When people stop talking about old stories, the old stories fade away.
Bob Cudmore has ensured that folks will remember O’Shaughnessy’s tavern, McClumpha’s grocery and the Strand theater — once important Amsterdam landmarks that vanished long ago.
Cudmore, longtime Capital Region radio broadcaster and writer, has put together a collection of short pieces about one of his favorite places. His third book, “Hidden History of the Mohawk Valley” is now on store book-shelves.
Cudmore, 67, a native of Amsterdam who now lives in Glenville, believes people like reading about places that are no longer around — and about people who once lived in neighborhoods in Montgomery and Fulton counties.
Some of these stories appear in his column, “Focus on History,” which runs Saturdays in The Gazette. Cudmore will sign copies of the picture-laden paperback on Saturday at 1 p.m. at The Open Door bookstore in Schenectady. He’s happy to talk about his time behind a keyboard and radio microphone.
Q: What was the idea behind “Hidden History?”
A: It was to find things that have a hook to them or a story that maybe you don’t expect. For example, we have a story about this man who successfully predicted the outcome of 21 St. Louis Cardinal baseball games. So that in itself is quite interesting, but what happened to him later is kind of sad.
He ended up taking his own life because he lost a job. He was a guy who was very popular but maybe he had some troubles with money. He made the predictions when he lived in Rome, N.Y. He died while he was in Amsterdam.
One of his children was the source of this story and said he never really knew his father . . . the mother went on to be successful in business herself and raised her family quite ably and nobly.
Q: Where did you get the stories from?
A: They come from people in Amsterdam. I write in the book about what I call “kitchen table history.” It seems like I’m often at often at somebody’s kitchen table or dining room table talking about their family stories and most of these stories appeared in The Gazette. The one story that comes to mind that I use as the “kitchen table” example is the story about a plane crash in 1928 in which three pioneer aviators died in the town of Root. I’d never heard of that . . . but there’s a woman who lives in Glenville who is the great niece of one of passengers on the plane who died.
Q: What are your favorite stories in the book?
A: Probably my favorite chapter is the longest chapter, and this is a departure for me, this is maybe a compilation of several columns that have appeared in The Gazette. I use 10, 15 pictures from, in my mind, an important photo shoot in Amsterdam in 1941.
It was just about this time of year, late October, when John Collier came to Amsterdam as part of one of those Roosevelt administration government photo projects. They were for several government agencies, first the farm agency but later something more connected with the home front and the war. We weren’t at war yet. This federal agency sent out photographers to document what America was like, so Collier was assigned Amsterdam and other cities in upstate New York and many of his pictures are available to all because they’re government documents and they’re on the Library of Congress Web site. He shot at the waterfront — and Amsterdam really has a waterfront — back then it was more commercially important and Collier knew ships, he served on a ship.
Then he treks downtown and if there’s one thing that makes people in Amsterdam nostalgic, it’s the old downtown. He takes these people of downtown in front of the Kresge store, he photographs women, men, young people, which I found especially poignant because they look like high-school kids and you figure these young men in particular are probably about to go off to war. One of his pictures is the cover of the book, it shows the Strand theater and St. Mary’s Hospital in the background. It’s kind of the mood of the book in a way, sort of film noir. It’s very dark and it’s raining and people are passing by the Strand theater, which doesn’t exist any more. It later became the Mohawk theater, but it has been torn down.
Q: Speaking of Amsterdam, the city has changed. What are your impressions of Amsterdam? People used to say the same thing about Schenectady, but the city’s downtown has had a resurgence.
A: Amsterdam honestly has further to go, but I think it is going in the same direction. Maybe I can mix the metaphors here about Schenectady and Amsterdam. People of my age, we feel a tremendous sense of loss, I think, from some of the things that were there. It’s almost like the people in the South after the Civil War, it seems to me, oddly enough, and I’m not the only one of the local authors to say that. The people who are new to Amsterdam . . . and the best example I have of that isn’t Amsterdam, it’s Schenectady. My daughter Kathleen grew up here and we moved back to this area in 1980 and she will frequently say that Schenectady is the best it’s ever been in her lifetime. When she came here, it wasn’t that good. Let’s hope Amsterdam has a similar future to look forward to.
Q: Besides Rome and Root, what communities are represented in the book?
A: I’ve got stories about St. Johnsville in western Montgomery County. I’ve also been fascinated by Bleecker, which is a northern Fulton County town.
Bleecker is one of those Adirondack settlements that was bigger in population terms back in the 1800s, when they had logging and other industry. Now it has become more of a bedroom community. As we were talking about Amsterdam and Schenectady coming back, it’s starting to grow again because people just want to live there because it’s a nice place to be.
Q: People know you as a writer, but you started your first radio job in 1962. You’re on the morning shift at WVTL in Amsterdam, and what are people talking about these days?
A: We talk about local news. I’m not maybe as attuned to what the pulse of the public is in terms of politics and so forth, it’s really become more of a niche. The first line that I always use to promote my morning show is “local news every half hour.” Most of our local news is derivative from your fine newspaper and others, but that’s what, it seems to me, people specifically in Amsterdam have a want to hear. It’s kind of packaged for them.
Q: What’s the morning drive slot like?
A: Historically, it is a radio station’s marquee product. I’m at a different level than some of the folks in the Capital District like Chuck and Kelly [WGY morning hosts Chuck Custer and Kelly Stevens]. We have our own special niche, it’s a very competitive time, but it’s a time when you can excel and you have people listening. I think people still have that habit of listening to the radio, or many people do in the early morning.
Q: What were your years at WGY like, with the “Contact” evening show?
A: We had a large audience and they had a signal that covered a lot of ground. I was there from 1980 until 1993, we did a lot of different kinds of programs. In all honesty, radio was probably a bigger deal and local late night radio was a bigger deal. One of the most popular shows I did in terms of call volume, we called it the “holiday open line.” We’d do it at Christmas, we’d do it at Thanksgiving. People would call and they’d tell me who they wanted to call anywhere in the world and so we’d do that live on the show. Now it’s not that big a deal for people to call around the world, but it was then. We’d talk to soldiers in Korea and talk to people in Japan.
What was interesting was, I guess it was sort of like the reality shows on television. They might not have talked to this person, like a brother or a son, for months. But they did it live on the radio, airing not necessarily their dirtiest laundry, but some dicey stuff as they talked on the show.
Q: Think there are other books to be written on the Mohawk Valley?
A: I think so. Subjects come up all the time. We’re in kind of a literary renaissance up here in terms of local authors. We have the big guys, Richard Russo writing about Gloversville. Dave Northrup is writing fiction. We’ve had other historical books about Amsterdam. I’ve talked to Dan Weaver, who puts out a Mohawk Valley literary magazine called “Upstream” — he also has a book store in Amsterdam, The Book Hound. He and I have been tossing this around, we haven’t had it gel yet, but we think we could have a valley writer’s fair or something like that.