The Suffolk County Historical Society kicked off its 130th anniversary with a presentation last Saturday by Suffolk County historian Peter Fox Cohalan about the county’s history, transfixing a packed audience at its building in Riverhead.
It was 1886 — the year “the Statue of Liberty was dedicated,” noted its board president Bob Barauskas — that 33 men from each of Suffolk’s 10 towns met and formed the society, “and here we are today.”
He introduced its new executive director, Victoria Berger, who genially welcomed those present. She said of Mr. Cohalan, a former Suffolk County executive, Islip Town supervisor and a Supreme Court justice here for 26 years, “there is no one who could be more fitting” to address the event.
A flier distributed mentioned that the society’s “founders realized that in a rapidly changing world, if the county’s history was not preserved, it would soon be lost.” And Mr. Cohalan, with remarkable detail, humor and some unvarnished commentary, spoke about the history and the many changes through the years in Suffolk.
The county began as the East Riding of Yorkshire and, he said, “from there morphed into” Suffolk County in 1683, one of the 12 original counties in the Province of New York, and even after independence and the province becoming a state, Suffolk was “the only county never to be subdivided.”
With 50,000 residents in 1880, Suffolk began zooming in population in the mid-20th Century—to 660,000 residents in 1960, then 1.2 million in 1980 and now it’s 1.5 million. He commented that “over-population” is now a top county problem — the cause, for example, of the deterioration of the Great South Bay in his hometown of Islip.
Riverhead was designated the county seat in 1727 because it was centrally located in a county in which the population was spread about equally — indeed, Southampton Town, said Mr. Cohalan, had a larger population than Huntington Town then.
But by mid-20th Century with intense development occurring in western Suffolk, Hauppauge became the de facto county center. He spoke of the subsequent drive for secession of the five East End towns from Suffolk and their formation into a Peconic County, on the “back burner now.”
Mr. Cohalan said he understood what’s been behind this. He noted how with the change in distribution of Suffolk’s population, the composition of what had been the county’s governing body, the centuries-old Suffolk County Board of Supervisors, was challenged in court in the 1960s for violating the one-person-one-vote concept. The vote of the supervisor of Shelter Island, with a population of 1,300, according to the 1960 census, had the same weight as that of the supervisor of Islip, with 173,000 people then.
Mr. Cohalan related how in 1979 he challenged the incumbent Suffolk County executive John V.N. Klein in a Republican primary and went for an appearance on Shelter Island where its supervisor, Evans K. Griffing, was a leader of the Peconic County drive. Mr. Griffing had “played basketball together with my father in the 1920s” — Mr. Griffing on a Shelter Island team, and his father John P. Cohalan Jr. on one from Islip. That relationship altered the reception for him. Mr. Griffing, he said, referred to him to the assembled group of Shelter Islanders as “the kid” and declared: “I want you to vote for the kid.”
After being elected county executive, Mr. Cohalan said he telephoned Mr. Griffing and asked the secession-minded supervisor: “What can I do for Shelter Island?” Mr. Griffing, he said, told him: “Don’t come back.” And each time he planned to visit the island as county executive, he said he called Mr. Griffing who would tell him: “Just this once.” Mr. Cohalan laughed, “He was something else!”
Mr. Cohalan said that today with the East End having lost the clout it long had in Suffolk government, “I hope the East End towns never surrender their local police departments.”
Suffolk County “is a great place to live, it has so much to offer” and there are “so many stories to tell,” said Mr. Cohalan. Some are not positive—such as the Suffolk Republican chairman in 1925 at the same time being, he said, “the Suffolk County leader of the Ku Klux Klan.” Being a Catholic was a problem politically here for many years and Mr. Cohalan noted that his father’s (successful) run for Suffolk DA in 1957 was unusual for a Catholic. Moreover, the ways in which when “the Caucasians arrived” — they acquired land for very, very little payment from the the native Indian population — was reprehensible.
“The English and the Dutch and upstate the French were really rotten,” said Mr. Cohalan bluntly.
In closing, the county historian said it is vital we “get together and spread the message” of the importance of history. “It is incumbent on us that the people who come after us be given the opportunity to learn what came before them,” said Mr. Cohalan. He urged involvement with and support of the Suffolk County Historical Society.
The society is housed in a building at 300 West Main Street which, naturally, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It operates a history museum in which 20,000 artifacts are cared for, a library and archives, and offers educational programs, events and marvelous exhibits.
Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.
Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.