February 26, 2013

A Lunch Sign

A Lunch Sign
By John R. Greenwood

The Van Raalte Company 2013
This is how it happens. It's around noon on a Monday. I get a call on my cell phone. I answer it. Five miles away and five minutes later another sign is staring me in the face. The call was from someone I do business with. I had paperwork and a check for him. He had some paperwork for me. I offered to run over to his office on my lunch break to make the simple swap. My offer had selfish intentions. I wanted the chance to see what the inside of the old Van Raalte building looked like. The office building is now referred to as, "The Mill". In a previous post I mention the fact that my grandfather Elmer Greenwood was a foreman in the knitting department at the Van Raalte mill for many years. He worked in the mill from 1931 until his retirement in 1964. At the time of his retirement he was superintendent of all knitting at the mill. I have more detailed history of Van Raalte's that my grandfather left me. I have not been in that building in over forty years. I haven't thought much about the Van Raalte Mill since it closed the doors for the last time in 1986. Now, in less than a week,  I have multiple signs pointing me there. I couldn't think of a better way to spend a lunch break than a trip down memory lane. 

As I approached the facade of this beautifully renovated knitting mill I was magically transported back several decades. I swear I could hear the methodical rhythm of the huge knitting machines as they reeled off yards and yards of finely crafted fabric. I could smell the machine oil that soaked the wide planked floors for almost a century. As I entered the front door I expected to see my aunt Ann sitting there waiting for me. She also worked there for many years. I visualized my grandfather standing there speaking to one of the machine operators about an adjustment they needed to make on Machine # 1. I almost expected to see Clem's sisters,  Eunice and Elizabeth seated at a table together making alterations to a vintage pair of gloves. I was in a time machine and it was stuck in gear. 

Back to reality. I wasn't in the door more than ten feet and to my right I see this framed gloved on the wall. I'm instantly drawn to it and thrilled to see the artifact. 

My head begins to swivel side to side like a child in a toy store. The woman at the desk in the lobby seemed to sense my mood and patiently waited for me to come back to earth. Her name was Mary Ellen and she was the building's facility manager (JACKPOT). She  would most certainly understand my interest in the history of the place. I would soon discover I was correct in my assumption 

Mary Ellen politely directed me to the upstairs office where I completed my business transaction. When I was done I returned to her desk in the lobby and asked if there were any more photographs of the original mill. It was at this point I began to divulge my attachment and interest in the place. She explained that although she had only lived in the area for about fifteen years she had acquired a keen interest in the city's deep rooted history. It's almost impossible to even drive through Saratoga and not be absorbed by it. 

I asked about a spring I remembered being inside the building some forty years ago. Her eyes lit up as she confirmed my memory. She went on to explain that the Empire Spring was piped outside and was still working. Presently it was sealed off for the winter. She then told me about an Empire Spring bottle that she had purchased. She kindly offered to get it from a storage closet and show it to me. She had hopes of being able to display it in a curio cabinet in the future. I have seen a lot of Saratoga bottles. In fact I have a few of my own, but this was the most beautiful spring water bottle I have ever seen. This is why I never even go to the mailbox without my camera. Mary Ellen graciously allowed me to take a photograph of the gorgeous green bottle. After a few more minutes of exchanging business cards and some ideas about sharing some additional Van Raalte history, I thanked her profusely for her kindness and headed back to work. As I left the building I looked off to the right. There you can see the sloping remnants of the road that used to curve down alongside the mill. I'm not certain the year they closed off that street but seeing it covered in grass and dotted with snow gave me mixed feelings. Progress and preservation can work together when they want to. I have witnessed a city go from one extreme to the next in the last fifty years. It is always heartbreaking to see old buildings come down. Preservation is expensive and sometimes impossible. I think Saratoga Springs and its citizens have done a good job compared to other cities throughout the state. You always hope for more but time waits for no one, including Saratogians. You do the best you can and hope that along the way we have recorded our history well enough that someday when my great-great grandchildren visit High Rock Park they gaze off to the east and say, " I think I remember reading something about a Greenwood descendent who worked in that mill back in the 1900's. Let's walk over to the library and check it out." 

This street was once open and connected Maple and High Rock Avenues 

I began this blog as a venue to share stories, thoughts, poems, photographs, ideas, compliments and complaints. It may contain inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Don't be upset if you discover either or both. I try to state facts to the best of my abilities but my memory can play games with me and at times lead me slightly astray. Be open minded with any errors you find. I  will correct them if they are significant or hurtful. I love company and encourage you to share my blog with anyone who you feel might enjoy it. Many of my posts are not time sensitive so feel free to go back to earlier archives and look around. You may be surprised at what you find--I usually am. Again I appreciate your patronage. Be happy-Be safe.


  1. I like your words, "progress and preservation can work together." Every old town should adopt this adage. The Van Raalte building is beautiful -- do remember their fine goods. -- barbara

    1. Tom Roohan and Sonny Bonocio deserve a lot of credit for saving this property. It sat vacant for years because no one wanted to tackle the contamination issue. You must visit Saratoga. Based on your background in preservation you would love this city.


  2. Oh, I have. My Aunt Murph and Uncle Bill used to live there. It sure is a beautiful city. I love all the Victorian houses. I remember going to the Van Raalte when I was younger. Aunt Murph used to bring Mom and my sister and I to get the discount items. They made the best slips and panties and bras in the world. I still have some of the slips, with the beautiful lace and the quality way they sewed the elastic on with silk lining made it last forever. Such craftsmanship and detail. That is why they were the best, if their was a flaw from the worker, it went into the discount bin. All the more for us to choose from. They only put the perfect ones on the shelf to sell to the customers. I so wish they were still open.