The Town Historian: It’s More than a Job, it’s an Adventure
The Importance of the Town Historian: Four Town Historians Talk about Their Roles in History
State law requires that every town in New York have a town historian. This requirement dates back to 1919 when Governor Alfred E. Smith signed the “Historian’s Law” in order to identify a person in each locality responsible for the organization of important historical data. The legendary Capitol Fire in Albany in 1911 had underscored the importance of preserving original documents. One of the first tasks issued to the historians was to help compile a history of New York’s role in World War I, interviewing veterans as well as those involved with the Red Cross and other civilian mobilization groups.
With individuals appointed throughout the state, the tradition of preserving local history in New York State continues. The marking of historically significant sites began in 1927, with local historians verifying the accuracy of each marker. In 1933, the Historian’s Law was amended to require the appointment of county historians to supervise the local historians. These county historians were later asked to play a role in planning New York’s celebration of the bicentennial. Historians throughout the state participated in planning community events that commemorated the state’s history.
Town Historian Barbara Kone planned one such bicentennial celebration in the town of Caroline in Tompkins County. Ms. Kone describes her duties as the collection, preservation and sharing of the history of Caroline. She maintains an office in the town hall and receives a small salary; in addition, she writes two historical articles a month for the town newsletter and assists others with genealogy searches or to discover the history of their home. She annually hosts a reunion for alumni of the town’s one room and two room schools which were consolidated with larger districts in 1957. Her most unusual request was to research a skunk farm that had been in the town.
Malta Town Historian Paul Perreault says that genealogy is his most common request and that it “could become a full time occupation.” He also is asked by law firms about where certain businesses were located in the past. Perreault maintains the information and pictures collected by previous historians, and adds them to the collection as events occur. He also speaks at the library or local museums and works with students from the local high school.
Degrees in Social Studies, Educational Administration and Policy Studies provided the background for Marilyn Van Dyke to become the Town Historian for the Town of Queensbury. She is one of ninety Registered Historians in the state, certified by the Association of Public Historians of New York State. Van Dyke played a major role in the preservation of the Old Quaker Burying Ground when it was under threat by development. She works with schools and the Scouts to show groups how to use primary documents. In 1997, Van Dyke worked with the Warren County Historical Society to promote the history of the county.
Town historians make history relevant by serving as an important link to the past. Colonie Town Historian Kevin Franklin tries to cover a diverse variety of historical topics in his monthly newsletters. He has recently written about the ongoing radiation problem at the site of an old industrial plant, as well as the history of the property that would become the Albany Rural Cemetery.
Kone quotes George Santayana when describing the importance of the town historian, saying “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A true historian, however, she notes that a similar phrase was made popular by Winston Churchill.
Without the town historian, much of our history would be lost. Walking down a town’s main street would be like walking in a void. Though they rarely are paid enough for their efforts, they certainly are well appreciated. Here’s to our towns’ historians!
–Stacey Stump is an Assistant Editor for the Free George.
The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.
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