Tag Archives: New York State History

Be a Voyageur!

Since the 1980s, there has been a 36-foot long, 16 passenger (plus two staff), fiberglass Voyageur canoe at the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center in Wellesley Island State Park. No one really knows where the canoe came from or exactly what year it arrived, but there are a few stories told about its origins.  Some say there used to be five Voyageur canoes located in parks along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario and some say the canoe was made by NYS Parks’ employees.  Ultimately, the mystery of its origin is part of its mystique.  What they will say is that every summer for about the last 30 years park visitors and Nature Center staff have headed out on daily trips in our canoe to learn about the history of the Voyageurs and to explore the ecology of Eel Bay, the Narrows, and Escanaba Bay.

Voyageur canoe trips leave the Nature Center docks at 9 am and return at 11 am, but there is plenty for staff to do before anyone ever steps foot into the boat.  If it has rained, staff must bail the canoe and dry the wooden seats for passengers.

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Novice voyageurs head out on their first journey, photo by State Parks.

They also move the boat into place on the docks so it is ready for the day.  When that day’s voyageurs come down to the dock house they are fitted with personal floatation devices (PFD’s) and paddles while being taught about the fundamentals of paddling before heading out to the canoe.  Loading the canoe with passengers can be quite tricky, as people who are likely to be stronger paddlers must be strategically positioned in the boat and the canoe must be balanced on the water to safely leave the docks.  Once the canoe is balanced and its passengers comfortable, staff jump in at the bow (front) and stern (back) and slowly steer the boat out into Eel Bay.

The staff member sitting at the bow of the boat begins the interpretation as the large boat gets underway.  They talk about how the canoe weighs 1,000 pounds empty and how it is made of fiberglass.  As the passengers paddle, they discuss the importance of Eel Bay as a large, shallow water bay on the St. Lawrence.  Then conversation shifts to the Voyageurs who were part of the French fur trading companies that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The interpreter weaves a tale about the adventures Voyageurs had as they transported furs, predominately beaver, from Montreal to trading posts along the shores of Lake Superior.  As the boat rounds the sharp turn into the Narrows passengers learn what a day in the life of a Voyageur was like, from what they ate to how they were paid.  The staff member sitting in the stern who has been quietly working to steer the boat will ease it to a stop as the canoe coasts into Escanaba Bay.  Passengers will spend a little time admiring the plentiful water lilies that dot the bay before reversing course and heading back towards the Nature Center.  On the return trip to our docks, some time is dedicated to floating along in silence, taking in the sights and sounds of the majestic St. Lawrence River.

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Pat and Aziel Snyder standing next to the newly restored Voyageur canoe. Doesn’t it look beautiful? Photo by State Parks.

The canoe had begun to show its age in recent years but last winter Pat Snyder of River Restorations, a local boat restoration company, beautifully restored it to top condition.  A few sections of the gunnels were replaced, the gunnels and seats sanded down and refinished, the seats reinforced to help prevent deflection when people are stepping into the boat, and the fiberglass shell was repainted.  The canoe once again looks majestic and is ready to go out on the water!

Each July and August, look for the return of our sleek Voyageur canoe to the Nature Center’s dock.  For just $4 (anyone over 13) or $2 (under 13) you can join staff from the Nature Center on a memorable journey on smooth waters, travelling the shorelines of Wellesley Island.

For information on upcoming trips, please visit our Facebook page (Minna Anthony Common Nature Center- Friends).  To have enough paddle power to steer the boat, we must have at least 8 people over the age of 18 on board.  To reserve a spot on a trip, please call the Nature Center at 315-482-2479.

Post by Molly Farrell, July 2018

Learn more about Voyaguers:

Durbin, William; The Broken Paddle; Delacorte Press, NY, 1997.

Ernst, Kathleen; The Trouble and Fort La Point; Pleasant Company Publications, Middleton, WI, 2000.

The Allegany Zoo… Who knew?

Millions of people visit Allegany State Park every year, but how many have ever visited the zoo?

Tucked up on the hill, behind the Red House Administration Building among the maples, Scotch pine, and cherry trees, sits the stone foundation of what was once a highly-visited tourist attraction.

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Path to the zoo, photo courtesy of Allegany State Park Historical Society.

Like so many other places on the East Coast, this area (in what is now Allegany State Park) was logged from the 1860s to the 1920s.  Hemlocks, white pines, and hardwoods were harvested to supply large cities with building materials. While humans built houses, many local animals lost their homes and habitat.

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Postcard of the zoo, note the Red House Administration Building on the left, photo courtesy of Allegany State Park Historical Society.

The Outdoor Museum and Zoo was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was intended to exhibit the local animals, birds,  plants, fungi, and rocks of this area. The Zoo’s rectangular foundation (25×40 feet) and 3 ½ foot high walls were built from local sandstone quarried off the hill behind the museum.  Chestnut and cherry posts supported a shake shingle roof. Shelves and brackets around the sides of the museum building supported animal cages, insect trays, unique plants, and rock and mineral exhibits. Cement pools with dry platforms housed aquatic creatures such as frogs, turtles, muskrat, and fish. Since this was a seasonal museum, the CCC oversaw collecting specimens for the Zoo. Upon its opening in 1933, the exhibit hosted a raccoon, skunk, woodchuck, rabbit, chipmunk, porcupine, five types of turtles, and several different species of frogs, toads, and salamanders. Five kinds of snakes had their own special snake pit separate from the rest of the museum. Irving Knobloch, a National Park Service naturalist oversaw the museum and its animals during the CCC days, after which the Allegany State Park (ASP) rangers and naturalists operated the zoo.

Two of the first residents of the Zoo were “Smoke” and “Soot.” The bear cubs were rescued by forest rangers during a fire caused by sparks from the smoke stacks of the trains carrying lumber out of the area. The rangers decided to take the bears home, but as they grew, the small cubs became too much for the rangers to handle; so, they built them a small bear den surrounded by wire. They eventually escaped and roamed the area for handouts.

Another famous creature of the zoo was Cleopatra, a golden eagle, owned by Egbert Pfieffer, a world-renowned bird specialist and ASP naturalist. Cleo was a trained eagle who would sit on Mr. Pfieffer’s arm as he walked around the area. Pfieffer also supplied the museum with a red-tailed hawk, great blue heron, owls, and other birds of prey.Cleo

The Zoo was open from May until early October, when all the animals were released back into the wild. It was closed in 1944 due to World War II and was never reopened. The building was torn down in the 1960s, but the foundations remain.

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Zoo foundation, photo by State Parks.

The cages and displays are long gone; but the Environmental Education Department still tells the story of the zoo. You can find amazing small wildlife like millipedes, salamanders, toads and frogs in or near the pools once inhabited by turtles and fish. One of the frogs, Louise, a green frog, was named by a kindergarten class who first discovered her two years ago.

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Louise the Frog, photo by State Parks

Come visit the zoo, sit quietly on the moss covered stone walls, and imagine the sounds of excited children as they rush from one exhibit to another, looking at and learning about the wonderful wild things of long-ago Allegany.

To learn more about the Zoo and the history of the CCC and Allegany State Park, visit the Allegany State Park Historical Society.

World War II Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario

In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited a small group of Holocaust refugees to the United States. The War Refugee Board (WRB) was established to determine who should come to the US and where they should be housed. FDR sent Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior Ruth Gruber to Italy to bring back 982 men, women, and children. The refugees were from 18 different European countries and most were Jewish. Many had been fleeing persecution for years and had made their way to an Allied-controlled part of Italy. Almost 100 of the refugees had escaped concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald.

The refugees were to be housed at Fort Ontario, which is outside of Oswego, New York, and is now a state historic site. The fort had recently been vacated of troops training to fight overseas. Barrack-like houses were quickly constructed to be the temporary homes for the refugees. The War Refugee Board chose to keep family groups together, and sought people with skills that would be helpful in the camp (for example, seamstresses and carpenters).

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Two story barrack-homes and dining hall (Photos from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

The refugees took a ship from Italy to New York City, then a train to Oswego. After fleeing for months or years, the haggard group arrived at Fort Ontario on August 5, 1944. Many of the adults wore crude handmade sandals and most children were barefoot.

The refugees admired the beautiful grounds of Fort Ontario, but the tall fence around the compound reminded them of the concentration camps they had fled from. The barrier was a security measure and also served to quarantine them in case they brought communicable diseases. Oswego residents had been surprised to hear about Roosevelt’s invitation, and were curious about the newcomers. As soon as the refugees arrived, Oswegians came to the fence to greet them. Children on both sides played along the fence, and beer and cigarettes were passed over by the Americans.

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Refugees receiving shoes, soap, and towels upon arrival (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

In the first days after their arrival at the shelter, the adults were interviewed by WRB staff. They had all passed a background check in Italy, and now officials wanted to determine if the refugees could provide information on Hitler’s Europe which could help the Allied armies.

When the refugees first arrived, many gorged themselves on the food provided during meal times. After years of food scarcity due to the war, they were scared that the plentiful food would not last. Most of the refugees were underweight, so the WRB increased the amount of nutritious food served, particularly milk. The WRB also listened to requests and provided a few traditional ethnic foods such as dark bread, and created a separate dining hall for the Jewish refugees who followed kosher dietary rules.

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‘Lightkeeper’s House’ at Fort Ontario painted by refugee artist Olga Mikhailoff, c. 1945, State Parks; and English practice letter by refugee Stella Levi, October 25, 1944, State Parks.

After the initial quarantine period of several weeks, the refugees were permitted to leave the shelter. Children were enrolled in local schools and were bused in from Fort Ontario. Adults were given passes to go into Oswego and had to adhere to a curfew. In addition, the WRB hosted open house events where Oswegians could enter the camp; the main reason was to assuage local rumors that the refugees were living lavishly.

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Refugees building wooden music stands and orking in the machine shop (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Once the refugees became settled, they got to work. A library was created to provide books, English language classes were offered, and a day care was established. The dining halls and laundries were staffed, and private agencies outfitted workshops for creating products for sale, such as music stands. The refugees were paid a set wage, no matter the person’s previous work experience, funded by the WRB and private agencies. In the fall of 1944, a group of refugees left the fort for several weeks to help pick apples in the region.

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Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Fort Ontario in September 1944 (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Unlike the refugees coming to the US today, the World War II refugees were not initially granted the right to stay in the country permanently; FDR planned for them to return to Europe after the war was won. After FDR’s death and the war overseas came to an end, however, the WRB and federal government could not decide what to do with the refugees. The majority of the refugees wanted to stay in the US, and Oswegian leaders formed a Freedom Committee to advocate for the refugees to be permanently integrated into the community. Six congressmen of the subcommittee of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization visited Fort Ontario to hear testimony from the refugees, Oswego residents, and government officials. Leaders within the refugee committee were selected to give heart-wrenching accounts of what they had experienced during the war, and explain that many had no homes to return to.

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Newspaper clipping showing Boy Scout Troop 28 testifying before Congressmen about their desire to remain in the US (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks) and page from LIFE Magazine, August 1944.

On December 22, 1945, President Harry Truman announced that the refugees who wanted to stay should be permitted to remain in the US. After many months of waiting for a decision, the refugees were overjoyed. Immigration processing began in January and the last of the refugees left Fort Ontario on February 4, 1946. A group of 66 Yugoslavs decided to return to Europe, but most chose to remain in the US. More than half of the refugees were resettled in New York State, and many went to New York City, which had larger immigrant populations. Others were reunited with family in 21 other states.

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Senior conservator Heidi Miksch and Park Worker Brian Hibbert remove part of the historic fence at Fort Ontario. (Kevin Fitzpatrick, Palladium Times)

This chapter of American history is being brought back into the spotlight. Last summer, conservators from State Parks removed a section of the boundary fence for the refugee shelter and shipped it to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “It’s an iconic symbol,” says Paul Lear, historic site manager at Fort Ontario. “It was the meeting place between the townspeople and the refugees.” The fence represents the struggles and successes throughout American history to welcome newcomers to our country: the initial barrier, followed by acceptance.

The new exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum featuring the fence is scheduled to open in April 2018.

Post by Alison Baxter, Excelsior Service Fellow

Special thanks to State Parks staff members Paul Lear and Amy Facca for pictures and resources.

Featured image:  Oswegians conversing with World War II refugees housed at Fort Ontario (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Resources

Fitzpatrick, Kevin. “Section of Refugee Shelter boundary headed to National Holocaust Museum for new exhibit”. Palladium Times, June 30, 2017.

Marks, Edward B. “Token Shipment: The Story of America’s War Refugee Shelter, Fort Ontario, Oswego, N.Y.” United States Department of the Interior War Relocation Authority, 1946; revised 2017.

Fort Ontario State Historic Site

Oswego, New York

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Washington, DC

Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum

2 East 7th Street
Oswego, NY 13126

Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks

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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the New Deal legislation, photo from Wikipedia

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president in 1933, the entire nation was in a state of turmoil never seen before or since. It was the height of the Great Depression: unemployment was at 25%, croplands were failing, and millions of families were going hungry. As governor of New York State, FDR had implemented the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration which put thousands of young men to work reforesting one million acres. Within his first one hundred days of his presidency FDR enacted the Civilian Conservation Corps, a national work program which gave men ages 17 to 28 unskilled labor jobs in infrastructure. The young men were paid $30 a month, $25 of which had to go home to their families. By the end of the program nine years later, over three million men from all fifty states had made significant improvements to the nation’s road system, planted three billion trees, and built thousands of facilities in state parks. The CCC had a major impact on New York’s state parks, with many of the structures remaining today.

 

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The oldest surviving cabin built by the CCC at Fair Haven Beach State Park (and placard).

The CCC was active at Fair Haven Beach State Park from 1934 to 1942. The young men employed by the Corps built roads, cabins, service buildings, and created barriers against waterfront erosion from Lake Ontario. Park manager Jerry Egenhofer says: “The establishment of the CCC – with their readiness to lend assistance with personnel, built in financial aid, and their readily accessible materials – aided greatly in expediting and promoting the park’s development and growth.”

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CCC activities at Green Lakes State Park.

A CCC company of Spanish-American War veterans built cabins, service buildings, roads, trails, the boathouse, the golf course, and the golf clubhouse at Green Lakes State Park. The men transferred tons of sand from Oneida Lake to create the beach in the park.

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Civilian Conservation Corps members constructing the Lower Falls foot bridge in Letchworth State Park in 1935, with the current bridge shown in the inset picture.

Allegany State Park can also thank the CCC for many elements of the current park, including bridges, roads, camp sites, trails, and the ski area. The CCC also worked on wildlife conservation projects, including reforestation and stream bank retention.

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At Bear Mountain State Park, both the Perkins Memorial Drive and Perkins Memorial Tower – named after the first president of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission – were built by the CCC between 1932 and 1934. On a clear day, four states and the Manhattan skyline can be seen from the summit.

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Eleanor Roosevelt is introduced at a Camp TERA meeting, 1933, image from Wikipedia

Bear Mountain State Park also housed Camp TERA (Temporary Emergency Relief Assistance), the first of several camps for women established by then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, nicknamed She-She-She camps. Jobless, single women under 40 from the New York City area spent the summer months in the woods learning new skills and recovering from health problems brought on my acute poverty and lack of food.

At Gilbert Lake State Park the CCC constructed cabins, trails, roads, dams, and erosion control structures between 1933 and 1941. The park is also home to the New York State Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which displays photographs and artifacts from the days of the CCC.

Facing mounting controversy over racial integration, the CCC director Robert Fechner decided to segregate the camps in 1935. The “colored” CCC company at Newtown Battlefield hosted black educators and medical officers, and following complaints from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other advocacy groups, the CCC appointed black officers to command the camp.  The men built cabins, restrooms, ball fields, and the picnic pavilion.

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A CCC worker posing at Robert H. Treman State Park, August 1935. Image from: Friends of Robert H. Treman State Park

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Civilian Conservation Corps emblem, image fromhttp://whs-ushistory-1930s.wikispaces.com/CCC

The CCC contributed to many more projects at other state parks and historic sites not featured in this article. Without a doubt, the efforts of the CCC members created the foundation of New York’s incredible state park system, and their legacy deserves to be remembered and honored.

Post by: Alison Baxter, Excelsior Service Fellow

Sources

Civilian Conservation Corps in the Finger Lakes, Part 1. Walk in the Park, April 17, 2014. (Includes a video with a presentation by State Parks environmental educator Josh Teeter)

Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy

Kahramanidis, Jane. “The She-She-She Camps of the Great Depression.” History Magazine.  February/March 2008.

Prejudice & Pride: Civil Rights and the CCC: Company 1251-c at Newtown”. The Preservationist. Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, 2007.

Thompson, Craig. “Force for Nature: Civilian Conservation Corps”. New York State Conservationist. Department of Environmental Conservation, February 2008.

State Parks Master Plans

Wikipedia

A Century Run for Women’s Suffrage

In 2017, New York State had the honor of celebrating the centennial of women winning the legal right to vote, and it was my job to think of a way to take that celebration out to New York State’s parks and historic sites. Now there are lots of ways to commemorate such a momentous occasion, but what came to my mind first was bicycles, believe it or not. Susan B. Anthony once said “I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” and matching one of today’s most popular physical activities with one of the most important developments in American democracy just seemed too perfect for words.

It might come as a surprise, but a woman on a bicycle was once a threatening sight—a harbinger of social upheaval that was going to change American life forever. Beginning in the 1860s, women on bicycles were depicted as displacing and overshadowing men. They were ridiculed for their mannish muscles and unusual clothing. They were even accused of neglecting their family responsibilities. Nevertheless, they persisted, and by the mid 1890s, women joined a nation-wide bicycling craze, and—after all that worry—they succeeded in changing what it meant to be a woman after all. Even women who did not ride bikes felt the impact of the changes it wrought.

Women in an early velocipede rac, portrayed as masculine-looking, Harpers 1869
Women in an early velocipede race, portrayed as masculine-looking. Harper’s, 1869.

Bicycles went through a variety of forms before coming around to the chain-driven, diamond-shaped frame we are familiar with now. Even though the new design was being marketed in the 1880s, few women attempted to ride the contraption. Cumbersome skirts, and more cumbersome social constructs about women’s frailty, kept them away. But it was only a few years later in the middle of the decade that the drop-frame bicycle (now commonly referred to as “a girl’s bike”) made way for women’s skirts. To make it easier, they followed advice once distributed by radical dress reformers, reducing the layers of petticoats and hemming their skirts above the ankle to make riding easier and safer. Some daring women even adopted the controversial “Bloomer Suit.” Armed with their bicycles, everyday women were now ready to change the world.

The Bicycle--the Great Dress Reformer of the Nineteenth Century, Puck, August 1896, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs
Detail: The Bicycle–the Great Dress Reformer of the Nineteenth Century, Puck, August 1896, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs.

Fashion plates called Gibson Girls became the iconic image of fashionable women in the 1890s. Scribners, June 1895, Charles Dana Gibson
Fashion plates called “Gibson Girls” became the iconic image of fashionable women in the 1890s. Scribners, June 1895, Charles Dana Gibson, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs.

Taking to the roads challenged pre-conceptions about women in the 1890s. The cost of bicycles fell from as much as $150 to as little as $17.50, making them available to not just middle-class women, but also to some in the working poor. Their speed and efficiency eased jobs for some women like laundresses or even vegetable sellers who vended from clever devices built onto their bicycles. Middle class women benefited from the increased social connection, joining clubs—including suffrage organizations—with greater freedom than ever before. They also proved their physical capability, competing alongside men in “Century Runs,” or one hundred mile races. The ideal of the dependent, fragile woman of the mid-nineteenth century was gradually replaced by the more robust image of the active Gibson Girl in the 1890s.

With all this history in mind, I hastily blurted out, “So I’ll make a biking costume, and buy a vintage bike, and ride around at our historic sites telling people about the history of bicycling women!” Never mind that I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since the seventh grade, and I didn’t have a bike, and I still had to make the biking costume—this idea seemed easy in the dead of winter with three months to go.

Author Kjirsten Gustavson in her bicycling suit at Staatsburg State Historic Site lighter
Author Kjirsten Gustavson in her bicycling suit at Staatsburg State Historic Site.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I found myself freshly in possession of a vintage 1963 Raleigh bicycle (a surprisingly-close substitute for an 1895 model) and deeply engrossed in sewing a bicycling costume—complete with a steel-boned corset and reproduction high-heeled shoes. If I was going to go for a historic bike ride, I was going to do it in style!

It took some physical conditioning. I’m not going to say how long ago I had been in junior high, but it was long enough that I needed a little practice.  But just like the women of the 1890s, I found it refreshing to get outside and feel my own legs powering me through rural New York State, and pretty soon it also came with a sense of pride.

When summer was in full bloom, I found myself driving all across New York State with a bicycle and a big smile, explaining to everyone I encountered why going for a bike ride was, in fact, a celebration of women’s independence. I visited seven historic sites from Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua to the Old Croton Aqueduct in Dobbs Ferry during the summer and fall of 2017, and I rode about 40 miles along with men, women, and children who got some exercise and celebrated some history all at the same time.

Author Kjirsten Gustavson on her 1963 Raleigh bicycle at the Erie Canal Boat Landing Museum lighter
Author Kjirsten Gustavson on her 1963 Raleigh bicycle at the Erie Canal Boat Landing Museum.

Kjirsten Gustavson is the Interpretive Programs Coordinator at the Peebles Island Resource Center. This specialized office helps New York State historic sites preserve and share their history with the public through conservation, exhibits, research, and a broad variety of additional assistance.

Featured image: Grems-Doolittle Library: The Heyday of Bicycles in Schenectady, 1890-1910