The Office of the Orange County Historian works to research, preserve, contextualize and promote the historical intricacies that are at the foundation of our society today.
The department maintains a research library that is open for public hours; staff and volunteers in the office provide historical information to answer public inquires related to Orange County’s past; staff plan and host special programming, lectures, professional development and community workshops. The County Historian writes articles for local publications, makes speaking appearances at commemorations and coordinated research projects amongst town historians and local museums.
Staff, Intern and Volunteer Projects
As a continuation of the centennial events commemorating World War I (2014-2018), an effort was made to document the accomplishments of the previous years. Staff selected 50 photographs from the September 2018 trip to Belgium and France to have printed and framed for display. Historian Aaron Lefkowitz was hired to write detailed captions for the photographs. The exhibit will be put on permanent display in the Government Center in 2020.
Heritage consultant Matthew Kierstead of Milestone Heritage Consulting was hired to complete the second phase of a collaborative effort between the Orange County Historian’s Office and the Orange County Parks Department to document and plan for a restoration of the ruins of the powder mills at Algonquin Park. Last year a masonry study was completed which gives the County guidance as to how to phase out long-term stabilization, repair and reconstruction efforts at the park. This second document includes a review of known historical sources related to the active powder mill and subsequent WPA program additions from the period after the powder mill was no longer in operation. The report also includes recommendations for public access, signage, maps and interpretation strategies.
During the summer months Aaron Lefkowitz returned as a temp clerical employee to compile an inventory of all historical institutions in Orange County. He reached out to the staff and volunteers at each to include feedback from them such as their visitation numbers, annual budget, staffing, etc. The final list numbered over 65 institutions in Orange County (not including the offices of municipal historians) who are engaged in museum work, exhibits, collection and advocacy for history and heritage in Orange County.
1841 Courthouse Archive & Collections Committee
The work of unpacking and sorting the books and papers in the County collection continued, as we were able to extend temp clerical employee Joseph Geidel into the spring. He was successful in roughly sorting the books by theme and helping to get most items out of boxes and off of the floors. The challenge of caring for the collection continues into the 3rd year, as we do not have a staff member dedicated to this time consuming task.
As part of the unpacking process, the “jury deliberation room” at the back of the courtroom has been repurposed as a media center. Any computer discs, VHS, DVDs, USBs and slide projectors that are unboxed, are being placed there with the plan that we will be able to set up computers and screens in the room for public research access. In the fall, a sign was ordered so that he room could be dedicated in honor of former County Historian Ted Sly. We have begun referring to the room as “the Sly Room.”
In the possession of the County Historian’s office since the County Clerk moved back into the Government Center, we have two large 8 foot tall painting depicting the beginning and end points of the original Erie Railroad. The first painting depicts a train leaving Piermont and the second depicts the newly constructed 1841 Courthouse building. In brittle and torn condition, the paintings are in need of a professional restoration. Art restorer Lisa Rosen was hired to create an estimate for restoration so that we may be able to allocate necessary funds in 2020. After completion we hope to hang the paintings in public view at the Government Center.
The Collections Committee reviewed and accepted several donations including a photo album from the Stewart/ Denniston family from Ulster County Habitat Restore, Stereoscope and slides from Chris and Kathleen Ashman, a vintage cigarette machine from Jeremiah Ventry-McGee, and a Woodstock roadside from Judge Joseph Owen. The Committee also purchased a World War I metal given to soldiers in Newburgh when they returned from active duty from Ebay.
Orange County Semiquincentennial Commission
In 2016, U.S. Congress passed H.R. 4875 establishing the framework for commemorating the 250th anniversary of American Independence in 1776. As the plans trickled down to the States and then the Counties, it became clear that the celebration period needs to be expanded to include events that took forth between 1775-1783 in order to fully bring local stories into the commemorative plans. Therefore in August of this year, County Executive, Steven M. Neuhaus signed Executive Order No. 2 of 2019 which establishes a commission of 13 members to design education materials, plan programming and engage the public in learning about the many events of the Revolution that took place in Orange County. As the chair of this commission, the County Historian has been active on planning meetings such as one hosted by the Association of State and Local History in Philadelphia and several hosted by the New York State Historian in Saratoga, New Rochelle and New York City.
Workshops & Public Programs
This year we brought back the tradition of hosting speakers in the courtroom space. The Summer Speaker Series was moved to Friday afternoons to correspond with the Goshen Farmer’s Market. We encouraged attendees to bring their lunch or buy one from the market in order to join us at lunch hour. Topics for the series included Edgar Allan Poe at West Point, Orange County Diary Farms, World War I Harlem Hellfighters from Orange County and the history of cookbooks.
On November 1st – the birthday of Orange County—and beginning of New York State History Month, we held the Annual Historian’s Conference, inviting all of the City, Town and Village historians from Orange County to attend and participate. This was the first time the conference was held at a full scale since 2015. Topics included cemetery law and maintenance, Pomeroy Foundation grant process for historic markers, Semiquincentennial planning, and a keynote by Warwick Historian Dr. Richard Hull to mark the 100th anniversary of the Municipal Historians Law.
We partnered once again with Town of Delhi Historian Marianne Greenfield to offer a series of cemetery workshops during the summer months. In addition to the training that we have offered in previous years, we added a workshop focused on how to reset stones that have fallen.
Research & Presentations
We conducted researched for a variety of public inquiries throughout the year. Research topics included the history of Stewart Airport, the history of railroads in Orange County as it pertains to expanding and interpreting the Heritage Trail. Public programs were created regarding mastodons for both Mastodon Day in the local schools and for an adult learning program at the Desmond Campus. Past and new research on Newburgh architects and architecture was compiled into a presentation and delivered several times around the county. We began an effort to compile the history of Valley View as per a request from the County Legislature.
As a speaker at the 2019 Hudson Valley Green Tech Festival in Newburgh, I spoke about Thomas Edison’s role in electrifying Newburgh and participated in discussions about how historic preservation can be seen as a tool for protecting the environment. I also appeared at SUNY Orange to speak at the annual Sojourner Truth awards and shake hands of the recipients. The speech conveyed Truth’s legacy and connections to local history.
A highlight of this year’s research was arranging to interview Judge Joseph Owen about his role in creating the local law that blocked Woodstock festival from taking place in Orange County. I also escorted Judge Owen to the Woodstock museum in Bethel, NY to reunite with others who were involved in that era and see the 50th anniversary exhibit. Additionally, our staff attended the 50th anniversary academic conference at Marist College.
Although Fishkill Supply Depot is in Dutchess County, I dedicated some time to advocacy related to the development threat facing the burial site along Route 9. This included appearing at planning board meetings to speak about the importance of the location in context of the Revolution War period.
I also appeared at City of Newburgh Architectural Review Commission meetings and was interviewed by local news sources to contribute to the discussions about a request for demolition submitted by the pastor of the A.M.E. Zion Church on Washington Street.
In the fall we were contacted by the Highlands Masonic Lodge with a request that they be allowed to remove a time capsule that they believed was behind the date stone of the Masonic Lodge on Grand Street in Newburgh. With help from Scott Razzano and Upstate Concrete and Masonry Company, the box was carefully removed. State Museum conservator Maria Holden and the current members of the masonic lodge, assisted in ensuring that the objects uncovered were properly cared for.
Since 2014, the County Historian has served as the Orange County representative on the Hudson River Valley Greenway Communities Council and as an advisor on the National Heritage Area committee for the Hudson Valley region.
As a longtime member of the Tower of Victory fundraising Committee, I was part of an opening ceremony of the newly renovated structure on the grounds of Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh.
In 2019 I was invited to help create a certificate program in Historic Preservation that will be debuted in 2020 at SUNY Westchester Peekskill campus.