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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 29, 2010
Tiny replica of a century-old general store opens the door to history along the Erie Canal
By Ellen Zunon
What little girl doesn’t love a dollhouse? Especially a miniature treasure modeled after the house her grandmother grew up in along the Erie Canal. There is such a dollhouse, or more accurately a replica, on display at the Fort Plain Museum 50 miles west of Albany.
On a scale of one inch to one foot, the model of the Fort Plain Lock Grocery and Feed Store took two years to construct, and includes 23 rooms, 4,500 miniature roof shingles, 500 yellow clapboards, and three stairways.
The layout and furnishings are based on my grandmother’s memories of her childhood home. Grandma Minnie Fineour, who was born on Christmas Eve in 1890, vividly remembered her years spent along the Erie Canal, and enjoyed reminiscing well into her 90s.
Her descriptions of the grocery store and living space assisted retired ship-builder Myron Saltzman in designing and constructing the replica; it took him two years, from 1980 to 1982. Minnie’s daughter, Doris Wetterau, who commissioned the model, painstakingly furnished it with miniature furniture also based on Minnie’s recollections.
If you peer inside one of the replica’s 29 tiny windows, you get a glimpse of life along the canal in the 1890s. In the grocery store on the ground floor, a miniature coffee grinder stands on the counter. The shelves behind the counter are lined with tiny cans of foodstuffs and other dry goods. Barrels of sugar, cider and crackers stand near the counter.
Minnie remembered in particular the sugar and cracker barrels. The family’s horse, Maude, had a sweet tooth, and Minnie recalled that, when her father asked, “Maude, would you like some sugar?” the white horse would come right into the store and step up to the sugar barrel.
In the parlor of the model, tiny Victorian glass lamps light up a welcoming room furnished with an overstuffed sofa. An organ in the corner stands ready to play the latest hits of the turn of the 20th Century, perhaps “Napoleon’s Last Charge,” or “The Midnight Fire Alarm,” arranged by composer E.T. Paull.
Life along the Erie Canal
The real Lock Grocery was located on the north side of the canal at the eastern edge of Fort Plain. A wide veranda faced the canal; one step down from this porch and you stood directly on the towpath.
The store was operated by my great-grandparents, Fred and Kittie Fineour, between 1891 and about 1902. The family’s living quarters were above the store, and there were two additional apartments in the rear of the building, where the hired hand and other relatives lived.
Actually, the “grocery store” was much more than that; as well as foodstuffs, it supplied the canal boats with grain for the horses and mules that towed the boats along the canal at about four miles per hour.
Like some of our modern supermarkets, the Lock Grocery was open for business 24/7, as one never knew when a boat would dock and need supplies. My great-grandfather and the hired hand would take turns sleeping on the store’s counter at night in case a boat came by.
Later, when steamboats began to replace the mule teams, Fred Fineour came to recognize the whistles of the various boats that plied the canal, and he would begin to assemble the favorite items of that particular canaller before the boat docked.
Some boats would send a runner on ahead by horseback with an order, so the supplies would be ready by the time the boat caught up the 19th-Century equivalent of ordering ahead by phone.
The canal, which linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie at the western end of the state, was open from mid-April to mid-November. The canal locks, such as the one previously operated at Fort Plain, allowed the boats to be lifted or lowered according to changes in the level of the terrain in the 350 miles between Albany and Buffalo.
It took 30 to 60 minutes for the boat to go through the lock; that was the time allotted to load up with supplies wood for repairing the boats, tack and harness supplies for the horse or mule teams; hay, oats, and straw for the livestock, as well as food staples, cooking utensils, lamps and oil for the canallers and their passengers oh, and don’t forget the colorful penny candy for the children!
Today we imagine idyllic scenes of horses pulling the boats along the tree-lined towpath, the blue of the water reflecting the countryside’s greenery, but in reality it was an arduous life for the canallers and their families. A stop at a store alongside the lock was a welcome change from the monotony of the long voyage.
At any store along the canal, there might be an organ grinder ready to entertain with his music and pet monkey, or a visiting peddler with a case of linens, colorful ribbons, and beautiful lace from Europe. Or perhaps an umbrella man with parasols for the ladies.
My great-grandparents gave up the store shortly after the turn of the 20th Century. Traffic on the canal was declining, and business was not as lucrative as it had once been. As a “second career,” Fred Fineour became the first rural mail carrier in the area surrounding Fort Plain, with his faithful horse Maude pulling the mail wagon up hill and down dale in the towns and farms along the Mohawk River.
Minnie Fineour lived in Fort Plain all her life. Although she passed away in 1990 a few months short of her 100th birthday, my family is fortunate to have a tape of her reminiscences recorded in 1976. The recording also includes her piano rendition of several tunes, including those mentioned above, which she could still pound out at the age of 85.
A car wash now stands on Route 5S on the approximate spot where the Lock Grocery faced the canal. The building was dismantled in the late 1980s, and its pieces are now stored in the New York State Museum’s warehouse.
Who knows, perhaps some day they may be reassembled to give us a life-size glimpse of Erie Canal history. But for now, we must be content to peek inside its diminutive replica to imagine the bygone days of the canal’s glory.
The Lock Grocery replica is on display at the Fort Plain Museum, located on Canal Street (Route 5S) at the western end of the village. Prior to its opening date for the season, June 1, 2010, the museum is open by appointment only. You may email firstname.lastname@example.org for further information about events and exhibits. The museum also sells a booklet, “Minnie’s Memories,” transcribed by Norma Frank in 1987, which also provided source material for this article.