Local Historians in New York State
by Edmund J. Winslow
Published January 1982
In 1919, New York became the first state to have a network of officially appointed local historians when the State Legislature passed a bill calling for the designation of a historian for each city, town, and village in the state. Governor Alfred E. Smith signed the bill and the "Historian's Law" became part of that portion of the civil code known as "State Education Law." The purpose of the new law was to identify a person in each community who could respond to requests for information on the history of the locality. The historian could collect and organize local history material and could cooperate with other public officers in the preservation of historically valuable local records.
The Historian's Law of 1919 was really the culmination of a movement for local history that had been growing for years. In fact, New Yorkers have a long tradition of commitment to the study of local history. Prior to enactment of the 1919 law, a number of communities already had appointed historians. And, several of these had begun to organize local history materials and had compiled comprehensive community studies, which could serve as model activities for the new historians appointed under the law.
The State Historian, Dr. James Sullivan, understood that a network of local contacts could be very useful in the development of history programs across New York. Sullivan also understood that grass roots preservation, historical research, and commemorative celebrations could be handled best by the local historian. For those reasons, he encouraged local officials to appoint historians. Unfortunately, Sullivan's repeated written calls for appointments frequently met with indiffer-ence. Since no salary was specified for the historian's office, little interest initially was shown in the appointment. By the end of 1920, only 735 local historian po6itions had been filled out of the approximately 1,550 community jurisdictions required to appoint one. The problem of gaining compliance with the law in the remaining localities became an ongoing concern of the State Historian's office. Due to ignorance of the law by local officials, the death of historians in office, and changes in local political alignments, a full complement of local historians never has been a reality.
From the beginning, it was clear that the new local historians could make an immediate impact on the preservation of historical records. At that time, historical manuscripts and objects were cared for by historical societies. But, in 1919, there were fewer than a hundred historical societies in New York State and most of them were located in large population centers. The State Historian and other history conscious individuals were concerned about the neglect and loss of local primary source material. The legacy of the 1911 fire in the State Capitol building in Albany underscored the need for secure repositories. The condition and vulnerability of local documentary material necessitated the appointment of a history-oriented individual to look into their condition and care. The role of the local historian as records preservationist dates to the birth of the office and remains one of the historian's principal functions today.
The first task assigned to the local historians was to assist the State Historian in carrying out a resolution also passed by the State Legislature in 1919 which called for the preparation of a study of New York's role in World War I. This project was carried on across the United States. In New York, the State Historian was appointed program director. Because no provision had been made for funding the project, voluntary cooperation was necessary. The new local historians were relied on as the chief resource for the project's completion. The World War I project took the form of a compilation of the war records of the residents of New York State. The State adjutant general's office cooperated by obtaining pertinent military records from Federal sources. Local historians interviewed their community's veterans and compiled lists of persons who served, along with a brief summary of their service records. The project was not limited to those who served in the armed forces but also included people who served in support groups such as the American Red Cross. Some of the compilations also included information on civilian mobilization. Those communities with highly motivated historians received good results because many veterans were anxious to establish a basis for a possible Federal or State veteran's bonus.
The World War I records project continued for over a decade. It was a major factor in the creation of the office of county historian because the project required someone to serve under the State Historian as county coordinator. In 1921, the Historian's Law was amended to require the appointment of historians in the five boroughs of New York City. And, in 1933, the law was revised again to permit the appointment of a historian in each county. Prior to 1933, there were only sixteen county historians because many of the counties were reluctant to appoint a historian without enabling legislation. The 1933 amendment also empowered the county historian to supervise the work of the local or municipal historian and to make clear the goals set forth by the state Historian.
In 1923, Professor Alexander C. Flick of Syracuse University was appointed State Historian. While he continued to supervise the war records project, he also directed the county historians to compile statistical and historical data concern-ing their counties, which would facilitate local governmental reorganization and reform -- issues then before the State Legislature. Although at that time only a few counties had appointed historians, Dr. Flick asked those leaders to rely on their local historians for information about the condition and needs of government at the local level.
Throughout his long tenure (1923-39), Flick encouraged county historians to serve as catalysts for awakening more intense interest in local history, especially among the historians, historical societies, and the service organizations found in most communities. Alexander Flick was the first professionally trained State Historian to show an interest in local history. Under his leadership, the State observed the sesquicentennial of the American Revolution. When the com-memoration began in 1927, Dr. Flick directed the local historians to work toward incorporating a historical perspective in local commemorations. The New York State Sesquicentennial Committee's major contribution to the celebration was the staging of pageants. On the anniversary of major events, patriotic speeches were delivered by civic leaders and parades were held in communities where the events occurred. If the event had statewide significance, a pageant was produced by local groups and a printed program often was produced with State support. Whenever local commemorative committees were established, Dr. Flick asked officials to include the local historian on the committee.
One long-lasting project undertaken during Flick's career was the historic marker program. Thousands of applications for markers were received from communities across the State. Usually, these were researched and written by the local historian. The erection of historic markers became one of the primary responsibilities of the local historian. Prior to the start of the program in 1927, Dr. Flick received numerous inquiries about and requests for historic markers. In the past, Flick had discouraged the erection of markers until the state-supported program had given the state historian approval over the information to be conveyed. One of his chief concerns was each marker's historical accuracy. Flick called on the local historians to verify all statements proposed for inclusion and his staff worked with them in preparing marker texts.
Dr. Flick held the achievements of the local historians in high regard and he worked with them as often as possible. He understood that local circumstances often existed which inhibited the activities of local historians. During his tenure, Flick's staff began the practice of making field visits to work with county and local historians and to encourage them to be active proponents of historical awareness in their communities. Every year, Dr. Flick sent each historian a directive suggesting possible areas for research, preservation, or other action. He also began the practice of conducting regional and statewide workshops to instruct local historians in the skills of their craft.
Alexander Flick retired in 1939. He was succeeded by his son, Hugh M. Flick, a professionally trained historian who had worked with local historians during his father's years as State Historian. With the entry of the United States into World War II, Hugh Flick left for military service and was succeeded by Arthur Pound. Pound, a writer of popular history, served as State Historian for the duration of World War II. Many of the on-going projects of the office were interrupted due to manpower and material shortages created by the war. However, Pound and his staff did direct another war records program which sought to secure and preserve important documents relating to state and local government. Again, local historians were asked to work with other public officers and with historically minded persons to collect and preserve the records of military and civil mobilization that were being generated in virtually every community in the state. During those years, local historians and history consciousness became part of the "Win the War" effort that preoccupied the rest of civilian population.
When World War II ended, New York had a new State Historian. Dr. Albert B. Corey, who served from 1944 until 1963, was a distinguished scholar who had taught history at St. Lawrence University. He directed the focus of the county and municipal historians away from the war records program and to the more community-related aspects of the local historian's work. Like Alexander Flick, Albert Corey worked at strengthening the bond between the local historian and the State Historian's office. He traveled regularly and met with historians at regional meetings and workshops. A typical workshop brought together historians from several counties in a central location to hear speakers on topics of mutual interest. Corey's concern for and cordiality toward the individual historians endeared him to all. One of his chief interests was in the collection of local history material. He encouraged the local historian to collect material and to file systematically and to make available the resources of their office. Historians across New York were shocked in 1963 when he was killed in a motor vehicle accident.
After Corey's death, the history office operated for several years without a State Historian while the State Education Department created a committee to study the State history program. The committee report resulted in the formation of the Office of State History headed by Dr. Louis L. Tucker as State Historian and Assistant Commissioner for State History. Formerly a college history teacher and most recently director of the Cincinnati Historical Society, Dr. Tucker served from 1966 to 1976 and laid the foundation for the creation of a local historians' network. In 1967, he organized a statewide meeting for county and municipal historians in Albany. Eight distinguished academic historians were asked to share their views on historical research with local historians who were invited from across the State. In the years that followed, regional and statewide workshops continued to be held so that advances and discoveries within the historical profession could be shared with those historians unable to travel to major historical conventions. Dr. Tucker asked local historians to utilize their own research materials to write the history of their communities. He made a large number of personal visits during which he encouraged local historians to develop their research and writing skills. He also encouraged them to share their experiences and to discuss mutual problems with each other.
For many years, the Office of State History and its predecessor, the Division of Archives and History, had worked with the Association of Towns of New York State and with the County Officers Association in the planning and conducting of their regular seminars for municipal and county historians. These two organizations were formed to train public officers (including historians) in the duties and responsibilities of their offices and both were organized as federations of affiliate groups of public officials. While the larger associations did offer sessions for historians, there were no affiliate organizations for county or local historians. To correct this deficiency and to permit the historians to plan their own workshops, county historians formed the County Historians Association in 1967. The Association meets semi-annually and conducts training programs for its members. With only sixty-two counties to draw from, the County Historians Association is a small, intimate group. Meetings are held in different locations to exchange information and to give members the opportunity to observe the work of their colleagues in the host county.
(Editor's note: Some of the information following is no longer current. The report is provided here, as it was written, for the purpose of historical perspective.)
The Municipal Historians Association of New York State was formed in 1971 to serve as a statewide organization for the large number of city, town, and village historians. This association has a more broad membership base and it attracts a large number of historians to its semi-annual meetings. The winter meeting is held in New York City each February as part of the annual meeting of the Association of Towns of New York State. A late summer workshop is held during September at different locations upstate. At each of its meetings, the Municipal Historians Association provides training programs for its members, works to encourage dialogue among all local historians, and offers assistance to those local historians living in counties lacking the leadership of a county historian. Both the County Historians Association and Municipal Historians Association work with the Division of Historical and Anthropological Services, successor to the Office of State History, to provide training opportunities for new and veteran historians.
In New York State, the era of the American Revolution bicentennial began with the first meeting of the New York State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission in 1969. The Bicentennial generated new enthusiasm for state and local history. With the appointment of Dr. Tucker as executive director of the State commission, county and municipal historians were optimistic that they would be able to share in the planning of the Bicentennial celebration. One of Dr. Tucker's first acts as director was to invite the county historians to meet with the members of the State commission. The county historians were asked to share their ideas for a meaningful commemoration and to enter into a partnership to insure that history would not be absent from the Bicentennial observance. Municipal historians also were encouraged to participate actively and to influence the character of observances in their home communities. Many historians served on their local Bicentennial planning committees. The State commission itself included a county and municipal historian among its members.
The official observance of the Bicentennial ended with the termination of the Federal commission in 1976 and, in New York State, with the passing of the New York State Bicentennial Commission in 1980. Across the State, local historians compiled an enviable record in making the Bicentennial commemoration a meaningful experience. Largely because of the commitment of local historians, many communities today can point to their Bicentennial observances with pride and a sense of lasting achievement.
Local historians now have shifted their interest from the bicentennial of American independence to the community studies, teaching, and local preserva-tion projects basic to the historian's office. With the return of the historian's focus to the home community, the Division of Historical and Anthropological Services is determined to provide new and veteran historians with opportunities to acquire the skills needed to function successfully at the community level. Each historian is encouraged to examine the "New Social History" approach to understanding the lives of everyday people by examining their actual record in the form of archival sources, manuscripts, documents, architectural resources, and the oral tradition. In that way, the story of all of the people and of the community can be told. Then, all can understand their past more fully.
The offices of the county and municipal historian are products of historical development resulting from revisions in the statute of 1919 and the leadership of several State Historians. The law as originally enacted provided for the appointment of city, town, and village historians. Revisions created the post of borough historian for each of the five boroughs of New York City and position of county historian for the fifty-seven upstate counties. Initially, it was envisioned that the historians would serve as local resource persons within their home community. But from the beginning, the State Historians involved the local historians in projects of statewide significance. The World War I records project followed by the Sesquicentennial of independence and statehood made the office of local historian a vital one. If not for such involvement, the perception of the office never may have been more than that of a reticent clerk, hard at work, compiling local information. Today, the local historian has become an activist, with a high level of visibility, and one who creates a general historical awareness and historical perspective within the home community.
The officially appointed historian for any unit of government is an officer of that jurisdiction and is appointed by the chief executive officer - usually the county executive, mayor, supervisor, or borough president. The historian's term of office runs concurrently with that of the appointing officer. The appointee must take an oath of office and must sign a certificate accepting the appoint-ment. Unless that formality is observed, the historian is not legally an officer and may not be entitled to salary, expenses, or other benefits. As an officer of government, the historian is obliged to follow the guidelines set forth by the appointing officer and by the Division of Historical and Anthropological Services. The local historian contributes a historical perspective to the programs and activities of the agencies of the governmental jurisdiction and also provides advice and assistance to their constituents--the residents of their community. The historian should attend and participate in the meetings of department heads and of the board of legislators. Such direct involvement is required to achieve recognition and to obtain the support necessary to carry out the historian's duties.
Upon accepting the appointment, the county or municipal historian enters into a formal relationship with the appointing office. Simply stated, the historian agrees to oversee the preservation and interpretation of the community's heri-tage. In return, the appointing agency supports the work of the historian by providing the resources necessary for the successful execution of the historian's duties. It is reasonable for the historian to expect funds for expenses incurred in the performance of the duties of office. Such necessities include office space, telephone, travel, clerical support, stationery, and postage.
The local historian is obliged to keep the appointing officer informed on the condition of the locality's history collection and on local historical activities by submitting an annual report. The annual report should be sent to the appointing officer and to the Division of Historical and Anthropological Services. The history collection consists of public and private manuscripts and records relating to the history of the village, town, city, or county. The historian's office also has become a depository for photos, maps, diaries, and books relating to the community and its residents. And, when no other custodian is available, the collection even may include historical artifacts. Since such material requires preservation and conservation, the historian must make the appointing officer aware of its condition and of the need for its protection. As is the case with the assets of any other governmental office, the jurisdiction is obligated to care for its local history collection.
The historian serves as the chief history agent in the community. The position places the local historian at the heart of the movement to preserve and interpret the community's heritage. In many of the more rural areas of New York State, local historians have an extended role in that they may be the only official concerned with the cultural climate of the community. Regardless of the size, location, or socio-economic structure of the community, history consciousness only can be brought about when the historian cooperates with other officers of State and local government to make all residents appreciate their rich and diverse heritage.
Because historians are interested in history, this section is presented to offer a historical perspective on the local historian's office and on its relationship to the State history office. The historian's office has a long and distinguished history and should be a source of pride in all historians. By understanding their past, local historians will be able to confront present problems, and to prepare for the future. Indeed, the past is prologue.