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William Coursen

by Robert Uzzilia
Cairo Town Historian

Photos of the Rockwood Hotel Fire courtesy Karen Schaefer
Photo of William Coursen and family in from of his store in Cairo and of the "County Farm" from the personal collection of Robert Uzzillia
Photo of the Cairo Variety Store courtesy of Phyllis Silva-Keith

Originally published in Daily Mail June 22, 2003

It has been said; “a picture is worth a thousand words.” If so, then photographer William Coursen left Cairo residents volumes about their little town in the Catskills.
Coursen conducted his photography business on Main Street in Cairo from around 1910 to the mid-1930’s. There he offered frozen moments of time on paper for sale to the public. Some shots depicted scenes of sublime nature, rolling meadows and primitive country roads. Others featured landmark resorts, their employees and guests, active village street scenes or important events. All displayed Coursen’s ability to frame a scene in an attractive manner. His high-quality bellows camera produced crisp images, providing a myriad of details for us to examine and ponder more than half a century later.

The early 20th century saw improvements in “dry plate” photography and flexible film, allowing professional photographers like Coursen the freedom to develop “on premises.” Large size film negatives allowed for minimal distortion. The exposure of such an image resulted in a quality contact print worthy of reproduction.

Among the body of work produced by Coursen, much depicted life in the village of Cairo during the busy Summer months. One picture captured the image of horse-drawn carriages and their drivers waiting attentively for passengers to finish shopping at Howard’s, a well-stocked Emporium at the corner of Railroad Avenue and Main Street. So sharp was the image that even the date of “1913” could be read from the license plate of an early motor car. The presence of that lone auto amidst many carriages symbolized an exciting transitional period of technological change that would forever alter the American lifestyle.

Another village scene highlights the attractive open porch of Jesse Travis’ Millinery. Wife Clara stood in the doorway, presumably for the photographer. An attractive potted plant sit in one corner of the porch while a primitive chair stacked with pillows sits in the other corner. On the flagstone sidewalk visitors pause for the camera. Most of the ladies smile while the men look stoically ahead. Coursen’s “Kodak Place” sign is almost centered, providing some subtle self-promotion. 

Many of Coursen’s photographs have become handy references of long lost Cairo landmarks. One shot gives us a glimpse of the Jennings Hotel, a huge clapboard structure opposite the intersection of Bross Street and Main. The imposing three-story edifice housed its own barber shop among many other period amenities, including gas lights. In its first full season after being rebuilt in 1888 it was the focal point of a large town parade to honor the visiting New York State Governor Hill. The hotel burned again in 1914 and was not rebuilt. 

Another local point of interest preserved by Coursen’s lens was the Aratoga Inn (aka Florence Inn and Manhattan) along old Route 23(now 23B). In 1936 Coursen photographed the owner Jimmy Wynne, his bartender and waiters. Only five short years earlier the very same barroom had been the scene of a violent attempt on the life of gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond. Men disguised as hunters had pulled up in a black sedan and opened fire with automatic weapons while Diamond stood in the doorway of one of his favorite Prohibition hangouts. He survived the shooting and after a four and a half week hospital stay, boldly claimed he could not be killed and vowed revenge.

Although few Coursen photographs are found of famous people, one opportunity presented itself during a Summer 1932 wedding held at Acra Manor in which Primo Carnera, then Heavyweight Boxing Champ, was among the invited guests. Above average in height and thick-limbed he towered above and dwarfed an unnamed couple in the shot. 

Grover Parks, a local driver was spotted by Coursen as he paused in his wagon in front of Austin’s Drug Store around 1915. He wore a cap with a slight brim to shield the summer sun. Parks would later receive regional attention at the subject of a roughing up at the hands of Jack Diamond’s henchmen during Cairo’s Prohibition days. He escaped after being tortured and alerted authorities, fearing for his life and seeking protection. 

Lesser known subjects of Coursen shots included proprietors of local businesses and many resort guests and their fun-filled events such as costume parties, weenie roasts, and Brideless Weddings. 

Many souvenir post cards were produced from Coursen images. Some exhibited vibrant color, utilizing an early 20th century lithographic process. They were printed in Mechanicville, New York by Charles W. Hughes and sported a “star quality” logo on the back. They were available for one cent each at his shop. Others were produced by Coursen himself in black and white in his studio and are usually embossed; “W.L. Coursen Cairo, NY” Many utilized a special ink pen which resulted in white lettering on the print. The word “Cairo” is often written with a distinctive large “C” engulfing most of the rest of the letters. 

The subjects of these postals included scenes of natural beauty such as Finch’s Pond, (near present day Edwards Farm and Stewart’s Ice Cream Shoppe), Bear’s Den along the Catskill Creek, Shingle Kill and others. The photo cards captured scenes ranging from the letting out of services at the Church of the Sacred Heart on Mountain Avenue around 1910 to a blazing fire in 1936 which destroyed the Rockwood Hotel. 

While Coursen produced many images of Summer life and tourists in Cairo for over two decades, it appears he was only a visitor himself. Town records show no indication he ever purchased property here. He most likely rented or leased his studio, possibly staying in the apartment above the business or at a local resort. It is known that his Winters were spent in Daytona Beach, Florida where he also maintained a profitable photograhic studio. There he also produced many quality images of coastal landscapes, events such as early auto racing on the beach and even some aerial photography.

While few details are known about William Coursen the man, he left behind a Cairo legacy in pictures.

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Rockwood in the Pines - This huge resort was the victim of fire on Fourth of July weekend, 1936 when boys playing with fireworks set it ablaze. Everyone escaped unharmed but the hotel was a total loss. It was rebuilt and renamed the Woodrock.

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William Coursen sits with his family on the steps of their business around 1920.  Coursen photographed and offered for sale many quality images of the Cairo area.

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Coursen photograph of the barns at the "County Farm," or Alms House, now the county Office building and Canna Town Park.

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Coursen photograph of the Variety Store on Main Street Cairo, NY

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