Sunday, December 15, 2013

Scrubbing Day in s'Graveland

“It is Saturday  --  scrubbing day. [. . . ] Wooden-shod servants are splashing and mopping and soaking and rubbing every exterior surface, horizontal and perpendicular,” wrote John Higinbotham in the 1910 edition of Three Weeks in Holland and Belgium. The scene must have seemed quaint and picturesque to the foreign tourist upon his arrival in Rotterdam a hundred years ago. He continues, “Thrift, cleanliness and a high average of comfort seem to abound.”

The casual tourist taking notes for a travel book probably did not stop to ponder what lay behind the stereotypical image he painted of cleanliness, comfort and thrift. But if one knew where to look and what questions to ask, a more discerning traveler may have looked behind the scenes to discover what (or who) made this picture look so pleasant.

Hendrina and Elizabeth Daams ca. 1900
In fact, both of my grandparents and their families were members of the working class in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Netherlands, and their efforts, along with those of their siblings and acquaintances, helped contribute to the pleasant picture of comfort and cleanliness. In an earlier post, we learned how Grandma Elizabeth Daams and her sister Hendrina left school and went out to work as domestic servants in Loosdrecht after their father died. Elizabeth worked for several wealthy families for a period of ten years before being able to save enough money to emigrate to the United States when she and Barend Vanden Bergh married.

In the nearby town of s’Graveland, Grandpa Vanden Bergh’s brother Jacob worked in one of the many laundries or bleaching establishments, as well as at least one relative of Grandma Elizabeth’s, known as Tante Ger (“Aunt Gertie”). According to an undated booklet that my mother received from a cousin in the Netherlands (“Bleek, Bleeker, Bleekst,” by J.A. Hendriks, Jr.), as early as 1831 there were as many as 42 laundries in s’Graveland.

The name “s’Graveland” can be translated as “the Count’s Land,” and indeed in those early days, the social system resembled a feudal system. The village consisted of about ten large estates owned by members of the ruling class from Amsterdam, the “regenten.” This system was already in place in the seventeenth century, and continued until the 1920’s.

Living conditions of the working people were very difficult a hundred years ago. As noted by Mom’s cousin Jasper in the notebook he sent her, “Tante Ger” recounted how she had to work from five o'clock in the morning until ten or eleven o"clock at night, especially in the summer.

Country estate in s'Graveland ca. 1910
Another Vanden Bergh ancestor (my great-grandfather) worked as a gardener on one of the estates owned by the feudal gentry. There were at least twelve employees in the mansion and garden. In the summer, he also worked from 6:00 AM until 9:00 or sometimes 11:00 in the evening. The only time he had to cultivate his own garden, where the family grew potatoes and vegetables, was between 4:00 and 6:00 AM. Sometimes to earn a few extra cents, he would take over night watch duties from other people.

Of course, much has changed since those early days, with the mechanization of the laundry business as well as other labor-saving devices and improved working conditions due to the labor movement. Nowadays, most of us can pursue leisure activities while machines wash and dry our clothes.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Three Weeks in Holland and Belgium"

"Three Weeks" book with tulips
I came across an interesting old book on a bookshelf in my sister's house recently. The book, entitled Three Weeks in Holland and Belgium, belonged to my mother. It was published in 1910 (first edition 1908), one of a series of travel books written by John U. Higinbotham, with the mission, stated in the Preface, of "act[ing] as a spokesman for the humble and despised class grouped in travel books under the name 'tourist' "; and "furnish[ing] to its readers the one thing needful in many cases to make them globetrotters, viz., a little courage."

The book recounts the author's arrival in Rotterdam, and travels in The Hague, Amsterdam, Leiden, Delft, Haarlem, Zaandam, among other towns, villages, and cities in both the Netherlands and Belgium. Written in a sometimes tongue-in-cheek tone in elegant Edwardian English, the book has a particular interest for me in that it paints a picture of pre-World War I life in the Netherlands, the era in which my grandparents lived shortly before their departure for the United States.

Upon  arrival in Rotterdam aboard the Statendam, Higinbotham's first impressions portray the typical Dutch stereotypes of cleanliness and orderliness, and the ubiquity of bicycles:

"The first impression of Holland is pleasing, and this impression is deepened with every day of our stay. Thrift, cleanliness and a high average of comfort seem to abound. (page 13)

"It is Saturday -- scrubbing day. [. . .] Wooden-shod servants are splashing and mopping and soaking and rubbing every exterior surface, horizontal and perpendicular. (page 11)

"Bicycles are as much in evidence all around us as they were in America fifteen years ago." (page 15) (This last comment may imply that motor-cars were already becoming more evident in the thoroughfares in the U.S.)

Of Delft, which I visited a hundred years after Higinbotham, he writes:

"Delft is a city of misfortune. In the middle of the sixteenth century she was destroyed by fire. In 1584 she was the scene of the assassination of William the Silent. In 1654 a powerful explosion ruined more than five hundred houses. In 1742 a similar catastrophe occurred. Do you wonder that Delft china was blue, amid such jarring surroundings, and that its manufacture has ceased with the exception of one factory?" (pages 24-25)

I also visited this factory in 2011, and it is still the only one functioning, De Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles, founded in 1653. 

Delft - Nieuwe Kerk 2011
Higinbotham describes the square with the Stadhuis (City Hall) at one end and the Nieuwe Kerke (New Church) at the other, where I also took photos during my visit to the city, and continues on to the Prinsenhof, the scene of William's assassination:

"We went first to the dining room where William the Silent ate his last meal. His wife had forebodings, and did not like the appearance of the messenger, Gerards, who had arrived that day, but William did not share her fears. He had escaped assassination so often [. . .] that he had reason to believe in a certain degree of immunity. So, surrounded by his family, he stepped from the dining-room into the hall. Behind the column where we stood crouched Gerards, and, as William reached the first step, two poisoned bullets were discharged, passing through his body and burying themselves in the wall a short distance above the steps. Draperies probably helped conceal the assassin, but with that exception everything is as it was on July 10, 1584, the day of the crime." (pp. 28-29)

Higinbotham continues on to Utrecht:

"Utrecht is the capital of Utrecht province. It is a city of 108,000 people. It was the ford of the Rhine for ancient Rome. The Rhine here splits into the Old Rhine, which we saw at Leiden, and the Vecht, which empties into the Zuider Zee near Muiden. [. . .] We drive along the Oude Gracht (Old Canal) and feast our eyes on enchanting scenes along the canal. The town is one or two stories above the water, and people live under the pavements and their doors open on the canal. (pp. 127-128)

Utrecht - Church Tower (Domtoren) 2011
"The Cathedral was once one of the finest and largest churches in Holland, but the nave blew down in 1674 and was never rebuilt, consequently our carriage is standing on ground that was once occupied by worshippers, while the choir and tower now stand as two distinct and widely separated buildings." (pp. 128-129)

"Utrecht has a one-horse tram system that permeates the entire city. Its cars seat eight persons. Think of that in a city of over 100,000 inhabitants. The cars are never crowded, and it is a pleasure to ride in them through the clean old burg." (pp. 130-131)

I also visited Utrecht in 2011 and saw much the same scenes in the old section of the city as did the traveler a century before me. But the city's population has tripled since Higinbotham's day, and of course it has all the modern infrastructure expected in today's digital age.

Another city which Higinbotham visited, and I did as well, is Zaandam, where I stayed for a week at my cousin's house. One of the points of interest in that city is the house where Russian czar Peter the Great lived for a short time in 1697. Higinbotham describes his visit to the house:

Zaandam - Czar Peter House 2011
". . . we struck out on foot for the house of Peter the Great. A long walk brought us to our destination. The house was occupied by him in 1697 for a short time. It is now the property of the Russian government and has been enclosed by another building, and not any too soon. The high water caused by the breaking of a dike almost carried it off in 1825. Since then it has been well taken care of. This is the birthplace of the Russian navy [. . .] The house [. . .] was a hundred years old when Peter moved in. Many memorials adorn the walls. The original bed and table are preserved. [. . .] Sight-seers can thank Anna Paulowna for much of the preservation of this interesting house. She was a Russian princess, a descendant of Peter, and married William II of Holland." (pp. 83-85)

I also went on foot to visit the Czar Peter House and saw the same bed and table. It was difficult to picture the tall czar sleeping in the tiny cupboard bed with any degree of comfort.

Higinbotham spent three weeks in 1908 touring the Netherlands and Belgium; like many Americans, he has conflated the provinces of North and South Holland with the country as a whole, which is of course the Netherlands. At last, as his touring comes to an end, he boards the steamer for the United States:

"It is raining hard up to the moment that we leave. Except for the returning tourists, an American-bound liner carries no holiday crowd. The Hollanders on board are, as a rule, homeseekers and not sightseers. Until their fortunes are made, they will not see the canals and meadows of their kindly but strict old fatherland. The longshoremen march away with the big gangplanks on wheels between them. There is an imperceptible tremor as our ship wakes to life, we swing slowly into midstream, the band plays, the handkerchiefs wave and we are off." (pp. 273-274)

Higinbotham's description of his departure from the Netherlands is very different from my return trip on a jet airplane. But it gives me an idea of how the scene of my grandparents' departure from the shore may have looked. And for that I am grateful for having found this little old book.

                                                     *        *        *

A digital version of Higinbotham's book is available through the University of California Digital Library at:

Read more about my own excursions to the locations described above at the following blog posts:

- Planning my trip: Voyage of (Re-)Discovery

- Arrival in the Netherlands: Ik ga naar Nederland

- Excursion to Delft

- Excursion to Utrecht

- Zaandam

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Maude, A Working Pet

Great-Grandpa Fred with Maude
Great-Grandpa Fred Fineour had a white horse named Maude, who was as much a pet as a work animal. Maude pulled the buggy when the family needed to go out and about, and she was a regular fixture around the Lock Grocery where Grandma Minnie spent her early childhood.

I can still hear Minnie's voice in my head telling us grandchildren about how tame the horse was. In the store were various barrels of foodstuffs such as flour, sugar, and oyster crackers. Minnie told us how her father would say, "Maude, would you like some sugar?" and the horse would daintily step up on the porch to the open doorway and stick her head inside to get as close as she could to the sugar barrel.

When the Fineours gave up the grocery store and moved into town, Fred eventually bought a house with a barn behind it, where Maude had her own stall. Around 1900, when Fred got a job as the first rural mailman, RFD #1, out of Fort Plain, it was Maude who pulled his buggy in summer and cutter in winter up hill and down dale along the steep country roads.

She certainly earned a bit of a sugary treat by getting Fred safely back home. Even in 1900, "the mail must go through," in spite of inclement weather. And so it did, at least partly thanks to snow-white Maude, a working pet.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"The Way of All Fish"

Grandma VandenBergh's old Dutch cookbook includes a chapter with a variety of recipes for preparing various species of fish. That's not surprising, considering the fact that the Netherlands is crisscrossed by a network of both natural and man-made waterways, where freshwater fish are plentiful. In fact, Grandma's hometown of Loosdrecht is now a popular tourist destination for those who love sailing and fishing; the Loosdrechte plassen, or Loosdrecht lakes are dotted with sailboats during the warm weather and skaters in the winter. Being on the seacoast, Netherlanders also have access to many varieties of saltwater fish.

The chapter on fish in Grandma's book is divided into two parts: fried fish and poached fish. For frying fish, the author suggests using smaller types of fish, or cutting larger fish into smaller pieces or filets. You can poach the larger types of fish. Nowadays, we can easily find fish filets or steaks in our local fish market or supermarket. Of course, if using whole fish, you must clean it inside and out, and scrape off the scales.

I chose a recipe for fried fish. The author notes that coating the fish with flour will lessen the chance that the fish will stick to the pan. Use enough oil to cover the bottom of the frying pan.

Fried fish: (Gebakken vis)

4 fish filets (cod, sole, etc.; I used tilapia)
50 grams (1/3 cup) whole wheat flour
10 grams (1 teaspoon) salt
about 1  1/2 dL. (2/3 cup) cooking oil

Frying the fish
- Mix the flour and salt. Since tilapia is quite a bland fish, I also added a teaspoon of herbes de Provence to the flour mixture to add a bit more flavor.

- Rinse the fish filets and dry with paper towels. Coat on both sides with the flour mixture.

- Heat the oil, making sure that it is hot enough, but not so hot that it changes color.

- Lay the fish in the pan with the underside first, fry at medium heat on both sides until light brown and crispy.

- Drain on paper towels and serve on a platter with the pan-seared side (underside) up.

- Serve with salad and baked or boiled potatoes with melted butter.

Fried fish

Eet smakelijk! Enjoy your meal.

                                                               *        *        *

Dutch vocabulary:

bot  =  flounder
elft  =  shad
heilbot  =  halibut
horsmakreel  =  mackerel
kabeljauw  =  cod
snoek  =  perch
tarbot  =  turbot
tong  =  sole
zeewolf  =  catfish
zalm  =  salmon

For additional information about fish and fishing in the Netherlands, you may like to consult the following Web sites:

Fishing Guides Holland (This site is in English):

Sports Fishing in the Netherlands (in Dutch): This site has charts of the various species of freshwater and saltwater fish, with pictures to help identify them.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

White Bean and Leek Soup

The weather turned chilly this week in Upstate New York, leaves are falling and crunching under our feet. It's time to get out the sweaters and scarves  --  and once again it feels like soup weather. I searched in Grandma VandenBergh's old Dutch cookbook for a hearty soup recipe, and found a relatively simple one for a bean soup with leeks and celery:

Smooth White Bean Soup  (Gezeefde Witte Boonensoep)

Celery and leeks
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) dried white beans
2 1/2 quarts (2.5 liter)  water
1 teaspoon (10 grams) salt
4 leeks
1 or 2 stalks celery
2 tablespoons (40 grams) butter or margarine
1 bouillon cube

Beans and leeks in the soup pot
- Wash the beans and soak overnight in the water.
- The following day, cook the beans over low heat in the same water for 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
- Slice the leeks and chop the celery; add to the soup along with the salt and simmer for another 30 minutes.
- Add the butter or margarine last, along with the bouillon cube, or a teaspoon of gravy seasoning.
- Serve with croutons or slices of toasted bread.

The recipe calls for passing the boiled beans through a sieve or colander so that only the hulls remain in the sieve. However, I was not successful in carrying out this step  --  maybe I don't have the right type of sieve or colander! Anyway, a bowl of this soup was a hearty meal that warmed me up after a morning of raking leaves.

White Bean and Leek Soup
Eet smakelijk!  Enjoy your meal!

                                                            *       *       *

Dutch Vocabulary

boter  =  butter
preien  =  leeks
selderij  =  celery
soep  =  soup
witte boonen  =  white beans
zeef  =  sieve
zout  =  salt

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Kateri Tekakwitha -- Anniversary of Sainthood

Portrait of Kateri by Fr. Chauchetiere
Tomorrow, October 21, 2013, will be the one-year anniversary of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, the Mohawk woman from Caughnawaga in the Mohawk Valley, who converted to Christianity in the 17th century. I just finished reading a fictionalized biography of Kateri written by local author Jack Casey. The story is told in large part from the point of view of Father Claude Chauchetiere, one of the Jesuit priests who knew her. The picture to the left is a photograph of the portrait he painted of her from memory several years after her death. It hangs in the St. Francis Xavier Church on the Kanawaké Mohawk Reservation on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River, near Montréal, Québec.

I have long been fascinated by Kateri's story, partly because she was a contemporary of some of my Dutch ancestors who were also closely connected with the Mohawks. This afternoon I took a ride out to the Kateri shrine west of Fonda in the Mohawk Valley, lit a candle for Kateri, and walked up the hill to the excavated "castle" of Caughnawaga, where she spent much of her early life. Rather than repeat what has been written about her in the several hundred books about her, I thought it interesting to compare the timeline of her lifespan with events connected with my own ancestors of the same era. I am still left wondering whether her path ever crossed with any of theirs. I may never know, but it's entirely possible since the time and place were so close.


1634 - Cornelis Van Slyke emigrates from Breucklen in the Netherlands to Nieuw Nederland on the ship the Eendracht. Some time later, he marries a Mohawk woman named Otstoch, from the village of Canajoharie.

ca. 1640 - Jacques Van Slyke, son of Cornelis and Otstoch, born in Canajoharie.(The couple had several other children, but Jacques is the one who is my ancestor.)

Kateri statue at the shrine
1656 - Tekakwitha, daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Christian Algonquin woman, born in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon (now Auriesville), on the south bank of the Mohawk River.

1660 - Smallpox epidemic at Ossernenon: Tekakwitha's parents and baby brother die of the illness; she is scarred and left with impaired sight, taken in by aunt and uncle.

1661 - Cornelis and his son Jacques are among the first settlers to establish Schenectady. 

1664 - The English capture Nieuw Nederland from the Dutch. 

1666 - A war party composed of French and their Huron allies attacks the Mohawk villages on the south side of the river, including Ossernenon. The surviving villagers move to the north side of the river and rebuild, naming their new village Caughnawaga, "the place near the rapids." Following their defeat by the French, Mohawks are compelled to allow Jesuit missionaries to live among them.

1673 - 1674 - The Dutch recapture Nieuw Nederland for a brief period. 

1676 - Having been instructed in the Catholic faith by the missionaries, Tekakwitha is baptized  on Easter, April 18, 1676. She is given the Christian name Kateri (Catherine).

1676 - Cornelis Van Slyke dies. His son Jacques and daughter Hilletie continue to reside at Schenectady, where Jacques is the first tavern keeper in the village. The Van Slykes maintain contact with Mohawk relatives in Canajoharie.

Path up the hill to the village
1677 - Kateri leaves Caughnawaga for the Mission of St. Francis Xavier, a settlement of Christianized Native Americans in Canada. The settlement is also named Caughnawaga (spelled Kahnawake). Kateri makes her first communion on Christmas Day. According to documents recorded by Jesuit priests in Kahnawake, Kateri was known for her kindness in working with the elderly and sick.

1680 - Kateri becomes ill and dies on April 17, 1680, shortly before her 24th birthday.

1690 - On February 8, Schenectady is attacked by a combined force of French and their Native American allies, who had swooped down from Montreal. Sixty settlers are killed in the massacre and many more taken prisoner, but Jacques and his family  are not harmed. Later that spring, Jacques dies of an unknown illness, having dictated his will on his presumed deathbed.

When one walks up the hill from the chapel near the roadside to the excavated village at the top, it is hard to think of all the bloodshed and sickness that roiled around this area three hundred fifty years ago. The woods are peaceful now, the quiet only broken by the crunch of our feet on the fallen leaves and the cries of geese heading south.

Site of excavated village of Caughnawaga

                                                                   *       *       *


In Mohawk Country: Early Narratives about a Native People. Dean Snow, Charles T. Gehring, Wm. A. Starna, eds. Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Kateri, Lily of the Mohawks. Jack Casey. Staff Picks Press, Albany, NY. 2012.

The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha. Diane Glancy. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY. 2009.

National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine. . Accessed October 20, 2013.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

How Grandpa Wetterau Learned Woodcarving

I never knew my paternal grandfather; Grandpa Wetterau died just a couple of months before I was born. He and Grandma Minnie were married in 1912, when she was just twenty-two, and he was 37 years old.

Grandpa Wetterau carving
William Henry Wetterau had come to America as a young teenager around the turn of the 20th century.
As a German immigrant, he must have gravitated toward an enterprise in the village of Fort Plain that was owned an operated by another German immigrant family, the Hix Furniture Company. The company was already well-established when Grandpa arrived in town. Franz Hix had come to Fort Plain in 1852, and after working as a cabinet maker for another individual, Hix set up his own company in 1859. According to Fort Plain - Nelliston History, by Nelson Greene, this company was the first large village industry, and it was an important company for 70 years.

Grandpa Wetterau not only learned a trade while working at the Hix establishment, he became an accomplished cabinet maker in his own right, fashioning many beautiful pieces of furniture with carved armrests or feet, and also crafting a number of monographed bookends, and trays inlaid with Masonic emblems. These pieces are now in the possession of a number of Grandpa's descendants, who cherish them for their meticulous handwork and their connection with the grandfather they never knew.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Penny For Your Sauce

A few days ago I spent $120.00 at the supermarket. We are a household of only two now, and we are hoping to make the food we purchased last for at least two weeks.

The most expensive items on my grocery receipt were meat and fish. But every little item adds up. It got me wondering about how my grandparents managed their grocery expenditures a hundred years ago, during the era when their two cookbooks were written. This was of course before the rise of huge agribusinesses, before the Depression and the Post World War II economic boom.

Pork chops
The title of Grandma VandenBergh’s 1922 cookbook, Eenvoudige Berekende Recepten is literally translated from the Dutch as “Simple Calculated Recipes.” We might translate it more loosely as “Simple Low-Cost Meals.” Each recipe includes a listing of the cost of each item (in 1920’s Dutch guilders), with the total cost of the dish at the end. Thus, a meal of pork chops and potato salad cost a total of less than two guilders for a family of four. [Note: In 1999 the Netherlands became a member of the euro zone, thus abandoning the guilder in favor of the euro.]

At today’s prices in the average supermarket in the Capital District of New York State, a similar meal would cost a little less than two dollars per person:

pork chops                        $4.84
lemon                                  0.79
salt, pepper, margarine       0.35
Total:                                $5.98

1.5 lb. potatoes                            $1.50
1 egg                                              0.10
mustard, salt, pepper, vinegar, oil  0.35
parsley (from my garden)               0.00
Total:                                            $1.95

Compared to the era when my grandparents married and established their households about a hundred years ago, the share of the family budget that goes to food has declined drastically in the United States.*  I find this difficult to imagine, given how frugal that earlier generation was and how careful they were to stretch every penny. Grandma VandenBergh could peel potatoes so that the peel was paper-thin.

And Grandma Minnie, whose notebook was full of cake and cookie recipes, even had a recipe for “Economical Sponge Cake.” Why was it economical? I suppose because it called for only a half dozen ingredients, which were probably already found in the kitchen cupboard.

Here is how I adapted the recipe slightly:

Economical Sponge Cake

1 ¼ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
½ cup hot water
2 eggs
grated rind of ½ lemon

- Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
- Separate the eggs; mix the yolks with half the sugar.
- Add the water to the remaining sugar, add the lemon rind, and mix with the yolk and sugar mixture.
- Stir in dry ingredients.
- Beat egg whites until fluffy; fold in beaten egg whites.
- Bake in greased pan in moderate oven (325 to 350 F.) for 20 to 25 minutes.

Even reducing the amount of sugar in the original recipe by half, the recipe made a tasty lemony sponge cake, for much less than the price of a cake mix.

Grandma Minnie's Economical Sponge Cake

Enjoy it plain, or with strawberries as strawberry shortcake!

                                                            *        *        *

*According to a 2006 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending," in 1900 the average American family spent 43% of its household budget on food; this proportion had declined to 30% in 1950, and to 13% in 2003. See "How America Spends Money: 100 Years in the Life of the Family Budget" for an overview of this report.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Ride On the Erie Canal

Sometimes I think that Erie Canal water is in my genes. Maybe that's because my great-great grandfather Jonas Van Slyke was a lock tender in Mindenville many years ago, my great-grandfather Fred Fineour ran a grocery store along the canal in Fort Plain, and my grandmother Minnie spent her early childhood at the shop on the edge of the canal.

Of course, the canal that now runs along the Mohawk River and connects the Capital District of New York State with the Great Lakes region near Buffalo at the western end of the State is very different from the canal my forebears knew. According to New York State Canals: A Short History, by F. Daniel Larkin, the the original canal, completed in 1825, was a hand-dug ditch 363 miles long, 40 feet wide at the surface of the water, and 4 feet deep. It opened with much fanfare in November of that year, when Governor DeWitt Clinton, having traveled the length of the canal from west to east, and then down to New York Harbor, poured a keg of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean in a ceremony known as "the wedding of the waters."

The canal was so successful in shipping goods along the east-west corridor that it soon became too small for the tonnage it was expected to carry. It was enlarged in the mid-19th century to allow bigger boats to pass and to navigate through the locks in both directions at the same time. The lock that Jonas tended in the late 1860s and early 1870s was probably part of this enlarged canal.  And great-grandpa Fred's store also catered to canalers along this version of the canal.

Around the turn of the 20th century, in spite of competition from railroads, the canal was enlarged once again, to become part of the barge canal system, a 524-mile canal network still under use in New York State, although mainly now for recreational boating.

Gliding along the canal
With my family connection to the history of the canal, I wondered what it might have been like to ride on a packet boat (passenger boat) or line boat (carrying merchandise) in the olden days, and I got a taste of such a voyage by going on an excursion along the canal near Herkimer, NY. In spite of the noise of the motor, it was soothing to be gliding along the calm water lined on both sides with green trees. Of course, in the earliest days of the canal, the boats were towed along at a pace of three or four miles an hour by teams of mules or horses.

Our boat approached a lock, a sort of watery elevator that opened and closed, letting water in and out to enable the boat to be raised or lowered according to the topography of the landscape.

Approaching the lock

Next, our boat entered the lock and the gates were closed. Water rushed out and whoosh! Down we went.

"Going down"

And then the gates were opened to let us out:

Exiting the lock

Our larger boat followed the little white schooner out of the lock. Going back in the other direction, we went through the operation in reverse, and were brought back up to our original level as water rushed in through openings in the gates and gurgled its way into the lock.

"Going up"

Back at the dock, I wondered how many times a day Jonas had run out to the lock to let boats through. Since the canal functioned 24 hours a day, there must have been a team of two lock tenders, one working the day shift and the other the night shift. I wonder who his partner was, and how many times a night his sleep was interrupted to man the lock.

                                                                        *     *     *

 For further reading:

Besides the book mentioned above, New York State Canals: A Short History, I also enjoyed reading Marco Paul's Travels On the Erie Canal, by Jacob Abbott. This amusing and informative story about a young boy's travels along the canal was originally published in 1843, and was reprinted in 1987 by Empire State Books. Marco and his cousin Forester meet many interesting folks in their travels, who tell them about life along the canal. You can find a digital copy of the entire book online at the following link: A treasure trove of other online material, including maps, pictures, and historical texts can also be found here: . For more information about the New York State Canal System as it is today, go to:

Happy reading! And happy gliding if you have an opportunity to paddle, peddle, or glide along the canal.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


My lap desk
I have a little lap desk which I purchased at an antique shop a number of years ago. Every once in a while, I pull it from its hiding place under my bed and add another keepsake to my collection of postcards and fancy bookmarks. A keepsake, according to Merriam-Webster, is "something kept or given to be kept as a memento; (memento = something that serves to warn or remind)." 

There is another older lap desk in my family's possession that belonged to an early relative.

Antique lap desk

When I first laid my hands on it, I admired the grain of the polished wood and wondered whom it may have belonged to. I gingerly opened the lid and found a collection of keepsakes that had belonged to several ancestors who have long since passed on  --  pencils, pens, sealing wax, playing cards, letters, and three small autograph books.

Contents of antique lap desk

I remember having a similar autograph book when I was in grade school, where my classmates wrote doggerel verses  --  "On this page of pinky-pink, I sign my name in Waterman ink"  --  and signed their names. This memento has disappeared in the years since my grade school days.

But who owned the autograph books in the old lap desk, and how far back into the mists of time do they go?

                                                                     *     *     *

Jonas Van Slyke
Once upon a time, a tall man named Jonas tended a lock along the Erie Canal in the village of Mindenville in the Mohawk Valley. Jonas and his wife Margaret had three daughters  --  Kittie, Minnie, and Mary, and later a little boy named George. Kittie was my great-grandmother, born in 1868. The three sisters most likely attended a one-room schoolhouse a short walk from their home.

The youngest daughter, Mary, called Matie, born in 1874, received a small keepsake album, perhaps as a Christmas or New Year's gift when she was ten years old. Hers appears to be the oldest of the three albums. It is not clear who the other two booklets belonged to.

Matie's autograph album

Two of the earliest entries in the album were written by her sisters. On January 26, 1885, her sister Minnie wrote, "When you are old and cannot see, put on your specks [sic] and think of me."

Inscription dated Jan. 26, 1885

On February 8, 1885, eldest sister Kittie wrote, "These few lines to you are tendered by a friend sincere and true hoping but to be remembered when far away from you."

There are also inscriptions by Matie's grandfather, David D. Van Slyke (1813 - 1893), whose elegant script contrasted with his less than perfect spelling.  Grandpa David was particularly fond of Bible and hymn verses:

Undated inscription by David D. Van Slyke

Matie's teacher also wrote in her autograph book:

Note from teacher Ida Fox, November 16, 1885

On the last page, Matie herself wrote, "Don't steal this book for fear of shame . . . " The rest of the inscription is unreadable, the pencil marks rendered illegible by the passage of time. Unfortunately, Matie did not live to the old age her sister's message expected. She died a few days after Christmas in 1888, at the age of only fourteen years and nine months. Her keepsake album keeps her memory alive 125 years later.

In our throwaway era of today, what keepsakes will you leave behind to keep your memory alive a century from now?

Kittie's sisters - Matie and Minnie (undated tintype)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Grandma Minnie's Dandelion Wine

Dandelion blossoms
"Warning! Don't drink too much of this hootch!" wrote Grandma Minnie at the bottom of her handwritten recipe. Although the yellow blossoms regularly flourish in my lawn at this time of the year, I confess that this is a recipe I have not attempted.

You would need to make sure that the flowers were not contaminated with pesticides or animal droppings. Besides, I don't have the proper equipment for wine-making.

During the era of Prohibition, according to language in the Volstead Act, it was still legal to "manufacture nonintoxicating cider and fruit juices exclusively for use in [one's] home." It was this loophole that enabled individuals to make fruit juice or cider, which would of course ferment under certain conditions.

I don't know whether Minnie or Will actually made dandelion wine with her recipe, but I remember Dad telling about how his dad used to make root beer. One time the pressure in a root beer bottle kept in the cellar made the bottle explode, startling the family with the loud noise. I imagine it must have been fun for a five-year-old boy in the 1920's to have a cold drink of homemade root beer on a hot summer day.

Below is a copy of Minnie's original recipe for dandelion wine; I haven't come across the root beer recipe yet. If you do try making your own wine from the recipe, be sure to follow Minnie's advice and not drink too much of the home brewed hootch!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Bicycles in Amsterdam -- Know The ABC's

Bicycle in Amsterdam

From Amsterdam to Zaandam, bicycles are a ubiquitous sight in the Netherlands:

A:  Amsterdam, Netherlands: A city of 800,000 people and 880,000 bicycles (four times the number of cars).

B:  Bicycle: A two-wheeled human-powered means of conveyance.

C:   Cyclists' Union, Fietsersband in Dutch, a powerful lobbying group with 4,000 local (Amsterdam) members.

D:   Dam Square, central square in Amsterdam, where dozens of people park their bicycles each day.

E:   Who has a bicycle in Amsterdam? EVERYONE!

F:   Fiets, Dutch for "bicycle."

A recent article in the New York Times described the current biking situation in Amsterdam, Netherlands. It seems that the burgeoning population of two-wheeled vehicles has become too much of a good thing. As noted above, the city's arteries are clogged with 880,000 bicycles for a population of 800,000, creating traffic jams and overcrowded bike parking lots. As one city transportation official has said, "You cannot imagine if all this traffic were cars."

Bike Parking Lot in Amsterdam
During my most recent trip to the Netherlands two years ago, I had an opportunity to witness the Amsterdam mix of bicycles and buses, cars and trams. Indeed, as a pedestrian you have to look both ways three times before crossing a street  --  once for the bicycles, once for cars and buses, and once for the trams.

While there, I wondered about how the Dutch love affair with two-wheeled vehicles came about. I wanted to know when and how the network of fietspads (bike lanes) were built. I began doing some research, and found an interesting and informative video about the movement to reconfigure Dutch streets and roads during the 1970's.

The resulting system of cycling paths is quite different from the lip service given to bicycle lanes in my hometown, where a silhouette of a cyclist painted on the asphalt is a ludicrous way of letting drivers know they must share the roadway with two-wheeled vehicles. No wonder there are helmet laws in the United States but not in the Netherlands!

One of my own Dutch ancestors had something to do with the early development of the two-wheeled vehicles that tool around the level countryside and clogged urban arteries of the homeland of my Daams and VandenBergh grandparents.

Hendrik Daams of Loosdrecht, a 19th century blacksmith,  used his blacksmithing skills to manufacture stoves and heaters for his fellow villagers. He also made the first push-bicycles seen in Loosdrecht, quite possibly the first seen in the Netherlands. Hendrik's early contraptions did not have inflatable tires like the hundreds of thousands of bikes now seen in Amsterdam and the rest of the country. Instead, they had metal wheels covered with rubber. They did not have pedals either; riders simply pushed this early velocipede along with their feet.

So hats off to Hendrik, who played a part in the history of biking in the Netherlands. There are now about 13 million of these two-wheeled vehicles in his homeland, in cities from Amsterdam to Zaandam.

Bike Parking Lot in Zaandam

                                                                        *     *     *


Daams, J. Czn, "De geschiedenis van een smidsfamilie,” in Historische Kring Loosdrecht, Number 96, February 1994.

"How The Dutch Got Their Cycling Infrastructure," ; accessed 07/07/2013.

Tagliabue, John: "The Dutch Prize Their Pedal Power," New York Times, June 21, 2013.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Aardappelsla -- Dutch Potato Salad

Summer is here! In the United States, summer is a time for picnics, parades . . . and potato salad. We Americans tend to think of potato salad as being as American as apple pie. But both dishes have their origins in the recipes of our European forebears. Take apple pie for example  --  in its Dutch incarnation of appelgebak, it is a treat that I enjoyed in Zaandam a few years ago  --  even better, I treated myself to the rich confection known locally as appelgebak met slaagroom  --  apple cake topped with whipped cream.

As for potato salad, I found this simple recipe for aardappelsla in Grandma VandenBergh's 1922 cookbook, Eenvoudige Berekende Recepten, which I translated as "Classic Dutch Potato Salad":

Aardappelsla: Classic Dutch Potato Salad

- 750 grams (1  1/2 pounds) cooked potato
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 1 teaspoon mustard
- 1 hard-cooked egg
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 3 tablespoons vinegar
- salt and pepper to taste

Cut the cold cooked potatoes into slices or chunks.
Chop the hard-cooked egg finely and mix it with the mustard, the salt and pepper, the chopped parsley, the oil and vinegar.
In a salad bowl, stir the sauce into the sliced potatoes.
You may wish to prepare the potato salad ahead of time before serving, so that the sauce can be absorbed by the potatoes.
As a variation, you can add a small cucumber, sliced, to the potato mixture.

There is a footnote that states: "To make the dish more nourishing and to partly replace meat, you can increase the number of eggs used. One or two eggs can be used in the sauce, and another can be sliced and used to garnish the salad. On the other hand, you can omit the egg altogether and save 12 cents."

This refers of course to "guilder cents," not "dollar cents." In 1922 Dutch currency, the entire dish could be prepared at a cost of only 34  1/2 guilder cents.

Dutch vocabulary:

aardappel (n.)  =  potato; literally, "earth apple"
azijn (n.)  =  vinegar
ei (n.)  =  egg
gekookte (adj.)  =  cooked
komkommer (n.)  =  cucumber
mosterd (n.)  =  mustard
peper (n.)  =  pepper
peterselie (n.)  =  parsley
slaolie (n.)  =  salad oil; cooking oil
zout (n.)  =  salt

For more about potatoes and their usage in traditional Dutch cuisine, see:

"Potatoes Have Eyes"
Potatoes, Part II

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Rose Jar

Whether bright crimson, golden-tinged pink, or delicate yellow, roses are a delight to the eye. They are also a treat for the nose, with their delicate and woodsy scent  --  unless you are allergic, of course! Our rose bushes may fade by the end of the summer, but if you are as enamored of their perfume as I am, you might like to attempt to preserve their scent in order to breathe summer's air in the midst of winter.

A Find

The Rose Jar
Our Victorian Era ancestors did so by means of a rose jar. I found one in the old house, in the room where my sister and I used to sleep when we visited Grandma as children. Lifting the glass lid, I inhaled the scents of rose and lavender, not quite as fresh as when they bloomed, who know how many years ago.

I don't know how long ago someone concocted this pot pourri, whether Minnie or her mother Kittie, or one of Minnie's daughters, but I found a recipe for a rose jar in Kittie's book of household hints, The Queen of the Household, and decided to refresh this old one with this summer's bloom. As the recipe indicates, "It is said to remain fragrant in open bowls for two years if occasionally stirred, but in the closed pot pourri it will remain fragrant much longer."

The Recipe

From the pages of The Queen of the Household:

"An old recipe, warranted to be good, and which calls for great care in the gathering of the leaves. It is said to remain fragrant in open bowls for two years if occasionally stirred, but in the closed pot pourri it will remain fragrant much longer. Pluck the rose leaves early in the morning; with them have an equal quantity of lavender blossoms, and put them all in a large earthenware bowl; add 1/2 pound crushed orris root, and then to every 2 pounds add 2 ounces each of bruised cloves, cinnamon, allspice and salt; let the whole stand for about 2 weeks, thoroughly mixing it every day with your hands, and then it will be ready for use. As pot pourris are charming gifts, it will be wise to arrange a number in order that one's city friends may have odors of the land of roses."

Bruised cloves

Making the Rose Jar

Rose petals
It was not difficult to find rose petals and lavender blossoms; I had some in my own garden, and was able to purchase more to complete the quantity I needed (full disclosure: I preserved the roses from my Mother's Day bouquet  --  merci cheri!). And it was easy to find cloves, cinnamon, and allspice at my local grocer.

But I had never heard of orris root and had no idea where to find it. My research revealed that it is a term used for the roots of the iris flower, which bloom profusely in my very own backyard. When dried, the root of the iris plant is used as a fixative for perfumes and pot pourri. I tried digging up a rhizome from one of the iris plants in my flower bed and left it to dry on a rock. The next day, it was gone, probably a dessert for one of the wild creatures that visit my domain at night.

Lavender blossoms
Further research indicated that I could probably purchase some orris root on the Internet, or I could use lavender oil as a substitute fixative. I decided on the latter course.
The results give off a heady fragrance of rose, lavender, and clove. After enjoying its scent in an open bowl for a time, I will pour it into the rose jar at the old homestead to freshen the aroma of the antique rose jar.

Rose pot pourri

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Like Mother, Like Daughter: Kittie and Minnie's Sugar Cookies

In honor of Mother's Day, I decided to write this post about Grandma Minnie and her mother:

Kittie Van Slyke mid-1880s
Great-grandma Kittie Van Slyke Fineour gave birth to her daughter Minnie on Christmas Eve in 1890. The family would soon move from Mindenville along the Erie Canal to Lockville on the eastern edge of the village of Fort Plain. It was there that Great-grandpa Fred Fineour would manage a grocery and feed store over the next decade.

Keeping house along the canal, Kittie must have tried out recipes from her volume of household hints and cookery entitled Queen of the Household. But tucked in at the end of this voluminous tome, she also inserted a few pages of handwritten recipes that she must have collected from friends and relatives, as homemakers have done over the ages.

Imagine if you will, sacks of flour and sugar delivered to Fred's Erie Canal store, along with tins of coffee, tea, oatmeal, and other foodstuffs. Kittie would make use of many of these ingredients, along with local fruit, milk, and eggs, to concoct the cakes and jams that she taught her daughter to make. Sure enough, as I might have guessed, when Minnie grew up and married, her mother passed some of these family favorites along to her. Seventeen of Kittie's recipes are repeated in Minnie's handwritten notebook; among these are cakes, cookies, and jams. Some that I have tried out already are: raspberry cake, cherry cake, ginger pears, and oatmeal cookies.

Grandma Minnie 1908 (high school graduation photo)

I was intrigued to find two different recipes for sugar cookies in Minnie's handwritten book. This is the one she copied from Kittie's pages:

The other recipe calls for "shortening" rather than "lard"; sour milk rather than sweet; baking powder rather than cream of tartar. Strangely, neither recipe mentions flour. Perhaps the notation "mix soft" in the second recipe is an indication to the experienced baker to add whatever amount of flour would yield a pliable cookie dough. Other more modern recipes that I consulted for the purpose of comparison varied between 2 1/2 to 3 cups of flour for an amount of sugar and shortening comparable to that in Minnie's recipes.

The recipe that calls for cream of tartar is the one that Minnie copied from her mother; it is thus the earlier of the two recipes. I wondered then what was the composition and function of this white powder that I surmise Great-grandpa Fred also sold in his Erie Canal grocery store:

Antique cream of tartar tin from Albany, NY

I learned that one of its culinary functions is as a chemical leavening agent in baking. As the cream of tartar is acidic, it will react with baking soda, which is alkaline, when a liquid is added, creating gas bubbles which make the batter rise. This system of leavening was used before the development of baking powder, which contains both an alkaline compound and an acid salt, thus eliminating the need for the cream of tartar.

Here is my modern adaptation of Great-grandma Kittie's recipe:

Kittie's Old-Fashioned Sugar Cookies

- 3 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar (If you don't have cream of tartar, use 2 teaspoons of baking powder in place of the baking soda and cream of tartar.)
- 1 cup margarine or low-fat baking stick
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon almond flavoring (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a medium bowl, sift together dry ingredients.
In a large bowl, cream together the margarine and sugar. Beat in the eggs, milk, and vanilla.
Stir in the dry ingredients gradually.

And now you have a decision to make: Should you chill the dough, roll it out and cut it into fancy shapes with cookie cutters, or simply drop the dough onto the cookie sheet in tablespoon-size balls and flatten them a bit before baking? It's your choice!

In fact, Minnie had a third recipe for sugar cookies that she got from a certain Emma, who says, "Vanilla or lemon and pat'em for God's sake!" That's my choice as well  --  rather than rolling out the dough, I find it much simpler to chill the dough a bit, drop the little dough balls onto the ungreased cookie sheet, and pat them down slightly with the bottom of a glass. You can leave them plain or sprinkle with multicolored sprinkles to give the cookies a festive look.

Whether you roll'em or pat'em, I hope you enjoy this old-fashioned recipe for sugar cookies.

Minnie and Kittie wading in the creek at a 1908 picnic - dressed like mother like daughter in the latest fashion!

Happy Mother's Day to all you mothers! I hope someone bakes some sugar cookies for you!