The counter-espionage librarian

Mary Kiersted Pidgeon at work at Saugerties High School.

WHEN VILLAGE HISTORIAN and President of the Saugerties Historical Society Marjorie Block looks for inspiration, she’s able to do so in her own backyard. Learning new information about things that happened years and years ago is all part of the fun. Take, for example, the story of Marie Kiersted Pidgeon.

As with many prominent figures, there’s often a paper trail to help give historians a clearer picture when they aren’t able to actually speak to the subject themselves. Pidgeon, who was born in Saugerties on December 21, 1890, is one such figure. Beyond her rich local bloodline – her grandfather John Kiersted Sr. was the first supervisor of the town of Saugerties, and her father, John Kiersted Jr., was one of the founders of Sawyer Savings Bank, and her mother Mary A. Kiersted an early local instructor in French, German and Latin – Pidgeon is herself a fascinating subject.

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According to the book “Hollanders Who Helped Build America” by Professor Bernard H.M. Velke and the Rev. Henry Beets (American Biographical Company, 1942), Pidgeon was a graduate of Saugerties High School (in what is now Cahill Elementary), was educated at the Bethlehem Moravian Seminary, graduated from Vassar College in 1912 and received her Bachelor of Library Science degree from the New York State Library School in 1916.

Pidgeon – according to Block, she was known to friends as “Pidgie” – took on a variety of roles as a librarian and researcher over the course of her life, studying encephalitis abstracting for the New York Academy of Medicine, was research librarian of the Cleanliness Institute (founded by the Association of American Soap and Glycerin Producers) from 1927-31 and became part of the New York Department of Education as a school librarian in New York City, serving at Curtis High School in Staten Island from 1932-35 before becoming librarian in charge at Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem well into the 1940s.

“I’ve seen her photograph,” Block said. “She was a school librarian and looked the part. She had the hair pulled back and looked very conservative.”

But in the period between focusing on her own education and a life devoted to the education of others, Pidgeon’s life took an interesting turn. After post-college research work in the New York State Library, Pidgeon served the country through counter-espionage work in the Military Intelligence division of the United States War Department in 1918. According to “Hollanders Who Helped Build America,” Pidgeon became a scientific assistant in Library Science and a translator in French, Italian and Spanish.

“There was the proper side of her, but there was also the espionage side to her,” Block said. “She’s kind of like a combination of people. She’s very much outside the box.”

Pidgeon was also accredited by the U.S. Civil Service Commission to the Department of Agriculture, editing bibliographies for the Journal of Agricultural Research. She edited the Portuguese exhibits for the Exposição do Centenario do Brasil in 1922, was sent there as a representative of the Department of Agriculture, and became a member of the Jury of Awards. Her knowledge of South America had already been established three years earlier when she wrote a lengthy essay on Argentina’s library conditions for the April 1919 edition of the Library Journal (pages 211-215), a work that’s available for perusal online through Google Books.

A forthcoming exhibit on the entire Kiersted family opening at the Kiersted House on Saturday, June 11, has given Block an excuse to delve a little more deeply into the life of Pidgeon, a study of particular interest for the historian for a variety of reasons. Though her professional career took her elsewhere, Block noted that Pidgeon had a great love of home.

“She had intense pride about the Hudson Valley, and it was so evident,” Block said. “She was a member of the Ulster County Historical Society and the Monday Club here in Saugerties. Sometimes we take our community and the people in it for granted simply because they live next door or across the village. I don’t think we sometimes realize how much a wealth of knowledge and inspiration we get here in the community.”

Block said Pidgeon has served as an inspiration for a variety of reasons, not the least of which that she was able to accomplish so much in a time when opportunities were far scarcer for women than they are in the modern age.

“Today we’re able to do so much as far as travel, and we have so much knowledge at our fingertips,” she said. “But for that time, especially for a single person, she achieved so much. She should be an inspiration for young women in this community.”

Pidgeon had a hand in the publication of several books, including biographies and educational studies, a book designed to bridge the gap between English and Spanish speaking communities through children (“The Discovery of Hispanic American Junior Books for Reading in the U.S.” published in 1939) and a translation of a Dutch children’s book called “Afke’s Ten,” a copy of which is part of the Saugerties Historical Society’s archives at the Kiersted House.

“She’s just always intrigued me,” said Block. “I wish I could have known her.”

Block expects to continue her study of the Kiersted family as the June exhibit approaches. She anticipates learning more about Pidgeon in the process, part of which will take her to Hyde Park and the home of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, where she said there are two letters of correspondence between the President and Pidgeon.

Pidgeon is buried in the Mountain View Cemetery on Main Street in Saugerties.

 

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