Longtime Duanesburg resident Art Willis told me back in 2009 that if the town could ever manage to create its own history center, “it would be a vigorous and lively place.”
He was right.
A former town of Duanesburg historian and Voorheesville history teacher, Willis didn’t live to see the dream fulfilled, passing away in September 2010 at 88. But the Duanesburg History Research and Archive Center did get built, in 2018 at 450 Quaker Lane in the hamlet of Quaker Street.
As Willis predicted, it is in very good hands.
Lenny and Pat Van Buren are the primary reasons the Duanesburg History Center celebrated its fifth year earlier this month with an open house, but they’d be the first to tell you they have an enthusiastic and engaged support group at their beck and call.
Current town historian Howard Ohlhous, who took over in January of 2012 after Willis died, told me back at the 2018 opening of the history center that his community — he graduated from Duanesburg High in 1982 — has always appreciated the importance of its rich and long history.
“As the town historian, I see myself almost as a reference librarian,” Ohlhous said. “I can always call on sources within our town because I don’t know all the answers. The Van Burens’ strong leadership has brought us to where we are, but there’s a great support group that the society has that I can go to and get all the answers.”
Since it was created in 1944, the Duanesburg Historical Society, which oversees the history center, has been digging into and documenting nearly three centuries of the town’s history. Sometimes finding the answers to all of history’s questions isn’t easy, but with a determined group, headed by the Van Burens and Ohlhous, clues to the past are chased down and soon another of history’s riddles is explained.
A particularly interesting question came to the Van Burens last year when Orlando and Yvonne Orsini of Scotch Ridge Road in Duanesburg donated a World War I uniform to the history center. The Orsinis had no idea why it was in the attic of the home they purchased back in 1976, but they figured someone in the Duanesburg Historical Society would have the answer. Well, the Van Burens, Ohlhous and one of their dogged researchers, Bruce Barton, came up with the answer but not without a lot of effort.
“In the spring we were having an event for our vets who are serving now and had served, and Lenny was intent on finding out who the uniform belonged to,” said Pat Van Buren. “The Orsinis had actually mentioned it a while back but the pandemic came and everything stopped. They actually donated the uniform in June of 2022 and that’s when we really started researching it. All the Orsinis knew was that there was a sad story attached to the uniform.”
With a lot of help from Ohlhous and Barton, it was determined that the WWI uniform belonged to Walter August Looman, a U.S. Army corporal who was killed in France in September 1918.
“Howard did a lot of research on the property on Scotch Ridge Road and kind of gave us the framework of what to look for,” said Lenny Van Buren. “Then Bruce Barton got on his computer and when he gets going on a project, he doesn’t stop. There were a few dead-ends, but he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll find him.’ Bruce is just one of our enthusiastic society members that we are so lucky to have. He found him.”
Through all of their hard work, they learned that Looman was the son of John and Minna Graper Looman, longtime town of Duanesburg residents. It gets pretty complicated after that, but to sum it up they found that it was Walter’s younger brother, Wiley Raymond Looman, and his wife, Josephine, who in 1943 bought the farm that was to become the Orsini farm 33 years later, in 1976.
With Barton’s digging, they also discovered that Looman is buried in France with a marker bearing his name, and that in the Looman family plot at Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, there is also a marker with Walter’s name.
Walter August Looman had actually moved to Schenectady and was living at 913 Stanley St. when he was inducted on March 1, 1918, and sent to Camp Green in North Carolina. He was assigned to Company L, 39th Division, and on May 10 of that year set sail on the SS Lenape from Hoboken, New Jersey, to France.
On Sept. 26, 1918, Looman was killed in action in the Battle of Argonne. His family wasn’t notified of his death until Nov. 3, more than a month later, and around that time peace talks between Germany and the Allies were getting under way. Just 22 years old when he was killed, Walter had an older brother and a younger brother who also served. U.S. Navy veterans, they both survived The Great War, Arthur living until 1971, while Chester died in 1978.
“It was an interesting story about a guy from the town of Duanesburg that we wanted to share with our community,” said Pat Van Buren. “The Looman name is well known in Duanesburg, and while we hit some brick walls we eventually learned all about the sad story associated with the uniform. It was great to see that he had a marker in France where he is actually buried, and there’s a marker for him here in Schenectady at Vale.”
Pat Van Buren assumes that the uniform was mailed to his mother, Minna, who probably gave it to her youngest son and Walter’s brother, Wiley, before she passed away in 1947.
It’s one of many interesting stories that make up Duanesburg’s history. And despite the fact that Duanesburg is a relatively small town in a small county in upstate New York, its history is so vast and varied it might be of interest to any American, regardless of where they’re from.
The town’s namesake, James Duane, is considered one of our country’s Founding Fathers and was the mayor of New York City before marrying into the Livingston family and moving upstate.
His son-in-law and neighbor in Duanesburg was William North, a soldier during the American Revolution who rose to the rank of brigadier general soon after the end of the conflict and eventually became adjutant general of the U.S. Army.
Railroad history also is part of the Duanesburg story. In 1890, Delanson, a small hamlet in the town, was named after the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, which had a large rail yard and station located there.
“My first interest in local history was sparked by the D&H trains running through the village of Delanson,” said Ohlhous.
And we shouldn’t forget George William Featherstonhaugh, a geologist and one of the original owners of the Albany and Schenectady Railroad who had a large estate in Duanesburg for much of his life.
There’s also plenty of railroad history connected to the Duanesburg area.
Schenectady city historian, Chris Leonard, who is working on a book about Schenectady County in the 19th century, attended the open house earlier this month and plans on returning to the history center soon.
“The Duanesburg Historical Society building is a great addition to the community,” said Leonard. “It’s bright and accommodating. I’m looking forward to a few days of research there at the end of the month.”
The history center has reduced hours during the fall and winter, but anyone interested in seeing the building can get an appointment by checking out the group’s website at www.duanesburghistorical.com.
WOODWARD AT LIBRARY
Duanesburg isn’t the only Schenectady County town with an organized group of history buffs.
In Niskayuna, town historian Denis Brennan and his gang of researchers have been providing Gazette readers with regular articles on local history for more than a year now. Meanwhile, at the Rotterdam branch of the Schenectady County Public Library, John Woodward, the former longtime Schenectady County Clerk and currently the deputy county historian for Schenectady, has been holding office hours since March of this year to talk to the public about that town’s past.
Woodward will be at the library on North Westcott Road on Sept. 28, and will be there twice in October, the 12th and the 26th, and also twice in November (the 9th and 30th) and December (the 14th and 28th). His hours are from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and, along with handling general questions about Rotterdam, Woodward is conducting a series of oral interviews with town residents.
“We have been meeting since April and have had many folks come in and talk about their neighborhoods and local history,” said Woodward. “It’s been a wonderful experience sharing stories and family histories along with discussions about the development of our town. We learn from each other. I believe that place is important and the knowledge and understanding of local history enriches our lives.”