Bob Barber bought his “starter house” at 347 Alplaus Ave. 35 years ago because it was conveniently located near his job at GE Global Research. He never left.
Instead, he did extensive upgrades including new hardwood floors, windows, doors and a kitchen with granite counter tops and stainless steel kitchen appliances.
He wanted to remain part of the Alplaus community.
“People look out for each other here. It’s a pleasant little hamlet,” he said.
The hamlet is in the southeast corner of Glenville and is built along the Alplaus Kill and Alplaus Avenue, which runs from the Saratoga County line to Maple Avenue.
Alplaus is a kind of small-town America, where the neighbors organize an annual Independence Day parade and block party, meet at the local coffee shop to talk and join together on causes — like trying to save the post office from closure.
“It is a place where people know their neighbors and have a respect for the differences,” said 39-year resident Robert Winchester, whose license plate reads “ALPLAUS.”
Winchester agreed that the entire hamlet serves as a neighborhood watch. One time, he came home from work and one of his neighbors told him there were two youths in his driveway checking out his pickup truck. Winchester told him that was one of his former students and friend who were possibly interested in buying the vehicle.
“If people don’t see their neighbors, they call them or check on them,” he said.
He recalled when his youngest daughter was born and needed to go to the neonatal intensive care unit at Albany Medical Center.
“People brought in meals, held a shower for my wife and my daughter when she came home,” he said.
He also loves the diversity of the community.
“It’s a community that’s raised world-famous scientists and people who drive a school bus. It has lawyers and engineers and shopkeepers,” he said.
The list of former residents includes author Kurt Vonnegut, who lived on Hill Street from 1947 to 1951 while working in the public relations department at General Electric Co.
Vonnegut came to the area because his brother, Bernie, was a scientist at GE. When Kurt decided to pursue writing full time, he moved with his wife and family to Cape Cod, where there was a vibrant writers’ community, according to Cliff Hayes, Alplaus’ unofficial historian.
Winchester said Bernie Vonnegut lived on Alplaus Avenue and was part of a group of scientists who attempted to force clouds to produce rain by “seeding” them by placing silver nitrate in his fireplace and sending the emissions out the chimney. Then, they reportedly tried to do the experiment in a plane using dry ice.
“The legend is they flew over the Mohawk Valley seeding clouds and it snowed so hard that GE, which sponsored it, decided they shouldn’t do this anymore,” he said.
During his time in Alplaus, Kurt Vonnegut also was a volunteer firefighter. He kept a special place in his heart for the community.
About six months before his death in 2007, he sent a small silk print with a Maltese cross to the Alplaus Fire Department, according to a 2007 Sunday Gazette opinion column.
Another famous resident was Joseph Yates, who served 12 terms as Schenectady mayor and, from 1823 to 1824, as governor of New York state. His brother had built a summer cottage near Alplaus Creek that was later converted into a year-round residence, according to Hayes.
There is a strong sense of history in the hamlet, which had an inauspicious beginning.
The French and Indians camped out in what is now Alplaus — it means “place of eels” in Dutch — the night before they raided and burned the Schenectady Stockade on Feb. 8, 1690.
Where houses stand now was once vast stretches of farmland from the Alplaus Creek all the way to the Saratoga County line, according to Hayes.
Throughout the 1800s, the Bath family owned 125 acres of farmland from the creek to the county line that they also harvested for lumber. The acreage remained farmland until the early 20th century. Then, when the Bath family members had died or were aging, a Schenectady man named Lansing DeForest bought up much of the property. DeForest claimed to be a chicken farmer but he wasn’t too interested in agriculture, according to Hayes. Rather, he was more of a developer. “He took much of the land and he divided it into building lots,” he said.
At around the same time, the Schenectady Railroad Co. decided to construct an electric trolley line running from Schenectady to Saratoga, parallel to the steam railroad line running through the community. The trolley bridge that crossed the Mohawk River was the largest in the world at the time, according to historical news clippings available at the Glenville town historian’s office.
The hamlet began to take shape from the trolley line, which lasted until 1941, and transformed Alplaus into a bedroom community.
“Some of the city people in Schenectady wanted to move to the suburbs,” he said.
Alplaus has about 300 residents — about the same as it had in 1925.
“We have a mix of residents — older people and also young families. They like it here because it’s kind of small and they meet the neighbors,” Hayes said.
A few houses have been built here and there since then, but other than that, growth in the hamlet has stopped, according to Hayes. “Basically, it really hasn’t changed since 1975,” he said.
The community was able to boast its own post office for many years. It was a popular place for residents to catch up with the neighbors as they collected their mail.
“It was a nice meeting place,” said resident Nancy Salzman.
Alplaus residents had successfully beaten back previous attempts to close the facility and in 1973 it became a contract operation.
Last November, the U.S. Postal Service announced that it was closing the office — citing a new contract with the labor union representing clerks and front window employees that required more work to be done by union members.
Alplaus residents rallied in opposition. They signed petitions and appealed to the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission — all to no avail. The office closed in January.
“But we still have our ZIP code,” Winchester said. “We’re the smallest geographic ZIP code in the United States.”
While it has its own Zoning Improvement Plan code, it doesn’t have a formal government and remains part of the town of Glenville. “We never chartered into any type of government. We’re supported by the town of Glenville. We have a residents’ association we created back in 1975,” Hayes said.
The association holds an annual meeting and invites Glenville officials.
Andy Gilpin, the president of the association, has lived in Alplaus the past eight years.
He moved to the Capital Region in 2001 and opened up a business. After he met the woman who would ultimately become his wife, they started looking for a house, and they found one at an affordable price in a great neighborhood and school district.
“It’s really small, really tight-knit. Everybody gets to know each other very well and understands what a sense of the word ‘community’ means. We’re there to support each other,” he said. “You can walk down the street and say ‘hi’ to just about anybody.”
The hamlet has had its own volunteer fire department since 1930. It is a center of activity for the community with active members who host events such as the annual Independence Day parade and block party the night before. The association puts on a carnival as part of the block party. Other events include a holiday party in the wintertime and on Oct. 27, there is the Alplaus Run-Around.
Gilpin recalled a huge fire about three or four years ago.
“Everybody came out and helped out as much as they could, supporting them as they went through that process, helping with donations,” he said. “If we find that a family is struggling with a loss or some other crisis in their lives and they want to share that, we’ll try to do our best to help.”
Alplaus even also had its own schoolhouse at the corner of Alplaus and Maple avenues until state education laws led to the closure of one-room schools housing kindergarten through eighth grade.
At one point, the hamlet had three general stores. One of them, Samuel’s, lasted until 1975 as a grocery store. Then, a variety of proprietors took over and ran it as a café. It has been owned for the past two years by Alplaus native Amelia Esposito, who is studying culinary arts at Schenectady County Community College.
“I always wanted to open up a place of my own and do baked goods. It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said.
Esposito grew up on First Street and all her family lives in Alplaus, so she is familiar with its special feeling. “It’s a nice quaint, little place,” she said.
“She’s never leaving,” joked her business partner Brittany Dover.
With the closure of the post office in January, Samuel’s has tried to fill some of the void as a neighborhood hangout. The business showcases paintings and photographs by local artists on its walls and hosts knitting and running groups, according to Esposito.
An autographed picture of “America’s Next Top Model” runner-up Laura LaFrate of nearby Scotia hangs by the cash register. The business did a “Top Model” British-American theme night and LaFrate did makeup with the young women.
They offer an array of newspapers and Internet access for customers.
“It’s a place where people in the community come. There’s a lot of kids in the neighborhood, so we do cupcake-decorating parties. It’s a fun place for kids to hang out in the afternoon,” Esposito said.
Colette Martin, a second lieutenant with the New York Air National Guard, was enjoying a lunch date on a recent Tuesday afternoon at Samuel’s.
“It’s great for us at the base,” she said.
She said the two partners are very welcoming and will go out of their way for their regular customers — even if they had to open a little earlier to have the drinks waiting for a customer so she could take them to work.
Martin says it is great that Alplaus has maintained its own identity and hasn’t been gobbled up by a larger municipality.
“It’s beautiful, quaint,” she said.
Her lunch date, Brian Degener of Delmar, said he believes Alplaus could use some more promotion. “I think they should advertise what they have going on. It seems like they need to put the word out.”
However, Gilpin said there really isn’t much room to expand, but there are a few houses for sale.
“If anybody is looking for a great place to live, I’d highly recommend it,” he said.