The Early Years of RCHS

Keeping Green the Memory of Pioneer Days in Rensselaer County: The Early Years of RCHS, 1927-1952

The headline in the December 19, 1927, Troy Record read, “Rensselaer County Historical Society Incorporated Today.” Reading further, one learns that the impetus for this event came both from an individual and from another organization. The individual was Louis Van Antwerp Brown and the organization was the William Floyd Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. It was Mrs. Brown’s desire to establish a fund for “historical purposes” to memorialize her father, Daniel Van Antwerp. She approached the Sons of the American Revolution with this idea but, “it was felt by the officers of the William Floyd Chapter, however, that the purpose of the scope of the memorial would be narrowed by holding it to purely Revolutionary matters and they suggested to Mrs. Brown the establishment of a separate historical society, sponsored by the organization of which her father was so long a member.” Mrs. Brown accepted the proposal and a committee was appointed to look into the matter.

The result was an organization incorporated to “1) Promote and encourage historical research, 2) Disseminate a greater knowledge of the early history of that portion of the State of New York known as Rensselaer County, 3) Gather and preserve books, manuscripts, papers and relics relating to the early history of Rensselaer County and the contiguous territory, 4) Suitably mark places of historic interest, and acquire by purchase, gift, devise or otherwise, the title to, or the custody of historic spots and places and to receive gifts, bequests and devises of any kind to be used for the purposes of the incorporation.”

The original board included a number of members of the William Floyd Chapter of the SAR as well as member from the Philip Schuyler Chapter of the DAR. An attempt was made to include “as many clubs and societies as possible whose activities have historical significance.”

It was pointed out that it was high time that Rensselaer County had its own historical organization. On December 20, a follow-up Troy Record editorial noted that such an organization would correct “…a deficiency that was amazing in view of the rich historical value of the county and especially in view of similar societies that have long flourished in Albany and Schenectady.” The Troy Times editorial on December 20 recognized the challenge in front of the new organization. The “County Historical Society has a large work before it and no time should be lost in bringing it up to a functioning organization working on the broadest and most inclusive lines.” Between 1927 and 1952 RCHS grew to include almost two hundred members. From 1929 on collections, primarily of documents and photographs, but with a number of “relics” as well, were added and housed at the Troy Public Library. Programs, lectures, an important exhibit to celebrate Troy’s 150th anniversary, “pilgrimages” to other historic sites all took place under the leadership of a dedicated group of volunteers, including Mrs. Brown. By the late 1940s it had become clear that the group had reached a plateau and needed to take the next step in its growth.

Beyond the House

The Acquisition of 57 Second Street and the Impact of America’s Bicentennial, 1976-1996

It became clear by the mid-1970s that the Rensselaer County Historical Society had outgrown the Hart-Cluett House and Carriage House. Growth of the collections and demands for programs had outpaced the building’s space. In 1976, the building to the north of the Museum was acquired and a capital campaign was initiated to begin making it into an educational and administrative center. An Education Director was added to the staff in 1980. The first phase of the 57 Second Street project was finished in 1982, providing a meeting room, gift shop and temporary exhibition gallery on the first floor of the building.

It was during this period that the library collections began to grow faster than at any time during the organization’s history. This was due in part to the increased awareness of local history which lead up to the United States bicentennial celebrations. Family history and the history of ethnic groups became very popular, challenging the history field to develop new research methods and resources. RCHS’s collections had been surprisingly rich with information on the everyday life of county residents. Now more conscious attempts to document workers and the county’s ethnic groups were undertaken. The first computerization feasibility study was done in 1981, with funding from the New York State Council for the Arts, to see if collection information could be handled better; it was not until 1994 that a complete computer system was installed. In 1982 RCHS was re-accredited by AAM, a process that had become much more rigorous during the previous decade.

When Breffny Walsh retired in 1990 after 20 years as Director, RCHS was raising funds to finish the second floor of the General Carr Building (57 Second Street) and install an elevator. Anne W. Ackerson, RCHS’s fourth director, made important strides in getting computer technology into the organization and overseeing the continued expansion of facilities at the Carr Building. The new Dean P. Taylor Research Library opened in the fall of 1993. The number of patrons served increased with the new space and better collection accessibility. The concept that the study of history should include more contemporary events was added to programming, exhibits and interpretation of the house. The mission statement approved in 1994 by the Trustees noted that RCHS was a “dynamic, community-responsive educational organization that connects the importance of local history and heritage to contemporary life.”

A Going and Growing Organization: The Hart-Cluett House

A Home of Our Own, 1952-1975

Albert E. Cluett and Caroline Ide Cluett

Albert E. Cluett and Caroline Ide Cluett

In 1948, Albert E. Cluett and his wife, Caroline Ide Cluett, challenged the Historical Society, now 20 years old, to raise sufficient funds to support the operation of their Troy townhouse as a museum. In 1952, the building was turned over to the Society by Mrs. Cluett after a successful campaign was completed. RCHS had a building with great potential as a historic house museum and repository for the county’s historical artifacts and archival materials. Collecting began in earnest. By the mid-1950s, it had become clear to the Trustees that professional help was needed to bring their vision of a museum to reality. In 1957, H. Maxson Holloway, formerly a Curator at the New-York Historical Society and other prestigious museums, was hired as the Society’s first director. Holloway’s immediate plans included the careful acquisition of fine and decorative arts as well as period furnishings to fill the fourteen rooms of the house. The slow process of raising money and acquiring objects continued over a decade. The highlights of this effort were objects and furnishings from the Hart and Cluett families and their descendants, such as the Hart family dining room chairs, circa 1816 and furnishings from the master bedroom of Albert and Caroline Cluett, which were “returned” to the house.

At the same time that the museum collections grew in number, the library and archival collections expanded to include local business records, genealogical information, and personal papers. Educational programs and exhibitions were held in the Hart-Cluett House’s converted carriage house. Upon the death of Max Holloway in 1967, a successor was soon appointed. The second director, Archie Strobie, also trained in the museum profession, hired the Society’s first Curator, Marcia Starkey, in 1968, to catalogue and preserve its diverse and growing collections. In 1970, Breffny Walsh, a graduate of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies, became RCHS’s third director and made significant progress for the institution during the next 20 years. One of her first tasks was to guide the organization through its first accreditation by the American Association of Museums in 1972.

While the Hart-Cluett House and the museum collections were growing, other areas of the organization’s mission were also being addressed. Once the house was opened to the public in 1953, a number of other groups met and had programs at the site. In 1954, the Junior League approached RCHS with the idea of using the basement level for a children’s museum. From 1954 to 1959, the Junior Museum operated at RCHS, often using the carriage house space as well. Local artists also met for classes in rooms in the house, as did the Birchkill Arts and Crafts Guild, until the establishment of the Rensselaer County Council for the Arts in the early 1960s. In 1972, the Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway was founded by members of RCHS’s Preservation Committee to focus on the rich industrial history of the area. As historic preservation became an issue in the community and the nation, RCHS took an active position in favor of preserving the built environment. There were many battles to fight as the pressures of suburbanization, the loss of Troy’s heavy industry and beginnings of urban renewal programs became a part of daily life.