GLEANINGS FROM THE CORN FLATS: Remembering extraordinary Schenectady, Niskayuna business leader Clark Witbeck

Vintage photo of man

Clark Witbeck photo from his 1919 passport application (Provided Photo)

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GLEANINGS FROM THE CORN FLATS – For more than half a century, former Niskayuna resident Clark Witbeck [1852-1937] was a respected business and financial titan who greatly impacted Schenectady during its meteoric rise to prominence.

While primarily remembered for his remarkable namesake hardware business, Witbeck’s importance in local history extends well beyond that accomplishment.

Born on a farm near Cohoes to Garret L. and Caroline Clark Witbeck, he was the oldest of seven children. After attending Union Classical Institute, Witbeck began working at and eventually purchased his dad’s hardware business. With strong commercial acumen, he built the Clark Witbeck Co. into a massive retail and wholesale establishment, eventually operating out of a building bearing his name at 416-418 State St. in Schenectady. The building still stands in stoic testimony to its distinguished owner; however, today it serves as a Pioneer bank branch.

Recognizing increasing financial demands driven by the spectacular growth of General Electric and the American Locomotive Company (ALCO), Witbeck helped establish Union National Bank in 1892 to help further promote progress.

In a 25th anniversary tribute, the June 13, 1917, Schenectady Gazette reported that in financial circles, Union National Bank was acknowledged as “one of the strong institutions of New York state.”

Initially serving as a director and bank vice president, Whitbeck’s lifelong affiliation with the bank culminated in his election as chairman of the board of directors, a position he held until his death in 1937.

For decades, the Clark Witbeck Co. served both retail and industrial customers with high-quality goods backed by outstanding service. Offering a vast assortment of products — from firehoses to fireplaces, hammers to hatchets, seeds to scissors, clocks to carving sets — Witbeck had it all. A one-stop store that could satisfy an extensive assortment of needs, it was an early 20th-century equivalent of today’s big-box hardware stores.

By agreement with ALCO, a major industrial component customer, Witbeck became a distribution agent for ALCO’s little-known but high-end luxury touring automobile, appropriately called the “ALCO.” Built in the company’s Rhode Island plant from 1906 to about 1913, the ALCO was on par with the Packards and Pierce Arrows of the era.

On the wholesale side, Witbeck served railroads, professional trades, GE and ALCO among a wide spectrum of commercial customers. Offering the most upscale products available, such as CertainTeed roofing wares, paints and varnishes, Witbeck provided quality merchandise and customized services “at prices in accordance with same.”

In a letter accompanying his 1919 passport application, Witbeck pursued European export trade. Traveling with ALCO General Manager JR Magarvey, he targeted European rail and other industrial customers. Success in developing European commerce was evidenced by the establishment of a New York City office to handle international business.

Witbeck, along with his wife, the former Sofie Lester Rosa, lived at their Niskayuna estate known as “Gray Boulders” along Troy and Rosendale roads near the intersection with Union. Likely the name is associated with the many small boulders used for construction. Stone pillars, which once connected fencing on the property, along with a stone windmill, which at one time pumped water, are the only remaining original structures. Today the Dominican Retreat and Conference Center owns the site, repurposing the windmill base as a quiet area for meditation and solace.

Witbeck belonged to St. George’s Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, where he achieved the lofty status of a 32nd-degree mason. A sports enthusiast in his younger days, he trained and raced trotter horses and was a founding member of the Mohawk Golf Club. Witbeck was a vibrant member of the Community Chest, Rotary and Business League of the Capital District, and was a board member of the Ingersoll Memorial Home. He also had a strong interest in floriculture and maintained a greenhouse near his home.

Declining health, initially sparked by the death of his beloved wife Sofie in February 1937, forced Witbeck to curtail his business activities. Three months following Sofie’s death, his sister, Caroline “Carrie” Witbeck Gaffers, died.

Compounding what had become a tragic year, Witbeck was shaken in a July auto accident before his death on Aug. 22, 1937.

In a kind and thoughtful gesture, Witbeck left his lucrative business to the officers and employees of the company, which they dutifully continued to successfully operate for decades.

Sale of the landmark Witbeck building in 1945 ended the company’s retail business. The industrial segment continued operations from other locations, including ALCO building 194, which was purchased in 1958.

Industrial operations continued until a final asset sale in the late 1960s ended the Witbeck Company’s run of more than seven decades as a prominent area enterprise.

Michael Davi is a member of the Niskayuna Town Historical Committee and can be contacted at [email protected] with any comments or questions. To submit information, resources or story ideas, please email Denis Brennan, Niskayuna town historian, at [email protected].

Categories: News, News, Schenectady County, Your Niskayuna

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