Thursday, April 18, 2013

Keeper of the flame

Minnie Clark Bolster sank comfortably into a big cushioned chair atop the platform in the Saratoga Springs Public Library where 150 people showed up to hear her speak.

A silver water pitcher, from which guests at the Grand Central Hotel were once served, sat on a nearby table. Next to it rested a white slab of marble rescued from the demolished sidewalk that fronted the Grand Union hotel.

"The springs are what brought them here," she said, flanked by drawings of bemonocled men beneath top hats and well-dressed ladies pinched at the waist, their hair bowed in elaborate curls. A glass-framed illustration to her left depicted Victorian throngs emerging from horse-drawn carts and chauffeured motor cars approaching Saratoga - the world’s biggest gambling joint - where the entry gates are constructed from playing cards, poker chips, and roulette wheels. "And the hotels and the racing is what kept them coming," she said.

Minnie Bolster, Class of 1938 Saratoga High School graduate, and whose brother-in-law George Bolster amassed a collection of photographs now housed in the city history museum, has grown her own legacy as a collector of Spa City artifacts. It began innocently enough for the one-time legal secretary and antique dealer. While spending a day "out in the country" she asked about some postcards that were for sale. She ended up coming home with the entire collection.

"I got 10,000 postcards," she said, with a laugh. "I’m ashamed to say there was only one of Saratoga." It took off from there.

Today, inside the "museum" which is her home, vintage paintings line the hallway walls and entire rooms are dedicated to specific eras. An image of the United States Hotel covers nearly an entire wall of her house, and a chair once housed in the hotel sits nearby, in all its floral-decorated glory.

There is a game table and chair from the casino and a red rug imprinted with horseshoes that was part of the flooring inside the old Worden Hotel. There is a lamp that once lighted early 20th-century basketball games and dances at Convention Hall, and a spatula used to make early Saratoga chips dating to the 1890s. There are 82 spoons – each one inscribed "Saratoga" – 300 paperweights, an assortment of miniature cups engraved with designs of the old city, and room keys that opened doors to hotel rooms that are no longer here. Her eye for collecting knows no bounds.

"When I got married we went up to Maine and went into a junk shop and I asked if they had anything from Saratoga," she said at the library gathering.

"You went looking while you were on your honeymoon?" a woman asked her, incredulously. That led to the securing of a wood rocker that was used in Union Hall in the 1830s, Bolster explained with a shrug.

Bolster has authored numerous books documenting her collection and heralding some of the lesser-known characters of the city, and amassed 800 books that are about, or at the very least mention her native city. When the foundations of the Victorian City were eventually toppled and the scrapbooks of history were being tossed aside, Bolster has been there to gather the pieces of the city’s past and present a jigsaw of what once was. She is perhaps the last keeper of the city’s history, and sharing a legacy of what is forever gone.

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