So as I began saying, Entertainment was my primary goal in seeking out Saratoga initially… and I’ve always believed there is a magnetism here that pulls people in to seek it. You can see it these days by the traffic that comes from south to north along I-87 starting Friday afternoon and through the weekend, even in the off-season. Most of the population of the Capital District is south of Saratoga Springs, and they head our way for the restaurants, the bars, the nightlife and the Broadway shops. They seek basic sustenance, of course, but you can find that many places…in Saratoga they sense (and some know for certain) that they can find some other things that were driving forces to me a few decades ago: Inspiration, and a Quest for Romance, as is acted out in never-ending cycles, year round here. It’s a traditional “watering hole” where people meet, and come to see other people… and even though it’s at a year-round peak these days, the trend pre-dates anyone presently alive.
Even before the first white man (Sir William Johnson, c. 1767) came to visit the legendary High Rock spring, with the help of Mohawk hosts who soaked him back to health down in the crescent of the old “upper village”– there was the same kind of magnetism that drew ancient native people here. Mineral waters sprung up in over a hundred different places in this specific vale–Sarachtogue– considered sacred space by the Iroquois in general, and the Mohawks in particular. They referred to the healing waters as Medicine Springs of The Great Spirit. The site near the High Rock Spring was considered to be the center of their Cosmology. Legend has it that no one was allowed to live or camp in the immediate vicinity of the springs, so that
the powerful waters were available to all.
The Mohawks, as I understand Saratoga County history, defended this area for over a hundred years after Albany and Schenectady were already heavily settled, and it wasn’t until after the Revolutionary War that the area was settled by white people at all. Very few homes in the greater Saratoga area predate 1800, and none of those are within city limits– the exquisite stone building now housing The Olde Bryan Inn was built near or on the former site of the oldest tavern near the High Rock Spring, and is reputedly one of the oldest remaining from the early 1800’s.
Many early frame structures have long since burned down, with some of the oldest left being in the Franklin Square area.
I’m rambling a bit here (is that allowed on blogs? I hope so…), but this is a version of the preamble I give visitors or incoming home seekers when they first come to town, in case they don’t know much or anything about the history of our fair city, or upstate NY in general. It forms the backdrop for our present tense, and the more you are here, the more dense and intense are the layers of history you will find.
When I first moved here, I was in my early 20’s, fairly rudderless, devoid of any real vocational skills, and fairly destitute. I knew I wanted to write, but had little clue where to start. What I did have in those days was TIME, and I spent lots of it at The Saratoga Room of the old Library (now The Saratoga Arts Center at the corner of Spring Street and Broadway, on the edge of Congress Park). Thank Yo! for free libraries. I scoured every text I could find about old Saratoga history, and there was a lot more of it to be found than when I had done the same in my hometown of Ravena, NY, where it seemed not much had happened.
And for both free Entertainment and ultimately Inspiration in the literary sense, I would walk for hours as I ventured out from my rented room ($25/wk, with a shared kitchen and communal bathrooms) and explored the neighborhoods of the eastside, first, and later the westside as well. Before I knew what I was looking at, I was in naive awe of the architectural styles I was seeing– on Union Avenue, Spring Street,
Regent Street, Ludlow Street, Clark Street, Lincoln Ave. I would walk from one end of Phila Street from Broadway until it turned to Madison Avenue at Nelson, and just marvelled at the 20 or 30 different stunning styles of commercial structures, homes and apartment buildings that lined it. Same with Caroline Street, then Lake Ave., Circular Street, and Whitney Place. I was fascinated but intimidated too– coming from a town where 99% of the architecture was boring and functional rather than rich and decorative, it was an eye-opener. If anything, I wished I’d grown up in such a place, and could start all over. It was made apparent to me on more than one occasion, by the provincial “blue bloods” of the day, that I was NOT and would NEVER be a “native Saratogian” as I had not been born here. But most of that mentality has now faded away, and very few people these days distinguish the natives from the transplants. And now that my 3 children were all born here, they instead are part of the new generation of “natives”… and they don’t know how lucky they are in that regard. There are lots of worse places to grow up, no doubt… but not many places where I’d rather raise a family.
On that note, I’m going to get back to mine on a rainy Sunday evening in late April,
and will regale you with more Saratoga lore, old and new, next time, soon.
Wayne Perras, 4/22/12
Note: There are two primary texts I keep nearby when I need historical verification, or historic inspiration, both of which you could probably find at Lyrical Ballad Bookstore on Phila Street if you were so inclined– a priceless archival treasure of a store in its own right.
The first: SARATOGA: Saga of An Impious Era, by George Waller, published locally by Friar Tuck Bookstore of Gansevoort, 1966. Despite the semi-pompous title, it is a phenomenal tale of the glory days of Saratoga from Gideon Putnam building Congress Hall in about 1802 to the grand opening of SPAC in the mid-1960’s, just before the book was being released. (The theme that forms the thread of Waller’s approach is the effect of Saratoga’s penchant for, shall we say, Dionysian partying and prolific imbibing, counterbalanced by the Temperance movement, Prohibition, Governor Dewey banning gambling, and peaceful citizens preferring serenity to rowdiness…an age-old battle in other words! That very battle is still being fought in this town to this day, as opposing factions weigh in on what time the bars downtown should close…? So far as I know, last call is still 4 a.m. But check with your local proprietor to be sure, as I don’t stay out that late anymore.) Back to the Waller book–
the prints and architectural photos alone are worth an hour or so of browsing.
The second: SARATOGA: Queen of Spas, by Grace Maquire Swanner, M. D., published by North Country Books, Inc., Utica NY, 1988. I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Swanner before she passed away and she was one of the classic personages of this town in the past century. She championed the use of the Spa State Park’s facilities for healing purposes at a time when such treatments had fallen out of favor with the general public, and this book is her extremely detailed scientific study of why Saratoga’s spring water resources should be taken more seriously. The history laced throughout, the factual and scientific analysis of the spring waters, and crisp black-and-white archival photos of this book are also a thing of beauty for students of Saratoga’s importance– geologically speaking as well as historically.