Descendants of key GE figure from earliest days coming to Schenectady for family reunion


 SCHENECTADY — There’s a historic brouhaha on the horizon, and it’s headed straight for Schenectady.

No need to worry. There’ll be no fisticuffs. It’s strictly an intellectual encounter between reasonable people who just happen to have a different take on history.

On one side we have the descendants of John Kruesi, the man who helped build Edison’s Machine Works and later the General Electric Co. in Schenectady into one of the biggest success stories ever. On the other side, there are a long list of Schenectady historians, including George Wise and Chris Hunter, who can’t agree with the Kruesi family lore of just how and why Thomas Edison came to the Mohawk Valley in 1886, turning a small community of 14,000 people into the “City That Lights and Hauls the World.”

More than 50 Kruesi family members will meet at the Edison Club in Rexford this coming Saturday night and spend the weekend touring sites such as Vale Cemetery, Union College and the First Reformed Church, all in an effort to learn more about their distinguished ancestor. And that’s not to say they’re not already quite informed. This is a family that has done its homework, and according to Jim Frierson of Chattanooga, Tennessee, doing Kruesi research is a labor of love that he’s enjoyed since he was a child.

“I can remember sitting down with all the boys in my generation when I was 10 on a New Years Day in 1960 and listening to my grandfather tell stories,” remembered Frierson, a great-grandson of John Kruesi. “He was telling us stories of the GE company, but company stories are family stories. At one point he asked us if it was OK if he kept on going, and we said ‘yes, we have a very good quality sound recorder.’”

It was Paul Kruesi, Frierson’s grandfather, who was passing along the family history that day and on that audio recording he mentions how it was his father, John Kruesi, who, while taking the train through Schenectady in 1886, spotted two vacant buildings on the Great Flats just west of the city that would become the new home of Edison Machine Works and later the site of the General Electric in 1892. That story, however, contradicts the long established history around Schenectady that it was Harry Livor, another Edison associate, who actually saw the two buildings out the window of a rail car and hurried back to New York to tell Edison he should immediately relocate part of his business to the Mohawk Valley.

While Hunter, miSci’s vice president of collections and exhibitions, and Wise, a former GE employee who wrote the on-line book called “Edison’s Decision,” say they stand by the Livor story, there’s one thing they and the Kruesi family all agree on. John Kruesi was an amazing individual.

A Swiss immigrant orphaned as a young child, Kruesi became arguably Edison’s most trusted associate, turning the inventor’s ideas into viable working machines, most notably the phonograph. He is also the man most responsible for developing the Schenectady plant and overseeing its rapid growth, and he did it all while earning the respect and admiration of seemingly everyone, from the most prominent scientist to the average factory worker.

“Kruesi was the top Edison manager to survive the consolidation of Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston, and Christian Rach, an early Edison employee, pays Kruesi some great tributes for his management style,” said Hunter. “He plays an essential part of the story. Edison trusted Kruesi to finish the buildings and get the plant up and running. Kruesi had one building open in October of 1886 and then both buildings going by December with over 300 employees.”

Wise also feels Kruesi’s role in GE’s early success can’t be overstated.

“He basically ran the company in Schenectady right from the start and did an amazing job of getting it up and running,” said Wise. “He deserves a lot of credit, and was a very interesting person with high standards. He didn’t oppress the worker, and seems to have been a popular guy with everybody.”

Hunter and Wise have a handful of sources supporting the Livor story, including a letter written by Edison to the GE News Bureau in November of 1925.

In part, Edison, 78 at the time, writes that “Mr. Livor and others were sent out scouting for a suitable place in which to locate the Edison Machine Works, as our Goerck Street place had grown too small for us. Mr. Livor found the locomotive shop at Schenectady, and Mr. Insull and I went up and examined the property and bought it.”

As for Paul Kruesi’s version, Frierson said his grandfather was just retelling the story told him by his father, John Kruesi.

“My grandfather was about 65 and his mental faculties were still quite superb,” said Frierson. “He told us all about the labor problems Edison had, and all the difficulty they were having with the Goerck Street factory. He also said how Edison dispatched several people in different directions, and that John Kruesi got the assignment to go north up the Hudson River to Albany and then through the Mohawk Valley. He looked out the window and said, ‘I don’t know what that is, but it looks perfect.’ The train didn’t even stop. He had to go to the next stop and hire a horse and carriage back to Schenectady.”

Kruesi, born on May 15, 1843 in Heiden, Switzerland, came to America in 1870, met Edison and began working in his shop in Newark, New Jersey in 1872. He quickly became Edison’s head machinist and along with creating the inventor’s working model for the phonograph, he also helped him with the quadruplex telegraph, the carbon microphone and the incandescent light bulb.

He married another Swiss immigrant, Emily Zwinger, in 1873 and the couple had eight children, including Walter Kruesi, Schenectady’s first Commissioner of Charities in 1912 during the Socialist administration of Mayor George R. Lunn. John Kruesi lost his wife in 1897 and reportedly never got over his grief, passing away himself in 1899 at the age of 55.

While there are no Kruesi descendants in the Schenectady area now, Charlotte Kruesi Tarr can remember visiting an elderly aunt on Washington Avenue with her mom back in the 1960s, as well as her maternal grandmother on North Ferry Street, both in the Stockade.

“I always appreciated my family history, and I also felt I had something grabbing me and pulling me toward Schenectady when I was just a young girl,” said Tarr, who grew up in Bernardsville, New Jersey, just outside of New York City, and now lives in Naples, Florida. “My great-grandfather was a genius who came from humble origins, and it’s been so fascinating to see all the connections his descendants have, especially to Schenectady. There are so many people in our family that graduated from Union College, somewhere around 45, and we have all these ties to old New York names like the Livingstons, and Schenectady families like the Notts, Potters, Delancey Watkins, Yates and Mynderse.”

While Tarr is anxious to see several family members and visit Schenectady again, she’s also here to bury her parents, Oscar Rogers Kruesi and Elizabeth Nott Potter Kruesi, in Vale Cemetery. Tarr’s father passed away in 2010 and her mother died just last year.

“My mom retained his ashes, so the family did have a conversation with her before she died about where she wanted them to be buried,” said Tarr. “She finally decided, because we have so many strong connections to Schenectady, that she wanted to be buried at Vale. Our family on both sides is so well represented in Schenectady it seemed like the right thing to do.”

Frierson, Tarr’s cousin, couldn’t agree more.

“Family histories are like campfires,” he said. “They need someone to tend the fire so it doesn’t burn out, and by having all of us come to Schenectady we will keep that fire burning. We’ve had some family reunions in the Chattanooga area of Paul Kruesi descendants, but we haven’t had a big one like this, of John Kruesi descendants, since 1981 in Washington, D.C. I’m really looking forward to seeing Schenectady, where so much of our family history comes from.”

Schenectady City Historian Chris Leonard will give a short presentation Saturday night at the Edison Club before the Kruesi family, while earlier in the day town of Niskayuna Historian Denis Brennan, also a retired Union College professor, will give the group a tour of the Nott Memorial on the Union College Campus. Also on the schedule is a tour of the First Reformed Church of Schenectady with archivist Laura Lee. It was Edward Tuckerman Potter, another connection to the Kruesis, who designed the structure in 1863.

Categories: News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

Chuck D August 4, 2022
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Great story. Is there any background information on the photo? Who, what, where ,when?

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  I have not seen the picture of the two buildings before–with the man snd horse at the bottom. Is it because they have always been cropped out of the  picture? Good story by brother Buell!!!