By “dark” I don’t mean porter or stout.
For the last five years, I’ve researched and celebrated Albany’s brewing history and heritage. I’m glad I did. I've come to realize that beer was a major part of Albany’s cultural and societal fabric. Without a doubt beer helped to shape what Albany was and what it would become. Albany owes a lot to beer, and that's a good thing.
But there is a downside to that. A rather terrible downside. A city that builds itself on a drug—and yes, alcohol is very much a drug—will eventually have to deal with the ill-effects of that drug. In beer’s case—alcoholism, abandonment, and orphanhood. It was during the post Revolutionary, period where we see the collision of pre-industrial colonial drinking habits in which, to some extent, beer benefited Albany’s population by providing a potable alternative to the city’s often contaminated water, as well as being a nutritional supplement; with the reality of industrialized, population-wide drunkenness.
By the 1820s, even before the meteoric rise of the city’s modern brewing industry and during the infancy of Albany Ale, alcoholism was rampant in the city. Albany’s gifted and award winning journalist and biographer Paul Grondahl covers this period of Albany’s history at the beginning of his book, Now is The Time, about the history of Parsons Child and Family Center. Parsons has operated in Albany for 186 years, and today it “is the largest multi-services agency in New York’s Capital Region dedicated families and their children. The agency provides counseling services, parenting education, child abuse/neglect prevention and treatment, family strengthening programs, early childhood family support, special education, youth development programs, and mental health services.” According to their website.
However, in 1828, a year before Orrisa Heely opened the Albany Orphan Asylum (later to become Parsons Child and Family Center), there was nothing but, literally, the poorhouse—a woefully under funded, government assisted poorhouse—and the meager alms collected by the Dutch Reformed Church.
Albany saw unprecedented growth in the 1820s, due largely to the completion of the Erie Canal, and although some in the city were thriving economically, others—many others—were not. Poverty was everywhere. Beer did not help. The combination of easily available alcohol and destitution gave rise to alcoholism, and with alcoholism came abandonment. Heeley’s own husband left her after the death of their infant child. Homeless and orphaned children roamed the streets in incredible numbers, competing with hogs for food and shelter. A law passed in 1820 required that any child found begging in the city to be sent to the poorhouse until ”some proper person shall be found to take such a child.” As you can imagine that “proper person” did not come around often. Grondhal wrote of the poorhouse in his book:
“…the city’s poorhouse, opened in the early 1820s, was almost immediately inadequate to meet Albany’s needs…Some widowed or deserted mothers and their children were taken in there, but it was not conducive to family life.”He continues, later in the chapter, writing about the city’s indigent, it’s plentiful alcohol and the unfortunate result.
“Several of the poorhouse residents had entered its doors after serving time in Albany’s jail. The jail was built in 1810 to punish drunk and disorderly conduct and more sinister crimes.The city was awash in alcohol. Albany was also a center for brewing and produced 42,000 barrels of beer in 1829, of which 12,000 barrels were not exported and were consumed locally—equal to one-half barrel for every man, woman and child in the city. An estimated 415 tavern, shops, and market stalls sold liquor in Albany at that time. It was little wonder that the city was home to about 500 chronic drunkards and nearly 200 people died from complications related to alcohol abuse in 1830—one of the primary avenues to orphanhood for the children left behind in the wreckage of those who succumbed to the disease of alcoholism.”
That’s all past us now, right? Not quite.
Sure, beer is cool, and beer is hip—especially in today’s climate, and with the growing popularity of craft beer—but we are not that far removed from the ills of 1829. Alcoholism is still major issue in our society even 186 years later.
Otherwise Parsons—or places like them—still wouldn’t need to be open.