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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 28, 2010
Remembering “the best of times”
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
Paging through Willard Osterhout’s new book feels like leafing through a family album.
Osterhout had two goals in putting the book together preserving his family history and getting people to remember the good times they had at Indian Ladder Lodge.
“It was just a wonderful time everyone had money and everyone was ready to have a good time after the war,” he said this week. “The place was packed on Friday and Saturday nights. The Blue Room seated 200 and they were three or four deep at the bar.” The book describes the lodge as one of the Capital District’s elite nightclubs.
“The Big Band era is all gone now,” said Osterhout. So is the lodge.
The book depicts its roots in Helderberg Cold Spring, a summertime eatery founded in 1924, during the Roaring Twenties, by Osterhout’s grandfather, Thomas. It was located on a shoulder of the Helderberg escarpment, just above the hamlet of New Salem. The eatery was sold in 1932 when the family opened the lodge about a quarter mile further up the hill, just around the turn on Indian Ladder Road.
Osterhout, who is 70, lived over the Indian Ladder Lodge until he was 12. He recalls going to sleep with songs from the jukebox or strains from dance bands for his lullabies.
His book, Osterhout Brothers’ Indian Ladder Lodge, includes a diagram of the upstairs living quarters at the lodge, which 11 members of the Osterhout family called home. He says it made them all extroverts.
Several of them shared their memories along with their pictures. The cover picture shows the three angelic looking Osterhout brothers Wyman, Everett, and DeForest as young boys wearing crisp white shirts. DeForest was Willard Osterhout’s father. The trio started the New Scotland business at the corner routes 85 and 157, on the road to Thacher Park, in 1932. The family sold the lodge in 1957 after a large fire the year before.
The quarter-century in between was filled with hard work but also with festivities and fun.
“Music was always part of our lives, from the band in the dance hall to the jukebox in the bar room,” writes Osterhout. He loved to play the dance hall piano, and recalls roller-skating on the hard wood dance floor.
He also remembers riding with his father or grandfather to the city ice house in Albany: “I recall going inside the very large ice house through a very thick wooden door into a fantasy world of fog and ice with men working in heavy coats,” he writes. “How mysterious and magical that world seemed to a small boy of 6 or 7.”
Osterhout also writes that he coveted his grandfather’s tools, which no one else was allowed to touch.
His cousin, Marilyn Reynolds, appreciated one of the things those tools built a playhouse for her, the first-born granddaughter, which generations of Osterhouts have played in since. Their grandfather, Thomas Osterhout, built the playhouse in the winter of 1939 in his workshop in the cellar of the restaurant. It was so big that the top had to be taken off to get it outside in the spring.
“Each year on my birthday, Gramp would change the door number; today it would be 72,” writes Reynolds.
The book has an entire chapter devoted to pictures of the playhouse. Other chapters depict various parts of the lodge:
The lounge, with its large stone fireplace where brides liked to pose for portraits with their attendants;
The mahogany bar, which was 98 feet in circumference and had four bartender stations, the largest in Albany County;
The Sky View Room with 11 picture windows that allowed a view of three states on a clear day; and
The Blue Room, which was named for its blue fluorescent lights that set the dance floor aglow. Matt Bruder, Keith Witter, Harold Reinbeck, and Tony Chellemi all played there. News pictures of the various performers are interspersed with pictures of events, ranging from wedding parties in formal dress to a children’s Christmas party sponsored by New Salem volunteer firefighters in plaid shirts.
The family photos start with an Edwardian wedding picture of Lavinia VanWie and Thomas Osterhout, married in 1904, and proceed through the generations as hemlines rise from ankles to calves to knees.
Marilyn Osterhout, now Reynolds, is shown riding a pony. In her memoir, she recalls, “I used to jump off the pony shed roof onto the hay stack with my cousin Willard. One time, I had the wind knocked out of me and Will ran up to the restaurant to get help and to tell them I was dead. What a scene that created.”
Wyman Osterhout recalls when the pony was purchased: “…My grandfather decided to buy a pony for his first granddaughter, my sister, Marilyn. This presented a problem because he didn’t own a truck to pick it up with! Gramp, being the resourceful person that he was, decided to remove the back seat from the car…I can imagine it created quite a scene to see a man driving down the road with a pony in the back seat of his car.”
Wyman Osterhout, known as Cookie, had his own car adventures. “The family certainly expected you to help out whenever possible and the first job I had was parking cars on Friday and Saturday nights,” he writes. “This was quite exciting for a young man of 14 or 15.” He reveals that he’d often take the cars on “a shakedown cruise.”
Willard Osterhout’s first job was washing glasses in the back bar; he graduated when he was 14 to making drinks in the service bar. Waitresses would pick up trays from him, laden with “big drinks” Tom Collinses, High Balls, and Old Fashioneds.
Wyman Osterhout recalls how, every night after closing, the mahogany bar was oiled with linseed oil and Turkish towels. “The oil would soak in overnight,” he writes, “and help preserve the shine and luster of the mahogany. It also eliminated any chance of water marks from the glasses or bottles.”
The frontispiece for the chapter called “memories” is a stunning portrait of Willard Osterhout’s mother, Helen Brownell, as a little girl. She sits primly in a tiny chair, holding an alphabet book. With high-laced shoes, a locket about her neck, and a lace-trimmed dress, she is the picture of propriety.
“My mother had a very tough life,” said Osterhout. She met DeForest Osterhout when she worked as a waitress at the Indian Ladder Lodge. “They all worked so hard. They were open seven days a week. They never closed,” Osterhout said. “My father died when I was 16. The hard work took its toll. He was 46, and my mother was 62 when she died.”
Helen Osterhout was left to raise two teenage boys on her own. “She was very dedicated. She took no nonsense,” said Osterhout, recalling her byword was, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
He says he got his personality from his father. “He could talk to anyone. I love to go and sit with people and hear their stories,” said Osterhout.
That’s what has kept him assembling books on local history. Although Osterhout says he didn’t like studying world history in school, he finds local history fascinating. “It’s real,” he said. “I can go see the buildings, the houses, and I know the people,” said Osterhout.
He has called himself an excavator of history. His first book was about Warner’s Lake in East Berne where he lives. Then he put together a book on the hamlets in Berne, Life Along the Way. “I thought I was done,” he said, but more people came forward with interesting pictures and stories.
So he assembled The Journey Continues. “I wasn’t done yet,” he went on; he next wrote The Final Journey.
His most recent book is the most personal, detailing the family history that shaped his life.
The book, Osterhout Brothers’ Indian Ladder Lodge, can be purchased for $20 at the Home Front Café in Altamont, at Family Silhouette in Guilderland, or at True Value Hardware in East Berne. It can also be purchased directly from its author, Willard Osterhout, by calling 872-1606 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.