By Jamie Larson
Usually content preserving local history, the Columbia County Historical Society
is making a little of its own as the organization turns 100 this year. The longevity is certainly a testament to the quality of the county’s rich story, told in many beautiful structures and collections, but it also speaks to the steady administrative rudder held by generations of passionate CCHS members including a new executive director, Lori Yarotsky
, and curator Anna M. Thompson
"Our centennial theme is, ‘100 Years of Collecting,'" says Thompson. “We will feature a broad survey of collecting habits over the years." This will include showcasing various manuscripts, books and objects from the permanent collection, telling the story of the Columbia County Historical Society from its first iteration in 1916 as a women’s social club, followed by relief efforts during the First World War, and an evolved mission to collect and preserve the history and heritage of Columbia County.
In the spirit of the occasion, which will start in earnest in April and include a list of special exhibits, events and two magazines, let’s explore what the CCHS centennial celebrates through some of the elements of the collection itself:
1. The original Members Pin
The CCHS collection is a symbol of our shared past and there is perhaps no more fitting and memorable image associated with that past than Henry Hudson’s Half Moon. As it is now on the society’s commemorative logo, so it was at the inception. The original “Members Pin," worn by the group’s founding women, was created by New York designer Pirie MacDonald in 1915-1916. The reuse of the original logo imagery is a thoughtful touch that speaks to the CCHS’s attention to and reverence for detail.
2. “The House of History"
The CCHS owns and stewards four properties: its museum and library building (a former Masonic temple), the Van Alen house (we’ll get there in a minute), the one-room Ichabod Crane Schoolhouse (c.1850), and one of the county’s most recognizable architectural jewels, the James Vanderpoel House at 16 Broad Street in Kinderhook. Closed for quite some time for needed restoration, the House of History reopens to the public May 21-22, with special centennial events and new exhibits. Built in 1820 by renowned architect Alexander Jackson Davis
, who designed, along with many other structures, Federal Hall in Manhattan, the Yale secret society's Skull and Bones’ spooky crypt/clubhouse, and Hudson New York’s Dr. Oliver Bronson House, which shares with the Vanderpoel House the feature of a spectacular oblate spiral staircase. The Historical Society purchased the house in 1925, showing that these folks not only support preservation but take an active role in their civic responsibility.
3. The Luykas Van Alen House
Built around 1737, the Van Alen House, at 589 Route 9H in Kinderhook, is the CCHS’s oldest property. Lovingly preserved, the Dutch farmhouse is a prime architectural example of the period and the humble lifestyle of even the county’s more affluent colonial residents. With its low ceilings and period furnishings and decor, the house (open for tours in summer and fall) is truly transporting. The home, family and farm are believed to be partial inspiration for the Van Tassel family in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
. Irving frequented the area to visit his friend who lived just down the street, President Martin Van Buren. This is how the one-room schoolhouse on the property, and subsequently the existing school district, came to be named after Irving’s protagonist, Ichabod Crane.
4. Wealth and agriculture on canvas
The massive painting "Salting Sheep, Sherman and Lydia Dean Griswold" by James E. Johnson (c.1835-1837) hangs 7.5 by 4 feet. It highlights not just the important stature of its life-size human subjects, but also that of its life-size sheep. Created in “heroic-scale," at the conclusion of an important agrarian period (directly prior to the Industrial Revolution), the painting depicts the act of "salting sheep," which apparently was done on Sundays after church. Griswold owned 10 farms between Austerlitz and Chatham in this period. Depicted in the painting's background is Hatfield Farm in Spencertown. During the 1830s, sheep raising was the principal economic activity for local farmers. Reportedly, there were 172,000 sheep in Columbia County at that time and only 40,746 people. Through this (large) window it’s easy to see the agricultural thread that runs through the history of a county where farming is still the largest industry. A number of other significant portraits and paintings are on display throughout the centennial exhibits.
5. The way we sat
The centennial collection also includes beautiful pieces of furniture that make the properties feel appropriately lived in. Highlights of the collection have been newly reexamined for the centennial including this really smart pair of “New York Side Chairs." Mahogany and ash with reproduction silk fabric and crafted between 1810-1820, the chairs are attributed to American cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe and/or his workshop.
"Our furniture galleries will feature late 18th and early 19th century Federal and painted furniture from our collection, including a critical examination of past attributions," says Thompson.
In an area where we are used to celebrating our history, it’s nice to get a chance to celebrate the history of those who made it possible. Here’s to the CCHS — we hope to see a lot of you this spring and summer and another 100 years to come.
For more information on events, including the annual First Columbians gala and fundraiser at the Vanderpoel House June 11 (there will be birthday cake), visit the CCHS website.
Columbia County Historical Society
5 Albany Ave., Kinderhook NY