Monday, September 16, 2019

Our Towne Bethlehem September 2019: Historians!

Town Historians
September 2019

Quite often your town historian is asked “What exactly do you do?” and “Why do we have a historian anyway?” This month I will explore those questions and next month I will get back to objects. I am thinking about apples and orchards.

100 years ago this past April, Gov. Al Smith signed New York’s Public Historian Law.  Section 57.07 of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law states in part “A local historian shall be appointed for each city, town or village, and a county historian may be appointed for each county.”  It goes on with a list of duties that focuses on managing and preserving records of historic value and concludes with the statement that the historian shall “carry out and actively encourage research in such records in order to add to the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the community’s history.” 
And there you have it. What Bethlehem’s town historians have been striving for since the first one was appointed in 1921. To add to the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the community’s history.
APHNYS, the Association of Public Historians of New York State, sums up the duties of a municipal historian in four straightforward bullet points.
1. Research and writing
2. Teaching and public presentations
3. Historic Preservation
4. Organization, advocacy and tourism promotion
So, who was Bethlehem’s first historian? That would be Mrs. Harriet C. D. Wiltsie of South Bethlehem.  She was appointed by the Town Board on March 26, 1921. Wiltsie and her family show up regularly in local newspapers for their involvement in community life in South Bethlehem, and there is one intriguing item from when a carriage she was riding in was hit by a street car on Pearl Street, but nothing regarding her activity as historian.

Reading through the Town Board minute books, there is no further action on the historian appointment until August of 12, 1926 when the board carried a motion to ask Ruth M. Miner to be the “social historian”. Her letter declining the position was read at the August 27, 1926 meeting. October 4, 1926 brought the appointment of Mrs. Lucius Washburn as “social historian.”  Washburn, the former Anna Holler, turns up often in the local paper for her doings in Delmar, especially with Delmar Reformed Church, but again, nothing regarding her appointment as historian.

The mostly honorary appointments of Harriet Wiltsie and Anna Washburn were followed by a gap of 19 years.  Then a new, and very active, historian came on the scene.  Ruth Dickinson (often referred to in the records as Mrs. Paul Dickinson) was appointed March 14, 1945 and annually thereafter until she resigned in December of 1965. Researching Dickinson in the newspapers turns up many articles and mentions of her work on Bethlehem’s War Council during World War II, her work on the Civil Defense Council during the Korean War, and especially, her work as town historian. 

Dickinson’s annual reports highlight her work including the many talks she gave to local groups of adults and children designed to educate about, in her own words, “the back ground and history” of the town. She answered many questions from citizens and students, was a founding member of the Bethlehem Historical Association, chaired Bethlehem’s participation in the Hudson Champlain Celebration/Year of History in 1959 and was particularly concerned with preserving the records of Bethlehem’s service men and women.  
Ruth Dickinson

Then there was the “drab” and “arduous” work of newspaper clipping.  Dickinson, and historian’s that followed, spent hours clipping articles out of daily and weekly papers in order to document “all phases of Bethlehem’s daily growth” and then organized them into 50 or more categories.  Thankfully, in our digital age, historians no longer do this work.  There are, however, two boxes of carefully filed, and now brittle and crumbling, newspaper clippings in the town’s archive.

Each and every historian on the list below brought their own interests and strengths to the work of town historian adding to the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Bethlehem’s history. Your current historian seeks to do the same.

1921 Mrs Harriet C. D. Wiltsie
1926 Anna Holler Washburn (Mrs. Lucius H. Washburn)
1945-1965: Ruth A. Dickinson (Mrs. Paul Dickinson)
1966-1974: Allison Bennett (Mrs. William D. Bennett)
1974-1976: Thomas E. Mulligan
1978-1977: Lois Dillon (Mrs. Edward Dillon)
1979-1983: Thomas E. Mulligan
1984-1987: James E. Morgan
1988-1990: Valerie Restifo Thompson (Valerie J. Restifo, Valerie Thompson)
1991-2005: Joseph Allgaier
2005-2007: Raymond C. Houghton, PhD
2007 to present: Susan E. Leath

Standing at the Bethlehem Historical Association’s Cedar Hill Schoolhouse Museum about 1975 are, from left to right, William D. Pompa (president of BHA from 1975-76), Ruth Miner (attorney and active Bethlehem citizen), Bertram Kohinke (supervisor from 1960 to 1974), Grace Waldbillig (BHA member) and Thomas E. Mulligan (town historian 1974-76 and 1979-83.)

The editorial staff for Bethlehem Revisited: A Bicentennial Story published in 1993. From left to right, Town Historian Joe Allgaier, Chuck McKinney, Floyd Brewer, Hugh Hewitt, and Peter Christoph.

That's me doing my best to do a pubic history presentation while aboard my kayak. Fun times!
Thank you Sharon Askew for the picture.

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