The Kingston of a century ago is a vanished world, but the past gains some degree of clarity in the new exhibit at the Friends of Kingston Gallery, located at the corner of Wall and Main streets. It's based on a new book that's about to be published by city historian Edwin Ford, entitled Street Whys.
By researching the names, orientation, and former residents of the city's streets, Ford has uncovered a fascinating stratum of Kingston history, which reveals as much about Kingston's working people as the wealthy businessmen who found their opportunity here and exploited it, sometimes ruthlessly. The exhibit features Ford's notes for half a dozen or so streets, which are located on maps and supplemented with historic street signs and vintage photographs. Kingston street addresses also appear on the selection of trade cards, souvenir china, patent medicines, and beer trays that are fetchingly displayed in vintage cabinets. They are from the collection of Mike Stefano, a self-described "bottle digger" who has dug up innumerable buried Kingston privies, the trash receptacles of old.
The lineage of Kingston's streets has been an interest of Ford's for much of his life. "Fifty years ago, I started making a card for each street," said the 92-year-old historian, who arrived in Kingston in 1928 when he was 10. "I went down to City Hall to the clerk's office for deeds." Decades of delving into city directories (which were published annually until 1979), maps, cemetery records and census reports followed. The fruits of that effort has resulted in an unusually comprehensive compilation: Street Whys contains an historical overview of each of the city's 335 streets, which are organized alphabetically. Ford describes how each got its name and delineates how it changed over time.
Echoes of the forgotten past
Ford said the small sampling of streets that are included in the show was predicated by the inventory of historic street signs preserved at the Department of Public Works, which loaned them to FHK for the show. Reading Ford's texts, you'll discover interesting tidbits about the people and events behind names we now take for granted.
Newkirk Avenue, for example, was named for David Newkirk, a banker at the National Bank of Rondout in 1866; he had images of his children carved into the newel post at the foot of the main stairs in his large house at 10 East Chestnut St. Gill Street got its moniker from David Gill Sr., who was born in Ireland and arrived in Rondout from Quebec in 1848. He was in the lumber business and a skilled carpenter who built houses up and down Prospect Street. Prospect was renamed Gill in 1874, a year that saw many streets take on new identities - when the municipalities of Kingston and Rondout merged, streets got renamed to avoid duplication.
Several areas of Kingston are of particular interest to Ford. The most historic is, of course, the Stockade District, which still preserves names dating back to early Dutch settlement. Rondout's streets forever memorialize the names of the board of managers for the D&H canal, who laid out the grid (among them is former New York City mayor Philip Hone). Ponckhockie dates from the Civil War and was developed for both middle- class workers and well-to-do merchants. Lucas Avenue was part of Merritt Farm, which was bought and developed by Bostonian J.W. Wilbur, and Roosevelt Avenue was an upscale 1920s development. Franklin and St. James streets - the latter was the southern edge of Kingston until 1820 - were prosperous neighborhoods in the late 19th century, before the neighborhood degenerated and the fine homes broken up into apartments and boarding houses.
Ford said the city's heyday was from 1880 to 1900, when the population peaked at 35,000 - about a third more people than today. The city was a center of manufacturing, much of it centered along the central spine of the West Shore Railroad. Cigar and shirt factories employed hundreds, and Rondout was a bustling shopping district, Ford said. Workers who lived in houses in Midtown laid out on relatively narrow, 30-foot-wide lots commuted to work on foot or by trolley. Children would live with their parents until they were well in their twenties, when they were able to accumulate enough money to get their own place, said Ford. "You can see in the directories that they had jobs but they were counted as boarders."
It's a blue-collar town
The city abounded with contractors, carpenters and masons. "There was a tremendous amount of skilled laborers up until the 1940s," Ford said. "You'd swear an architect had designed some of the places" built by local carpenters, he said.
The streets themselves were mostly dirt until a surprisingly late date, with only the main thoroughfares - such as Broadway, then known as Division Street, south of McEntee to Ferry (now site of Gallo Park) - paved with cobblestones. When the trolley cars operated in the 1890s and early 1900s, "they'd raise a terrific cloud of dust," said Ford. "The trolley company had to have a spray car with water to keep the dust down." The section of Broadway above McEntee - the "bar" that connects the two "bells" of uptown and downtown - was originally called Union Turnpike, then Union Plank Road, then Union Avenue, before merging with Division Street in 1874 and taking on the nomenclature that is universal to practically every American town and city. But Broadway wasn't covered in paving stones until 1909, said Ford. Streets were widened and straightened after the Civil War, with eminent domain used by the city to acquire portions of property owners' front yards, he said.
One source Ford used in his book is an extensive archive consisting of photographs from multiple real estate listings he and his wife printed as a business from 1965 to 1979. The archives consist of 17,000 photos, a small portion of which Ford has copied in his book to show a typical house on a particular street during a certain era. After each street's historic o verview and description, he includes a list of the residents' names and employment for a particular year.
The city directories proved to be a particularly rich repository of information. Ford owns 70 of these volumes, with the earliest one dating from 1857. Each directory list FHK exhibit are well worth perusing, reading the hand-printed copy requires concentration. The artifacts exhibited in the cabinets are a welcome reprieve and mostly consist of customized trade items distributed by Kingston businesses to their loyal customers - china plates and pitchers, calendars, thermometers, and the like. Stefano, a Kingston resident who works as an insurance investigator when he isn't out digging up bottles and Civil War buttons from buried privies in city back yards, obtained many of the one-of-a-kind items on eBay.
(By the way, his recent archeological finds include 30 bottles of Duffy Malt Whiskey, a cheap liquor from the late 19th century, and glass syringes, which were used to inject mercury to protect oneself against catching a venereal disease, from a privy hole behind a house on Henry Street, obviously a former brothel.)
The rounded, colonnaded façade of the city's turn-of-the-century post office, Kingston Point amusement park, the county courthouse, the high school and Hotel Stuyvesant (now occupied by the Portobello restaurant) are among the city attractions reproduced on the china plates and pitchers, almost all manufactured in pre-World War I Germany. Many of the displayed items were made for L.B. Van Wagenen Company, which sold furniture and housewares, said Stefano.
The well-preserved ephemera of paper calendars, Victorian trade cards and stationery preserves the names and addresses of long-gone businesses. Beer trays and bottles from Kingston's biggest breweries, Hauck and Barmann, are also on display. (Both were victims of Prohibition and out of business by the early 1940s.)
Patent medicine bottles, still holding a vestige of their contents, an unopened package of Heneph's Pills (a "diuretic stimulant"), and other items from the city's pharmacies illustrate another important aspect of everyday life. (It would be interesting to test the contents: Stefan noted that prior to the formation of the Food and Drug Administration in 1904, common ingredients used in medicine included opium, cocaine, and other illicit drugs - guaranteed to make you feel better, if not cure your ailment.) A 1903 receipt from Stock & Cordts, a furniture emporium once located on lower Broadway, indicated a mortuary business sideline: the amount of $41 includes delivery of a dead body by railroad, burial, and transport by sleigh.
For a fascinating glimpse into Kingston's past, don't miss "Street Whys: Anecdotes & Lore of Kingston," which will be on display through October. And be sure to check out Ed Ford's book, which will be on sale at FHK as soon as it leaves the presses.