REVIEW: A History of the Historic Markers of New York City’s Lifestyle
Who remembers taking Sunday drives with their parents and noticing historical road signs? My parents did this often and encouraged us to study along the way. Sometimes we even got an ice cream as we drove for miles on the back roads of Chemung County.
I had a particularly memorable experience stopping to read one, stretch our legs, and look over the nearby cliff. There was a pile of pebbles at the foot of the historical marker. I took one (like an 8 year old) to toss over the bank only to find it was actually charcoal briquettes that were gray with ash. I don’t remember what the tracer said, but I do remember telling my dad, “Drive faster, Daddy. It doesn’t hurt when you’re driving fast. “I held my hand out the window of our 1960 station wagon all the way home.
An article by Phillip Lord Jr. on the New York State Education Department website states that a historic marking program was launched in New York State around 1923 in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the American Revolution. Most of New York’s historical markings were erected between 1926 and 1936. Historical records would be filed with the state to place a marker in a specific location. At the time, a marker could only cost $ 2 due to government funding. Active government funding of this program ceased around 1939, but the Ministry of Education and the Department of State History continue to actively coordinate these projects. Often times, the markers were funded by the Daughters of the American Revolution, local cities, or local historical societies.
In 1960, the education department was officially re-established as the body responsible for setting up and maintaining the markings. Oversized Historic Area Markers on display at Thruway rest stops date from this period. Small markings remained unfunded and were deemed unsuitable for large highways. This law was repealed in 1966 and the function was transferred to the Office for State History. This office encouraged the local communities to carry out their own historical marking projects.
However, it has been suggested that privately funded markers have a different design and color than the “official” blue and gold state markers. This has generally been ignored and the only real way to determine this is through careful consideration. The bottom line is that many will indicate where funding for the marker was obtained. Some cities have created their own “color scheme” to suit the suggestions. Government funding was not available from the 1950s to 1970s, although the placement of the markers continued to be sponsored under the supervision of the Bureau of State History to ensure accurate information.
New York does not currently have a historical marker program, but local historical societies and historians are fortunate enough to be able to fund new markers through grants from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. The foundation has a process of postponing application deadlines in all New York boroughs, as well as funding markers for national special projects such as women’s suffrage, historical transportation, the national register of historical sites and folklore (legends and lore markers). Funding is available to 501 (c) (3) organizations, nonprofit academic institutions, and local, state, and federal government agencies. City historians or local historical organizations can apply for a marker on behalf of and with the permission of the owner. Many markers are placed in national locations as well as in Ohio where a separate program is available.
In Marion we used this program to request four historical markers. One was placed in front of the location of the old Newark-Marion railroad depot. The other three will be installed and dedicated this spring. We have one to mark the location of the old Grange building (now the library). another to mark the location of the first fire station (now City Hall) and one in front of the home of former New York State Assemblyman, Civil War surgeon, doctor, and pharmacist Dr. Allen Steele Russell is to be placed. The total cost of the markers exceeds $ 4,000. We can’t thank the William G. Pomeroy Foundation enough for sponsoring it.
As the Wayne County’s Bicentennial Committee sets out, you will find more of these markers being placed as local historians and historical societies also make use of the Pomeroy program. Another place to see markers from across the state is on the “Historic Markers And The Places They Represent In New York State” Facebook group page. A local resource is the waynehistorians.org website where you can take a walk or drive through historical markings in Wayne County by selecting “Explore” and choosing your parameters.
History doesn’t have to be a puzzle. It’s all around us and these markings offer a tantalizing glimpse into the past.
Caryn Devlin has been a Marion historian since 2016 and a member of the Wayne County Bicentennial Committee, Marion Historic Association, and Marion Bicentennial Committee. Contact them at [email protected]