Pete Seeger joins the Nature Conservation Club (NCC)

... continued

The flames were so hot that we could feel it on our faces over 300 feet away as we stood near the corner of Delaware and Whitehall avenues. At first we gawked at the burning factory from about 100 feet away, but a large explosion caused us all to turn and run. But not too far. While watching from some 200 feet away, the police came by and pushed us back to the 300 foot mark just before several explosions in a row came along. The stuff that came down on us out of the sky was cooled enough to not burn, and some of the bits were recognizable as small fragments of colored billiard balls.

It turns out that billiard balls are highly explosive, as are many of the materials used to make them. We're talking modern, synthetic billiard balls, not the ones made of ivory. I believe the synthetic billiard ball was first manufactured by the Albany Billiard Ball factory (though not the exact one that we were watching in the state of total immolation) back in 1868 or so, much to the relief of elephants everywhere. Early versions of the billiard balls were highly explosive and occasionally blew up during and actual game of billiards. One such event apparently started one of the famous gun fights out west back in cowboy days. I'm not sure when the factory was moved to Delaware Avenue, but there it was, as I was a kid, around the time that the first Earth Day was declared, burning.

Out Delaware Avenue a few blocks, the relatively urban neighborhood I grew up in suddenly stopped and gave way to forest and farmland. The boundary of the city was the Normanskill, a creek who's valley is one of the many claimed to be the Vale of Tawasentha. We used to go down to that creek to play, cutting of the newly built Delaware Avenue and taking the old "Yellow Brick Road" (yes, a road made of yellow brick exactly like in the movie), past the Old Witches house (yes, well, sort of, she was the Avon lady but she was kinda scary) to the old Whipple Wrought Iron Bridge on one path, and the brick bridge on the other, and eventually back up to grade at the ice cream shop in the next town over. And along that road was where the Albany Billiard Ball Factory dumped their industrial waste. So we would scour the ditch along the road below the waste dump looking for fragments of billiard balls, hoping to find fragments with the numbers on them, hoping to eventually collect a complete set (which no one ever seemed to manage).

And now, standing some 300 feet back from the factory, fragments of the billiard balls were falling on our heads. But only a few, and none with numbers, and they were mostly burned. And, when the police noticed certain bits and pieces of the landscape around us starting to steam with the cooking heat, realizing that we were all standing in a gas station's parking lot, we were eventually shoo'ed too far away to make standing around watching worth it. So we went over the the school yard and sat on the swings listening to the occasional distant explosion and the more frequent siren of this or that emergency vehicle.

That same summer or the one after (forgive my memory) the sloop came to town. The Clearwater was a replica of an old Hudson River sloop. Built to original spec, it was too tall to pass under one of the Albany bridges unless the crew ran back and forth across the deck in perfect timing to cause the tip of the mast to bow lower than the base of the bridge's i-beams, as the captain churned the boat forward at just the right speed. At low tide. Which was funny to watch.

Anyway, there was a big party because the Clearwater, built by hippies, staffed by hippies, funded by hippies, was going to sail up and down the Hudson River brining awareness of the plight of that river and many other's like it until the river was cleaned up.

So at the big party, I had an inspiration. I got some paper and some crayons and I made membership cards with tear-off receipts for an organization I invented right then and there on the spot. I called it "NCC" for "Nature Conservation Club." And as soon as I invented the club, I went looking for its first member. And it could only be one person: Pete Seeger, the folk singer who was a friend of Woody Guthrie and mentor to Woody's son, Arlo. The man who wrote "Where have all the flowers gone" and "If I had a hammer" and "Turn, turn turn" and that one about the guy who was stuck on the train but his wife made him lunch every day. He was there at the party, of course, along with Arlo. I found Mr. Seeger, politely explained my goals to clean up the planet and stuff, and asked him to be the first member of my organization, the "Nature Conservation Club."

He agreed instantly, signed on, and .... well, the rest is history.1

The Clearwater sailed up and down that river again and again despite severe opposition from the Right Wing. Who fought the Clearwater and who fought every effort to stop the cleanup.

It took years, but the Clearwater did its job and you can now catch a live striper in the Hudson after decades of that being impossible. You will still likely get cancer if you eat too many of them, but that's a start.

... continued ...


1Obscure, lost history of no consequence, but history nonetheless.

More like this

You're close on the history of synthetic billiard balls. "Celluloid" (stable, solid nitrocellulose) was patented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt and first used to manufacture billiard balls, piano keys, and false teeth at his Albany Dental Plate Company in 1870.

Also, I guess that Avon lady was before my time in Albany. By the very early '70s the Avon lady was the statuesque Lee Wilkie, as in Richard (of the awesome handlebar moustache) and Lee Wilkie, folksingers actively involved with the Clearwater Sloop.

Love your stories. I live in this neighborhood and could relate and also learned some new things about my neighborhood. I'd love to get your permission to include your article in our local newsletter. Would that be ok?

Also used to make movie film, which made the life of the projectionist quite hazardous. Also called "gun cotton".

By Blind Squirrel (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink

chezjake: Not bad on the billiards since I was gong by memory. Am I correct in thinking that most billiard balls everywhere that are not ivory came from the Albany factory?

I knew Lee Wilikie, as I went to school with her daughter. Did they live just east of Delaware near the Normanskill, as the Yellow Brick Road's eastern branch headed down from the main road?

A year late, but I just cited this post in a comment on the All Over Albany blog:…

So, to answer your question, Kay Wilkie, with her parents Richard and Lee, lived in one of those new (in those days) townhouses on Mt. Hope Drive (a left turn off Southern Blvd - aka Rt. 9W), but not far from the Normanskill.

I don't see the comment yet.

I grew up on Stanwix, which is on that map (or just over a bit if you nudge it) between Delaware and 2nd.

On Marhsall there was another old factory, really a warehouse when I lived there, that was used for a secret military project during World War II. They say.

The comment is posted now.

I don't remember seeing anything on Marshall that could have been a factory. My daughter lives right around the corner from Marshall on Delaware -- next door to the firehouse.

And when I said Marshal I was mispeaking ... you are correct that there is no factory there.

I meant Beekman St!

(It's been a while since I've been there.)

Trying to get in touch with Richard and Lee Wilkie from upstate New York. My mom, Flo Lewars, was great friends with them and I would really like to reconnect. It has been over 3 years. Bertram Lewars 954 704-0428.

By Bertram Lewars (not verified) on 01 Apr 2015 #permalink