John Collier Jr. documented the waterfront and downtown Amsterdam during a photo shoot for the U.S. government in October 1941. His pictures capture the spirit of Mohawk Valley residents battered by the Great Depression and about to be thrust into war.
Collier was born in 1913 in Sparkill, N.Y. His father, John Collier Sr., was an advocate for the rights of Native Americans who served as U.S. commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945.
Injured in an auto accident at age 8, John Collier Jr. had learning disabilities. Having trouble in school, he was apprenticed to a painter whose wife was a photographer. In the 1930s, Collier established a home in New Mexico.
From 1941 to 1943, Collier was a photographer for the federal government’s Farm Securities Administration and Office of War Information under Roy Stryker. Stryker hired Collier and others to document day-to-day American life, with a focus on civil defense and public morale. Stryker made sure his photographers were well-briefed and properly funded before they were sent out.
Collier was familiar with boats. As a young man, he was a seaman on a sailing ship for an ocean voyage from San Francisco to Dublin and toward the end of World War II served in the U.S. Merchant Marine.
In Amsterdam, Collier took pictures of barge and boat traffic at Lock 11 on the Mohawk River/Erie Canal, including the arrival of an oil tanker and the passage of three wooden barges. Collier also photographed shoppers, store windows and street scenes in Amsterdam’s downtown.
It was raining when he took a picture of two women and a man near the Strand Theater on the south side of East Main Street. An Andy Hardy movie was playing, along with the film “Affectionately Yours.” St. Mary’s Church is visible across the street.
The Strand previously had been the Lyceum. In 1949, the Strand was remodeled by the Schine theater chain of Gloversville and renamed the Mohawk. Mayor Burtiss E. Deal cut the ribbon for the Mohawk’s opening attraction, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” starring Frank Sinatra. The Fort Johnson Drum Corps played, Tony the performing horse was on hand and there was a motorcade featuring the Amsterdam Rugmakers baseball team.
The last traditional movie theater built in downtown Amsterdam also opened in 1949, Brant Corp.’s Tryon on East Main Street. The Tryon was built on the site of the McGibbon block, which was leveled by a spectacular fire in 1943.
“Champion,” Amsterdam native Kirk Douglas’ breakthrough boxing movie, was the opening attraction. The line to see “Champion” extended onto Church Street.
Entrepreneur Edward C. Klapp had built the 1,400-seat Rialto Theater at Market and Grove streets in 1917. In 1933, the Rialto became part of the Schine chain and was known for stage performances by the likes of Jack Benny and George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Historian Hugh Donlon wrote that Amsterdam boxer “Sailor” Barron directed the Rialto usher corps, and “Barron’s ring expertise enabled him to administer fistic anesthesia to potential troublemakers so quietly that there was no awareness of the operation by most patrons.” Bothersome customers were removed to an alleyway outside the theater.
The Rialto, Tryon and Mohawk are long gone, having succumbed to multiplex theater competition and downtown’s decline.
When the government photography project ended, Collier went on to use photography as a tool in anthropology, the study of human cultures, working with, among others, Cornell University. He later became a professor at San Francisco State University. He died in 1992 in Costa Rica.
Thousands of Collier’s 1940s photos are archived at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach him at 346-6657 or email@example.com.