St. Johnsville residents are proud of their Community House, originally known as the house that cheese built, on Washington Street just off Route 5. Today the structure accommodates village and some town offices, hosts meals for seniors and meetings of the Senior Citizen Saints.
The town of St. Johnsville was created in 1838 from the town of Oppenheim. The township contains 11,100 acres, the smallest town in area in the state. The village within the town was created in 1857.
Cheese merchant James Bates built what is now the Community House in Italian villa style in 1869. Shaped like a cube, the original building had an eight-sided observatory tower on top. Bricks from the local Easterbrook brickyard, a block away, were used in construction and the stone is native sandstone.
In 1865 St. Johnsville cheese production was 468,000 pounds, more than double the amount of cheese produced twenty years earlier. Cheese merchants went from farm to farm buying cheese on speculation. The year he built his mansion, Bates was a major stockholder of the local bank. Six years later Bates had some reverses and his beautiful home was sold at a Sheriff’s sale.
William Peck, known as the “cheese king” because of his cheese exports to Europe, bought the home and kept it until 1897. The family took in boarders. Peck was a brother of Bates’s daughter-in-law.
The house was purchased in 1897 by Frederick Engelhardt, who made his money manufacturing player pianos. Engelhardt came to St. Johnsville in 1888 and his Peerless Player Piano factory became the major employer in the village.
Engelhardt enlarged the house’s front porch and replaced the flat roof with a sloping roof, removing the observatory. He built a garage in the rear. A piano maker knows wood and Engelhardt purchased fine furniture and bought paintings to hang on the walls.
Local historian Anita A. Smith wrote that Engelhardt’s factory employed 400 people at its peak, “Their pianos were shipped to every country in the world. Three thousand automatic player pianos were produced each year, ranging in price from $550 to $2,000 each.”
The St. Johnsville Enterprise reported that the Engelhardts entertained lavishly. “They gathered about them a brilliant company on many occasions who made the house ring with joy and laughter.”
Eventually, the player piano business declined as electrically amplified jukeboxes became more popular. The Engelhardt factory on Hough Street was no longer in business by the 1930s. A mortgage foreclosure auction of Engelhardt’s Washington Street house was held in 1929.
Rising St. Johnsville industrialist Joseph Reaney purchased the house for his bank at the auction. In 1933 Reaney’s wife Gertrude bought the property from the bank and sold it to the village of St. Johnsville for one dollar.
His 1947 obituary estimated that Reaney, born in New Jersey, had made $1 million in charitable gifts during his 82-year lifetime, including this one. Reaney came to St. Johnsville to start a small mill in 1892.
Reaney’s mills were known for making women’s underwear. The Margaret Reaney Library in St. Johnsville, named for Reaney’s mother and opposite Reaney’s home on Kingsbury Avenue, was built using funds donated by the manufacturer in 1909, the year his mother died. He also paid for the 1936 library addition.
St. Johnsville is considering a proposal to apply for a state and national historic district in the village. According to the Little Falls Times, the village board has accepted a proposal from historian Anita Smith and planning board chairman Robert Smith for a survey of 600 structures, pending a grant application to the Preservation League of New York State to pay for the bulk of the survey work.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or firstname.lastname@example.org.