The Osmond Putnam photo collection at Union College and why it’s important for the Adirondacks – and Schenectady

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Photo Caption: Clockwise from right: Jeanne Robert Foster, right, poses for Osmond Putnam’s camera with her two younger sisters, Cara and Fannette, outside their home near Johnsburg in the southern Adirondacks; Lucia Oliviere, then known as Lucy Oliver, posed for this Putnam photo with her husband, Frank, in Minerva in Essex County; and Jeanne Robert Foster, left, and her mother, Lucia Oliviere, sit outside their Albany Street home in Schenectady around 1915. While not part of the Osmond Putnam collection, it is a rare photo showing mother and daughter and is also part of the Union College archives. (Photos courtesy of Union College)

How valuable is the Osmond D. Putnam collection of 19th Century Adirondack photographs? Matt Golebiewski made the trip himself from Schenectady to South Carolina to pick up the glass plate negatives in person.

“They are absolutely one of a kind,” said Golebiewski, an archivist for the Adirondack Research Library Project at Union College. “It was like getting the Holy Grail.”

The photographs, all taken between 1885 and 1887, will be of interest to anyone who enjoys the Adirondacks. For Schenectadians in particular, the collection is important because it offers a few rare photographs of two women, Lucia Oliviere and her daughter, Jeanne Robert Foster, who were two of the city’s most prominent social activists of the 20th century. Oliviere was a leading suffragate, Socialist politician and journalist in the first three decades of the 1900s in Schenectady, while Foster became a world-renowned literary figure, palling around and working with the likes of writers such as William Butler Yeats, T.S. Elliot, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. She returned to Schenectady later in life and was named the city’s 1959 Senior Citizen of the Year for her work helping minorities find affordable housing.

“Jeanne Robert Foster was one of the most famous people to ever come out of the Adirondacks, and her mother was a Socialist politician,” said Golebiewski. “They were both ahead of their time and both of them grew up in a harsh climate in the Adirondacks. I guess that imbued them with an independent spirit that kept them going through life when women weren’t supposed to have their own careers.”

The collection was donated to Union College by Schenectady native Noel Reidinger-Johnson, who now lives in South Carolina. Reidinger-Johnson’s parents were close friends of Foster when she lived in Schenectady during the last 40 years of her life. Golebiewski was joined on his trip south by Sarah Schmidt, director of Special Collections and Archives at Union’s Schaffer Library.

“We both took a flight to Georgia and then rented a car and drove back over the border into South Carolina,” said Golebiewski. “We already have collections relating to Jeanne Robert Foster but it was very important to get this one. This is a collection we’ve already had a few requests for, from schools like St. Lawrence University and others. When the pandemic is over we will be able to share it and have an exhibit that people can actually come and see.”

For now you can view the photos, 132 images in all, on line at www.nyheritage.org/collections/osmond-d-putnam-photographs.

Putnam was a minister in Warren and Essex counties and lived on a farm close to the foot of Crane Mountain. It was Putnam’s grandfather, the abolitionist Rev. Enos Putnam, who took a young orphan named Lucinda Newell into the family just prior to the Civil War. Newell, who would marry a man named Frank Oliver and later change her name to Lucia Oliviere, moved to Schenectady sometime around 1900.

“She was born in the early spring of 1855 and was orphaned as a young child,” said Marietta Carr, librarian-archivist at the Schenectady County Historical Society’s Grems-Doolittle Library. “She learned how to read with the help of the reverend, and with his connections she got to the Albany Normal School. It would have been unusual for someone with that low income living in the Adirondacks and not really coming from a family with education to do what she did and become a teacher, but that speaks to her intelligence. She was both very capable and interested in pursuing that line of work, so she made the most of the opportunities she had.”

Oliviere taught for 12 years before entering the realm of politics, first as a reporter for Schenectady’s Socialist newspaper, The Citizen, and then as an unsuccessful political candidate. She died in 1927.

Her daughter Julia, who became Jeanne Robert Foster, had the same passion for learning and also knew how to take advantage of the opportunities put in front of her.

“They are two very fascinating people,” Carr said of the mother-daughter tandem. “What struck me most about Jeanne is how she took advantage of every opportunity she had. She was obviously very intelligent, and able to meet people and then sustain these relationships. She ends up traveling all over the U.S. and Europe because all of these famous people like Yeats and Joyce and Ezra Pound wanted to help her literary career. That speaks to just how charming she was and her strength of personality.”

Born in 1879, Foster was just 17 when she married a rich insurance salesman, 47-year-old Matlock Foster, who split his time between New York City and Rochester. She appeared in a few stage plays in New York and did some modeling, including the cover of Vanity Fair Magazine, and in 1916 Foster published a collection of poems about the Adirondacks called “Neighbors of Yesterday.” She also wrote for various magazines and was a poetry critic. Her work drew literary acclaim and in 1922 she was listed in “Who’s Who in America.”

“She was brilliant, and she also worked at relationships that would further her career,” said Carr. “She engaged with the elite of the literary world, and also got involved in politics, although not as much as her mother. When she moved to Schenectady she used her many talents helping poor people find affordable housing. She developed resources for seniors and was concerned about important issues of that time. She evidently had a way of talking to people, of communicating, that made her very effective as an advocate.”

Richard Londraville can offer some personal experience to support Carr’s assertion. He was a teacher at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, studying for his doctorate and writing a dissertation on William Butler Yeats at the University at Albany in 1965 when he met Foster.

“When she was young, she was beautiful and that never got in the way,” said Londraville, who left the BH-BL district in 1968 to teach at SUNY-Potsdam and now lives in North Carolina. “She had this uncanny ability to massage the male ego, and she knew how to take advantage of her opportunities. She was a wonderful woman, and very charming.”

Londraville and his wife Janis, a BH-BL grad, teamed up to write a 2001 biography of Foster titled, “Dear Yeats, Dear Pound, Dear Ford: Jeanne Foster and her Circle of Friends.”

Foster, who died in 1971 at the age of 91, was in her 80s when Londraville first met her.

“We’d be talking about Yeats or Joyce, and she actually knew them,” he said. “I’d just throw out a name in passing like E.E. Cummings, and she would say, ‘oh, he was a marvelous man,’ and then she would start telling a story about him. Her influence on early 20th century literature was very significant. She was an extraordinary person. She is known for her own work in the literary world, but also more universally as a person who worked with Yeats and did an awful lot for him.”

Londraville, a Watertown native, said that Foster also enjoyed talking about her mom.

“When she moved back to Schenectady she became interested in local politics, and she pretty much inherited her democratic politics from her mother,” said Londraville. “Her mother ran as a Socialist and Jeanne would talk about that, and she approved, of course.”

Categories: Art, News, Schenectady County

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