Monday, October 13, 2014

Photo Essay - the Recreation at Wall's (Hall's) Pond of Yesteryear

The following collection of photos below tell the story of a bygone era when kids from West Hempstead and its environs would frequent Wall's Pond year-round for an array of recreation opportunities, from swimming and boating in the summer, to skating and sledding in the winter.  All photos (with the exception of the above photo, courtesy of the WH Historical Society) come from the pages of the now defunct Nassau Daily Review-Star between the mid '30s and early '50s, the paper of record for all local news in Central-Southern Nassau County during that period.  As can be seen in the photos, Wall's Pond got alot of heavy use in those days as a favorite watering hole for youngsters looking for a good pastime activity, and they highlight just how rural our community was back then. In 1961, Nassau County purchased the land surrounding what was then called Wall's Pond and developed a park that they named Hall's Pond Park, to honor the family of an early owner of the property, Martin V. W. Hall.  The irony contained in the County's purchase and development is that it marked a turning point for Hall's Pond Park when it was no longer used for the activities illustrated below, but was instead converted into a "passive park".  A separate post is needed to explain (i.e. complain about) how that ended up happening.  For now, step back into yesteryear and enjoy the photos. As a frame of reference, I left in the photo captions included in the newspaper for better explanation.  BTW - virtually all references to the pond at that time had it as "Wall's Pond", not "Hall's Pond".

1) The old Boy Scout rhyme about ice-pond safety went something like this: 1 inch - stay away, 2 inches - one may, 3 inches - small groups, 4 inches - O.K.  The photo below shows that back in the 1930s, winters were cold enough for a sufficiently long time to freeze over Wall's Pond and make it safe for any kind of winter activity.

2) In the summer of 1935, a 12 year-old boy named Walter Frederick, who lived just down the road from Wall's Pond on Hawthorne St, got a nasty bite on his leg while swimming at the north side of the pond.  A year later, he got his revenge when his attacker was caught, a 35lb turtle who would angrily fend off anyone who dared invade his habitat.  The photo below (which unfortunately got overexposed when converted to .pdf) shows the police officers in the process of corralling the turtle, to be later transported to a menagerie that State troopers maintained at Belmont Lake State Park.

3) Below is a scene that would be utterly unimaginable today; on an unusually hot spring day in April 1938, a group of four boys took the opportunity to raft out on the pond on a makeshift boat made by cutting an oil tank in two.

4) Here's another great shot from late June, 1939 of a boy paddling out with an acquaintance on a home-made boat that he christened the H.M.S. Foo.

5) June, 1940.  Apparently at least some of the shoreline of Wall's Pond was sufficiently deep enough for brave divers to jump headlong into the water.  Bottom image, on the shore, a sunbather smiles for the photo.

6) Most people today who would catch the scene depicted below would undoubtedly call the police - two boys, ages 9 and 8 on their skiff, getting their rods ready for a day of fishing on Wall's Pond.  In 1949, it was a common sight.

7) As late as the summer of 1951, much of West Hempstead was still rural farmland.  A favorite pastime of the young farmhands of the area, such as Christian Limbach, below, whose family ran a farm down the road in Lakeview, was fishing.  The Daily Review-Star photographer caught the young boy napping, while holding onto his rod.

8) In 1937, the Nassau Daily Review-Star ran a contest called the "Lucky Circle" where they would publish a photo of a crowd engaged in some activity somewhere in Nassau County, and circle one face in the crowd.  If the person circled in the photo would then call up the newspaper's office and correctly identify themselves, they would win a prize.  The grand prize for the lucky winners? A whopping $2 (no small sum during the Depression).  The photo below showing a group of ice skaters on Wall's Pond appeared on the front page of the Dec. 14, 1937 edition of the Daily Review-Star.  Two days later Eileen Dillon of Rockville Centre correctly identified herself and claimed her prize.

9) Below is a photo of two girls lacing up their ice skates at Wall's Pond during a late winter cold spell in early 1950.  From the newspaper's masthead, which I have included, it looked as though the snow would turn to rain the following day

10) The old conventional wisdom states that back in those days, Pine Brook, which flowed into Wall's Pond, ran clear as a mountain stream and provided swimmers with clean and sanitary conditions in the pond.  The photo and article below from the summer of 1941 showed that this was not always the case.  Pollutants from the Garden City waste transfer station on Cherry Valley Ave further upstream, as well as dangerous contaminants from Nassau Hospital (forerunner to Winthrop University Hospital) in Mineola further north, got into the water and forced health officials to close down Walls Pond to swimming, much to the chagrin of the young bathers shown in the bottom photo.  The top photo shows the lillies that used to blanket part of the pond.

11) Finally, the terrific photo below taken at the southern end of Wall's Pond in June 1939, shows a group of young swimmers along the shore.  In those days, County policemen would be stationed to protect the youngsters from traffic on Hempstead Avenue and, if needed, also assume the role of lifeguard.  The photo also contains an old relic that no longer exists - the concrete and steel of the northern wall of the old bridge that carried Hempstead Avenue traffic over Pine Stream.  The bottom photo puts some NCPD humor on display with a deliberately misspelled sign pointing to the Wall's Pond Swimmin' Hole

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Alwyn E W Bach - Winner of Radio’s Prestigious Gold Medal

The Following article, with slight modifications, originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of the West Hempstead Community Support Association Newsletter.
Alwyn E W Bach

The Golden Age of Radio is a term used to describe the period between the 1920s and 1950s when radio was the dominant medium for home entertainment, before it was supplanted by the television in the ensuing decades.  While the technology for radio transmission had been available since the 1890s, it wasn’t until the 1920s when the seemingly boundless potential for commercial radio was uncovered.  In today’s world it’s hard to imagine the impact, but at the time this technology burst onto the scene, the possibility of hearing a live broadcast of a marquis stage performance or sporting event occurring thousands of miles away from the comfort of one’s own home, was an absolutely tantalizing feat.  By 1929, the American Academy of Arts and Letters in NYC began distributing Gold Medal awards to radio personalities who reached the pinnacle of their profession.  
American Academy of Arts and Letters,
Gold Medal for Good Diction
To put in context, it can be said that, at the time, these Gold Medal awards were at least on par with the prestige of the 
Academy Awards for motion pictures which began that same year, and were given to radio actors, singers and announcers who were well known celebrities. It was in the second year of these honors in 1930 that the Gold Medal for Good Diction was awarded to a West Hempsteader named Alwyn E W Bach, the subject of our present sketch.

Alwyn Egbert Winfred Bach was born in 1898 in Worcester, MA to Danish parents who immigrated just two years prior.  Eager to become acculturated to their new country, the Bachs made sure that their children gained a good command of the English language.  After graduating high school, Alwyn found work in a print shop and as a proofreader, and also honed his skills as a talented baritone singer.  When WWI broke out, Alwyn enlisted in the US Army and saw action in the Somme-St. Michel Offensive as part of the 44th Coast Artillery Division.
Bach (sitting, at left) pictured with his troupe during WWI.

Returning home, Bach settled in Springfield, MA and married Olive C. Murphy.  In September 1921, WBZ in Springfield became the first licensed commercial radio station in the country and the following year, the station called upon Bach to sing for one of its programs.  Bach’s voice and delivery impressed the producers at WBZ and he was quickly hired as an announcer for the station.  In 1926, Bach followed the station in its relocation to Boston and three years later, he was hired away by WNBC, a national syndicate in New York City.  Shortly thereafter, he gained renown as a top-rate radio announcer.

The Bachs were now in the hunt to find a home in the New York area.  A new development of quaint, Tudor-style homes called Plymouth Colony caught their eye in the up-and-coming Long Island neighborhood of West Hempstead.  As an avid tennis player, Alwyn was attracted to Plymouth Colony’s exclusive tennis courts and clubhouse.  (The courts were originally located on Sycamore St. and were dedicated on Sunday October 20, 1929, one week before the great stock market crash.  The dedication ceremonies included the championship tournament for Brooklyn High Schools.  The courts remained for a few years before finally giving way to further subdivision).  The Bachs purchased their home at 16 Lindbergh St. (still there at 243 Lindberg St) and quickly became deeply involved in their new community.  As the mother of their 7-year old daughter, Joyce Elizabeth, a new student in the Chestnut Street School, Olive ran for and was elected president of the Chestnut PTA.

The following year, in June 1930, Alwyn Bach received radio’s most prestigious prize, the Gold Medal for Good Diction, and was praised for his style and professionalism.  Bach had a distinctive low and commanding voice, with a measured and deliberate articulation.  At WNBC, Bach offered a good contrast to his more famous colleague, Graham McNamee, who offered a more high-pitched, frenetic and rapid delivery.  McNamee was known for broadcasting Yankee games and other events like Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, and his announcing style was more suitable for those types of exciting events.  Bach, on the other hand, was assigned to read the intros to radio shows and sponsorship spots, as well as provide coverage to events like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping (and subsequent murder), a riveting episode that had the entire country glued to their radios for two months straight. Bach was a firm adherent to the maxim that an announcer should never interject his or her personal views or feelings when broadcasting a news story. But, as a father himself who lived on a street that, only 4+ years earlier had been renamed for America's aviation hero, he veered slightly from that principle when, after reading out Charles Lindbergh's plea for the safe return of his son, he added, "That is the plea of all of us".

(Although unfortunately most of these early broadcasts were not taped or preserved, Bach’s voice appears in the earliest known NBC station call recording, preceded by the famous thee note C A F chime that NBC still uses to this day. Bach's voice can be heard in a sound clip at a website dedicated to the NBC chime. Scroll about a third of the way down the page.). Bach’s award was celebrated across the country and his reputation spread far and wide.

Back in West Hempstead, the Great Depression was taking a heavy toll on residents.  Many locals had lost their jobs and their homes went into foreclosure.  As president of the PTA, Olive Bach organized a welfare fund for needy residents in WH, and leveraged her husband’s connections at WNBC to host a series of concert revues featuring well-known radio personalities, in order to raise money for the new fund.  These concerts were held in the Hempstead High School auditorium so that they could accommodate the large turnout,. Though few people today would recognize the names of the featured artists, in 1931 and 1932 they represented a veritable who’s who of headline acts of their time: The Landt Trio, the famous female ukulele player May Singhi Breen and her husband Peter DeRose, The Tasty Yeast Jesters, Stebbins Boys, the famous impersonator Ward Wilson, and on and on.  Admission was between 75 cents and $1 and the hundreds of tickets sold at each event raised thousands for the benefit of needy locals during the Depression.

In 1942, Bach was hired by KYW Philadelphia, ending his long run at WNBC.  The landscape of broadcast radio was changing.  Eight years later, he moved out west to join KNBC San Francisco, until his retirement a few years later.  Alwyn Bach died in 1993 in Portland, OR at age 95, a relic from the days when whole families would stop their routines to gather ‘round a beautiful mahogany piece of furniture called the radio to listen to their favorite programs.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

John A Schwarz Furniture

The postcard above depicts the John A. Schwarz, Inc. furniture store at One Fulton Avenue, probably not long after their opening at that location in 1949.  Actually the history of this firm begins long before that.  Karen E. Wagner at My Old NY Just Ain't What She Used to Be blog has some great information about the original John A Schwarz and his furniture business. He was born in NY in the 1850s to German immigrants and clerked in a furniture store before he opened his own store in 1876 at 838-840 Broadway in Brooklyn. By the 1920s, his three sons opened an additional tree locations, two more in Brooklyn and one in Jamaica.  By the 1940s, they sold off their stores in NYC to another firm and moved out to Long Island where in 1949, they opened the store you see above as their only store.  (A few years later they also opened a store in Centereach).

John A Schwarz furniture was a mainstay business in Hempstead for the next three decades.  Their building offered full frontage on Hempstead Turnpike/ Fulton Ave with large showcase windows to display their wares.  The building also offered plenty of floor space and lots of parking.

In the 1970s, John A Schwarz felt the squeeze from competing firms, coupled with a downturn in the economy, and on Sunday February 1, 1981, after 105 years in business, they closed their doors for good.

Shortly thereafter the site became home to the Nassau School for Medical and Dental Assistants.  For a while, the local offices of Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy was also located there.  Today, the building is called Nassau Plaza and houses medical offices, including an OB/GYN office affiliated with Winthrop University Hospital.  The presence of Winthrop is ironic, because it happens to be very near the original site of Nassau Hospital, forerunner to Winthrop.  Nassau Hospital opened on an estate at that location as western Long Island's first full service hospital in 1897 before moving to Mineola in 1900. I guess you can say they've come full circle.

Below is a "now" shot of the picture above.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

West Hempstead's Original Post Office

The image above from 1963 shows the one-story building at 439 Hempstead Avenue at the grand opening of the West Hempstead branch of the Community Bank, a financial institution that began in Lynbrook only three years earlier.  The building itself was built in 1949 and started as the site of what was West Hempstead's first permanent post office.  Until that point, West Hempstead residents and businesses were served by the main PO branch in Hempstead.

For the first three decades of the 20th century, mail deliveries to WH comprised of a modest rural carrier service involving mounted couriers and mail sorters trying their best to navigate confusing final address destinations that often included duplicate street names non-existent house numbers and absent postal boxes.

On June 11, 1929, the USPS awarded West Hempstead with an upgrade to the much faster and efficient system of two dedicated "city postal carriers" who were dispatched daily from Hempstead.  This upgrade required that all WH residents had to ensure they had address numbers and letter boxes or slots installed at every home and business, else they would be required to pick up their mail at the Hempstead Post Office.  Needless to say the vast majority of West Hempsteaders complied with this directive.

For the better part of the early 20th century, it had been customary for the USPS to set up a temporary local office during the holidays, usually in a centrally located grocery store or pharmacy, to handle the influx of mail during that time and for the convenience of customers. But by 1934, the WH Board of Trade (forerunner to the Chamber of Commerce) felt it was time for a post office of our own.  In April of that year, they passed a resolution urging for a separate local post office.  But it wasn't until after WWII that WH would finally get one.

On May 1, 1948, the first permanent full service Post Office in West Hempstead opened inside Filmore Pharmacy, at the corner of Hempstead Avenue and Locust Streets, and plans were announced later that year for a PO station building to be erected across the street.  It was at this time that the duplicate street names in WH were eliminated by renaming them, (hence for example, Oak St. became Oakford St., Walnut St. became Walton St., Maple St. became Maplewood St. and Lincoln Ave. became Langley Ave. and Harrison Ave. became Halsey Ave.).

In 1949, the building pictured above opened as WH's first stand-alone Post Office and served there until 1962 when a larger facility was built further north at 245 Hempstead Ave, its current location.  When the USPS vacated 439 Hempstead Ave., the young Community Bank selected the site as its second branch and inaugurated its opening with a ribbon cutting, pictured below.

The man holding the scissors is TOH supervisor Ralph Caso to his right is branch manager William Keilmann.

On October 1, 1970, Community Bank merged with Marine Midland Bank of New York. In order to assuage the fears of wary customers who thought that after being swallowed up by a much bigger institution, the bank would lose its local "community"-oriented approach to service, Marine Midland ran the ad below in local papers:

Shortly thereafter, in typical fashion, Marine Midland itself got swallowed up by the financial giant HSBC in 1976, which continued to run a branch at 439 Hempstead until 2006.  Following a period of vacancy, a scrapbook business named Scrapaholics occupied the location before giving way to its current tenant, pictured below:

Monday, February 24, 2014

How West Hempstead almost Became the Seat of Nassau County

The following article originally appeared, with minor modifications, in the West Hempstead Patch in 2011.  Presented here with permission of the author.

From the 1906 E. Belcher-Hyde map of West Hempstead.  Area in red shows the proposed Nassau County seat, rejected in a county-wide referendum in November 1898. 

With the recent redevelopment of the old Courtesy Hotel property into luxury apartments, and some promising future plans for the surrounding area, we'd like to take the opportunity to dig into the history of a neighborhood that has had its share of ups and downs over the years.   Not many people are aware that, just over a century ago, a decision was made that would forever alter the landscape of West Hempstead's eastern corridor.
We begin the story in 1898, when the western half of Queens County was consolidated into greater New York City and the New York State Legislature approved the creation of Nassau County for all the remaining territory in the eastern portion of Queens. One of the first orders of business for the new county was to find a suitable location for its seat of government. In January, a committee tasked with making preparations for the new county passed a resolution laying out some requirements among which was that the new seat must be located within one mile of a train station. Once the proposed locations were advanced, the issue would be settled by a county-wide referendum in November of that year.
That spring, the county was presented with a terrific offer of property for its headquarters. On May 24, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that the estate of Austin Corbin, late president of the LIRR, owned “several hundred acres lying west of the West Hempstead station,” and was set to donate eight acres of land “located on Hempstead Avenue, within four hundred feet of the West Hempstead station.” (Back then, the West Hempstead train station was located just north of its current site, across Hempstead Avenue. As a frame of reference, the Corbin Estate's land grant "within four hundred feet" of the station would place the site at the property bounded by the LIRR right-of-way to the east and Westminster Rd to the west, and Hempstead Tpke and Hempstead Ave to the north and south, where National Wholesale Liquidators is currently located).  

(Left) Early photo of property west of the WH LIRR station, after the LI Traction Co built a trestle in 1904 over the LIRR right-of-way. (Right) Contemporary photo of property.

Residents of Hempstead, the region’s largest village, as well as those living to the south and west, received the idea with much enthusiasm.  
The proposal’s main obstacle, however, was the opposition of the powerful and wealthy residents of the North Shore and the eastern region, who were unsatisfied with the location at Hempstead. In response, two additional locations were proposed, one at Mineola and a second at Hicksville. The Mineola faction secured a four acre land grant from the Garden City Company on an unused parcel of the Hempstead Plains at Franklin Avenue within “a three minutes’ walk of the railroad station;" and then as if to highlight one of the perceived deficiencies of the Hempstead proposal, they added that it was "distant enough to prevent annoyance from passing trains”.
Knowing that their plan stood little chance for success, the Hicksville committee arranged a meeting in June wherein an invited representative of Mineola argued that “in a three cornered fight Hempstead would be sure to win, but with the assistance of Hicksville, Mineola would be selected as the county seat and that would be more convenient for the people of Hicksville.” The argument must have resonated, for by October, Hicksville officially withdrew its plan and threw its support to Mineola.  
In the end, it wasn’t close. In resounding numbers, voters cast their ballots for Mineola and rejected the West Hempstead site. However, not all the blame lied solely with the committeemen in Mineola and Hicksville who struck that crucial deal that helped seal their victory.  In a post-election analysis by the Brooklyn Eagle, the following revealing perspective was offered as to why such a peculiarly large percentage of Hempstead voters even soured to their own plan:  “People…who live in the place, because of its attractions (sic) as a residential locality, allege that they voted against bringing the county buildings to Hempstead, as they did not desire to bring a large crowd of criminals, jurors and witnesses to the place.…It would increase the business of the bar rooms and hotels, but would injure the village as a place of residence for…people who located here because of its respectability and quietness.”
 The loss of the county seat wasn't the only setback from which that section of West Hempstead would suffer. Two years later, the newly established Nassau Hospital, the county's first full service medical facility located until then, just east of the West Hempstead train station at the corner of Front and Fulton Streets, would relocate to Mineola.  The hospital was the forerunner to Winthrop University Hospital and together, with the new county courthouse, they would serve as a major boon to that area's economy. Buoyed by the establishment of numerous law practices and medical offices, Mineola would solidify its position as a regional center for both the medical and legal fields. In contrast, over the next 100 years, the void left in West Hempstead's business district would engender such colorful uses of property as a grazing area for horses of the Long Island Express Co, a golf driving range, an annual visit by a travelling amusement company, a series of discount big-box retailers, a car wash, and later, across Hempstead Ave., a modest four story hotel called the Hempstead Motor Inn.  The Motor Inn later became the Courtesy Hotel and, over time, devolved into a magnet for crime and a thorn in the side of area residents.
How differently might our neighborhood developed had voters chosen West Hempstead as the county seat, or had Nassau Hospital had remained in its original location? Such speculation is a fruitless exercise in counter-factual history and won't do anything to accelerate efforts to improve the area's current condition; but hey, it's still fun to think about.  

Friday, February 21, 2014

Robert L Smith, Early Real Estate Broker to WH and Cathedral Gardens

The following article appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of the West Hempstead Community Support Association newsletter.

Robert L Smith Realty office when it stood at 30 Hempstead Turnpike
Among the objectives of this blog is to shed light on some of the bygone members of our community and pay tribute to their efforts in shaping West Hempstead into what it is today.  One such resident was a man who ran one of West Hempstead’s most notable and successful real estate agencies, Robert L Smith.  (Parenthetically, Smith’s son Willard recently passed away this past fall at the age of 86.  A lifelong local resident himself, Bill ran a successful insurance agency and, among other civic functions, served as president of the WH Lions and the Nassau County Independent Insurance Agents Association, and as the first ever President of the Friends of the West Hempstead Library).

Robert Leroy Smith was born in Brooklyn in 1902 to a family that traced back its roots to John “Rock” Smith, one of the pioneer settlers of Hempstead who crossed over LI Sound in 1644.  (In an effort to distinguish the identities of the multiple John Smiths settling on LI at the time, each was provided a unique nickname to go along with his given name.  “Rock” Smith purportedly acquired his name after the plot of earth that the Stamford Colony elders assigned him to build his home, sat upon a giant, immovable rock, which he proceeded to hew into the structure of his home, part of which he formed as the backdrop to his fireplace).  As a young teen during WWI, Smith tried to enlist in the Army despite being well underage.  The Army discovered his true age and so rather than being shipped overseas, he served out the war as a farm cadet on LI attached to Troop C of the 101st Cavalry Squadron.  

After the War, he finished high school and enrolled in Columbia University, but quit after two years to pursue a career as a shoe salesman (imagine that!).  His ultimate calling, though, came a couple years later when he became an agent in a real estate brokerage which at the time was engaged in a rather extensive development in the nascent community of Babylon, LI.  Along the way, he married Miriam Fradenburgh, daughter of the Dean of Brooklyn College, Albert G. Fradenburgh.  Eventually, he staked out on his own in 1924, opening a realty office in Jamaica, Queens, from where he arranged sales of properties throughout western Long Island.  But the bulk of his business would eventually come a couple years later from a new, up-and-coming neighborhood in West Hempstead called Cathedral Gardens.  

The genesis of Cathedral Gardens came amidst the din of track work being done on the LIRR to convert the WH line from steam to electric, and news of a new controlled-access highway that would ferry cars from Brooklyn out to Hempstead and beyond, to be known as the Southern State Parkway.  These two factors alone had caused local land values to skyrocket. But nobody really realized just how high prices would go until February 4, 1926, when someone agreed to pay an unprecedented $8,000 per acre for the 70 acre estate of the late Hannah K. Van Vranken, heiress to the planner of Garden City, John Kellum.  This community was named Cathedral Gardens on account of being located under the shadow of the tall spire of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City.  (Edwin C. Duryea, a farmer who lived his entire adult life in West Hempstead, once remarked in the 1940s that he had lived to see the day when the same price paid for a square foot of WH land, had the purchase power for an entire acre only sixty years earlier).  Robert L Smith was so enamored by the young development that he was among its original buyers for his own family, a home built at 11 Andover Place, and soon thereafter he moved his office to 30 Hempstead Turnpike, at the entrance to Cathedral Gardens.

From there, Smith’s business boomed as he became the primary realtor for buyers in Cathedral Gardens.  When Adelphi College opened in 1929, Smith marketed the “Gardens” as the choice residence for its professors and staff, in an effort to establish a “Faculty Row” for the college.  Already by its opening, it was reported that some 18 professors had moved out to the neighborhood, including nine from Adelphi alone.  Even his father-in-law was persuaded to leave Brooklyn College and relocate to join the Adelphi Faculty.  All told, of the 200+ homes built at Cathedral Gardens by 1941, Smith was reportedly responsible for arranging the sale of 80% of the properties. 

But it was Robert L Smith’s involvement in civic causes that left its indelible mark on West Hempstead.  Among other functions, he founded the West Hempstead Board of Trade, forerunner of the WH Chamber of Commerce (of which he was later a member), helped found the Hempstead Kiwanis Club, and served as President of the Cathedral Gardens Civic Association.

One of Smith’s greatest contributions came at the outbreak of WWII, when local residents were urged to contribute to the War Bond drive.  The first drive in Hempstead, with a quota of $600K, commenced on Dec. 7, 1942, on the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor.  Schools, businesses, banks, boy scouts, and movie theaters -especially theaters, since they enjoyed the benefit of some strong war bond appeals via newsreel, sprang into action to solicit buyers. (In December, moviegoers at the Rivoli in Hempstead went to see the comedy George Washington Slept Here starring Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan, while the State Theatre was showing Somewhere I’ll Find You featuring Clark Gable and Lana Turner.  It was Gable’s last feature film before enlisting in WWII.) A giant thermometer was erected on Fulton Ave to display its progress, and in just two weeks, that thermometer blew its top.  The monies raised from the drive were earmarked to purchase two B-17 “Flying Fortresses”, costing $300K each.  But when it was realized that such a large percentage of that total was generated in West Hempstead alone as a result of the efforts of a special committee chaired by Robert L Smith, the decision was made to christen the second bomber “Spirit of West Hempstead” in tribute to the unswerving patriotism of local residents at the time. 

B-17 Flying Fortress with the name "Spirit of West Hempstead" emblazoned on its fuselage, rolls off the assembly line at Boeing Field, Seattle Wa, during WWII

Thereafter, the WH committee spearheaded its own war bond drives in coordination with the Red Cross unit associated with St. Thomas the Apostle.  Its third bond drive targeted a quota of $100K. By its October 1943 deadline, WH doubled that number.  In early 1944, it commenced a fourth drive of the war, this time enlisting women of the neighborhood to go door-to-door to solicit small contributions from residents.  Aside from being a red-blooded American patriot, Robert L Smith had personal reasons for helping in the war effort – both his sons, Robert L Jr. and Willard had been serving in the US Navy.

After WWII, with Cathedral Gardens almost fully developed, Smith turned south toward another promising local neighborhood called the “Presidential Section”, after the presidential names of its streets.  In November 1947, Smith loaded his small office onto a flatbed truck and moved it to the corner of Hempstead Ave and Coolidge St., where it can still be seen today as the small, lime-green building on the NW corner at 417 Hempstead Ave.

The former R L Smith Realty office (same building as pictured above) after it moved to 417 Hempstead Ave in 1947
Robert L Smith continued his business and involvement in his community until his untimely death in 1961 at the young age of 59 after a long illness, but not before leaving his beloved West Hempstead with a legacy of civic duty and pride.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Early Aviation History – the Tales of Two Harrowing Plane Crashes in WH

The following article appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of the WHCSA News & Views newsletter

The “cradle of aviation” is a term ascribed to Long Island that highlights the important role that our island played in the history of early human flight. At the turn of the 20th century, the treeless, flat terrain of the Hempstead Plains, just a short distance from the country’s largest metropolis, made for an ideal location for the frenetic aviation activity that would take place in the region for the ensuing half-century. During those years, many triumphant and celebrated milestones in human flight would be marked on Long Island, most notably Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight from Roosevelt Field to Paris in 1927. As well, numerous but lesser known avionic tragedies and mishaps occurred in those early days. The following paragraphs recount the stories of two such plane crashes that occurred in the immediate West Hempstead vicinity.

The first incident involved a machine dubbed the “Christmas Bullet”, after its eccentric inventor, Dr. William W. Christmas. By 1918, in the aftermath of WWI, numerous enterprising manufacturers from across the country offered up radical designs for airplanes that they hoped would produce improved speed and efficiency and win lucrative government contracts to produce their planes for the US Army Air Service. Dr. Christmas theorized that the struts that supported the wings of the standard bi-plane design of that era generated a lot of wind resistance, and as a result, he pioneered a “strutless” design of the type pictured in the photograph below. Critics allegedly warned that without struts, the wings were liable to break apart during flight, and indeed, history proved these critics right; the Christmas Bullet was among the worst planes ever designed.
1918 photo of the Christmas Bullet.  (photo from  via Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, Christmas went ahead with his plans and got his prototype ready at his plant in Copiague, NY. A 27 year-old Army Air Service aviator named Cuthbert Mills was hired for the Bullet’s initial test flights and her maiden voyage to Hazelhurst (later Roosevelt) Field was indeed spectacular, with unofficial reports of her breaking the existing air speed records of the time. (Reports varied from anywhere between 160mph and 197mph). Shortly after the Christmas of 1918, Dr. Christmas announced that the Bullet would shortly give a demonstration by encircling the Woolworth Building in Manhattan (the tallest building in the world at the time) before returning to Long Island.

On a crisp and clear late afternoon on Monday, December 30th, Mills took off from Hazelhurst heading due south before turning west toward Manhattan. The plane reached about 3,000ft as it headed over the Hempstead reservoir when it encountered immediate problems. Reports conflict as to what exactly went wrong, but Lakeview resident E. J Jennings who was an eyewitness to the incident claimed that one of the plane’s wings had collapsed, causing her to spiral out of control. For an instant, Mills managed to stabilize the machine by bringing her down in small concentric circles, but the area surrounding Hempstead Lake was heavily wooded and offered no good place for a crash landing. The plane came down right around the present location of Exit 18 of the Southern State Parkway (before the parkway was built), into a chestnut tree while narrowly missing the home of a man named Quinn Porsert, before dropping to the ground. Porsert, his son Frank, and EJ Jennings were on a hunting excursion in the wooded property and were the first to respond to the scene, and they cheered wildly when for an instant, it had seemed that Mills had miraculously survived the crash. But as they raced toward the wreckage, they were greeted with a loud boom that lit up the purple dusk sky, as it became evident that the fuel tank had exploded and quickly consumed the wooden fuselage. Without a water supply, all the hopeless group could do was to futilely throw gravel upon the mangled aircraft and watch her unfortunate pilot burn beyond recognition. Incredibly, in the wake of this tragedy, the undaunted Dr. Christmas produced a second “Bullet” and three months later, her initial test flight similarly went awry and claimed the life of the pilot. Such were the risks and realities of early aviation.

About three-and-a-half years later, a second incident occurred that was not quite as tragic and produced a somewhat comical unplanned meeting between a Manhattan aristocrat and a hardened Long Island farmer.

Photo taken from the DH6 wiki page

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, June 10, 1922, a Madison Ave. socialite named Oscar Jay was soaring over central Long Island in his DeHavilland DH6 monoplane (after WWI, the Royal Air Force had decommissioned and sold off hundreds of these DH6s and many ended up in the hands of leisure pilots throughout the world) when he abruptly realized he had ran out of gas and frantically looked for the nearest clearing to bring the plane down. That clearing happened to be upon the potato field of John Jacob Rasweiler, a local farmer who owned a homestead along Dogwood Ave. (Today, the small side street off Dogwood that bears the original owner’s name along with his adjacent farmhouse is a surviving testament to this farm). Jay successfully glided his plane down upon the patch while leaving a divot of tens of dollars of torn-up potatoes in his wake. The pilot brushed himself off, nonchalantly walked over to the farmhouse, knocked on the door and introduced himself as a wealthy merchant. He asked the owner if he could borrow some gasoline and be on his way, all the while pledging that he would reimburse the farmer for his gas and for his ruined potatoes once he returned home. Rasweiler obliged and refueled the plane with some automotive gasoline he had siphoned from his car. Jay started up the machine, and after a 500ft taxi barely managed to get her off the ground before she sputtered and fell back to earth in a dive, dragging along another long divot of ruined potato crops. The apparent hard lesson learned was that automotive-grade gasoline was incompatible with the DeHavilland engine.

Shaken and exasperated but otherwise unhurt, Jay walked away from the wreckage and began looking for the closest train station to get back to Manhattan. Rasweiler caught up to Jay and yelled, “Hey, what about your plane!?!?”.

 “You can go ahead and keep it!”, was the response.

 “Well, what in tarnation will I have any use for a wrecked plane!?”, the old farmer quizzed, “And besides, how can I be so sure that you’re gonna repay me?”

Jay then gave the farmer his coat as a pledge along with his calling card, and headed off to the train station for Manhattan. Rasweiler went home, but then became suspicious of his uninvited visitor’s story, thinking instead that the plane might have been stolen, and he promptly called the local sheriff. The police made inquiries and found out that Jay’s story was completely legitimate. But the aftermath of this mangled heap of metal, with its nose firmly planted in the ground and its tail up in the air,made for a curious sight that Summer for passersby along Dogwood Ave before Rasweiler was finally able to extricate it from his farm.