Niskayuna

GLEANINGS FROM THE CORN FLATS: Town government’s evolution and expansion over time

Rev. Carl B. Taylor of Schenectady’s Friendship Baptist Church celebrates the musical production of “Moving On Up: A Journey Into Blackness” with Mardy Moore, left, program director for the Art Center and Theater of Schenectady (ACT) and Janet King, chairwoman of the production. The show was presented by Afri Productions on May 12, 1979, at Proctors.

Rev. Carl B. Taylor of Schenectady’s Friendship Baptist Church celebrates the musical production of “Moving On Up: A Journey Into Blackness” with Mardy Moore, left, program director for the Art Center and Theater of Schenectady (ACT) and Janet King, chairwoman of the production. The show was presented by Afri Productions on May 12, 1979, at Proctors.

The new year in Niskayuna brought with it a change in government, so it seems an appropriate time to consider Niskayuna’s town government historically.

Like all towns in New York state, Niskayuna is bound by the powers granted by the state. Early on these were fairly minimal, mostly dealing with the collection of taxes and dispensation of justice.

Town boards of the 19th century and even into the 20th century consisted of a supervisor and town justice. With increasing responsibility and modernization came the separation of the legislative and judicial branches and the election of council members.

The primary role of the town supervisor, other than presiding over the Town Board, was to manage financial accounts and serve as the town’s representative on the county Legislature, which typically addressed more significant business.

When the town was more rural, the needs of a continually operating government were less common, but as the responsibilities of the day-to-day running of government became more involved, the role of the supervisor evolved increasingly into a town administrator.

As we look back at the history of town supervisors in Niskayuna, it is not unlike those of other small towns in the Northeast. In the 1800s, the term of office was one year and most supervisors served one term, almost as if it were a shared stewardship.

During that time, Niskayuna primarily had a rotation of supervisors from the early families of the settlement: Vroomans, Van Antwerps, Van Vrankens, Pearses and not much else.

Contrary to popular belief, in the 1800s Niskayuna supervisors were from a range of parties, including Federalists, Democrats, Whigs and, later, Republicans.

In our first 100 years, Niskayuna had 42 supervisors, while in our second century we had only 16. Much of that shift started after the Civil War, likely due to a combination of increasing political partisanship and industrialization.

As society advanced away from farming, the issues facing the supervisor required a broader scope of knowledge for day-to-day operations and more strategic planning for the years ahead than could be had from an annual rotation.

This becomes quite evident in the historical record around the turn of the century, when most news reporting shifted from a statement of the budget balance to concerns about sewer expansion, bus routes, radioactive waste and state comptroller audits.

In reviewing the historical record of former supervisors, there was nothing very detailed to draw from. In many cases there was more written about their pending mail and their wives’ parties than the business of government.

Early on, town supervisors were primarily farmers and merchants, while more recently Niskayuna supervisors have been engineers, marketing executives and teachers.

One individual with a most distinct historical record that deserves mention was our first town supervisor, Lawrence Vrooman. Documents show that Vrooman was a surveyor in the area and served in the militia led by Capt. Jellis Fonda. With several postings in the area, he was stationed briefly at Saratoga during the fighting until he was sent home with an illness.

Just a year before his death, the federal government passed a pension reform for revolutionary veterans. Records show himself, his widow and his son engaged in a decades-long quest to obtain the pension, which was never paid. Like many of his successors, Vrooman represented the area in the state Assembly after serving as supervisor.

Looking back through history, our supervisors do have some interesting experiences. For the first of these supervisor facts, it would seem being first ran in the family. Lawrence Vrooman’s father, Isaac, was the first mayor of Schenectady.

Some other interesting supervisor facts:

  • Busy guy: Before serving as supervisor, Harmanus P. Schuyler served as Albany County sheriff and went on to serve as a state Assemblyman. He built and lived in the once-grand and now former Stanford Mansion, which was also home to two Vrooman supervisors.
  • Having fun: The wife of Supervisor Morgan Strong’s great-grandson founded the Museum of Play in Rochester.
  • Shared Interests: Supervisor John N. Parker was raised and had a stake in the Parker Hotel, which would later be acquired by Supervisor James Craig, the son of the original proprietor of the previously named Craig Hotel.
  • Speedy delivery: After serving as supervisor, William V Bradt was appointed postmaster.
  • Morning line: Supervisor C.O. Hamlin bred racehorses.
  • We can do it: Margaret “Mardy” Moore was the first woman elected supervisor, in 1980.
  • Radio days: Supervisor Robert Ausfield went on to a lengthy career managing local radio stations.

Ben Spear is chairman of the Niskayuna Historical Committee. The committee encourages any past or present town residents to contact the Niskayuna town historian at [email protected] regarding any information, resources or stories they might like to share about Niskayuna’s distinctive history.

Categories: Life and Arts

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