In 1954, Hudson and the vicinity were severely afflicted with unemployment [...] so serious that the entire vicinity was designated a critical unemployment area, and Hudson was listed as eligible to receive Federal Government surplus food for distribution.
Since then, unemployment has not appreciably decreased. For the past few years, the Gifford Wood Company and the cement industry have operated with sharply curtailed labor. [...] The reduction in the labor force in the cement industry is due to automation and the decreased demand.”
—R. MARY WEND (1963)
This November 5th would be the 112th birthday of R. Mary Wend, who was born in 1899 and died in 1975. There is precious little information about Wend on the web, and I know next to nothing about her—except that she wrote an exceptionally insightful capsule history of Hudson. It is essential reading for all local residents, new and old.
By clicking here, you can read about 20 pages of Wend’s remarkably concise and incisive 1963 master’s thesis, The Administrative Effects of the Breakdown of Law Enforcement in Hudson, New York.* That dry title masked a story that, some 20 years later, Bruce Edward Hall would tell in more lively, if somewhat less analytical, terms in his well-known Diamond Street—which appears to have relied heavily on Wend’s text.
Her paper is chockful of telling but largely forgotten local details, for example the claim that Hudson lost out becoming the home of General Electric because of “the unwillingness of local merchants to raise $10,000.” (That surely would have been an economic blessing, but it also might have made Hudson ground zero of today’s PCB cleanup.)
Wend traces not just the familiar story of the Proprietors arrival around the end of the Revolutionary War and Hudson’s quick rise to prominence, but also the less-rosy decades which ensued—including the decision to sell of much of Hudson’s acreage to form neighboring towns, a/k/a “the partitioning.”
She finds that almost from the start, Hudson’s wheel of fortune spun in cycles of boom and bust. These at first stemmed from the travails of the whaling industry, but continued far into the 20th Century. By 1845, which Wend identifies as the “end of the era of navigation,” Hudson was in collapse, setting the stage for the spread of vice and its concomitant political corruption:
Shorn of its prestige, divested of most of its territory, stripped of its fleet of ships, Hudson faced the future with uncertainty. As a city of commercial importance—its course had been run; its day was done.
Wend’s research also shows how political and moral corruption was a chronic and nearly intractable problem throughout much of Hudson history, right up to the 1960s. Periods of decline inevitably led to the election of a “reform” Mayor. However, the reformer quickly would either get co-opted by the corrupt City establishment, or else would quit in frustration.
The following 120 years she characterizes as “The Era of Stagnation.” Wend quotes Gorham Worth’s description of Hudson in the mid-19th Century as having “an all pervading air of listlessness.” Local politicians, law enforcement, the Chamber of Commerce and an apathetic citizenry alike get a sober but sound drubbing from Wend’s pen. About the latter she writes:
A significant contributing factor to the stagnation of the city was the penny-wise, pound-foolish attitude of the average taxpayer toward municipal expenditures.
An extreme example of this “municipal parsimony” came in 1855, when “due to an empty treasury and a dispute with the gas company,” the Common Council
was obliged to discontinue street lighting. [...] When it was bombarded with petitions to restore this service, it called a taxpayer’s election to raise $1200 to pay for this service until the end of the year. [But] the taxpayers were unwilling to be taxed for it, and at the election, the proposition was overwhelmingly defeated. For the remainder of the year the city was in darkness [and] the commission of crimes was greatly accelerated.
By 1868, the once-advanced City of Hudson had become, per Wend, “an old fogey town” and “hopelessly behind the times.” Even the purchase of a then-modern steam fire engine to replace hand-operated equipment was rejected by the populace, who only reversed their position after a calamitous fire.
Education was another sore point: in the 1880s, it was found that less than 25% of school-age children were attending classes. That problem had apparently been reversed by the 1930s, when the schools were found to suffer from precisely the opposite problem: overcrowding. Hudson voters rejected the construction of a new school despite funding offered by the Federal Public Works Administration (their version of “stimulus” funds). Again, the situation had to reach crisis proportions before the 45% funding was finally accepted and the new school built.
The ’50s-ear Chamber’s top request to a visiting Governor Harriman was to plead for the shutdown of the Volunteer Fireman’s Home and Training School for Girls (now the prison).** Much like some official present-day attitudes in Greenport toward Olana, leaders of that time bellyached about such institutions not paying taxes, while dismissing their employment, purchasing and other economic impacts.
By 1963, Wend summarized the State of Hudson as “a stagnant city beset by many problems.” These she enumerated as:
- a high tax rate
- a declining population
- slum areas and substandard housing
- lack of a public library
- the lack of a sewage disposal system
- the lack of imaginative leadership.
The more things change...
* When first in Hudson in 1998, I encountered a copy in the musty old history room of the library, where I volunteered for some time (straightening up after visitors, who mainly seemed interested in the genealogy books). A copy also used to exist at the Columbia County Historical Society. Whether either can still be found, given the long history of misfiling, pilfering and neglect of such local archives, I do not know. The entire thing really ought to be scanned and republished.
** Hall provides one of the only known details about Wend’s life, and obliquely acknowledging his debt to her writing. Wend, he says, served as the Training School’s “resident dentist,” and describing her as “an older woman of frugal ingenuity and worldly knowledge; she had tried to straighten inmates’ teeth with bamboo braces of her own design, and she had written a master’s thesis on the history of prostitution in the city of Hudson.”