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Buttons and literature

By: Bob Cudmore

Date: 2017-04-01

Harvey Chalmers II: buttons and literature
By Bob Cudmore, Focus on History, Daily Gazette, 04-01-2017

A seven-year old boy who was the offspring of a well-off Amsterdam family told his mother during the Spanish-American War in 1898 that he wanted to “Join the Army, go to Cuba and shoot Spaniards.”

Harvey Chalmers II, who wrote historical novels late in his life, lived then on Division Street. Emma Chalmers, convinced her son to make believe he was shooting Spaniards and helping to free Cuba by using the family’s water hose to douse the dusty dirt street. He found it was more fun to soak passengers on passing trolley cars.

A motorman blew the whistle on young Chalmers to the boy’s mother who took Harvey before his father that night for punishment.

Arthur Chalmers concluded he couldn’t punish Harvey for “being a boy.” In a story written years later, Harvey Chalmers II quoted his father as saying the prank could even result in civic improvement, “The Board of Trade has been trying for some time to persuade the Common Council to rule that Division Street should have a brick pavement. When the other boys on this street find out what our boy has done, they’ll all do it.”

Young Harvey’s grandfather and namesake had operated a hardware store and tool plant on East Main Street. When the building burned down in 1898, the elder Harvey’s sons, David and Arthur, started separate companies.

David manufactured underwear at his Chalmers Knitting Mill on the city’s South Side; the building was torn down a few years ago. The elder Harvey and son Arthur started making buttons in two buildings on the north side of the Mohawk River near the North Chuctanunda Creek.

Their so-called pearl buttons were actually made from Mississippi River clamshells. At its peak the Chalmers button mill employed 500 people. Some employees were housewives who sewed buttons on cardboard cards at their homes.

Harvey Chalmers & Sons made a splash in the industry in 1911 when it was the first button maker to advertise in women’s magazines and newspapers. The company became the biggest manufacturer of pearl buttons in the world with sales offices in New York and London.

Harvey Chalmers II went to Williams College and then to Yale where he was a fencing standout. He worked for a business in Boston then served as a lieutenant in the medical corps in World War I. He came back to Amsterdam, married Ruth Warren and worked in the button business.

Young Harvey’s grandfather and mother died in 1927. His father retired in 1933. It was not until 1943 that Harvey Chalmers II became president of the button factory,

He became a published author that year, publishing his most popular historical novel, “West to the Setting Sun,” a fictionalized biography of the Mohawk Indian chief Joseph Brant who fought the rebel settlers in the Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution.

Other novels included “Drums Against Frontenac,” “The Last Stand of the Nez Perce” and “The Birth of the Erie Canal,” co-authored with John H. Flandreau. Chalmers also wrote short stories and other historical pieces and served as consultant to the State Department of Education.

Plastic buttons ultimately put the Chalmers company out of business. Their button mill later became a print shop, according to Rita Mucilli of Amsterdam. Mucilli’s brother Ralph Robusto set up Ralka Press in the building after the button mill closed. The mill was torn down in 1966 for highway construction.

In later years Chalmers resided on Guy Park Avenue in Amsterdam. An avid fly fisherman, he died October 7, 1971 while fishing at a pond in Broadalbin. His writings are archived at Syracuse University.

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