The Home Front Cafe, Altamont’s oldest building, is stop #8 along the village’s Museum in the Streets walking tour. (Photo by Ron Ginsberg)
ALTAMONT — James Gaughan, the village’s former mayor, recently saw the unveiling of a local history project he proposed and spent the last year working to implement. On Wednesday, July 16, the village Archives and Museum Department and the Altamont Free Library unveiled The Museum in the Streets, a 27-stop historical and cultural walking tour highlighting some of the village’s most significant historical spots.
The project puts a new spin on the concept of traditional historical markers, commonly seen around the region, by incorporating more information, utilizing new technology, and making them accessible in other languages. Gaughan got the idea in 2015, while still in office, during a trip to Ridgefield, Connecticut, which opened its Museum in the Streets in 2008 to celebrate its tricentennial anniversary.
“I said I’ve got to have this in our village,” he said. “It was perfect.”
The Museum in the Streets project was founded in 1995 and has been implemented in villages and towns in the U.S., France and Italy. It’s up to each municipality to establish a committee, select the sites, collect historical photos and information, and write the text that will appear on each sign. Panel text includes factual information, as well as anecdotal stories and local lore, told in a bilingual format. The international organization provides guidance and produces the signs, which are guaranteed for 10 years, at a reasonable cost.
“It was a massive effort,” said Gaughan. From fundraising to the July 16 unveiling, the project, which was funded entirely through grants and private donations, took about a year to organize and implement. The village Department of Public Works surveyed the sites and built the stanchions on which the signs are posted.
“It’s been a really wonderful community-wide effort,” said Marijo Dougherty, the Village of Altamont Archives and Museum curator. “And it gets what we’ve collected in the archives out to the public, which is what I’ve been trying to do for years.”
“There are quite a few wonderful buildings from the 1800s still left in Altamont,” she said. “It’s nice to highlight them and tell their stories.” Her favorite stop is No. 8, the Home Front Cafe, the oldest building in village.
“It’s always in my heart,” Dougherty said. “It would be very unique anywhere, but [owners] Cindy and Jack [Pollard] have collected all these museum-quality, mostly military artifacts over the years that they have displayed. People who didn’t even know it was there go in and are always amazed by the interior.”
In addition to sharing Altamont’s distinctive history, Gaughan hopes the project will help to drive economic activity and provide educational opportunities as well.
“I see it as honoring our culture and history,” he said, “but also hopefully as an economic engine. I’ve left brochures at local businesses, but also up at Thacher Park and at the airport. I’m hoping we can draw new visitors to our little Victorian village, share ourselves with them and, hopefully, they’ll leave some dollars behind for some local businesses.”
Guilderland High School has said it will incorporate the walking tour into its history program and Spanish was selected as the second language on the signage, as a significant majority of students in the diverse Guilderland school district have chosen to take it as their second language. UAlbany has also expressed interest in utilizing the format.
“We’re already getting calls from other villages to see how we’ve done it,” said Dougherty. “There has been all sorts of interest and accolades.” She said she’s also been hearing from local business owners about the interest the project has stirred up among their customers.
While Gaughan did not run for re-election as village mayor, he said he’s excited to see the project through subsequent phases, which will expand on the use of technology to allow those who visit the sites to access additional information, and in more languages, using a mobile app and smartphone-scannable QR codes on the signs. The village board will have ultimate approval, but Gaughan has been given the reins to run with the project.
As well as highlighting local history and culture, the tour has also been designated as part of the Hudson River Greenway Trail, one of only two Capital District areas to receive that designation as of this August. (The Hudson River Walkway at the Corning Preserve in Albany is the other.) Grant funding from the Greenway project helped to make the project possible. Ultimately, the goal of the trail system is to reach from New York City to Canada.
“The people who come to visit will not only see our history, but the format in which we’re presenting it does honor our place in a larger world, which I think is an important underlying philosophy,” said Gaughan. “And a way of being that is emblematic of Altamont citizens.”
The July unveiling took place in Orsini Park, where a large map depicting all the stops along the tour provides a good starting point for anyone interested in learning more about Altamont’s history.
The Museum in the Streets installation in Altamont was funded by grants from the Hudson River Valley Greenway and from Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, as well as donations from Jeff Thomas, Stewart’s Shops, CM Fox/Remedies, the Cure Family, Sundown Lawn and Landscape, Altamont Community Tradition, and the Village of Altamont’s Roger Keenholts Fund.