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New home, again

Amsterdam's attic: Elwood Museum returns in new home

Thursday, October 10, 2013
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Executive director Ann Peconie stands in the Elwood Museum’s library, which contains hundreds of books about Amsterdam and the Mohawk Valley.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Executive director Ann Peconie stands in the Elwood Museum’s library, which contains hundreds of books about Amsterdam and the Mohawk Valley.

— It was only four years ago that the Elwood Museum of the Mohawk Valley made its big move.

After 40 years in an old Amsterdam elementary school, the museum and its more than 20,000 objects were shifted to Guy Park Manor, a Revolutionary War-era residence overlooking the Mohawk River.

A state historic site, the Manor was the museum’s third home in its 74-year history, and objects — paintings and cannonballs, butterflies and books, and so much more — were carefully arranged in its rooms. In May 2010, the museum threw a party and officially opened its doors again.

“We expected to be there long past my life,” says Ann Peconie, the museum’s executive director.

Then came tropical storm Irene and the horrible flood of August 2011, when a ferocious Mohawk River surged through the stone mansion.

And the Elwood Museum, with most of its collection miraculously intact and removed to safety, was looking for a new home again.

Walter Elwood Museum of the Mohawk Valley

WHERE: 100 Church St., Amsterdam

WHEN: Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday

HOW MUCH: Adults, $3; seniors, $2; children age 12 and under, free

RELATED EVENT: Grand re-opening from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26. Admission is free.

MORE INFO: 843-5151, www.walterelwoodmuseum.org or Facebook

On Saturday, Oct. 26, after a hiatus of more than two years, the museum will open in its fourth home, a rambling industrial site on Church Street that housed the Bigelow-Sanford carpet mills and then the Noteworthy Co.

"The grand opening is free for the public. We want every one to see the new museum," says Peconie.

Purchased from the Constantino family, owners of Noteworthy, the 100,000-square-foot complex is the museum’s largest-ever space, with unlimited potential for exhibits, activities, programs and community meetings.

The Guy Park Avenue school, the museum’s second home, had 11,000 square feet; at the manor, there was 6,500 square feet.

“That’s what’s wonderful about it,” says Peconie.

After the deal was announced in February, the space was cleaned and painted. Then the collection had to be moved from the former Fuccillo auto dealership on Division Street, where it was stored since the flood.

Months of work

For several months, Peconie and her crew of volunteers and students in community service have been creating a new Elwood museum that inhabits 50 to 60 percent of the complex.

Visitors step back in time in the entrance hall of the main building, which was hewn from limestone in the mid-19th century. Taxidermied heads of a moose, elk and caribou hang overhead, and on the wall, there’s a handsome illustration of the Bigelow-Sanford mills.

We also meet Walter Elwood, who appears as a young man in his Red Cross uniform in a World War I portrait. An Amsterdam teacher, naturalist and world traveler, Elwood founded his museum in 1939 in city’s Fifth Ward elementary school. He died in 1955 at the age of 69.

From the entrance, visitors turn left and pass through the gift shop to visit the library and six exhibit rooms, each with a theme: toys, carpets, military, local artists, natural history and local culture/society.

If you make a right turn and go up the stairs, you’ll find the Native American room. On the way, in a large glass case, there’s an eye-catching exhibit of women’s hats, from a wide-brimmed black Victorian picture hat, trimmed with tall black feathers, to a Jackie Onassis-style pillbox.

“That’s our very famous Tiffany lamp,” says Peconie, pointing past the hats to a lamp with an unusual shade that was custom-made from lantern slides of birds, bears, skunks and other animals.

A cavernous storage area is on this floor, too.

“Porcelain, glass, lanterns,” says Peconie, ushering a visitor into one of the rooms. On wooden shelves, dozens of tea cups are lined up neatly, along with old-fashioned iron cookware.

Another room is packed with racks of antique clothing.

“The Walter Elwood Museum has become Amsterdam’s attic over the years,” says Peconie, with residents donating interesting things from their families.

20% from Elwood

In the 1930s, the collection was “100 percent Elwood,” she explains. “It’s only 20 percent now.”

Back downstairs, one of the new permanent exhibits is about Amsterdam’s carpet industry, which prospered in the 1800s and then faded in the mid-20th century.

“There’s no way we could move in here and not do a room on carpets,” says Peconie. “We were the carpet city.”

There are photos, tools, remnants of real carpets made in the city, and an odd-looking machine that once tested the strength of the yarns.

“It was well known that the mills here only would use the strongest of yarns,” says Peconie.

Hall of Natural History

The hall of natural history is filled with dozens of stuffed-animal mounts, including an elephant’s foot, an anteater and many birds.

“Be careful, don’t step on the polar bear,” Peconie says, indicating a white fur shape on the floor that was waiting to be hung on a wall.

For years, children have been running up to a pair of taxidermied baby deer and asking if someone shot them.

“The mother deer was struck by a car,” Peconie tells them.

This was during Elwood’s time, and when he found out, he had the doe taken to a taxidermist, who discovered the fawns inside the doe.

Many of the mounts came from the estate of Robert Frothingham, a Fonda businessman who was a hunter and world traveler.

When Frothingham died in 1939, the charismatic Elwood asked his widow for the contents of her husband’s trophy room.

In the room devoted to local artists, visitors will see a Mary Van Der Veer painting of a mother with a baby in a cradle that was recently donated. Van Der Veer, Elwood’s cousin who lived from 1865 to 1945, was an accomplished oil painter.

And then there’s the toy room, with its shelves of vintage and antique playthings.

“People love this. From Victorian to Mickey Mouse and the Barbie car,” says Peconie.

“When you move from place to place, people want to see these things.”

While some of the rooms will not change much, Peconie says there will be at least three cases that will change three or four times a year.

Corps of volunteers

Peconie, who works 30 hours a week as curator and administrator, has only a part-time maintenance and facilities person as her staff.

She has 20 to 30 volunteers who help her plus student volunteers, youth who are doing community service and college students on internships.

Paid membership jumped from 300 to 500 after the flood, she says.

“We are always looking for volunteers ... experts on the Civil War, dolls; help with exhibits and the children’s room. The more minds the better.”

The museum is also renting space to the Montgomery County Literacy Project, a security company and a flooring company.

“The tenants allow us to cover our operational expenses,” she says.

The newest tenant is the ALCO Historical & Technical Society.

“We’ve given them an exhibit room for free,” Peconie says.

Visitors who know the museum will notice that the Victorian Room is missing, as most of its objects were lost in the flood, including a beautiful organ made of cherry wood.

“We’ve never found a piece of that organ. It moved down river,” Peconie says.

The Discovery exhibit, a new interactive display for children, was also lost.

Goals and dreams

Peconie has a long list of goals and dreams for the museum’s new spacious home.

She’d like grant money for after-school programs and historic status for the building.

In the planning stages are a new children’s exhibit, with a colorful wall mural, in a large room that overlooks Caughnawaga Creek; and another room for where children and adults can do programs.

Peconie would like to invite small historical societies to make their home here, to form “a historical, cultural community campus.”

And for visitors?

“I hope they feel a sense of the history of the building they are standing in. People came here for the power of the water. First the native Americans, then the English with their mills, then the immigrants who worked in the mills,” she says.

“They can feel a connection to the past. The exhibits teach us about ourselves, about our present and our future.”

Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or kbjornland@dailygazette.net.

 
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