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Article
Filling in the Details Is the Fun Part for Storyteller Joe Doolittle

By Bill Buell

Originally published in The  Daily Gazette, February 5, 2008


Storyteller Alden “Joe” Doolittle talks about the stories he will tell during the “What If the Stockade Walls Could Talk” program at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady on Friday as he sits in Arthur’s Market with Lawrence the Indian in the background.

Alden “Joe” Doolittle uses poetic license as much as any entertaining storyteller, but taking too many liberties with the truth is a no-no, especially when it comes to one of his favorite subjects: local history.

“You can make up some details, but the personalities of the people and the events have to be credible,” said Doolittle, who will be one of the featured speakers when the First Reformed Church presents “If the Stockade Walls Could Talk: 318 Years Later,” at 7:30 p.m. Friday. “You can take some latitude, because nobody was there and nobody knows all the details of what really went on. But you have to try to be true to those characters and events as much as you can.”

A member of the Story Circle of the Capital District, Doolittle will tell stories about Alexander Lindsay Glen, the first man to settle in Scotia in 1658, and Lawrence the Indian, a friendly Mohawk who helped Schenectadians rebuild after the 1690 massacre. The program, which will also include a presentation by James Schermerhorn of the Dutch Settlers Society, is part of the 2008 Schenectady Colonial Festival, a series of events to help commemorate the Schenectady Massacre by the French and Indians 318 years ago.

“I’ve always been enthralled by the history of Schenectady,” said Doolittle, “but we seem to forget the dynamic nature of it. And any history of Schenectady has to include the Mohawk River and the water. It’s like being baptized. People forget the importance of the water.”

Inspired by Lawrence

Doolittle’s own interest in the history of Schenectady began with Lawrence the Indian, or to be more precise, the statue of Lawrence the Indian that stands at the intersection of Front, Ferry and Green Streets in the Stockade section of the city. He grew up in Stanford Heights, in the eastern fringes of Schenectady, and remembers seeing the statue every time he and his mother went shopping into the city.

“I grew up next to the 10th tee at the old Stanford Golf Club, and I’d take the bus downtown with my mother and I always wondered why there was a statue of an Indian there,” remembered Doolittle. “So my mother would tell me stories on the ride into town, and the one I remember the most is the story of Lawrence the Indian. He actually was a historical character, a very real one, and a very important one to people living in Schenectady at that time.”

Doolittle has hundreds of stories in his repertoire, but the tales of Lawrence the Indian and Glen and the founding of Scotia and Schenectady are two of the most popular.

“These are real stories. So the folks seem to pay attention to them because they can learn something from them and really enjoy them at the same time,” said Doolittle. “Glen was a very interesting character, and the story of the massacre is enthralling. The ironic thing about the raid and the thing that people don’t realize is that most of the attacking French and Indians were Christian. We think of them as savages, but many of them had been converted by the French — so these were Christians attacking Christians. People don’t tend to look at it that way, but that’s what it was.”

‘This is what you do’

A graduate of Colonie High School, Doolittle majored in history at Colgate University but got a master’s degree in health care administration at the University of Pittsburgh and worked in that field throughout most of his life. He refers to himself these days as “half-retired,” his work with the Story Circle of the Capital District keeping him a very busy man.

“It was probably about 20 years ago that my wife saw a notice in the paper about the Story Circle meeting at the Scotia library,” remembered Doolittle. “She said, ‘This is what you do. Why don’t you go over there and see what it’s all about?’ And that’s what I did. I learned there was a method to storytelling, and I’ve used it as a discipline or a teaching tool in my professional career. Stories have to have a structure, and it’s helpful to keep that in mind whether you’re entertaining people or trying to teach them.”

When he’s done with his presentation at the First Reformed Church Friday night, Doolittle will keep busy working with Story Circle programs Sundays at the Glen Sanders Mansion and at various times throughout the next few months at Proctors.

“It helps to be outgoing and to have a certain confidence, but even shy people can make very good storytellers,” said Doolittle. “You just have to remember a few simple rules: Speak loudly, make eye contact, have a beginning and an ending with a situation that presents itself as a crisis or humorous, and make sure the story is resolved. Don’t leave your audience hanging without an ending or a moral to the story.”

Making presentations along with Doolittle and Schermerhorn will be former Schenectady County Historical Society president Frank Taormina, Kyle Jenks of American Heritage Living History Productions, Robert Bullock of the New York State Archives Partnership Trust and New York State Quadricentennial Commission.

Schermerhorn is a descendant of Simon Schermerhorn, the individual who rode a horse from Schenectady to Albany on the night of Feb. 8, 169 0, to warn settlers of the attack by the French and Indians.

“It’s going to be an interesting and informative evening from folklore to legends to archival documentation and archaeological research about what happened in Schenectady on Feb. 8th and 9th,” said Laura Lee Linder, who serves as historian for the First Reformed Church. “It’s a great opportunity to promote and build awareness of our Colonial heritage.”

‘If the Stockade Walls Could Talk: 318 Years Later’

WHERE: First Reformed Church, 8 N. Church St., Schenectady

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday

HOW MUCH: Free will offering

MORE INFO: 377-2001 or www.1streformed.com/

Festival schedule

A number of other events are being held throughout February by the Schenectady County Historical Society in conjunction with the Colonial Festival, concluding with the annual Colonial Festival Dinner.

7:30 p.m. Friday — “If the Stockade Walls Could Talk: 318 Years Later,” at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady. Free will offering.

2 p.m. Saturday — “Freedom for All: Slavery in Colonial America,” with Clifford Oliver Mealey and presented by the Mabee Farm, at the Schenectady County Historical Society. Free.

2 p.m. Sunday — “Treasure Hunting in Your Own Backyard: Dutch Influenced Architecture,” with Ned Pratt, at the Schenectady County Historical Society. Free.

2 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13 — “A Victorian Tea,” with Sue McLane, at the Schenectady County Historical Society. $25.

2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21 — “Collecting Stories,” learning about the art of oral history with Ellen McHale, director of the New York Folklore Society, at the Schenectady County Historical Society. Free.

6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 27 — Colonial Festival Dinner, at the Glen Sanders Mansion in Scotia. $65. For reservations, call 346-3181. The dinner will mark the 10th-year anniversary of SACC-TV.