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Make New York State History Great Again

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport (

On August 28, 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared his intention to make New York State history great again. The occasion was the launching of his Path through History project. I attended the program in Albany and still have the materials and souvenirs from that day. The program was intended to generate revenue (and jobs) through the telling of the history of New York to tourists.

The plenary address was given by Ken Jackson, Columbia University, Mr. New York State History. In his address, Ken spoke of the ways in which New York had been a national leader over the centuries. He recounted various events, named various people and places, and highlighted the prominence of the Empire State. He also noted how much better other states like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were at touting their own stories than New Yok was. You would never know that George Washington spent more time here than in any other state over the 1775-1783 period.

In the years to come, the Path through History quickly became a joke and embarrassment. Instead of being a revenue generator, it became a project of signs, a scarcely used website, brief programs not during the tourist season that historic sites already did anyway, and no paths. The best that could be said for it was that it created a logo and phrase for I LoveNY and history sites to use as a brand. It did nothing to fulfill its original promise that had brought hundreds of people to Albany six years ago to expectantly witness its birth.

As a result, Ken Jackson morphed from plenary speaker to critic. He criticized the program in a letter to Cuomo. He criticized the program when speaking at subsequent conferences. He criticized the program in private conversations. The program certainly has garnered its share of critical columns here in this history column. All to no avail. The Path through History mocked the idea of making New York History great again through telling its story to tourists.

Perhaps the most egregious exposure of its shortcomings occurred in the AMC cable series “Turn” (for example, see AMC Mocks the Path through History). The nationally-shown program was about America’s first spy ring, the Culper Spy Ring, based in Setauket, Long Island, in New York. Although the show was filmed in Virginia, the story was a New York one. Who advertised on the show to visit the historic sites of the American Revolution? If you guessed Virginia, you are right. Come see where it happened. In Virginia. One might think New York would make that claim since the scenes were in New York, but no, it was Virginia that marketed its history to the national audience. Perhaps it was just as well. If someone had flown into JFK or LaGuardia to see the American Revolution sites shown in the series, no American Revolution Path through History itineraries had been created. Make New York State History great indeed! New York had been handed an opportunity on a silver platter to reach a national audience and did nothing.

The South has continued to show up the Empire State. As reported in previous posts, the southern states collaborated to produce a Civil Rights Trail (for example, see The Confederacy Trumps New York on Civil Rights Tourism). It opened January 1, 2018. That effort involved creating teams of people from the tourist, economic development, and academic sectors to cooperate and collaborate to produce the trail. New York State had talked the talked of doing that when the Path through History was launched but it hasn’t happened. To add more insult to injury, the U.S. Civil Rights Trail has attracted interest even in New York publications (for example, see In the South and North, New (and Vital) Civil Rights Trails, Learning About the Civil Rights Era Through Travel, and On a Civil Rights Trail, Essential Sites and Indelible Detours). When was the last time you read about someone following a Path through History trail? Even the events listed on the path website on Father’s Day and in October are of short duration intended for people within a 50-mile radius as a daytrip.

Speaking of trails, let’s not overlook the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. New York may have its wineries, but Kentucky has its Bourbon Trail. The Trail is complete with maps, mugs, t-shirts, history booklets, an itinerary and a passport. The website provides a suggested seven-day trip with an optional eighth day. It explains how the passport can be obtained and used. Seen any Path through History passports lately? Is there a winery one? Puts New York to shame. Sad.

By these comments, I do not mean to suggest that nothing has happened. We now do have a fulltime state historian but that is not due to the Governor. The New York State Museum has exhibits in recognition of the two centennials – women gaining the right to vote in 1917 and New York’s involvement in World War I – but they are not due to the Governor. The New York State Barge Canal has begun celebrating the Erie Canal bicentennial from the beginning of construction on July 4, 1817, to the completion with the Wedding of Waters on November 4, 1825.  The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation still operates but the parks and recreation take precedence over the historic sites under its administration, just as they always will. So, yes, things are still happening at the state level related to history.

I operate in the basis of the 80% rule. As a New Yorker, not Yogi Berra, is said to have said, 80% of life is showing up. The issue is not whether the bureaucratic momentum continues to grind forward on a routine basis but of leadership. What about the extra 20% that requires more than just showing up? In baseball terms, this is known as wins over replacement (WAR).  One analytically examines what a player contributes above and beyond just showing up, just being a replacement. Does this player add to the team value? Will the team win more?

For example, next year is the centennial of the state requirement for municipalities to have an historian. Sometimes even our Governor has mentioned this law as a sign of New York State’s commitment to its history. The law is often honored in the breach. Too many municipalities have no historian. The responsibilities are ill-defined especially given the new technologies available for the storing and dissemination of information to the general public. When the position does exist, it is often disrespected or minimized. There is no training. All in all, it is easy to see why there are no plans to celebrate the centennial – it would only highlight the shortcomings which need to be fixed.

So here are some suggestions as to how a governor could provide the leadership to make New York State history great again. They are offered in the hopes that the victorious candidate will rise to occasion and set New York on a great path through history. One should note that the implementation of these suggestions requires the assistance of the Regents and the Legislature as well.


1. Celebrate the centennial in 2019 of the legislation creating municipal historians in the state.
2. Enforce compliance with the legislation in all municipalities.
3. Define the responsibilities of the municipal historians based on the population of the municipality.
4. Extend the law to include creating a New York City historian.
5. Extend the law to create community district historians in New York City.
6. Establish a one-week training program for municipal historians starting with the county historians. The program should be based in Albany and include presentations by the New York State Archives, the New York State Education Department, the New York State Library, the New York State Museum, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation including a visit to the Peebles Island facility and I LoveNY. The program should conclude with a reception at the Executive Mansion.

Municipal historians should provide the local infrastructure for the creation of history tourism programs throughout the state.


1. Allocate $1 million of its REDC funding to the Path through History project or $100,000 for each of the ten regions.
2. Create teams in partnership with the New York Historian for each of the themes in the Path through History following the format of the southern states in creating a U. S. Civil Rights Trail.


Establish a $1 million REDC funding pool for history projects to include what used to be done through member items, for anniversaries such as the Suffrage Centennial, and for other history projects.


Create a Senate and Assembly history caucus. The caucus would aim to provide a forum for members to share their interest in history and to promote an awareness of the subject throughout the state. Start by calling for a history roundtable meeting since it has been years since the last one was held.


1. Offer courses in state and local history throughout the community and four-year SUNY colleges.
2. Require teachers to take such courses as part of their certification process and/or for professional development.
3. Include field trips to the local historic sites as part of the courses.
4. Revise the curriculum to include links to the local historic sites.

New York does have great stories to tell. New York does have great stories to tell that are directly relevant to the issues confronting and challenging the country today. New York has people dedicated, committed, and eager to tell these stories. What New York does not have is the leadership and support the history community needs. Let’s make the telling of New York State history great again.

My Own History Advocacy Day in Albany

For my interview on Bob Cudmore's The Historians see below

Tourism Action Day occurred on March 12 this year, one week after Parks Advocacy Day. The sequence worked out well for me as I got to see some legislators twice in a very brief time.

Tourism Action Day was organized by the Tourist Industry Coalition. According to its website, the New York State Tourism Industry Coalition was formed in 1987. It is comprised of various association and industry–supporting organizations whose main goal is to represent the state’s tourism industry on key legislative and regulatory issues. It represents 22 tourism-related industry organizations throughout the state of New York including: Albany County CVB – Campground Owners of NY – Canal NY Marketing & Business Alliance – Dutchess Tourism Inc. – Finger Lakes Regional Tourism Council – Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance – Hotel Association of New York City – Ithaca/Tompkins County CVB – Long Island CVB & Sports Commission – MANY: the Museum Association of New York – NYC & Company – NYS Destination Marketing Organizations – NYS Hospitality & Tourism Association – NYS Restaurant Association – NYS Tourism Industry Association – Oneida County Tourism – Otsego County Tourism – Saratoga Convention & Tourism Bureau – Ski Areas of New York, Inc. – Sullivan County Visitors Association, Inc. – The Business Council of New York State, Inc. – Visit Syracuse.

On March 13, 2017, the Tourism Industry Coalition embarked on a two-year plan of remaking its Tourism Action Day into a reception/networking style event. I did not attend the event last year but did this year. In the past, there were display tables from some of the members. Not this year. In the past, I saw people from MANY including its lobbyist. Not this year. I am not sure if anyone represented cultural heritage tourism.


The morning program (costing $39 unlike the free Parks Advocacy program) consisted of various legislative, administrative, and tourist dignitaries. There was no mention of history tourism or the Path through History during the proceedings unlike previous years. Although history or cultural heritage tourism was not an identified topic for a speaker and was not mentioned at all, there were some issues that do relate to the history community.

Obviously the transportation infrastructure is critical. If we want people to visit historic sites as tourists, then it helps to have a good infrastructure for the potential travelers to and throughout the state. The opening of direct flights from Norway to Newburgh provides an opportunity to develop history tourist programs in the Hudson Valley to a European audience. Whether that will happen or not is another matter.

A second issue was staff. Historic sites like many tourist facilities often use summer help. Roughly speaking, the seasonal staff is available from July 4 to Labor Day due to school and maybe on weekends before and after. A proposed law to change the school year will affect the availability of high school students. Under the law, the total number of hours in the school year will remain the same but the obligation to have full-days is dropped. In other words, schools could schedule half-days. Two half days instead of one full day means one additional calendar day is needed. The more partial days a school schedules the longer the school year becomes. This means it could end later and/or begin earlier. That impacts summer staff. The Board of Regents will be debating the change for the upcoming 2018/2019 school year at its April 9-10 meeting.

One other unscheduled item occurred in talking to some upstate counties TPAs (Tourism Promotion Agents). They wondered what I was doing there since I am not in the tourist business. When I mentioned history tourism, they relayed to me how the Path through History program had undermined the programs they had been developing locally without replacing it with anything substantive. They had so little regard for the Path through History program I thought I was attending a history conference.

I add that a comment by one speaker about the infamous thruway signs that the Governor now has to remove brought a good laugh to the audience.


A big difference between the Parks Advocacy and Tourism Action Days is in the afternoon schedule. In the former, the schedule with the legislators is arranged, in the latter, we are on our own. The Tourism Advisory Council (TAC) did schedule a meeting for the afternoon. I sometimes attend those public meetings in New York and to the best of my knowledge over the past couple of years I am the only person not in the tourism business who has attended them. They will be the subject of a future post. After speaking with Cristyne Nichols, TAC chair, and Ross Levi, Executive Director of Tourism, Empire State Development, New York State Division of Tourism (aka I Love NY), I decided my time would be more productive meeting with legislators to discuss history tourism rather than attend the afternoon TAC meeting.

I meet with the staff from the following legislators: (the * means I also visited them as part of Parks Advocacy Day)

Senator Rich Funke who as chair of the Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation committee spoke at both advocacy days

Senator José Serrano who spoke at Parks Advocacy Day, attended the history roundtable in 2014 (A Report From The NYS History Commission Roundtable), and whom I wanted to talk to about Bronx programs and municipal historian regulatory changes

*Senator Terrence Murphy

*Assemblyman Tom Abinanti who made a special point to be there and expressed great interest in history especially the site of Andre’s capture in his own district

*Assemblywoman Didi Barret who is promoting the development of training people in craft skills to preserve old buildings and is a member of the Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development

Assemblyman Steve Englebright who called the history roundtable meeting in 2014 and whose legislative director then is now the state historian

Assemblywoman Sandy Galef who has a great interest in the Croton Aqueduct

Assemblyman Dan O’Donnell who spoke at both advocacy days as the chair, Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development

Assemblyman Steve Otis who is a member of the Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development, my representative and we met on the floor of the Assembly.

In my opinion, these History Advocacy meetings went well but only as a first step. I made it clear that I was speaking for myself and had not in any way been designated to speak on behalf of the history community…since there is no mechanism by which to do that any way. We don’t ask so we don’t get.

I began my presentation with Turn, the AMC 4-season show about America’s first spy ring in the American Revolution and which has been the subject of previous posts (AMC Mocks the Path through History). The events of the show took place mostly in New York including in the hometown of Assemblyman Englebright. He and his staff are very aware of the missed opportunity by New York State. By that I mean in the four years of showing American Revolution events to millions of viewers never once did New York advertise to those people to come to New York and see the real places were the events occurred. INSTEAD VIRGINIA ADVERTISED ON THE SHOW ABOUT NEW YORK! When I met with AMC at a promotional event at the New-York Historical Society in 2017, they were more than willing to do promotion events in New York and have I Love NY advertising. The problem was when I spoke with them at the beginning of the viewing of Season 4, it was too late. The example of Turn turned out to be an excellent way to start the presentation. In some cases it was a literal eye-opener, I mean people opened their eyes wide on how New York had missed the boat to promote itself to a receptive national audience.

The followup to this opening was to ask suppose a person did see Turn and decided to come to New York to see the sites of the American Revolution, then what? At that point I showed them the blog I written in January about the new Civil Rights Trail in the South developed by teams consisting of their equivalents of the REDC, state tourist departments, and scholars. I referred to the various themes identified in our Path through History project, the buzz words of “cooperation and collaboration,” and the absence of exactly that, meaning the absence of teams producing itineraries for people interested in the American Revolution sites. Imagine if we had had such teams over the past few years creating these products.

I did mention familiarization tours (Getting to Know You: Familiarizing I Love NY with You). Except for one notable exception on the Dutch from Albany to Brooklyn, familiarization tours tend to be geographically based and not thematically based. History doesn’t always observe our political boundary lines. I Love NY does not have the staff with history expertise, has no one dedicated to the Path project, and has not hired consultants with that expertise. The big promotion items for Path through History are for local events that don’t generate revenue and were for events organizations already were doing. It’s more a branding event than a development event. I didn’t mention this in the briefings but at the morning session, the tourist people noted July and August as the big tourist months and the Path events occur in June and October during the school year. I also didn’t mention that Elderhostel/Road Scholars developed precisely such programs and I “borrowed” the name “Teacherhostel/Historyhostel” from them.

At this point in the 15-20 minutes presentation I segued into the human infrastructure issue – the municipal historians. This was a bit of stretch although the county historians should be working with the county TPAs. I used this connection to note the upcoming centennial on an action that still makes New York unique – having municipal historians in the first place. That it is an unfunded mandate with unclear responsibilities and no training. I mentioned the need for training in Albany at the State Museum, State Library, State Archives, State Historian, NYSOPRHP, I Love NY and the Education Department. I used this opportunity to raise the issue of the status of the municipal historian in the state.

I did leave with some specific asks as show below. One suggestion made to me was to have a resolution passed calling for a history advocacy day in the next session. This is something any legislator can initiate but it probably would be most effective if Senator Funke and Assemblyman O’Donnell did as the chairs in the two chambers. My suggestion is for another history roundtable to be held as Assemblyman Englebright did with the support of Senator Serrano in 2014. This time all the history constituencies would be invited and the meeting would be a springboard to developing an agenda of asks for History Advocacy in the next legislative session and for the legislature and gubernatorial election this year.

All in all, I think it was a productive day but only the first step with no guarantee that there would be a second one. Readers should feel me to share this information with their own elected legislators back in their communities without having to travel to the state capital.



1. Celebrate the centennial in 2019 of the legislation creating municipal historians in the state
2. Enforce compliance with the legislation in all municipalities
3. Define the responsibilities of the municipal historians based on the population of the municipality
4. Extend the law to include creating a New York City historian
5. Extend the law to create community district historians in New York City

Municipal historians should provide the local infrastructure for the creation of history tourism programs throughout the state.


1. Allocate $1 million of its REDC funding to the Path through History project or $100,000 for each of the ten regions
2. Create teams in partnership with the New York Historian for each of the themes in the Path through History following the format of the southern states in creating a U. S. Civil Rights Trail


Establish a $1 million REDC funding pool for history projects to include what used to be done through member items, for anniversaries such as the Suffrage Centennial, and other projects


Create a Senate and Assembly history caucus similar to the current effort in Congress. The caucus would aim to provide a forum for members to share their interest in history and to promote an awareness of the subject throughout the state. Start by calling for a history roundtable meeting.


For my recent podcast on Bob Cudmore’s The Historians where I spoke about history advocacy, click below

News from the New York State Historian


Devin Lander, the New York State Historian, is approaching his one-year anniversary in May. One of the changes he made since he attained this full-time historian position involves the creation of a State Historian website announced on September 16, 2016. In his message he wrote:

Find statewide history at your fingertips.

The idea for this website is to provide an online conduit for information exchange between the New York’s historical field and the work of the NYS Museum Office of State History.  The website includes links to various history related resources that provide information on grants, best practices, conferences, etc.  The website also provides information on what the Office of State History is working on related to exhibits, publications, lectures, research, and events.

The website also has a calendar of history-related events taking place related across the state.  This calendar seeks to present simple content (date, time, location, brief description) created by historians for their event and either sent to me for posting.  Types of events can include: historical celebrations, lectures, exhibit openings, fairs, festivals, meetings, reenactments, etc. 

Please email your events for posting to:

The website’s news and articles division also seeks content from the field.  My voice should not be the only voice heard.  My colleagues in the Office of State History will be writing entries describing the work they are doing.  I also hope to feature “guest” authors who will write about the work they are doing related to New York State History.  I am seeking article entries from Local Government Historians, academic historians, Federal Government historians, historians from other State agencies, and historical museums and society staff.  Please send me ideas!  The entries should be brief (1,200-1,500 words) and related to interesting work being done on New York State history.

The website is a positive addition for people interested in the state of New York State history but I confess I had not paid it much attention since its inaugural. It was there if you looked for it but how did you know if there was anything new to look at? Perhaps if Devin sent notifications of changes to John Warren, a former teacher of his and editor of New York State History Blog, it would help disseminate the information to a broader audience.

I was reintroduced to the website when I conducted a search for a canal barge program to be done by Corning Glass (subject of a future post). At that point, I noticed his admittedly belated New Year posting dated February 14. It contained information about the newly established History Advisory Group that was the subject of a recent post by me on March 13. My source for the post was public information from press releases but it turns out there was additional information from Devin’s post which deserves attention.

He wrote:

On December 6th, 2016, the NYS Museum hosted a gathering of the newly formed New York State History Advisory Group.  This Advisory Group was brought together at my request to provide guidance and suggestions to me related to the field of history in New York, including opportunities and challenges.  The group is purely advisory and volunteer in nature and includes representatives from various perspectives including local government historians, state agencies, the National Park Service, heritage areas, academia, historic preservation, and history museums.  The intent is for the group to meet twice a year and for the members to serve two-year terms to ensure a rotating diversity of viewpoints and perspectives.  The mission of the Advisory Group is to advise the State Historian on ways to strengthen the capacity of New York’s historical programs and history community to carry out the preservation, management, interpretation, teaching, learning, research, publication, study and use of New York’s state and local history and to elevate history as a field of endeavor at the national, state and local level.

After listing the members, Devin proceeded to reveal some of what the attendees actually discussed when they met, information not in the press notices I read.

At the December 6th meeting, there were several points of interest that were discussed by the group.  One topic discussed was updating the document “Duties and Functions of New York State’s Local Government Historians,” which is being amended and is now posted on the website.  It is a brief document that serves as a de facto “job description” for local government historians.  It can act as a guiding document for local government historians as the Association of Public Historians of NYS (APHNYS) works to create a comprehensive manual.

Another topic that generated much discussion was the possibility of changing NYS History month from November to a different, more accessible, month.  November tends to be a problematic month because so many historic sites that might host History Month programming and events close after Columbus Day.  The Advisory Group discussed what possible months may be better and suggestions included October (which is already Archives Month) and possibly April (which is the month when New York’s first Constitution was ratified).  April might run into some of the same issues as November with many sites not opening for their season until May.  To change History Month from November to another month requires an amendment to the existing law which would require an act of the Legislature.  Further input from the field is welcomed going forward.

The duties and functions of the municipal historian is a topic which has been discussed here on several occasions (for example, see, County Clerks/County Historians: A Match Made in Albany?  One of my favorite sessions at the annual conference of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS) is the new historian session. Unfortunately the tale of woe remains constant: no training, and no guidance as people are thrown into the job. The lack of clearly defined specified responsibilities makes it easy for county executives, mayors, and town supervisors to dismiss, disregard, and diminish the position. A SUNY grad student composed guidelines in 1997. They need to be updated to take into account the new technologies. I have suggested a week-long training session for county historians in Albany with the various related state agencies. Based on the principle of “start at the very beginning, a very good place to start” and take it one step at a time, defining the position would be a major step forward in improving the status of the position throughout the state. Creating these guidelines and procedures along with the requisite training should be a top priority.

As for State History Month, a relevant question is “what are we trying to achieve with this month or designation?” We have a black history month and a women’s history month. What are the goals of these months and what needs to be done to achieve those goals? Does anyone think that without State History Month, Path through History weekends, and the other officially-designated time periods there would be no talks, tours, walks, events, or anniversaries? In fact many talks, tours, walks, events, and anniversaries occur at otherwise ordinary times that do not fall within the rubric of being part of an officially-designated time period. In baseball there is WAR or “wins over replacement.” It means what does someone contribute above over not being there. For example, George Bailey added a lot to the fabric of life in Bedford Hills by being present; subtract him and it’s a big loss to the community. How much of these specially-designated time periods are merely padding a resume for show without really adding value? Let’s use the issue of State History Month to seriously think about what we want to accomplish by highlighting a specific time interval and what are the ways to accomplish it.

Wouldn’t the annual conference of the Museum Association of New York (MANY) just held in Saratoga Springs have been an ideal venue to reach out to the history community to discuss this and other issues? If there could be separate discussion sessions for executive directors, collections and exhibit design staff, on programs, for students, and fundraising, why couldn’t there be a session with the State Historian? The same for the annual conferences of APHNYS and GHHN.

Just as I was preparing to write this blog, another change was introduced into the mix. Devin sent out an email about a listserv he has created:

Office of State History Newsletter


You are receiving this email from the Office of State History Listserv because of your interest or work within the field of New York State History. This listserv has been created by the New York State Historian as a way to communicate with the field regarding important events, news, or other information that will be made available on the Office of State History website at:

The listserv will only be used to direct your attention to updates to the website. If you are not interested in receiving these updates through the listserv, you may unsubscribe at any time.

If you would like to have public historical events or historical news items posted on the website, or if you have an idea for a more in depth historical posting, please contact

I am not sure exactly how one subscribes to the list if one is not already on it. Every municipal historian at the village, town, city, and county level should be a subscriber. Of course, that would necessitate a database of all such individuals. APHNYS strives to maintain such a file but it is a daunting challenge for a volunteer organization. One regulatory change I would support is for all county executives to annual certify the names and contact information of the historians for each of the municipalities in the county…starting with the county historian position.

In addition, I think all statewide organizations both private and public should include New York History Blog in the distribution so news isn’t simply restricted to one’s members. Certainly every county historian should do so as well…but then not every county has a county historian and even those that do don’t necessarily send out monthly or even quarterly messages to the history community of the county on what is going on. Now we are back at the beginning of the process whereby creating the guidelines for what municipal historians are supposed to do is the first step. Imagine if full-time Orange County historian Johanna Yuan’s monthly newsletter was available as a template for all counties to use simply by plugging in their photos, logo, and information so everyone wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Who really knows what is going on out there among the county historians, a subject for a forthcoming post.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Devin for being a dedicated reader of my posts and for the steps he has taken on behalf of New York State history so far, undoubtedly with more to come.