Serious historians take note. Bob Eckstein isn’t here to debate some of the fuzzy details of the 1690 Schenectady Massacre. He just wants to talk about snowmen.
“I’ve turned down speaking engagements at some universities because they just wanted me to be very academic,” said Eckstein, whose 2007 book “The History of the Snowman” included a chapter on a very dark moment in Schenectady history.
“But I’ve always thought history should be more interesting and more entertaining. I’m not into standing up there and presenting a lot of dry facts. I want to make it more fun. I want to encourage children to embrace history more.”
A cartoonist whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker magazine, Eckstein will be a guest speaker Dec. 8 at the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam Junction. His presentation, sponsored by the Schenectady County Historical Society, will include a discussion of “The History of the Snowman” as well as his career as a humor writer and artist.
‘The History of the Snowman’
WHAT: A presentation by author and cartoonist Bob Eckstein
WHERE: The Franchere Center, Mabee Farm, 1080 Main St., Rotterdam Junction
WHEN: 2 p.m. Dec. 8
HOW MUCH: $5 for nonmembers
MORE INFO: 887-5073, www.schenectadyhistory.net
In researching the book, he came across plenty of anecdotal evidence that on the night of Feb. 8, 1690, Schenectadians had snowmen guarding their gates while the French and Indians down from Canada prepared an assault that would kill 60 and send 27 into captivity.
It’s a story that some historians suggest is only a myth. Regardless of its authenticity, it’s a clear indication that snowmen were around in North America in the late 17th century, and that’s all Eckstein is concerned about.
“I don’t want to get anybody mad at me,” he said. “It’s not like I uncovered this story. It was there, I did a lot of research on it, and I’m presenting my evidence. I’m not taking sides. For me, it just demonstrates that there were snowmen in North America in the 17th century. Were they really there that night in Schenectady? I don’t know, but I’m hoping somebody else out there will add something to the story. I just did the best I could gathering up the information that was available to me at the time.”
Eckstein, a native of the South Bronx and a 1985 graduate of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, began thinking about writing a book in 2000. An illustrator and humor writer for the Village Voice and other publications, he eventually settled on the idea of writing about the history of the snowman.
“I had always been fascinated with Sherlock Holmes and history, and I wanted to write some kind of mystery, but I didn’t want to do a murder mystery,” he said. “I wanted to answer all of life’s unanswered questions, but finally I decided to solve the question of who made the first snowman. Luckily it turned out to be like finding a winning lottery ticket. There had been very little research done on the topic, and there were many interesting stories associated with the snowman that hadn’t been told or published before. It started a seven-year journey of researching the subject around the world.”
That research eventually brought him to Schenectady, where he got help from First Reformed Church archivist Laura Lee Linder, New York Folklore Society director Ellen McHale and the staff at the Schenectady County Historical Society.
“The story of the snowman is tied to one of the bloodiest events in early American history, the massacre of 1690,” said Eckstein. “I had experts at the New York Public Library helping me out, and eventually I went to Schenectady and walked the story out, going to where everything took place to see if I could learn anything from that. I met some very helpful people there.”
While he found Schenectady and its past quite interesting, he’s not an expert on 17th century history.
“I’m not going to talk about the politics of the time or dwell on the details of the battle,” he said. “I’m also not trying to dismiss or make light of what happened there. I’m just a snowman expert. I’m a person who worked very hard on this subject.”
The snowman does go back further than the history of Schenectady, and all of that information is included in his book.
“It’s one of the first forms of folk art, and it’s a subject that has merit to it,” said Eckstein, who returned to Schenectady in December of 2008 for a book signing at the Open Door Bookstore. “It’s not totally fluff. It’s interesting stuff about one of man’s earliest pastimes.”
Eckstein will also talk about his career as a cartoonist and a writer outside the realm of snowmen.
“People like hearing about working for The New Yorker, so I’ll give them a little behind-the-scenes look at that,” he said.
“My background is in comedy, and before my cartoons were appearing worldwide in things like the Harvard Business Review, Readers Digest and Parade Magazine, I wrote comedy for Playboy, Comedy Central, the National Lampoon and The New York Times. But I’m very proud of my cartooning. It seems to have struck a nerve with people, and they always seem interested in hearing about it.”
One of those interested in his work was a nephew who has became a source of great pride for Eckstein.
“He’s 10, and his dad, my brother, and his mother were called to his school because he did a book report on my book and his teacher thought he was making things up,” said Eckstein.
“They had had a hard time getting him to read before, but now he seems more involved in his work, and they see him reading more. It’s great because that’s always been one of my goals; to make history fun and more interesting, especially for kids. It’s one of my proudest moments.”