Band of Locals
No mission too big. No detail too small.
FDR & friends: origins of the Dutchess County Historical Society
This exhibition looks at the handful of Dutchess County friends, among them, FDR, whose lifetime interest in local history was wide-ranging and comprehensive. We look at some of the missions they undertook, and their collective legacy. All were early and influential founders of the Dutchess County Historical Society.
One of the group’s missions involved the President of the United States leaning on the highest echelons of the British Admiralty to procure the log books of British ships engaged in the Revolutionary War on the Hudson River. They were published in the 1936 DCHS Yearbook. Another mission involved the New York Governor promoting restoration of indigenous wildflowers as part of a roadside beautification plan, parallel with a public awareness program explaining why it is important to do so. Through Dr. J. Wilson Poucher's newspaper series published as a book, we learn the date and location of the first arrival of the invasive plant species we contend with today, purple loosestrife. (The answer is, it arrived on the banks of the Wallkill in the mid 1860s and was called “rebels ‘weed,” being erroneously attributed to Civl War soldiers returning home and bringing it with them).
In the introduction to the 1929 book, Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley before 1776, FDR said what he found most interesting about his collaboration with researcher/writer Helen Wilkinson Reynolds and photographer Margaret DeMotte Brown, was his discovery of the “manners and customs…of our forebears.” “From high to low their lives were the lives of pioneers, lives of hardship, of privation, and often of danger.” Using words like, “simple,” and “modest,” he applauded a life of hard work, and moderation. Since FDR’s ancestors were of the “high” order, it was no doubt beneficial to his political reputation to describe them in such terms.
We hope this exhibition illuminates the rich and varied influence they felt local history could bring to our present and future. And gives you an idea of the tools they created and left for us to use today, should we choose to.
Above left to right: Photo of FDR in WWI Homecoming Parade, September 24, 1918, Main Street Poughkeepsie, when Assistant Secretary of the Navy. John Mylod was born in Hyde Park in 1861 of Irish immigrant parents. He became a distinguished and accomplished lawyer, Catholic, Democrat, and Poughkeepsie City Historian. Helen Wilkinson Reynolds bears two well-known, local family names. Born in Poughkeepsie, her obituary noted she “leaves no immediate relatives.” Margaret DeMotte Brown arrived in Poughkeepsie in 1917 and set up a successful, professional photographic practice, becoming close to the Roosevelt family. She was frequently the photographic partner to researcher/writer Helen Wilkinson Reynolds. J. Wilson Poucher was born in Columbia County and educated in medicine in both New York and Germany. He became what was described as a local “pioneering surgeon.” Like Reynolds, he was a researcher/writer as well as steward of the emerging Dutchess County Historical Society (DCHS).
FDR, born into an historic family and region, is quick to talk (and write) of it!
FDR's father, James, told him stories of his Dutch and English ancestry. FDR, while attending Harvard, wrote a paper for an assignment in 1901 entitled, The Roosevelt Family in New Amsterdam before the Revolutionary War. In the paper he emphasizes his family’s “good breeding,” suggesting that the mix of old Dutch and more recent English ancestry resulted in “the [Roosevelt] stock kept virile and abreast of the times.”
By 1914, FDR had persuaded his mother to remodel “Springwood” from the style of an Italian villa to a Georgian style that would incorporate fieldstone gathered from the surrounding farmland. Fieldstone was frequently used by the founding Dutch to build their homes. This would remain his preferred exterior building material for local buildings, private and public.
Photo right: December 1901 paper FDR wrote at Harvard, "The Roosevelt Family in New Amsterdam Before the Revolution" where among other virtues, he noted the advantages of a solid Dutch ancestry that had married into the English, creating a "virile" stock.
The Dutchess County Historical Society is Born 1914 with a calling to "great usefulness" and warned of the dangers of banquets!
On April 28, 1914 there was a meeting at the Pleasant Valley Free Library billed as a discussion on whether to create a Pleasant Valley Social History Club. This led to a discussion and subsequent meeting on May 26 at the same location on a bigger idea. At this meeting the Dutchess County Historical Society was created with the local library’s H. N. W. Magill as president. Unlike the Dutchess County Society in the City of New York, the organization would have women as members and founders.
Starting in 1926, FDR served as DCHS Vice President for Hyde Park until his death. On December 10, 1914, FDR wrote to the head of the Pleasant Valley Free Library, H. N. W. Magill, who emerged as the first President of DCHS, saying he is unlikely to be able to make a meeting of the emerging organization, but wished to share ideas. Roosevelt implored the group to be “useful” and not a banquet society. It should preserve past records and be a repository of articles and objects. He went on to describe ideas, all of which would be realized: a yearbook, the recording of the county’s tombstone inscriptions (this had actually been started by Dr. J. Wilson Poucher and Helen Wilkinson Reynolds in 1911), and the occasional publishing of books on local historic subjects.
FDR's strong views on historical recordkeeping are unmistakable in this 1914 Congresstional testimony
On February 12, 1914, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt asked Congress to fund the documentation of historic Revolutionary War records. The Chairman of the Congressional Committee was highly skeptical. Congressman John J. Fitzgerald listened in disbelief as Roosevelt requested an upgrade of the $32,000 allocated by congress to “something less than $3 million.”
Historical books by FDR published "to encourage others"
In 1925 FDR privately published Minutes of the Council of Appointment of New York April 4, 1778 to May 3, 1779, from original manuscript in possession of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1928. FDR publishes, through DCHS, Records of the Town of Hyde Park, Dutchess County. In the forward Roosevelt states that his motivation for doing publishing the book, in part, is to "encourage other towns in County of Dutchess to carry out similar tasks.”
Franklin & Eleanor host DCHS 1927 "Pilgrimage"
John Mylod not only shared a love of local history with FDR, but was active in the Democratic party, representing the Catholic community. John Mylod is shown accepting the hospitality of Eleanor Roosevelt during the September 16, 1927 DCHS annual pilgrimage to historic sites, in this case the Roosevelt home, Springwood. Group photo at the same event, left to right: John Mylod, Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, William Platt Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt (somewhat obscured), FDR. Springwood photos by Olin Dows, DCHS Collections.
By the time FDR was taking the oath of office as Governor of New York January 1, 1929, he had conducted some “trial runs” at bringing a sensitivity to local history and culture to those things as rugged as highway construction.
In his role as Chairman of the Taconic State Parkway Commission in the 1920s, FDR left the indelible legacy of the gentle and winding Taconic State Parkway we enjoy today. It was also his first, and not last, butting of heads with master highway builder, Robert Moses.
By the time FDR was Governor, and the Parkway was beginning to reach Dutchess County, he was able to introduce a roadside beautification program. The program looked at everything from viewsheds, to building materials of overpasses (stone, of course), to the cultivation and protection of certain trees and local wildflowers. While Gov. Roosevelt pursued legislation, Dr. J. Wilson Poucher, wrote a series of newspaper articles extolling the virtues of cultivating and protecting indigenous wildflower species that he published as the book, The Story of Wildflowers, in 1931. Continuing the theme of understanding and protecting things that grow, it was later, in 1938, that Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, Margaret DeM. Brown, and Vassar College botanist Edith A. Roberts, published The Role of Plant Life in the History of Dutchess County. It contains 44 pages of text, surveys, records, photographs, and a very large annotated aerial photo of the county.
In the period of FDR’s early Governorship, two more important books were published. Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley before 1776 was an extraordinary 466 page book (plus map) published in 1929. Dutchess County Doorways was richly researched and illustrated by Reynolds and DeMotte Brown. All these books were both beautiful things to look at, as well as solid tools on which to base preservation efforts.
Above, left: FDR pursued Roadside Beautification legislation while Poucher published his series of newspaper articles in a book. Above: middle: Reynolds and DeMotte Brown's most significant partnership on plants was "The Role of Plant Life in Dutchess County History." Above right: FDR wrote the forward, Reynolds did the writing, DeMotte Brown the photography of this landmark book.
"Get me Miss Reynolds!"
We can imagine FDR exclaiming these words in the events described here, as they involve Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, the woman he would call, “the person most knowledgable about Dutchess County history.”
In 1936, he relied on Reynolds’ role as editor of the DCHS Yearbook to publish the results of of his leaning on the British Admiralty to provide transcripts of the log books of British ships involved in the burning of Kingston in 1777. The ships would have passed the shores of Dutchess County and the site of what became his family estate, Springwood. This was all formally done through the US Ambassador to Great Britain at the time, Robert W. Bingham. But the brief was created in detail by FDR, and it was advanced and published in FDR’s name in the 1936 Yearbook.
FDR involved Reynolds in the design of three Post Offices built in the late 1930s into 1940.
In 1936, when the drawings of the new Poughkeepsie Post Office were developed completely outside of his preferences, FDR gave Reynolds the assignment to procure a photograph of the old Court House from DCHS archives, and share it with the architect. FDR wanted the old Court House form, including the cupola, to be emulated. The exterior would be of fieldstone, “in the fashion of the James Roosevelt Memorial Library of Hyde Park.” FDR and Reynolds identified the 1701 Kip-Beekman House as the model to emulate for the Rhinebeck Post Office. They identified the 1772 Dr. John Bard House to emulate for Hyde Park. They identified the 1750 Brouwer-Meiser House to emulate for Wappingers Falls. All photos DCHS Collections unless noted otherwise.
Above, left to right: A few other locals of note. Hopewell Junction farmer and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. would deliver “bad news” to architects whose Post Office designs did not meet with FDR’s approval. Rhinebeck’s Olin Dows was a highly regarded artist who did the murals at the Rhinebeck and Hyde Park Post Offices. The Town of Milan’s equally accomplished and celebrated Henry Billings did the murals at Wappingers Falls. Photos courtesy FDR Presidential Library and Museum, Wilderstein Preservation, Henry Billings letters and photographs, 1955. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Below: Hyde Park Post Office and Olin Dows mural sketch of John Bard House.
Below left: Poughkeepsie, Old Court House as model for Post Office.
Below right: Kip House as model & Rhinebeck Post Office.
Left: “The Dutchess Room,” shown in 1941, was designed by FDR for the Dutchess County Historical Society at his Presidential Library in Hyde Park. Sadly, it would not be used much by this particular band of locals. John Mylod passed away in 1936. Reynolds, FDR and Poucher died in 1943, 1945 and 1948 respectively. Shortly after Reynolds’ death, DeMotte Brown relocated to family in Massachusetts and retired from professional photography. Dutchess Room photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.