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Amsterdam historian was telephone pioneer

By: Bob Cudmore

Date: 2017-06-03

Amsterdam historian was a telephone pioneer
By Bob Cudmore, Focus on History, Daily Gazette, 06-03-17

Mohawk Valley historian W. Max Reid made history by being one of the first to introduce the telephone to the area.

Reid had visited the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 and was impressed by a demonstration of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.

On his return home, Reid, an undertaker, strung wires between a casket plant in Amsterdam and a store in Broadalbin.

Telephones at first were used by prearrangement. According to a 1940s article by Earl Stowitts of the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce, “Twice a day at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., the persons at each end of the line, by a process of shouting into the telephones, and then moving the same instruments to their ears to hear what was shouted back, were able to carry on a conversation over the intervening ten miles.”

Other early phone lines were installed between Amsterdam’s New York Central Railroad freight office and the Sanford carpet mill plus Kelloggs & Miller’s linseed oil plant. The homes of linseed oil magnates John, George and Lauren Kellogg also had telephones.

Historian Hugh Donlon wrote, “By 1881, the Amsterdam Telegraph and Telephone Company, locally organized, was operating a switchboard of 50 lines from a central office at East Main and Church streets.”

Michael Cinquanti’s second book of Amsterdam birthdays reports that William Maxwell Reid was born in 1839 on his father’s farm, land which later became the Reid Hill neighborhood. Reid’s father was a Scottish immigrant who was a school teacher, librarian and justice of the peace, in addition to being a farmer.

W. Max Reid married Laura MacDonald in 1859. Her father was a partner in the Shuler casket making company, started by woodworker Isaac Shuler. Reid, who had been a clerk in a dry goods store, worked as a bookkeeper for the casket firm.

Ultimately Reid took over the company after his father-in-law died and the original partnership was dissolved. Reid also operated his own undertaking business.

In 1871 a local musical composer and poet, Emily Vandermeer Youngs Devendorf, wrote verses describing members of the St. Ann’s Episcopal Church choir. Devendorf was in the choir as was her lawyer husband, doctors and other notables, including undertaker Reid.

“Next comes Max,” she wrote, “who though not dealing in pills, sells coffins for all that the doctor kills.”

Reid was a founder of the business-boosting Board of Trade in 1884 and president of the organization for seventeen years. On his watch the board successfully petitioned the state to make the village of Amsterdam a city in 1885.

Reid is well known as an historian for his 1901 book, “The Mohawk Valley: Its Legends and Its History.” In the preface Reid wrote that the valley has been “neglected by historians and writers of fiction” even though events in the region helped decide the American Revolution. Reid also wrote a history column for the Recorder newspaper using the byline “The Hollander Letters.”

He found a benefactor to provide the money so that old Fort Johnson, a home built by colonial leader Sir William Johnson, could be purchased by the Montgomery County Historical Society in 1905. Major General John Watts DePeyster of Tivoli, New York put up the money. He was the grandnephew of Lady Mary Watts Johnson, wife of Sir John Johnson, Sir William’s son.

Reid died in 1911 at age 72. He and his wife lived on Spring Street, what is now Guy Park Avenue and had three children.

The successor to Reid’s undertaking business is today’s Betz-Rossi-Bellinger-Stewart Funeral Homes. The Historic Amsterdam League awards trophies to honor historical work which are called “Maxies” in Reid’s honor.