Sunday, March 25, 2012

Villages and Towns of the Mohawk Valley

I drove west into the Mohawk Valley again today. The names of the towns you pass through are indications of past and present inhabitants:

- Schenectady: Mohawk language for "beyond the pines"

- Scotia and Glenville: named for a Scotchman who was one of the early settlers of Schenectady, Sanders (Alexander) Glen

- Amsterdam: named of course after the capital of the Netherlands, this city has the nickname "the Carpet City," because of the many rug factories that functioned there in earlier times. Its second claim to fame is that it was the hometown of actor Kirk Douglas.

- Fonda: named after early Dutch settler Douw Fonda, an ancestor of Henry, Peter, and Jane Fonda.

- Fultonville: named after Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat.

- Palatine Bridge: named after early settlers from the Palatinate in Germany.

- Canajoharie: Mohawk for "the pot that washes itself," presumably so named because of the way the water swirls around a gorge in the Canajoharie Creek.

- Fort Plain: site of a Revolutionary War fort.

- Indian Castle: so named for the palisaded Mohawk village or "castle" that originally stood nearby.

- Herkimer: named after Revolutionary War General Nicholas Herkimer.

- Oriskany: named after the nearby Oneida village.

And so on, farther westward where an early New York State surveyor gave classical Greek and Roman names to a number of towns and cities, such as Utica, Rome, and Syracuse.

Many of these towns have either an "Erie Boulevard" or a "Canal Street," as the Erie Canal also ran near the route of the present day New York State Thruway. In fact, if you know where to look, you can still see remnants of the canal in a few places along the route, a remembrance of a lifestyle now long past.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


As mentioned in last week's post, some of my earliest memories are of heading west into the Mohawk Valley to spend the weekend at Grandma Minnie's. I still make regular trips into the valley, although I no longer sit on my aunt's lap as she drives along the highway, as I did back in the days before seat belts and car seats.

But the highway still runs along the Mohawk River, and I know that we are getting close to Minnie's village when we pass "The Noses" along the New York State Thruway. Little Nose and Big Nose are two humpy hills on either side of the river that seem to form a gateway to the Mohawk Valley.

I always had trouble remembering which one was "Big" and which was "Little," since both rocky hills appear to be about the same size from the highway. But the trick is to remember that Big Nose is on your right as you head west along the river.

A diorama in the New York State Museum in downtown Albany depicts the same landscape around the time Minnie's earliest Dutch ancestor arrived in the valley. Iroquois women cultivated corn, beans, and squash near here several centuries ago.

On a recent drive west past the Noses, I saw a bald eagle perched in a tree along the river near Canajoharie, a present-day town that takes its name from the original Mohawk village that stood nearby. It gave my heart a lift to know that eagles have returned to this area, after having been wiped out here decades ago.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Grandma Nan

Some of my earliest memories are of spending the weekend at Grandma Minnie’s house in the Mohawk Valley. My sister and I would travel there with Aunts Doris and Glenadore on a Friday evening and return home with them on Sunday afternoon. Our weekend in the country gave Mom and Dad a break, and enabled my sister and me to get to know our Dad’s family better. 

Me and my sis at Grandma Minnie's (Summer 1954)
Saturdays would be spent either picking berries in the back garden or visiting the dairy farm outside of town, where Minnie’s cousin Gladys lived with her family. On Sundays, sometimes we would walk down to the main street of town (Canal Street) to attend Sunday school at the Reformed Church.

At Grandma’s house, my sister and I shared a small back bedroom with birdseye maple furniture, including a bookcase crammed with fairy tales and old editions of The Wizard of Oz and other stories by L. Frank Baum. If I woke earlier than the rest of the household, sometimes I would tiptoe down the hall to Great Grandma Nan’s room, slip into bed with her and listen to her tales of life along the Erie Canal in the late 1800’s.

It was hard for me to picture the slight woman in the flannel nightgown with the long braid of silver hair as a vigorous young woman helping her husband run a grocery store at the lock along the canal. But that was what Fred and Kittie did during the early years of their marriage. Her life spanned nearly a century  --  from the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War to the Cold War of the 1960’s.

Grandma Nan was born February 10, 1868, christened Kittie Elizabeth Van Slyke. She married Fred Fineour in May 1884, when she was a mere sixteen years old. An undated photograph in the family archives shows Kittie in a heavy dark dress with what looks like a hundred pleats to the skirt. Guessing by the clothing style, I estimate that the photo was taken in the mid 1880’s, close to the time she and Fred married. 

Kittie - 1880's
A close-up portrait shows a dreamy young woman with doe-like eyes, a fancy lace collar, and a fringe of carefully curled bangs. Gazing at this portrait of graceful femininity, I can see why Kittie might have frowned upon my early rambunctiousness. I vaguely recall a childhood excursion to the bank of the canal when while running gaily along the water’s edge, I fell and skinned my knee. I was admonished not to let Grandma Nan know of my mishap; after all, in her day, young ladies did not run wild out in the countryside. 

Undated portrait of Kittie

The family archives also contain an early tintype of Fred and Kittie, which is unfortunately quite damaged. (Tintype is a type of photography developed in 1853, post-dating the daguerreotype.) The young couple are frozen in time, Fred seated looking confidently into the camera, with Kittie diffidently placing a hand on his shoulder. In spite of the damaged plate, we can clearly see their facial expressions and speculate about what they were thinking at just that moment. (I really wish I knew!) And it looks like Kittie is wearing the same hundred-pleated skirt. Perhaps it was her wedding dress. 

Could this be a wedding portrait?

Grandma Nan died February 6, 1962, just four days short of her 94th birthday, during the Cuban missile crisis, and the same month that John Glen orbited the earth  --  a long time and a far cry from the horse and buggy era of Reconstruction.

A half century later, I close my eyes and dig deep into my memories of Grandma Nan’s room. As the light grows stronger in the bedroom, it falls upon the heavy Victorian furniture  --  the tall headboard with its ornately carved mahogany, the dresser and mirror that reflect Grandma and me in the bed, and the armoire full of old toys and papers.

I think of that line from a poem by French poet Charles Baudelaire: “J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais mille ans”: “I have more memories than if I were a thousand years old. . .”

The mahogany bed is still there, but Grandma Nan is no longer there to tell me stories.

Grandma Nan, Grandma Minnie & Me (Summer 1959)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Wedding

As mentioned in last week's post, Minnie and Will were married at the bride's home on February 28, 1912. It was a small private ceremony, presided over by a local clergyman. Although I have not come across any wedding pictures, in the family archives there is a booklet that commemorates the wedding day.

The booklet contains some flowery poetry for the occasion, including some verses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; a Bible verse or two; and some descriptions of expectations for a happy home life.

It must indeed have been a happy day for the family, in spite of the chilly February weather outside.

The verse on the right may be by Tennyson. It is an example of the sentimental rhymed poetry popular during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The wedding ceremony probably took place in the sitting room at the front of the family home, with a small group of relatives present.

Each page of the booklet is also decorated with tasteful drawings of flowers  --  this one being a garland of lilies of the valley and wild roses.

Bible verse with blue forget-me-nots

This page of the booklet is a particularly charming verse about the qualities of a happy home, with a bucolic scene of a country cottage. I believe that Minnie and Will's home was indeed happy throughout their married life; the house's inhabitants spanned three generations: Minnie's parents, Kittie and Fred Fineour; Minnie and her husband Will; her younger brother Frederic; and eventually her five children.

There were other family members living on a farm outside of town.

Two of those relatives were the witnesses for the couple: Minnie's maternal aunt Minnie Farley, after whom she was named, and Minnie's husband Kenneth.

We see here also the Minister's signature, which appears to be a Pastor H. C. Willoughby, probably the pastor of the Reformed Church in the village.

It is possible that some of Will's relatives attended the ceremony as well, although we don't know for sure. Will's sister Louisa was still living in the village, and there were other siblings in the surrounding countryside.

We don't know whether there was a reception with refreshments or at least a cake after the ceremony, or whether the couple took a wedding trip or not.

Perhaps there was a home-made cake, such as this recipe from Minnie's cookbook:

Minnie's coconut cake recipe

Notice the alternate spelling of "cocoanut" for "coconut," which we don't see much these days. Here is how I modernized the recipe:

Coconut Cake

2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

- Pre-sift flour; preheat oven to 350 F.
- Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.
- In a medium bowl, sift together flour and baking powder; set aside.
- Cream together butter and sugar; beat in egg.
- Add milk and flour mixture alternately; beat until smooth.
- Pour batter into cake pan and bake for 20 - 25 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean.
- Let cake cool completely before removing from pan.

Although Minnie's recipe says to bake in layers, I found that these proportions only made one layer. If you want to make a two-layer cake, you'll probably need to double the recipe. Her instructions are also quite minimal for the coconut frosting. I made a butter cream frosting from confectioner's sugar, margarine, a couple of tablespoons of milk, and a half teaspoon of vanilla, following instructions on the box of confectioner's sugar. I mixed 1/4 cup of shredded coconut into the frosting, and sprinkled another 1/4 cup over the top of the frosted cake. It makes a very sweet treat.

Coconut Cake

I leave you with one last image from the 100-year old wedding booklet. I hope your home is as clean and content as this description: