Museum is a hidden gem in the city
AMSTERDAM — Walter Elwood was a man of parts.
He did more in one lifetime than most people could do in several. And area residents are the better for it.
His legacy is enshrined in the Walter Elwood Museum of the Mohawk Valley, 100 Church St.
With some 25,000 artifacts, the museum introduces visitors to a range of topics: Mohawk Valley history, multicultural topics, natural history, military history, railroads and the Victorian age.
Every room in the museum is a new adventure.
Elwood and his wife, Anne, had no children and were “avid travelers” who visited such places as Egypt, China, India and Scandinavia from 1910 till World War II, said Anne Peconie, the museum’s executive director. “He traveled everywhere.”
They weren’t wealthy but were frugal, she said. They lived above a carriage house on Guy Park Avenue and preferred walking or taking a bus to owning a car.
Living from 1886 to 1955, Elwood was born during the Victorian age and lived into the modern era. The collection of exhibits, such as the Victorian room in the museum, reflects that. “Elwood spent the greater part of his childhood in the Victorian age,” said Austin Oliver, a collections management intern at the museum.
Elwood graduated Amsterdam High School in 1904 and Cornell University in 1908.
He carried his many interests with him when he became the Amsterdam school superintendent in 1939–which, in those days, comprised, not today’s Greater Amsterdam School District, but a bunch of one-room schoolhouses in Montgomery County towns and villages, said Peconie.
The former Fifth Ward Elementary School became the respository of the items Elwood collected in his travels, such as fossils, rocks and wood. In those days, elementary education consisted of reading, writing, arithematic and civics. With the help of the state Education Department, Elwood created a science curriculum.
With his suitcase of artifacts, Elwood traveled around the schools in his district teaching science. His intersted in informing school children is reflected today in regular special hands-on programs for children.
“Amsterdam was a poor city, a city of immigrants,” said Peconie. Because they couldn’t explore the world, “he brought the world to them.”
During a Amsterdam’s boom period in carpet making, it drew a wide range of people. “Amsterdam in the late 19th Century and early 20th became a diverse city, a welcoming city,” said Oliver. The carpet industry exhibits display photos and artifacts from that boom period.
Because he was known as a collector and educator, people well-off enough to travel outside the United States, including Italians and Poles, brought back artifacts for Elwood.
During World War II, Elwood was in charge of the development of Victory Gardens near the Mohawk River. The museum military room displays uniforms and artifacts from many American wars.
A room filled with stuffed animals reflects Elwood’s interest in wildlife, but the animals came from the collection of Robert Frothingham, an area world traveler and hunter. Elwood himself was what today would by called a “tree hugger — more interested in fossils, eggs and shells, Peconie said.
Elwood was a member of the Audubon Society, helped found the Montgomery County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and was instrumental in bringing 4-H exhibits into the Fonda Fair.
The museum in 1981 could no longer be staffed by the Amsterdam school district, and managment was taken over by the Mohawk Valley Heritage Association. In 2005 the citizens of the city voted to give the museum to the association.
The museum was moved to the historic Guy Park Manor in 2009 but relocated to its current location in the former Noteworthy and Sanford Carpet Mills building in 2014 after the 2011 Hurricane Irene devastated the building.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment.