Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

County History Conference: Lessons from Ulster County

Counties should have county history conferences. So I have been preaching since 2011 when I initiated five such conferences in the Hudson Valley and helped organize four of them. One of them was the Ulster County History Conference. While it was not as successful as the Orange and Putnam counties’ events, it did provide a memorable moment.

Ulster County History Conference: Background

The Ulster County historian at that time had a Virginia family ancestry. During the course of the conference, she mentioned an ancestor who had fought in a Civil War battle for the Confederacy. No sooner had she uttered these words when, lo and behold, a conference attendee leapt up and proclaimed that her ancestor also had fought in the same battle but for the Union. These two women then took their argument out to the parking lot and duked it out in the only American war even longer than Afghanistan since it still hasn’t ended. Actually their response was more of chuckle than fisticuffs but in the interest of oral tradition, let’s go with the more exciting story even if it isn’t true.

The current conference was more sedate but it did have its grumblings (see below). Geoff Miller is the new county historian. He is a retired teacher who is chair of the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History Committee for the Jewish Federation of Ulster County since its inception in 2002. He spent his first year as county historian getting the lay of the land, getting to know his fellow historians in the county. Based on that, he put together a team of municipal historians and members of the county historical society to organize the conference. The theme was resources and not history itself. In other words, what are the resources available at the state, regional, and county level to the history community in Ulster County.

The conference drew about 45 people. The conference was held in the combined town halls of Marbletown and Rosendale. An elementary school building has been repurposed as a shared town hall for the two municipalities. The Senate House was not present. I mention that simply to point out that when hosting such conferences, one should include the state and NPS sites if there are any in your county. Also Historic Huguenot Street, probably the largest history organization in the county and the one most likely to draw tourists from afar, was not in attendance.

Ulster County History Conference: The County Executive

To begin the conference, Geoff referred to himself as the facilitator of the county history community. He then introduced Mike Hein, the County Executive. As regular readers of my blog know, I advocate for having the county executive welcome the attendees. I think it is beneficial to the history community to be visible in this way and for the county executive to see that there is a history constituency in the county.

If possible, I suggest county conference organizers should ask the county executive to send letters of invitation to the mayors and town supervisors in the county for their historians to attend. As we all know, not all municipalities comply with the state regulations to have a municipal historian. An invitation from the county executive serves as a reminder to comply.

I don’ know this county executive. My impression from listening to him and his interaction with the audience was that he has a genuine interest in Ulster County history and is accessible to the history community. He called for respect for the past and the people before us. He stressed the importance of preserving our history. He considers the county the size of Rhode Island to be blessed with many historic sites. He thanked the people for what they do saying it does matter and is pivotal. If the history community wanted to do something, I think he would support it as best he could at the county level and assist in seeking state help if needed.

Ulster County History Conference: The State Resources

Speaking of the state, the first session of the conference consisted of presentations by State Historian Devin Lander and Clare Fleming of the New York State Archives.

Devin spoke mainly about the still new website for the Office of the Historian. He was able to link online directly to the site and navigate through it as part of his demonstration. I am not going to repeat what he said. To find out more about the site click here.  He also encouraged people to sign up for the state historian newsletter when visiting the site.

Devin also spoke about National History Day. He participates as a judge in the competition. He would like to see more schools participate in it. He then expressed a desire for the students to use more local and state history in their presentations. This comment led to some audience responses which I will save for the end of the post.

Clare spoke about various document-related programs the State Archives offered. Again, this was in keeping with the theme of being a resource-information conference for the history community. These main program was the Documentary Heritage and Preservation Services for New York (DHPS/NY). It can be accessed here and by email at It is possible to have archive people visit your site and she mentioned the workshops and webinars which were available. Finally, she encourage people to contribute articles to the New York Archives bulletin. Appropriate brochures and bulletins were distributed.

Again, as regular readers of my posts know, I am a strong advocate of training for municipal historians and the history community. There is still a lot to be said for in-person training with colleagues. I would like to see formal training programs for historians with the New York State Archives, Library, Museum including the Historian, all in the same building, Parks at Peebles Island, State Education Department for k-12 curriculum, and I LoveNY for heritage tourism. For me, this is a no-brainer

Ulster County History Conference: The County Resources

The second session was devoted to the county archives. The presentations were by Ulster County Clerk Nina Postupak and archivist Taylor Bruck. Every county clerk office has its own story to tell. In this case, Ulster County owns a colonial house dating back to 1661. The Matthewis Persen House is located within the Kingston Stockade National Historic District. Therefore this county clerk office has continuing exhibits on display there. As part of its digitization program, the County will start preserving its exhibits digitally so they don’t disappear or end up solely in storage once the exhibit is taken down. In addition, the history lectures by the County Clerk also will be available online.

The County ownership of an historic building enables it do what other counties might not be able to do. For example, included in the packet distributed by the Clerk’s office was an invitation for any history organization to participate as a Guest Host on a Saturday during the season at the Matthewis Persen House. This means an organization could have lecture, exhibit, re-enactment or event at the county-owned facility. The invitation states:

The County Clerk’s Office wants to ensure that the Persen House continues to be a viable resource for the historical and cultural community organizations throughout Ulster County. We hope that this added support [promoting your Guest Host event through the County resources] …will encourage you to return each year.

Space does not permit a review of all the activities, but overall it seems fair to conclude that this County Clerk office is very involved in the history of the county. If there is a county clerk conference, it would nice if the Ulster County Clerk could show other county clerks what is possible.

Ulster County History Conference: Regional Resource and Dutchess County

The final session before lunch was by Jennifer Palmentiero, Digital Services Librarian for Hudson River Valley Heritage (HRVI). As you can see, digitization was a strong theme in the three morning sessions. The session introduced the audience to the HRVI products and services although some members in the audience seem to be active users already. For information about HRVI go to

After lunch, another digital session presented a partnership among a collage (which had received a huge grant), a historical society, and a town historian. Technically, this was not an Ulster presentation since the college, Bard, the town, Red Hook, and the historical society, Red Hook, are in Dutchess. The grant enabled the college to purchase equipment to use in gathering oral histories. Professor Susan Merriam outfitted a car to travel around the community working with Claudine Klose, Historic Red Hook, and Emily Majer, Red Town historian and village of Tivoli Deputy Mayor. Non-history students seem to quickly grasp how to organize and catalog data accumulated from the house-history input form they developed. This demonstration excited the audience for its potential but it clearly benefited from the partnership with the college and a huge grant.

The final presentation was a work-in-progress about a mobile app fo creating tours with a European vendor.

Ulster County History Conference: Issues and Concerns

The wrap-up session entitled “Issues and Concerns” was most interesting. People did not take the opportunity to leave early. Instead they used it to voice concerns. Please be aware if you a regular reader of my posts that the following comments were unsolicited and unprompted ones.

The deferred comment from Devin’s presentation on History Day in the morning was the question on where is local history in the k-12 curriculum. This led to a comment by Susan Stessin Cohn, New Paltz Town Historian, who has prepared many teacher guides and conducted many teacher workshops to note the problem of how teachers are supposed to learn state and local history in the first place.

In response to the Bard College project, one person raised the civics issue. How do we know where we are? How do we connect and build a community? How do we create a shared space? His answer to his own questions was that history can provide that context if allowed to do so.

Municipal historians came in for some criticism by municipal historians themselves. Municipal historians don’t really have programs. Where are the county and state guidelines [meaning in practice in the real world]? What happens when the historian leaves especially with the collections? They should be stored on town property and not in private houses? Why should people donate private holdings to the municipality if they can see there is no good place to store them? Historians are losing their offices [assuming they ones in the first place. Personally, I think the historian should be based at the library and not the town hall.]

This session would have made a good APHNYS or MANY session. Speaking of APHNYS, the Region 3 meeting was held the next day in Putnam County with County Historian Sarah Johnson. During the conference, one person reminisced about his introduction into local and state history with call to remember the Yorkers!

I am not going to add what I said after hearing these comments on either day. I will note that six people afterwards gave me their cards to add to the distribution list for this blog and that multiple people in attendance in Ulster already get my blog as they informed me. It’s always nice to connect in person instead of just by internet. It isn’t as if the grassroots history community doesn’t know what needs to be or won’t speak up when gathered together, the issue is who is listening especially at the state level.

History Signs: Pathway to the Past

Beverley Robinson House History Marker, photo by Ron Soodalter

I had an epiphany at the annual conference of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS). That probably is not a venue normally associated with religious breakthroughs. Nonetheless, I had a vision of history signs and it was good. Standing at the vendor booth for the Pomeroy Foundation,  which funds history signs throughout the state, I realized that our state history signs are like lost sheep wandering around the state but no one knows where.

What do I mean, they are lost? Everyone knows where they are. Everyone sees them. Well, yes, it is true, it is difficult to drive too far along the highways and byways of the Empire State without encountering a history marker, but that doesn’t mean anyone knows where all such signs are.

Let’s review the history of history markers in state courtesy of “Signs of Controversy” by Laurence M. Hauptman from the summer 2014 issue of the NYS Archives Trust bulletin. Here are the critical dates in the history of the history markers:

Stage 1 (1926) The Commemoration of New York’s role in the American Revolution

The State Legislature directs the State Commissioner of Education plan for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Revolution including a provision for “markers to designate sites that are of historic interest in the colonial, revolutionary, or state formative period.”  So was born the famous gold-rimmed blue markers that continue to line our roads to this very day. Over 200 were erected in the following decade. Hauptman notes that the American Indian did not fare well in the reporting on these signs. An inventory of those signs can be found at the APHNYS website in a downloadable PDF which I just downloaded.

Stage 2 (1939-present) Signs Go Wild

Obviously Hauptman’s term is not a legal or official one. It refers to cessation of state funding for and control over the history markers.  All state controls were eliminated. Anything was possible.

Stage 3 (1960-1966) Historical Area Marker Program

At this point, the State sought to resume control. History markers were to serve dual purposes: education and tourism. Signs were to be located along the New York State Thruway at rest stops and on other major highways. The signs were to be oversized with different font from the original state makers to differentiate them. Imagine that: big state history signs on the highways to promote tourism starting in 1960…and to be controlled by the State Education Department. Does that sound familiar? These signs happened 52 years before I Love NY wrested control of the oversized Path through History signs on the highways from the State Education Department/New York State Museum which originally controlled the project. In trying to understand the shift in responsibility, please keep in mind that the State Education Department reports to the Regents while I Love NY reports to the Governor, not that politics was a factor in any of the decision-making. I did a search on the New York State Museum website and found a documented listing of 139 Historical Area Markers erected in the 1960s.

Stage 4 (1966)

In 1966, the legislature repealed the Historical Area Marker Program. Henceforth, the New York Historic Trust, an advisory group part of the Department of Conservation (now Department of Environmental Conservation). Then in 1972, the legislature shifted the “long-dormant roadside marker program” to the New York State Board for Historic Preservation within the newly-formed Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. In the interim, the still extant Office of State History published the Historical Area Markers in New York State guidebook [paperback version of the 1970, publication available on Amazon for $49.99].

Booklet Published in 1970

There still was no state funding. Responsibility for the approval, removal, correction, and funding of history markers remained local.

Stage 5 2014-2015 The Weible Years

Hauptman’s article from 2014 refers to an initiative begun in 2014 by the then State Historian Bob Weible.  The goal was to encourage locally-appointed historians to work cooperatively to coordinate history marker activities and to assume greater responsibility for them. The effort was to be done through APHNYS with the assistance of the Pomeroy Foundation. I did not know this when I had my epiphany. I was aware of a New York State website listing history markers by county. When I looked at it months ago for my own county, Westchester, I found, not surprisingly that Weible was still listed as the contact person even though he was no longer there. When I just looked again, I couldn’t even find the page on the NYS Museum website. I did, however, find a reference to it in Wikipedia under List of New York State Historic Markers.

According to Wikipedia there are over 2800 such signs through 1966 with a breakdown provided by county. One can drill down on each county to obtain a more detailed list with date, location, and inscription. The source for the information was the very webpage I was searching for. When I clicked on the link the response was

Our apologies, but much like the Cohoes Mastodon,
this page is history.

Mastodon NYS Museum
Mastodon NYS Museum

New York Net History Net also has a link to the New York State Museum listing with the same result. That website apparently is not up-to-date as it refers to an upcoming conference in 2004:

State History Interest Project (SHIP) – clubs for middle school and high school students interested in New York State, formerly known as Yorkers.  New clubs are welcome at the next annual convention May 6-8, 2004 in Niagara Falls, NY.

Although not the subject of this post, the Yorkers link leads to:

404 – File or directory not found.

The resource you are looking for might have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.

What ever happened to this statewide effort to engage students in New York State history? And please don’t say National History Day.

Returning to the history markers, Hauptman advocates for a change in the obviously defunct system that became even worse since his 2014 article. He observes that there is no state agency authorized by the legislature to correct, replace, or remove existing signs.

It’s not as if the State Museum isn’t aware of the situation. On its own website there is a summary of history markers by Philip Lord.  Much of the information parallels the Hauptman article with additional details identifying specific legislation.

Lord provides the following description for the wild years:

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.

He then notes that:

Unlike many other states, New York State does not currently manage a historical marker program. Instead, local authorities are responsible for the approval, installation, and maintenance of historical markers. Anyone interested in placing or repairing a marker should thus check with appropriate county, city, town, or village historians or officials.

In effect, it is incorrect to refer to the new signs as state signs since the state has no control over them.

There are still new history signs being established all the time. For example:

May 21, 2016 The Margaret Fuller Marker Dedication in Beacon – funding was by the Pomeroy Foundation which seemingly has replaced the state in any overseer role at least for the signs it funds and they do resemble the famous state sign format

August 18, 2016 914 The Sound Recording Studios Historical Marker Dedication where some of the most iconic rock anthems of the 1970s were made, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.”

October 7, 2016 The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) placed its ninth plaque (not history marker) at the former home and studio of renowned 20th century sculptor and artist Chiam Gross at 526 LaGuardia Place (at Bleeker Street), now the home of the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation.

GVSHP Dedication
GVSHP Dedication

Strange as it may seem. there are people interested in history signs the way other people are fascinated by the Kardashians. New York Historic was founded by Matthew Conheady. Its website states the following:

We are not the New York State Office of Parks and Historic Preservation (go there instead). We are not in charge of or responsible for any of the historic sites listed on this website.

We are a band of photographers with an interest in New York State history. The nature photography community, – Upstate Nature, Wildlife and Photography, owns and operates this website.

What we do

We geographically catalog Historic Sites around the state of New York, and present them online for people to explore. Our database is complemented by beautiful photos taken by talented members of our community.

Why we do it

Just as has inspired aspiring photographers to get out and tour Upstate New York to capture beautiful waterfall and lake scenes, NYHistoric aims to help people locate these interesting sites, so they can have new photography subjects to explore and learn a bit of local history as well.

We also expect the education and tourism industries to take advantage of our efforts.

We do it all for free, and because we like to.

Another example is:

New York State Historical Markers: It Happened Here

created by Tom Arthur. The last entry is dated September 16, 2016, so it appears to still be functioning.

So what should be done now?

Goal: Create a documented and searchable statewide database of the history markers in New York State starting with the state- sanctioned signs.

  1. The Governor through the Office of the State Historian should ask each county executive/borough president acting through the county historian/borough historian to prepare a list for the county/borough.
  1. The County historian/borough historian should work through the municipal historians and historical societies to create Yorker clubs with the first task to be inventorying the history markers in the municipality.
  1. The inventory should include photographs, then and now if appropriate, GPS information, and a review of the information on the current signs to check for accuracy. It may be necessary to replace some signs with better information.
  1. The New York State Archives/Museum should locate the original applications for state history markers.
  1. The New York State Historian should create a state map and database of the history markers.


It might be reasonable to test this at the county level first. For example, in 2015, Otsego County, which does not have a county historian, produced a booklet “Historical Markers of Otsego County and Their Locations” under the auspices of the Otsego County Historical Association. I thank Town of Hartwick municipal historian Carol Goodrich whom I saw at the APHNYS conference where this all began, for mailing me a copy. Now what we need is some state leadership to bring together APHNYS, Pomeroy, NY Historic, NYS Historical Markers, the NYS Archives, and the NYS Museum together to make it happen.

Mary McTamaney:Archive Month, The Economy, and Irene

October is Archive Month in New York State. The celebration raises several issues regarding the meaning of archives in state history: financial, technological, and promotional. Continue reading “Mary McTamaney:Archive Month, The Economy, and Irene”