Oh, the story Beverly Kuhr can tell.
The quiet and unassuming woman invited me into her Wells Bridge home to tell me a tale that has been handed down in her family for almost 150 years.
“My great-great-grandfather was Stephen Aldrich,’ she began in little more than a whisper. “He owned a packet boat on the Erie Canal.”
She handed me a photo of Aldrich from a 1909 Albany newspaper. He is seen proudly wearing his Union Army uniform, medals splayed across his chest.
“This article shows him at the time they were planning a Civil War monument in Rensselaer. In fact his name is on the monument even today.”
Aldrich left his position as a canal boatman and joined the Union Army out of Glens Falls in 1863 just days after his 23rd birthday.
“He was wounded in the Battle of Topotomoy, Va. He was shot in the head, but survived,” she told me.
The battle took place near Richmond. Both generals Lee and Grant were present on the battlefield. The date was May 28-30, 1864 and more than 2,000 died in the engagement.
“Stephen was wounded in the final hours of the battle,” Beverly said. From the many documents she showed me we can locate Stephen being sent to a hospital in Washington, D.C., for recuperation. The paper trail for Pvt. Aldrich is exhaustive. Military affidavits, volunteer enlistment orders, daily muster sheets, army casualty sheet and much more.
“Thank God I’ve got these copies. All of the originals were lost in a house fire years ago,” she said wistfully.
When we find Stephen Aldrich convalescing in Washington, the story makes a dramatic twist.
“Before the war, I’ve been told that Abraham Lincoln came to central New York and actually traveled on the Erie Canal with Stephen Aldrich as the pilot,” she said with a smile. “From all the news reports of the day, they had a grand, old time. In fact my great-great grandfather actually cooked up a meal for Mr. Lincoln in an old frying pan on the boat.
At the end of the journey, Mr. Lincoln gave Stephen a ticket to see a show “if you ever come to Washington some day.” Well, apparently my great-great-grandfather was well enough to get out of the hospital and go to Ford’s Theatre to see “Our American Cousin” on Good Friday, 1865.
“Yes, he was in Ford’s Theatre when the president was shot,” she told me somberly. “The next day it was in all the papers, of course, and one of them actually mentioned Aldrich being in the theater. We had that paper in our family for over a century and I actually remember holding it and reading it when I was a youngster. It was amazing.”
Stephen returned to upstate New York after the war. The story of his fateful encounter with history followed him. His war injuries left him too fragile to return to the canal (“frequent fainting spells,” his discharge papers said) so he got a job with the Boston and Albany railroad as a lampman. He died in 1914.
“It’s quite a story, isn’t it,” she said with a chuckle. “Of course, all we know is that this is just a story has been handed down over the generations. But we believe it is true. All of the many documents show Aldrich in the right places at all the right times in history. Apparently, he told his immediate kin about the event, but later, down through the generations, the story kind of faded from sight.”
I tried to picture the 5-foot-7-inch Aldrich putting some meat into a frying pan and serving dinner to the towering president.
“Oh, if that frying pan could talk,” I commented.
“Sure, and we think we still have it in our family,” she said.
I put a call in to Beverly’s daughter, Karen, who has the pan.
“Yes, we have it right here,” she said with a laugh. “It’s just a thin, old hand-pressed frying pan. I have no ideas about the real story behind it, but we’ve always been told that this was the real pan that my great-great-great-grandfather cooked with on his canal boat with Abe Lincoln.”
I asked her if she could make out any marks on it. She paused for a moment while inspecting it.
“Yes, I can make out three initials engraved on the handle.”
Can you see what they are?
Well, one of them definitely is an “A”
Hmmm. “A” as in Aldrich. Like I said. Bingo!
Oh the stories we can tell.
I’ll catch you in two …
“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.