Most of us do not see ourselves as “living through history...”
We have our usual routines, our rituals that take us from our homes, to work, maybe to a store or to a school. To us, our lives may seem not worthy of mention in history books. Such an attitude, however, underestimates the power in daily life. Our day to day lives, though perhaps not exciting to us, are the culmination of centuries of people living very differently than we do today. The Everyday Life section of the exhibit seeks to incorporate the history of Saratoga as experienced by its residence through the years, starting with the Abenaki and ending today. We focus on six topics within daily life: homes and homemaking, religion, agriculture and food, arts and culture, schools, and shopping. Through these topics, we can see a story of Saratoga County as a place of community gatherings and interactions, of important firsts, and of a case study of the impacts that changes to daily life nationwide had on everyday people.
Everyday Life Timeline
Home is where the hearth is, and for centuries, indigenous peoples made the area around “Saratoga” their residence and provision grounds. The name “Saratoga” itself is derived from an indigenous word from the Mohawk branch of the Iroquois Confederacy. It was the name of an old native hunting ground along either side of the Hudson where in the indigenous language “Se-rach-ta-gue” meant “the hillside country of the quiet river” (“What is in the name Saratoga? Plenty”). The first structures in the area were the homes of the Abenaki people, who built and lived in dwellings known as wigwams. Wigwams were built out of wooden frames, covered in animal skins and woven mats, and had fire pits in the middle to trap heat to survive the harsh winter weather. Large Mohawk families lived together in longhouses, which held deep spiritual significance because they were also seen as community centers (“Abenaki”). [Example of location].
After indigenous peoples in pre-colonial lived in Wigwams and longhouses, white settlers built wooden farmhouses, first from lumber they cut and milled, and then from bought materials. Modest city homes and mostly urban mansions also went up throughout the county, most notably on North Broadway in Saratoga Springs, though they appeared elsewhere throughout the county, too. Although the 20th century brought amenities––gas and then electric lighting, indoor plumbing, telephones and eventually the internet––structures only slowly changed.
In the post-World War II economic boom, tract housing and subdivisions began appearing across the country, and Saratoga County was no exception. In fact, prefabricated homes continue to be built in great numbers today, with new developments continuing to pop up across the county in communities like Wilton, Halfmoon, Mechanicville, Milton Center, Stillwater, Ballston Spa, and others. Aside from traditional homes, Saratoga County is also home to the most RV parks in the state of New York. Mobile homes have been an affordable housing option for many Saratogians, although that option may not continue. Many are feeling financial strain and are feeling like they will soon be forced from their homes (Liberatore).
Until the late 19th century, most Saratogians made their own fabrics and clothes. Abenaki men and women kept warm by wearing animal skins during the winter. During the Saratoga region’s humid summers, the Abenaki wore thin cloth dresses and breechcloths (ESRI). Early European settlers made much of their own cloth until the mid-19thcentury when mills increasingly produced affordable woven materials and the steamship, invented by Robert Fulton in 1807, made it faster and cheaper to supply goods to growing numbers of county stores.
Early indigenous inhabitants of Saratoga County farmed maize, hunted, and fished for sustenance, using and changing the land as they saw fit to sustain their needs and population. The Mohawk, among other indigenous peoples farmed maize, beans, squash, and harvested wild berries and herbs, which was largely women’s work. Men hunted for deer and elk and fished the area rivers and lakes.
As European settlers and their descendants moved into the region, they brought new farming techniques, new crops, including wheat, malt, oats, and other grains, and new animals, including pigs, cows and horses. Dairy farming soon became the county's leading agricultural industry. Today, there are 583 farms in Saratoga County comprising about 78,800 acres, with the average farm extending to around 135 acres. Many farms in the county are family owned and operated, and two-thirds report farming as their primary occupation. Recent market value of agricultural products totaled almost $80 million (Saratoga Farms). One popular local farm today is 9 Miles East in Northumberland, which has CSAs that are very popular with residents of Saratoga County. They also run a cafe and storefront in Saratoga Springs that has delicious pizza served with fresh ingredients.
In addition to agriculture, Saratoga County––particularly Saratoga Springs––is well known for its restaurant industry, dating back to the taverns that served as rest stops, and gathering places. Over the centuries, the many cuisines have in some ways reflected and in other ways been more diverse than the resident and tourist community, which is largely European in origin. The county has boasted Italian eateries, Irish pubs, French bistros, a German ‘haus,’ and other European eateries along the highways and in town. In addition, a small Asian community has some Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Fusion restaurants, and Mexican immigrants have started a few restaurants in town, too. Outside of Saratoga Springs, Chez Pierre, a popular spot in Gansevoort, serves upscale French cuisine. Unfortunately, another French restaurant in Malta, Chez Sophie, closed in 2009 after 40 years in business serving a loyal clientele.
Of long standing is the culinary expertise of African Americans, who have contributed to the food culture of the region since tourism’s 19th century heyday. One early figure is George Crum, who is credited by some with inventing the potato chip, though others believe differently. Crum had been born in Saratoga County in 1824 or 1825 and was a descendent of African, Native American (specifically Huron), and European ancestors (D’Imperio) (Starr). Crum had been raised in poverty and was unable to read or write, though by his death was arguably one of the best known chefs in a community reputed for its opulent dining (Mitchell).
An African American businesswoman is a local legend whose restaurant, Hattie’s Chicken Shack, is closing in on a century of service. Founded by Hattie Moseley Austin in 1938, Hattie’s served fine Southern home cooking in a friendly, casual way that became so popular its fans trekked to Saratoga Springs just to visit. Describing Saratoga in the late 1930s and 1940s, Hattie said that “Saratoga was fast, man; it was real fast. It was up all night long.” To accommodate this all-night clientele, often patrons of casinos, speakeasies, and jazz clubs, Hattie’s was open 24 hours a day during this time. After 30 years on Federal Street, Hattie’s moved to Phila Street in 1968 when urban renewal razed the neighborhood (Our Roots). Today, chef and owner Jasper Alexander has two locations, and Hattie’s is still considered by many to be one of the best restaurants in Saratoga Springs, which is particularly impressive for any restaurant in a city that is known for its abundance of delicious eateries.
The Abenaki are well-known for their beaded artwork, and many indigenous artists continue to sell their work in the Saratoga County region to tourists and others in the community. The 19th century marks the beginning of Saratoga County’s tourist history. Because of the ease of transportation to the region brought by railroads and steamboats, Saratoga Springs in particular became a popular tourist destination for people in New York City, New England, and even other regions of America. The ease of access to the region also brought a wide variety of travelling entertainment to the region such as fairs and circuses, including the youth-oriented Circus Smirkus presented by the Waldorf School in Saratoga Springs (Hale-Lopez). The Saratoga county fair continues to operate today in Ballston Spa (Diodato). Parks are also central to leisure in Saratoga County history, and Congress Park in Saratoga Springs, home to the famous carousel, was even landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead––the architect of Central Park in New York City––in the late nineteenth century.
Outside of Saratoga Springs, tourists enjoyed the nature of the region, as well as its connections to the Revolutionary War. Popular tourist attractions include the Battlefield in Schuylerville and Grant Cottage in Wilton, which visitors still flock to today. Also during the 19th century, there was a large increase of arts to the region, including the construction of opera houses many of which would later become movie theaters. Gambling, too, attracted many to the region in the form of casinos and, of course, the Saratoga Springs Race Track, which brought more people to the region to work in the newly developed local industry. This economic growth of the mid twentieth century was also accompanied by the development of more arts in the region, including the famous Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), which first opened in 1966, and the more recent Saratoga Shakespeare Company, founded in 2000 by Skidmore Professor Larry Opitz (“Mission/History). This time period also brought more movie theaters, such as the Malta Drive In, as well as local theaters in many towns across the county. Today, many of these movie theaters are operated by chains.
Then and Now: A photo of the county fair from 1907-10 (Brookside) contrasted with one from 2019. 2020 was the first time that the fair was canceled since the Civil War.
Some of the earliest activities in the county were centered around the trading of goods between indigenous Abenaki and Mohawk people and Dutch and French traders. These goods would be transported from the Hudson River and sold elsewhere, many sent back to the Old World. As New Yorkers and New Englanders? spread out and settled this part of the Kayaderosseras Patent, stores grew up around clusters of homes and in towns to support the changing needs of the County’s populations. Most community centers in the early 19th century included a store, church, and schoolhouse, known as “corners.”
As consumerism in the county grew, the one general store in a town might become several specialized emporia selling different goods. In the nineteenth century? Purveyors of services also expanded; by the mid 19th century, dentists sold “Artificial Teeth” and real estate brokerage sold houses (Child). The service industry in the county keeps pace alongside technological developments. By the early 20th century, “general stores” serving whole communities changed shape from being all-encompassing to selling small goods such as candy, cigarettes, and sodas. [Recommend: Clip from Rachel Clothier Interview- she describes her fond memories of going to and working at general stores in an interview with Rimmele Wood.]
Shopping. Abundant opportunity is afforded those who have occasion to visit emporiums of art and fashion on shopping designs intent. The flashing establishments under the large hotels, as well as several others in the village, cater entirely to the fashionable visitor. Everything desirable in the way of laces, feathers, diamonds and ornaments, and elegant dress goods are obtainable. It is the custom of many of the fashionable merchants and modistes of New York to open here during the summer, branch establishments for the sale of their specialities. There are numerous resident stores also, which would not disgrace New York or Boston; among these the house of H. Van Deusen, on Broadway and Phila street, near the Post-Office, takes the lead. During the warm season, the Saratoga Broadway glitters with the brilliant display in shop windows, and the gorgeous exhibition of goods upon the sidewalks.
RF Dearborn, Saratoga and How to See It (1872)
By the mid-20th century, the spread of cars supported the arrival of chain stores in the county including Jamesway, a department store chain, and Montgomery Ward, both at The Saratoga Mall, the first mall in the county opened in Wilton in 1973 (“Saratoga Mall”). These stores began to displace local businesses. The formation of shopping malls permanently changed the landscape of the county. Consumers returned to the “one stop shopping” style of earlier eras, albeit with more options. Today, many areas of the county such as Wilton and Clifton Park have expansive strip malls, offering a mix of both local and national shops in close proximity.
One popular local store that has expanded into a Northeast chain is Stewart’s Shops, known affectionately as simply “Stewart’s.” This chain of convenience stores that first formed in 1945, is currently headquartered in Ballston Spa with a Saratoga Springs address. It is owned and operated by the Dake Family, and is popular not just in the county, but throughout the state and even in southern Vermont (“Stewart’s Shops”). Ironically, Stewart’s replaced many locally operated general stores, and it's now quite common to see many Stewart’s in close proximity to each other. Shoppers at Stewart’s can still buy local milk, along with candy, coffee, and gas.
Then and Now: Downtown Stillwater, taken in 1910 (Brookside), featuring trolley tracks surrounded by shops, next to a newer photo from Stillwater’s tourism website. This trolley would have taken people to stores in the downtown area, making purchasing easier and more accessible before the popularity of cars.
Until the late 18th century, most children were taught by their own families, or in small communities through volunteer informal teachers. The county’s population boom at the end of the 19th century as well as new attitudes towards education led to a formalization of education. Union College, in neighboring Schenectady for example, was chartered in 1795, ushering an era of education in the region. Some schools grew up with local churches; religious education has continued to this day, such as at St. Clements Regional Catholic school, which opened in xxx has operated for over a century (“St. Clements”) in Saratoga Springs, and at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Waterford. Waterford is also where Emma Willard attempted to start her first all-girls school, supported by Governor DeWitt Clinton. However, her proposal for women’s education was rejected by state legislature. In 1821, Willard opened a seminary in Troy with 90 students from across the country.
The Saratoga Springs school system, for example, started in 1812, with money donated from Gideon Putnam in order to start a “a citizens’ movement” of education (Fisher). One-room school houses opened all over the county serving smaller, rural communities; many still stand (often abandoned) today. Small class sizes, of generally a few families, meant teachers generally did not divide students by age or grade. Students living in rural communities might miss school to help their family’s farms or businesses. By the early 20th century, cars and buses made it possible to phase out one room schoolhouses and transport students to public school districts that served several communities, with separate classrooms and even schools based on age and grade.
The 20th century also brought forth rights for women, both educationally and politically. Skidmore College as we know it today evolved from the Young Women’s Industrial Club, which had been founded by Lucy Skidmore Scribner in 1903. As it offered classes in typewriting, bookkeeping, sewing, music, and more, the Industrial Club soon grew, and by 1908 it had 436 students, both male and female, many of whom commuted from surrounding towns and countryside throughout the county. By 1911, the institution was known as the Skidmore School for the Arts and by 1922, Skidmore College was chartered (“Skidmore History”). The college would soon be joined by SUNY Empire State, a school developed with the idea of promoting flexibility through distance learning. This time period also brought larger school systems to the county. Shenendehowa Central School District was organized in 1950, serving Clifton Park, Halfmoon, Malta, Waterford, Ballston and Stillwater under one system. The formalization of a public school system also brought resistance, manifested in more private religious schooling as well as alternative education such as Malta Montessori, founded in 2006.
Then and Now: A photo of a likely Ballston Spa High School theater performance taken in 1920 (Brookside) next to a photo of their 2016 cast of Pippin.
European settlers brought Christian religious institutions to Saratoga. As the Second Great Awakening swept the country–particularly upstate New York, where religious fervor was so high that it became known as the “Burned-over District”–churches sprang up throughout to serve the population, a population growing both in size and religiosity. Stillwater residents erected the first church in Saratoga County, the First Baptist Church, in 1791 to support the Episcopal community in the yet-to-be incorporated village. Construction of the Erie Canal, which turned Albany into an “inland port city” helped downstaters and New Englanders flock to Saratoga County, and the Church grew (“First Baptist Church”). Soon the county had many other denominations, such as Methodist, Catholic, and other denominations.
The village of Round Lake was founded in 1868 as a Methodist summer camp; its gingerbread wooden houses are home today to a year-round community. Ballston Spa, the county seat, was named after Reverend Eliphalet Ball, a Congregationalist clergyman and an early settler of Saratoga County. Many 18th and 19th century churches are still houses of worship today, including the Old Stone Church in Ballston Spa, which was founded in 1826. Not all denominations welcomed all who wished to worship. Black Americans living in the area worshipped in their own sacred spaces, particularly at a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the Dyer-Phelps AME Zion Church in Saratoga Springs, which was founded by 1863 (Armstead). Today, the Dyer-Phelps Church remains politically active, advocating for the end of systemic racism and police brutality both in the County and the country.
Diversity in religious practice, including increased settlement by Jewish families, dates to the early 20th century. Jewish people had been coming to Saratoga Springs, specifically, for as long as the city has held its name. Largely in search of medicinal benefits from the area’s hot springs, Jewish people sought out Saratoga Springs. While most viewed the city as a place to visit, some moved to the area to own and operate hotels. These smaller hotels and guesthouses increased in number when many Broadway hotels barred Jewish visitors from renting rooms (Godine). Despite discrimination in find housing or worship, the Jewish community of Saratoga Springs grew. By 1910, 25 Jewish families lived in Saratoga Springs, with many worshipping at the first synagogue, Congregation Shaara Tfille, established in 1911 (Don). By the mid-twentieth-century, antisemitic sentiment waned. As a result, Jewish communities in the city became more open, and Jewish culture flourished. Today, Rabbi Linda Motzkin is known not only for her leadership and spiritual guidance of the city’s Jewish community, but also for leading challah baking sessions and Torah study for people of all faiths. Another county synagogue is Congregation Beth Shalom in Clifton Park, which was founded in 1975 but it slowly declining in membership.
For Muslims in Saratoga County, access to prayer sites is very recent, dating to only 2017, when the Al-Arqam Center of Saratoga opened in Waterford, near Halfmoon. The Center remains the only mosque in the county today. Muslims had been living in Saratoga County long before 2017, of course, and previously had to travel to worship centers in Albany, Troy, or Schenectady for communal prayer. The Al-Arqam Center offers five daily prayers, Friday prayer, weekend school, adult study circle, youth study circle, and support to less fortunate ones.
- 1791 The first church in the county, First Baptist Church, is constructed in Stillwater.
- 1791 Emerson Tavern, later the first seat of the town of Wilton is built ("History Lesson”).
- 1797 First legislative law funding education in NYS and Saratoga County is passed (“History of the Ballston Spa Central School District.”)
- 1803 The earliest school on record met in the Ballston Spa Baptist church.
- 1807 Robert Fulton invents the steamboat, making travel to Saratoga County far more accessible.
- 1808 The first temperance club is formed in the Congregation Church of Northumberland (Antis).
- 1812 Gideon Putnam donates money to form the Saratoga Springs School System.
- 1841 The First Saratoga County Agricultural Society is founded, running the County Fair until this day
- 1849 First school serving Waterford and Halfmoon built
- 1858 First school established in Corinth (“About”).
- 1859 Private Wilton Academy opens (Wouterz)
- 1863 Dyer-Phelps African Methodist Episcopal Church founded
- Late 1800s a “sophisticated toboggan run” is built in the Glen Mitchell area of Wilton (Wouterz)
- 1903 The Young Women’s Industrial Club is founded by Lucy Skidmore Scribner
- 1904 St. Clement’s Regional Catholic School is founded in Saratoga Springs
- 1911 Congregation Shaara Tfille is built in Saratoga Springs
- 1922 Skidmore College is officially chartered
- 1930s Saratoga Reservation (Now the State Park) adds bathhouses and research facilities (“Saratoga Spa State Park”)
- 1938 Hattie’s Chicken Shack opens in Saratoga Springs on Federal Street
- 1945 Stewart’s Shops first location opens in Ballston Spa
- 1950 Shenendehowa Central School District is organized, serving Clifton Park, Halfmoon, Malta, Waterford, Ballston and Stillwater (“Historical Information”)
- 1965 Saratoga League of Women’s Voters founded
- 1966 Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) opens
- 1968 Hattie’s moves to 45 Phila Street, where it remains today
- 1971 SUNY Empire State founded
- 1973 Saratoga Mall opens in Wilton
- 1985 The Homemade Theater Company is founded (“History”)
- 1998 Current Ballston Spa High School opens
- 2000 Saratoga Shakespeare Company founded
- 2006 Malta Montessori founded
- 2017 The county’s first and only mosque, Al-Arqam Center of Saratoga, opens in Halfmoon