Alexander’s third-floor Town Hall museum didn’t start with a Town Historian, or even an Historical Society.
It was a group of students – back in 1958.
Current historian Kate Goodman credits those Alexander History Diggers with accumulating many of the artifacts the museum still holds today.
“They gathered stuff from Grandma and Grandpa,” says Kate, “and they needed someplace to go with all of it, because the teacher’s desk got full and it was into the corners of her room.”
One student asked the Town Board for the third floor of Town Hall. And so, the museum began.
Goodman explains that she gives a different tour for every group going through the museum. For Alexander 4th-graders each year, the antique vinyl record player is a popular mystery – “That plays music? How does that work?” they ask Kate.
“And I do change the displays periodically,” she says. For example, right off the bat, she points out her latest woodworking display, including a sawmill blade, cant hooks (used to grab logs), and blades to carve floor and ceiling moldings for houses.
The display “is representative of one of the first sawmills in the town,” says Kate. “Our town founder, Alexander Rhea, set-up the first sawmill.”
To its right is a display of ladies’ handwork, including crocheting and needlework, hat pins and handheld fans. The prized item is a pheasant hat made by a local milliner.
Behind the two displays, hanging on the wall, is a picture collection portraying the 13 one-room schools that once existed in the Alexander district. In 1938, the entire school system was finally consolidated into one school building, which still sits at the top of the Church Street hill. “It included not only Alexander’s districts, but also some of Darien, Bennington, Bethany, Wyoming, Batavia, and Middlebury,” Kate explains.
In addition, the Town Hall building we stand in is a testament to educational history.
“This was built to be the Alexander Classical School,” says Kate. “It was built because some people didn’t think children got broad enough education in the district schools. So they raised funds to build the building (in 1836), and they ran the school.”
But it didn’t last long. Mortgage issues caused the bank to foreclose on the owners. Banker Henry Hawkins donated the building to the Genesee Presbyterian Church in the mid-1840’s. The church was able to operate the school for about 40 years.
“It was a private school, you paid a tuition,” Kate says. The third floor museum was used as space for boarding students back then. The neighboring home on the East side of the school building was built in the 1850’s, and boarding was operated there until the school became public in the 1880’s.
The building also served as a fire department from 1940 til 1958. The grounds the building sits on hosted the first Alexander Firemen’s Carnival. “They started out doing their own games – throw darts at balloons and things like that,” Kate says. “I can’t remember when they didn’t have rides,” though there was a time early on when there were none.
“I think in a lot of ways, Darien Lake (Theme Park) hurt a lot of the carnivals, because the rides were like nothing compared to the park.”
Next up (I’m starting to notice a county-wide trend) is the farming exhibit. The biggest industry for years in Alexander, of course, has been farming.
“During the 1800’s, it was all farm. There’s still a lot of farming, but now people are more apt to work in factories – or, one of the biggest employers in our area happens to be the prison.” Goodman points out that there are still two major farming dealerships: Alexander Equipment, and Z&M Ag and Turf. Gary’s Farm Service also supplies fertilizers and sprays.
“Not as many people doing it (farming) – but there’s still a lot of farmground,” Kate says with a laugh.
As far as transportation, Alexander (much like Stafford a few weeks ago) was a community largely supported by the railroad.
“Both the New York Central and the Erie Lines went through here,” says Kate. “Later on, the DL&W (Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad) was more north of here.” Items transported by railroad included livestock and milk – again, indicative of farming. Most of the items were being shipped to and from Buffalo and Rochester (the DL&W would later run on a gradual curve all the way to Binghamton, but no major industry ever grew from that possibility in Alexander).
From a celebrity standpoint, you may have heard of Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” opera singer.
Well, obviously, she didn’t come from Alexander.
But a local concert pianist and violinist by the name of Joseph Burke played for Jenny on her tour of America. The tour was promoted and operated by P.T. Barnum, of circus fame. A “Jenny Lind Bed” now sits in a corner of the Alexander museum (a brand of bed named for the singer).
Another display is currently pushed aside a bit so that work crews can access the attic stairway. But we take a look, anyway. It deals with small retail business in the Village of Alexander, circa the early 1900’s. Kate explains that the hub of the village used to be the corner of Route 98 and the old Route 20. Curtiss Grocery and Print Shop, Morris Drugstore and the Alexander Hotel were just a few of the storefronts and structures. In 1916, the hotel burned down; then in 1917, the entire southeast corner of the business district went up in flames.
That stimulated local men to form the Alexander Improvement Corporation – a sort of precursor to the current Economic Development Centers, but more need-based because of the fire.
“After the 1917 fire, they decided they should do something…so they formed the corporation and built a couple buildings, and then got businesses to move in.” Sunnyside Cycle Shop, on that same corner, is one of the remaining structures.
There’s also a number of quirky items around the museum, many of them donated by a gentleman in the 1950’s, whose name escapes Kate on this day. “He traveled a bunch, and in the ‘50’s, you didn’t travel much. So he donated them so the kids would see things from other areas than their own.” One of the standouts is an ostrich egg, sitting on a shelf in a cabinet. Seemingly out of place…but it just seems to fit the nature of this museum.
Kate, of course, is to be credited with preserving that playful nature. She’s been at it for 24 years since an unceremonious appointment in 1986.
“I was actually at a Firemen Ladies’ Auxiliary dinner; we were all patting ourselves on the back,” she recalls. “And a Town Councilman and I were talking about the history and stuff…and he says ‘Would you like to be Town Historian?’ And I said ‘Umm…my kids are 5 and 6 years old…I’ll try it…’ And here I am!”
Attendance at the Alexander Museum is rather poor, Goodman says. It’s partially hurt by her policy of appointment visits. “There’s not enough people to be here, with the history department just being me.” And though the appointment system is convenient for her, it does seem to hurt interest. “People aren’t as apt to call and say ‘Can I see it?’ I’ve had a couple people call and ask me…and they don’t call back.” But sometimes Goodman does open the museum on holidays like Memorial Day.
The labor from her perspective is driven – and rewarded – by a desire to learn from our past.
“We can hopefully…not repeat all of the mistakes,” she chuckles. “Some of them, yes. But it’s interesting to learn how people did things. And if things go bad, maybe we’ll need to know how to do those things from the past.
“There’s times when we’ll get involved with a bunch of different things at home, and we’ll ask: ‘Oh, how did they raise that barn? If I want to build a sturdy storage shed, how would I?’ You can apply it different ways like that.”
The Alexander Historical Museum is open by appointment only. Appointments can be made by calling the Alexander Town Hall at 591-2455.