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From: The Nassau County Historical Society Journal, 70 (2015): 61-63.

The Last Word, 2015
Natalie A. Naylor

This issue appropriately includes my centennial history, “Looking Back at the Nassau County Historical Society’s 100 Years.” The section on "Meetings and Activities in the Last Half Century" will help members recall particularly memorable programs and activities. Reading past issues of this Journal for that article proved to be enjoyable and enlightening.

I am pleased to be able to reprint Robert B. MacKay's introductory chapter of Gardens of Eden: Long Island's Early Twentieth-Century Planned Communities. This year was the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War, which tore our country apart in the 1860s. To commemorate that event, we have included excerpts from Long Island and the Civil War by Harrison Hunt and Bill Bleyer, focusing on the homefront. Joan Harrison's article on “Elsinore” relates the story of a little-known Glen Cove estate; the recent history of the property is typical of many North Shore estates in the post-World War II years.

President's Report

At our Anniversary Luncheon at the historic Milleridge Inn in October chaired by Denward Collins, Jr., the attractive program included the Society’s 1915 Constitution and excerpts from the New York State Historian’s comments in 1944 to the Society on the Importance of Local History. Milleridge owner Owen Smith gave us a brief unscheduled story of the Inn and his family’s more than fifty years involvement with it. Past President Collins spoke about some of his experiences with the Society. Balladeer Linda Russell’s program was “Catching the Tune: Long Island History in Song.” Accompanying herself on the hammer dulcimer and other traditional instruments, she weaved songs with excerpts from historical accounts, which enhance the local context. Her presentation included a rendition of a recently discovered song in the Hofstra University Library’s manuscript collections written by Paul Bailey in 1928, “Long Isle—Our Isle.”

During 2015, the Society provided a series of diverse programs for members and guests. In February we learned from Neil Baggett and Jane Alcorn about inventor Nikola Tesla, his laboratory building at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, and current efforts to create a museum and science center there. Susan Sarna, Sagamore Hill curator, presented a fascinating account of the $10 million rehabilitation of the Roosevelt home in April. In the Cradle of Aviation's I-Max theater in June, Brian Kilmeade spoke about his book, Washington's Secret Six and the Culper Spy Ring during the Revolutionary War. In September, Paul van Wie enlightened us on the nineteenth-century German settlements on Long Island. Our December meeting, held at the Bethpage Public Library, featured Dr. Robert MacKay speaking about his book Gardens of Eden.

In October, we received a package from South Carolina of 140 8x10-inch photographs of the Hempstead business district taken in the 1950s by Hempstead fireman Thomas Kelly who had carefully identified each location on the back. These are a welcome addition to our collections in the Long Island Studies Institute at Hofstra and a reminder that material on the twentieth century needs to be collected.

The Society elected three new trustees at the Annual Meeting in October, John Kasius, A. Robbins Valentine, and Madalyn Klein, and Stephanie Bird, Denward W. Collins III, and Edward J Smits were re-elected. Officers elected at the November Board meeting are Natalie Naylor, President; Edward J. Smits, Vice President; Janet Bergholtz, Recording Secretary; Barbara C. Haynes, Corresponding Secretary; and Lawrence Jones, Treasurer. Denward Collins III stepped down as a Vice President, but fortunately continues as our membership chair and webmaster. Betsey Murphy has been our hospitality chair, assisted by other trustees.

During the summer I learned that a “Tough Mudder” event was to be held at Old Bethpage Village Restoration the weekend of August 14-15. This military-style obstacle course is an outrageously inappropriate event for the bucolic nineteenth-century Restoration Village and I contacted Newsday. Their publicity led to some changes in the course and extra caution to protect the historic structures. The county received only a pittance ($30,000) from the profit-making Tough Mudder organization (the 7000+ participants each paid from $100 to $220 to wallow in mud, plunge in frigid water, etc.). Fortunately, apparently little permanent damage resulted, but we hope that such an event will not be repeated at Old Bethpage in the future.
[Alas, Nassau County has announced that Tough Mudder will return to Old Bethpage Village Restoration the weekend of July 23-24, as reported in Newsday, January 2, 2016.]

Afterwards when inspecting the Village Restoration I realized that many of the houses are in desperate need of paint and repairs. The larger issue the Tough Mudder event raised is how little importance the current Nassau County government has for history and its neglect of our historical museums. Not very long ago, Nassau County boasted one of the finest public history museum systems in the country. Museums interpreted various aspects of local history, including: natural history at Tackapausha; geology, archaeology, and native American Indians at Garvies Point; African-American history in Hempstead; and the Gold Coast at Falaise in Sands Point. The jewel in the crown of the system was Old Bethpage Village Restoration (OBVR), a living history museum recreating a mid-nineteenth-century crossroads village. Selected houses and other structures facing demolition were relocated to the former Powell farm and OBVR opened in 1970. When Nassau’s museum system was accredited in 1973, the American Association of Museums praised it as it “a most unusual and possibly unique, example of county financed educational services.” Currently, OBVR receives a coveted “Great Experience for Members” (GEM) award from the American Automobile Association, one of only five sites on Long Island to receive this designation.

Fiscal constraints in recent years have resulted in severe museum staff reductions and restrictions on operating hours, while deferred maintenance and general neglect of Nassau County’s historic properties have taken their toll. Our Society has been distressed at the decline of the county’s museum system and deterioration of its sites. The Saddle Rock Grist Mill has been closed for more than a decade. The estimate to repair past neglect of the “crumbling” Hempstead House at Sands Point Preserve is $20 million. At Old Bethpage, the Bedell house had to be razed because of neglect before it could be opened (which earlier was the fate of the Coles house). After eleven years on site, Dr. Searing’s office finally opened late in 2014, but only on a limited basis; it does not yet have the essential historic interpretation plan.

The Nassau County Historical Society has supported the county museum system for many years, as detailed in the Museum section in my article in this issue, “Looking Back at the Nassau County Historical Society’s 100 Years.” The Society donated the Saddle Rock Grist Mill to the County, loaned the museums its collections, and contributed more than $60,000 to various museum projects over the years. In 2014, the Museum of American Armor was built on OBVR property. Our Historical Society trustees did not welcome the twentieth-century intrusion, but became reluctantly resigned to it because the Armor Museum was situated a considerable distance from the restoration area. Now, however, tanks, trucks, and other World War II vehicles maneuver on some weekends in the historic area on the field opposite the church.

Old Bethpage Village Restoration and the county’s other once exemplary history museums face irrevocable damage by neglect. Attention must be paid by Nassau County to the endangered heritage of our past.

Natalie A. Naylor

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