Past is prologue

One-hundred years ago, New York State was the first in the nation to adopt a law mandating that a historian be appointed for every municipality. New York is still the only state with such a requirement, and currently has over 1,600 historians across the state.

This centennial was brought to our attention by Christopher Philippo, featured in this week’s Enterprise podcast. 

Our readers may remember Philippo from a letter he wrote us earlier this year detailing the remarkable story of two forgotten gravestones belonging to a father and son who lived and died in the 1800s.

The son’s stone, broken in half, had been used to edge a garden in Glenmont. The property’s owner placed an ad to sell it for $100: “Over 150 years old. Found when digging in my yard. No bodies, no creepy story — I already checked with the town! Great for Halloween ... Don’t use a cheezy foam tombstone, get the real thing!”

The father’s stone was long used as a stoop for a Guilderland barn. Philippo helped to repair and reunite the stones with the bodies they had marked in Guilderland’s Prospect Hill Cemetery where they stand today.

Philippo has an abiding interest in local history. He worked as a volunteer for a former state historian, collating and cataloging the annual reports of local government historians, the cruel irony being that decades of reports from the keepers of history were lost while others were nonexistent to begin with.

The state historian in 1919, James Sullivan, saw local historians as instrumental in collecting information from municipalities on New York’s role in World War I. Philippo said many of these first historians, like Altamont’s first, May Silvernail, were women, and the history they collected involved efforts on the home front as well.

The Enterprise wrote of Silvernail’s efforts: “This record will include army and navy enlistments, records made in Liberty loan, Red Cross and War stamp drives and other campaigns, and any other items which will show our village’s part in winning the war.” The Enterprise offered Silvernail the newspaper’s accounts for her work.

Local historians are given a lot of latitude by the state in how they want to do their jobs. Some, like the late Roger Keenholts, long-time Altamont historian, focused on collecting objects that, when later exhibited by the village archivist, the late Marijo Dougherty, spoke volumes about the village’s history.

The four state-defined responsibilities of municipal historians are:

— Research and writing in books, magazines, or newspapers. This is seen as the primary responsibility, interpreting the past.

“The best local historians have upheld high standards of gathering and evaluating evidence, making thoughtful and appropriate generalizations, writing well-organized and readable narratives, and sharing their work with others … ,” says the law.

We, at The Enterprise, value a shelf full of books written by former Guilderland town historians Arthur Gregg and Alice Begley, the texts of which first appeared on the pages of our newspaper. The local history book we find the most entertaining to read is Dennis Sullivan’s “Voorheesville, New York: A Sketch of the Beginnings of a Nineteenth-Century Railroad Town”;

— Teaching and public presentations: Some historians teach courses or work with schoolteachers on local history curriculum, lecture to community groups, or participate in radio or television talk shows.

Our favorite part of each month’s Westerlo Town Board meeting is listening to the history that town historian Dennis Fancher shares about Westerlo; that rural Hilltown also spent decades renovating a historic house to now proudly display pieces of Westerlo history. Rensselaerville has its Grist Mill museum; Knox, its Saddlemire Homestead; Berne, its rooms of history at the town hall; and New Scotland, its schoolhouse museum.

Bethlehem’s town historian, Susan Leath, regaled our listeners in a recent Enterprise podcast with all the ways she enlivens local history, from leading kyack tours to reenactments of the Slingerland family life, from their homestead to their tomb;

— Historic preservation: Municipal historians are advocates for historic preservation and a resource for questions relating to history and preservation.

Historians, as Guilderland’s Gregg did, often help identify historic structures and prepare nominations to the State and National Register of Historic Places as well as managing historic-marker programs. Guilderland’s Begley was instrumental in saving the historic Schoolcraft House. New Scotland’s historical society is now leading the way for the town to draft an historic overlay district to preserve valuable structures;

— Organization, advocacy, and tourism promotion: Historians are asked to organize and direct the commemoration of historical anniversaries and to participate in other civic or patriotic observations.

The streets of Altamont became a living museum with strong leadership in recent years from the former mayor, James Gaughan, and his husband, Keith Lee, and with solid support from its village board and from Doughtery. Signs in front of important places in the village guide pedestrians through history.

Now the village, with support from Altamont Community Tradition and with the help of its new historian, Daniel Barker, is planning Altamont’s first Founders Day celebration, for Oct. 11 and 12.

We’re thrilled to be moderating, and recording for an Enterprise podcast, an “I Remember Altamont” conversation at the Altamont Free Library, itself at the historic heart of the village, in Altamont’s old train station. We plan to record, in their own voices, the memories of long-time village residents.

We hope the streets will be alive on Saturday, Oct. 12, with visitors and residents alike reading Altamont’s history and visiting its museum at Village Hall. A new exhibition, Village Visionaries, will feature people, like Lucie Cassidy, who were responsible for incorporating Altamont as a village in 1892.

You can read, in this week’s edition, the story of Lucie Cassidy and her family, unearthed through copious research by Laura Shore, president of Altamont Community Tradition.

While we commend the many local efforts at finding and interpreting our history, the underlying problem is that New York’s century-old law is an unfunded mandate.  Many of our town and village historians pursue their work as a labor of love, and we thank them for it. Some are buoyed by active historical societies or by municipal boards.

Others are not, so the work is uneven.

As we approach budget-drafting season in our towns, we urge our municipal leaders to set aside some funds for their town historians to carry on worthwhile work. The state historian, Devin Lander, outlined, in a presentation he gave to the Association of Public Historians to New York State, seven ways that history is essential.

First, he said, is identity. History allows people to discover their own place in the stories of their families, communities, and nation.

Second, history teaches critical 21st-Century skills and independent thinking. Third, it lays the groundwork for strong, resilient communities, vital places to live and work.

Fourth, history is a catalyst for economic growth, from property values to heritage tourism.

Fifth, history creates engaged citizens, helping people craft better solutions to municipal problems by  better understanding their origins. Sixth, history inspires local and global leaders. And seventh, history, saved and preserved, is crucial to preserving democracy for the future by explaining our shared past.

Our commitment to local history can be as deep as Philippo’s, restoring gravestones to their rightful places or gathering diaries and letters from a 19th-Century resident of Bethlehem. Or it can be as tangential as reading a historic marker as we pass by or attending a Founders Day event.

Now is a good time for each of us, in this modern and divided society, to reflect locally on our shared past. In that way, we may move forward with more of a sense of our shared humanity.

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