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State of New York State History

Irene to Irma: Six Years a Blogger

Floodwater ate away part of the Guy Park Manor in Amsterdam, N.Y. Credit Guy Solimano for The New York Times

September 19, 2017, marked the six year anniversary of my writing blogs on the state of New York State history. A month earlier I had written a post for New York State History about a teacherhostel/historyhostel in the Mohawk Valley conducted just prior to Irene. John Warren, the editor of the blog contacted me and asked if I would write a post. I am not exactly sure how he knew about me. I agreed to write one and then a month later began writing posts on a regular basis.

There have been some changes since September 2011. Recently I began writing my own blog. I post them to my IHARE website and then disseminate them as an enewsletter (and in some cases, mainly in New York City and the press, manually). This change means that whereas with New York History Blog, John directed you to the website to read a post, in my case, people are not directed to a website but can read the post in its entirety from the email. I also added social media and print features to the website so people can distribute the post or print it to read it the way God meant for things to be read – with two hands!

In the six years, I have written 278 posts including this one. That means they average less than one a week. This is contrary to the view expressed to me on numerous occasions that I am writing every day! In addition, I do not necessarily distribute all the posts to everyone. I have separate lists based on function so the Tourism list does not receive all the history ones and the NPS may not receive all the posts either. And only a few posts are sent to the press. It’s really up to me for each post to determine which list will receive it. The only exceptions are those people who access the website directly themselves. The website has all the posts both state history and national political.

What has changed in the six years since I began this writing experience on the Mohawk Valley?

To begin with, the situation in the Mohawk Valley is still dire. I recall one teacher in the program from Schoharie County who returned home to later find her pumpkin crop destroyed by Irene and people from lower down staying with her family because they lived at the top of a hill. Certain communities were devastated and I still receive notices from Greene County in areas hit hard by the storm. While Irene may not have garnered the attention of Sandy, Harvey, and Irma, its effects in many small communities have been long lasting.

The Mohawk Valley history community still receives short shrift from the state. The state-financed Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor Commission was eliminated. It was through the bi-annual conferences it conducted that I was introduced to the history of the region leading to the teacherhostel/historyhostel in the first place. In-other-words, it was a heads-to-beds tourism event that leveraged the cachet or brand of the Mohawk name. By combining talks and tours it enabled people to visit smaller sites that in and of themselves were not destination sites but collectively were part of the Mohawk Valley experience. Of course, when I LoveNY took over the Path through History, even the Mohawk Valley name disappeared in the new regional configuration.

People there are trying. There is now an annual American Revolution conference which brings in people from multiple states and countries. People have organized around Exit 29 on the NYS Thruway to collaborate to promote history tourism. People have spoken to the Montgomery County legislature on the importance and potential of history tourism to the county. In a recent familiarization tour by I LoveNY to the region, a small amount of time was devoted to one history site. It was hardly a sufficient basis to judge the Mohawk Valley history experience but at least it was 30 minutes more attention than it has received from the state in the last few years.  The newly-formed Mohawk Country, Inc. represents colonial era historic attractions throughout Montgomery County. According to its press release, its goal is to promote, protect and preserve the counties historic attractions, and in the process create a new tourism model for Montgomery County. Since the demise of the aforementioned Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor Commission there has been no agency working to preserve and promote our heritage. Suffice it to say, just as the physical reconstruction since Irene has been a challenge so has been developing history tourism.

Speaking of destruction, the Walter Elwood Museum in Amsterdam was one of the sites we visited just before Irene. As the picture in this post shows, it was damaged by the storm.  A meeting of concerned Amsterdam residents and local historians recently was held to discuss the rehabilitation and restoration of Guy Park Manor. Committee spokesperson Norm Bollen also of the Fort Plain Museum and the American Revolution in the Mohawk Valley conferences said, “Guy Park Manor, built in 1766, is Amsterdam’s oldest building. It deserves to be restored and opened once again to the public as a place to explore our colonial history and promote heritage tourism in our city.” The initiative, spearheaded by the newly formed Mohawk Country, Inc. was attended by trustees of the Historic Amsterdam League, the Amsterdam Daughters of the American Revolution and the Old Fort Johnson Historic Landmark.

Originally it had been the home of Guy Johnson, nephew of William Johnson. I mention Johnson because he is one of the great unsung characters in New York, Haudenosaunee, and American history in the 18th century. His story touches on almost every people you can think of including Palatines, Dutch, English, and French among the Europeans and the Indian nations not just in the Mohawk Valley but north, south, and west. If ever there was one figure around whom to develop ideas of a multiethnic and multicultural society it is William Johnson hero of the French and Indian War, Haudenosaunee wife, and who died just before the American Revolution in which his family supported the British. In 2011 when we visited his home which is a NYSOPRHP site, some of the brochures dated back to Mario Cuomo. Johnson’s life can provide the focal point for a very relevant history visit and topical discussion but he could use some help from Andrew Cuomo.

The same is true for the Walter Elwood Museum itself. In 2009, two years before Irene, the local museum relocated to the Guy Johnson house in Guy Manor Park. As a house, the building was not designed to be a museum. When we were there, parts of the museum were cluttered to say the least. However if you took the time to examine not the physical objects on the floor but the newspaper clippings on the wall, a whole new life opened up. Once upon a time, Amsterdam was an industrial powerhouse and the home of Mohawk Carpets. Museum Executive Director Ann Peconie’s grandmother had worked there. The workers in the factories were from many countries in Europe. The newspaper clippings attest the civic involvement of these different peoples. They had their churches, social clubs, and activities. It was not a “bowling alone” community that defines the isolation of people in communities today or the earplug people too engrossed in their gadgets to notice what is going on around them.

When the factories left so did the heart of the community…and that was even longer ago then Irene. Now we are all familiar with zombies and the walking dead; factory communities experienced that long before the current Hollywood craze. The museum testifies to the former vibrant downtown community. Today one drives out on Route 30 to the endless chain stores and shopping malls that have replaced the downtowns with places we drive to instead of places we walk to. When I wrote about a teaching local history session held in Newburgh at the recent Teaching Hudson Valley conference, we walked the downtown of that community. I mentioned then that Route 300 with its endless chain stores and shopping malls was part of the city’s history as much as the colonial structures were. How many communities now have their own ugly Route 30 or Route 300? What will happen to them as online purchases continue to grow, chain stores go bankrupt, and shopping centers continue to close? A new chapter in our history is occurring right now.

One other “multi” dimension factor characterized that 2011 teacherhostel/historyhostel. A block of teachers were from Utica. They drove back and forth each day from Utica to Schenectady, then Amsterdam, and to the other locations until we ended in Herkimer (I try to end with a water cruise when possible). As it turns out and unbeknownst to me, Utica is one of the five refugee cities in New York State. Refugees are not the same as immigrants and refugee city does not mean sanctuary city. It refers to people to have been relocated from a troubled area through an international organization. New York City is one of the refugee cities but in a city that size and with all the immigrants it has, the refugees don’t stand out. In a city the size of Utica, they do.

For the teachers, the presence of the refugees was a game changer. They were dealing with students who perhaps had never had running water before, who had not had a permanent supply of electricity, who did not know how to use ordinary appliances….ordinary that is to us. We often overlook that in American history, one of the periods with the most dramatic change in daily American life occurred when people became connected in water, electricity, sewerage, and telephone. Now all that was happening in an instant for people not in the land of their birth but in a new land with a different landscape and weather. And let’s not forget the differences in social norms especially involving girls in American high schools.

Time marches on. The Oneida County History Center (formerly the Oneida County Historical Society) in Utica has opened a new exhibit dedicated to precisely those refugees and their experiences in Utica.

Realities of Resettlement by Hayley Arlin​- Explore the history of refugee resettlement in Utica from 1990-present. Learn about refugee integration into urban life and its effects on the social, political, and economic fabric of the Mohawk Valley.  Taking time to learn about the refugee integration process is an act of friendship and commitment to uphold the rights of these vulnerable peoples.          

Portraits featured in this exhibit courtesy of Lynne Browne

Now, six years later as I look back on my Mohawk Valley experience when I started writing these posts, what do I see? It is sad to watch the history community struggle so hard and for so long for something they love without support from the state. When the Path through History was born a year later, they really wanted it to be something and it pained them to see it become an irrelevant “nothingburger.” Still they keep trying. Maybe six years from if I am still writing these posts it will be easy to be more positive.

10 thoughts on “Irene to Irma: Six Years a Blogger

  1. Dear Bill —

    Thanks for copying me on this. You know I agree in almost every detail.

    Want to mention, apropos of another central hub for all these elements, the great logic of Canajoharie and its thematic/pragmatic Arkell/Van Alstyne axis. I also worry that Ft Plain’s great work may lose steam by overtapping the Rev War tree and audience.
    Canajoharie is a name that covers so much more territory and history than just it’s current town/village footprint and Beech-Nut heritage. It reached to Fort Stanwyx, into the Adirondacks, down to Otsego, and east to William Johnson’s seat of empire.
    Not to mention the name, with its deep Mohawk-Iroquois heritage and contemporary significance.
    The Van Alstyne homestead is finding its feet again — besides its early-18th-c Dutch origin and fab early-20th-c Colonial Revival addition, it houses the only permanent exhibition of the art and documentary work of Rufus 💖 Grider…who founded the Vallrey’s first history museum, working with S. Frey, A.R. Richmond (and W. Beauchamp as advisor/consultant ) and much of its collections still partially intact and with its complete original, Grider-illustrated inventory in house.
    The big news may be at the Arkell Museum. Its art holdings are well known, but it was always intended to have a balanced focus in regional history. And now that aspect is coming into sharper focus.
    The interim director/chief curator, Suzan Friedander, has just accepted the permanent position. She was a key researcher and curator of many of the great history exhibitions at NYSHA over 20 years. She has made peace with the history people on Board and Foundation, and they are finally loosening the pursestrings (Diane Forsberg’s perfectly logical but not well-endorsed art emphasis got political and nasty; sigh).
    Bill, I have an idea for an exhibit next year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Mohawk Community’s return to the Mohawk Valley. Its founder, the visionary and great Tom Porter, is unwell and without the resources to make a major celebration, but Arkell does. And I have researched and now unearthed Rufus Grider’s never-exhibited 100+ collection of drawn-from-original Iroquois medicine masks, copies of which were the basis of a landmark book NYSHA published in the 60s. The backstory is mind blowing and fully documented. The collection is pristine, buried away in the Newberry Library, which is willing to lend; because these are watercolor images depicting but not materially related to the originals (mostly destroyed in the NY State Museum’s fire, there should not be insurmountable NAGPRA issues.

    1. Thanks Alice. Since you are on the IHARE distribution list and receive the post Bill responded to, you will notice that much of it is about the Mohawk Valley week-long program I ran just before Irene. It included both the Fort Plain Museum and the Arkell. Diane Forsberg also is on the distribution list but Suzan Friedander is not. And why not have a 25th anniversary celebration next year? Peter

  2. Dear Peter

    Good essay. As you may know – the Mohawk Valley is one of half a dozen places that I put in my highest circle of care and affection. Its distinctive. Its fascinating and it is loaded with content on the ground – most of it small sites of great importance. While I have mostly lost confidence in state and federal government to ever do the right things by this work – if one was to ask the question – “what would be the best use of a strategic fund, carved out of the I Love NY and related budgets – so you’re not asking for a dime of additional money – simply embracing the certainty that strategic initiatives matter – the Mohawk Valley region would be at the top of my list of places where it would really pay off to provide some resources and leadership.

    Alas, defining the geographic boundaries for such a region has proven elusively difficult. Is Albany part of it? How about Utica and Schoharie? Where does Cooperstown fit in? In an attempt to divide the state into coherant destination regions – years ago – someone came up with the Leatherstocking District – great for the 1/10th of 1% who are Am lit aficionados – but lousy for the general public.

    12 years ago when I was a finalist for the directorship of the Cooperstown museums – my platform was all about tapping the potential of the NYSHA brand and positioning C-town as the hub of a regional tourism wheel that is bigger than the sum of its parts. At that point they may have been intrigued – but since then they have ditched NYSHA, turned Fennimore more into an art museum – than the (to me) more interesting hybrid it was – and continued to emphasize the Cooperstown brand pretty much distinct from anything around it – which I think misses an opportunity – but what do I know? Maybe that’s why they turned to someone else to lead. Glad to have been spared a move, etc. but I would have gotten a different result and then at least we’ve have been given a chance to see if it works.

    We recently had 120 rich folks from all over the US – spend 4 days (and undoubtedly at least $50k) in Hartford sampling the stuff we have here

    http://decorativeartstrust.org/connecticut-from-capital-to-countryside/

    lectures, field trips, workshops and a fabulous dinner at a house of a top notch collector.

    NOTHING like this ever happened here before. It got the various museums – that normally treat one another as competitors or with general indifference – to work together in a way I pray has a lasting influence.

    I applaud Fort Plain for its astonishing leadership and vision – (though the Rev War theme will inevitably hit diminishing returns – the region is about more than that).

    And that’s the question. Where would the leadership come from – because its not for a lack of content on the ground that the Mohawk-Upper Hudson (whatever one wants to call it) region hasn’t realized its destiny as a destination?

    Thanks for all you do. I hope I live long enough to see this fascinating place kick up a gear or two. The preservation of its treasures surely depends on it.

    William Hosley
    Terra Firma Northeast
    Cultural Resource Marketing & Development Consultant

    1. That Hartford program sounds intriguing. Who provided the leadership?

      There is a new head of ILOVE NY and I prefer to be optimistic. I will be writing more about the change in a future post. It’s hard to keep up.

  3. I just want to let you know that I am enjoying the e-mails. I am hardly qualified to comment alongside the remarks from your extremely well-informed subscribers. But be assured I am reading just about every ihare post I get — very much enjoyed From Irene to Irma. Congratulations on your six years of blogging — september 19th is a good day — it’s my birthday!

    I think you should put the blog entries on facebook and follow up with a couple of tweets about how to find them. Twitter was a great resource for me when my last novel went on Amazon — I posted a few somewhat provocative lines followed by a link to the novel and I gained some new readers and sold some novels

  4. Dear Dr. Feinman,

    If physical reconstruction since Irene has been a challenge, what do you make of the steady deterioration of a national historic landmark?

    Q: when is a history museum not a history museum?
    A: when its an apartment building for the relatives of the trustees.

    food for thought.

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