BLASTS FROM THE PAST: 70 years of the Fulton County Historical Society

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Kingsboro Elementary School, constructed 1900 and in use until 1972, now the Fulton County Historical Society and Museum. 

This year, the Fulton County Historical Society is celebrating its 70th anniversary. 

Well, sort of. 

In 1952, after a group of preservation-minded citizens convened and agreed to establish a county historical society, a document of incorporation, dated 1891, was discovered in the Gloversville Public Library. The March 21, 1891 edition of the Albany Argus reported that a historical society was formed at the library three days previously. Professor Aldolph L. Peck did all the preliminary work to form the society. Peck was the Gloversville library’s first professional librarian; born in Vienna, he came to Gloversville in 1869 to work in — what else — the glove industry. This profession didn’t suit him, however, and he soon became a teacher and began his tenure at the library in 1880, the year of its founding. 

This earlier version of the historical society had 13 charter members and nine board members, only one of which was a woman. Electa Hildreth Fay was the widow of George W. Fay, a successful and wealthy businessman in the clothing trade and former Assemblyman from the Fulton-Hamilton district. Electa was a philanthropic socialite who devoted much of her time and her money to local organizations. Upon her death in 1898, she left the library $25,000, which they used to set up the Fay Legacy Fund. 

It seems that sometime in the 1930s, the earlier historical society stopped meeting and was mostly altogether forgotten. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that the Fulton County Historical Society, as it exists today, was formed. A new constitution was drafted and officers elected. Rev. Harold P. Kaulfuss from Trinity Church was elected as President; Mrs. Arthur Lathers as Vice-President; Alice B. Cook as Secretary; and Vern Steele as Treasurer. There were 77 charter members. Later presidents included county historian Dr. Robert Palmer, Vern Steele, Harold Smith, Ellsworth S. VanDerVeer, and another county historian, Lew Decker, who was the youngest man to hold the presidential title when he took over in 1966. 

Without a permanent home, the historical society met at the Gloversville High School. They were still very active, hosting speakers and programs that included Ulysses S. Grant III, the curator at Valley Forge, the superintendent at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, and others. Once a year, the group met with the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution at Burk Tavern in Johnstown. The FCHS revived the tradition of hosting an annual commemorative dinner for the Battle of Johnstown in 1966; the first dinner was held in 1928 and stopped sometime shortly after. 

The historical society received its provisional charter from the NYS Board of Regents in November 1967. If a museum or historical society in the state wishes to have a physical collection, chartering is an important step in the process. Incorporating is a prerequisite for applying for 501(c)3 status; it protects the organization’s collections; and it provides them with the recognition of being a member of the University of the State of New York. The FCHS provisional charter was good for three years and would now allow the organization to begin collecting. The society was given a cabinet in a room at the Gloversville Library that housed items they had been collecting over the past year, including an old bottle, a Herkimer diamond from the bottom of Lake George retrieved by the Albany Skin and Scuba

Diving Club, and an interesting pigeon nest made with no. 16 tie wires from the Dunn Memorial Bridge (spanning the Hudson and connecting Albany and Rensselaer). 

The FCHS received its absolute charter from the NYS Regents on April 28, 1972. Now that the historical society had begun collecting, the need for a permanent museum became evident. The board created a committee to explore the idea. As early as 1971, there was a suggestion to turn the old Nathan Littauer Hospital into a museum and cultural center. This never happened, of course, and the hospital was razed. 

But in 1972, three elementary schools in Gloversville closed and consolidated: McKinley, built in 1892 on McKinley Pl.; Columbia, built in 1893 on N. Main St.; and Kingsboro, built in 1900, on Kingsboro Ave. The three buildings were almost identical, and over their combined 221 years of operation saw 6,900 pupils come through their doors. By the early 1970s, the buildings were considered outdated. There were no playgrounds, the gymnasiums were in the basements, and there just wasn’t enough space — the 2nd floor hallway was used as the library at Kingsboro because they had nowhere else to put the books. 

A new Kingsboro Elementary School was built on W. 11th Ave. and opened in 1972, with Don Williams serving as its principal. The three older buildings were closed. Columbia was deeded to the City Recreation Commission. There were no plans for McKinley. But the question of what to do with Kingsboro would bring slight controversy to the city. 

There were two parties interested in the building: the Fulton County Historical Society and Delking Realty, who also owned the building that housed the Fulton County Silk Mill next to the old school. In March 1972, it was announced that the Board of Education tentatively planned to give the building to the historical society for use as a museum, providing they had the funding to run it and doing so aligned with state education law. There were other requirements as well, including that the FCHS verify its existence as an incorporated body under the NYS Regents and eligible to receive property and demonstrate fiscal ability to support the museum for one year. The deed also included a reverter clause, stating that if the building ceased to be used as a museum, it would go back to the school district. 

The controversy arose from whether the BOE had the authority to make the decision on their own without consulting taxpayers — especially because the organization would not pay property tax as a 510(c)3. Though the community, the Common Council, and the Board of Supervisors generally supported the idea and saw the benefits of having a museum, there were still those who disagreed with the way the situation was handled. “Controversy surrounding the former Kingsboro Avenue School . . . reached the floor of the Common Council at its meeting last night at City Hall,” read the May 24, 1972 issue of the Leader-Herald. The council approved a resolution 9-2 to give the building to the FCHS and authorized a contribution of $1,000 to the historical society for expenses of the museum. 

5th Ward Alderman Frederick Chatterton felt there should have been a referendum for public vote to determine the building’s fate. City attorney Angelo Lomanto explained that the silk mill had a non-conforming use zoning designation that couldn’t be expanded — it was legally almost unheard of, and would require rezoning of school property, creating a “severe stumbling block” for the silk mill to take over the building. Chatterton and 4th Ward Alderman Albert Hoggins were the two opposing votes. 2nd Ward Alderman Margaret Ambrosino was absent. 

The museum opened to the public on February 3, 1973. It was set up by the Explorer-Yorkers Post 1776, which Lew Decker was in charge of. The first special exhibit was “Crime and Punishment in Fulton County.” It was manned by uniformed state police and included items on loan from the Fulton County Sheriff, the state police, and the Gloversville and Johnstown Police Departments. Neighborhood kids were interested in the goings-on and helped to convert the building into a museum. 

Over the past 70 years, the Fulton County Historical Society has continued to grow. The organization has been mostly volunteer run until June 2019, when the society hired its first full-time Executive Director (yours truly). The exhibits, displays, programs, and events over the years were carefully crafted by dedicated members of the community who understood the importance of preserving local history in order to better understand and shape our future. 

Just like everywhere, the pandemic hit the FCHS hard, closing the museum’s doors for a year and putting all of the initiatives and plans the organization had on hold. Our 70th anniversary seems like the perfect moment to re-launch and encourage renewed interest in the society. In honor of this commemoration, the FCHS has launched its 70 for 70 Campaign with a goal of raising $70,000 by June 2023. 

If you haven’t visited us recently — or ever — please stop by. We’re open Thursdays through Sundays from 12-4 p.m. through Labor Day and Saturdays and Sundays from 12-4 from Labor Day to Columbus Day. There is no charge for admission. We offer a number of programs and events for all ages throughout the year. If you can’t make it during our open hours, we’re also open for visits by appointment. You can find all of the information on our website at fultoncountyhistoricalsociety.org. You can also learn more about membership in the FCHS and the 70 for 70 Campaign and how to donate. I hope to see you at the museum soon.

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