Clifton Park celebrates its first-ever Historic Preservation Day

Historic 8

BY Molly Congdon
Gazette Reporter
There was a ghost in Grooms Tavern on May 30.

James Groom was dressed in a long black coat, golden vest, black tie, and white shirt with the collar slightly popped. A top hat rested on his head.

Remarkably, for a man who has been deceased since 1870, decomposition had not yet taken effect.

“Now my home is the Clifton Park Center Baptist Church Cemetery, but they let me out on occasion to do things like this,” Groom said. “I do have to be back before sunset; the people in the cemetery get a little jealous.”

Most likely the real Mr. Groom was smiling from the great beyond as the town celebrated its first Historic Preservation Day.

Of course, the apparition of James Groom wasn’t really floating around the tavern guiding groups on tours; town historian John Scherer took on the role, a character that he has portrayed before.

“I just show them my tavern and talk about the old days,” Groom said. “When I built this place, this was a major road here between Waterford and Schenectady. So it was well traveled; the Erie Canal had just opened south of here … it was a real busy place. Then in 1828, they met here in my tavern and the town of Clifton Park was formed right here in this building.”

The town values its rich history and wants very much to preserve it for future generations to learn from and cherish.

“So much effort has been put into restoring Grooms Tavern and right now we are in the process of applying for a grant from New York state to help restore the blacksmith shop next door,” Councilman James Whalen said. “I think the [town historic] commission really looked at this as an opportunity to show off to the town, what a resource we have here. The goal is to create a historic corner here.”

Whalen continued: “I think people look at Clifton Park and they think of modern Clifton Park; post-World War II, post-Northway. You tend to forget historic Clifton Park, the Clifton Park that grew up around the Erie Canal, the farmers, the blacksmiths, el and I think it’s important to remember that history.”

“You can never recreate it, but we want to give people a sense of what used to be,” Historic Preservation Commission member Paul Stambach said. “I think it’s important for people to have an idea with how far we have come, especially socially — it’s a different world than it was 150 years ago here.”

“I think that’s so correct,” Historic Preservation Commission member Maureen O’Connor added. “I grew up in Rexford and I remember when they were paving these roads.”

Stepping into the aged, abandoned blacksmith shop, you feel the instability of the rotting boards and smell the damp dirt and dust. At first glance, all you see is a broken-down, withered shadow of what once was. But with a little effort, you can start to picture what this gathering place was like in its heyday. The back wall is covered with inscriptions; many wedding receptions took place there and couples etched their names in the wooden panels to document the occasion. It comes as no surprise that there is a piano, which is caked with so much soot that if one were to push a finger on one of the keys, a little cloud would puff up from the surface.

The hope is to have demonstrations of craftsmanship such as blacksmithing, tinsmithing and woodworking to show how people lived in the 19th century. They would also host several educational programs.

In fact, some live tinsmithing and woodworking demonstrations were taking place that very day.

“I’m demonstrating some early woodworking, which is basically finished carpentry; I’m going to reproduce some moldings from the 18th century and first part of the 19th century,” woodworking specialist Henry Tetreault said. “Today we kind of romanticize woodworking and say that people did things better back then, but the truth is they had to be fast and know their trade or else they got fired just like the rest of us.”

Tetreault demonstrates some of his woodworking skill:

In the modern era, we have forgotten the art form of doing the basics by hand.

“It’s quiet; almost therapeutic,” Tetreault said. “I enjoy the smell of the wood and there is no noise involved, it’s just the wisp of the wood plane — very calming.”

Tinsmith Walter Fleming also had a table at the tavern.

“This is an 18th/19th century candle reflector,” he said, pointing to an object that resembles flower petals that wraps around a candlestick while on the holder. These would light the wall up in the room and over time they would age and darken,” he said. “It’s a very rare item that I’ve started making over the past couple of years, and it takes hundreds of hammer hits to get all of the grooves of the 16 wedged segments of the device; I can assure you I’m the only tinsmith in America building them because it is such a rare piece that no one knows about these.”

The afternoon gave those who visited a glimpse into a time when life was very different.

“There is one thing that you folks have today that I do like,” Groom said with a glimmer in his eye.

“Indoor plumbing.”