The 2016 annual report of the Orange County Historian has been submitted to the State Historian is is now posted.
On a summer day in 1998, I stood on Grand Street, waiting. First Lady Hillary Clinton's press bus had broken down on I-87 and she was now several hours late.
When she finally arrived, she gave an impressive speech and pledged funds ($128,205) through the Save America's Treasures program to stabilize the upper gallery of an A.J. Davis designed masterpiece, the Dutch Reformed Church.
At 14 years old, I was just beginning to take an interest in historic preservation. I was already aware that Newburgh possessed a vast array of historic structures, but Clinton's visit was an inspiring notion that the ruins I had grown up around in the post-urban renewal era were finally getting the attention they needed and deserved. The work done with the grant stabilized the building and prevented what would have been an imminent collapse. Things were looking up for Newburgh's historic district.
But in the preservation game - especially in a city like Newburgh that struggles with a variety of social and economic challenges - the checkmate remains perpetually out of reach. Thirteen years after Hillary Clinton's grant remedied one immediate concern, there was no one hero to step in when the interior coffered ceiling collapsed. The effort to save the structure hit another low.
The following year, I took a walk with architect Peter Smith along the Quassaick Creek, which borders the south side of the City of Newburgh. Along the way he pointed out ruins of a once thriving mill-powered industrial center and we chatted about ups and downs that we've experienced in our efforts to restore Newburgh's historic district. The Tower of Victory was getting a new roof but the Reeve House had been butchered by yet another absentee landlord. The shops on Liberty Street were open for business for the first time since the 1960s but city officials were trying to approve a disastrously corrupt development plan for a vacant lot on Broadway.
And, the tragedy - the coffered ceiling, a showpiece of Davis' 1835 vision - lied splintered in a heap of rubble.
I learned from Peter that while I waited in the heat, excited to shake the First Lady's hand back in 1998, he was on the FLOTUS bus. That traffic delay, which seemed inconvenient to those waiting in Newburgh, had graced him with the time he needed to speak to Clinton in detail about the great significance of the Dutch Reformed Church. What may have been planned as a simple PR appearance became a transformative opportunity for Newburgh: First Lady Clinton was inspired to scrap her planned notes and speak from the heart. But similar to the efforts of City Historian Helen Gearn in 1968, Clinton's intervention afforded the building one last majestic breath before the roof came crashing down little more than a decade later.
The Dutch Reformed Church is one of the most prominent buildings in Newburgh's historic district and it is illustrative of the growth and prominence of the city, as well as the albatross of Urban Renewal. If you stand on its steps today, you'll see an empty space that was once the Palatine Hotel, a parking lot that, at one time, was a dense residential block, and a tired post-urban renewal library in the hillside. The Dutch Reformed Church, the shell of the Downing and Vaux designed City Club, and the 1841 County Courthouse triangulate the sunken land that reminds us of that loss. Those who know a bit of local urban planning history look at that void and are reminded of the "Palatine Square" plans for a courtyard space that never was.
In 1968 the city slated the church for demolition by the Urban Renewal Agency, which paid $96,000 to purchase it. However, preservationists acted quickly to have it designated on the National Register of Historic Places, which blocked Federal funds from being used in the demolition. The church languished until 1974 when the Federal HUD agency ordered that it either be razed or sold, so the city bought it for a mere $7,000. Soon after, the Hudson Valley Freedom Theater purchased the building but defaulted after repairing the roof with an NPS grant. The property reverted back to the city in 1984, falling into disrepair once again over the remainder of the decade.
In the 1990s, the City Historian Kevin Barrett renewed the fight to save the structure and the current City Historian Mary McTamaney has sustained that effort. Under their tenures, small but necessary projects have been completed, such as the column restoration, repair of drainage systems, and stabilization of the foundation. In 2005 the World Monument Fund put the Dutch Reformed Church on their list of the world's most important endangered cultural sites.
Over the years, McTamaney has combed the local records to provide documentation; Nancy Thomas led the efforts of the Newburgh Preservation Association (NPA) to plot a sustainable future for the Dutch Reformed Church; Wint Aldrich reached out to New York State officials for assistance; David Schuyler wrote and spoke of the building's importance in a continuum of architectural history; Stuart Sachs climbed on the roof and worked on leak prevention; Giovanni Palladino offered architectural advice; Jim Hoekema filled out grant forms; Bill Krattinger applied for State and Federal landmark designations; Michael Gabor staged an artist's photo that brought the building's precarious state to the public eye; and David Burnett snapped an Instagram photo that made its way to National Geographic.
Others, such as Bill Bolger, John Mesick, Steve Tilly, Mark Carnes, Maurice Hinchey, and Betsy McKean, also aided the cause through leading tours, drawing up plans, seeking support, and reaching out to donors. This list of heros is not complete as many others served on the NPA board or worked within the city government to secure this latest transition as the building was released from the purview of the NPA in 2014.
A few weeks ago, the city planning department released a Request For Proposals (RFP) for the Dutch Reformed Church, the City Club, and vacant river view property. With 50 years of highs and lows to draw upon, many in the preservation community are holding their breath again. Will a sustainable plan finally be forged? Will a visionary step forward to steward the building now that the city is in a period of revitalization? Will this Grand Street corridor see new life, or will this be another footnote in the slow death that the Dutch Reformed Church has been suffering since the first blow of Urban Renewal?
As I listened to Clinton's speech nearly two decades ago, I felt like the Dutch Reformed Church had finally closed a difficult chapter in its history. What I didn't realize on that warm summer day is that the church - and in fact, all of Newburgh's historic district - is not only vulnerable in times of economic decline but it is equally at risk in times of rebirth. As those who witnessed the abject devastation of the Urban Renewal program are beginning to fade away, the role of the historical community, cultural institutions and the old buildings has to transform from one of a rigid protection of the past to one of infusing the place with historical depth and meaning for new populations to shape as their own.
An RFP on the table means that developers are envisioning a new life for the Dutch Reformed Church. And I am once again full of hope that this will be its moment the validates passing the torch for so long.
I don’t want to let 2016 come to a close without marking an important commemoration in the history of historic preservation.
One hundred years ago, the Federal Government created the National Parks Service. During the official centennial celebration in August of this year, the Hudson Valley was honored to welcome the Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, to a roundtable discussion at the Bear Mountain Inn. For the discussion, participants were asked to predict which trends would persist in the next 100 years of historic preservation and historic interpretation. With a new administration in the White House, a new Secretary of Interior will soon follow and the challenge to reach that person with the priorities of the historical profession will begin again. On a local level we face a continuing retraction of municipal resources for arts and cultural protection and programming as the burden is shifted to non-profits. My predictions are based on those concerns as well as the changes that I see in how technology is being used to reach the public.
There’s no telling what the future holds but I offer my predictions as fodder for any organization to reinterpret to fit their own observations. For this final edition of year, I would like to share the notes that I prepared for the meeting with Secretary Jewell.
Predictions for 2116
Prediction #1: Publicly run historic sites will be transferred to management under the umbrella of Economic Development and Tourism departments. Preservation investments will emphasize leveraging local partnerships because sites will be used to create a sense of place for tourism marketing. Historic site staff will be tasked with providing experiential programming onsite that supplements databases and media that can be accessed offsite.
Prediction #2: Historical Societies will consolidate collections and many will sell the historic houses in which they currently operate in order to become community advocacy groups. The Historical Society of the future will create websites, provide historical content for self-guided apps and lead occasional walking tours of historic districts. In more affluent communities, historic house preservation will be done primarily as adaptive reuse for business and government space. In poorer communities, historic districts will lose many important structures to abandonment and decay which will lead to their removal.
Prediction #3: Digital infrastructure will advance its traffic analysis giving information visibility. This will help create distinction between authoritative and non-authoritative sources. It will become possible to integrate Historical Society archives giving researchers access to public or private online collections. These institutional clouds of collections will interface with personal clouds enabling information to be structured and embedded with smart data (such as provenance or where to find similarly relevant materials). This will allow related information to link itself in an artificial neurological network and to therefore target appropriate audiences.
Prediction #4: The education system will continue to move away from teaching local history. Historic sites will have to creatively provide information and programming to an audience with very little foundational knowledge of American history. Sites with weak management will simplify narratives and focus on entertainment-style demonstrations whereas sites with strong management will develop a niche of providing foundational context and series of programs that appeal to various levels of knowledge. As history continues to strengthen as a trend, streamed television series, social media personalities and other drivers of pop culture will engage in “Edutainment” in which they will draw from historical narratives to create content.
Prediction #5: Traditional paths to public history jobs will diminish as middle management roles and specialist positions are eliminated. Historians who are committed to working in the field will create small businesses that provide needed services on a freelance basis. Rather than working as a curator or a conservator in one museum, a professional will apply to RFPs and help organizations to write for grants to support their services on a project to project basis.
Historical Resource Management
Before examining the past 100 years of historic preservation and trying to predict the next century in the field, it’s important to note that we’re marking this centennial not based on the narrative of historic preservation, but on the centennial of the National Parks Service.
The National Parks Service was established 100 years ago and did not include historic sites until the Yorktown Battlefield was added in the 1930s. Looking specifically at New York State, historic preservation has its roots in the time period just after the Revolutionary War. The date to note for our purposes is July 4, 1850 when Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, N.Y. was established as America’s first historic house museum. It was the first example of public preservation of a historic site in the nation, and it happened 86 years before the Yorktown Battlefield came under the purview of the National Park Service. In addition to Washington’s Headquarters, the Senate House, Grant’s Cottage, and more were established as museums in the late 19th century.
Heading into the 20th century, most communities wanted their history stewarded by the State because it meant official recognition with very little top-down interest in management. But in order to package all of these historical sites and standardize practice in an era that called for “professionalization,” their management was taken from hands of local trustees to be placed with the government under the State Education Department. One lasting vestige of this time is that The New York State Historian still operates under the direction of the Board of Regents in the Education Department. The unique-to-New York law mandating municipal historians on the town, village and city levels hasn’t been updated in nearly a century which means they have been left, by default, under the umbrella of the Education Department.
But in the 1960s, New York State went the way of the National Parks System and started to transfer ownership and operation of historic sites to the management of the parks departments. This placed Washington’s Headquarters, Senate House, and Grant’s Cottage among all the others underneath the management of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The new focus of the Parks professionals caused a shift away from acquiring house museums and towards larger parcels of land with historic significance such as battlefields and encampments like Stony Point and the New Windsor Cantonment.
The marriage of the historic sites and the natural sites developed over time. It started nationally with the Yorktown acquisition in 1936 and became commonplace in New York State by the late 1960’s, even locally, where I am the Orange County Historian, when two historic properties – Brick House and Hill-Hold – were donated to the County around 1975 they were placed in the County Parks department not under the municipal historian.
This trend had a cascading effect over the course of the 20th century. Thus, looking back at 100 years of the National Parks service is also a chance to discuss whether or not history was a good bedfellow to natural resource management. A century ago, the National Parks Service wasn’t thinking about historic preservation but after two decades had passed, that policy changed. And perhaps this centennial is a time to reflect on what a permeating effect the National Park Service’s decision to expand their mission to include historic sites has had on the entire field.
But if we were to discuss the past and present of historic preservation holistically, we would need to look at the last 166 years and recognize that the management of historical sites and research has been shuffled around quite a bit. The work of municipal historians, government run departments, and local historical societies, as well as history educators from all levels, is fractured. It seems to me that historical preservation hasn’t yet found its home.
Historic Houses and Historic Societies
The vast majority of historic sites and the work of historians occurs on the level of small historical societies. Most communities have one; some have several. The next 100 years looks grim for these institutions. Expenses are up, visitation is down, trustees are out of touch with new technology, and although interest in history from a pop culture standpoint is at an all time high, staffing is at an all time low.
Without intervention, smaller historical societies are an endangered species. In the next 30 years as this generation shifts, there will be a distinction between the societies that raise endowments and the ones that don’t. The ones that have endowments will be able to keep a professional staff to perpetuate the organization’s relevance and focus on financial sustainability. The ones without endowments will succumb to costs of repairs, programing, and liability that are unsustainable without generating revenue. As these sites become untenable, the best and most responsible of the trustees will steward their documents and artifacts and merge with organizations that have a similar mission. The worst will auction off everything and shut their doors. As this shuffling of collections happens, many communities will lose out because local energy and fervor will dissipate, leaving historic districts vulnerable. This will be especially heartbreaking for cities in the northeast of the Country were historical societies have old comprehensive collections and have served as a gateway for acclimating new generations of immigrants. They often have the greatest impact but are operating without sustainable financial support.
One of the deciding factors in whether or not a collection lives on will be its digital adaption. In the internet age, information has been devalued; with answers to any question just a click away. However, this information isn’t ranked in terms of accuracy or completeness, and users are interested more in speed than in checking footnotes. With this changing perception of where to go for information comes the eroding of the idea of authoritative sources. Search engines and crowd-sourcing via social media are preventing people from digging deeper to find what’s buried in non-digital sources, particularly in small historical society collections. The result is a growing divide between the vast majority, unaware that they’re being exposed to inaccurate information, and only the small subset of people who are sifting through the misinformation and emerging with the better answers.
The simple truth is that organizations need to digitize their collections, making them visible to modern scholars. However, many don’t have the resources or expertise to do so, and even if an organization does, why should they spend the money to perpetuate the devaluation of the information that they currently control? Once it’s out there, others will want to access it for free and the organization won’t recoup the financial and time burden that was put into such a huge undertaking. So why should these institutions bother? How can they maintain value and authority, and most importantly, how do they generate revenue from the information in their collections?
Historians can’t turn a blind eye to technology. Hoarding a collection and refusing to make it accessible digitally will not make the information valuable. An institution won’t receive revenue or visibility if you limit access. In the current computer culture, it’s expected that information remains free flowing. Digitization is no longer a question of being on the cutting edge – it’s now a matter of remaining relevant. For historical institutions, most of which are struggling, it is critical to digitize everything and then shift focus to creating context.
Historical institutions are living, breathing organizations with local trustees and volunteers, the shepherds of local memory. They are the only ones who can create custom context and interpret and reinterpret for changing audiences. The information contained within a collection means little unless local societies are processing and repackaging it for the public, making people feel that they are getting more out of it if they show up to an event, subscribe to an online membership, or read the newsletter.
History is being eliminated from the curriculum in public schools due to a greater emphasis on standardized testing requirements, decreased resources for visiting local sites, and a greater push towards “marketable” science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
If we do nothing to change the way history is taught through historic sites, we are only hastening our own decline. With a lack of history education in schools comes a proliferation of pop history. People satisfy their natural curiosity and love for history with ghost stories and “gotcha” style, out-of- context tidbits. To cater to this audience, historic sites end up focusing too much on snippets of pop history. It’s dangerous territory: if an audience has no background in the study of history, dialogues can easily devolve and become uninteresting. What’s worse, if people are spoon-fed small bits of information without context, they are only able to think the way they are told to think, like a lawyer leading a jury to a specific conclusion.
If schools are not going to teach foundational history, historic sites should be presenting themselves as the authorities on the subject that they are. The only way that historic institutions are going to survive in this new education system is to turn it on its head, proudly declaring “we’re not here to chase your programming and cycles of curriculum, we are here to lay the foundational elements of historical inquiry and material.”
History as a Career
If there’s one quandary of public history that keeps me up at night, it’s the impending crisis of careers in history. For the past decade, museums have downsized their staff and come to rely too heavily on volunteers. Sometimes this is the product of mass layoffs at big institutions, but mostly it takes the form of slow attrition. For years, historic sites have encouraged their middle management staff to retire and without filling the resulting vacant positions. They also shifted from employing full-time, professional tour guides and programming staff to part-time seasonal staff, in many cases relying entirely on volunteers. Remaining staff is spread too thin, attempting to fill too many roles, and volunteers often struggle with little professional supervision.
There’s also a crisis in the academic history field. As students graduate with expensive degrees and can’t find paid history positions, they move on to higher levels of education. Eventually, these overeducated, under-experienced historians begin to look for teaching positions. The academic field is also downsizing, so career panels at their schools tell them to look for jobs in public history. The majority of these professionally trained individuals end up leaving the field entirely to find work elsewhere.
Meanwhile, we have a Municipal Historians Law in New York State that requires a State Historian, and County, Town, Village, and City historians in every municipality. But the law is an unfunded mandate, which means that in the scope of each individual municipal budget, the historian is funded entirely by taxation. When a politician promises to lower taxes, they can’t reduce the costs of social services, law enforcement, or infrastructure services because these are required by law and often have State or Federal requirements attached. Thus, they cut the history and tourism budgets. This has happened so frequently over the course of the last century that today, only four out of 62 New York Counties have a full-time paid historian. In addition, most local historians don’t have any funding at all. Our municipal historian positions are withering away and our museums have a fraction of the staff that they need to survive. Yet we have fantastic students coming out of history and museum studies programs without a chance to find a job in the field.
If the next 100 years of history is to be a positive story, it is essential to funnel people who have been educated in public history into well-paying jobs. We need to breathe life into the local history jobs that are the engine of local research and the frontline of educating young students in an appreciation of their surroundings
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.
"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."