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Oak Hill & Vicinity: Neil Kellegher’s memories of East Durham

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By Mary Lou Nahas

For Capital Region Independent Media

Neil Kellegher was chosen as grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to take place in East Durham on  March 17, 2024. Contributed photo

Every time I write or talk as the Durham historian, I invite others to share their stories. For me, and I think for many, those stories help us understand both the past and the present. 

I am especially pleased when someone takes the time to write their memories and share them. I always ask if I may share with others what they have sent me. Usually they say I may, sometimes asking me not to include their names and I respect that wish.

Today, I want to share some memories that Neil Kellegher has shared.

Many of you will already know that Neil’s father came to East Durham in 1938 to visit his sister Mary, who with her husband had moved here from New York City. As he drove down the main street, he noticed that the Central Hotel was for sale and decided to buy it. He changed the name to the Shamrock House and it became a center of activity in the town, as it still is today. 

The Shamrock House continues to be a center of activities in the town of Durham. Contributed photo

It is also important to know that Lawyer’s store was owned by the grandsons of Irish immigrants who had moved here from New York City and in the past, it was a center of town activities. In fact, on Sept. 23, 1927, a small group of “public spirited men,” realizing that the village of East Durham needed fire protection, called a public meeting at Lawyer’s Hall. Exactly four months to the day, after that first meeting, the East Durham Volunteer Company had been organized, incorporated, a hose house erected and a pumper installed. 

As time went on the hose house was used as a meeting hall by local government as well as Town Court and town polling place; so, in 1948 it was voted to purchase land adjoining the hose house from Clarence Mackey and erect another building to house fire equipment.

Lawyer’s Hall and Residence in the early 20th century. Contributed photo

The Ladies Auxiliary of the East Durham Volunteer Fire Company was organized by nine members on Oct. 21, 1927, at Lawyer’s Hall. Its aim was to help defray the expenses of the fire company. Officers were Frances Fox, president; Marion Woodard, vice president; Viola Roe, secretary; and Jessie Sinclair, treasurer.

Officers of the fire company in 1976 were Russell Cole, chief; Patrick Kellegher, first assistant chief; Carl Sala. John Kellegher was a trustee.

The Shamrock House on Route 145 in East Durham. Contributed photo

Now, I will let Neil tell this story in his own words: 

“When I was a kid East Durham was quite a bit different from today. When the resorts were open the entire town was more alive and prosperous than it is today; the people were more friendly and seemed to project a feeling of let’s make this community work. I can relate to many fundraisers that a few would take on and everyone would fall in behind them. My really younger years relate to people like Ray Lawyer, Russell and Marge Cole, Fred and Helen Mack. Although there were many more, these individuals seemed to be at the head of most everything that was happening in town.

“My father and mother, having the Shamrock House became the place where everything was held: American Legion meetings, resort meetings, Rod and Gun Club, Republican Club. Later on, as years went by, the K of C was organized at the Shamrock, as well as the Vacation Land Association. The Irish Festival was planned and decided to go with it. At a very interesting and controversial meeting, it was decided to buy the property of the old Blarney Star to develop the Irish Cultural and Sports Center as it is today.

The firehouse in East Durham. Contributed photo

“I remember one Vacation Land meeting when Tom McGoldrick introduced Frank Aragona, the new owner of a resort that wasn’t very alive for many years. Frank was just out of the service and took the Shady Glen resort over from his uncle. Everyone in the 1970s thought he was out of his mind when he was planning on putting a slide down into the creek just below the resort.  Zoom Flume is what he called it. One slide developed into what it is today. There were many places that changed hands during the years and money was put into additions and improvements on them.

“Mullens added a dining room with a pub in 1938. In 1946, the O’Neill House built a new dining room. In the early 1960s, the Weldon House added motels and enlarged their dining room. The Shamrock Motel’s dance hall could also be used as a banquet hall. In the 1960s, Gavin’s Golden Hill House added a new bar and dining room, and also added a tea and reception area. In 1975, the Fern Cliff house added motels and renovated older buildings. Andy’s Garage later owned the diner and in the 1960s Hans and Gretel’s came and also did a lot of improvements through the years. There was no competition as to who was to have the biggest and best. It was understood that the more improvements done around town, the better it was going to be for business in the town.

“The Knights of Columbus was established in East Durham in 1972. My brother Pat and Bill Kelly worked for months getting people interested and holding numerous meetings. The majority of those in attendance voted to have the council chartered in East Durham. The first meetings were held at the Rectory at St. Mary’s Church and after a few years the Grange Hall was purchased and became Council #6439. A fire destroyed the hall, so the property was sold [it has been rebuilt and now is a hair salon, post office and reading room]. The Knights of Columbus bought the old Silver Spur bar on Route 145, where they are today.

“The American Legion never had a building of their own. Early meetings were held at a business that is next to The Milk Run. Post #1416 was very alive in its day. When I was a Boy Scout in Troop 101, they sponsored us. Due to a lack of members, the post closed. My father, Uncle Frank, and I became members of Greenville Post #291.

“The Rod and Gun Club held meetings at the Shamrock House. This club would put out signs for hunters to ‘Look Before You Shoot’ and also trained new members for safety and qualification to get a license. The property owners around the area never had a problem letting people hunt on their grounds, especially members of the Rod and Gun Club. Carl Sala and I are the only ones left in town that belonged.

“In the early 1900s, Lawyers General store was a very thriving business and they were really one family who was very important to the town. Harry Lawyer was the senior and lived a long, productive life. I remember the day he died. I believe Ray went up to check on him and found him in his chair. Ray was always at the store and if you needed anything he could get it for you. 

“When we were kids, someone shot out the windows of the Shannon View. Ray investigated and found out who and went to the parents to pay for the glass. To show you the type of guy Ray was, rather than get the kids in trouble, he replaced the windows before John Slevin came up in the spring. Ray had an old Ford tractor and would go up through town plowing snow so his neighbors could get out. The spring of the year, the start of the resort business, he always worked on pricing hardware, paint, etc. for resorts. He was a great guy and loved East Durham. 

“Stanley Lawyer was always the hello friend, the greeting person with small talk. Their sister Helen (married to Fred Mack) was involved in all the organizations and found time to run large Christmas parties for kids — truly a great person (very giving). Fred was our postmaster and also involved in everything from the Legion, fire company, ambulance, you name it. Fred was ‘as long as it was for the community,’ he was there. You don’t find people like this anymore.

Stanley Lawyer played the drum and Ray the sax in an early band. Contributed photo

“Russell and Marge Cole — what more can you say about people that made you always feel how important you were. They were very inspirational, not only with their involvement in the community but their daily lives as well. Russell is the reason why John, Pat and I were dedicated to the fire company. Watching him and Marge through so many years giving of their time and energy, volunteering for their community, had its lasting effects on us.

“Russell and Marge had a farm equipment business at the lower part of town. I believe Russell (and others) gave as much time to the fire company as to his own business. Both of them are missed very much in our community. Their three daughters also were brought up around the fire house, waiting on tables for all the dinners and town fundraisers. Their youngest, Lori, is very active in the Ladies Auxiliary, as is her own daughter — three generations of that family with dedication.

“Lori’s son Russell is very active in fire company shows. Carl and Diane Sala, members for 60 years, have given everything anyone could ever expect to the company. Their years of dedication and care have not gone unnoticed. They also have been very active in the Greene County Fireman’s Association.”

At another time I will share Neil’s memories of the many resorts in East Durham over the years, some gone and some changed.

It will not come as a surprise to anyone that Neil has been named grand marshal of the East Durham’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade scheduled for Sunday, March 17, 2024.

Parade Committee Chairman Michael O’Connor remarked that the first meeting of the parade committee held at the Shamrock House (where else) was attended by more than 20 people. The last time East Durham hosted a St. Patrick’s Day parade was back in 1993.

Members of the East Durham Volunteer Fire Company marching in a parade. Contributed photo

“The Greenville Irish American Club has been hosting a parade the Saturday after St. Patrick’s Day since 1974. Picking a weekend for ours, we had to look at Kingston, Albany, Greenville, New York City and others to decide on a day,” O’Connor said. “We ended up picking Sunday, March 17. The actual day. It was really the only day that worked, but I think we couldn’t have picked a better day.”

I hope you enjoyed Neil’s memories as much as I did and that you will share your own with us. As Historian Sylvia Hasenkopf wrote some years ago, “The Oak Hill Preservation Association (OHPA) has been tireless in its efforts to record and preserve the history of Oak Hill and one has to be thankful that such an organization exists. It takes the passion of a relatively few numbers of people to ensure that our past remains alive and is available to instruct and enlighten future generations.”

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