A deer in Adirondack Hall
Outreach :: State Historic Markers :: A Summary History

by Philip Lord, Jr.

Program Origin

In 1923 [L.1923 Ch.687] the New York Historical Association was directed to suggest possible celebrations for the upcoming "150th Anniversary of the American Revolution". Small appropriations were made in 1924 and 1925 for planning purposes, and early in 1926 [L.1926 Ch.786, 5/5/26] the Commissioner of Education was directed to arrange the commemoration of the Sesquicentennial, including "...markers to designate sites that are of historic significance in the colonial, revolutionary or state formative period...".

Funding was provided in support of the erecting of markers, and an application process was established. While details are sketchy, apparently markers could be acquired from the State Education Department for as little as $2, after an application form detailing the text, location, and supporting historic documentation was filed and approved. Most of the historic markers seen along highways today were erected in this period; roughly between 1926 and 1936. Funding through a regular state appropriation appears to have run out as early as 1939, but active coordination and assistance by the Office of State History of the Education Department continued into the 1960s.

Legislative History

In 1960 the responsibility of SED for the erecting and maintenance of historic markers was officially re-established [L.1960 Ch.394] as follows: "The education department is authorized to erect, or cause to be erected, markers or signs, identifying and describing the historic sites of this state, and to maintain such signs in areas that are not serviced or maintained by the department of public works". The provision of this law empowered SED to erect markers on any state lands, such as highways, rest areas, camp sites, etc. This was the origin of the program initiated by the Education Department with the Thruway Authority to install those over-sized "Historic Area Markers" one sees along the Thruway, and with the Department of Public Works [now NYSDOT] to install similar ones at rest areas along major state roads.

This legislation was not directly intended to replace the traditional small roadside markers with a new type of historic marker program; but it had that effect. It was, at that time, generally considered inappropriate to erect small roadside markers on high-speed thoroughfares. But this issue was not addressed in the bill. Rather, this legislation was seen as the beginning of the first real state historic marker program in New York. The 1926-39 program was discounted by legislators as a temporary, commemorative project - which it was. The 1960 legislation, on the other hand, was seen as the start of an on-going program to identify historic sites for educational purposes.

The first, and somewhat "experimental" manifestation of this mandate was, however, the erection of the large format "Historic Area Markers". The small markers remained unfunded, lending support to the idea they had been eliminated. And this impression was promoted by staff of the Office of State History, who, by the late 1960s, were encouraging communities to undertake their own local historic marker projects, using small-format signs. They suggested, however, that these privately funded markers have a different design and colors than the very recognizable "state" markers. There is no evidence this suggestion was ever carried through and cast markers of the traditional size, style and colors continued to be erected, using private funds.

The 1960 law was repealed in 1966, and functions were transferred to the State Historic Trust by Conservation Law [Ch.815] in an attempt to consolidate historic resource services in a new agency. The historic marker function was now expressed in a more general fashion: "To designate particular places, whether or not owned, operated or maintained by the state, as places of historic interest, and to take such action, including the erection of a sign or marker, as may be appropriate for public recognition and appreciation of such site".

A following section of this law titled "New York State Historic Trust - Education Department - Functions" [L.1966 Ch.816] identified the "...identification, restoration and educational interpretation of historic sites and places of historic interest..." as the responsibility of the Education Department, and empowered that Department to "...prepare interpretive literature, the texts of signs and markers, exhibitions, and other presentations designed to utilize the educational potential of historic sites".

The program initiated in 1960 continued under this legislation, and dozens of the large format "Historic Area Markers" were erected by the late 1960s. A guide to these signs was even published by the Education Department in 1970. However, the appropriation was not ongoing, and this program did not continue.

There was apparently no state funding available under this scheme to grant the numerous requests for small roadside markers, although there is little doubt that people continued to order and erect historic markers in consultation with the Office of State History.

It is of interest to note that by the late 1960s, the function of the historic historic marker program had shifted from a short-term commemorative program to a long-term educational program. But the apparent rejection of the smaller, less expensive signs as roadside hazards in favor of the large, extremely expensive area markers, worked against this new program's viability.

In 1972 the functions of the State Historic Trust passed to the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, but the language outlining the historic marker function was carried forward into a section of that law [L.1972 §19.11] titled "Functions of Education Department" as follows: "Preparation of interpretive literature, the texts of signs and markers, exhibition, and other presentations designed to utilize the educational potential of historic sites".

It will be noted that this is virtually the same language under which the Education Department provided this service to the State Historic Trust previously.

However, in the OPRHP law, these functions of SED are undertaken "...upon the request of the commissioner...[of OPRHP]", and therefore are less directly attributed to SED than they were prior to 1972. Such functions would be, however, congruent with the current mandate of the Office of State History within SED [L.1983 Ch.876; Article 57 of Arts and Cultural Affairs Law], and it appears to be the intent of the legislation to have these services provided by SED.

Program Operations

During the period of the original commemorative program [1926-c1939], the State Historian [SED] provided application forms to the field, and applications were reviewed and approved. The State funded the casting of the markers and coordinated their installation. An inventory of erected markers was also prepared.

In the 1960s & 70s, staff of the Office of State History consulted with the field, primarily via the network of local government historians at the county and town level, and encouraged the installation of historic markers, with SED staff reviewing the proposals. There was no funding, and the relationship with the field was more consultative than regulatory. However, the staff was moderately aggressive in making sure that all persons wishing to erect a marker went through this process, and people were given a letter of approval. This letter was sent directly by the SED staff to the Walton East Branch Foundry, which was the same foundry that had, since 1926, been casting these markers for the State. It was also the only foundry with the molds already made for casting markers of this particular design. Private funding, however, had to be raised by the applicant as no state funding was appropriated. The foundry apparently required, or at least expected, the letter of approval from the Office of State History before it would accept an order and would often insert a credit line for SED on the marker for this reason. The resulting markers, however, could not be rightly considered "State" historic markers.

In the 1980s, clarification of the limitations of the SED mandate caused a revision of this process. Fact sheets were provided to the field describing the archives of old applications, the database of county listings of existing markers, and the process for erecting new markers and maintaining old ones. This service continues today, and there remains a considerable interest in obtaining new markers and replacing old ones. Many customers still believe it is an official state function, with state funding appropriated for the purpose.

The foundry reports as many as 75-100 orders a year, and the Historical Survey (derived from the Office of State History) receives as many inquiries each year. However, only a fraction submit information to the office for review or report the installation sites and text of erected markers. Unless installed on state lands, permission from the Education Department is not required, and SED has been unable to encourage such consultation to any great extent.

Inventory

As the demand for information about existing historic markers, many erected with state funds prior to 1940, increases, deficiencies in the inventory have been discovered. The last concerted statewide inventory occurred in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Markers found to be missing at that time were apparently stricken from the inventory and their files destroyed. The program was, unfortunately, managed like a construction project, not a local history program, and records of things no longer in place were considered of no value. So significant gaps in the record of the original marker program exist. In addition, markers erected without state involvement, either funding or review, were never entered into the inventory, even though they are identical in appearance and function to those funded by the early state program.

To offset this, a statewide volunteer effort was begun in 1994 to re-inventory all the standing site markers, whether erected by the State or not, and to upgrade the inventory as an electronic database. This effort has only been partially successful, but it has revealed that of the 2800 listed historic markers erected by state funds, there may be as many as 40% missing in some localities. This effort has also revealed that there may be almost as many privately funded markers standing as there are survivors of the state program of the 20s and 30s, and that these, as well as some state funded markers known to exist, will not be found on existing "official" inventories. Although there was a great deal of interest in this volunteer field inventory project, particularly in areas where there was good press coverage of the initiative, in the end only about 20% of the towns in the state completed their surveys.

The Casting Process

In the early 1990s, the staff at the Walton foundry [located in Delaware County] responsible for casting historic markers split off to form a new company [Catskill Castings]. The casting medium was changed to aluminum from iron, with a cost increase from about $130 to about $525 per marker. Their order form represents the product as "Walton Foundry State Historic Markers", even though there is no direct state involvement.

In late 1994, Corcraft, the production arm of the Department of Correctional Services, approached the Historical Survey about re-tooling their under-used foundry at the Elmira Correctional Facility to cast historic markers. After some discussion and development, DOCS began producing historic markers in aluminum about a year later [9/95] for a unit cost of about $225, or about 1/2 the cost of the private foundry. These were only available, however, to government entities, such as a town or county, and since that time, the program has been discontinued. Of course any foundry set up for medium scale sand casting could tool up to produce markers of this type. But first-time set-up costs are significant, and orders are usually too few from any one source to make it worthwhile.

Maintenance

The original legislation [1926] did not identify a mechanism for maintenance of historic markers once erected. The 1960 legislation indicated SED was responsible for maintenance of markers on state lands [where all were supposed to be] that were not on DPW [highway] lands. But rather than creating its own maintenance program, SED was allowed to enter into agreements with other state agencies for these other agencies to maintain markers on lands under their respective jurisdictions.

In addition, many historic markers, both funded by the State and by private sources, were erected on private lands, often adjacent to, but not on, state highway rights of way.

There is no evidence that the maintenance provisions specified in the law were ever enacted, although the DOT has often cooperated in the refurbishment of markers by providing paint and sometimes assisting in the process of repainting. The Historical Survey has sent out fact sheets outlining alternative methods for the refurbishment of markers, and local persons have often been able to enlist the support of their county or town highway departments in this process.

The results are mixed, however, with some jurisdictions having all their markers routinely repainted, and others with little or no effort underway. We have encouraged local community marker maintenance projects [Scouts, historical societies, etc.] But it has been frequently revealed that people believe it is the State's responsibility to paint these markers, and they often fear that it would actually be a violation for anyone to undertake that on their own!

The Opportunity

Evidence of interest in historic markers, both past and future, is undeniable, and the "program" remains one of the most visible representations of New York State's interest in local history and cultural education. These markers represent captions on a field exhibit of roadside history, and although the slow-paced world of emerging tourism that prompted their initial creation in the late 1920s has long since passed, their value in modern heritage tourism initiatives continues. Every heritage tourism prospectus contains a section on signage and the identification of heritage trails and sites through some form of marker program.

Given the long history of the New York State Historic Marker Program, and the fact that it presents a readily recognizable format for historic site designation and community-based cultural resource interpretation, it is not surprising that there is continued interest. In addition, there is a continuing respect for these markers as evidence of the confirmation of site significance, even though they do not, in fact, convey any protection to the resources they designate beyond the process of alerting the public.

Increasingly, as public recollection fades, these markers are often the only remnant of the local history they represent, particularly where archeological sites are involved. Over the past decades more than once a significant archeological site has been saved from inadvertant damage during public construction and development because a marker announced its existence where no other evidence of it remained.

The Millennium Commemoration will, as did the Revolutionary War Bicentennial before it [1976] and the Sesquicentennial of the American Revolution which started this program 70 years ago, focus attention on History in general, and New York State History in particular. It will be a time when communities and local historical organizations, as well as schools, seek ways in which to mark the event. Historic markers remain one of the most effective ways to identify and interpret undocumented local sites, and in so doing, to commemorate places of significance in the history of the State and Nation.

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