Newspapers, it has been said, deliver the first take of history.
History, though, can be more than printed words. Two recent visitors to our newsroom impressed upon us different ways of knowing the past and relating it to the here and now, which, in turn, may shape our future.
Earlier this month, Alice Begley, Guilderland’s town historian, brought us a column on Theodosia Burr Alton, daughter of a vice president and wife of a governor. Alice calls her Theodosia and has a personal relationship with this little-known figure from history who lived a life of great privilege and great sadness. Alice has brought her to life by writing a play about her.
Alice’s passion is nothing new to us. We have tromped through graveyards with her as she pieced together the past, and we’ve admired the way she inspired the salvation of the Schoolcraft Mansion. Instead of another parking lot, Guilderland will have a cultural center that speaks to its heritage.
Alice’s passion for history carries others along to value it, too.
On her bedroom wall is this poem from Emily Dickinson:
A WORD is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
Alice took Theodosia’s long-forgotten words, penned in letters to her beloved father, Aaron Burr, and brought them to life. “I could hear her voice as I read those papers,” she tells us.
She describes the one-woman show as Suellen Yates performed it at the Fort Orange Club. Theodosia had been born in a mansion at that site in 1783.
“The theater is dark, dark, dark — and all of a sudden, down the aisle comes this figure in filmy white clothes. The lights come up and the audience sees her,” says Alice. “She sees the chair where her Papa sat. His slippers are there. She puts her hand on the chair and says, ‘Papa, Papa, Papa….’”
Alice, dressed fashionably as always, in a turquoise coat with a scarf knit in complementary hues, unwraps the scarf from her neck to describe the theatrics that allow Theodosia to give birth on a darkened stage —just a scream beneath the scarf — and then, when the lights come on, Theodosia is cradling the scarf in her arms, cuddling it and cooing to it. It is her baby.
As Alice recites the lines in our newsroom it is as if, for a moment, Theodosia has come to life.
Alice relates that, after the play was over, a man in the audience told her, referring to the chair at the start of the play, “I knew Aaron Burr wasn’t in that chair. By the time the play was finished, I knew he was.”
“That play,” concludes Alice, “was the love of my life.”
Shortly before, Joe Merli had come to our newsroom with a letter about a train cab he is restoring for the Altamont Fair. He brought with him several photographs — one showing the rusted, neglected wreck it is now and others showing the railroad cab in its heyday; men dressed in crisp suits and fedora hats stand tall on its gleaming deck.
Joe cares as deeply about history as Alice. He makes history tangible through objects.
His father was a mechanic who, in 1946, built an Esso service station on Route 20 in Duanesburg. His mother ran a luncheonette on the five-acre plot, where the couple also rented cabins to travelers. Kathy’s Luncheonette and Cabins was named for Joe’s sister. Vacationing families would stay for a week, at $5 a night, visiting local tourist venues like Howe’s Caverns, returning to eat meals at the luncheonette.
“As an infant in my crib, I could listen to the cars ring the bell as they drove over the air hose. Ding! Ding!” Joe recalled. “My parents put a crib in here,” he says, referring to the shop he has expanded and taken back in time to look like a late-1800s factory.
“This has been a crib to me since I was a child,” says Joe.
He loved bodywork since he was 8. “I was blown away with the smell of paint and watching people take fenders off,” he said.
At the same young age, he could also plow snow around the shop in his father’s Jeep, although he wasn’t yet tall enough to see over the dashboard. “You could open the doors and see around you,” Joe said. “You just had to be able to see out and reach the clutch.”
In 1967, at the age of 16, he opened his own shop — Joe’s Bodyworks.
By 1976, the year of the nation’s Bicentennial, he changed his company’s name to Horseless Carriage Restorations and its focus to restoring antique automobiles. He famously restored a curved-dash Oldsmobile and re-enacted the epic 1903 Olds overland traversal of the country, wetting its wheels first in the Pacific Ocean and then, 40 days and 3,800 miles later, in the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1990, Joe started building pushcarts and wagons, just as they were built over a century ago. “I wanted to do my own fabrication and design,” he said. Some of them are in Disney World, Disneyland, and Euro Disney along with a Steamboat Willie salad bar, complete with paddle wheels and smokestacks — based on the 1928 cartoon where Mickey and Minnie Mouse debuted.
“I love the industrial life of America from 1880 to 1930,” said Joe. “I like factories, I like trains, I like shipyards — anything that’s automated, anything with belts and shafts and pulleys. These are the things that actually built our country.”
People who visit the Altamont Fair and see the restored train cab “will look at a piece of American history,” he said.
Many of the visitors to the tri-county fair a century ago, Joe said, worked for Alco, American Locomotive, or for General Electric. “Schenectady was the city that hauled and lit the world,” he said, naming such GE greats as Charles Steinmetz, Thomas Edison, and George Westinghouse. “And Alco built locomotives for every state in America,” he said.
“It’s all done through robotics and computer chips now,” said Joe. “That’s replaced all the handmade jobs…People came home greasy and proud. Today, they can’t find work because we’ve given it all away…. That’s why restoring the engine is important.”
Recalling how he learned his trade from his father and how, for fun as a kid, he’d build with an Erector Set or, in the winter, build an igloo, Joe went on, “Kids are playing video games. They don’t know how this country was put together.”
He’s going to have a sign next to the restored railroad cab, dedicating it to the men and women who built industrial America.
Joe Merli, who is doing the project as a volunteer, said, “Life is about what you give back.”
We can’t return to an earlier era but we commend Alice Begley and Joe Merli for their tireless efforts, each in their own way, to keep important parts of the past vivid for all of us. Let’s take the parts that work — lessons on love and filial devotion or an understanding of creative invention — and use them to build a better future.