Public History Lessons from Dutchess County

dutchess county 1829If there is one county where local history should loom large on the political landscape that should be Dutchess County. It was less than a century ago when it had arguably the most famous local historian in America, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That historical legacy contributed to the disappointment over the fact that Dutchess County did not have a county historian when I began writing at New York History.

In a series of posts surveying the various New York State history community constituencies I devoted one post to the County Historians. I noted that some counties were not complying with the state regulations. Dutchess County was one violator, but I anticipated that would be rectified following the County Executive election for since both major-party candidates endorsed filling the position. There is a story to be told in how that happened that sheds light on the position of county historians throughout the state as well as with implications for the Path through History project. Read more

Elijah Hunter: Revolutionary War Spy

first baptist church ossiningSpying was a major component of the strategy and the tactics of the American Revolution. However it’s only recently that historians have focused on the intrigues, subterfuges and skullduggery that were used by all sides. Except for the spying of British Major John Andre, his collaboration with Benedict Arnold, and of the failed spying of Nathan Hale, undercover intelligence gathering operations during the Revolution is a mostly forgotten aspect of that conflict.

Nonetheless, spying was quite common in that era and George Washington was its chief proponent.  Washington made full use of the 1700s tools of the spy trade including invisible ink, hiding messages in feather quills, and small silver balls for hiding messages that could be swallowed in the event of capture. He also encouraged forging documents and making sure they fell into British hands. Read more

Peter Feinman: A Fork In The Path Through History

PathThroughHistoryOn January 25, I attended the Mid-Hudson regional meeting of the Path through History project. What follows is my report on the meeting which may, or may not, be the experience and take-away of others who attended (or what is happening in other regions). The Mid-Hudson Valley region includes the Hudson River counties of Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, and Rockland, along with Sullivan County in the Catskills. Read more

Staatsburgh Historic Site Renovations Underway

Thanks in part to New York State’s recent $134 million investment in New York Works Projects aimed at putting New Yorkers back to work and restoring and repairing state parks and historic sites, the east portico and estate wall of Staatsburgh State Historic Site, in Staatsburgh, DUtchess County, will soon receive a much-needed restoration of its grand estate wall and historic entrance portico.

The projects are expected to take a year to complete. New York Works is designed to reinvent state economic development with innovative new strategy that will put New Yorkers back to work rebuilding the state’s infrastructure. The Task Force will help create tens of thousands of jobs by coordinating comprehensive capital plans, overseeing investment in infrastructure projects, and accelerating hundreds of critical projects across the state.

During the estate wall and east portico projects, house tours will continue to be offered, the site’s museum shop and exhibit gallery will remain accessible. House tours are given Thursday through Sunday, between 11am and 5pm (last tour starts at 4pm) through October, and during special holiday hours in November and December. Additionally the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has created a &#8220virtual tour&#8221 video that will enable all visitors to see highlights of the mansion’s interior while hearing about the architecture of the house and the people who lived and worked at the mansion in its heyday (1895-1920).

Formerly the country estate of Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills, the opulent Beaux Arts mansion was expanded and decorated to its present size of 79 rooms in 1895 by renowned architect Stanford White, of the well-known architectural firm, McKim, Mead & White. Part of White’s renovation included the building of a grand, two-storey portico entrance, which dominates the view of the house as one approaches from the road, and clearly communicates the wealth and importance of its occupants. After more than a century of continual use, this part of the house is in need of structural and aesthetic rehabilitation. Also included in the NY Works Project plans for Staatsburgh are repair of the estate wall and the mansion’s roof.

To visit Staatsburgh State Historic Site, please call 845-889-8851 or visit their website. House tours are available Thursday through Sunday, from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm in season (April through October) with additional special hours in the holiday season and winter months.

Staatsburgh State Historic Site is located on Old Post Road in Staatsburg, off Route 9 between Rhinebeck and Hyde Park. The historic site is one of six historic sites and 15 state parks administered by New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation – Taconic Region.

Bridges And New York History

New York State has approximately 17,000 highway bridges. They are essential for traveling around our state and connecting our communities. About 37% are “functionally obsolete” or “structurally deficient,” according to DOT, a reminder of the need for continuing investment to maintain valuable resources.

Bridges – old and new – are part of community and state history. The story of three historically significant bridges shows various connections to history. Read more

A Draft Trail Plan for Roosevelt, Vanderbilt Historic Sites

The National Park Service has released a draft Trails Master Plan and Environmental Assessment for public review and comment. The plan is being undertaken to guide development and use of the trail system at the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites in Hyde Park, NY. There will be a public meeting on Thursday evening, June 28, 2012 at the Henry Wallace Visitor and Education Center at the FDR Library from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.

The project will include the trails at the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site (Val-Kill), and the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. It will lay the groundwork for a comprehensive, well-designed, sustainable trail system which provides a variety of visitor experiences that support the parks’ missions.

The 30-day public comment period is June 15 through July 15, 2012. For more information and to obtain a copy of the plan, visit the NPS Planning, Environment & Public Comment website.

Tree Removal Planned for Vanderbilt Mansion NHS

The National Park Service (NPS) will soon begin work to remove hazardous trees along Route 9 at the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in Hyde Park (Dutchess County).

After a public comment period and agency reviews, the NPS made the decision to remove only trees that have been identified as high or severe risks to public safely. 100 trees will be removed out of the approximately 700 trees in this area. Once tree removal has been completed, 200 white pine trees will be planted in the understory, with the goal of re-establishing a visual barrier between the highway and estate grounds.  

During the project, the park will remain open to the public, but the work area will be closed for safety reasons. Some minor traffic delays may occur on Route 9 when trees leaning over the highway are removed.

NPS Historian Talk on FDR, Hyde Park Memorial

National Park Service Historian, Dr. Dennis Montagna will present a talk entitled “A Designing President—FDR and his Enduring Memorial” this Sunday, April 15 at 2:00 PM. The talk will be held at the Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center located at the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York. It is free and open to the public.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt left detailed instructions regarding his burial in the rose garden at his Hyde Park estate. He also designed the monument to mark the site. Dr. Montagna will share information about the reasons behind FDR ‘s burial decisions and how some of his last wishes were not instituted.

After the presentation, there will be an informal ceremony in the Rose Garden to mark the 67th anniversary of FDR’s burial.

The talk coincides with the opening of a new exhibit in the Roosevelt Carriage House entitled: “Enduring Memorial: FDR’s Final Resting Place”. Beginning April 15, the exhibit is open daily 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. The Carriage House is located behind the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Guest Essay: The State of Dutchess County History

What follows is a guest essay by Peter Feinman of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education (IHARE).

Over the last few months, IHARE has initiated a Dutchess County History Conference and a series of brown-bag lunches in different parts of the county. Based on the these events, I would like to make the following comments on the topic.

1. Dutchess County Historian

Numerous people raised the issue of the lack of a Dutchess County historian. This statutory-required position is seen as the leader of the Duchess County history community. Therefore the absence of such an individual directly contributes to the fractured community which exists at present. The up-coming election for County Executive provides an opportunity to redress this condition. Drew Nicholson,

Village of Pawling Municipal historian is preparing a job description identifying the scope and activities relevant to the position. He is drawing on the Putnam County notices for a new county historian. If you have any ideas you would like to share with him, he can be reached at One of the participants in the recent programs expressed interest in becoming the County Historian should the new

County Executive seek to fill the position.

2. Dutchess County Archives

See above. The absence contrasts with Westchester County which just reopened its redesigned archive center. This is a major project which will require outside funding. Presumably, the new County Historian would play a leading role in this process.

.3 Dutchess County Heritage Days

In April, the County Legislature designated the ten-day period from October 23 to November 1 each year as &#8220Dutchess County Heritage Days.&#8221 This is related to the upcoming 300th anniversary in 2013 of the creation of the county on October 23, 1713. The chairman of the legislature is authorized to appoint an ad hoc county committee to

plan appropriate program activities for the celebration. The committee is to consist of the county historian and a fair representation of the various land patents and town historians. Furthermore, the legislature expressed the hopeful expectation that schools, historians and community groups would actively promote and encourage appreciation for the many aspects of Dutchess County’s past.

Presumably the legislature also is expressing the hopeful expectation that a county historian will be appointed.

There is no obligation to wait until 2013 to celebrate the County’s history. With the new school year fast approaching, now [meaning in a few weeks after vacations] is the time for schools, municipal historians, and historical societies to begin planning events at the local level for the Heritage commemoration beginning this October.

4. Heritage Ramble for Dollars

The recent release of the Ramble schedule for 2011 reveals some of the strengths and weakness of heritage planning in the County. While there are many events in scheduled in the County, they are not done so in a way which maximizes the revenue from them or which enhances a sense of place, a sense of community, a sense of belonging in the

county. Consider, for example, the events scheduled for Beacon:

9/10 9:00 Denning’s Point Kayak Tour

9/10 10:00 Madam Brett Sites Ramble

9/10 1:30 Bannerman Island Cruise and Walking Tour

9/11 1:30 Bannerman Island Cruise and Walking Tour

9/11 12:00 Woody Guthrie Sail

9/17 1:30 Bannerman Island Cruise and Walking Tour

9/18 1:30 Bannerman Island Cruise and Walking Tour

9/24 10:00 Denning?s Point Walk and Talk

9/24 11:00 Kayak and Paddleboard Demo Day

9/24 1:30 Bannerman Island Cruise and Walking Tour

9/25 9:00 Mount Beacon Fire Tower Restoration Project

9/25 9:00 Beacon Incline Railway Hike 3 hours

9/25 1:00 One River Many Streams Folk Festival

9/25 1:30 Bannerman Island Cruise and Walking Tour

with no Beacon Main Street Walking Tour listed.

How exactly can the Dutchess County Tourism Department, [representatives presented at the Dutchess County History Conference and attended two of the brown-bag lunches] go to MetroNorth or bus tour operators or market visiting Beacon with such a haphazard

schedule of events? Some events are simultaneous, some are overlapping, some are days apart because they are created individually at the organization level without overall coordination or planning. What opportunities are being missed for tourist revenue, sales taxes, and promoting community spirit by such a schedule? Similar listings

could be created for other communities in the county as well. The point is not to focus criticism on one municipality here but to use it as a case study for a county-wide issue.

With Heritage Days October 23- November 1 and New York Heritage Weekend May 19-20, 2012, each community to will the opportunity to develop to create a more focused celebration of its heritage.

5. Mid-Hudson Social Studies Council (MHSSC)

This annual conference for social studies teachers takes place on Election Day in Cornwall. I have requested that a session in the conference be devoted to Dutchess County History and that organizations be allowed to exhibit display tables with their school programs. Even if the Board accepts my proposals, the logistical challenge of going back and forth to Cornwall for a day will discourage many teachers in the county from attending, assuming they even know about it in the first place. This raises the issue of what are the best venues for reaching teachers about local and county history including for professional development and college credit.

I will be sending a version of this essay to the county schools and teachers as we get a little closer to the new school year.