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Documenting History

Oppenheim historian writing books about his town

November 2, 2008
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald

OPPENHEIM - With his second book about the history of his town due from the printer this month, Town Historian Hector Allen has a lot to say about the place.

"You don't realize how much there is to know about your community," Allen said. "Not much has been written down."

Allen is changing all that with the first volume of a projected two-part history of the town that is nearly 400 pages long titled "Oppenheim Chronicles."

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

Hector Allen, Oppenheim historian, reaches for one of his books on history in his house.

His first effort about the town was to be a chapter in the history "that got out of hand," and it became a separate book, "Oppenheim in the War of the Rebellion." It was published in 2004 by Steffen Publishing. The front cover pictures Samuel Clemons of Oppenheim.

"He was no relation to Mark Twain," Allen said.

Clemons died four days after being wounded, Allen said, in May 1864.

Allen's book on his town's part in the Civil War lists 181 men who volunteered for duty "and one who was drafted. They would defend our Constitution and nation from 1861 to 1865," Allen wrote in the book.

Allen has taken a long look at the town in his 25 years as historian. He also spent 34 years teaching history and social studies at Little Falls High School from 1958 to 1992, when he retired.

A centennial flag with 38 stars is restored and framed under glass in his living room.

"We found this in the attic," he said.

While at Little Falls as a teacher, Allen started a study group called the Capt. Henry Galpin Round Table to delve into the Civil War history he loves. The group is named for a prominent Little Falls Civil War soldier who was wounded four times and died of tuberculosis after the war.

Allen said he didn't know what kind of response there would be to his offering of an optional class on Civil War history. He was surprised to get such a following.

"We still have 25 in the Galpin group," Allen said.

Allen has underwritten his own publications, saying he didn't feel right about getting a grant or someone else to pay for his hobby. As a historian, be received $250 per year in 1983 when he began. He now receives $700. He said it is obvious he doesn't do the work of a historian for the money.

"I answer a lot of genealogical questions," he said. "I like doing it.

Allen said he knows some historians who don't like doing genealogical research for people who have moved away from the area, but he enjoys it.

Fulton County Historian Peter Betz said Allen has been in office "a lot longer than me," and acknowledged town historians do things more "endemic to towns."

"I have a good working relationship with town historians," Betz said. "Town historians are the true servants of public history. They are the front-line people."

Betz said town historians can give better, quicker answers to people's questions, especially when it comes to genealogical questions.

"I pass the queries on to them," Betz said.

Allen said he grew up in St. Johnsville around the corner from the Margaret Reaney Memorial Library before people had televisions.

"I picked up a lot of books there," he said.

He also was cognizant of history in the making as the local Smalley's Theater played news reels of what was going on in World War II.

"They played a news reel of whatever went on in the past three months on the front lines," he said.

Allen played his own part in the nation's war history after he graduated from St. Johnsville High School in 1949 and was drafted into the Korean War.

He had worked a short time in a local mill and said the G.I. bill then paid his way to college at the State University of New York in Oneonta.

With his teaching degree in history, the post of town historian was a good fit, he said.

Allen said many small settlements like Clemonsville and Middle Sprite are gone now as well as the many crossroads stores of the area before rapid transportation brought rural shoppers to the larger towns.

He said there have been six cheese factories in the town, several blacksmiths, a tannery, 16 sawmills from 1805 up to the present one still operating, and there was even a gold mine on a ledge over Dolgeville.

"It wasn't very productive," Allen said. "It was an open pit mine and didn't do well."

Although dairy farming was the most productive industry in the area, he said the town is down to 10 dairies.

Allen said he's located 42 cemeteries in the town, though some have been destroyed and only two still take interments.

He said getting protection for cemeteries on private property was one of the causes former Fulton County Historian Lew Decker took up and was unable to get state backing. He said Decker was a mentor to him as historian and lamented the lack of protection for cemeteries.

Allen said among his duties is an annual report to the Town Board, and he keeps scrapbooks of local newspaper articles pertaining to the town - now up to 25 volumes.

Although recovering from hip replacement surgery, Allen said he still enjoys his work.

"I enjoy the work immensely," he said. "It's a fun job. Life is a hoot."

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at



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