Fred Hickein wanted to make sure his heirloom muskets stayed in good hands, so the 93-year-old Oneonta resident made a major donation to the Greater Historical Society of Oneonta on Wednesday, April 21.
Hickein and his wife, Eleanor, and several of his colleagues from the Oneonta American Legion Post 259, presented GOHS with two family treasures Wednesday,: an English smooth bore rifle, circa 1800, which Hickein believes was brought to the area by an ancestor of his, Solomon Yager; and a Civil War training musket owned and used by another relative, Edward Brewer.
An Oneonta High School and Hartwick College graduate and a Navy veteran, who served in both World War II and Korea, although never overseas or at sea, Hickein said he wanted the heirlooms to be in good hands and he trusted GOHS to honor his family’s history.
“I wanted to do it before I died,” he said. “I wanted to make sure they were in a good place.”
GOHS Executive Director Marcela Micucci said the group’s history center at 181 Main St. will soon have a permanent display and it will include one or both of the musket donations.
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.”
ONLINE AUCTION – 10 a.m. This years GOHS benefit auction will take place online featuring about a dozen items. Concludes 9/27 at 9 p.m. Presented by Oneonta History Center, 183 Main St., Oneonta. 607-432-0960 or visit www.oneontahistory.org
ARCHITECTURE EXHIBIT – 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. New exhibit ‘Building Blocks of a City: 100 Years of Architecture in Oneonta’ opens to public highlighting significant buildings, structures that represent the development, transformation of the city. Greater Oneonta Historical Society, 183 Main St., Oneonta. Visit www.oneontahistory.org/index.htm for info.
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.
SCAVENGER HUNT – July 1 – August 31. Youths and families are invited to participate in 2020 Historic Oneonta’s Main Street Architectural Detail Scavenger Hunt. Search for architectural details on Main Street Oneonta and tell the Oneonta History Center about them. A great lead in to upcoming exhibit ‘Building Blocks Of A City: 100 Years og Architecture In Oneonta.’ Visit www.oneontahistory.org/upcomingevents.htm for info.
BENEFIT LUNCH – Noon – 2 p.m. Support Cooperstown Food Pantry at Empty Bowls Luncheon. Pick a unique bowl by a local potter to enjoy lunch of soup by local chef. Suggested donation $15. Parish Hall, Christ Church, 69 Fair St., Cooperstown. 607-547-2627 or visit cooperstownfoodpantry.org
HELICOPTER – 5:30 p.m. Army Reserve & NY Army National Guard collaborate with Cooperstown Graduate Program for military exercise featuring UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters landing at Bassett. Public is welcome to observe, tour once the aircraft are shut down. Please follow direction of military personnel to ensure a safe distance from the aircraft while it is in operation. Landing will be near Bassett Helipad, across from Clark Sports Center, Cooperstown.
ICE HARVEST FEST – 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Participate in traditional ice harvesting as was done 100 years ago (as long as ice is at least 8”). Also includes ice carving, fishing, hot soup buffet, exhibits by local businesses, more. Cost, $9/adult/teen. Children under 12 enter free. Hanford Mills Museum, 51 Co. Hwy. 12, East Meredith. 607-278-5744 or visit www.hanfordmills.org
There’s something special, James Mullen believes, about a Christmas card.
“Because there’s an exchange at the same time of the year, they’re a lot of fun to receive as well as to give,” he said.
And Mullen would know – the former dean of SUNY Oneonta’s Fine Arts Department, he has been making cards for 64 years. “I made 200 this year,” he said. “It’s the most I’ve ever sent!”
His cards are in the Archives of American Art in the Collections at the Smithsonian, including several in their book “Handmade Holiday Cards From 20th Century Artists,” and the subject of a recent show at SUNY’s Martin-Mullen Gallery that ended this week.
A Penn State graduate, he made his first card in 1955 as an assignment. “We had to use a Wrico Pen, which you filled with India ink and used it to draw freehand,” he said. “I did a stylized Mother and Child,” he said.
The pens were used for plastic lettering stencils, to allow duplicating in the day before Xeroxes.
And when he arrived at SUNY Oneonta in 1963, card-making was all the rage in the art department.
“Artists are unique to exchange with because they are sending something they consider to be so personal,” he said. “That exchange is always very special to me.”
He’s made cards with letterpress and etchings on zinc, relief prints and, most recently, in Adobe Illustrator. This year’s card, “Star-Rose,” was a lithograph carved in limestone and pressed at the Corridor Press Studio in Otego, then reproduced and printed at his home studio at Good Shepherd Village in Endicott.
Martin-Mullen Gallery Director Tim Sheesley reached out to him in June, and asked him to think about announcement cards. “I was making a lot of birthday cards, and rose is the birthday flower for June, so that motif became this year’s card,” Mullen said.
Fifty of the cards included an original lithograph of the Star Rose. “Last year I created a Santa Claus card, but I got so into the process that I created more than one card!”
He collects cards as well, including many from former students. One is Elaine Downey, who participates in the Artisans’ Guild and also studied with Art Professor Emerita Nancy Callahan, sent him a card.
“When I opened it, it was sublime,” he said. “Another student sent me one that’s a letterpress printing on rice paper. That’s the fun part of it. You never know what you’re going to get.”
Mullen’s late wife, Sally, is credited for the revival of what is now the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, and many of his cards are in the GOHS archives.
“A lot of people received Jim’s cards,” said GOHS Executive Director Bob Brzozowski. “And a lot of people, myself included, still do!”
GOHS also has more than a decade’s worth of former SUNY Art Department Dean Minnie Martin’s cards. “Minnie was my chair,” said Mullen. “She had experience in almost every kind of art – ceramics, jewelry, printmaking, and she made beautiful cards.”
In addition to the Mullen and Martin cards, GOHS has cards that Ronald Rowley, the former city judge, and wife Marjorie sent to friends, made from images of Otsego County winter life that the husband painted over the years.
“Christmas cards are true ephemera,” said Brzozowski. “People keep Christmas cards, and we still send them. It’s a very personal way of sending greetings at the holidays.”
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.
Hand-sewn quilts, sterling silver tea sets, maps, furniture and more were all up on the auction block at the 13th annual GOHS Auction held at the Quality Inn Friday evening. Above, Marcella Drago, left, and daughter-in-law Kathy Drago look over a Bible from 1847 that was part of the silent auction. At right, Grace Smith and Claire Smith show off some Hitchcock chairs to the crowd after the main auction got under way. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)