The History Of Local Historians

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James Sullivan, New York State Historian (1916-1922), source: New York State Archives

“The love of one’s locality and a commendable pride in its achievements lie at the basis of true patriotism. It is difficult, nevertheless, to love something about which you know nothing. One who knows the history of the place in which he is living is far more likely to venerate it than he who is entirely ignorant of its story. To preserve this history is the function of the local historian.”

Those words belong to James Sullivan, New York State Historian. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle published them (as part of a bigger article penned by Sullivan) on page 17 of the Sunday, March 26, 1922 edition of the paper.

Sullivan used the piece to explain the nature and purpose of a relatively new law. It was passed by the State Legislature and signed into law by New York Governor Al Smith on April 11, 1919. Technically Section 57.07 of the New York State Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, it’s known more familiarly as “Local Government Historian Law” or simply the “Local Historian” Law.

The first paragraph of the law states “A local historian shall be appointed, as provided in this section, for each city, town or village, except that in a city of over one million inhabitants a local historian shall be appointed for each borough therein instead of for the city at large; and a county historian may be appointed for each county.”

If not the first, it was one of the first such laws enacted by a state. It impressed immediately. Papers as far away as Montana lauded it. Only a month after its passing, the Tuesday, April 22, 1919 edition of The Anaconda Standard (p. 6) “New York has just enacted a ‘local historian’ law, which might perhaps be adopted by other states with profit… few other states have such comprehensive and accurate chronicles of their early career, and with so many newspapers as are now published in the state there is no need for going to the expense to preserve its current history. Nevertheless, there are features in the New York law that it might not be amiss to copy.”

Note how The Anaconda Standard acknowledges the critical role newspapers play in recording local history. Indeed, it’s a testament to this resource that the column you’re reading has relied on newspaper archives for much of the preceding content. The bottom line: If you want to be a part of history, get your name printed in a newspaper.

Speaking of history, what exactly did Sullivan expect from the Local Historian Law? It turns out he had one primary purpose: to document local efforts to support the efforts of the world war. That’s what he called it in 1919 (and again in 1922). Had he called it “World War I” then perhaps he should have been the State Fortune Teller instead of the State Historian.

Even before the law was passed, Sullivan was busy compiling a large volume on the role of New York State in The Great War. In February of 1919, Sullivan called on local historians to submit anything they might have compiled relevant to this effort. This tells us there were local historians before the Local Historians Law. There were also State Historians before the Law (Sullivan, who served from 1916 to 1923, was the fourth).

While the State empowered local officials to appoint local historians, not all municipalities complied. In Sullivan’s 1922 article, he pointed out that, while the “law made possible the appointment of nearly 1,500 such local historians and of this number well over a thousand have now taken office.” That meant hundreds of municipalities had yet to name a local historian three years after the law had become effective.

This makes sense. Why would small rural communities with limited resources (including available volunteers) use them for this “luxury”? After all, someone else can keep military service records and Liberty Loans (like the federal government). Indeed, as far as the records indicate, it wasn’t until 1952 that the Town of Mendon finally got around to appointing a local historian (Amo T. Kreiger). The Village of Honeoye Falls waited until 1963, when the celebration of its sesquicentennial prodded the Trustees to appoint David K. Maloney.

In 1963, both appointees produced significant histories of their respective municipalities that formed the foundation of all that followed.

That being said, no historical review can be called the “be all and end all” of the story. Indeed, as new information surfaces, future historians often take the work of previous historians and add to it. This is especially true of local historians. Private citizens normally represent both the primary sources and keepers of local history. These folks unfortunately often cannot recognize the importance of the treasures they possess.

That’s where the local historian comes in. As The Anaconda Standard wrote, “There are many such documents and other material which should be transferred from private ownership, where they are likely to become lost, to control of institutions where they will be preserved permanently.”

Section 57.07 sets aside three general duties of local publicly appointed historians. In order as it appears in the law, they are to: 1) Promote the preservation of local government records; 2) encourage the collection and preservation of nongovernmental historical records; and, 3) actively encourage research of such records for the purposes of expanding “the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the community’s history.” In other words, they really act more to support historical research than to conduct it, although as a practical matter, they also do a fair amount of independent research.

Public historians can accomplish these duties by working with other public and private organizations and societies to promote, publish, and memorialize community history. Notwithstanding Amo Kreiger’s pivotal role in forming the Mendon Historical Society in 1952, it is important to note the position of public historians is not formally related to any local historical society, although many public historians are active members of these societies as individuals.

When it’s all said and done, however, sometimes the best efforts go unrewarded. For example, in 1971, Monroe County celebrated its sesquicentennial. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle ran a lengthy special section to celebrate this event. At the end of that section, the paper thanked all who helped, including two Mendon Town Historians, the (then) late Amo T. Kreiger and Marian Powell.

Sounds good, right?

It turns out, when you turn to the pages of that special section describing short histories of all the towns in Monroe County, you can read about all of them from Brighton to Webster and everyone in between…

…except for Mendon.

It gets worse. Poor Marian Powell. For some reason, many people want to spell her name “Marion.”

Even the venerable Mendon Historian Amo Kreiger misspelled her name in her 1963 volume on the History of the Town of Mendon, where “Marion” Powell is listed as a member of the Hospitality Subcommittee of the Sesquicentennial Committee, Inc. Of course, that might have come from the Sesquicentennial Committee itself. We should give Amo a break on this one.

Strangely, when she was alive and the Honeoye Falls Times was publishing her articles and writing about her, the paper spelled her name “Marian.” Once she passed away, references to “Marion” surfaced with regularity. Fortunately, the Times correctly titled her obituary “Marian Clarke Powell Dies Apr. 27.”

Which explains why the adage says, “newspapers are the first take on history.” They’re not the definitive word. Just because you read it in the newspaper doesn’t mean it’s right. Always look for an independent second source. (Hopefully it will also be a first-hand account.)

Over the next couple of weeks, the Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel be highlighting the history of historians for the Town of Mendon and Village of Honeoye Falls on our Page 4 feature “Moments In Our Shared History.”


  1. […] it. Who’s standing between you and the forgotten past? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “The History Of Local Historians,” to see how and why every town, village, city, and county has its own publicly appointed […]

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