Historians understand better than the rest of us that there is nothing in the present that hasn’t been in the past. For the Dutchess County Historical Society, that goes back to the inquisitive nature of Helen Wilkinson Reynolds (1875-1943).
Born and raised in Poughkeepsie, NY, from a young age she developed a deep love of the history of Dutchess County. She was a researcher and a writer, and found her life’s work with the Historical Society, which was founded in 1914. Soon after its formation, Reynolds was elected a trustee and went on to serve in every capacity. She was appointed editor of the DCHS Year Book in 1921, and was responsible for overseeing its content and publication up until the time of her passing. So fundamentally important was her influence on the DCHS through the decades that a Helen Wilkinson Reynolds Award was created in her honor. It’s presented annually to an individual who has demonstrated a commitment to the “necessary and accurate pursuit of historical truth.”
The power of local history
The pursuit of historical truth is what drives the DCHS today. Bill Jeffway is its executive director, and his passion parallels that of Ms. Reynolds. “I am personally dedicated to research and publishing,” he said when I visited with him and Melodye Moore, the DCHS collections chair, recently in the Society’s new home on Route 9 in Rhinebeck, NY. They shared with me a statement that’s also on the DCHS website about why they believe local history is so powerful:
“The things that we can see and touch awaken the imagination. Local history touches off these things that have happened on the spot; and the facts of local history become parts of a person’s own life to an extent that is rare with scenes and incidents one has taken solely out of books and secondhand accounts.” The historian and philosopher, Louis Mumford, spoke these words to the DCHS membership at the Amenia estate of Joel and Amy Spingarn in September of 1926.
What’s the truth?
Bill pointed out that the area’s earliest populations were defined by the waterways that dissect the county in all directions, and that consequently and naturally diverse populations found their homes in common places. “Dutchess County has always had a rich diversity of people,” he said, sharing that it was home to the largest population of Quakers outside of Philadelphia at one time and that Hyde Park was a place where many different groups settled side by side.
“It’s an area that can teach us how diverse people can get along,” he said. “We have all this information, and we’re always asking ourselves, ‘What’s the truth?’” He added, “While truth is based on fact, parts of it will always be subjective. It’s people’s stories that bring history to life.”
Melodye agreed that history comes alive in stories and not just facts. Her passion is collections. “I love the adventure of going down the rabbit hole of learning from the objects that are here and that come in to us,” she said.
Melodye mentioned with admiration and pride how exploring a collection can bring someone’s life to light, as it has in the exhibition of the paintings of Caroline Clowes, the niece of Benjamin Hart. The Hart Hubbard Collection is one of many housed at the DCHS. Clowes lived with the Hart family at “Heartsease” in LaGrange, an apple and citrus business started in 1836 that operated into the 1960s and was internationally renowned. The farm is still in the Hubbard family. It was through the Hart Hubbard family archives that the paintings of Caroline Clowes were discovered, prompting the extensive project of re-introducing her work to the public. The DCHS mounted a beautiful exhibit of her paintings in the new space lLearn more at dchsny.org/fertileground).
Bill’s background is in advertising, where he represented companies around the world. He understands how to bring stories to life; how to get to the heart of them, and how to share them. “I’m especially interested in the lesser-told histories and voices that aren’t dominant,” he said. In the Society’s new home, a large central space showcases objects from collections and rotating exhibitions, and there are three digital areas for multi-dimensional self-learning that further help to bring the stories to life. Bill has been instrumental in implementing these projects, which are supported by a grant. He has also continued the publication of DCHS’s Year Books, which date back to 1914, and published two Encore Editions focusing on single topics. One is on Black history and the other is Hudson River sports.
Melodye has been involved with the DCHS since 1979. She was its first executive director, a term she held until 1986. From 1986 to 2010 she served as historic site manager. She rejoined the DCHS as a board member in 2010 and, in the spirit of Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, has served the Society in nearly every capacity.
The new site
Melodye took me on a tour of the building, explaining that the Society was outgrowing its space in the Clinton House in Poughkeepsie, which is owned by New York State. Most important to DCHS is the preservation of the collection and its accessibility to the public. The current building was an appliance store with its own family history in the county – it was owned by the Hobson family from the 1950s until 2016. There were plans for it to open as the site for a year-round farmer’s market until COVID came along. By 2022 the focus was elsewhere, and the opportunity for its long-term lease and use by the DCHS seemed ideal. “It suits so many of our needs,” Melodye explained. “It’s visible right on Route 9. It’s handicap accessible, there’s a new heating system, there’s a great exhibition space, and there is a lot of storage space. The stars aligned,” she said.
I was so impressed with everything I was seeing and hearing that I almost forgot I wanted to include a few specifics like a little something on Dutchess County’s Black history for this issue, since it’s Black History Month. I had already looked at Bill’s wonderfully engaging presentation on the website titled, “Poughkeepsie: A Local Path Toward Racial Equality.” It’s an interactive map where you can click on 20 different spots to learn about their significance to racial equality in the county. (Find it at the DCHS at dchsny.org/pet.) It’s an excellent resource.
Looking back for Black History Month
Bill gave me a book that’s part of the DCHS Yearbook 2022 Encore Edition titled, Writings from the past issues on Black History Since 1914. It’s over 200 pages of compelling reading. This short excerpt is from the chapter, “Separate Black Education in Dutchess County: Black Elementary Schools and a Proposed Black College,” by Dr. Carleton Mabee, Emeritus professor of history at SUNY New Paltz:
“In the 1820s and 1830s in New York State, many children, black and white, did not attend school at all. Public schools were not yet well developed. In both public and non-public schools, blacks were often refused admittance, or if admitted, they might be made so uncomfortable they would prefer to leave. …
“The earliest school for blacks in Dutchess County of which a record is available was the African School in Poughkeepsie, evidently a private school. It was taught in 1829-30 by Isaac Woodland, a black preacher from Baltimore.
“Following Woodland, from about 1830 to 1839 Nathan Blount, a young black educated in a Presbyterian school for blacks in New Jersey, taught a black school in Poughkeepsie. … While teaching in Poughkeepsie, Blount helped to found the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. He also was furiously active as an abolitionist, being on the executive committee of the predominantly-white Dutchess County Antislavery Society, attending national abolitionist conventions, and serving as an agent for such abolitionist papers as the New York Colored American and the Boston Liberator.”
Mabee’s research and writing, preserved by the DCHS, turns a time period and a teacher into a window on what it was like to be a person living a life of purpose in dangerously challenging times in our own back yard. I’m reminded of Melodye sharing how Helen Wilkinson Reynolds took it upon herself to inventory the graveyards of Dutchess County, and how her knowledge of the place was so deep that she became a go-to person for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s early builders around Hyde Park. Stories coming alive across time.
There are truly treasures to be explored at the beautiful and welcoming Dutchess County Historical Society, and on its website. Helen Wilkinson Reynolds’s spirit is alive and well there, and Lewis Mumford’s prophetic words will ring in your ears: “the facts of local history become parts of a person’s own life.” •
The Dutchess County Historical Society is located at 6282 Route 9, Rhinebeck, NY. It is a not-for-profit organization that relies on support from memberships, gifts, grants, and donations. Learn more (a lot more!!) at dchsny.org.