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Albany County The Altamont Enterprise, December 1, 2011
Leath has created a pictorial history of Bethlehem’s many and varied hamletsBy Melissa Hale-Spencer
BETHLEHEM Susan Leath said she “had a moment” when she stood in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, faced with a wall of Arcadia books in the Images of America series, each a compendium of pictures for different communities.
“Bethlehem needs one of those,” she thought.
Now, Bethlehem has one, with over 200 historical pictures assembled by Leath.
She has dedicated her book to history lovers everywhere, and all of her royalties will be donated to the Bethlehem Historical Association.
What motivated her, she said, was “all the great stuff hidden away.” As Bethlehem’s historian, she said, “I knew about all these wonderful photographs in the town archives and I wanted to make them accessible.”
Her greatest challenge, she said, was “weeding them out” and deciding which pictures should be included.
The book begins with a quotation from Amasa Parker’s 1897 tome, Landmarks of Albany County: “So thickly placed throughout the town are these numerous hamlets that their description substantially constitutes the modern history of the locality.”
What was modern history in 1897 is century-old history now, but the hamlets are still vital to life in Bethlehem.
“Hamlets,” writes Leath, “are communities of people who have gathered to live near each other at a crossroads, a store or mill, blacksmith shop or post office. They are often named for the prominent family there or a geological feature.”
Her book is organized in chapters, nine of them, centered on the town of Bethlehem’s hamlets Hurstville and North Bethlehem, Slingerlands, Delmar, Elsmere, Normansville and Kenwood, Bethlehem Center and Glenmont, Van Wies Point and Cedar Hill, Selkirk, and South Bethlehem.
Leath describes her own home’s location, at Elm Estates, as “in between hamlets.”
She organized the book around Bethlehem’s hamlets, she said, because she didn’t enjoy the Arcadia books that were organized, say, around occupations, like factories, farms, and inns.
Leath said of hamlets, “I think that’s how a lot of people think of Bethlehem. They think, ‘I’m from Delmar’ or ‘I’m from Glenmont.’ I wanted all of Bethlehem included. It seemed natural to organize it that way.”
Asked about her favorite photo, she said, “I love then all.” After a moment of reflection, she went on to say that recently she’s been enjoying the book’s several aerial photographs. “Those are resonating for me now…They offer a different perspective,” she said.
One in particular, which she termed “a pleasant surprise” because she hadn’t known it existed before, is an aerial view of Cedar Hill. She came upon it when she took her computer to the historical society to scan photos.
“I did all the layout,” Leath said of her book.
Her juxtaposition of photos can be as informative as her captions. A page on the chapter about South Bethlehem, for example, pictures the grand Palmer House on top noting many old homes in the hamlet were built by upper-level employees of the Callanan Road Improvement Company. The bottom of the page is a postcard, showing the shacks where Callanan’s laborers lived.
“These men did the hard, manual labor before the days of mechanical shovels and drills,” writes Leath.
“Objects can tell the story about people”
History as told through objects, like photographs, has long fascinated Leath.
She grew up in Rhode Island where her father was the dean of student affairs at Rhode Island College and her mother was an art teacher.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Rhode Island and went on to Brown University for museum studies. What interested her then and still does now is “how objects can tell the story about people,” she said. That led her to work in historic preservation.
Then, after she married John Leath, they moved to South Carolina where she became the director of the Florence Museum of Art, Science, and History. “It was a lot of fun,” she said. “We did a lot of art, a little history, and not too much science.”
The Leaths moved to Bethlehem in 1995 for John Leath’s job; he works with computers as a systems analyst. Two months after arriving in town, Susan Leath joined the Bethlehem Historical Association. “At that point, my son was a baby,” Leath recalled. “I wanted to connect with the community.”
The Leaths’ son, Colin, is now 17, and their daughter, Emma, is 14.
Leath was named the Bethlehem town historian in 2007. She calls her work as historian “a labor of love.”
“It’s supposed to be a part-time job,” she says with a light laugh. “No one tells me what to do, which I like.”
She maintains the archives, answers questions on genealogy and local history, mounts displays at the town hall, gives trolley tours, keeps a page about history on the town’s website TownofBethlehem.org and was involved in a variety of projects for the 2009 quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s voyage to the river that now bears his name.
“I try to get out to school groups, seniors, anyone who wants me to talk about Bethlehem history,” she said.” You can take a national issue and make it real.” This year, for example, with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, she has written an article on Bethlehem’s part in the war, currently posted on her web page.
“I like educating people that our history is right around us,” she said.
“Everyone should get this book,” said Leath. “If you’re curious about what Bethlehem was like 100 years ago, you can see it was a sleepy, rural town…It’s certainly not that anymore.”
Leath will be selling and signing her book on these dates at these locations:
Friday, Dec. 2, from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Holiday Market Place at the First United Methodist Church at 428 Kenwood Ave. in Delmar;
Sunday, Dec. 4, and Monday, Dec. 5, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Bethlehem Historical Association’s Silver Tea at the Cedar Hill Schoolhouse at 1003 River Road in Selkirk;
Saturday, Dec. 10 and 17, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Delmar Indoor Farmers’ Market at the Bethlehem Central Middle School on Kenwood Avenue in Delmar;
Sunday, Dec. 11, from 1 to 3 p.m. at Tattered Pages Used Books at 365 Feura Bush Road in Glenmont; and
Friday, Dec. 16, a tentative date, at Mangia Restaurant on New Scotland Road in Slingerlands.
Bethlehem is available at I Love Books, the Papermill, Tattered Pages, the Bethlehem Town Clerk’s office, The Book House, Moss Books, and other retailers.
The softbound book is 127 pages and costs $21.99.