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Frothingham’s treasures went to museum

May 19, 2014
The Leader Herald

Who was Robert Frothingham and why write about him? Robert made his fortune pioneering in magazine editing and advertising, founding a company producing circus and World War I propaganda posters, compiling literary anthologies, photographing nature and collecting trophies from his wildlife hunts. It is the last activity that concerns us.

Frothingham's main contribution to our counties, however, began only after his death, when his widow, Minnie Yerdon Frothingham, began gifting her deceased husband's large collection of wildlife photographs and stuffed animal, bird and fish trophies to Amsterdam's Public School Museum, today's Walter Elwood Museum in Amsterdam. Some deteriorated trophies are restored and viewable at the Wildlife Sports and Education Museum in Vail Mills.

Robert Frothingham died unexpectedly in 1937 in San Francisco at age 72, only a week after leaving his Fulton County Mountain Road summer home, "Topside," near Sacandaga Park. The Dec. 9, 1937, Leader-Republican described Frothingham as a "lecturer, writer and former newspaperman who for years spent summers at his retreat on Mountain Road, a showplace that many persons of fame and fortune visited. He stocked his summer place with many curios, works of art and literature, and was a genial, beloved host. Since retiring in 1925, he devoted his time to traveling, hunting and writing on outdoor life. His articles on the Kodiak Bear of Alaska and many other wildlife-related adventures appeared in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and the N.Y. Herald Tribune. He was the author of three books and six anthologies."

Article Photos

This is a photograph of Walter Elwood, founder of Amsterdam’s Elwood Museum, examining some of Robert Frothingham’s animal and bird trophies around 1950.
Photo courtesy of Peter Betz

The Republican's depiction of Frothingham's Mountain Road home being filled with "many curios" was an understatement: Considering how many remain, it must have been a treasure trove of wildlife trophies. In 1926, he built a separate "Trophy House" at Topsides to house it. Thanks to Mrs. Frothingham and Amsterdam educator Walter Elwood, it remains within our two counties.

Mrs. Frothingham continued summering at "Topside" after Robert's death. Newspaper notices record her social events there, but perhaps the continued presence of her late husband's large collection of stuffed "critters" hovering around her became too constant a reminder of his loss and caused her to consider gifting them where they could receive more appreciation. Yet if so, where?

Mrs. Frothingham found the answer during the mid-1940s, making yearly gifts to Water Elwood's growing Amsterdam Public School Museum. Elwood's official title, according to the June 18, 1947, Amsterdam Evening Recorder, was "director of the museum and supervisor of Visual and Natural Education." Frothingham's collection was gradually removed from Topside to Amsterdam's Fifth Ward School, the museum's original home, where it eventually occupied not less than seven classrooms and additional hallways.

How today's Walter Elwood Museum evolved isn't hard to trace because an annual report appeared yearly. In 1947, for example, "594 of the finest lantern slides have been presented by Mrs. Frothingham, who made a prior donation of 806 equally beautiful slides. She also contributed last September a collection of 1,145 glass stereoscopic slides taken with a special camera. The teachers of Amsterdam are recognizing more and more what a great help these aids are to the job of learning." This is because Mr. Elwood incorporated Frothingham's visuals with his own bird and animal lectures, presenting them to grade-school classes for many years, until retiring and dying in 1955.

While Frothingham's wildlife photographs prove he enjoyed shooting wildlife with cameras as well as rifles, his collection of taxidermied animal heads was also given to the new museum. On April 25, 1946, the Recorder boasted, "A ten-foot polar bear skin and a nine-foot Kodiak brown bear skin are a small part of the attractive material Mrs. Frothingham is generously presenting the Amsterdam School Museum to enjoy." Displays already donated included "a real walrus head, woodland caribou and a large mountain sheep." The 1946 report informed readers, "The mounted head of 'Old Plowshares,'" a widely known moose of the Sisson Lake Region, New Brunswick, and the foot of Martin Johnson's famous elephant "Simba" also left Topside for the museum. Simba's lower leg and foot, by the way, was fashioned into an umbrella stand.

A long-circulated local rumor that Frothingham and Theodore Roosevelt were friends is possible because they were contemporaries who shared enthusiasm for wildlife, conservation and big- game hunting, but I find no newspaper references supporting it. Frothingham was, however, friends with William Howard Taft, who succeeded Roosevelt as president. From the April 19, 1908, Syracuse Herald, we learn Frothingham was toastmaster at an important dinner honoring Taft at New York's Waldorf Astoria, where he lauded Taft's public career. Since Taft and Roosevelt later disagreed, we can't know whether Frothingham successfully remained friends with both.

Frothingham frequently contributed to local activities. The Morning Herald of Dec. 23, 1932, for example, reported on his talk to Gloversville's Kiwanis Club. He presented a humorous talk on the infidelities of the male moose, "who starts with devotion to a mate to whom he is loyal and faithful for about ten days. Then he goes off into the wilderness to find whether there isn't a lady moose somewhere better looking. Sometimes a male moose follows a call made by a birch bark megaphone and then he gets his, for a hunter has sent out the call, not a lady friend."

Topside was purchased in 1998 by Sharon and John Kerwick, a distant Frothingham relative. They began restoration activities in 2003 and enjoy good relations with the Walter Elwood Museum.

Peter Betz, a former Fulton County historian, lives in Fort Johnson.

 
 
 

 

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