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‘Aeronaut’ thrilled onlookers at Sacandaga Park

July 14, 2014
By PETER BETZ , Leader Herald

Postcard collectors have albums showing images of what our cities and valley looked like a century ago. One may still collect these cards because antique vendors, both in shops and at shows, offer shoe boxes full of the colorful cards that once conveyed simple messages like "Dear Mother, Will return Tuesday by afternoon train, Mabel," sent before long- distance telephoning was available.

Postcard collecting isn't expensive, with some exceptions. Collectors generally agree the scarcest local card is the undated "Balloon Ascension At Sacandaga Park, N.Y." Why this card is rare is unknown, but it is. I often wished to identify the balloonist or "aeronaut" and determine the date of his or her ascension, but I achieved no success until discovering the Aug. 11, 1890, Johnstown Leader Republican article, which states, "Prof. Charles Vanderveer is announced to make a balloon ascension at Sacandaga Park on Saturday, the 16th, the occasion of Booth & Company's picnic." After this discovery, the task of researching "Professor" Vanderveer began.

It wasn't difficult because "aeronauts," brave men and women (yes, women) who traveled skyward in hydrogen-filled balloons, made frequent headlines from the early 1880s forward. While some ascended for thrills and glory, most limited their dangerous exploits to county fairs and other large public events where they could charge admission for their risk-taking. Rising skyward wasn't the problem, but finding safe landing spots often was.

Article Photos

The postcard shows a “balloon ascension” at the old Sacandaga Park.
Photo courtesy of Peter Betz

The Oct. 24, 1884, Fulton County Republican only briefly mentioned "Professor" Vanderveer's very first balloon ascent at Argusville: "Many friends gathered to dissuade him, but he was bound to go up. He alighted safe and sound in a field near Rider's Corners."

Days later, this same "balloonitic," a young Schoharie County farmer, received much greater publicity from a New York Morning Journal reporter present at his first publicly advertised ascent. Vanderveer predicted, "I believe before long every man will own a balloon and snap his fingers at railroads and steamships." Of his homemade balloon, Vanderveer remarked, "It is of cambric and represents the wardrobe of my mother and five sisters. I asked them for snips (of cloth), but that was slow work, so I stole three or four dresses. I kept my balloon a secret, so they accused the servant girl of stealing the dresses and discharged her. I was sorry, but she was a martyr to science. I seamed the dresses together and made a good-sized balloon. On Monday I brought it out to the gaze of the town. My sisters recognized their clothes and I had trouble for a while."

During his first Argusville ascent, Vanderveer selected a local critic for target practice. "Bill Temple, a fellow who has laughed at me all along, stood under the balloon. I up with a sandbag and drove it at Bill. It flattened him out in the mud."

Vanderveer's first ascent was successful until threatened by a thunderstorm. While descending, "The clouds now appeared above me and I saw the earth again. A low, musical note struck my ear. It was a cow. The storm was rapidly coming on, so I dropped."

Of course, there was much more to successful ballooning than sewing one's sister's dresses together. Apparently, Vanderveer had accurately copied the inflation, guidance and gas-release systems developed and patented by an already famous husband-and-wife aeronaut team from Frankfort, N.Y., "Professor" Carl Myers and his well-known solo-balloonist wife, "Madam Carlotta."

The Myers couple attended Vanderveer's first public ascension at Palatine Bridge's Union Driving Park on Oct. 16, probably just out of curiosity. Recognizing them, the Amsterdam Daily Democrat printed the humorous headline, "Carlotta Watches Charlie."

"Among interested spectators were Professor Myers and his wife Carlotta who examined Vanderveer's homemade balloon. Myers told this correspondent the apparatus used for inflating this balloon was exactly like his, on which he has letters patent." Myers remarked, "He has known Vanderveer a long time and so has Carlotta: that once he (Myers) was inflating a balloon at the Fonda fairgrounds when by actual count, Vanderveer who was 'nosing around' asked him 150 questions in ten minutes; that he had to shake him off."

Yet "Professor" Myers, who with his wife and 30 seamstresses manufactured state-of-the-art balloons at their Frankfort "balloon factory" (now a bed and breakfast) and sold them to other aeronauts and to the U.S. Geological Service, paid Vanderveer a grudging complement. "Vanderveer deserves much credit for making a balloon as good as this one and for arranging the inflation device," Myers remarked. "I wish him well."

After obtaining a real balloon, "Professor" Charles Vanderveer made many ascents at events like Johnstown's Fourth of July 1887 celebration, the August 1890 Fulton County Fair, the Sept. 5, 1891, Delhi Fair, and at Fonda Fairgrounds on Nov. 16, 1891.

As late as March 24, 1922, a Johnstown man wrote to the Morning Herald, stating, "I was one of the village urchins who followed the balloon and met the professor face to face after he reached earth on a farm north of the village."

Because the "Balloon Ascension at Sacandaga Park" postcard is undated, one can't positively prove the balloon pictured is Vanderveer's, photographed during his Aug. 16, 1890. Sacandaga Park ascension. It could show a different balloonist on a different occasion; nor can we discover whether "Charlie" Vanderveer was henpecked into replacing his mother's and sister's purloined dresses.

The uplifting story of "Madam Carlotta" comes next.

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



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