— Guilderland Historical Society
The idyllic small village of Altamont was first named Manor of Rennselaerwyck, Helleberg, West Manor, West Guilderland, and then Knowersville. Finally, under the direction of Hiram Griggs, Altamont’s first mayor, the village was renamed Altamont upon its incorporation as a village in the town of Guilderland.
The old Knowersville Enterprise masthead of Dec. 10, 1887 that begins this historian’s column came from the archival files of the late Allan Dietz. Dietz was a skilled local historic researcher. I am privileged to have been the recipient of a portion of his files from his widow, Betty Dietz.
The Knowersville Enterprise had been published from 1884 to 1891 when the publication
Became The Altamont Enterprise with the incorporation of the village of Altamont.
We’ll continue with excerpts of selections from those early papers collected by the late “Shorty” Vroman, a one-time part-owner of The Enterprise.
Saturday, April 4,1885
Fuller’s Station: The bluebirds arrived here last week.
Saturday, April 11, 1885
Local: Building is to have a big boom here this season. D.G. Staley is to have the honor of putting up the first frame in the village with Dietz closely after him.
Saturday, April 18, 1885
Local: Ten new houses are going to be built at this place this season, and probably more to follow.
Saturday, April 25, 1885
Editorial: With this issue, our connection with the Enterprise ceases. We have used our best endeavors to make the Enterprise a welcome and readable sheet to our subscribers. How well we have succeeded we leave them to judge…
The Enterprise was first an experiment but such has been its success that today it is recognized as a fixture, and we can express the belief that in the hands of our worthy successors, The Enterprise Co., under the management of J.B.Hilton, it will not only hold its own but increase in interest and patronage to the entire satisfaction of the proprietors and patrons.
Thanking all who have encouraged or aided us, and surrendering sanctum to our successors, we cease to be the editor. D.H. Crowe
Saturday, May 9, 1885
Local: One of our correspondents has furnished us with the following statistics in regard to our village: number of houses 82; families 112; population, white 445, colored 1, total 446. The village is growing rapidly and we hope by Fall to add a dozen more dwellings.
Guilderland Center: From a setting of 14 eggs three weeks ago, James White now counts 14 chickens. Whose old hen can beat that?
Saturday, May 16, 1885
Local: The carriage business is booming. Van Benscoten and Warner are getting their ware-rooms in shape for the summer trade. They shipped a carriage to Richmondville Monday.
Charley Witherwax went to Albany one morning last week and returned the same evening which clearly demonstrates that such a feat is possible.
Dunnsville: Although the season is late, many of the farmers are getting pretty well along with their planting and the prospects are they will have a fruitful season.
Saturday, June 6, 1885
Local: The work on the new houses and the improvement on those already built is progressing favorably. Mr. N. Sturges has completed his work and Mr. Harry W. Heck has taken possession of his new quarters. Mr. D.G. Staley and Supervisor B. Crounse have theirs nearly completed.
Mr. M. Tice’s house is being rapidly covered with a tin roof. Mr. Austin H. Wilber has his barn and the cellar for his house finished, and Mr. VanAuken has his cellar ready for the carpenters. Mr. John T. Severson and Silas Hilton have their cellars underway and Mr. Osbonlighter is ready for the masons.
Fullers Station: At the recent meeting of the Classis of the Reformed Church, the attention of that body was called to the needs of a church of that denomination at Knowersville, and the indications are that one will be built.
Thompsons Lake: The proprietor of the Grandview House opened his place of business last week.
Saturday, June 20, 1885
Local: The Twilight Croquet Club has organized for the summer and filled out a ground on the village green.
On Saturday of last week, the New York Riding Club of New York City, finely mounted and wearing white hats, drove into town, followed by their grooms and baggage, and quartered at the Knowersville House. They started from New York about three weeks ago and since have traveled on horseback as far west as Buffalo and are now returning home.
They left Sunday morning for Coeymans and expect to reach home today (Saturday). They expressed themselves well pleased with the hospitality of Knowersville.
— From the Guilderland Historical Society
Historic Enterprise: A 1960 photo in the Altamont Enterprise building shows Marvin “Shorty” Vroman, then part owner of the newspaper, seated at the typesetting machine. James Gardner, at rear, the present owner, and James Pino, a former part owner, look on. The weekly paper has been published continuously since 1884.
A frail blue, cardboard-covered booklet titled “From Our Files” was passed on to this historian from the late assistant town historian, Fred Abele. It is a collection of news items put together by the late Marvin “Shorty” Vroman, who had been a part owner of The Altamont Enterprise.
Vroman assembled the news items from 1978 to 1982. The news had been published from 1885 to 1891 in the issues of the local weekly paper.
The century-old news clippings give a sharp look at the beginnings of the small village of Altamont, handling its growth just as the time for electricity and cars were beginning to make transportation and community growth completely different.
This historian will begin with several of the news items of 1884 and 1885 in the tiny village then called Knowersville before it became Altamont in 1890.
Saturday, Nov. 29, 1884
Local: Knowersville has become a ready market for all farm produce. Over 10,000 bushels of wheat has been floured at Sand’s Mill this fall.
On account of not having space in last week’s edition, we were obliged to leave out the grand parade and clambake which took place last Wednesday evening...There were not as many present as was anticipated (on account of the storm) yet there were enough to devour five barrels of clams.
The village was illuminated with Chinese lanterns and bonfires. The Knowersville House was immensely illuminated, every window from basement to garret was differently arranged; no pen could picture what the eye could catch at a glance.
Guilderland Center: G. Young has opened a butcher shop on Maple St. We wish Mr. Young success.
Saturday, Dec. 6, 1884
Local: The one great advantage Knowersville has, the farmers can sell all their produce of this place and receive more money than taking out the expense of going to Albany. And they can buy groceries, boots, shoes, nails, and cap from our merchants as cheap as they can buy in the city.
Saturday, Dec. 20, 1884
Local: We have a little snow, not much, just a little. Children look out for old Santa Claus Christmas Eve.
Saturday, Dec. 27, 1884
Editorial titled “For 1885”: “The year of 1884 is fast drawing to a close, and would it not be well to take one glance back over the past year and see if any improvements have been made in regard to our moral, spiritual, or intellectual qualifications, and then start the new year with a better determination; that it permitted to live to the end of next year…and make greater change for the better.
“Every year brings changes in various ways; what is Knowersville now, only a few years ago was farmland with here and there a dwelling. The old Susquehanna, as a few years ago it was called, started for a trip to Binghamton and passed through this farming community.
“A station was built and located at the foot of the Helderbergs, and soon a store and stores, then dwellings, hotels, church and then more dwellings etc. The people came from surrounding towns and the capital city; they came each year and brought to this village marked improvement, and we have no doubt that during the next year, 1885, there will be greater improvements in regard to the wealth of our beautiful village.”
Local: The sleighing is very good — good enough to go visiting. The thermometer at The Enterprise stood at 18 below zero.
Fuller’s Station: The laying of the abutment at the covered bridge causes great inconvenience to the traveling public.
A.M. LaGrange killed 37 turkeys that weighed 458 pounds when dressed.
Knowersville Market: “Butter, 22 cents per pound, eggs, 28 cents per dozen, rye, 65 cents per bushel, oats 32 cents and new hay $7 - $14 per ton; buckwheat 50 cents per bushel, stove coal $5.25 per ton, pea coal $4.25, chestnut $5.25 and bituminous $6.00.
Saturday, Feb. 28, 1885
We are informed that a skating rink has been opened at Hart’s Hotel, Thompson’s Lake.
A.F. Dietz will build on his property purchased from M. VanAuken, a new barn and a manufacturing building for making and bottling soda, sarsaparilla etc. H. Schoonmaker has the contract.
Fuller’s Station: A passenger train with nearly 200 passengers aboard was stalled about a mile west of here Wednesday morning and remained until nearly night.
Nearly all our boys and men are shoveling snow on the West Shore. Only one track is open to date.
The Enterprise failed to make their appearance Saturday night. They must have been stalled in a snowdrift.
Saturday, March 7, 1885
Aaron Blessing has informed us that he has already loaded and shipped over 100 carloads of hay and straw for Mr. Fuller. He said their large barn is entirely filled with straw awaiting transportation.
Guilderland Center: A.F. Dietz of this place will remove to Knowersville where he will continue to manufacture sarsaparilla soda etc.
On Wednesday morning, the thermometer marked 4 degrees below zero.
Note: This historian will, in future columns, attend to more of early news columns assembled by Shorty Vroman.
Nathan J. Johnson was a lawyer from Granville, N.Y. when he joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. He gathered a regiment — New York’s 115th — of local men and left from Albany to fight in the Battle of Fort Fisher in North Carolina.
This historian was present for a re-enactment of that battle and wrote lyrics to a song about the event that was produced in a play called Civil War Ballads and Letters, performed in libraries in New York and North Carolina.
“We fought for seven long, bloody terrible hours Sir,” Johnson wrote in a letter after the battle, “until at 10 o’clock p.m. the rebs caved in — Ft. Fisher passed into Union hands. It was the toughest struggle for length and fury ever known.”
Colonel Johnson was named Headquarters Commander of the 24th Corps Army of the James after the capture of Confederate Fort Fisher in North Carolina. He penned those words in a letter of graphic description of that bloody and vital Civil War battle.
The letter, dated Jan. 30, 1865, was addressed to Johnson’s former commanding Officer, Colonel John S. Crocker of White Creek, N.Y. of the 93rd New York.
Colonel Johnson left his hometown law practice at the outbreak of the Civil War in the fall of 1861 to raise a company to aid the Union Army. In November of that year, with 32 recruits from Washington County, Johnson reported to Albany barracks where the 93rd regiment was being formed.
He served with the 93rd as captain until accepting a promotion as lieutenant colonel with the 115th, the “Iron-Hearted Regiment.” Johnson saw battle in numerous engagements in Virginia and North Carolina.
Johnson’s 148-year-old missive details a decisive three-day battle that took place near the Cape Fear River at Fort Fisher, situated at the end of a small peninsula south of Wilmington, N.C. The Battle of Fort Fisher, notably significant in the outcome of the War of the Rebellion, culminated in the fall of Wilmington, the last coastal stronghold of the Confederate Army.
Johnson’s letter to his old hometown friend and commander gives a vivid account of the battle. He described Fort Fisher and the strategies used to seize the strong, southern rampart, and he portrayed the bloody fight his brigade encountered when it advanced to a point inside the Fort with “shot and shell raining down from those devilish parapets like hail.”
“There were about 4-5000 troops brought down for the purpose of protecting our rear and acting as a reserve…but to our 2nd Division was allotted the work of attacking Fort Fisher,” wrote Johnson.
The 115th New York was then part of the 2nd Division.
On Jan. 13, 1865, Johnson’s division landed in the surf on the beach north of the fort, and late that night the soldiers built a mile line of entrenchments across the Cape Fear peninsula “facing towards Wilmington in order to be protected from the rear.”
“Works of the Titans”
“This was finished, “Johnson continued, “and the other troops placed in theirs [entrenchments] on the 14th. The Navy meanwhile bombarding the fort ‘right smart’; although we took a look through our glasses at sunset we could not discover that any portion of the fort had been knocked down but that it still loomed up against the evening sky with all its formidable proportions of gigantic strength.”
Johnson described Fort Fisher as semicircular in form, and he sketched a diagram depicting the enormous gun embattlements in place there. “The mounds are from 30 to 40 feet above the level plain and the guns are 20 feet above the plain,” he wrote. “The guns are placed on top and all of them are carriages of the type large enough for two guns that would throw thirty-two pound shot….These works built up as they are upon a level beach, to that height and size, makes one think as he looks at them of the works of the Titans.”
“On the morning of the 15th we got orders to advance which we did, the Navy firing away as if the dogs of War did ‘delight to bark and bite!’ We moved up to within half of a mile of the fort and then laid us down to await the cessation of the (Navy) bombardment,” wrote Johnson. “We were about to charge when we saw the Marines advancing on the fort with pistols and cutlasses, from the east (we were advancing from a northerly direction).
“Great Ceaser’s Ghost! Didn’t we look with some amazement at such a performance. Pistols and cutlasses to storm the strongest work in America with! Well, we looked and then ran onward… onward… onward… along the lines towards Fort Fisher but before we had got half the distance the Marines were running back terribly cut up and defeated. But the 2nd Division moved on under shot and shell raining down from the devilish parapets like hail, but it was no stranger to my troops and not for a single instant did it retard our advance.”
Johnson wrote that, inch by inch, the 2nd Division and states, “We drove the stubbornly resisting rebels who held their ground with courage and obstinacy that only brave man can possess.”
When his men had gained possession of a few traverses, he wrote, “The guns of the Fort were turned upon them flaying in that portion of the works in our possession…and when we got into the fort at the north end we found that our job was only begun.”
His aging, yellowed letter continues, “We met with a coolness and determination rarely if ever evinced…large numbers of rebs in rifle pits who could enfilade us both on the traverse and the terri plain…our hands were full…the Navy dared not fire. But we held on, fought on…the men fought on…and we were going to take that fort if it took all winter…we kept struggling …bleeding…dying…we kept on until victory rewarded our labors.”
The “seven long bloody, terrible hours of fighting” took its toll on Johnson’s division. “We lost heavily especially in officers,” he wrote. “Colonel Bell of my Brigade was killed, Colonel Pennypacker in the 2nd, mortally wounded, Brigadier General Curtiss, slightly. I lost my acting adjutant, he was standing near me while I was giving him orders about the disposition of a portion of the regiment.”
Johnson was slightly wounded himself at Fort Fisher and his letter explained to Colonel Crocker, “I got out of this engagement all right mainly, knocked down by the explosion of a shell…I could not raise my right arm high enough to draw my sword…and carried it all day in the scabbard in my left arm.”
The hand-written letter is perhaps one of the most accurate, firsthand accounts of a crucial Civil War battle written by a New York State officer engaged in the siege. The Fort Fisher earthwork fortification, unique in its design, was considered “the strongest works in America… if not the world” by Johnson and military experts of that time.
Built near the mouth of the Cape Fear River on the Atlantic shore, Fort Fisher safeguarded the city of Wilmington, a major supply line for the South. The two-sided Fort was built of earth and sand and equipped with 22 guns on the sea face and 25 guns on the land face.
The guns were in place on earthen mounds more than 32 feet high connected to interior rooms by an underground passageway. Loop-holed palisades with banquettes guarding the land front, shallow ditches, and torpedo-mined fields aided the defense of the outer fort.
The nine-foot high palisades fence extended across the entire land face. The fort was nicknamed the “Malakoff Tower of the South,” referring to the Russian redoubt at Sebastopol that had held off the combined land and naval forces of Great Britain and France in the Crimean War.
Union Army and Navy forces attacked Fort Fisher on Dec. 24, 1864 but, after two days of fighting, the Union forces under command of major General Benjamin F. Butler, withdrew. After the failed assault, General Ulysses S. Grant replaced Butler with major General Alfred H. Terry and increased the Army units to 8,000 troops.
A second assault started on Jan. 13, 1865, as Colonel Johnson’s letter indicates, with full-scale bombardments from both land and sea. On the afternoon of the Jan. 15, Terry’s brigades assaulted the land defense at the Cape Fear River edge while 400 Federal marines armed with pistols and cutlasses attacked on the beachside of the fort. Aided by 1,600 armed sailors, the attack served as a decoy, enabling Federal Infantry to break into the fort from the north.
On the third day of the battle, after seven hours of combat inside the huge, southern bastion, Fort Fisher was captured. The Confederate Army evacuated the remaining Cape Fear area and, within weeks, Union forces took Wilmington; blockade-running days to that city were at an end. The Confederate cause was lost.
The Battle of Fort Fisher was considered the United States’ largest amphibious operation until D-Day of 1944. Fifty-eight warships were involved with the New Ironsides, commanded by Commodore Radford, leading the fleet.
United States ships Brooklyn, Mohican, Tacony, Kansas, Unadilla, Huron, Maumes, Pawtuxet, Seneca, Pontoosur, Nyack, Yantie, and Nereus were in the first wave of the beginning sea battle coordinated with the land fighting. Nineteen troop transports held 8,000 troops for a beach landing.
The three-day battle expended over 40,000 projectiles. Union forces suffered 1,300 casualties and the Confederates lost 500 men with 1,000 captured in the battle.
“An awful sight”
In his letter of January 1865, Johnson recounted another incident that took place at the end of the battle. “The next morning we had a magazine explode which maimed in its fallen debris about one hundred men. We got some out alive but about sixty were killed; some were actually blown to atoms, “ he wrote. “We found a leg here and an arm there and entrails in another place. It was an awful sight.”
Colonel Johnson did not chronicle his own bravery in battle but James H. Clark, 1st Lieutenant of 115th New York, did. He wrote The Iron Hearted Regiment: Battles, Marches and Gallant Deeds performed by the 115th Regiment, N.Y.
Clark recorded that, at Bermuda Hundreds, Va., Johnson’s horse was shot dead from under him; during the battle of Deep Bottom, in command of a brigade, Johnson was wounded; at Fort Gilmore, Johnson was severely wounded in the shoulder while carrying the regiment’s flag; and at Fort Fisher, where Johnson was wounded again, he was the first brigade commander to enter the fort in that critical campaign.
Colonel Nathan J. Johnson concluded his letter by reminding his former colonel, “Hence, a son of old Washington County, New York was the first Union Commander of Fort Fisher, North Carolina, and he took his first lesson in the ‘art of War’ in the gallant old 93rd (New York) under Colonel John S. Crocker.”
Johnson’s letter, in the files of the New York State Library, is one of many written by Civil War soldiers. The letters serve as mute testimony to the bloody carnage of a war that was fought to make a country whole, silent statements of the cost, tributes to Colonel Johnson and his fallen comrades for their bravery.
Upon returning to civilian life, Johnson resumed his law practice in Fulton County where he was elected and served as county judge. He died on Oct. 10, 1884 at Broadalbin, N.Y.
Most people (women usually) dislike it when they have to take their car to the garage for an oil change, new tires, or to fix “something.” This historian actually enjoys that task.
At Bruce Mance’s station on the corner of Route 20 and Route 146 (Carman Road) in Guilderland, the waiting room there is a short retreat from today’s frenzy.
There are two tall, slim ancient gas pumps, astutely refinished to their original splendid red color, holding fort in the waiting room. “Mobil” shouts the name though today it is a Sunoco station.
Pictures of many years gone by adorn the walls, and recall the history of the western end of town and the station itself. In a glass-enclosed case, models of automobiles of every type draw the oohs and ahs of present car owners awaiting repair of their modern car.
And then, nicely stacked magazines are shelved above, the kind you don’t find in the beauty salon. Preservation, American Hunter, Golf, HGTV Makeover, LaCucina Italiana, and Conservation keep you informed of the important things in life. All of this makes getting the oil changed an informative respite.
On the other end of the room, if you are lucky enough to be there in early spring, large wooden shelves against a sunny glass window hold the beginning sprouts of a garden salad. Lettuce, peppers, parsley, rosemary, basil, and even tomatoes begin their life in that bright, warm spot.
Bruce Mance Sr. leased the Mobil station in 1976 and purchased it in 1984. There was a Wil Roy Drive-In for ice cream also on the property at that time. He later demolished those buildings and built new ones in 1994.
The front “store” is well stocked where all sorts of necessaries are available.
Mance and his son, Bruce Jr., station manager, are life-time residents of the town of Guilderland. Bruce Mance Sr. spent his childhood on Schoolhouse Road. Both Mances were students in the Guilderland Central School district.
“It was a great place to grow up in,” said Bruce Mance Sr. when questioned about running a local gas station, “I like to give back.”
This historian feels that the Mances are doing just that.