Weaving through four centuries of religious, political, and scientific debate, the tale of the Mastodon in New York State is a rich and important chapter of our history. It can viewed through an environmental science lens as a window to the Pleistocene era; taught as a case study in the history of archaeological practice; or evaluated as an agent in the fracturing of natural philosophy in dozens of scientific disciplines.
With this in mind, one might wonder how something that sparked such serious inquiry at one time has been relegated to a few roadside historic markers and dusty museum exhibits today. In Orange County, however, we are lucky to have the tale of the Mastodon firmly incorporated in the fabric of our local identity.
I've hesitated to discuss this fascinating topic since it is expansive enough to warrant more than one article, but several recent developments have prompted me to begin sharing it now.
The Mastodon remains a popular subject in our local schools. Ms. Gilson's fourth grade class wrote letters to County officials asking us to celebrate "Mastodon Day" at Willow Avenue School in Cornwall on Thursday, October 13. At the event, County Executive Steve Neuhaus and Town Supervisor Richard Randazzo spoke to the children about why preserving the legacy of the Mastodon is an important to Orange County's citizens and I contributed details about Charles Willson Peale's famous 1801 archaeological expedition. At the end of our presentation one student asked us why the Mastodon is not on our County seal!
But it's not just students who can enjoy a Mastodon history lesson: On Friday, October 28, the series finale of the Tavern Trail will take place at Ward's Bridge Inn in Montgomery, where we will present a program regarding the Mastodons excavated by Charles Willson Peale and illuminate the implications that these discoveries had for the scientific community throughout the western world. The Tavern Trail series provides patrons with a chance to learn about local history in a relaxing and social atmosphere. Stop by for a networking opportunity or just to have a good time.
Finally, students, faculty, staff and visitors to SUNY Orange in Newburgh have been enjoying an exhibit featuring a plaster cast of the Warren Mastodon skull and tusk since September. We hope that this new display, located on the second floor of the campus, will bring more awareness to the significance of the Mastodon and compliment the sister exhibit of "Sugar" the Mastodon at the Middletown campus. Every few days I replenish the flyers at the new exhibit and I can't help but notice that students' genuine enthusiasm and curiosity regarding the relic.
Where can you visit Mastodons from Orange County?
The skeleton of the "Warren" Mastodon is at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City & the plaster cast at SUNY Orange Newburgh
The original Warren Mastodon skeleton is currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. It was discovered in 1845 in Coldenham, Town of Montgomery and it has been known to be the most complete skeleton of the American Mastodon species ever recovered worldwide. The skeleton has all of its bones - with the exception of a few toes - and it has both massive tusks intact.
The Warren Mastodon was discovered on the farm of Nathaniel Brewster on Rt. 17K while workers were digging in a bog for peat fuel. They pealed back the soil at the bottom of the bog to cut into 2 feet of peat, then a 1-foot layer of red moss. Beneath the moss they found shell marl and mud where the Mastodon was still articulated upright, with its head tilted towards the sky. It had drowned gasping for air more 11,000 years ago.
The bones were purchased from the Brewster family for $10,000. The buyer, Dr. John Collins Warren, a renowned surgeon and Harvard professor, brought the skeleton to Boston where he displayed it until 1925. Dr. Warren wrote, "Language is insufficient to give an idea of the grandeur of this skeleton as a whole. Standing as it does in the midst of those of various large animals - the horse, the cow, others, and towering above them, its massive limbs make them sink into insignificance."
In 2011, the cast of the Warren Mastodon was donated to Orange County for public display by local citizen donors. But it's not just this plaster cast that is available for the public to view. Here in Orange County, there are two exhibits with full skeletons.
The skeletons of the Harriman and Sugar Loaf Mastodons are on display in Orange County, "Harry" is at Museum Village in Monroe & "Sugar" is at SUNY Orange Middletown campus.
One well-known Mastodon is named "Harry" and was discovered in 1952 on Rt. 17M in Harriman. At the time, Roscoe Smith had recently opened his historical collections to the public at Museum Village in Monroe, so he organized an effort to exhume the bones for display. Smith enlisted the help of Dr. Edwin Harris Colbert, curator of the American Museum of Natural History's Paleontology department, and together they excavated the site.
There's also the famous "Sugar" Mastodon which originated in Sugar Loaf, between Chester and Warwick. It was discovered in 1972 by a black dirt farmer during the spring planting of lettuce and celery. The Mastodon was excavated by the Orange County Chapter of the New York State Archaeological Association and donated to SUNY Orange where it has been on display in the Biotech building on the Middletown campus since 1976.
Natural History museums throughout the world have collected specimens.
Mastodons from Orange County can be seen in other places as well. The famous "Peale" Mastodon, excavated by Charles Willson Peale in 1801, is now in Damstadt, Germany after many years with P.T. Barnum. The "Marsh Skeleton," discovered in Otisville, is currently at the Peabody Museum in Yale University due to the speedy actions of Professor Othniel Marsh to retrieve it before Professor Waterhouse Hawkins of Princeton could arrive. And at the New York State Museum in Albany, there's a display of the Temple Hill or "McMillin" Mastodon as it is sometimes known, bearing the name of the donor who paid for the excavation. A partial find known as the "Balmville Skull" has ended up at the Bear Mountain Zoo and countless bones have been discovered and sold as souvenirs to private collectors throughout the world.
Now that we've covered the "what" and "where" of the New York Mastodons, I hope to follow-up in future newsletters with more of my research regarding the philosophical debates and patriotic urgency that surrounded each of these discoveries in their time.
On September 29, 1918 40 soldiers from Orange County died as the Allied Army pierced the Hindenburg Line. Each year the tragic event is remembered and honored at an 'Orange County Veteran's Day' memorial service.
At the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Association of State and Local History held from September 14-18 in Detroit, the Current Issues Forum addressed the nature and quality of civic engagement in historical institutions.
There’s no doubt that Thomas Bull was a Loyalist.
In June of 1778, in the midst of the Revolutionary War and under the threat of exile from his home, he refused to take an oath of allegiance to New York State.
There’s also evidence that Thomas Bull and his neighbor, Fletcher Matthews, had close ties to Fletcher’s brother, David Matthews, New York City’s Loyalist mayor who was actively plotting to destabilize the Patriot Army’s operations. Local historical advocate James Flannery cites a letter that “George Washington wrote to George Clinton in 1781 advising Clinton that there was a plot afoot to kidnap him by a group led by Richard Smith, son of Claudius, and that Fletcher Mathews’ property – a few miles from the Clinton farmstead – was one place where the would-be kidnappers may be hiding.” Plot or no plot, it’s clear that Thomas Bull and his friends were feared by the Patriot Army for their insurgent knowledge of lands throughout Orange County and for their fervent opposition to the Patriot cause.
So when descendants of Thomas Bull donated 189 acres of land to Orange County in 1965 to establish a public park in his name, it seems that his Loyalist ties were not widely discussed. Thomas Bull the Loyalist was remembered instead as “one of the earliest settlers in the County” and progenitor of generations of respected and influential citizens. The Bull land was combined with that of four neighboring dairy farms to create a 719-acre recreation center where residents can ice skate, ski, play tennis, boat, fish, and ride horses. Notably, the County hosts patriotic events each year in the park, such as a salute to veterans and a 4th of July fireworks in celebration of America’s Declaration of Independence.
Some local residents, upon becoming aware of Thomas Bull’s wartime alliances, feel uncomfortable with that fact that he is honored so prominently in Orange County. Many others find delight in the poetic justice that is served every time the 4th of July is celebrated on Bull’s land. The truth is that Bull’s Loyalist sympathies were never concealed and not enough effort has been put towards illuminating the history and engaging park visitors to contemplate the precarious place that Thomas Bull holds in our nation’s founding.
The story peels back the layers of much larger debates. Does the legacy of loyalism during the Revolutionary War have no place in how we remember our local past? And more broadly, should commemoration of local figures be restricted to those who can be classified as heroes? The historiographical answer to both of these questions is no.
It’s certain that no study of Orange County’s incredibly rich Revolutionary War history would be complete without taking into account the disharmony that existed within the local community even while most of the territory was occupied by Patriot forces. The region saw constant movement of troops, large encampments, and the presence of important figures including George Washington. But it was also known for large population of Loyalists, historian Kieran O’Keefe writes: “In Orange County, Claudius Smith’s Gang of Loyalists used guerilla tactics, ambushing Patriots, and stealing supplies.”
At the time, the village of Newburgh was the seat of an Anglican congregation, and with the church influence came a higher population of Loyalists than neighboring communities. It is estimated that the Loyalist population in Newburgh was 23 to 25 percent at the onset of the war. According to O’Keefe’s research, “More residents of Newburgh refused to sign the [Patriot’s Pledge] than the rest of Ulster County combined.”
It’s also significant that right up the road, the small hamlet of Coldenham is named for the Colden Family, Revolutionary War residents who were prominent Loyalists. Cadwallader Colden had served as a Royal Governor of the Province of New York and his children refused to pledge allegiance with the Patriots along with Thomas Bull in 1778. Yet locally, we tend to remember the family’s contributions to our shared heritage, such as Alexander Colden’s early ferry service across the Hudson River from Newburgh to Fishkill and Jane Colden’s influence on the field of botany.
Throughout the war, these families fled to British-controlled Manhattan. When the Patriots reclaimed New York in 1783, many fled again to Canada. The church and other institutions in the Town of Maugerville in New Brunswick were founded by prominent Orange and Ulster County Loyalists who never came back. But some families did return to their homes in the region and became influential to shaping the new United States of America.
Many members of the Bull Family are still living in the Hudson Valley today. Nearly 233 years after peace was declared, I hope that we can not only use Thomas Bull’s legacy as a reason to learn more about the circumstances that divided the community, but also to admire that when the war was over, there was a chance for his family to contribute to the new nation.
This week I came across an article about Joe Bagley, the 31-year- old archaeologist who has been put in charge of one million mostly un-cataloged City of Boston artifacts. Underpaid and overburdened, he’s found ways to triage the projects that come at him each day. He has to be a historian, a fundraiser, a bureaucrat, a volunteer coordinator, a social media guru, an artifact guardian, a cheerleader for preservation, a meticulous registrar, and a broad minded strategic planner, all at the same time.
You’re not alone, Joe. This has become the narrative of the post-recession workplace. It’s like a reality TV premise: we give you poverty level pay and a mountain of responsibility, and expect you to turn this organization around with your hipster ingenuity. I see it so often that I’ve started to refer to it as the martyr-hero motif.
But it’s important to put things in perspective: this is not Joe vs. Wild or Indiana Joe on a grand mission. Joe, as a metaphor for the generation, is up against those who direct funds but continually decide not to invest in cultural resource management.
And if Boston seems distant, please reflect for a moment on the recent news from Albany that our new New York State Historian will inherit a role that has suffered salary and hierarchy reductions. I worry that we’re casting Devin Lander to be our Joe.
Post-Recession Management Decisions Changed the Field
I first entered the public history profession as a teenager with a full-time summer job as a tour guide. This position was in the NYS Parks system, which meant that I was able to receive health insurance, accrue vacation hours, and contribute towards retirement benefits. There was promise that hard work would lead to opportunities in collections care, interpretive assistance, or research. But by 2008, the recession hit and the site’s ten full-time employees were reduced to three. The quality of educational programs and public tours suffered.
As is representative of museums and historical institutions across the country, the State historic sites lost their middle management and their specialists. For a short time, operations can continue this way. The investments made in the past mean that the victims of the reductions have the expertise to do more with less. But as these properly trained individuals leave for careers elsewhere, the reduced roles are filled by interns and volunteers who treat the work like a hobby, or by struggling professionals who are scattering their energy across multiple jobs. As the quality of the experience declines, managers lean harder on tech solutions to automate audience interactions and bring in volunteer greeters to be the face of their organizations. Repeat audiences dwindle. Once institutional knowledge is lost, the new guard forgets that quality employees were once the core of their public value.
Decision makers have become blind to a simple truth: hiring professionals and equipping them with the resources they need – and paying them enough to support their families without side jobs – would take cultural institutions out of the revenue decline tailspin that they use as a scapegoat for the lack of support.
There’s no need to justify the economic and community impacts of the work that heritage professionals engage in because it is evident in numerous studies including one conducted last year in Dutchess County and in the research routinely compiled by organizations like National Council on Public History and The American Alliance of Museums. The sites, archives and programs related to cultural resources are not lacking an audience as often as the personnel of humanities work are lacking appropriate tools to connect with the audience.
The Problem Is Affecting Historians of All Generations
Whereas a policy of attrition has characterized government run sites, which are often managed by Parks professionals; it is manifesting itself in a slightly different way in the non-profit sector where historical programming is the central mission. In museums, the cuts are affecting the millennials at the beginning of their careers as they try to make the leap from working several part-time museum jobs – often with more prestigious degrees than their bosses – to running things without any middle management experience when those bosses retire.
But in the non-profit realm, the pressure is also affecting the careers of the boomer generation. As managers realize that they can tap into the martyr-hero motif, they eliminate seasoned staff who are used to reasonable pay and professional resources. They are replaced with two or more millennials who are desperate for any title that will give them a foot in the door. I call this the “epidemic of the directors” because many museums today are trying to attract talent not with fair pay, but by offering millennials the stepping stone they need most: a resume-worthy title.
I see it everywhere I look. The Director of Education is actually a minimum wage tour-guide that’s expected to be a curriculum expert. The Director of Public Relations is actually a part-time social media coordinator. And the Director of Strategy is acting CEO, with all the demands but half the pay of the former Executive Director. Being sensitive to these conditions makes it more obvious why programming and audience outreach seems schizophrenic to the public.
The Lines Between Public and Academic Historians Seems Blurred
There’s another component to the changes that have occurred in the field of Public History in this last decade. As the reductions in opportunities have forced specialists away from the workplace, they sought higher education with the hope to make themselves more marketable for management positions. Meanwhile as academic historians have suffered from their own set of post-recession problems, they began to look for Public History positions as a “Plan B” after receiving PhD’s. This has fed the ranks of the educated millennials in the field. As a result, historians from both the public and academic realms have survived by taking on adjunct teaching gigs. This is merely a life raft. The end is already evident in the recent American Historical Association report that there is officially a decline in incoming history majors.
The question remains to be answered whether this is the beginning of a long-term market correction that will include the closure of a swath of museums and institutions, whether the field will reorient towards a consultant-freelance style of service or something altogether new. What is certain is that educating our lawmakers and elected managers about the importance of investing in our cultural resources can mean the difference between a thriving or failing community.
Our Local Situation Is Better Than Most
Under the Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus and the current Orange County Legislature there is positive action towards protecting historical resources, harnessing the potential of each community’s unique cultural narratives and ensuring that County staff are given the tools necessary to serve the public’s interests. The following list is a reminder of some of the actions that have benefited the County’s historical resources in that past two years.
– The 1841 Courthouse in Goshen was renovated in 2015. In April of 2016 the Office of the Orange County Historian and the archives of the Orange County Genealogical Society were reopened to the public. The Orange County Tourism Office was moved into the Annex building next door to the Courthouse creating a one-stop location for members of the public seeking information.
– In 2015 the Orange County Legislature authorized a Capital Plan to direct funds towards the restoration and interpretation of County-owned historical properties. This year the $25,000 has been allocated to plan for the restoration of the Algonquin Park powder mill ruins.
– Through the Office of the Orange County Historian, officials have invested in Heritage Tourism initiatives such as the “Historic Tavern Trail” which was founded in Orange County in 2015 and has grown into a regional phenomenon that attracts dollars to our local economies while showcasing and honoring examples of preservation in the private sector.
– In 2014 the Orange County Legislature passed Resolution #89 to create a Cultural, Historic, Artifact Advisory committee. This committee brings several departments and members of the historical community together to address the County Collections Policies.
– The Orange County Parks Commissioner is collaborating with the Office of the Orange County Historian to develop a long-term Capital Plan to fund the preservation of County-owned Historic Structures.
The policies and investments of Orange County Government have a long way to go before we are able to address all of the needs of our local historical communities but we have much to be proud of. So although this article points to many examples of dysfunction in the cultural resource landscape, I hope that it will help highlight the importance of evaluating the structure, chain-of-command and job expectations of those tasked with heritage management in public, non-profit and academic spheres.
Since the establishment of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1923, historic trades training has been the work of living history museums. Before that time, artisan techniques were passed down in workshop settings from master to apprentice. Just as the artisan workshops faded from prevalence over the course of the early 20th century, the living history museums have also seen their heyday pass. Museums with living history missions have undergone major transformations to retain audiences. By the time I apprenticed in the jointer shop at Colonial Williamsburg in 2011, the historic trades had diminished to a background role. They were overshadowed by the theatrical endeavors of recreating street scenes from the Revolutionary War and the focus on interdisciplinary means for connecting to visitors and students through technology.
In my attempts at gaining hands-on experience that would benefit the management of preservation projects, I had to cobble together programs such as the historic carpentry internship, training in modern technique offered by the unions, and classes at colleges that focused on material culture. Others in the field have attended non-accredited classes like the ones offered by East Field Village in upstate New York or the North Bennett Street School in Boston.
Living in the City of Newburgh has exposed me to another side of this story. In all of the historic downtowns throughout the Hudson Valley, there are carpenters, plumbers, and masons who try their best to adapt what they learned through modern training to repair and mimic the historic architecture that surrounds us. Local sites have been approached many times by contractors who are wondering if a historian would be willing to identify building elements, or to direct them to artisans who have the skills to replicate them. But without a culture of historic trades training built into modern education, an ill equipped, under informed contractor can do irreparable damage to historic structures.
Combine these problems with positive trends in artisan culture, the reclamation of Main Streets for small businesses, and the unfortunate state of important architectural landmarks, and we have a perfect storm in New York State. Our network of SUNY colleges is in the position to invest in our local communities through an alignment of training professionals and through area projects. Imagine being able to take a class about history of architecture while snapping HABS photos of the Calvert Vaux, designed Hoyt House, in Staatsburg. Or imagine being trained to build coffered ceiling tiles for the restoration of a designated World Monument like the Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh?
The academic community is discussing these opportunities for the SUNY system. This spring both SUNY Orange and SUNY Dutchess are holding meetings with the historians and architects and they are forming partnerships with historical societies in the region to hash out program possibilities.
Show your support and cross your fingers, a historic trades renaissance may be taking root here in the Hudson Valley.
History of the Monument
April 19, 1783, marked America's true independence day: the moment when an official cessation of hostilities with the British Army came into effect. This event began the process that would end with official international recognition of the United States of America by the Treaty of Paris, signed later that year. The epicenter of this monumental event was the simple stone house on the banks of the Hudson at the village of Newburgh, occupied by General George Washington and his staff. If any place in America represents the final victory of the eight-year armed struggle for independence, it is Jonathan Hasbrouck's House, now known as Washington's Headquarters.
By the middle of the following century, the memory of this pivotal event in this unusual place was under threat. The generation of Americans who had fought for independence was passing, to be replaced by a new generation that remembered the conflict only through the tales of their elders. For these latter people, place became an issue irrevocably interwoven with history, since the locations where these heroic events took place increasingly represented the sole physical connection with the past. It was in this broader context of loss that a new era in the memory of the nation was born with a re-investment in the events of 1783, on the original ground.
In the 1840s, a group of concerned citizens banded together to save the Hasbrouck House, then under threat from the family's bankruptcy. The formation of the Newburgh Historical Society, with its mission to preserve the great sites and artifacts of America's formative struggle, marked a shift from an older philosophy of preservation, which emphasized evoking memories through paintings of old locations or saving pieces of key structures. In advocating for New York state's purchase of the Hasbrouck House, the Newburgh Historical Society made the first move in the nation's history to preserve historic landscapes for the education and enjoyment of future generations. The results of this campaign produced the first publicly-owned historic site in the United States of America and established our tradition of house museums.
In October 1883, Newburgh once again took center stage with a week-long gala celebration of the Revolution's conclusion. Over a hundred thousand people descended on the city from around the world to take part in festivities that included parades, military demonstrations, and patriotic speeches. Out of these events came a new initiative that would mark a re-confirmation of the events of 1783 and would broadcast them to the world. Months earlier, in April, Abraham Lincoln's son, Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, announced plans to erect a monument at Newburgh to commemorate "the events which took place there a century ago." Four years later, this monument would be unveiled as the Tower of Victory.
The autumn of 1883 marked the incorporation of the Newburgh Historical Society, which held its first meeting on Washington's Birthday in 1884. The members re-affirmed their commitment to the "discovery, collection and preservation" of the area's revolutionary history and took on a greater title as the Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Hudson Highlands. One of the first items of business was to begin planning the centennial monument, originally envisioned as a statue of Washington that would "awaken increased interest and regard for the picturesque stone house now consecrated by so many memories of the past." By 1886, plans had expanded to enclose the statue in a stone tower that would "typify the rugged simplicity of the times and personages." Historical society members commissioned architects Maurice J. Power and John Hemmenway Duncan, who would later become known for their work on the 1892 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Grant's Tomb in Manhattan, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, to design the tower. By the end of 1887, the monument was complete, broadcasting the site's significance to a new world-wide audience of visitors.
In 1950 a severe storm damaged the roof of the Tower of Victory and it was removed to prevent further damage to the base. For more than 65 years it has been closed to the public.
For the past five years, a volunteer committee through the Palisades Park Conservancy chaired by Barney McHenry with help from Sue Smith and Matthew Shook have become the latest to honor the site by advocating for the monument. The group has been raising awareness and funding for the restoration of the Tower of Victory through mailings, events and via social media. In 2014, local philanthropist Bill Kaplan pledged $100,000 and inspired many others to contribute. Donna Cornell and Jeffrey Werner helped connect the committee donors including discounted services to complete the landscaping. Wint Aldrich and Kevin Burke lent their preservation expertise to the project by shaping the mission of the fundraising campaign and Denise Van Buren kept everyone on task. By the end of 2015, the committee was successful in raising 1. 6 million dollars - almost enough to complete the restoration!
As a member of the committee, I attended an update meeting at Washington's HQ on January 14th. We were informed that bids for a contractor went out in December and returned with a 1.9 million dollar pricetag. With a 50% matching grant from NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the committee is now tasked with raising the remaining $150,000. If we can't source the funds by the end of January, it'll mean that the project bids expire and the project will be set back a few months. Feel free to contact Matthew Shook firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any ideas to help the project meet it's goals.
I hope that I'll be able to update you all soon with a more specific timeline.
New York has 932 towns, 547 villages, and 62 cities. Each one of them is required by State law to appoint a Municipal Historian.
To most people, this sounds like a quirky mandate, especially considering that there’s no requirement to provide a salary or storage space to maintain local records. Also, you may remember a Municipal Historian presenting a slide show at your elementary school or at a community festival where you may have developed an appreciation for their work – or perhaps been unimpressed because of how out-of-touch they were.
But it’s exactly this lack of consistency that has caused the public perception of local historians to be undervalued. Why do local administrations fall back on the technicality that “no pay is mandated” as justification for appointing volunteers when the same people would never cite such nonsense when discussing a County Health Commissioner, a Town Clerk, Police Chief or other important positions? These mandated professionals’ indispensability isn’t questioned. They are held to proficiency standards, and most importantly, they are given the resources necessary to do their work. Yet the Historian is often told to set their own course and to do so without compensation.
Lack of Support
I have heard dozens of historians say that they entered the position without any guidelines or benchmarks provided to them. Worse yet, sometimes the files of the previous Historian are lost in the shuffle, literally thrown in the trash or sold at yard sales by uninterested heirs. As a result, a cycle is deeply entrenched: the Historian is not taken seriously by elected officials and the public, the job becomes a personal pursuit, the best work is unappreciated and unsupported, and the worst work is “proof” of the impotence of the position. With no incentive for competitive hiring, the same story repeats itself again and again. Meanwhile, quietly and selflessly, a handful of Municipal Historians keep compiling, writing, and teaching. They preserve, they advocate, and they create a sense of place for their community. Their hard work, investment of their own resources, and often heroic actions to stop the short-term carelessness that would undo the fabric of our communities is taken for granted.
I’m not criticizing Orange County, or our neighbor Dutchess County, when I accuse the general swath of governmental bodies of harboring a lack of seriousness regarding their Historians. We are very lucky in the heart of the Mid-Hudson Valley to have these two County administrations in place which understand the value of historical research, record keeping, and programming (and can envision the larger collaborative potentials as well). A big part of the problem is that it’s difficult to talk about the right and wrong ways to manage this role without homing in on individual communities as every Historian operates in a wide spectrum of conditions. For every terrible true-life example, there’s an inspirational one to counter it, sometimes in the same municipality! And every question that could be asked can only be answered by spewing more ifs, buts, and excepts than the average person has the attention span to follow. If there’s one identifiable problem, it’s that every community has a different set of problems that it needs addressed.
A Century Later
What we know is that in 1919 the State Legislators deemed it essential to create a network of historians including a State Historian to set policies. Then in 1933, the State amended the law to include County Historians because it was obvious that there was a great need for a coordination level within the system. The urgency to establish the first generation of historians may have been a reaction to the loss that the State Museum experienced in a devastating firebut the needs quickly expanded to include proactive roles such as placing blue and yellow historic markers along the growing road systems and collecting stories from World War I veterans.
Before we can start a meaningful discussion about the value of the Municipal Historian’s Laws or debate whether there’s a need to reinvent, centralize, professionalize, or abandon the system altogether, let’s look at how the law has manifested itself a century after it was conceived.
We Haven’t Made Much Progress
How does one become a Municipal Historian? Some municipalities post the opening and require an interview similar to a typical job application process. Others assign the title to an existing employee such as the Clerk or Records Officer. Sometimes the task of appointing an individual is simply handed over to the local Historical Society trustees and they choose among themselves. I have heard of people who identified a vacancy and then called the Mayor to ask if they can assume the role. Occasionally the oldest person in the community gets saddled with the title because they are seen as a reliable source of information. Other communities, in violation of the law, let the position remain vacant for considerable amounts of time.
What is the typical background of a Municipal Historian? Frequently the Historian is a retired or aspiring teacher, librarian, or archivist. Most start out as volunteers from the local Historical Society or have developed their research skills by compiling in family history and genealogy. In Orange County, we have several retired public school teachers and librarians, a professor, an insurance salesman, and a policeman. I have an MPA, the Dutchess Historian has a PhD, the Sullivan Historian is an author, and the Ulster Historian is a retired bookstore owner. Individuals from every spectrum of professional and educational background have held these positions. Because of the volunteer nature of most of these positions, it is common for a person to take the title while they are building career credentials or while they are transitioning out of the workforce. But even this is not a rule as there are others who juggle the appointment while working in a parallel career. Another factor is that there has been a recent growth in students majoring in “public history” and then striking out as DBAs in the field of “history consulting,” so we may or may not see these positions shift to those individuals in the next few years.
How is the Historian compensated? Often they are expected to volunteer without any pay or compensation. Sometimes the Historian is given a small stipend to cover expenses or allowed to submit expense receipts for reimbursement. Rarely (but ideally) they are paid as professionals. I overheard a conversation at the Sullivan County “Future of History” Conference between Dr. Peter Feinman and William P. Tatum in which they surmised that only Orange, Dutchess and Wayne Counties have full-time County Historians, if anyone knows this to be wrong we’d love to hear of others.
How does the Historian interact with their municipality? Some Historians are required to report to the manager or council on a regular basis. Many have casual check-in habits of keeping officials apprised when they need access to records or have a presentation ready for the public. All are asked to submit an annual report to the State Historian and many send a copy to their local administrator and the County Historian.
What resources is the Historian provided with? The support that each Historian is given varies widely from town to town. On one side of the spectrum, some Municipal Historians work from their own homes, providing all storage space for books and records and using their own equipment and supplies. Many Historians have an office in a government facility which includes basic access to supplies, a phone, and email. Some have exhibit space carved out in government buildings, schools or libraries. A few have museums in historic buildings that are owned and maintained by the municipality. Many are able to secure small budgets to create historical programming for annual community days or festivals. Most have some ability to acquire archival boxes, binders, or file cabinets to organize and store records safely. If a Historian would like to seek outside guidance and camaraderie, they can join the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS). Some municipalities offer to cover the cost of membership. A few municipalities even provide funding for the Historian to travel to the annual conference where they might deliver presentations.
What are the Historian’s duties? APHNYS has an orientation guide in which they define the scope of the Historian’s work as a) Research and Writing, b) Public Presentations, c) Historical Advocacy, and d) Organizational Advocacy. All of the County Historians and most of the local historians have stated that this is only a small part of their work. Most Historians also have a presence in the local schools or engage in collections work ranging from caring for historic objects on-site to doing home visits to assess objects in private care. All receive daily requests for genealogical documentation, historic building research, and historic marker advocacy. Some are asked to participate in land use discussions or speak on behalf of historic district policies. With recent surges in the popularity of heritage tourism, nearly all Historians are now being asked to develop economic development strategies and build networks within the museum community. To showcase the diversity, here are some of the other requests I’ve received recently: develop lists of buildings that could be useful to film location scouts, coordinate cleaning efforts in abandoned cemeteries, and consult on digitization techniques. When the phone rings in the Historian’s office, there is no predicting what kind of request may be coming from the other side of the line.
How does the Historian communicate with the public? A few Municipal Historians write on a regular basis. The work is sometimes related to historical research or historical advocacy. You can find their writing in research journals, newspapers, blogs, or sometimes on the Municipality’s website. Some Historians have a Facebook page or other form of social media that the public can follow. The majority of Historians have an email address and a reliable phone number where they can be contacted. On the other hand, some may hang up the phone if you ask them for their email address. With the reality of an almost entirely volunteer base of Historians, most are difficult to meet with unless you can accommodate their limited office hours. Most offer public programming at schools or community centers. Some Historians simply work from home on their own research passions and rarely share their findings with the public. APHNYS has an e-newsletter and a Facebook page geared towards keeping Historians apprised of each others’ efforts. I do not have any data about this organization’s reach beyond its members, but with only 119 “likes” to date on the Facebook page, I can make the assumption that it’s not an effective tool for raising public awareness.
How is the Historian’s quality of work measured? Many Historians measure themselves against the work of their peers or they set personal research goals. Some are subject to a review process within the municipality. The State Historian’s office requests annual reports but there is no penalty for failing to submit. Most operate with such limited resources that hosting some events or publishing a few articles a year is enough to consider it a success. Others measure their impact by how many public inquires they were able to address.
Cue the Indiana Jones Theme Music
In my line of work, I have seen a series of tragedies take place that showcase how inconsistent the implementation of the Municipal Historian’s Law has been over the last century. I’ve seen persistent warnings about an irreplaceable historic structure ignored until it’s too late. I’ve seen a collection of prehistoric artifacts vanish, valuable volunteers thrown out of a facility that they’ve nurtured for forty years, and personalities clash because generosity is stretched too thin. I’ve seen young people run out of the public history profession because they are not given enough opportunity for advancement, and the elderly forced out of their volunteer roles because there’s no proper training that would enable them to keep up with technology changes. I’ve seen donations mishandled, opportunities missed, and priceless artifacts placed out on the curb.
Last month, we were able to prevent a loss. The County Historian’s office was contacted by the granddaughter of a former Municipal Historian. She had inherited his home, put it on the market, and therefore had to clean out the books and papers left behind. Unlike many in a similar situation before her, she recognized the value of his life’s research to the historical community. With hours to spare and no plan for where the papers were to go, we packed the car to the brim and brought the collection into the County office. I put a picture up on Facebook describing the last minute mission and a person contacted me to ask if he could help sort and organize the papers. The collection is being split between the current Municipal Historian, the Historical Society, and the Genealogical Society over the next few weeks. This story is entirely too common.
It Could Be Better
In July 2015 Bob Weible stepped down from his positions as NYS Historian and Chief Curator of the New York State Museum – from his “positions” – yes, even the State Historian is expected to fulfill the full-time duties with only a part-time focus. The vacancy leaves many wondering if State Government will finally wise up about the seriousness of the position.
We live in a very different time from when the first State Historian was appointed by the Governor in 1895 or when the position was contained in the State Education Department after 1911. Its current attachment to the State Museum is equally as outdated. The potential of the role in our contemporary era will not be reached unless the incoming historian is given autonomy to build collaborations throughout the State and act as a strategic planner for a wildly disparate range of challenges in local communities. The lesson is the same on every level, if the Historian is hired based on real credentials, treated as a professional and given the resources needed to do quality work, every sector of society will benefit from their perspectives and activities.
Heritage tourism is a new name for an old concept. As an archaeology student in Greece, I remember seeing Lord Byron’s name carved on the Temple of Poseidon. His mark among the hundreds of forgotten names reminds us of the well-established motif of traveling to the classical world as part of the Grand Tour. Google say that the German word “Bildungsreisen,” used among the nineteenth century elite in Europe, described travel for educational and cultural enlightenment. Here in Orange County, N.Y., locals love to recall the heyday of the Hudson River Day Line steamboats like the Mary Powell or the O&W and Erie railways that brought travelers to sites along the Hudson River and into the Catskill Mountains.
With the passing of the second half of the twentieth century, heritage tourism went out of fashion. Historic sites saw attendance decline and downtown businesses lost out to the big box options. According to a 2015 study by AARP, relaxation and visiting family remain the dominant motivators for travel for Baby Boomers (people ages 55-70) and Gen Xers (people ages 35-55) still lead the pack in seeking romantic getaways.
These generations’ travel habits emphasized the need take a break from their surroundings. But after fifty years with these modes entrenching themselves into the way that tourism is marketed, things are now changing dramatically. Since the mid-2000s, the trend to travel in search of “immersive” and “authentic” experiences has reinvigorated some local historical destinations and urban downtowns. However, museums have been slow to adapt and most small institutions struggle to innovate, then maintain consistency to attract the new audiences.
As a result, we have confusing statistics to unpack if we are to understand how to meet expectations in the market. According to a 2011 study by the American Alliance of Museums, 78% of leisure travelers are interested in participating in cultural or heritage activities while vacationing. These heritage tourists spend 63% more money than recreation or relaxation tourists. They stay longer, they go out of their way to support local businesses, and they are more likely to maintain connections to people they meet along the way.
Agents of Change
The maturing of the Millennial generation (people ages 20-35) is driving these trends. As Millennials settle into careers and start families, they are prioritizing travel. As the most college educated generation in American history, but strapped by school loans and slow starts in the job market, they are transforming the tourism market with expectations of local experiences that combine fun and learning (“experiential” or “edutainment”). They have less money to spend per person, less paid vacation time, and rarely have a personal savings, but they are choosing to spend their limited resources closer to home and in support of cultural heritage. It’s important to note that the Millennials were educated at a time of a blossoming of Global Studies curriculum and international academic travel as standard hallmarks of the four-year experience. They are taking the critical thinking skills they developed while studying cultures abroad and turning them inward.
The Baby Boom generation is also having their affect: They are seeking volunteer positions and joining boards of historical institutions as they retire from the workforce. There’s a renewed interest for empty-nesters to return to downtowns where they can be part of a walkable community and contribute to the institutions they remember from their childhoods. Their donations have a direct effect on what institutions are capable of implementing. And although many museum professionals are hesitant to talk about it, the biggest donors influence what kinds of programming and exhibits are created – and often what will be collected and who will be hired. Their impact as they take the helm of largely volunteer based sectors of society will have long-term implications on the revitalization or collapse of some of our nation’s oldest (struggling) institutions.
Trouble in Transitioning
Overall the concept that historic sites and museums are now on the radar for two influential generations sounds very promising. A new audience and a new crop of volunteers have arrived to invigorate the sites just in the nick of time. According to an Institute of Museums and Library Sciences report from last year, out of the nation’s 35,000 museums, approximately 60% have an annual income of less than $10,000 and 40% are staffed by one paid employee or none at all. A 2013 survey from the National Endowment for the Arts revealed that 83% of reporting institutions saw flat or declining attendance from 2009 to 2013. It’s confusing and disappointing that with such a surge in the popularity and influence of heritage tourism that most historical institutions are not feeling revenue or visitation gains.
The small minority of museums using technology to showcase their collections, hiring professional staff, and responding to the visitation trends are seeing unprecedented success. The sites that are making it difficult for the public to have access to collections and are still rehashing the research from 30-plus years ago are seeing the lowest numbers regarding membership, attendance, and donations that they’ve ever seen. This is a crisis in historically based museums and societies today as the technology divide and differing opinions on how history should be experienced has left donors and volunteers (Baby Boomers) and the strongest audience (Millennials) in a situation where there is little understanding of each other’s priorities.
Signs of What’s to Come
Every time I look around and wonder why there’s no one else under the age of 60 on a $4 group tour of my favorite historic site, I try to remind myself that Hamilton on Broadway packs a theater with 1,300 seats every night at $150 per ticket and there must be reasons why they have attracted a diverse audience. People of every generation care about preservation and history, but we need to find a way to make our programming accessible and relevant to all stakeholders. There are several examples at local sites that showcase how this can be done well.
In 2012 Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh revamped their museum to be based around an open storage concept with kiosks set up for visitors to research the objects on display. Museum Village in Monroe has undergone a transformation over the past five years by professionalizing their collections staff and increasing visitation through thematic event days like the annual Great War Commemoration.
In 2010 the Town of Deerpark Historian Lynn Burns and Assistant Historian Norma Schadt developed a bus tour that brings school children and adults along the route that Joseph Brandt traveled to raid the Neversink Valley in 1779. They string together landmarks like historical markers, cemeteries, and the Fort Decker historical site to bring the story to life.
Over the past few years the Crawford House in Newburgh has embarked on programming that is aimed at multi-generational audiences, bringing groups on history hikes to places like the industrial ruins of the Quassaick Creek and into Downing Park to play croquet.
The Historic Tavern Trail of Orange County is a program through the County Historian’s office that aims to bring economic development, local history and these trends in heritage tourism together. I hope to see you along the route!
Photos, from above: The Erie Hotel during the last Tavern Trail stop; Mary Powell Day Liner brochure (courtesy of Robert McCue of the O&W Railway Historical Society); Friends of the Historic Sites of the Hudson Highlands fundraiser at the Newburgh Brewing Company; Hikers on the Quassaick creek; and a Croquet Tournament at Downing Park.
"I wasn't made for the great light that devours; a dim lamp was all I had been given, and patience without end to shine it on the empty shadows."