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Oyster Bay Historical Society Reviews and Previews Upcoming Events

OB Town Historian John Hammond Talks on Research Issues

The Oyster Bay Historical Society had a chance to look back and look to the future at their annual meeting as members and friends filled the dining/meeting room of the Matinecock Masonic Lodge on June 10. Retiring president, Maureen Monck, Ph.D. said, “I had the opportunity to look back at the projection made at this meeting five years ago and I am pleased to say, ‘We did it!’ Yes, the building is up and in the process of being completed – on the exterior that is. I am pleased to tell you that we now need about $125,000 toward the Dolan-matching grant to complete the entire job. There are two fundraisers scheduled for this summer which will bring us even closer to this total.” The first is an art auction on July 11; the second is a gala on Aug. 28.

Ms. Monck said, “We enter the 50th year of the Oyster Bay Historical Society with two significant buildings and an enlarged staff; more programs and exhibitions; a very definite role in preservation of our historically important past; and a leadership role in the community. Unfortunately, our executive director and the officers of the board will no longer be with the society in the same capacity – but – they certainly can admire all that has happened during their tenure.”

She offered special thanks to retiring board members Brad Warner; Barry Curtis Spies, Yvonne Cifarelli and Tom Kuehhas, the executive director who recently announced he is leaving the area.

Ms. Monck added, “The new officers must continue to focus on finances during these difficult times of budget cuts, the unemployment climate, and that there is less money for non-profits.” She said that holding joint ventures with other groups, and sharing resources is a great way to proceed, such as they are doing with the Roslyn Landmark Society - their art auction; and with Raynham Hall Museum – their lecture series; the Hood A.M.E. Zion Church – their Christmas program; and the Italian-American Club – their Italian dinner.

She announced the new slate of officers: President Frank Leone; 1st Vice President Frances Leone; 2nd Vice President Yvonne Noonan-Cifarelli; Treasurer Grace Searby; Membership Coordinator Stefanie Leone; Recording Secretary Elizabeth Roosevelt. She also welcomed new trustee Kara Troxler. Maureen Monck and Bradford Warner are joining the society’s advisory Board.

Director’s Report

Director Thomas Kuehhas said it was 18 years ago when he was introduced as the first professional director for the OBHS and that he will be leaving as soon as his replacement can be found, something he is overseeing.

He said hundreds of students from kindergarteners through continuing education; thousands of researchers; and people have visited or emailed the society for information. Philip Blocklyn has worked with students from the Palmer School at C.W. Post on the society’s archival holdings; doing research; and transcriptions.

But Mr. Kuehhas added, he had good news about the new building, that they had gotten more pledges.

He said they have recently held several interesting exhibits. Last year they held the exhibit Oyster Bay Goes to War in June when local veterans told their personal stories.

They offered Tracing Peg, an exhibit curated by Danielle Apfelbaum on her research on the life of a black woman slave who lived in Oyster Bay. George Wallace is curating an exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the OBHS, along with Mr. Kuehhas, an event which will include the gala on Aug. 28.

They are planning a July 11 art auction at Twinight, the Centre Island home of Richard Cohen, that includes a live and silent auction. On Aug. 28 there will be a gala at the home of Frank and Stefanie Leone with music from Bob Merrill’s Quintet.

Mr. Kuehhas thanked NYS Senator Carl Marcellino for his help; the North Country Garden Club for their hard work on the colonial garden; and all the volunteers who help the society. He thanked the board; the staff; the employees of the Town of Oyster Bay who help maintain the building; and to Supervisor John Venditto, who has been responsive to them over the years.

Caroline DuBois led the group with a few bars of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.

Guest Speaker John Hammond

Mr. Kuehhas introduced Oyster Bay Town Historian John Hammond, who specializes in the 350 years of Oyster Bay history. Longtime society trustee Mr. Hammond’s topic was “Researching and Writing Local History.”

Mr. Hammond said he was raised in Oyster Bay with both English and Dutch sides to his family. When he asked questions, he was told to “go find out for yourself,” which sent him on a quest that often brought up more questions. During the 1960s, he worked in intelligence training – spy school work. He said, “It was very similar to those skills used for historical research.”

Mr. Hammond said he likes to go back to original papers and, for that, Oyster Bay is excellent. He said the first history of Oyster Bay was by Silas Wood in 1824. It is based only on the English history of the time. Mr. Hammond said when he researched the Dutch history of the time it told a different story.

He said, “Just because something is written earlier doesn’t mean it is accurate.”

He shared a fire story reported in local newspapers that began with “Heroic Fireman Ran Into a Burning Building to Get Important Records.” He said while local firemen called the story true, he said he discovered they weren’t telling the real story – that the fireman was going in to get business records – but to get the pot for their poker game.

Mr. Hammond said the Town of Oyster Bay has an eight-volume set of books with archival records of the town available at the local library and at the historical society.

“The Oyster Bay Historical Society is a treasure trove of materials collected during its 50 years,” he said. It contains stories of many local families.

Mr. Hammond said stories passed along by families are often the most unreliable and need verification. He said he was told that his grandfather was orphaned and then enlisted into the British Army in the 1890s. When he looked at the family records with letters to his grandmother, and photos of his mother, he found his grandmother died in 1915. His grandfather was not an orphan when he enlisted in the Army.

The local newspapers told a story of a man who fell through a grating over a pit on South Street and was left laying there for several days. The true story was that his fall was witnessed and people came to his aid, but he died.

Another time, a lady, whose father was a firefighter was upset because her father was not mentioned in Mr. Hammond’s book about the fire service. Mr. Hammond explained the book was not a journal of the members but a history of what happened. The man was a member, but not an officer. He said those other volunteers are truly important although they did not receive a mention. He said the woman hasn’t spoken to him since.

Another story he told was of the Ku Klux Klan in Oyster Bay of which he has a wealth of information and photographs, but which he said he will not print, but will leave it to other generations to do so. “The subject is still far too sensitive to write about. It is something for some distant historian to use,” he said.

Mr. Hammond said it was easier to write about famous people in that there is more material available about them. For instance, TR kept the bulk of his correspondence. He said a man told him a family story about his grandfather in that he was working at the Oyster Bay High School building when TR came to check it out. Mr. Hammond said the man arrived in America in 1921. The first OBHS was built in 1900 and the second in 1928. Added to that, TR died in 1919.

“So I find it difficult to believe the story but he still stuck to his story,” said Mr. Hammond.

Mr. Hammond and Writers

Mr. Hammond said he has worked with writer Nelson DeMille in looking at local history. He called Mr. DeMille’s telling of local history – loose. He said Mr. DeMille told him he’s writing fiction and not history. He said he helped him with some of the history for Gate House. He said Mr. DeMille writes in pen on yellow legal pads and delivers the work to a secretary who types them out for him to review. “I would go crazy without my PC,” said Mr. Hammond.

Paula O’Rourke Bracken said she and her mother Gloria O’Rourke had lunch at the Maine Maid Inn with Thomas Pynchon and his famous writer son. When they heard that her mother used a manual typewriter, “they were in seventh heaven. The power could go out and she could still type,” said Paula.

Mr. Hammond said he asked writer Rita Cleary ‘What’s your secret to writing?” She answered, “Pick up a pencil and a piece of paper and write a word.” That was the advice from John Hammond: “If you want to write – write.”

Someone asked if he wrote fiction – no, said Mr. Hammond. John Hammond has written: Matinecock Light, a history of Freemasons and the Matinecock Lodge; When the Sirens Sound, the history of Atlantic Steamer Fire Company; Crossroads – A History of East Norwich; Oyster Bay Remembered; and Oyster Bay Images of America. He also wrote a town publication, Historic Cemeteries of Oyster Bay, a guide to their locations and sources of transcription information.

Mr. Hammond is a multitasker: He works on many projects at the same time. Currently he is working on a new Town of Oyster Bay publication which will be out soon. It is on the Civil War. He has indexed Civil War records and said, “It should be a great help to Civil War buffs, historians and genealogists.”

He is also working on his own next book on a topic he hasn’t disclosed.

At the meeting, Mr. Hammond said he had a conversation with Nelson DeMille. “He envied my discipline in writing history - but all the facts are there. At the same time I admire his freedom. He can go anywhere he wants to,” he said.

Mr. Hammond added on the topic of history. “I was at Nelson’s birthday party and he asked if I had read Gold Coast. I was 50 pages into it. I said, ‘Your history stinks.’”

Mr. Hammond explained saying, “I have a good memory for what I read. I didn’t want to contaminate myself with bad history, so I avoid historical novels and fiction.”

He added, Nelson DeMille, that night was at the Book Review in Huntington, signing his newest soft cover book Lion’s Gate. [FYI: signed copies of Lion’s Gate were in the goody bag for guests at the Boys & Girls Club of Oyster Bay-East Norwich gala at the Metropolitan Club in Glen Cove on June 11.]

Mr. Hammond said of Mr. DeMille, “He’s not in the least bit offended by what I said. He knows where I am coming from.”

Research Issues

Mr. Hammond said TR biographers use the TR collection at Harvard and his letters in the National Archives, but they use The New York Times for a newspaper source of the era. Mr. Hammond said there were two newspapers in Oyster Bay during TR’s time, the Enterprise Pilot and the Guardian. He said the NYT writers were out-of-towners, therefore they confused the location of an incident on the Fourth of July in 1906 when TR stopped a heckler. They put the location of the incident in Syosset and not locally, he said.

Another error is that they said TR rented his boyhood house in Oyster Bay, Tranquility, from the Swan family. In truth, it was rented from a member of the Van Buren family: the father of the 26th president rented the house to the son of the eighth president, said Mr. Hammond.

Mr. Hammond said he has talked to historian-writer Edmund Morris about TR’s hometown, but the Englishman continues to use the NYT as a source.

But, Mr. Hammond said errors can be good. He said when he wrote about Frank Faracco’s castle, [on Pine Hollow Road] he erred when he called him not Italian, but Armenian. He got a call from someone saying he was Albanian. Mr. Hammond said he knew he had been wrong but missed it in doing the proofreading. When he got a dressing down from Mr. Faracco’s son, then somewhere in his 90s, he said, “I learned a lot more about Frank Faracco.”

He said, “As a result of my writings, people come forth with more information.”

Mr. Hammond said recently he had a meeting with Billy Joel in his Oyster Bay office. “He asked for a copy of Oyster Bay Remembered.” Mr. Hammond brought one to him and asked Mr. Joel to sign it. “When I got back to the office the girls at town hall said, ‘Did you get Billy Joel’s autograph?’ I said, ‘No.’, but I gave him mine.” They looked at me as if I was a little daft.”

Mr. Hammond gave many more examples of history and non-history but you will hear them at one of his next lectures that it is hoped you will attend. He has lots more stories to tell.

Refreshments were served following the lecture. For more information about the OBHS please call 922-5032.