Elizabeth W. Little was born in 1884, probably in the grand home that her grandparents built in Menands on the south side of the Menand Road in the 1860’s.
She was the daughter of Charles W. Little and Edith Elizabeth Herbert. Elizabeth was the youngest of three daughters born to the C.W. Little family. Elizabeth’s grandfather was Weare C. Little, who was born in Bangor, Maine but moved to the Albany area and established a very successful book publishing and selling business on State Street in Albany by 1828. By 1868, Weare C. Little’s name appears in the Albany City Directories as residing at Menands. Tax records of 1870-71 show that he owned 46 acres of land with buildings in Menands.
The W.C. Little’s publishing company was very profitable, enabling him to purchase the 46 acres of very desirable land on the south side of the Old Menand Road just west of the present day entrance to the Sage Estate. His land continued westward up the old Menand Road to a point about opposite of the present day intersection with Schuyler Road.
Mr. Little contracted with noted Albany architect William L. Woollett to design his grand new home in Menands, and named his estate “Forrest Hill” (as seen on the 1891 Beers Atlas Map of the Menands area.) Little’s “Forrest Hill” estate was one of several large estates in the Menands area overlooking the Hudson River Valley. Other estate names included; “Fern Wood,” “Brookside,” “Hill Side,” “Hedge Lawn” and others.
A small stream called the Ruylerskill ran through Forrest Hill beginning in the Loudonville area and running eastward through deep ravines toward the Hudson River. W.C. Little was said to have constructed an earthen dam in the 1860’s toward the western end of the Ruylerskill, which created “Little’s Lake.”
By the 1870’s much of the land south of the Little property was still in the estate of William P. VanRensselaer, the youngest son of the Dutch Patroon Stephen VanRensselaer III. By the 1870’s a dirt road was constructed from the original Loudon Road in the Loudonville / Albany area northward eventually crossing the top of the Little’s earthen dam before ending at the Menand Road across from the southern entrance to the Albany Rural Cemetery. That rutted dirt road is now todays heavily travelled VanRensselaer Blvd.
She attended the prestigious Emma Willard School in Troy, raised to be respectful and expected others to be also, but was not timid, nor afraid to speak her mind. In 1924, Miss Little caused a bit of a stir at an Albany conference attended by the City’s Parks Commissioner. Miss Little stood up and complained to Commissioner Raven about a recent event where she witnessed several youths damaging shrubbery in Washington Park while a police officer stood nearby watching the act but did nothing. Apparently, she demanded the officer arrest the youths involved, yet the officer continued his indifference toward things and she publicly branded the officer as “impertinent” which raised a few eyebrows in the room. (Knickerbocker news item).
Women’s rights advocate
Despite their wealth, women in the Little family, like millions of other women throughout America, rich and poor, did not yet have the right to vote. The Women’s Suffrage movement began in the mid-19 Century in America and by the 1880’s, when Elizabeth was born, had become more organized, gaining momentum politically not only in America but in European countries as well.
Included in the Little family photo album were several photos of a large Women’s Suffrage event held at Albany June 6, 1914. Photographs show throngs of people on State Street and other side streets around the Capital building. The Grand Marshal of the event was Katherine Hulst Gavit (1872-1964) of Greenwich, N.Y. Several women leading the Suffrage procession are seen mounted on horses, some riding sidesaddle and others riding conventionally. Members of the Albany Police Department’s Mounted police escorted the procession. The women marchers were all dressed in Suffrage garb of long white dresses with ribbon sashes and white bonnets or hats with matching ribbon bands.
A single photo shows a smiling Elizabeth Little wearing the garb of the Women’s Suffrage Movement including the white bonnet with ribbon and white dress with a sash. She is smiling proudly for the camera while standing in a group of Suffrage marchers beside a United Traction Company trolley parked on State Street in front of the historic St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
Miss Little’s family home at “Forrest Hill” was aptly named. Just south of her home lay many acres of old growth trees along both sides of the Ruylerskill, which babbles down through the shale cut of the ravine. Wildlife was plentiful. Stands of huge oak, beach and pine trees were home to dozens of squirrels scattering through the bows. Little pinfish swam in the stream. Raccoons would forage in the shallows of the stream looking for crawfish or frogs. Blue Jays, flickers, and woodpeckers darted between the canopies of trees. Deer foraged along with a variety of other animals. The area was, and still is a secluded pleasant spot, now part of a forever-wild park owned, protected and maintained by the Village of Menands.
Little Bessie and her sisters probably frolicked in those woods behind her home, but it was Bessie who would come to embrace nature throughout her lifetime and beyond. Her love of the outdoors included camping and hiking the high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains. In April 1922, the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) was formed in N.Y. City. There were 208 certified charter members. By October that same year, the Albany Chapter of the ADK was added. It was probably at this time that Miss Little joined the organization, and through time, she eventually climbed all 46 of the Adirondack’s High Peaks.
Colonie tax records of the 1930’s reveal two separate plots of Little family land in the estate of Edith H. Little, older sister of Elizabeth. This is a little confusing until you realize that the land on the Menand Road where the Little family mansion stood was in the Menands School District while the lake and adjoining lands were in the Loudonville School District. The line separating the two districts by VanRensselaer’s Blvd. In 1938, the family plot on Menand Road contained 37 acres and 4 houses but the lake and land plot of 25 acres remained vacant.
By 1948, Edith’s name (estate of) is crossed out in the tax record and replaced by Elizabeth W.C. Little. By 1949, only Elizabeth’s name is in the record. The old family home(s) and land on the Menand Road was sold in 1950 to the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who used the Mansion and other buildings for their organization. However; Miss Little salvaged beams and other lumber from a barn behind the old family home and used them in the construction of her new home, a small, simple Adirondack like cottage built on the north shore of the Little’s Lake parcel. Part of Miss Little’s legacy included being very thrifty. She made her own simple clothes, so why throw perfectly good beams away? The (hewn beams) were revealed once again last year when wiring and lighting upgrades were done to the ceiling area in the basement of Miss. Littles cottage.
An article called: “Lasting Impressions – The Lady of the Lake” authored by Jo-Ellen Matusik for the New York Alive magazine in August 1987, probably gives the best glimpse of Bessie Little and her lake. The author reminisces about her and her family’s membership with the W.C. Little Memorial Park. She takes the reader back to the early 1950’s when her father arraigned to meet Miss Little to be “interviewed” for his admittance to the park. Joe Ellen said Miss Little was “very selective” about who she let on her property and that visitors were expected behave properly. One would have to be “sized up” personally by Miss Little before admittance to membership in the park was granted by her.
Miss Little never married. The fiancée she planned to marry was killed tragically just before their scheduled wedding. Toward the end of her life, Elizabeth W. Little established a trust and named it: “The Weare C. Little Memorial Park” in honor of her grandfather. She deeded her land and remaining finances to that trust when she died on March 17, 1961. She opened her land and lake to the residents of neighboring Loudonville and Menands initially. People who knew her called her Bessie, but others knew her as “Miss Little.” When Bessie Little died on St. Patrick’s day 1960, she was not buried in the Little family plot in the Albany Rural Cemetery with other members of her family but following her wishes, her body was cremated at Oakwood Cemetery, and her ashes were scattered beside the nature trails surrounding Little’s Lake. The trust created a caretaker’s position with a salary and small living quarters, which remain. A board of directors continues to care for and make important improvements to the grounds keeping in mind the preservationist ideals of Elizabeth W.C. “Bessie” Little.
The Weare C. Little Memorial Park organization exists to this day and over the years has provided access to the facility to various organizations including providing meeting space for the A.D.C., school groups, boy scouts & more. The spirit of Elizabeth W. C. “Bessie” Little remains along the nature trails surrounding her cherished Lake, and in the hearts and minds of the Board of the Weare C. Little Memorial Park Association and its many members and visitors.
To learn more about Littles Lake, visit their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/littleslake/
Kevin Franklin is the Town of Colonie (Albany Co.) Historian. He is also on the board of the Weare C. Little Memorial Park Association.
All photos courtesy of Little’s Lake Memorial Park & Town of Colonie Historian’s Office