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What you need to know for 01/16/2017

Scholet's: Grand hotel turned furniture store at heart of Cobleskill history

Scholet's: Grand hotel turned furniture store at heart of Cobleskill history

Scholet Furniture offers a fine array of couches, chairs and other home furnishings. Walking up the
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Scholet Furniture offers a fine array of couches, chairs and other home furnishings. Walking up the front steps of the building at 561 Main St., you’re also greeted by a strong sense of history.

The large, three-story brick structure was built in 1874 and named the Hotel Augustan by its owner, Augustan C. Smith. The original facade is strikingly similar to what visitors see today. While the Scholet family did plenty of work renovating the place when they bought it in 1976, the veranda where Teddy Roosevelt spoke in front of a large crowd in 1914 remains seemingly unchanged.

“We did a lot of work, but the changes we made to the facade were really quite minor,” said Art Scholet, president of Scholet Furniture and the original owner’s grandson. “It looks a lot like it did back in the 1800s. When we bought it, the place had closed as a hotel. It was in the middle of a foreclosure and headed to auction.”

The building has long been a major landmark in Cobleskill, and a strong link to the village’s long history. For preserving that link, Scholet Furniture received a plaque thanking them for their work in 1985 from the village of Cobleskill.

“In recognition of their conscientious renovation of this historic building,” the plaque reads, “Scholet Furniture is awarded this commendation by the grateful village residents.”

Home to history

With the structure safe for history, it helps bring to life many of the events that took place in Cobleskill’s past, most prominent of all Roosevelt’s visit to Cobleskill and the hotel in 1914. His speech was well documented by area photographers of the day, showing the boisterous former president talking to a throng of admirers while standing on the hotel’s front steps.

Peter Lindemann, a Howes Cave resident and highly sought-after Abraham Lincoln impersonator, started researching the event when he and Joe Wiegand, a nationally known Roosevelt impersonator, were scheduled to perform at the Old Stone Fort in Schoharie last fall.

“I was going through an old scrapbook at the library and I came across this photo of Teddy at the Hotel Augustan,” said Lindemann, a Colonie native who works for the state Assembly. “I knew Joe Wiegand was going to be at the Old Stone Fort so I thought, wouldn’t it be neat to find out exactly what Roosevelt was doing in this area?”

Roosevelt became president following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 and, after finishing McKinley’s term, won election for himself in 1904. On that night, Roosevelt announced to the nation that he wouldn’t run for a third term in 1908. Subsequently his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, was elected.

Taft, however, wasn’t progressive enough for Teddy, and in 1912 Roosevelt was back once again running for president as a member of the Bull Moose Party. He lost that election but wasn’t done shaking hands and trying to win votes for Bull Moose candidates, such as Frederick M. Davenport, who was running for governor of New York in 1914.

“T.R. remained a wildly popular figure, and was at that time, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Edmund Morris, simply the most famous man in the world,” said Lindemann. “I thought that he had probably taken a train to Cobleskill, but as I researched it more I found out they had a Roosevelt-Davenport Progressive Motor Squadron, which consisted of four automobiles that carried Roosevelt and his group all around upstate New York. I think he must have really enjoyed campaigning.”

On the day prior to his speech in Cobleskill, Roosevelt gave addresses in Herkimer, Little Falls, St. Johnsville, Amsterdam, Fultonville, Canajoharie, Fort Plain, Johnstown and Gloversville. The next day, the Roosevelt entourage got up early in the morning and drove to Schoharie for a lunch-time lecture, and then all got back in their automobiles and took off for an afternoon appointment in Cobleskill at the Hotel Augustan.

Much of the information Lindemann learned from his research on Roosevelt’s visit comes from an oral interview with George Van Schaick taken by the Columbia Oral History Project in 1950. Van Schaick was a prominent 30-year-old attorney who had been born in Cobleskill, relocated to Rochester, and then rose to heights among the Bull Moose hierarchy in New York. His great-nephew, Richard Norton of Cobleskill, provided Lindemann with a transcript of the interview.

“He talked a lot about how Roosevelt railed against the political bosses in Albany, and how he was so concerned about the newspapers and how they were covering his appearances from the day before,” Lindemann said of the oral interview. “Van Schaick couldn’t believe how this famous man would be so concerned about what the papers in Gloversville had to say about him.”

As far as Lindemann can tell, Roosevelt’s appearance is the only time a president, sitting or former, ever visited the village of Cobleskill.

From humble beginnings

A little more than 30 miles southwest of Schenectady, Cobleskill was settled in 1752 by Jacob Kobell and was incorporated as a village in 1858. By that time the plot of land on which Scholet Furniture stands had been serving as an inn/hotel since 1815. Lambert Lawyer originally built a brick house on the site and rented a few rooms. But when Smith, who often went by the initials, A.C., instead of Augustan, purchased the place in 1867 he made some major additions.

A fire that began in the hotel stables burned the building to the ground in 1873 — along with much of that block — and when Smith rebuilt the place over the next two years, he added the two large wings on each end of the building. Referred to as a “very genial and energetic businessman,” Smith was also a teacher and school commissioner who by 1875 had a brand new hotel that could comfortably accommodate 100 guests. Since then the building was usually the center of activity in Cobleskill, certainly along that section of Main Street, which in 1978 was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“It changed hands a few times right after Smith died, but it continued to thrive well into the 1950s,” said Scholet. “I grew up out in Lawyersville but I can remember coming to Cobleskill as a kid, and the building really was the heart of the village. It was like a community center, and there was a lot of news that was generated from that place. The village board would meet there, and then they would adjourn to the tap room downstairs where the reporters of the day sat there waiting for them.”

Clinton Barnard ran the hotel from 1925 to 1970, and Cole Barnard, a Cobleskill native and resident, lived with his parents in a second-floor apartment in the hotel.

“It was always a busy place,” said Barnard. “There were a lot of traveling salesmen that stayed there, and a lot of tourists during the summer. It was always bustling. We had approximately 50 guest rooms, and there was a coffee shop in front, a banquet room in the rear and a tap room downstairs.”

Business was good according to Barnard until the New York State Thruway was built in 1954, linking New York City to Albany and Albany to Buffalo.

“There had been a sign on Route 20 pointing toward Cobleskill, ‘the shortest route to New York,’ ” said Barnard. “People coming from the west would drive down Route 145 to Cobleskill and then all the way to Catskill and to New York. The people in Albany were upset. They tried to legally get the sign removed because they weren’t getting the traffic. We always got the traffic. But the Thruway changed all that.”

Home for business

During Barnard’s time at the hotel, businesses often rented out spaces there, including a barber shop, jewelry store and law office.

“Like so many small hotels, and city hotels as well, we started having hard economic times,” said Barnard. “We sold it to a group of businessmen, and they sold it to another group. The last people that had it just closed the doors and walked away. That’s why I’m so grateful to the Scholets. They did a good job with it and have maintained it so well. It would have been a shame if such a beautiful old building had been demolished, and if it was empty that’s exactly what would have happened.”

The Scholet family got into the furniture business in 1931 when Leo Scholet purchased the Myer’s Furniture Store, which had been around the corner from the hotel at 12 Division St. Richard Scholet, Leo’s son, took over the business in 1967. On Sept. 27, 1974, a fire burned the building to the ground. What was left of the business was run out of the Scholet home in Lawyersville until a temporary site was found in the former Selkirk Hardware building on Union Street in Cobleskill. In February 1976, when the hotel was closed, the Scholets purchased the building, began renovation work, and on Oct. 1, 1978, the new Scholet Furniture Store had its grand opening.

“We basically gutted the inside, took down the ceilings and put in all new electrical equipment,” said Art Scholet, who did much of the work himself and who now also oversees stores in Oneonta and Norwich. “We also opened up some of the bedrooms upstairs — a few of the rooms were quite small — and then we took out all the old lath and plaster and reinforced the framing. The stairway with its cherry banister is still largely the original stairway in the center of the building, and the facade is pretty much the same. Those two things didn’t change much.”

A small coffee shop and a Niagara Mohawk office had been in the building when the Scholets took over, but they relocated, leaving behind only what had been a decaying structure, and plenty of stories, not just about Roosevelt.

“Norman Olsen was the town historian when we bought the place, and he told me how Herman Melville wrote parts of ‘Moby Dick’ while he was here,” said Scholet, which, if true, means Melville was in Cobleskill in the 1840s when the two owners between Lawyer and Smith — Marcus Sternbergh and LeRoy Eldredge — were running the hotel. “He had a room on the second floor some place. I don’t know if it’s true. I’ve never seen it written anywhere, but it’s a colorful piece of history that Norm shared with me.

“It is a beautiful old building with a lot of charm. It’s been an important part of Cobleskill history for a long time.”

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