on the city’s South Side. Elwood and others donated at least 10,000 items to the museum before he died.

The museum was renamed in Elwood’s honor soon after his death in 1955. The museum was moved to the former Guy Park Avenue School in 1968.

The Elwood Museum became a non-profit independent from the school system and relocated to historic Guy Park Manor on the Mohawk River in 2009.

In 2011, the museum was badly damaged when Tropical Storm Irene caused the Mohawk River to flood. The museum relocated to buildings at 100 Church St. built by Sanford and Sons Carpet Mills, and later used by the Noteworthy Company.

As for Walter Elwood’s lifetime achievements, Nepaulsingh said, “Perhaps most important among his accomplishments are his carefully crafted writings which could continue to inspire the students of Amsterdam, especially if the Amsterdam School District could find a way to include his work in its curriculum.”

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