FOCUS ON HISTORY: Great Depression stories in the Mohawk Valley


Isadore Demsky, a native of Amsterdam who became the actor Kirk Douglas, received a few pieces of gold as Bar Mitzvah presents in 1929. Added to money saved from his paper route, he had collected $313, what he termed a fortune in those days.

Young Demsky was going to save the nest egg to go to college but over his mother Bryna’s objections, he gave the money to his father Harry Demsky, a local ragman and legendary strongman.

“He wanted to buy up a lot of metal, because the prices were so cheap (24 cents a pound) and then sell it at a killing,” wrote Douglas in his autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son.”

But the bottom fell out of the scrap metal market in 1929 with the stock market crash. His father ended up selling the copper he bought with his son’s money for two cents a pound.

Douglas wrote, “That was what the Depression meant to me, that prices came tumbling down and my father lost my savings. Our scale of living wasn’t much different before, during or after.”


Historian Barbara McMartin, in her book “The Glove Cities,” wrote that although Johnstown and Gloversville enjoyed relatively good times in the 1920s, workers and owners in the glove industry had to struggle, even before the Depression.

“The Depression, though more severe, was nothing new,” McMartin wrote. “It was not a bad decade: Years at the beginning and end were poor, but 1935-37 were actually quite good years. In Fulton County, no one starved, no one prospered, and most continued to find some work.”


Arnold Wittemeier was born in 1920 in Fort Hunter where his father, Harold, owned Wittemeier’s, one of Montgomery County’s biggest coal companies.

Coal for the family business came on the West Shore Railroad. In the Depression, coal trains would speed through the valley to try to keep people from taking more coal from hopper cars.

“It got so bad that cars of coal were having two tons of coal scooped off of them,” Wittemeier said.


An estimated ten thousand people turned out in Amsterdam on a raw Nov. 9, 1933 to parade for economic revival.

Former New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt had become president that year. Roosevelt was launching his New Deal, a part of which was the National Recovery Administration, or NRA.

According to the Albany Evening News, the NRA parade was the biggest in Amsterdam’s history (a debatable point) and featured hundreds of marching mill workers, office employees and school children. There were floats, bands and drum corps.

Republican Mayor Robert Brumagin reviewed the line of march at a reviewing stand on Church Street. But newly elected Democratic Mayor-elect Arthur Carter was receiving cheers from the crowd, according to the Evening News, as Carter — a supporter of President Roosevelt — walked at the head of the contingent from the James T. Bergen American Legion Post.

Loyal Democrat Michael J. Wytrwal was NRA chairman for Montgomery County. Wytrwal was a businessman in the Polish neighborhood on Reid Hill. His family operated a coal yard, drugstore and furniture store.

The most visible Amsterdam public works project during the Depression was the municipal golf course, named for Mayor Carter and partly bankrolled by FDR’s federal government. 


Orsini’s Royal Restaurant at East Main and Liberty streets in Amsterdam offered a blue plate special. The special cost 35 cents and included meat or fish, mashed potatoes and vegetable. Coffee was an additional five cents. Orsini’s also offered a meal ticket for $4.50 in the Depression that was worth $5 in food.


Categories: Opinion, Opinion

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