Commentary: The last house in Altamont

A small country community named Knowersville was developing around the railroad station following the Civil War. With rail access, it was becoming a summer retreat for families from New York and Albany.

There were several hotels by the railway and a resort hotel on the hill beyond named Kushaqua.

Lucy and William Cassidy built their own summer home on that hillside. Lucy was a very purposeful woman. She and her husband were friends of President Grover Cleveland.

She did not think Knowersville was a very appropriate name for the community. It had been named for the Knower family of Albany who had a beaver-hat factory and lovely summer home in the lower village. The fashion for men’s beaver hats passed and the factory was gone.

Lucy thought Altamont (for her hillside home) was much better and she asked the president to change the name to that. And so the president asked his postmaster general to rename the post office Altamont and he did!

Lucy, ever active, built and named St. Lucy’s Catholic Church since at the time the community only had two Protestant churches.

George Coonley was a 19th Century developer in Albany. He built the large Victorian homes on the south side of Manny Boulevard (off Western Avenue) in the 1870s and ’80s. He and his large family lived in one of those.

George Coonley had an entrepreneurial spirit and he saw the summer community growing in Altamont as an opportunity. He purchased land north beyond the village that included a section of the Bozenkill Creek and the hillside above it. A dirt road extended down from Maple Avenue and he continued that down to the creek, Maple Avenue Extension.

He built a model home 500 feet back on that road to be the first of a group of summer residences. It was a commodious house similar to his family’s Albany residence — three stories, seven bedrooms (one in a tower with a village and mountain view). There were two living rooms with marble stenciled fire places (six fireplaces in all, three downstairs and three upstairs), a large dining room and a big kitchen with a Troy-built, iron cookstove and a pantry; all the modern convenience of the 1880s. Completed in 1887, his family moved in for that first summer. They loved it.

Thinking of the salability of his development, Mr. Coonley asked the village fathers, then incorporating into the “village of Altamont”, to extend their property lines to include his land so he could advertise “beautiful summer homes in the village of Altamont,” and so the village lines were drawn — his family home was Altamont’s farthest edge and so “the last house in Altamont,” on Maple Extension.

The children so enjoyed the privacy that they persuaded their father not to build any more! A horse barn was added and a long drive past the house and barn returning to the Bozenkill Road. The creek provided a swimming hole. On the further side of the creek, part way up the hill, a mineral spring flowed with healthful water.

With nine children and only one upstairs bathroom, Mr. Coonley created a small bedroom with a sink and commode off the kitchen for himself.

When the family’s eldest daughter, Ann Blanch, got married, the home was given to her as a wedding present. She married Elwood Blessing. With only one son, Ralph, the house became too large for them and they moved into the village, on Lincoln Avenue, next to the Reformed church manse.

They sold the home to a family named Miller. In time, it was sold to another large family, the Heinz. That family grew up leaving only the widowed father and one son, Bill, an artist and poet. The house required a lot of upkeep and became too much for the two men.

My family’s turn

In a 1939 tax sale, it was purchased by Edwin and Miriam Sanford. “Ned” and “Mimi” are my parents. I was 11 years old. My father was an engineer working on highways and business buildings but he was very hands-on renovating and repairing. With no money to spare my parents undertook all that themselves.

The land adjoined the Pangburn dairy farm on the east, another farm on the west, and beyond the creek at the top of the hill was the Swartz dairy farm. By that time, the horse barn had burned down and a two-story addition had been added on the back of the house with an attached garage.

The first level was open on the south side but in that room was a well and pump (such sulfery water we couldn’t drink it) and a big cistern to collect rainwater. There was a second cistern on the third floor in the house.

If we had a dry summer, we could run out of water for the house and the fire department would come down with its tank truck to fill the lower one. We bought drinking water from Great Bear Spring Water until it could no longer deliver during the Second World War. Then my father filled gallon jugs daily at his Menands office.

We had a single hanging light fixture in each room on the first and second floors. The kitchen did have power for a stove and refrigerator. We kept the cookstove as it was very handy in the winter when the power might go out.

By then, the house had a coal furnace and my father had to shovel the coal morning and night. There was a separate little “Joker Stove: to heat our water; it had to be stoked frequently, tool.

The house had some of the original exterior windows shutters. Considered too much care to repair and paint, my father chipped them up into kindling wood to restart that little stove (or the fireplaces).

Having spent part of his childhood on his grandfather’s North Country farm, Ned was an avid gardener, hunter, and fisherman so all added to the family larder. My mother canned fruits and vegetables for winter. Behind the foundation of the horse barn grew elderberry bushes.

We also had a grape arbor. Ned was a wine maker and he used these to create his home brew (along with dandelions from the lawn).

He was enthusiastically aided by Wade Swartz the farmer on the hilltop. Amy Swartz belonged to the Christian Temperance Union but allowed the wine. Ned and Wade would surreptitiously sneak a little gin in to give it a bit of kick!

We had become good friends with the Swartz family. They had one son, George, who they kept home to help with the farm. It had been the Thornton farm.

Amy married their hired man, Wade, and they continued overseeing the place when her parents passed on (The Thorntons were very active in the Reformed church and a stained glass window there commemorates them.)

Stand off

Though it was Amy’s farm, as was usual in those days, the husband took command and set the home rules. No electricity, no running water — a pump in the kitchen and a big wood stove for cooking and water heating.

Amy considered herself an educated professional woman (she wrote) and she took a stand. She was above such primitive dishwashing as this provided. As a result, every dish in the house was dirty and stacked until such time as Wade and George took a day off to do them.

I remember, as a very special 50th-wedding anniversary gift, Wade proudly gave Amy a whole new set of dishes. I’m not sure what that accomplished.

Their house was almost a half-mile to the road. In winter, they hauled their milk with horses and a sledge to Lainhart Road. George had to do the grocery shopping, hiking down our back hill and up the roadway (which was still there from Mr. Coonley’s development project) and down to the village.

In those days, we had a meat market and three grocery stores, Pangburns’ IGA, a Grand Union, and an A & P.

When Wade felt they could no longer manage the farm he sold it to the Abbruzzese family and bough Amy a little house on Main Street in the village. Amy now had a bathroom, central heat, running hot and cold water, a refrigerator, and stove. They were well into their 70s by that time.

Fond memories

When we first moved here, the roads were still dirt and the county highway department came through several times in the summer with an oil truck to spray oil in front of each house to settle the dust, keeping homes and outside laundry lines clean.

I went to the local school, elementary through high school, on Grand Street in the village. I walked or rode the mile-plus on my bike. In really cold weather, my father would drop me off at the end of the Grand Street as he drove to work. Girls were not allowed to wear slacks to school in those days but, in bitter weather, I would wear snow pants and change to a skirt when I got there.

When the Second World War started, my father decided to would raise chickens for meat and eggs. He and my high-school boyfriend built a chicken coop on the old barn foundation.

Every spring, baby chicks would come to the Grange League Federation (now Agway) and we would add a number to our flock. We sold or gave friends chickens for meat.

I often helped my dad pluck the chickens for cooking. Dad (the hunter) was too soft-hearted to kill them himself so a good friend and also former farm boy, Isaac Hungerford, would come do that and also take one home for his family.

During the war, roads weren’t plowed too often in the winter. My father and I had to snowshoe to the village where he rented car space in the farm barn at the end of Maple Avenue.

One, winter, the snow piled so high a snowplow sent to open up Maple Avenue Extension and Bozenkill Road got stuck and completely drifted in.

To get our groceries, we had to snowshoe, pulling our toboggan to the village going up and over the drifts and the snow plow — only the rear vision mirror hung out on one side. My mother and father pulled and I had a rope on the back to hold it from running into them on the down sides.

I graduated from Altamont High School in 1945 and went off to college in New York City, coming back for vacations. I met Harry DuBrin Jr., a city boy, and we got married here in the house in May 1948.

A friend of my mother decorated the house with lilacs and we were married by candlelight in front of the living-room fireplace. A friend played our hall piano for musical accompaniment.

Harry and I lived in New York and vacationed here since our finances were meager — he was going to college on the GI Bill and I worked at the Advance Patern Company in the city as assistant to the advertising manager for $32.50 a week.

We lived in Greenwich Village handy to Washington Square and New York University (his college and law school).

As we started a family I “retired” and hot summers I would bring our three little girls up home for much of the time. In 1955, Harry transferred from a job in New York to Albany and we created an upstairs apartment for us in the family home.

After a year of little footsteps overhead and a peaceful summer at a Warner’s Lake camp, Mom and Dad decided to rent a house in the village just down the road on Maple Avenue. Later, when we bought part of Mrs. Pangburn’s farm next door, they lived in that smaller house and our girls grew up in the big house — a second generation.

Our youngest daughter was born after we moved here from New York. Blanch Blessing, who was now a friend from church was thrilled. She called her “her baby,” the only one to be born in this house beside her son Ralph. She maintained that interest until her death.

The girls went to Altamont Elementary School and the Guilderland Junior and Senior High School. The population had grown.

Tornado hits

One eventful July Fourth weekend, a small tornado came jumping over the Heldebergs and tore off the back of our house. We had just cleaned the garage at my husband’s insistence; the girls had just had a sleepover in the upstairs room.

Our oldest daughter told me the television weatherman said there might be tornados in the area and I had said, “No way; that never happens in Altamont.”

Standing at the kitchen sink, getting supper ready, I looked out the window and saw the trees swaying in high winds — and then I saw the back of the house going up right in front of me!

I called to all of the family to run hide under the front stairwell where we huddled until the storm passed by. The cellar would have been the ideal place to go but that meant coming into the kitchen to get to that door and I didn’t know how much of the house was going.

Fortunately, it was just the back of the house and the garage, which folded neatly out under our apple tree. All the furniture was smashed but the walls were stacked, the windows unbroken.

You can imagine I got a lot of “I told you so” from my daughter and I groused at my husband who had made us clean the garage instead of taking our antique canoe from the garage and going up to Warner’s Lake where my folks were renting a summer camp. The canoe was smashed under the garage.

The fire department came as our electric clothes dryer and wires were hanging from the second story, sparking wildly. (My laundry room was upstairs.)

I had hollyhocks growing six feet tall along the edge of this addition. They weren’t even bent over but our big sycamore tree by the driveway cracked in half at the eight-foot level.

Crazy!

Our cat came out the next day clutching the ground as he crept along. Our tiny 10-cent store turtle emerged two weeks later.

At Christmas, my husband gave me a new aluminum canoe and a canoe charm for my bracelet to commemorate the event.

Vacation destination

The girls grew up and left home but my husband and I stayed on in the big house with my father and mother next door in the farmhouse. We had dug a big farm pond where once the cows had drunk.

We put a chicken coop from the farm down there and renovated it into a pond-side camp. (thanks to Harry Armstrong who dug and moved).

We were a summer destination for friends and family. We had had a donkey, a pony, and then horses while the girls were in school but, after they left and the last horse had tried to kill me, I sold him. I had nursed him through a serious accident with very painful medication. It had gotten him well but he now hated me.

Our only farming was now our gardens. I ran around with my little tractor mowing acres of lawn.

Grandsons came along (my husband and I were thrilled), and then a beautiful granddaughter, so again we were a vacation destination, later to become home to the boys for a few years.

A third generation was growing up here, going to Guilderland schools.

My parents passed away and I was left the house. After I paid all the bills, I had $4,000 left. I immediately called the Donato brothers who had built us a small barn and asked if they could build me a screened porch off the pantry.

I had always wanted an old-fashioned one with screen doors that slammed shut, all memories from my childhood. After the tornado, my husband had replaced the back of the house with a beautiful glass-walled Florida room but that was part of the house and suitably furnished.

I wanted a “camp” room — old-fashioned and very informal and that’s what they built for me. I put a daybed out there and even slept there.

It became our summer dining room. My husband had thought the whole project silly but eventually he even asked me if he could nap out there.

After he, too, had passed away, I could no longer walk to the creek for my morning swims so again I called Jerry Donato (his brothers were no longer in business) and asked him to build me a deck from my screen porch along the north wall of my house around a large above-ground swimming pool I had installed.

And so this is still a summer destination and we are now on Bozenkill Road with a live- caretaker. The house is well into its 126th year. We are no longer the last house in Altamont!

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