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Walter Elwood Museum

-by Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar, Montgomery County Historian/RMO - Oct, 2008

The Mohawk Valley, specifically Montgomery County, is in grave danger of losing one of its vital cultural and educational resources. The Walter Elwood Museum in Amsterdam was forced to close its doors when the Greater Amsterdam School District board shut off access to the building citing health and safety concerns. With the doors closed pending resolution to the current situation, residents and students

The collection of the Walter Elwood Museum and the building in which it is housed have a long history dating back more than two centuries. Much of the area’s civic development, agricultural and industrial growth, and educational resources can be seen at 300 Guy Park Avenue.

Back when Amsterdam was a mere rural stop on the Mohawk Turnpike, before the trolley cars motored up and down Market Hill, before mills and smokestacks dotted the skyline, and before neighborhoods were identified by their ethnic communities, education was a vestige provided only to the more affluent and privileged residents. Those children whose families could not afford the cost of education were destined to a life of illiteracy or low wage jobs.

As the idea of free education caught on in the later nineteenth century, schooling became more available to the working class. Small schoolhouses popped up throughout Montgomery County and across the city of Amsterdam allowing the prospect of an education to a broader spectrum of the population.

The combination of several district schools in 1895 resulted in the creation of the Amsterdam School District. This period in Amsterdam’s history, the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was marked by considerable development in the city’s industrial arena. With the increasing number of carpet and knitting mills and broom factories came the influx of workers and their families. The establishment of additional schools around Amsterdam evidenced the continuously growing population of the city.

The Guy Park Avenue School opened on December 1st 1902, following Thanksgiving recess, as the second school of the district’s expansion. Five teachers, including Miss Georgie Bowers of Johnstown as the school’s principal also being charge of the fifth and sixth grades, had the charge of 150 students coming from the west end of the city. Other teachers included Miss Mary Carter, of Buffalo teaching Kindergarten; Miss Fanny Huntley for first grade; Miss Nellie H. Blood for second grade; and Miss Blanche O. Conover for third grade. There must have been some cooperative instruction for the fourth and seventh grades among the other teachers since the newspaper did not list any educators for those particular classes.

The Amsterdam Evening Recorder touted the structure as the “handsomest of the city’s public school houses… constructed [by local contractor Henry C. Grieme] of cream colored hydraulic pressed brick with terra cotta trimming” reflective of the renaissance style of architecture. Steel ceilings, Portland cement wainscot on the walls, woodwork made from North Carolina pine, and maple flooring added to the building’s aesthetic interior appeal.

Designed by the architectural firm of Fuller & Pitcher out of Albany, the district superintendent and members of the school board all had a voice in the plan of the school. A separate recitation room on the second floor, considered an advancement in educational instruction, allowed the principal, also on the second floor, to “hear classes while not interfering with other students in the department who are engaged in study, and permitting their teacher to watch over them at the same time.” None of the other schools in the city contained the innovative dustless removable blackboard troughs incorporated in each classroom. Dust from the board, chalk and erasers filtered through a wire screen on top of the trough to a receptacle below that could be removed and emptied.

Amsterdam City students in Kindergarten through Seventh grade, residing west of Yeomen Street, attended the Guy Park Avenue School. Previous to the December 2nd 1902 opening, students had been attending half-day sessions at the West Spring Street School.

Local educator Walter Elwood succeeded Mrs. Lela G. Dodge in his appointment as Superintendent for the Second District of Montgomery County Schools in July 1916. Less than two years later, he resigned his position to serve with the Y.M.C.A. army work force in France. For the majority of his life, Elwood accumulated artifacts locally and around the globe to build the collection that he would bequeath to the Amsterdam School District upon his death. The museum boasting his name formed around that collection in 1940 when it was founded in the former Fifth Ward School.

The opening of the Clara S. Bacon Elementary School in 1966 freed up the Guy Park Avenue school to house the Elwood collection, moving from the Fifth Ward school two years later. At the time of the move, the New York State Council on the Arts estimated the collection to be valued in excess of $1 million. Since that time, the collection has grown and the museum has provided a “hands-on” education for the children of the Greater Amsterdam School District teaching the history and heritage of the Mohawk Valley.

The Walter Elwood Museum and its collections are recognized to be the one of the largest school owned museums in the United States. In 1979, Laura B. Chodos, then vice-chairman on cultural education for the New York State Board of Regents, upon a visit to the Elwood museum, complimented the Greater Amsterdam School District. She was quoted in the newspaper as saying that as owners of the museum, the school district was “way ahead of most school districts” with regard to enhancing the cultural education of its students through their visits to see the collections.

In 1995, New York State along with the National Park Service recognized the architectural and educational significance of the Guy Park Avenue School by listing the building on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

From the 1807 hand-drawn map of Amsterdam, to the cabin exhibit demonstrating pioneer life and farming through the use of early agricultural implements, to learning about the development of transportation in New York State including the Erie Canal, to the wildlife and nature exhibits/specimens, to the art exhibits and summer programs, the Walter Elwood has and continues to foster not only civic pride but also a community awareness in a society where people are fast losing a sense of themselves and others due to impersonal nature of technology.

I forget where I read it but, to paraphrase what someone once said is “we have to understand history to get a sense of who we are and where we are headed.” The Walter Elwood Museum strives to provide that understanding for the patrons, adult and child alike, who come through the doors. It would be a travesty to lose the collection that gives us that sense of our heritage and it is just as devastating to lose another historical landmark that was once a significant part of Amsterdam’s educational past.

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