Multiple sources help build local collections

Alice Judson’s 1920s watercolor scene of Water Street in Beacon had traveled from Troy in Rensselaer County to Delmar in Albany County and then to Florida before someone from the Beacon Historical Society saw it listed at an estate sale. 

This watercolor by Alice Judson dates to the 1920s and shows Water Street in Beacon. (BHS)

The painting by Judson, a highly collected artist born in Beacon in 1876, has now reached its forever home — joining other pieces of hers acquired by the Beacon Historical Society (BHS). 

The detectives at BHS and the Putnam History Museum in Cold Spring have found that digital sleuthing on eBay, Facebook and the websites of auction houses has become a valuable tool in repatriating local artifacts. They join tried-and-true methods of persuading current and former residents, or their descendants, to donate items found in their attics, basements or garages.

The Putnam History Museum took possession of historical documents, some dating to the 1700s, found stored in a dozen boxes in the attic of Philipstown Town Hall when it underwent renovations, said Cassie Ward, the museum’s executive director, and John Duncan, its collections manager. 

In Beacon, a woman from Massachusetts decided to research the provenance of an inflatable raft her father used for fishing. She and her husband discovered that the maker, the New York Rubber Co., was headquartered in Beacon and contacted BHS, said Denise Doring VanBuren, its president. 

VanBuren met her in the parking lot of the I-84 Diner in Fishkill and returned to Beacon with a New York Rubber Co. raft from the 1950s. 

The Beacon Historical Society acquired on eBay this commemorative badge from an 1895 convention attended by Beacon firefighters.
The BHS acquired on eBay this commemorative badge from an 1895 convention attended by Beacon firefighters. (BHS)

Both the historical society and the museum have an army of volunteers who monitor auction sites, particularly eBay, where users can create notifications when items whose descriptions include terms such as “Philipstown,” “Matteawan” and “Fishkill Landing” (the latter two merged in 1913 to form Beacon) are posted. 

One recent notification alerted VanBuren to the sale of a commemorative badge from a firefighter’s convention held in Redding, Pennsylvania, in October 1895. The badge, stamped “Beacon Engine Co., Matteawan, N.Y.,” was likely given to members who attended the convention and its parade. (Another is listed on eBay for $250.)

The badge seller lived in Pennsylvania, but BHS has purchased other items from Europe and as far away as New Zealand, she said. “We feel like it’s our mission to rescue these things.”

While the internet has enabled long-distance connections, private donations still represent the largest source of historical material, Ward and VanBuren said. Last year, a North Carolina woman donated photographs that her late husband, a Beacon native, took in the 1980s for his master’s thesis at SUNY New Paltz on how the city had decayed. 

In Cold Spring, five residents pooled their money to buy for the Putnam History Museum a painting by Cold Spring artist Michael Kelly depicting a tag sale held in the 1950s on the lawn of the building that houses the museum. 

Michael Kelly
A painting by local artist Michael Kelly of a tag sale held in the 1950s on the lawn of the building that currently houses the Putnam History Museum. (PHM)

Other historical sites are also a source. A two-person sled that the Craig House Hospital would tie to horses and use to ferry patients from the Beacon train station to its property found its way to the Locust Grove Estate in Poughkeepsie, which offered it to the Beacon Historical Society, said VanBuren. “It’s from about 1850, and it has a Hudson River scene about a train on it,” she said. 

Two years ago, Ward discovered on Etsy a three-dimensional diorama of the West Point Foundry that was based on a painting by John Ferguson Weir that is in the museum’s collection. The diorama “brought this painting to life,” she said. 

The museum lacked the money to buy the piece, but when Ward contacted the artist in Hawaii to learn more, he donated it. “He wouldn’t even let us pay for shipping,” said Ward. “It was so aloha.” 

Because the funds to buy items are limited, there are disappointments. The Beacon Historical Society bid on an early 19th-century watercolor of the Fishkill Landing by Christopher Pearse Cranch, an artist and writer. The society’s trustees capped the amount they would spend, said VanBuren, and were heartbroken when someone outbid them with a $10,000 offer. 

eBay Finds

Spirits revived when BHS received Judson’s painting back from the Williamstown + Atlanta Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts, where it had been sent for restoration. A Newburgh framer is putting it into a “historically accurate” frame, which will be the first Judson piece in the Beacon collection that shows a streetscape. 

“Here’s the most remarkable part: Every building in the painting is still there,” VanBuren said.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

The Peekskill resident is a former reporter for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, where he covered Sullivan County and later Newburgh. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Morgan State University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Area of Expertise: General.

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