Thursday, October 18, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: Old Albany and the New Albanians.

ON THE AVENUES: Old Albany and the New Albanians.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

There was a far-off time, very early during my 112-week tenure as a paid guest columnist at the ‘Bune, when I fixed my gaze on the dawning of our civic Age of Precarious: New Albany’s approaching bicentennial celebration.

It was the year 2009, and I traced the roots of the New Albany Syndrome all the way back to the era of the Open Air Museum's birth. The story went like this.


It’s time to throw a slab of barbecued bologna between two slices of clammy white bread, check the mountains on your blue-cold can of Coors Light, and crank up the Victrola with some red-hot Benny Goodman, because New Albany’s bicentennial is fast approaching, and assuming that Steve Price doesn’t lead the fight against celebrating it (too few nickels and dimes in grandma’s cookie jar), here are some bicentennial basics.

In 2013, it will be 200 years since the Scribner brothers washed ashore at the Falls of the Ohio, surveyed the wilderness and concluded that this riverbank would be a fine locale for commemorating their hometown back east … and the city of Albany in New York has never forgiven its wayward sons for the ensuing guilt by association.

The Scribners built the city’s first proper structure in 1814, and the Scribner House was soon followed by two cheaply built rental quadplexes up on the future East 15th, which Joel Scribner promptly flipped. Pocketing the proceeds, he skipped on his bar tab at Ye Olde Luddite Inn, thumbed his nose at the hapless code enforcement officer, and fled town for a redeye steamboat ride to New Harmony for the hottest craps tables this side of the Louisiana Purchase.


Who among us foresaw that with Price removed from the council's equation, Bob "CeeSaw" Caesar would be set free to spend $1.2 million (or more) on various birthday parties for the city?

In this column three years ago, my larger point was that while New Albany’s earliest settlers may or may not have been angels, they somehow succeeded at city building, something that as yet eludes a great number of present-day citizens as well as their chosen, underachieving political kingpins. Moreover, a full two centuries later, the urban foundations built by previous generations remain capable of serving as a blueprint for efficient, civilized living in a modern world beset with challenges, and the city as yet is ripe for adaptive reuse.

But what got me into trouble wasn’t sneering at penny-wise, pound foolish lowest common denominators. It was imagining that the Scribner Brothers came from Albany, New York. A week after my column was published, Anne F. Caudill, librarian of the Piankeshaw chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, “correct(ed) Baylor’s history mistakes.”

I have had DAR nightmares ever since. Her comments follow, as does my own commitment to observe the bicentennial in a future tense. It's safer that way, with or without satire and jests.


Mr. Roger Baylor’s article, “Unrecognizable to a Scribner,” in The Tribune on June 23, 2009, points out the fast approaching bicentennial celebration of New Albany’s founding to be held in 2013.

The Daughters of the American Revolution Piankeshaw chapter has since 1917 maintained the home of Joel Scribner, one of the founding brothers, keeping it as a museum and “home place” for the town. The chapter appreciates this recognition of the vision and enthusiasm and hard work of the Scribner brothers as they risked their fortunes and their futures to establish the town. The many handsome homes and sturdy buildings from earlier years attest that they were right in their faith in the future of the new town.

However, as we celebrate the history of New Albany, let us get the history right. According to the written account of Dr. William Augustus Scribner, son of Joel Scribner, one of the founders, his father was born in South East, Duchess County, N.Y., in 1772, but soon after the war, his father, a Revolutionary War veteran, moved the family to Connecticut, where the family grew up.

Later, Joel in turn established his family in Connecticut, but in 1808 moved to New York City, where he operated a grocery and feed store. Then in 1811, when William Augustus was 11, the family began the journey west to go into business in the frontier town of Cincinnati, along with the family of Joel’s sister and her family, the Warings.

The family never lived in Albany, N.Y.

In 1812, Joel was joined by his younger brothers, Nathaniel and Abner, and they decided to go into the business of starting a new town of the northern side of the Ohio River, then the frontier. By early January 1813, they made a trip to find a suitable location and purchased the land below the Falls of the Ohio. Tradition has it that they made this trip by horseback. It was in May 1813 that they moved the two families down river from Cincinnati by flatboat to the new location.

That year, William Augustus was 13 and helped with the surveying and laying out of the town’s streets and lots. His memory and recounting of the family story and development of the town is to be credited. They named the town New Albany after the prospering capital of the state of New York, in the belief that it, too, would become the capital of a large new rich and prosperous state to be established from the Indiana Territory. Another brother, James Scribner, their mother, Phoebe, and a sister soon followed to the new town.

Let us not allow Mr. Baylor’s article to begin another misconception, even in satire and jest, that the Scribners were greedy developers who pocketed gains and fled town for gambling tables elsewhere. Joel Scribner was a founding member of the First Presbyterian Church, organized in the home of his mother, and was an elected elder of the church.

Other members of the family were founding members. From the beginning, the family established an educational fund, contributed as a portion of the sale of each lot of land. They gave land for public buildings, a log school house and the church. All the family worked in various ways to insure the future of New Albany. Unfortunately, all of the brothers had died by 1827, too soon to fully realize how their vision would be fulfilled.

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