1874-1910: The sparkling lure of Dolgeville, N.Y.

Sepia Saturday 527. Fifth in a series about Albert Barney Charboneau — my paternal grandfather’s brother who died in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

Albert Barney Charboneau circa 1910. Scan by Molly Charboneau

By the time my dad’s Uncle Albert settled in Dolgeville, N.Y. in 1908, German immigrant Alfred Dolge — the piano and felt maker for whom the town was renamed — had been ganged up on by his fellow capitalists and driven out of New York State.

Why? Because although Dolge, like them, amassed his profit from workers’ labor, he also partially embraced the socialist ideology that was gaining ground in his native Saxony — and he instituted a number of worker benefit programs that the more ruthless Mohawk Valley capitalists could not abide.

Chapters in the Life of Alfred Dolge.(2015). Local actors depict scenes from the life of Alfred Dolge (at right) during the 2015 Dolgeville, N.Y., Violet Festival. This roving scene portrays Dolge’s 1874 arrival in Brockett’s Bridge — the town of 300 that would later bear his name. At rear is the Dolge Factory Complex he established, which drew more than 2,000 workers from Germany, upstate New York and elsewhere — including my paternal Charboneau ancestors. Photo: Molly Charboneau

Dolge inspires U.S. Social Security system

These are ably summed up in a 1975 article by Marion C. Mang, written when she was the Oppenheim, N.Y., town historian.

Inspired by his early readings of Liebnecht, Marx, Mill and Adam Smith, Dolge Instituted at Dolgeville a form of what we now call social security in his attempt to create an idealistic socialistic utopia.

About 1876 when the factory was first well established, Dolge began to set up his Pension Plan which remained almost exactly the same throughout his tenure. It was extremely generous, ranging from 50 percent of wages for disability after 10 years service up to 100 percent after 25 years.

Later he added a system of life insurance paid for by the firm and finally by an intricate system of bookkeeping, a program of Earning-Sharing whereby, an employee received a portion of the earnings according to his contribution in brains or the value of his work. This was not to be turned over until retirement, but was to be reinvested.

Dolge’s pension scheme served as a model for the U.S. Social Security system that retirees benefit from today — and his gain-sharing and life insurance plans were also groundbreaking.

Dolgeville’s population explosion

So it’s no wonder that workers from Germany — as well those from upstate New York and elsewhere — made a beeline to Dolgeville and ballooned its population from 300 to more than 2,000 in the late 1800s.

Office entrance of the Dolge Factory Complex (2015). My sister Amy and I traveled to Dolgeville, N.Y., in 2015 for their annual Violet Festival. This photo of me in the factory doorway reprises an earlier picture I took of my dad and his sister-in-law Aunt Gig on my first trip to this remarkable upstate town where my paternal Charboneau ancestors lived. Photo: Amy L. Williamson

According to Mang, the Dolge factory complex, established to produce felt for the piano industry, expanded to make felt shoes, autoharps, piano cases and sounding boards, piano hammers — and even operate a lumber yard. And Dolge’s social innovations did not stop at the factory gate, either.

He paid workers to build railroads, lay out the town, install a municipal electric system (the first in an upstate New York town), construct a water and sewer system and built two schools (which launched the state’s first kindergarten). Dolge also established a fire department, a free library, a concert hall, a gymnasium, public parks and a newspaper.

Dolge departs, but his legacy remains

Despite his many innovations, Dolge was forced to depart on 1 May 1899 after a coterie of capitalists and bankers called in his loans — alarmed, no doubt, by what the workers in their own enterprises might demand if word got out.

The author with the bust of Alfred Dolge (2015). Such was Dolge’s impact that in 1948, nearly 50 years after his departure, he was still remembered in his namesake town with the placement of this pedestal and bust outside the Dolgeville, N.Y., Town Hall. Photo: Amy L. Williamson

Yet his legacy lives on. A bust of Dolge, erected in 1948, graces the walkway in front of  the Dolgeville Town Hall. The Dolge Factory Complex is on the National Register of Historic Places.

And episodes of his life have been dramatized during Dolgeville’s annual Violet Festival by appreciative townspeople who have not forgotten the man whose enterprises channeled the energy and labor of their forbears to put Dolgeville on the map.

And with that, we will return next week to the story of my paternal grandfather’s brother — Albert Barney Charboneau — who continued his lumber career upon arrival in Dolgeville, N.Y., a decade after Dolge’s departure.

Please stop back! Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

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10 thoughts on “1874-1910: The sparkling lure of Dolgeville, N.Y.”

  1. Your ancestor was quite a man! Very interesting post and photos too. Happy that he helped so many people in the course of his life and beyond.

    1. Dolge was actually the town’s founder, not an ancestor. But my ancestors benefited from his largess and went on to make their own mark on Dolgeville, too.

  2. It interesting how Dolge made his fortune from manufacturing just a few parts and materials used in pianos. That’s an indication of how very popular the piano became in the second half of the 19th century. I’m also fascinated by his efforts to implement benefits and social programs for his workers. Usually such ideas came out of demands from trade unions, but this was an era some industrialists were creating their own company towns in order to keep out unions and maintain total control over their employees. Sometimes they could be benevolent, but more often their paternalistic notions turned into harsh repression against worker opposition.

    I was curious about the year you said he was forced to leave New York so I went to Wikipedia and read Dolge’s entry. It was 1899, not 1889. But the reason the year 1889 caught my attention was that the Johnstown Flood catastrophe occurred on May 31, 1889. And Johnstown was another industrial workers community. Factory and mining towns offered many emigrants a decent job but not always with safety and security. Last year I read a terrific book Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, which is about the tragic failure of a molasses factory in Boston and it’s effects on the Irish and Italian communities there. Do you know what Alfred Dolge did after he left New York?

    1. What a difference a typo can make! Thanks for the correction. I have updated the year of Dolge’s departure. After he left Dolgeville, he moved to California and later to Europe — yet when he died, he was buried in the Dolgeville Cemetery in upstate New York.

  3. Interesting post about the town’s history and namesake. Alfred Dolge sounds like quite the entrepreneur.

  4. I wish there were more owners of companies who cared this much for their workers. Working conditions have a big impact on the lives of employees.

  5. In short – Alfred Dolge done good in several different and innovative ways for the benefit of his factory workers and all the rest of us who, today, benefit from Social Security! Bless the good man! 🙂

    1. One reason Dolge is still fondly remembered in the area long after the names of the capitalists who drove him out have been forgotten.

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