ONEONTA HISTORY – 6:30 p.m. Online program from exhibit ‘Up from the Ashes: Oneonta Shaped by Fire’ featuring exhibit planners Carlene Bermann, Bob Brzozowski, others will discuss highlights. Presented by Greater Oneonta Historical Society. 607-432-0960 or visit www.oneontahistory.org/upcomingevents.htm
Even Santa Claus sometimes needs a little work done.
For the past five years, he’s been a Christmas Time treat at the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, but for many years after Bresee’s Department Store closed down in the 1990s, he was out of the public eye.
“He had been in our warehouse, and we rescued him,” said Elaine Bresee, Milford Center, whose husband Marc was one of the last family members to manage the namesake downtown Oneonta department store.
“We had him outside in our sleigh every year,” said Elaine, but as the years went by, the wintry weather took its toll on the 1930s fixture, which was a centerpiece of the department store’s holiday decorations for decades.
“He was starting to get pretty trashed,” she said. “His fingers had broken off, and he was starting to fade.”
So in 2013, the couple had him repaired, and in 2015 donated the figure to the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, where it has once again become part of downtown shoppers’ Christmas expectations.
The restoration was done by Marjean McCaslin-Doyle, the costume shop manager in SUNY Oneonta’s Theatre Department, and it was a challenge.
“Someone had tried to curl his beard at one point,” she said. “But it’s synthetic hair, so it had gotten singed.”
She bought him a new mustache and gently cleaned and restored the original beard.
His hand-tied wig also needed restoration, and worse, no longer hid the holes in his head. “I had to fill, paint and seal the scalp,” she said.
His lips were similarly deteriorated, with holes between the beard and mustache.
“The face was in the worst condition,” she said. “The rose in his cheeks had been rubbed off, and there was a lot of effort in trying to match the original colors.”
She ordered a set of plaster mannequin hands, but also made a cast of one hand. It came out so well, she doesn’t remember which hand is bought and which one she made.
“It took two years, but she restored him,” said Elaine. “She was so careful in ordering just the right hands so that they matched the rest of him.”
His costume – one of the two original Bresee’s Santa suits – was restored by Kathleen Moore, one of Marjean’s colleagues in SUNY’s costume department.
“The collar and the cuffs are real rabbit fur,” she said. “And the suit is very heavy wool, not like the material they use now. It’s amazingly made – it wouldn’t have lasted this long otherwise.”
Once restored, the Bresees donated the plaster Santa – as well as the Santa Chair and the mailbox – to GOHS in 2015.
“Letters in the mailbox were always answered for the longest time,” said Marc Bresee. “There would be about 75-100 of them, but then when people started really coming, we couldn’t answer them all.”
Instead, Marc said, each visiting child was given a candy cane and a coloring book, with a promise that Santa would read the letter.
Even now, a letter still shows up on occasion. “This one says, ‘I would like robots, please!’” said Bob Brzozowski, GOHS executive director. “But I don’t know who sent it!”
And Santa can’t sit in an ordinary chair, but instead, sits on the Bresee’s Santa Chair, which was made by the store’s in-house carpenters for the Jolly Old Elf to meet with visitors.
“We toyed with donating these for about five years,” she said. “I always have trouble parting with things from the store.”
But they haven’t parted with all of the store’s Santa ephemera yet.
Bresee’s kept two suits, as well as a wig and beard on hand, so that one could be sent for cleaning while the other was being worn – including by Bresee’s most famous Santa, Clark Chaplin.
“Of course, Clark always had his own beard,” she said.
Marc wore the suit to dress up for his children when they were kids, and for his father, Phillip, when he was at the Thanksgiving Home.
“They were having cocktail hour one Thursday, and in he came in the full suit!” he said. “They were all very happy to see me.
In 2019, the Bresee’s loaned the second suit for Orpheus Theatre’s production of “Elf.”
Santa’s sleigh – also a decoration from Bresee’s – has returned to the couple’s porch, with two former store mannequins, a boy and a girl, dressed in cozy red pajamas as they wave to passerbys.
And a new Santa is there too. “He’s not as beautiful as the other one,” said Elaine. “But another one will come along.”
As it happens, both AllOTSEGO.life stories in this week’s newspaper – it’s rechristened for this one week only as AllOTSEGO.heritage – explore two surprising pieces of our county’s history. Too little known, not to our local historians, listed in the box at right, but to most of the rest of us.
Also this week, our county’s Heritage Businesses trumpet their longevity and success in twice-annual specialty pages, a favorite staple among readers, longtime and not.
The first story is an interview with retired farmer Jim Mayne, some of whose vintage tools are on display at the Edmeston Museum. His collection includes an 1845 hammer from South New Berlin, the first such tool – yes, Numero Uno – protected by the U.S. Patent Office.
The second features Richfield Springs native Norman Colman (or Coleman), a 19th century promoter of Agricultural Experiment Stations and the first USDA commissioner. A historical marker in his honor is being unveiled Sunday, Nov. 1, in Greenville, Ind., where he was Floyd County Seminary principal for a couple of years.
Few people, you can be sure, have heard about the hammer. And outside of the very good Richfield Springs Historical Association’s experts, few countywide are aware of Colman’s historical stature.
There’s considerable scholarship at the local and national level surrounding the National Baseball Hall of Fame and James Fenimore Cooper, and that’s no surprise.
The first is a national landmark, a repository of national aspirations and self-definition. The novelist, somewhat out of favor in the U.S., is still internationally celebrated. (The late Henry S.F. Cooper, writing about space for the New Yorker, was to meet with the USSR’s space minister. On arriving, the VIP’s only interest was grilling Henry on “The Last of the Mohicans.”)
Beyond that, things get thin pretty quickly, although local historians have considerable expertise. Gilbertsville Village Historian Leigh Eckmair on pre-Revolutionary settlement of the Butternuts Valley; Milford’s Al Bullard on hops, for instance.
And there are plenty of individuals, unheralded, who have toiled in the vineyards of local history over the years.
Still, the story of Otsego County isn’t being told in an organized way. What’s more, historical tourism – defined as traveling with the primary purpose of exploring the history and heritage of a place – and the money it can generate, isn’t being pursued outside the Hall of Fame, Hyde Hall, and perhaps, the Greater Oneonta Historical Society.
OCHA, the Otsego County Historical Society, under Hoboken’s Anna Buell and, then, Hartwick’s Deb MacKenzie, sought to bring local historians together. That’s a resource that can be drawn on.
Still, coming out of the pandemic, we’ll need all the help we can get. Summer tourism will be fine, but the idea of year-’round tourism has continued to elude us.
What better way to bolster the off-season with, say, self-guided tours on the Revolution (featuring the Cherry Valley Massacre and George Washington’s visit to Clinton’s Dam), or black history, (from Cato Freedom’s farm in the Town of Burlington to the Christ Church graveyard in Cooperstown), to the rail sites – the D&H smokestack in Oneonta and the Leatherstocking Historical Railroad Association depot in Milford.
Here’s a thought.
The position hasn’t been filled for years, but “Otsego County historian” exists on paper. Putting COVID-19 behind us, how may it be best used to spread knowledge and attract shoulder-season visitors?
You may have heard that Bob Brzozowski, the transformational president, then executive director, of the Greater Oneonta society, is planning to retire at the end of the year.
Perhaps the county board should consider putting him, or someone like him, in charge of a strategic planning group, to consider the potential of the county’s rich local history, and recommend how best to revive the office to accomplish a series of beneficial and prosperity-inducing tasks.
Places have natural resources, and local history is one of ours. Let’s work with it.
Libby Cudmore, mystery author and managing editor, Hometown Oneonta/The Freeman’s Journal/AllOTSEGO.com, speaks about the creation of Philo Vance, one of the premier sleuths of the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, by Willard Huntington Wright, who adopted the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine to write the mystery series, during a talk at the Swart-Wilcox House this afternoon. With her are Bob Brzozowski, executive director, Greater Oneonta Historical Society, who discovered that Wright likely created Vance at 31 River St. when the future writer was staying with his maiden aunts, and Rev. Kenneth Hunter, St. James Episcopal Church, who runs the weekly “Tea and Murder” mystery appreciation series at the church. At right, Hunter references “Alias S.S. Van Dine: The Man Who Created” as he talks about the Philo Vance films, which starred actors like Basil Rathbone and William Powell. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)
ONEONTA – The Oneonta History Center reopens at noon Friday, Executive Director Bob Brzozowski announced a few minutes ago. COVID-19 closed the center at 183 Main St. almost four months ago.
The GOHS has developed a Safety Plan to help ensure everyone’s health upon reopening. Attendance will be limited to 15 persons at a time. Masks and social distancing will be required. There will be regular cleaning and disinfecting of high-contact surfaces.
ONEONTA – By the end of the year, Bob Brzozowski hopes, the newly revived Friends of the Oneonta Theater will have site control of the theater.
“We’ve seen places like Walton, Norwich, Bainbridge and Worcester re-open their theaters,” he said. “If small towns can do it, so can we.”
Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director, is one of three new board members of revived FOTOT. Elaine Bresee was elected president; Elizabeth Dunn, SUNY Oneonta Dean of Liberal Arts, secretary, and Brzozowski, treasurer. Ellen Pope, Otsego 2000 executive director, also joined the board.
The original Friends of the Oneonta Theatre formed in 2008, when the theater went up for sale.
When entrepreneur Tom Cormier bought it in 2009, FOTOT helped him with theater restoration. But they soon parted ways, and although the group became less and less active, it still maintained its not-for-profit status.
When the Oneonta Theater went up for sale in 2015, GOHS, in collaborate with FOTOT members and other interested people, won a $50,000 Technical Assistance grant a hired Duncan Webb, Webb Management, one of the country’s leading theater consultants, to do a feasibility plan.
Webb’s recommendations are available on the GOHS website.
“The theater has good bones, but there’s work to be done,” said Brzozowski. “It’s going to take some major renovation projects.”
$2 million could not only restore the theater to working order, but re-open the two balconies and expand the lobby, Brzozowski said.
“It would be a completely different building,” he said. “We could go in and uncover the original murals, we could do an exhibit on all of the people who performed there. There’s so much more we can do beyond just getting it open.”
Rather than forming a new not-for-profit to buy and restore the theater, Brzozowski and the remaining FOTOT members revived the Friends organization.
“As we got closer and closer to what we wanted to do, we realized it was just easier that way,” he said.
The reformed FOTOT will work to update some of its rules and bylaws to make sure it is in compliance with newer New York State regulations. “The past members did a great job in setting things up, but there are a lot of other things that have changed at the state level,” he said.
At an organizational meeting Friday, Jan. 17, at GOHS, attendees voted to join the New York Council of Nonprofits (NYCON), whose local office is managed by Andrew Marietta, the county representative.
“We also joined the League of Historic American Theaters,” Brzozowski said. “We weren’t part of that before.”
In the spring, Brzozowski hopes to launch a capital campaign, after the group determines how much they want to raise – and how people can get involved to help.
“One of the models we’re looking at is like the State Theater in Ithaca,” he said. “When people make a donation of a certain amount, they own a share of the theater, so it’s really a community-owned theater.”
And more than that, they hope to get support from other institutions, including SUNY Oneonta and Hartwick College, and said a “shared booking agent” would go a long ways to strengthening ties to Foothills
“Wouldn’t it be great to have the Catskill Symphony Orchestra play in that beautiful theater?” he said. “We could open it up to the Glimmerglass Film Festival as an additional venue. It’s got great acoustics, and it’s a shame it’s not being used.”
ONEONTA — A quarter-century after Otsego County’s department store closed, the Magic of Christmas is still the Magic of Bresee’s.
Four of Bresee’s automatic elves plus two does – one ironing, the other mending Santa’s cap – are on display behind the Oneonta History Center’s plate-glass windows through Monday, Dec. 9, and “it’s been great,” said Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director.
“You see people stopping, or doing a double-take,” said Brzozowski.
Bresee’s magic is wrapped up in community and family, said Marc Bresee, who worked in the store during its final days.
Bresee’s was open late one night a week – Thursday, he said – and the Christmas display was installed only a week or two before The Big Day, so Yuletide Thursdays would be particularly brisk, he said, with 700 meals served.
After supper, everybody – young and old alike – would trek upstairs to visit Santa Claus, surrounded by his mechanical entourage.
The department store, which opened in 1899, closed in 1994, although Marc Bresee continued to sell furniture in part of the building. The building changed hands in 2003, and on Dec. 11 of that year the contents, including the Santa paraphernalia, were auctioned off at Lettis’ Auction on the city’s east end.
It was the first auction after Kevin Herrick bought the business, and since it was such a significant – even historic – local event, auctioneer Jim Lettis, a former Oneonta mayor, wielded the gavel with the new owner’s concurrence.
Most notable, Herrick remembers, were the mechanical horse – feed it with a nickel, and get a ride; same thing with mechanical Rudolph. The giant Crayola crayon – sold! – and giant dice.
Of the total, 14-some mechanical elves and figurines were sold to a couple in the Town of Davenport, and in 2010 they donated their collection to St. James Manor, Executive Director Kathy Clarkson recalled the other day, as she helped a crew of five put up the History Center installation.
Later, Marc’s wife Elaine donated additional elves that had been in their garage. “I thought I would put them on the porch at Christmas,” the husband said. “But we never did.”
Another member of the crew was John Pontius, who happens to be both a St. James board member and GOHS incoming president, (succeeding Corinne Bresee Smith, Marc’s daughter.)
“It came to my mind lots of people would like to see them,” Pontius said, adding he had been introduced to the Bresee’s Christmas legacy when he and wife Andrea moved their family here from Waterloo in the early 1980s. Clarkson was raised in the Town of Davenport, and Bresee’s was part of her family’s holiday routine.
While the figures were being installed, who showed up but Kelly Rogers, a one-time intern at St. James, now with Catholic Charities, who had darned the elves costumes when she was there. She and Clarkson examined the figurines, which are wood frames enhanced with papier mache limbs.
The limbs are powered by electric gear motors, Model F, manufactured by Bevel, and are tough to find, said St. James Building & Grounds Superintendent Tom Hornbeck, who said they date from the 1930s or ’40s, when the Bresee’s display was put together.
To keep the little motors from overheating, Brzozowski said, they are only being run about 10 minutes per hour. “We want to make sure they will be around for other people to enjoy in years to come,” he said.
The conversation during the installation turned to where all the pieces might have ended up.
The History Center has the mechanical Santa, which was installed at 183 Main St. over the weekend, as well as the mailbox where kids would post their letters to the North Pole. They were brought out over the weekend to join the St. James’ group.
Carla Balnis has a mechanical skating rink.
For years, the popular Rudolph was in the hands of Greg Noonan, Cherry Valley, who said he sold it to a local Rudolph enthusiast who is building it a new saddle, and has added a cape.
Marc Bresee reflected that the department store installation, in these days of sophisticated video games, may not be as appealing to the young as the young at heart.
“It’s the older generation that remember them from the windows at Bresee’s,” he said.
See them while you can. The History Center display will be in place during the city’s Santa Parade at 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, followed by the community tree-lighting at 5:30 p.m. in Mueller Plaza.
The following Monday, the does and elves will be returned to St. James for residents there to enjoy through the rest of the season, and replaced by winners of the city’s annual gingerbread contest.
That Collis Huntington, who left Oneonta and made a fortune – not mining in the California Gold Rush, but selling gold miners the equipment they needed – may have feuded with his hometown from time to time, said Ed Rowley, top photo, left, an organizer of “Oneonta’s Forty-Niners,” which opened this afternoon at the Oneonta History Center. “It’s a good story,” said Rowley, but any feuding couldn’t have been that bad: When Huntington died, he left each of his local survivors at least $50,000 each, “more than a million dollars today.” Huntington, who took four Oneontans with him – among them Carleton Watkins, whose scenic photos are second only to Ansel Adams – became one of California’s “Big Four,” credited with building the Central Pacific Railroad, the western end of the railroad that connected the continent in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah. Others in top photo included, from left, organizer Sarah Livington, GOHS members Ed Leone and Jane Bachman, and Bob Brzozowski (Bachman’s husband), GOHS executive director and another of the organizers, as was historian Tom Sullivan. Inset is a photo the bronze depiction of Collis Huntington that hangs in the city’s Public Safety Building at Main and South Market. Brzozowski reported Huntington was “deeply offended” by slavery during sales trip to the South as a young man, and his will included large bequests for Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, and to build the library at Tuskegee Institute; both are historic black institutions. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)
The River Street birthplace of detective Philo Vance may still be saved.
On Monday, June 10, Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director, went through the 31 River St. home where William Huntington Wright – aka S.S. Van Dyne – wrote parts of his debut novel, “A Man of Promise.” Later, while recovering from a cocaine addiction, is believed to have written his first detective novel, “The Benson Murder Case,” a best-seller and the first of a dozen novels featuring dandy detective Philo Vance.
The house, owned by his maiden aunts Bertha and Julia Wright, was sold to the Salvation Army earlier this spring for $90,000. The original intent was to demolish it for a parking lot and, eventually, a new building for expanded programming, including the food pantry.
But when word of the home’s literary history got to Brzozowski, he began researching ways to save it. He arranged a tour with the Salvation Army, who took him around the grounds and through the house.
“Right away, we noticed that the entire house was dry, even though the weekend had been very rainy,” said Brzozowski. “Though obviously, there are other issues.”
At some point, the residence was chopped into apartments, but strangely. “There are two kitchens right beside each other,” said Brzozowski. “There’s one living space on the first floor and two on the second.”
Though no furniture was left, Brzozowski did find some “knick-knacks,” including a 1966 newspaper, a WWII-era canvas pouch in a tin box in the basement and a couple of “really interesting lamps.”
“There could have been stuff there that belonged to the Wright family, but it would be hard to detect,” he said.
But perhaps the biggest revelation of all is that the cupola, where legend had it that Wright did all of his writing, wasn’t big enough to accommodate the writer – or anyone.
“It’s maybe three feet from floor to ceiling,” he said. “It’s not like a room. He couldn’t even sit in here.”
There is, however, a garret on the second floor south side of the house. “I could imagine a writer working in there.”
ONEONTA – An office to market the city as a destination for arts and culture, the reuse of “zombie properties” and continuing the Downtown Revitalization Initiative were all recommended as part of Oneonta’s updated Comprehensive Plan, adopted unanimously by Common Council during their meeting this evening.
“You’ve given us a road map that will use over the years,” said Mayor Gary Herzig. “It’s given us a clear vision…an action plan and some real goals.”
The city formed steering committee in 2017 to update its Comprehensive Plan, implemented in 2007, because “Oneonta was at the tipping point,” Herzig said, “where we found ourselves with new opportunities and resources to reinvent Oneonta and thrive in today’s economy.”
ONEONTA – Hidden behind a row of overgrown trees on River Street is a literary legacy.
As S.S. Van Dine, Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939), wrote 12 novels starring dandy detective Philo Vance – and Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director, believes that they were written here.
“We know his novel ‘The Man of Promise’ (196) was partially written in the cupola of 31 River Street,” said Brzozowski. “It’s set in Greenwood, which is based on Oneonta. H.L. Mencken called it ‘the Great American Novel’. We believe he wrote some of the Vance novels here as well.”
The heritage will remain, but the house, neglected for year, is about to succumb to the ravages of time.
The Salvation Army, whose local operation is growing, bought the property in March, first to build a parking lot, then expanding its building.
“We need more room,” said Maj. Sharon Harford, the veteran commander who is retiring at the end of May. “We want to expand our food pantry, and the city is looking to us to create a warming station for the homeless when the temperature drops.”