Monday, April 27, 2009

E J Jennings and West Hempstead’s Original Civic Association

The following originally appeared in the Summer 2008 edition of the West Hempstead Civic Association News & Views newsletter -

The history of West Hempstead & Lakeview’s first civic association and the driving force behind its efforts tells a fascinating story that incidentally provides a local tie-in to the 90th anniversary of Veterans Day, the 100th anniversary of Eagle Avenue as a Town road, and casts light upon a legendary local figure, war veteran, and civic advocate extraordinaire, Ephraim J. Jennings.

E. J. Jennings was born August 1849 in Brooklyn to parents who emigrated from England[1]. At a young age, he volunteered during Civil War in the NY State Militia’s 13th Regiment - the fabled ‘National Grays’ - as a drummer boy[2]. (The 13th made news in June 1861 when 12 year-old cadet Clarence D. McKenzie, the famed “Little Drummer Boy”, became one of the earliest and youngest casualties of the Civil War after a comrade’s gun accidentally discharged and killed him. Jennings quite likely served in the same drum corps as did McKenzie)[3]. After the war he settled down, got married in 1873, and had eight children (five of whom survived to adulthood)[4]. Starting as a young clerk in a bakery, Jennings staked out on his own and eventually built what one source estimated was to become the second largest bakery business in Brooklyn[5]. By 1884 he had eight stores, employed 30 wagons and 50 men, used 120 barrels of flour per week and grossed $190K per year in sales[6]. All the while, he served as a volunteer in the Brooklyn Fire Dept.[7], a distinction that would serve him well years later when he became a trustee for the fledgling Lakeview Hook & Ladder Co.[8]. When military duty called once again in 1898 during the Spanish American War, he reenlisted and received a commission as Lieutenant[9] and was sent to Camp Black in Hempstead for drilling[10].

Around the turn of the century (perhaps having been drawn to the area during his Camp Black days) Jennings purchased a property at the corner of Woodfield Rd and Eagle Avenue near the no-longer-existent Schodack Brook and trout pond[11], and began summering there, eventually moving there permanently. Jennings considered his bucolic neck of the woods the ‘Pride of Hempstead Prairie’[12], but soon found an array of civic issues that the Town lacked initiative to address on its own. As a result, he founded the West Hempstead, Hempstead Gardens and Lakeview Association and with what a newspaper reporter called his ‘cosmic urge and personal magnetism’[13], he set out to tackle a laundry list of issues that troubled area locals of the day. When Woodfield Rd was found in dangerous condition with deep embankments on either side of the road the result of years of neglect, he obtained releases from adjacent property owners to have the road widened and then petitioned the Town to resurface the highway[14]. When a new road was needed to connect Hempstead Ave with Eagle Ave, he successfully convinced the LIRR to deed land along the railroad tracks to build Railroad Avenue (later called Hempstead Gardens Drive). When in 1911 the NY & Long Island Traction Co. proposed a fare increase to 15¢ for the Hempstead-Queens trolley, he successfully took his complaint to the NY State Public Service Commission to have it lowered to 10¢[15]. And when electric streetlamps were being installed all over the county in the 1910’s, he appealed to the Lighting District to have a lamp installed on Eagle Ave[16].

But perhaps his greatest achievement of all was the reopening of Eagle Avenue at Hempstead Reservoir, a feat which he accomplished singlehandedly. Eagle Ave was a road that dated back to the 1850’s[17]. The thoroughfare took its name from a grist mill operated by William Oliver called ‘Oliver’s Eagle Flour Mill’. Soon after the City of Brooklyn purchased surrounding land and created the reservoir as part of their water supply system in 1873, its storage basin soon flooded the surrounding land and completely inundated Eagle Ave. In 1898, Brooklyn became part of New York City and soon thereafter Hempstead Reservoir was no longer used as a primary water source for Brooklyn. As the waters receded, Jennings got right to work, petitioning the Town of Hempstead to resurvey and rebuild the road so that travelers would no longer have to wind around the reservoir. The process was a long one which ultimately took over seven years of numerous appearances before skeptical members of the Town Board and the Highway Commission. When Jennings finally procured the modest sum of $5,000 from New York City to build the road, the Town Board balked, saying it could not be done for that little money. Jennings pledged that he could build it himself for $5,000 – and that’s just what he did, to the ultimate satisfaction of the Town. On December 14th, 1908, the Town formally received Eagle Avenue and gave Jennings his final payment[18].

Jennings also played a central role in another local suburban legend which claims him as the first person in Nassau County to herald news of the end of WWI. On November 9, 1918, German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated his rule and signed an armistice ending hostilities that would go into effect “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”. In an era when many people did not yet have telephones, Jennings ushered in the good news by rushing to the old Lakeview fire house and sounding the fire alarm bell which initially caused tremendous confusion for all those within earshot of the commotion. Jennings had good reason to jubilate – both his sons had served in WWI[19]. The scene became such a local hit that it was reenacted two years later (albeit this time with the fair warning and eager participation of area residents), an early forerunner to the commemoration which would later become known as Veterans Day[20].

Perhaps Jennings’ most ambitious goal was to have a park built around Hempstead Reservoir. Jennings urged the City of New York to fulfill a pledge originally made by the City of Brooklyn to build a beautiful park when the reservoir was constructed, but his pleas fell upon the deaf ears of NY City officials[21]. Sadly, Jennings died on October 28th, 1925, never having a chance to realize his dream. But as a bittersweet postscript to his assiduous life, on November 29th, just one month after Jennings’ death, the deal was announced between NYC and Robert Moses’ Long Island Parks Commission to acquire the land surrounding Hempstead Reservoir and create Hempstead Lake State Park[22].

This year, on the 100th anniversary of the reopening of Eagle Avenue, it seems fitting that the Town would undertake to repair a road that owes its existence to E. J. Jennings. Next time you drive along its newly paved surface you’ll come across a little side-street called Jennings Avenue, a lasting tribute to a local hero who paved our way to a better community.

[1] Federal census of 1900 Series: T623 Roll: 1062 Page: 35.
[2] “Funeral of Ephraim J. Jennings,” New York Times 1 Nov. 1925 E9. As to Jennings service in the 13th Regiment, see “The National Grays,” Brooklyn Eagle 24 Jun 1894 22.
[3] See Luther Goodyear Bingham, The Little Drummer Boy, Clarence D. McKenzie, the Child of the Thirteenth Regiment, N.Y.S.M. and the Child of the Mission Sunday School, 1861 (New York: Board of Publication of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, 1861).
[4] Federal census of 1900 Series: T623 Roll: 1062 Page: 35.
[5] Henry Reed Stiles, The civil, political, professional and ecclesiastical history and commercial and industrial record of the county of Kings and the city of Brooklyn, N.Y. : from 1683 to 1884 (New York: Munsell, 1884) 768.
[6] ibid.
[7] “Old Time Fire Fighters,” Brooklyn Eagle 8 Dec 1896 9.
[8] “Lynbrook,” South Side Messenger [Freeport] 13 Sept 1912 6.
[9] “Roster of Twenty-Second,” New York Times 5 May 1898 9.
[10] New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center. Unit History Project: 22nd Regiment Infantry, New York Volunteers, Spanish-American War
[11] Atlas of Nassau County, Long Island, NY (Brooklyn: E. Belcher & Hyde, 1906) 10.
[12] “Lakeview’s Mayor Very Much on Duty,” Nassau County Review [Freeport] 19 Nov 1920 13.
[13] ibid.
[14] “Town Board,” Nassau County Review 1 May 1903 2. “Deep gullies existed on the side of the road, especially near Eagle Avenue”.
[15] Annual Report of the Public Service Commission, Second District, New York State (Albany, NY 1912) 253.
[16] “Town Board,” South Side Messenger 5 Sept 1913 1.
[17] “Eagle Avenue, Norwood, Cannot Be Reopened Now,” Brooklyn Eagle 2 Dec 1902 6.
[18] “To Open Eagle Avenue,” Nassau County Review 18 Aug 1905 2.
“Town Board Proceedings,” Nassau County Review 21 Dec 1906 4.
“Town Board,” Nassau County Review 6 Apr 1907 4.
“Town Board,” Nassau County Review 3 Apr 1908 4.
“Town Board,” Nassau County Review 18 Dec 1908 6.
[19] World War One Honor Roll of St. George’s Parish 1917-1918
[20] “Repeats Armistice Joy,” Nassau County Review 12 Nov 1920 20.
[21] “Town Board,” Nassau County Review 7 Feb 1913 5.
“Town Board,” Nassau County Review 21 Feb 1913 4.
[22] “To Add 2,000 Acres To State’s Parks,” New York Times 30 Nov 1925 5

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