I asked Irma Mastrean once if she enjoyed history more than she did painting.
I think it was the only time in the 20 years I knew her that she glared at me. For Irma, a wonderful woman who passed away last week at the age of 92, it was a nonsensical question, both meaningless and foolish.
The town of Princetown historian for nearly four decades, Mastrean used her talent with a paint brush to document history. The two were always connected for her, and to pick one over the other was akin to asking her to single out a favorite grandchild. She wasn’t going there.
A 1947 graduate of Draper High School, Mastrean, then Irma Smith, worked in downtown Schenectady at Barney’s and Schenectady Savings Bank early in her adult life. She married Steve Mastrean, who also at times used the family’s original name, Mastrioanni, and the couple lived in a nice farmhouse in the town of Princetown for more than 60 years.
She became the town’s historian in 1976 when Edith Tulloch resigned, and before Irma retired in 2015 she had shared a wealth of information about her hometown and also produced two books, “Princetown: Portrait of a Town,” and “Princetown and Duanesburg,” (an Images of America book), with former Duanesburg historian Art Willis.
She loved talking about history, and that would often include the Princetown Academy, a prominent but short-lived boarding school in the town during the 19th century. She also enjoyed poking some fun at her “little town,” even questioning why it was named after John Prince, a Schenectady businessman and state assemblyman. “William Corry would have been a much better choice,” Mastrean told me, referring to a large land owner whose name was connected to the area (sometimes called Corrybush and also often Currybush) before it became an official town with its current name in 1798.
I was lucky enough to visit her home more than once and see her wonderful artwork displayed around the house, and we also enjoyed lunch together on a number of occasions, once at the home of Jack and Connie Hume, two Princetown neighbors, and another time at the home of Deb Crosby in nearby Rotterdam. Crosby just happens to live in one of the oldest houses in Rotterdam, and Irma was thrilled to get a tour of the home.
Her exhibit at the Schenectady County Historical Society’s Mabee Farm in 2014 was named “Nostalgia,” and it featured around 20 of her paintings of old homes and landscapes. As she got older she complained to me, “I can’t do small things anymore because I just can’t see that well close up, so if I’m going to do something these days, it’ll be something big, like a big red barn. I love old buildings.”
She certainly did. She also loved people, and the feeling was mutual.
Robert Jones, who succeeded Mastrean as town historian, said this about her.
“Irma Mastrean was a legend in the Town of Princetown, and taking over from her as town historian a few years ago was a daunting task after she so humbly and enthusiastically filled that role for four decades. Her contributions to preserving and interpreting the town’s history are innumerable, and the impression she leaves behind in the fabric of the town indelible, a legacy of dedication, education and love. She will be sorely missed.”
Jenna Peterson Riley, a native of the Midwest now back home in Iowa, was in charge of Mabee Farm programs back in 2014 when Irma’s painting was on display. Here’s what she had to say about Irma.
“She was so sweet. She had a little painting of goldfinches on a wild rose in her house when I went with her to talk with her about the exhibit. I mentioned how much I loved it, seeing as how goldfinches are the Iowa state bird and wild roses the state flower. The night the exhibit opened she gave me the painting, and we still have it hanging in our house.”
I don’t have one of her wonderful paintings, but I remember now she did offer to take one of them down off the wall and give it to me. I declined. I thought it was just too much, too nice a thing to do, a too wonderful piece of work, to accept it. I told her to keep it and show it off at her next exhibit so everyone could enjoy it.
I did have her friendship, however, and I cherish it. Whenever I drive out Mariaville Road now into the western hinterlands of Schenectady County, I will remember her, and think of what a treat it was to know her and to call her a friend.
We used to joke about how she leaned a little to the left politically in a town that was controlled mostly by Republicans. She was surprised, she would joke about her position as town historian, “that they let me hang around this long.”
After her husband passed away in 2019, Mastrean moved into an assisted living center in Amsterdam. I saw her once, right before COVID-19 hit us, and I am so happy to say that after my short visit, we gave each other a big hug. It was the last time I saw her. But I have my memories, and I treasure them.