Peter Feinman: County Historical Societies

This is the third in a series of posts on the New York State History infrastructure. The previous ones were on County Historians and Municipal Historians. These posts draw on my experiences in initiating a series of county history conferences in the Hudson Valley this year and on Teacherhostels/Historyhostels I have conducted such as the one to the Mohawk Valley this past summer prior to Irene.

The situation with the county historical societies is more complicated and less consistent than that with the county historians or the municipal historians.

1. County historical societies may predate the creation of a the county historian position.

2. County historical societies may or may not work with the County Historian now that the position has been established.

3. County historical societies may or may not own historic buildings and if they own multiple buildings those buildings may or may not be in one municipality.

4. County historical societies may have originated before there were local historical societies in the county and they may function today much like a local historical society today.

Every county historical society has its own story to tell. Indeed it would be beneficial just to survey the various such organizations to learn what they have in common and how they differ. The Brooklyn Historical Society founded in 1863 as the Long Island Historical Society operates out of its own impressive building but municipalities serving a community of approximately two million people are not the norm for county historical societies especially outside New York City and Long Island.

Turning to Westchester where I live, the County Historical Society (WCHS) is housed in a county office facility along with the County Archives and Records Center. It was founded in 1874. The Westchester Preservation League became part of WCHS in 1998. In 2006, it became the Westchester County Historian. The Society publishes county-oriented books and has published the The Westchester Historian since 1925. It owns no historical site and never would be confused for a local historical society. Clearly its origins predates the government-mandated municipal historians and it acts on a countywide basis.

In next-door Putnam, the situation is quite different. The Putnam County Historical Society &amp- Foundry School Museum is located in Cold Spring across the county from the County Historian and the Archives. According to its website:

“The Putnam County Historical Society was founded in 1906 by a group of prominent Philipstown residents and chartered the next year to be the first historical society in the county. Galvanized by the desire to collect and preserve historical and cultural materials pertaining to Putnam County, especially the Philipstown area, and the Hudson Highlands, while both looking back to the nineteenth century and forward into the twentieth, the members initially concentrated on the assemblage of information related to many county families, the compilation of a list of local Civil War veterans, and a study of the milestones on the Putnam County segment of the New York to Albany Post Road. During these early years, the members met in private homes, where objects collected by the society were stored, as well as in libraries, where special programs were held.”

So at the time of its creation as with Brooklyn and Westchester, the municipal historian legislation had not yet been passed. Furthermore there were no other historical societies in the county at that time. It also did not have a site of its own and only later became associated with the Foundry as the name change indicates. Since its inception the situation has changed in the county – there is a county historian [as suggested in an earlier post once the election for a new county executive was held, a new county historian would be appointed]. The same webpage concludes with:

“The purpose of the society is to collect, preserve, and present to the public historical and cultural materials pertaining to Putnam County, especially the Philipstown area, the West Point Foundry, and the Hudson Highlands. To fulfill this mission, the society maintains and administers the Foundry School Museum and a research library. The museum organizes changing exhibitions, with accompanying catalogues, and provides educational programming for the public.”

Here one can observe the change as the Society transformed from being a county organization to a local one but still with the materials from its early day. There is a Cold Spring Area Historical Society…-in Cold Spring, Minnesota! And there is no Philipstown Historical Society. So while the functionality of the society has changed, the name still reflects the original county perspective and the materials from that early period are still maintained.

These snapshots undoubtedly could be supplemented by stories from the other counties of the state. Since historical societies are private organizations it may be possible that not every county has one. I doubt if the New-York Historical Society really qualifies as the historical society for the borough of Manhattan. This potpourri of configurations makes it very difficult to define the role of a county historical society distinct from a county historian or a local historical society. Here are some suggestions:

1. The County Historical Society should function as a “Friends” group for the county historian. By that I mean since the county historian position may be at most one full-time person and quite often a part-time person, the county historical society should work with the county historian the same way various “Friends” groups work with New York State historic sites. Frequently such cooperation may be easy since the County Historian may be the County Historical Society (Westchester) or be from the County Historical Society (Greene County).

2. The County Historical Society should publish, in whatever format and media it deems appropriate, a county history journal.

3. The County Historical Society should engage in county-wide public events from conferences to tours to exhibits to education programs.

Beyond that, I have more questions than answers because the configuration of historical entities in each county is so different.

1. Should the County Historical Society work with the County Tourism Department or should it be more of a research-only type organization?

2. Should the County Historical Society work with the County Preservation Department?

3. What should be donated to a County Historical Society versus a local historical society assuming the ability to maintain the collection is equal?

4. What if any should the relationship between the County Historical Society and the local historical societies?

Has there ever been a survey of the historical societies in the state to identify what they do and don’t do? If not or if yes but it needs to be updated, who would do it? Perhaps issues like this could be addressed at the various statewide conferences that are held by the historic community along with case studies of what actually happens in the different counties at present.

If you have a story to tell, please post a comment or email me at feinmanp@ihare.org.

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