Reporter Donlon preserved Amsterdam history
The deck was stacked against reporter and historian Hugh P. Donlon of Amsterdam in the 1930s. Widowed twice, Donlon raised four boys.
Born in Amsterdam in 1896, Donlon’s first memory was of his father’s grocery store at Market and Division Streets. His first job was as a page for the city Common Council.
Historian Bob Going said Donlon met his first wife, Teresa Baier, in 1914 as she sold tickets at the grand opening of Crescent Park, today’s Shuttleworth Park. Teresa died in 1921 after one year of marriage while giving birth to their son Charles.
Donlon and Anna Frances Nadler married in 1924, the year after her graduation from high school. Three more sons arrived at yearly intervals starting in 1928: John, Thomas and Edward.
Donlon became a reporter at the Amsterdam Recorder in 1930 and started writing his Main Street column in 1931. His first history book came out that year, “The Story of Auriesville,” the Mohawk Valley’s famous Catholic Shrine.
Donlon’s son John, a retired nuclear submarine captain now living in Connecticut, said his father began researching local history seriously in 1932.
That same year Donlon’s wife was admitted to the Montgomery County Tuberculosis Sanatorium atop Swart Hill Road in the town of Amsterdam. A nursing home occupies that site today.
John Donlon wrote, “Hugh truly raised his male quartet almost single-handedly. His widowed mother Mary McGrail, home-owner in residence, helped until she died in 1936. His spinster Aunt Margaret McGrail of Schenectady came to the rescue and lasted until she died in 1937.”
Donlon visited his wife three or four times a week, climbing Swart Hill from the trolley stop on Route 5 as the family had no car.
Anna Frances Donlon died in 1938. John Donlon said, “Retired bachelor and namesake Uncle Hugh McGrail tided us over into the not-so-banner 1938. Uncle Hughie couldn’t boil water when he arrived; he became a great cook in a couple of weeks. Surprisingly, he was marvelous around kids. We had fun every day! But even he faded in health and departed for Schenectady.
“We got a full-time, no-nonsense, great cook, opinionated, stern and grandmotherly Sarah Barton of Hagaman in late 1938. She stayed until 1946.”
Hugh Donlon had started work on a book called “The Mohawk Valley” in 1932. He used one week of his two-week annual vacations to do research at valley libraries and archives. Home research was done at the dining room table. He typed the manuscript in a second floor office and bedroom at the family home, 13 Kimball St.
In the dedication, Donlon credits his sons, “Whose contribution to this book was undisturbed slumber through night hours while their father worked.”
John Donlon wrote, “Those hours were generally from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. or later. He invariably arose at 7. Nearly every day he’d nap for 30 minutes before dinner. Several nights a week involved covering meetings.” Donlon played the organ at St. Mary’s Church and was a member of the city Civil Service Commission, helping write exams for firemen and policemen.
By 1940 Donlon had finished “The Mohawk Valley.” Many publishers plus Union College and the State Education Department were approached. It remains unpublished and John Donlon retains the sole 380-page manuscript.
Hugh Donlon married local nurse Ethel Palmer in 1951. Palmer originally was from Buffalo. Donlon retired from the Recorder in 1971. In 1973 he published “Outlines of History: Montgomery County.” His best known book was published in 1980: “Amsterdam, New York — Annals of a Mill Town in the Mohawk Valley.” Donlon died at age 93 in 1989; Ethel Donlon died at age 98 in 1993.