New Historic Marker features the legend of Claudius Smith "Cowboy of the Ramapos"
Why "legend and lore?"
One of the challenges faced by public historians is to develop an understanding of a local historical story well enough to distinguish between fact and fiction. But even when the facts are available, making these distinctions is an art rather than a science because often times a local story has taken on cultural meanings that complicate the narrative. Other times an unsubstantiated story has been repeated so fervently that it is a perfect gateway to entice the public to thirst for the "real" story.
In recent years, the William G. Pomeroy Foundation has given public historians a tool to better address these fascinating but sometimes far-fetched local narratives. In partnership with the New York Folklore Society, the Foundation created a historic marker program to commemorate legends and folklore as part of New York State's history. This grant program extends funds to local historians to research, write and install markers that look similar to a traditional roadside markers but painted in maroon coloring to set them apart.
The need for this sort of validation of local folklore as an essential part of what makes a community unique is particularly relevant to the Hudson Valley villages and hamlets where so many layers of the past interact in one space. The Pomeroy Foundation asserts, "Folklore is an expression of our common past, yet it draws attention to what is unique about our community. Passed from person to person over time, there is often historical truth at the heart of every legend." Here in Orange County this is certainly true and many readers would easily be able to draw up a list of dozens of legends from our past that had an impact on the way we view our communities.
The first "Legend and Lore" historic marker that was created for Orange County was due to the initiative of Deerpark Historian Lynn Burns who received the grant in 2015. This sign explains a story associated with Joseph Brant's raid in on the settlers in 1779 that has been passed down through the generations as oral tradition.
Soon after the unveiling in Deerpark, the County Historian's office was approached by Goshen Historian Ed Connor and local history author Sal LaBruna to collaborate in applying to the Pomeroy Foundation for a marker to share the local legend about Claudius Smith. The grant was awarded and funds were approved by the Orange County Legislators on the Education and Economic Development Committee.
Who was Claudius Smith?
During the American Revolution the British forces controlled New York City and prevented safe passage along much of the Atlantic coast. Patriot transportation and communication lines ran through the Hudson Highlands and crossed the Hudson River at several points north of Stony Point. The Continental Army officers headquartered in rented houses in the valley and encampments of soldiers were spread from Fort Montgomery to New Windsor and Fishkill.
There was neutral ground in between the two armies but it was occupied by refugees in alliance with either side. Among the bands of marauders were "cowboys" sympathetic to the British cause and "skinners" sympathetic to the Patriot cause. The outlaws plundered cattle and stole supplies from those who lived in this region making it a lawless struggle to survive. A contemporary writer Joshua Hett Smith described the loyalist plunderers stating, the "composition of these predatory gangs of Cowboys was loose, including confirmed Tories, British deserters, runaway slaves, and Indians; their number was indeterminate; and their tastes in thievery were undiscriminating." No one crossing these hills, including Washington's messengers, was safe from their ambushes.
The leader of the band of cowboys was known to be Claudius Smith who operated out of Smith's Clove (now Monroe) and sheltered his men and their stolen goods in the Ramapo Mountains around Tuxedo. He was captured in 1777 but as the Sheriff escorted Smith to the jailhouse in Goshen, a band of his followers assaulted the Sheriff and released their leader.
In 1778 the death of a patriot Major in his home during one of the cowboy raids brought forth testimony from local citizens who claimed that Claudius Smith was the murderer. Governor Clinton offered a bounty to anyone who could apprehend Smith and by October 20, 1778, he was in custody. Smith stood trial at the Goshen Courthouse and was convicted of three burglaries, which carried a sentence of death, by hanging.
On January 22, 1779, Claudius Smith was brought outside to an improvised gallows of a noose tied on a tree limb. It is said that he fixed his eyes to the east towards Slate Hill hoping to spot a ground of friends on their way to stage a rescue. No rescuers came forth. Without a word from Smith, the cart was pulled away and he was hanged that day in front of a crowd.
Many stories emerged about Claudius Smith over the years. Until the 1920's locals would point to a tree in the churchyard and claim it was where Smith was hanged. Others tell tales of the caves where his treasures are still waiting to be uncovered. The most persistent legend about Claudius Smith is that his skull was placed over the doorway of the Goshen Courthouse when it was erected in 1841.
Please join us as we unveil Orange County's newest historic marker on October 30th at 4PM in front of the 1841 Courthouse, 101 Main Street, Goshen, NY. Feel free to celebrate the Halloween season and dress like a patriot or a loyalist for the occasion.
Many people have heard of the pre-fab homes that Sears, Roebuck and Company produced between 1908-1940. Sears offered 370 models and over 70,000 were built across the nation. Many of these homes are still standing around Orange County, I’ve heard stories of them in almost every community. These homes used conventional balloon-framing techniques and materials in their kits. But, our local architectural variety includes another story of a pre-fab housing solution from the 20th century that is less familiar.
For a short two years, from 1948 to 1950, the Lustron Corporation created pre-fabricated enameled steel homes that were advertised as low maintenance and affordable.
The idea began with a Chicago inventor named Carl Strandlund who, in response to the post-World War II housing shortage, created a division of the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Corporation to construct homes in a Columbus, Ohio factory. They planned to construct over 45,000 homes but only 2,498 homes were completed. Although they had orders for over 8,000 more units, after only 20 months of operation, the company closed its doors and 800 employees were laid off. The closure was due to failing to repay a 12.5 million Federal agency Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) loan that was borrowed to begin production. The Lustron Corp. was selling the homes at a low cost between $6, 000-$10,000 per unit and the company was losing money on each order. Although the cost seems inexpensive, the Lustron homes were sold through a dealership system similar to automobiles distribution which meant the dealers had to cover the initial costs of purchasing lots, pouring concrete slabs and running utility lines. The final home purchaser would be paying around $11,000 to acquire the completed property which was considerably more than buying a typical wood frame house at the time.
The architectural prototype was created in collaboration with architects Roy Burton Blass and Morris H. Beckman as a 1,000 square foot, two-bedroom home made of steel framing. The exposed steel on the interior walls and roof had a porcelain-enamel finish. The manufacture of each home required 12 tons of steel and 1 ton of enamel. The customer could choose the colors from a number of options including pink, tan, yellow, aqua, blue, green and gray on the exterior and beige or gray for the interior. The 3,000 pre-made parts would be carried on a truck and assembled on a concrete slab.
The homes were designed to use space effectively. Every room had built-ins which accounted for over 20% of the home’s square footage. The bedroom had a vanity, the dining room had a buffet and pocket doors throughout the home eliminated the need to allocate space for a swinging door. One futuristic luxury that was included in every home was a built-in washing machine that with the addition of a rack could do double-duty as a dishwasher.
A few months ago I was alerted to the existence of some of these gems in Middletown. After a bit of commentary from the Facebook community on the Orange County History and Heritage page, a follower pointed out a street in Newburgh that also featured a cul-de-sac of authentic Lustron homes. Please let us know if you know of any more in the area because the Preservation League of New York is compiling an inventory for their records.
These are the seven Lustron homes identified in Orange County. Two are on Roosevelt Avenue in Middletown, the third is on Riverview Road in Highland Falls and the final four are on Hampton Place in Newburgh. The four in Newburgh have been covered in traditional siding but the distinctive roofs are visible.
Reorganization of Regiments
One hundred years ago in August of 1917, the citizens of Newburgh held and clam bake at Orange Lake to bid farewell to the soldiers of the 1st regiment who were being sent to training camps to prepare for service in Europe.
On August 19, 1917 soldiers of the 1st New York Regiment marched from the Armory to the Newburgh waterfront where they were then transported to Van Cortlandt Park to await other units. By late September they were moved to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, SC where they would remain for the next 8 months.
While at the training camp, on October 17, 2017, the 1st New York Regiment was combined with the 7th New York Regiment (the "Silk Stocking" Regiment of New York City) to create the 107th New York Regiment. This was done simply by having Companies E and L of each regiment join together as one. According to Company L's historian Harry T. Mitchell, who witnessed the morning of the merge, "all the boys of Co. L, Seventh Regiment, gathered at the head of the company street to shout a welcome to about 100 men from Newburgh and it's environs who were being transferred from the First Regiment. As they watched their new bunkies from upstate tramp up the dusty road and swing in between the rows of tents awaiting them, they could not help but be impressed by the size of the newcomers. The first few squads were made up literally of young giants, men who bore striking witness to the benefits of outdoor life."
Ahead of them a cold winter in tents at Camp Wadsworth and then departure for France in the Spring. We'll continue tracking our local soldiers through the centennial of the war's end in November 2018.
A group of Newburgh boys, members of the old First Regiment while in training at Camp Wadsworth, SC in September or October of 1917. Standing (left to right) are Cyril Engelbride, Sterrit Keefe, Howard Rogers, Bernard Martin, Walter Allison. In the lower row are John T. Kenney, Edward Shay and Arthur Leghorn. All five of the men in uniform were killed in action in France.
On the Fourth of July of 1850, America's first publicly owned historic site was dedicated by a crowd of 10,000 people on the banks of the Hudson River in Newburgh, N.Y.
The quaint fieldstone farmhouse that sits on the hill was the headquarters of George Washington during the final stage of the Revolutionary War. It was from this place that he toiled over many problems such as how to fairly compensate troops who were threatening mutiny, negotiating a peaceful end to the Joshua Huddy Affair, and navigating a path to a republic form of government as the British retreated. After the General issued the cease-fire and then departed in 1783, the house was returned to t he widow Trintje Hasbrouck who quietly revived her grist mill and farm. She lived there until her death on the cusp of the 19th century.
Her grandson, Jonathan Hasbrouck, inherited the home. He was proud of the role that his family's house played in the war effort and he made every attempt to maintain the condition of the building. It is said that he would give spontaneous tours if someone in the neighborhood showed interest. Hasbrouck even invited General Lafayette to visit when he was in Newburgh during his grand tour of 1825. But by the 1830s, Hasbrouck was bankrupt and not residing in the now outdated house. Thus, he was forced to take a mortgage from the US Deposit Fund. In 1848 he defaulted on the loan and the property Washington once called headquarters was expected to go to auction. Buyers would surely tear it down to make way for new homes like the ones going up at that time along Grand Street.
Due to the unique actions of the loan officers, Andrew Caldwell and Alexander Campbell, the Hasbrouck House was saved from this fate. They wrote to the New York State Governor, Hamilton Fish, who contacted the New York State Legislators. They voted in 1849 to purchase the property on behalf of the people of New York.
Washington's Headquarters State Historic Site is America's first publicly owned historic site and the world's first historic house museum. It is open for tours April through October and hosts special programming year-round. In the 167 years since it's opening, nearly 15,000 historic houses have been preserved as museums or public spaces.
More than a century later, individuals from this same region of the Hudson Valley pioneered another form of preservation when they saved Storm King Mountain from development.
In 1962 Con Ed announced that they would be building a hydro power energy plant on the banks of the Hudson River. This plant would operate by pumping 8 billion gallons of water up through two miles of piping into a dam on top of the mountain in the middle of the night and then releasing it through turbines in the daytime. Even though it took much energy to pump the water up, they would make more money sending it down when demand was at its highest. With electric appliances and electric heat being added to so many modern homes, demand for energy was a serious infrastructural concern in the areas surrounding New York City.
The plan would have been met with enthusiasm were it not for something that Con Ed didn't plan on: They chose the wrong mountain. When the illustration of the new hydro power plant was published, people were outraged. The image showed Storm King Mountain, a landscape famously cherished by the Hudson River School Painters and a site with historical relevance to the heroes of the Revolutionary War who traversed back and forth between Newburgh and West Point regularly.
Against all odds, a group of citizens joined together and created an advocacy group called Scenic Hudson. They petitioned to the Federal Power Commission to revoke the permit that would allow this development, but they were told that with no property or business ownership associated with the project, they lacked what was known in legal terms as "standing." Internal experts claimed that the power plant would not disrupt wildlife populations nor harm the beauty of the river. They also claimed that this project was necessary to provide for the growing energy demands of the region. In November 1965 there was a widespread power outage in New York City, demonstrating that these energy needs were legitimate. But when the court convened in December 1965, they set a precedent by determining that Scenic Hudson did have "standing" due to a public desire to protect environmental landmarks based on natural, aesthetic, and historical importance.
The Federal Power Com mission revoked the permit for the Storm King hydro power plant and forced Con Ed to redesign the project until it satisfied the energy needs of the community without causing harm to wildlife populations or defacing the historical landscape. It was the first time in the agency's history that they revoked a permit for development. A compromise was never made and in 1980 Con Ed donated the land. It became public parkland.
The landmark decision that occurred in 1965 marked the birth Environmental Law. For 52 years, it has been the basis for citizen groups throughout the nation to stop harmful development projects in their communities.
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.
"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."