Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

State of New York State History

Bring the Yorkers Back to New York

In a recent post about the absence of any institutional or organizational leadership in the New York State history community, I used the image of the Yorkers without any explanation of what a Yorker was. Two readers submitted comments about the Yorkers to an even earlier post on the subject of the NYSHA even before I had distributed the post with the Yorker image. Their comments and suggestions form the basis of this post.

THE YORKERS: A DETROIT PERSPECTIVE

In the first instance, the comment from Chris Philippo provided a link to a blog by Tobi Voigt, Detroit Historical Society, writing in 2014 for the 75th anniversary of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). Her interest was getting young people involved in local history. In the course of writing the post she thought of New York’s experience with the Yorker program.

[S]tarted in the 1940s, this junior membership program worked through membership chapters across the state. [I wonder how many chapters there were.] According to a mid-1950s brochure [image above]:

“A Yorker chapter may be formed by organizing five or more students with an adult sponsor. Each chapter member receives a subscription to THE YORKER, bi-monthly magazine of the junior historians [This magazine must on file in some libraries and/or archives], a membership card, a gay felt emblem [I presume he meant “gray” but given how words change meaning I wouldn’t swear to it.] reminding him [or her] he is one of an army of 7,000 students of the story of the Empire State. He may write for THE YORKER, may enter any of the Historical Association’s three museums free at any time, whether coming with a student group or individually.”

Yorker chapters (which included boys and girls) were encouraged to:

“go on pilgrimages; present assembly programs, plays, radio scripts; assemble collections of historic books and objects; participate in essay and other contests; make historical murals and sculpture; assist local historians and in historical celebrations.”

The chapters had regional and state officers and gathered each spring for a convention.

After this historical description of the Yorker program, Tobi turned to her personal reflections on the organization and its meaning for the present.

Yes, these junior membership programs were clearly a lot of work. And I know they folded for some very valid reasons, but I absolutely love the concept. For years I have been pondering how the junior membership program can be reinstated/reinvented.

Firstly, we are always quoting that statistic that says “If a person doesn’t visit a museum before age 12, they aren’t likely to become adult museum visitors.” Could a junior membership program encourage students to get involved and then become life-long patrons?

Secondly, we talk about the decline of social studies and history in public school curriculums. These junior programs had an extracurricular academic component. And better yet, they had the students out DOING history. For the Detroit Historical Society, at least, they saw historical study as a way to develop informed citizens and future leaders. Can a new junior membership program help us make history relevant in the lives of kids today?

I love that programs like National History Day [which NYSHA still supports] have stepped in to fill the void, and my organization supports that year-long, school based program as a contest coordinator. But I still find myself wondering if individual museums and historical societies can create their own special program. If we created a new junior program, I’d be sure participation in National History Day would be included as an activity.

What are your thoughts?
Does anyone have a junior membership program? Please consider writing a blog about it!

Did you have one that didn’t work well? Please share your lessons learned.

Is anyone else out there as intrigued about this concept as me, or am I quickly becoming as antiquated as junior memberships themselves?

THE YORKERS: A WESTERN NEW YORK PERSPECTIVE

As to the situation here in New York, I received an email from Terry Abrams, the Administrative Coordinator for the Western New York Association of Historical Agencies (WNYAHA), on the subject of the Yorkers. He wrote:

I have been reading with avid interest your blog posts about the state of New York State history. I have thought a lot about the many valid points you have raised, and I want to respond to some of them. Most of what I want to say has already been said by others, and I am in agreement with much of what you have discussed. Nevertheless, I think it is useful to add another voice to the chorus.

I think the decline of NYSHA can be traced back to the elimination of the Yorker program. When I was in Jr. High School, we had two Yorker clubs, one for the seventh graders, and one for the eighth graders. Living in western New York, a big part of the attraction for joining was going on the overnight field trips to Cooperstown, and Albany, respectively. As I recall, in order to join the Yorker clubs we had to write an essay on some aspect of local or NY history. While the advisors for the two clubs were pretty lenient as far as letting students join, this did at least indicate an interest in history. I also recall going on field trips to local area museums during the year. The big event in 7th grade, was toward the end of the school year, when we traveled to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Farmer’s Museum, and the Fenimore Museum. In 8th grade, we went to Albany to see the Capitol, and the State Museum, which at that time was still located at the top of the Education Department building.

I can’t say for certain how much influence this experience has had on my becoming part of the history community. I do know, however, that at least two of my classmates are active members of their local historical societies. Incidentally, the two clubs were named after local historical landmarks. He 7th grade club was called The Grant Club Yorkers, named after the pole raised locally for President Grant’s re-election campaign.

Grant Club Pole Marker

The 8th grade club was called the Octagon Yorker club, after the Rich-Twinn Octagon house, part of the Newstead Historical Society in the village of Akron in the Town of Newstead in Erie County.

Rich Twinn Octagon House

At that time the other Yorker clubs had disappeared, but I know that there were ones at the high school level at one time. While the schools now have History Day, I wonder how much the loss of Yorker clubs has affected student’s interest in history. While searching online about when they disappeared (sometime in the mid 80’s apparently) I came across this: (go to the history link at the top of the page and click on “Yorker Museum” It will download a pdf about the history of the Yorkers in Sherman.)

I know that it varies from place to place, but it seems that fewer and fewer historical societies have a relationship with the schools. Do any of them coordinate with History Day?

Terry raises an interesting question. According to the National History Day website quite a few museums and libraries in New York are listed as contacts for students. One also should add municipal historians to the mix of resources and contacts. Of course, one major difference is that the Yorkers focused exclusively on New York State history, National History has an annual national theme which can be applied locally by participants but does not have to be.

SUMMARY

So what can we learn from this trip down memory lane? The Yorker program working in conjunction with National History Day is a great way to reach out into the student community and connect it with local history. Logically it should be operated by NYSHA which still maintains its connections to National History Day. Obviously that is not going to happen.

Here is a program where it would be beneficial for the New York State history community to meet with the New York State Council for the Social Studies. It is a volunteer organization. The annual conference this year will be in Albany in March. There are eight regional councils covering most of the state. Perhaps the New York State Historian could take responsibility for the revival of the Yorkers with the support of the Regents. Let’s add Yorkers to the list of what needs to be done.

12 thoughts on “Bring the Yorkers Back to New York

  1. Minor correction – it’s the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), not the American Association of State and Local Museums (AASLM). Maybe not so minor – “for” is more forceful than “of” and certainly the focus on history is also significant in this context. Maybe what we need is a New York Association for State and Local History.

    1. Good catch. I am not as involved in the national organizations as I probably should be. Good thing I hadn’t sent the post out yet to AASHL. Looking at the website, I didn’t notice any regional organizations. Perhaps we should call a meeting to organize a state regional one.

  2. I belonged to the Yorkers in the 1960’s and became president in my eighth grade. I can remember going to Albany museum and staying overnight. It was exciting for me and my friends because we didn’t get out of our town too often. (Potsdam). Today I am my town’s historian. Is it because of the Yorker’s club? I would say yes. I had an excellent social studies teacher and she got us to join the club, visit museums and I also did a Girl Scout badge where I had to work at our local museum. All this to say that, yes, the Yorker’s club began my interest in history. To this day, wherever I am, I try to visit the local museum!! I may now try harder to work with the local social studies teacher and try to get out Historical Society more involve with our school children.

    1. I suspect there are others who had a similar experience. We should probably compile a list of all the communities where there are people like you who would like to see it restored.

  3. My wife and I were chaperones on a few trips to Yorker Conventions in the 1970’s when our Cuba Central School Yorker Club (The Seneca Oil Spring Yorkers) was active. We have been thinking about it a lot again lately and would like to see some activity generated to get such an activity started. I am currently Town of Cuba and Village of Cuba Historian, as well as serving on our board of education. It is sad to see the lack of interest in local history. I would be happy to assist in the recreation of Yorker Clubs in any way I would be able to.

  4. Dear Peter Feinman,
    I am writing about the Yorker Program. I can say only positive things about my experiences with the Yorker Program. Growing up in Perry Central Schools ( 1946-54) there were two Yorker Clubs established by seventh Grade social studies teacher, Helen Cook, the Mary Jemison and the Sea Serpent Club (after the hoax perpetrated on Silver Lake in the 1850’s) and I was a member. I began teaching Social Studies in Wyoming Central School in 1972 and was the sponsor of the Wyoming Gaslighters Yorker Club until I retired in 1992. We worked very closely with the Middlebury Historical Society and helped in their museum, the Middlebury Academy in the village of Wyoming. I have so many fond memories of the Yorker program, the contests for the yearly Yorker Convention, the many trips we took and the enthusiasm my student members had. When I see former students today they always remark on their memories of our experiences. Since 1985 I have been the PerryTown Historian and I know that one of my former students is now the Town of Middlebury Historian in the village of Wyoming. I never let anyone get away with trying to tell me that History is not fun! For two years I have told myself that I would write an article on the Yorker program for our county’s historical publication, Historical Wyoming but have not so far. This message I have just read gives me much incentive to get this accomplished. I had so much input and support from from the community and area with the program and fortunately it was a period when the gaslight Village of Wyoming was booming!
    I would like to hear thoughts from others on the program and thank you for this message.
    May I please have a response from you.

    1. So far I received three other responses similar to yours plus the original email from Terry Adams that initiated the post. They are all posted on the IHARE website along with yours as comments on the blog. Maybe it is time for a Yorker reunion.

      1. One contact that might be helpful to reach youth to encourage visits to historical sites, is to contact the Children of the American Revolution under the Daughters of the American Revolution, New York chapters. I do know of Chapters that do what the Yorkers did, actively involving members (ages from birth to 21) in exploring historical sites, though I have never been involved with the CAR. CAR/SAR/DAR are all lineage organizations, but service projects–including American/New York History could certainly be one. Chapter projects serve everyone. Perhaps some of the older CAR members could revive a 21st century form of the Yorkers in their local schools and then network throughout the state.

        1. There are DAR people on my distribution list but there has been no DAR response. Eagle Scouts are another group as I know from local experience that they can become involved in local history projects.

  5. From the number of current historians responding, I would guess that this topic will be up for discussion at a state meeting, or regional meeting of APHNYS. Hopefully local historians will jump on the band wagon and see how feasible it is to get the program started again. Who is keeping a list? Anyone volunteer? I will stick my neck out and say that Cuba Rushford School District would like to be on a potential list.

    1. You raise a good point. The Yorkers seem like an ideal topic for APHNYS both at the state level and the regional conference. Rather than try to do everything all at once, it makes sense to start with the communities where there is an expressed interest. So far the only list I know would be of the people who have commented on my post. I suspect there are additional people who would be interested in the event of a regional or state meeting to revive the Yorkers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.