Rockland is a compact county located along the border of New Jersey to the south, and the Hudson River to the east. It broke away from the more sprawling Orange County to the north in 1798, in part due to the challenge of governing an area split by the Ramapo Mountains.
Over the years, the area has been home to various peoples who didn’t fit in with the larger Dutch and English populations. The county consists of five towns including one with over 100,000 people, more than one-third the county’s total population. There are 19 villages and numerous hamlets.
After the opening of the Tappan Zee bridge there was a population explosion and Rockland has never been the same. The population roughly tripled from 1950 to 1990 and has continued to grow since. The ongoing demographic changes and the building of a new bridge now underway (without mass transit links to the train stations in Westchester) ensure that the county will experience change for years to come. Connecting the residents to the history of the county to colonial times or even the Civil War provides a challenge.
In each county, the status of the county historian is different. Rockland County had been served since 1977 by Thomas F. X. Casey, who died in 2009. Casey witnessed the transformation the county experienced with the construction of the bridge. In an interview with the editorial board of the local Gannet paper, he responded to a question about the most significant event in Rockland County history not with the hanging of Major Andre during the American Revolution, but by saying; “It’s much more modern than that, it’s the Tappan Zee Bridge.” His parting gift to the county was his successful effort to earn “Preserve America” designation in 2008 and gain federal funding to study the impact of the bridge on Rockland County.
The torch then was passed to a younger generation. Craig Long, the current historian, has a day job with the police and also serves as a village and town historian among other duties. As a result, he is not in a position to take as much a leadership role in county history as his retired-teacher predecessor did. Fortunately he is not alone in seeking to promote county history.
The Historical Society of Rockland County (HSRC) is one which truly lives up to its name. Clare Sheridan, who just stepped down as president of the society, is one of those energetic young people that the history community needs to thrive in the 21st century. (Note: “young” in historical society lingo does not mean a 20-year old) It’s not unusual for a county historical society to be limited to the county capital and not really to embrace a county leadership role. It also can be a delicate dance for the county society when there is a county historian, municipal historians, and local historical societies in the individual towns and villages. HSRC has done a superb job navigating its way and has fulfilled county-wide responsibilities. Some of their projects provide excellent examples for other counties.
1. It has a monthly radio show – the topics vary but these interviews represent one way to use media to reach out to the larger community. (I wonder if these could be taped as well and shown on the local cable stations in the municipalities in the county.)
2. There are frequent bus tours. There are 12 scheduled for this year. Besides touring its own county, HSRC also includes bus tours to nearby Orange County and to New York. This summer it is scheduling an overnight trip to the Mohawk Valley in August in conjunction with the presentation of “Drums along the Mohawk.”
3. HSRC has attended the Westchester/Lower Hudson Valley Council for the Social Studies annual conference, although it was unable to this year.
4. HSRC has now held consecutive annual high school local history social studies conferences. For the second year in a row it had 100% participation by the county high schools plus a parochial school as well. Larry Singer, the new president of HSRC, serves as the emcee for the conference.
There are some points of concern which need to be mentioned. The county suffers from severe financial problems. On December 31, 2013, the local paper ran an article “Rockland Tourism Out with a Bang.” The article described the end-of-the-year fireworks along the Hudson as the last act of the tourism coordinator. The previous longstanding director died in 2010. The County Executive at the time sought to save money by turning over the tourism efforts to the Rockland Economic Development Corp. (a private nonprofit), but the change was never implemented. The tourism department was defunded in 2011 and the tourism director’s successor was reassigned to the County Finance Department. In the election campaign of 2013, the winning candidate vowed to eliminate the position, which he did as soon as he took office this year. The current plan is to shift the tourism effort to the business group.
As to what this all means for local history still remains to be seen. The new county executive did attend the local history social studies conference, as his predecessor had. He seems to have a genuine interest in the county history. The question is, will that interest be carried into the new tourism organization?
On March 16th, the local paper ran an article entitled “Sunday Drive: A Trip Back to Tappan.” This drive focused on the community’s sites from the American Revolution. It would be easy to create a Tappan Path through History. Each of the five towns in the county could create one-day paths in their community which combined would create a week-long program for tourists, teachers, and interested residents. HSRC’s monthly bus trips have already done most of the legwork.
So what are my recommendations for Rockland County history? What should be done? Well, the answer is the same as it was for Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens with some change since the county has had two local history high school conferences. Ed Day, the County Executive, should convene a meeting of the Rockland County history community with the County Historian, County Historical Society, and the Economic Development Corp. The agenda items of the meeting should include:
1. An annual County History Conference where all history organizations can have display tables;
2. Including county history and civics with field trips in the Common Core Curriculum – this would include creating a high school elective on county history; and
3. Designing Rockland County Paths through History for the different towns and themes of the county’s past for residents, students, and tourists.
Due to its location, Rockland is in an excellent position to tap into the New York market for day trips, including for overseas visitors who want a taste of American life outside the Big Apple.
The effort to connect teachers and residents to the community’s history will require leadership, cooperation, collaboration, and hard work. The record shows the history community in Rockland County has these qualities.