Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why is Utica so....... Utica!

Lets talk about Utica. HMMM......what can I say? It's my hometown and the place where I still reside. My mother's family came here over 100 years ago. They arrived from the Amsterdam/Auriesville area in the 1880's. My mother still lives in the house they bought on Cottage Place in 1894. Why did they come? And why do we stay?
My maternal great-grandfather, Levi W. Snell, was a traveling salesman. He sold Singer sewing machines and was very successful. In his travels he happened upon the bustling city of Utica. He immediately thought that it was the kind of town he could make his fortune in!
His wife, Anna C. Van Antwerp, was not convinced. Her parents owned a successful farm and orchards in Glen, N.Y. Her father, Cornelius Putnam Van Antwerp was a Civil War veteran and something of a local celebrity. With her background of privledge and status in the community, she was not eager to move to the city and the beginnings of a new life so far from home.
In typical 19th century fashion, the husband prevailed and they came to Utica with their 3 young daughters.
They settled in a small frame house in West Utica and Levi continued as a salesman and carpenter.
At one point, Levi made the acquaintance of another traveling salesman, F.W. Woolworth. Together, they lamented the hardscrabble life of road sales. One day, F.W. had an idea. Instead of bringing the merchandise to the people have the people come to the merchandise! Levi was fascinated. What an idea! Perhaps he could even sell the sewing machines out of a central location.
In downtown Utica there stood a remarkable structure on the site of the circa 1940 Boston Store Building. It was called "The Arcade Building" and was a remarkable engineering accomplishment of the mid 19th century.
The interior of the building featured a central court topped with a magnificent stained glass skylight. It was ringed by ornate iron balconies and had an exquisite fountain in the center. Later, an ornate glass and iron elevator was added to transport busy Uticans' to the upper floors of offices, retail and doctors.
F.W. and Levi were convinced-The Arcade was the perfect spot!
The only problem was, how to finance this endeavor?
F.W. hatched a plot-investors! Levi was in with a 400 investment.F.W. worked the circuit and got enough capital to open his first retail location.
It was an unmitigated disaster!
Utica was not ready for this "newfangled" way of doing business. The citizenry turned their backs on the idea that they should travel to buy goods. They were used to peddlers going door to door and were not going to let these "upstarts" change the tradition.
After only several months, F.W. headed out of town and Levi was out his investment. Later, according to family legend, F.W. contacted Levi to re-invest in a new store in Watertown, N.Y. He had figured it out, and he wanted his old friend to be in on the ground floor. Now, with 9 children and one on the way, Levi was in no position to invest in anything. He politely declined and later, when "Woolworth's Five and Dime" proved so successful, Levi was not bitter. He joked that "he could have been a millionaire but was too busy delivering the mail." (Deprived of his left hand as the result of a 4th of July fireworks accident, Levi became a Mail Carrier. A familiar site on the streets of Utica, he delivered mail from his old wagon pulled by his trusty horse "Frank" for over 30 years, retiring in 1929.)
You see, stories like this are what makes me love Utica. The history, the heritage and the connection that we have to the past makes this a special place-at least to me.
In future posts we will talk about how this connection can be used to save our city and make it a place that we can all be proud to call home-just like our ancestors did!

1 comment:

  1. If you love Utica history, you might want to see what a great job Jon, Fiona and Dave have done at:

    E.g., Streets of Old Utica, Post Street Blues, Great Uncle Mike, Genesee Flats/Obliston, etc.

    Brother Jesse