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Landmarks: A haven in Fort Hunter

Landmarks: A haven in Fort Hunter

For much of its life, the large white building at 248 Main St. in the hamlet of Fort Hunter was a wa
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For much of its life, the large white building at 248 Main St. in the hamlet of Fort Hunter was a warm and welcoming place.

August Becker entertained guests there as proprietor of the Fort Hunter Hotel way back in the 19th century, and his son-in-law Orville Blanche ran the place — also his residence — as a boarding house and a barber shop well into the 20th century. Even now, current owners Jason and Katherine Downing put up a sign that reads “The Downings International House,” and since 2002 have been renting out rooms to foreign students at Fulton-Montgomery Community College.

Solitary resident

But for years, the house was the domain of Viola Blanche Murtlow, the daughter of Orville Blanche, and she wasn’t always the most approachable person in town.

“When I was a kid, nobody talked to her because we all thought she was a mean old lady,” said Jason Downing, a lifelong resident of Fort Hunter who inherited the house after Murtlow’s death in 1995. “She was a school teacher and she didn’t like kids. She had a 5-foot-high chain-link fence around the whole property. Some of the kids, not me because my father would have killed me, tormented her, especially on Halloween.”

Murtlow, also a lifelong Fort Hunter resident, died at the age of 89. A math teacher in the Amsterdam school district for 25 years, she married Leon Murtlow in 1931 and the couple lived in the house for 46 years before he died in 1977.

“He was a turbine troubleshooter with General Electric and he worked all around the world and Viola went with him,” said Downing.

“They were constantly traveling together. After he passed away, she really didn’t have anybody, and I don’t think she ever got over it. I didn’t really get to know her at all until about 10 years after Leon died. By that time she was a lonely old lady.”

Viola, however, loved dogs and did have a few friends, including Downing’s mother. When Viola needed some things fixed around the house, she asked Downing’s mother if he might be available to make a few repairs.

Helping out

“She knew I was a general contractor and handyman so I started doing a few things for her,” said Downing. “So, I got to be a bit friendly with her. But if she didn’t want visitors you could knock on her door all day and she wouldn’t answer it. I’d be there fixing something and her phone would ring, and I would say, ‘don’t you want to answer that?’ She would just say, ‘there’s no one I want to talk with.’ I think that kind of distanced her from the relations she did have.”

While Downing and Murtlow became quite cordial with each other, there were some occasional spats.

“There was one Christmas that I got her a little coffee mug with some flowers in it,” remembered Downing. “I was feeling a bit sad for her because I knew she was alone there and she wouldn’t come over to our house and have dinner. So, I showed up with these flowers. She took them, walked over to the other side of the room, turned around and threw them at me. I had to duck out of the way. She told me, ‘I never had anybody give me flowers but Leon, and I’m not taking any now from anyone else.’ She told me to get out and I did.”

For about a month or two, Downing stayed away.

“Viola finally approached my mother and I guess she realized she was wrong,” added Downing. “She said she knew I had been very good to her, and so I finally started going back.”

Surprise announcement

Then one day, Viola announced to Downing and his wife that she was going to will them her house. They didn’t believe her at first, but she kept insisting that was the case and when the will was read after Murtlow’s death, the Downings were proud owners of a new home.

“She only had 22 second cousins left on her family tree, and one of them contested the will,” said Downing. “It turned into a royal mess. It took five years in court and a weeklong trial before the jury came back in 20 minutes and said there’s nothing wrong with the will.”

The Downings moved in soon after the court case was wrapped up, and while Jason did some major rewiring and painting, they did very little to change the look of the place.

“She had torn off the old front porch because it rotted out and replaced it with a terrible-looking porch, nothing much more than a stoop, so I built a new front porch like the old one,” said Downing. “I also put in some replacement windows, but the building, the inside and the out, still looks a lot like it used to. You can tell it was a boarding house or a hotel.”

Most people enter the building through the back door these days into a large dining room area. There are two bedrooms on the ground floor, a large kitchen and living room, and two more rooms the Downings use as office space. A fairly large center hallway leads to the front door and a stairway to the second floor, which, along with a large common room, has enough space to comfortably sleep seven.

“Viola told me that the bar was upstairs, but I don’t know why it would have been on the second floor, and I really can’t picture it,” said Downing. “You can tell the place has been divided up into smaller rooms. Some of the rooms are too small for a bed, so I give a few of the students two rooms of their own.”

The students, according to Vlaeisla Mashev of Bulgaria, really appreciate their lodgings.

“It’s very nice and very big and I really love it,” said Mashev, who moved in last September. “It’s a very interesting old house, and much better than living in the dorms. It’s so much better than the usual apartments you might rent, and the atmosphere is great.”

The Downings, through FMCC, charge the students rent and are responsible for providing two meals a day, fresh linen once a week, and transportation to the college and back to Fort Hunter.

“I have another part-time job, so it works out really well for us,” said Katherine Downing. “We feel like we’re being enriched by the experience, and we want them to be enriched by the experience as well, so we try to have a sit-down dinner most every night, and we’ll try to get together on Saturday night and play cards or do something. If we go grocery shopping, we might invite them along. They love going to the Asian markets in Albany.”

Along with Mashev, who recently got his own automobile, the Downings have students from South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong at their home. Occasionally, they’ll even get an American student to spend some time there.

“Having eight kids, it can get a little crowded, so seven’s a much better number,” said Katherine Downing, who usually transports the students back and forth to class in her van. “We do have the one other bedroom downstairs, but we like to keep that for family when one of our daughters visits.”

There’s also a third floor to the structure, and while Downing usually closes it off during the winter months, there is plenty to see, including a 1930s-era jukebox, the old “Fort Hunter Hotel” sign that belonged to Becker, and a half-dozen illustrations of dogs that Murtlow kept on her walls.

Canal days

Downing also has an antique cash register that used to ring up items at Brown’s Cash Store, a popular spot near Lock 12 on the old Erie Canal when Fort Hunter, including Becker’s hotel, was thriving.

“Fort Hunter was right on the canal where the Schoharie Creek flowed into the Mohawk River, and there was probably a lot of canal traffic there that needed a place to stay,” said Montgomery County Historian Kelly Farquhar. “It was a key location. You could head east or west on the Mohawk River or the canal, and you could head due south by way of the Schoharie Creek toward the Susquehanna River Valley and Pennsylvania.”

While most people were on the go when they stopped in Fort Hunter, there were plenty of people who worked and lived there.

“Along that same stretch where the hotel was there was a blacksmith shop, a sleigh manufacturer, two broom factories and a silk and sweater factory,” said Trisha Shaw, education coordinator at the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in Fort Hunter. “There were also a number of boarding houses and the Fort Hunter Hotel. Our visitor center here was a boarding house strictly for mule drivers on the canal. I think the Fort Hunter Hotel had the better clientele.”

A fire burned the Fort Hunter Hotel to the ground at some point early in the 20th century.

“It was probably around 1904, that’s our best guess, but they rebuilt the same exact structure that had been here on the same exact site,” said Jason Downing. “We can’t say for sure when the earlier building was built but I’m thinking it was probably back in the 1860s or 1870s.”

The roof is the same one that August Becker put on the building after the fire.

“If you get far enough away and get the right angle you can still see ‘A. Becker’ on the roof,” said Katherine Downing. “There are different colored slate that spells out his name.”

There are also plenty of reminders of Viola Murtlow and, of course, Jason Downing has a hundred different stories.

“She lived like a pauper and people would see her in Amsterdam collecting bottles for the nickel deposit to give to the Girl Scouts,” he said. “She would mend her own clothes, and I’m sure some people thought she was a bag lady. But when they opened her safety deposit box, it was chock full of stocks and bonds. She had over a million dollars and she gave all but $2,500 to the Shriners [Hospital for Children]. The $2,500 she gave to the [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals].”

Of course, she left the house to Jason Downing and his wife, Katherine, whose maiden name just happened to be Schriner.

“Yeah, we thought that was pretty funny,” said Katherine Downing. “It’s pronounced just like Shriners. But she didn’t leave us any money, just the house and that’s fine. We love it and we really enjoy sharing it with the students. It’s a great house.”

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