In memory of Patricia “Patty” Mary Elizabeth Joyce Reeves, a member of the Wilton Historical Society. (September 21, 1932 – October 12, 2010)
I was recently in Saratoga Springs for a funeral and thought it would be fitting to talk about the city in today’s post in memory of “Grandma Pat.” Grandma Pat (technically my grandmother-in-law) was one of the first people to comment on my posts and was herself a history buff, so this is, I believe, an appropriate tribute.
Many folks know about the revolutionary era battle for Saratoga Springs–it is well documented, so I am not going to spend time on it in this post. Instead, I am going to break this post into three parts based on 1) the Canfield Casino in Congress Park–now the sight of the Saratoga Springs History Museum, 2) a travel article reprinted from the New England Magazine, in 1905, “Saratoga Springs,” and 3) the narrative history found in The Saratoga Reader, Writing about an American village, 1749-1900.
Saratoga Springs History Museum, Canfield Casino in Congress Park
Canfield Casino in Congress Park, Saratoga Springs, NY
The Saratoga Springs History Museum is in Congress Park, housed inside the old Canfield Casino. Originally one of the main attractions to the city, along with the horses and the springs, the casino does double duty for the city, today, as the main hall is rented out for occasions such as weddings. In its heyday it was a popular site for the high-rollers from New York city who regularly dropped six figures like it was pocket change, according to the docents. Today, visitors can pay $5 to see the exhibits, which include a small sampling of pre-Columbian archaeological finds and a wide smattering of other artifacts from the colonial era through to the early mid-1900s. On the second floor there are really three exhibits. The first is a collection of women’s fashion over the last two hundred years, “Two Hundred Years of Fashion Exhibit.” (Full disclosure: I brushed through that section pretty quickly… but if you are into fashion and textile history it’s probably pretty cool.) The second exhibit is the only one focusing on the building’s past specifically, the “High Rollers: The High Stakes Gambling Room,” which includes an original bar from that age (interesting side note: women weren’t allowed to gamble and so were provided a reading room). Finally, there is an exhibit focusing on the small town’s extensive history of fires: “Historic Fires in Saratoga Springs Exhibit.” The third floor, featuring “The Walworth Mansion–six rooms from the 1880s,” covers a rather wide array of American social history, running from the Civil War through to the Spanish American War, through the eyes of one family with ties to Kentucky, Washington DC and, obviously, Saratoga Springs.
High Rollers: The High Stakes Gambling Room at the Saratoga Springs History Museum
As a casino, Canfield was a successful casino in the resort area of Saratoga Springs. It ran, successfully hosting JP Morgan, the Vanderbilts and Whitneys and their like, until 1907, when reformers successfully banned gambling in the city. At this point, the docent explained, the gambling moved out to the lake, having been taken over by the criminal element that ran it in speakeasies. The town had always attracted, as one Saratogan described it, a frivolous interest.
Parlor of the Walworth family mansion from the 1880s, Saratoga Springs History Museum
The Walworth mansion exhibit is a curious one. As visitors walk into the doorway of the rooms an audio narrative comes on telling the family story the perspectives of different individuals in the family. As far as that goes, I think it is a great way to introduce young people to history and the different perspectives that come down to us, though they are a little long and are rehashing the same general story–this may tax a young person’s patience. The family deals with Civil War loyalties, domestic abuse, religious conversion in a Presbyterian corner of the world , women’s suffrage and the ill effects of the Spanish-American War. The exhibit is supposedly based on seven rooms from the old mansion that was torn down almost one hundred years after these rooms were lived in–they are billed as coming from the 1880s–but, sadly the exhibit does not describe the methods of preservation and research to explain or make the case for how authentic this reconstruction actually is. Nor, do they explain how they came to create the personal narratives recorded by actors–what sources they used, how they chose the individuals featured, etc. Actually, this would in general be my complaint about the museum: not enough literature and explanation.
Apparently some odd things have happened up there on the third floor and the Ghost Hunters, from the SciFy channel, visited a while back. The Casino was featured on episode 18 of season 6. The episode includes another haunted site, so if you want to watch the portion relevant to Saratoga Springs, you’ll want to wade half way through it. (This has apparently increased the number of visits to the museum.) In the introduction to the feature, they explain some of the history of the building . . . as for ghosts? I am not qualified to comment on anything in that area, but I did not notice anything on my visit! (The episode is available in 5 parts on YouTube.)
“Saratoga Springs” by Louis McHenry Howe, New England Magazine, 1905
It was to Saratoga in those long-forgotten, prehistoric springtimes, when the Hudson tore apart its ice fetters and thrust them down into the sea, that the bravest and the feeblest alike of the haughty Iroquois tribe, abandoning their winter tepees, made their way over trails so firmly trodden down that the visitor to-day may trace them, sometimes for miles through the forests surrounding Saratoga.
It is by means of this introduction that Howe launches into the history surrounding the popular vacation and resort area. Notice too, that it is published while the casino is still open for business. The publication, The New England Magazine, was published in Boston as a continuation from the Bay State Magazine and appears to have run from 1886 to 1917 (although, I have not verified that). My copy is a reprint of an original found in the collection of Minnie Clark Bolster and sold at the Saratoga Springs History Museum. The article is a travel feature and tells us itself why the reader should be interested in Saratoga Springs:
What, it may well be asked, has been the magnet that has drawn man to this spot since earliest time? The proud Iroquois, treading with light moccasin the forest trail, would have answered: “Game! for so many stately bucks and sleek-sided does, fierce wolves and fiercer panthers, never elsewhere did Indian see.”
“Society,” would have been the reply of the famous beauty, Betty Holcomb, travelling to the Spa by easy stage coach, from far Virginia, crowds assembling at each post station to catch a glimpse of her lovely face.
“The finest racing in the world,” would answer the gentlemen sportsman of to-day, learning luxuriously back in his private car as it tears across the miles that lie between Wall Street and the Saratoga Race Track. All of these answers would have been right so far as they went, but the root of the matter would not be there, for the last analysis of Saratoga’s greatness will show that the foundations of her fame lie in her wonderful mineral springs.
The description of the town in this extended essay is one true to its time that describes what New England and New York society valued and of what popular knowledge consisted. A geological explanation follows to explain the existence of the “wonderful mineral springs.” Still, the majority of the essay is centered around the horse races, clearly the primary feature in the town’s popularity according to Howe. There is surprisingly little about the Revolutionary War battle that took place there and shares its name with the small city.
As a primary source, this is valuable in the access it provides to the lifestyles of the wealthy. While there is a great deal of discussion involving the local tribes, much of it inaccurate or misconstrued and virtually all of it romantic, there is no mention of the lives of anybody outside the wealthy class. This is probably suggestive of the magazine’s readership, but that could be misleading. Certainly, the accompanying photographs in the article focus on the estates and diversions of the wealthy–the publication does not provide credits for these photographs, so I take them to have come from the article, but it is possible that they have been provided for the modern reprint from Saratoga Springs archives.
The Saratoga Reader, Writing about an American village, 1749-1900 by Field Horne
This is an interesting collection of personal narrative descriptions of the history of Saratoga Springs. It is in some respects a charming and pleasant read, in others a potentially useful collection for the high school and undergraduate researcher. For a more serious researcher it supplies a useful trail to open inquiries into Saratoga, colonial, revolutionary, Civil War, New York and New England life. The editor, Field Horne, admits to selectively excerpting and compiling this collection with a bias towards personal narrative accounts (as opposed to travel guide descriptions, for example) and sources that highlight American life in this part of the country. Based on this, I would suggest that correspondence with the author could very well provide a rather extensive, larger collection that did not make the cut, but may prove useful for various historical inquiries. It provides a bibliography, index and glossary that are well done and very helpful. The way the book is laid out it is rather like a film of Saratoga’s history, with each scene a brief snapshot from one individual’s perspective.
What a historian or instructor will not find in this collection are sources in dialogue with each other, or even really multiple perspectives on similar subjects (with the exception of the springs themselves). Each source is in isolation. So, to return to my movie metaphor above, imagine a film where each scene is in isolation and the individual’s perspective is only accounted for in his/her particular scene–even if the individual may be relevant in the next scene, the audience is now cut off from that perspective. The secondary source material providing some biographical information for each of the authors is also without citations.
While obviously each individual whose works contributed to this collection was literate, there is still a fairly wide swatch of American society represented even if not the widest economic representation. The author was particular in his transcription of these sources , so their written accounts are not polished by the author and their voices are their own. Many links to American life in general are drawn through his selections, in particular the local connections to greater American questions and politics, whether this is the written material from international observers moving through the area after the French and Indian War, young abolitionists or business men writing in their journals about presidential debates. This is largely the story of American leisure, primarily that of the wealthy who would make their sojourns either with intent to Saratoga Springs or as side trips from the larger cities in the region.
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This is the sort of place I really enjoy visiting. It is a place that has made the conscious decision to preserve its past and incorporate that past into its modern city-life. Also, it is pedestrian friendly which allows for leisurely exploration of its local businesses and history. In the fall, it was shockingly beautiful with all of its trees cycling through their autumn attire and we were lucky to be strolling through the city during gorgeous weather. For history buffs and folks interested in historic preservation it is a great place to visit. I look forward to returning under happier circumstances.