Promoting Johnstown’s Past

JOHNSTOWN – For a small city, Johnstown has quite a few organizations looking out for its historic interests. Important aspects of its heritage are championed by Johnson Hall State Historic Site, the Johnstown School Museum, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Hometown Association, to name a few.

But the local organization with perhaps the longest track record and most sweeping scope is the Johnstown Historical Society. The 121-year-old group maintains two museums within a stone’s throw of each other – the society’s headquarters at 17 N. William St., and the 18th century cottage known as the Drumm House – and between the two buildings, it has a vast and rich collection of artifacts, documents and information about Johnstown’s past.

This year, the society’s officers are recruiting new members and volunteers and planning a number of new projects and programs.

“We’ve got new people on the board now, and that makes a big difference,” said Noel Levee, the city historian and president of the society. “There’s new energy.”

The society’s Buildings and Grounds Committee chairman, Lee Lanois, has drawn up a “to-do” list of projects that will require volunteer help this year. They include repairs and improvements on several of the society’s buildings.

The little yellow Drumm House is one of six cottages built by Sir William Johnson before the Revolution. The building’s original location was not on the corner of North William and Green streets, where it stands today, but somewhere nearby, perhaps closer to North Market Street. It was a private home for about 200 years before the historical society restored it to its original Colonial appearance.

One of the society’s goals for the near future is to remodel the kitchen and bathroom at the Drumm House and convert the kitchen into a gift shop.

“Some of the demolition stuff we’re probably going to want to do ourselves, and then get some contractors to give us some estimates,” Levee said.

Levee said efforts to get the Drumm House listed on the state and national registers of historic places have been foiled by a lack of documentation.

“I know the building’s old, but there’s no exact dates,” Levee said, expressing hope that eventually some evidence will emerge and formally clarify the Drumm House’s historic pedigree.

Glove shop display planned

Chris Foss, who serves as the city’s 2nd Ward councilman and treasurer of the historical society, is leading a project to turn an old green barn on the Drumm House property into a display area that will highlight the heyday of the mom-and-pop glovemaking shop.

“We’d like to turn that into a replica of one of the glove shops that used to be all over Fulton County,” Foss said. Although large glove manufacturing factories employed thousands of skilled workers for many generations in the Glove Cities, many glovemakers operated independently in small workshops in their homes or garages.

Levee said at one point, there was another building next to the Drumm House that served as a glove shop, but it is no longer standing. The green barn, he said, may have housed an auto mechanic’s garage in the 1920s.

The society would like to hear from people who have photographs of old-timey glove shops or tools that were used in them, as well as people willing to share personal recollections or family stories about them. Foss said cleaning out the barn and preparing the new display will likely not be complete in time to open it to the public this season, but he would like to see it complete by next year.

Another project Foss hopes to tackle soon is the use of ground-penetrating radar to investigate the old Colonial Cemetery next to the Drumm House on Green Street.

Local historians would love to have a clearer picture of what lies under the surface in that area, especially since the existing maps of the graves in the old cemetery do not appear to be complete.

“It would be neat to find and pinpoint some of the areas where there are still graves but everybody’s still walking over them, where we had no idea there are people buried there,” Levee said. The original cemetery might have been larger than it appears today, since the stone wall around it was not erected until after many years of burials.

The historical society museum and the Drumm House are open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Again this summer, the society will host weekly After Dark Cemetery Tours, which attracted hundreds of visitors last season. The organization hopes to build on the success of that program and get more people excited about their local historical society, Foss and Levee said.

“We’re really trying to liven up the historical society and make it more vibrant for the community,” Foss said.

To get involved

Individual membership dues for the Johnstown Historical Society cost $12 per person or $20 per family. To join or volunteer, call 762-7076 and leave message or call Noel Levee at 762-7419. For more information, see the society’s page on Facebook.

Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at