Ames Museum keeps village history alive

E.B. White, author of “Stuart Little,” visited Ames in Montgomery County. Village historian and Ames Museum curator Dennis Malcolm opens White’s chapter 13, titled “Ames Crossing.” (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

AMES — The village of Ames was once part of a bustling region—Ames, Buell and Sprout Brook—with some 30,000 residents.

In the 1870s and 1880s, it was “the largest hop-growing region in the United States,” said village historian and Ames Museum curator Dennis Malcolm. “We shipped hops on the Erie Canal to Albany and Buffalo” for beer brewing,” he said.

It was a region of “long-neck brown bottles, cards, roulette and some ladies of the night,” Malcolm said.

That was until the “hop blight of the early 1880s killed it off, and everybody left.”

Ames is the smallest incorporated village in the state, chartered in 1924. It now has some 150 residents, is situated seven miles south of Canajoharie and three miles north of Sharon Springs, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We’re one of the best kept secrets of Montgomery County,” he said. “We’re so small most people who go by here blink and miss us.”

The museum and surrounding land was deeded by Abiel and Susanna Bingham to the village, which used it partly as offices for a time. A coal house containing old historic implements, a playground and a Methodist church are on the land. A Baptist church was there at one time.

The building was the home of Ames Academy, which began operation in 1837. By 1859, it had two teachers and 80 students, 67 percent of whom pursued classical studies.

Tuition for the private school was $3 per semester or $6 per year. “For tuition, you could pay cash, a barrel of apples, a side of beef, a cord of wood, any kind of vegetables, or once a week you could clean the schoolhouse,” Malcolm said.

“The older kids, grades six to nine, had to carry firewood and bring in drinking water,” he said.

“The academy had its own library with over 600 books, and it taught four foreign languages—Latin, Spanish, French and German.”

The museum has old copies of Adam Smith’s economic treatise, “The Wealth of Nations,” and John Locke’s political work, “Treatise of Understanding.” It has copies of “Dick and Jane” readers, which postdated the academy, being introduced in the 1930s and used as late as the 1970s in the United States. The museum has school maps so old that Egypt, Algeria and Libya are the only African nations that now have the same names.

Enrollment in the academy eventually dwindled, and in 1867 the academy became the public Union Free School. In 1901 it consolidated with Mapletown and the Dewey District becoming District No. 7. It became centralized with Canajoharie Central School District No. 1 in 1945. In 1959 Gertrude Hague, the last teacher, closed the doors to the old school.

In August, the museum held an annual reunion of students who had been taught in the building. Thirty-nine came, ages 69 to 94, Malcolm said.

When Beechnut was the major employer in Canajoharie, “almost 90 percent of people here worked or had family who worked at Beech-Nut,” he said.

The museum has “the largest collection of Beech-Nut traveling circus figurines” anywhere, he said. The company once employed salesmen all over the country to sell its products—candy, gum, lifesavers and cookies, he said. The company also supplied food products for troops in the Spanish-American War and World War I,

Plenty of old-fashioned items are in the museum. A spinning wheel to turn flax into linen and a 1930s radio and 78 speed record player combo are there to see. In the old coal house is a bone grinder to crush leftover chicken bones to conserve the calcium for the chicken feed and an 1878 Montgomery Ward field seeder.

In 2002 Ames lost its post office, which was housed in the former Sunset Corners general store. The museum retains samples of the postal boxes where villagers once picked up their mail. The Sunset Corners building once contained Scott’s Opera House, a doctor and an undertaker. “That was the center of the entire village,” Malcolm said.

E.B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little,” passed through Ames in 1945. As a result, chapter 13 in “Stuart Little” bears the title, “Ames Crossing,” Malcolm said.

Before Malcolm became curator, Maude Vanarsdale, ran the museum from 1988 to 2012. A former coal mining engineer, Malcom was a substitute teacher for a total of almost 20 years in Sharon Springs, Cherry Valley and Springfield schools. “I love history,” he said. He believes young people are not learning enough history since teachers have so much ground to cover in so little time.

While the village owns and maintains the building, the museum also relies on donations to upgrade and enhance itself, including Eagle Scout projects such as wheelchair ramp, shelf units and a sign.

Even the front of the museum is historical. The outside rung of a steam locomotive wheel hangs as one of only three fire gongs in the United States, Malcolm said.

“When you hit this with a hammer, you can hear it all over the valley,” he said.

To visit the museum at 611 Latimer Hill Road, call (518) 673-5820 or email [email protected]

By Kerry Minor

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