You never know what your parents or grandparents were saving in those boxes collecting dust in their attics or stacked in a dark corner of the basement. So don’t be too quick to throw them away.
The long-forgotten stash may contain a treasure trove of local history that will be forever lost if those boxes are tossed in the Dumpster, says Riverhead Town Historian Georgette Case.
If you find yourself tasked with helping to clean out the family homestead, please look before you toss, the town historian asks.
In just a couple of hours on Saturday morning, local residents brought to the town historian’s office exactly the kind of things Case was hoping for when she scheduled the “donation day” — everything from dozens of hand-written letters dating back to the 1850s, written to one of Riverhead’s most prominent citizens, to photos and memorabilia from Riverhead High School in the 1940s and a photo of West Main Street after the 1938 hurricane struck and several old editions of the defunct Riverhead News — which was purchased by the publishers of the County Review in July 1950; they combined the two papers to form the News-Review.
The historian even received a few charred boards from the old stage of the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, a theater built in 1881 on what was then called Bridge Street (now Peconic Avenue) that has a rich and colorful history. In 1925, after the theater had been converted into a restaurant a kitchen fire damaged what had been the stage area. Yesterday, Vail-Leavitt president Bob Barta brought three boards from the damaged stage — he found them in the building’s attic — to the town historian’s office.
One of the boards is inscribed with the name of the lumber company the boards came from, reading “Corwin & Vail R Head LI.” The Corwin & Vail Lumber Co. was located on the railroad line in Riverhead. Its two-story office building is now home to the Railroad Museum of Long Island’s archives and visitor’s center on Griffing Avenue.
Thanks to keen-eyed history buff and book collector Brian Minnick of Flanders, a large collection of personal correspondence and papers of prominent Suffolk County jurist, Judge Timothy M. Griffing — some dating back to the pre-Civil War era — were saved from the trash bin. The papers include handwritten letters to Griffing from various members of his family as well other correspondence and a paper (titled “The Supremacy of Law”) written by Griffing as an undergraduate student at Yale College, from which he graduated in 1864. He went on to earn his law degree at Albany School of Law.
A pre-eminent Riverhead resident, Griffing was born in 1842 into a a prominent family that traced its roots on the North Fork to the mid-17th century.
Lawyer, county court judge (1906-1912) and businessman, he was one of the founders of Riverhead’s water company, served as president of the Riverhead Electric Light Company from 1902 to 1907, was a trustee of Riverhead Savings Bank and, at the time of his death on July 7, 1924, was president of the Suffolk County National Bank.
Among his civic contributions, he created a beautiful private park that was open to public use on property he acquired immediately east of his family homestead. Its name, Grangebel Park, is a combination of the names of his three daughters, Grace, Angeline and Mabel.
In 1892, Griffing built a 100-foot-tall tower at the southeast corner of the park. It was at the time the tallest structure in Suffolk County. He sited the over a newly built flume and canal leading from a new dam he’d built at the site of an abandoned mill on the property. The tower housed a large water tank, a grist mill and two turbine-type water wheels — one to power the mill and the other to operate pumps to lift water from two 85-foot-deep wells to the water tank. The tower had a 25-foot observatory built atop its roof. Proceeds from the sale of tickets to the observatory were donated to the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, in which his wife Caroline was active. The tower was demolished in 1930s and ’40s but its stone foundation and the brick pump house built next to the tower in 1907 remain in the park today.
Griffing’s son Robert (1881-1956) also became an attorney, He established a law firm in Riverhead, Griffing and Smith, with Reginald C. Smith. Robert Griffing evidently possessed some of his father’s personal papers and after Robert Griffing’s death, they remained with Smith. Smith’s son, Riverhead attorney and town justice Allen Smith came into possession of Timothy Griffing’s personal papers some time afterhis father’s death — and saved them.
The town justice died last year and his family sold his Aquebogue home. They were in the process of cleaning it out when the trove of Griffing’s personal papers were discovered by Minnick, whose sister Jeanne is married to one of Smith’s sons. Minnick said his sister called him because she knew he, as a book collector, would be interested in her late father-in-law’s library. Minnick was intrigued by the papers Smith had.
“We knew right away these papers were special and shouldn’t be thrown away,” Minnick said Saturday at the town historian’s office.
There are dozens of personal letters written to Griffing that were neatly folded and saved, some for reasons that may never be known. But one clearly held great sentimental value for Griffing, a letter from his mother Polly, written to him on the occasion of his 35th birthday on Nov. 22, 1877.
“My Dear Son,” she wrote. “I feel I cannot let the anniversary of the day which brought me so much happiness without some expression…My love for you was inexpressible when you was first laid on my arm, and it has grown with your growth, and strengthened with your strength and I feel That I ought to be the most grateful of mothers that I have a Son to be my stay an support in my declining years,” Polly, then 71, wrote. Griffing was her only child. His father’s third wife, she was widowed nearly 14 years earlier. “You and your family are my all.”
She closed by “wishing you a long life and that you may be a blessing to your family, to community and to the world. I am your affectionate Mother Polly Griffing.”
Letters provide intimate glimpses of life in days gone by that you don’t often get in history books, Case said. “They are so important,” she said. Case laments the loss of letter-writing among most people in modern times, as technology provided other forms of communication, like the telephone and, more recently, email and text messaging. People don’t write to each other in the same way and electronic messages are not usually saved.
Case wants to encourage people to look things over more carefully and save potentially historically important documents and photos for posterity — and she wants to let them know there’s a convenient way to have their “attic discoveries” evaluated and saved.
Ordinary things can have great value from a local history perspective. High school yearbooks, scrapbooks and other items provide lots of details that may otherwise be lost.
Candee Bouchard of Aquebogue has been sifting through items saved over many decades of life by her late father, William Conklin. She brought some of them to the town historian’s office Saturday. Her Dad, a member of the Riverhead High School Class of 1950, saved copies of the student newspaper, then called “The Blue and White,” and a “Classmate Card Book,” holding cards bearing the names — and nothing more — of classmates. A card exchange was apparently a tradition among students back then, Bouchard said. And there’s a photo depicting Conklin and two fellow members of the Riverhead High School basketball team, Ed Kelley and Walter Kobylenski.
Conklin also saved a drawing of the original ice plant operated by his great-grandfather on Forge Pond in the late 1800s, when they would cut ice from the pond, process it and haul it to businesses and homes for refrigeration purposes. The family endeavor grew into Long Island Ice and Fuel, which operates today from a plant on West Main Street.
He also saved a photo showing the aftermath of the legendary ’38 Hurricane on West Main Street, a December 1938 group photo of the members of the Reliable Hose & Engine Company of the Riverhead Fire Department, and a June 1968 House of Representatives visitor’s pass signed by then Congressman Otis Pike of Riverhead.
All of these items will be catalogued and indexed by the town historian’s office and securely stored. Case, with the assistance of volunteers, is in the process of digitizing all the documents in her collection.
Case is on a mission to save the town’s history for future generations. She plans more donation days in the months ahead.
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