Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stephen Smith DuBois and West Hempstead’s First General Store

The following article first appeared in the WH Comunity Support Association newsletter, Spring 2009 edition.

The very beginnings of commercial activity in the community of West Hempstead can be traced back to the existence of a small general store along Hempstead Avenue, midway between Hempstead Village and Pearsall’s Corner (Lynbrook). This is the story of the two local pioneers who ran this store, Stephen Smith DuBois and his son, Smith Henry DuBois.

Stephen Smith DuBois was born February 10, 1814 in Cayuga, NY. In 1847 he moved downstate with his wife and three children, where he worked as a dock builder and helped build many of the docks that lined the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn[1]. In 1865 he was building a dock for the US Navy when news came that the Civil War had ended, and with it, most dock building activity. DuBois then looked for a new opportunity for livelihood, an opportunity which beckoned from a tiny Long Island village southwest of Hempstead called Norwood. (Don’t look for Norwood on a map – it has long since been subsumed within portions of West Hempstead and Malverne). The center of this village, at the south end of Halls Pond, comprised little more than a railroad stop along the now defunct New York & Hempstead rail line, and what was likely West Hempstead’s first general store a little further south along Hempstead Avenue. The store was established in the 1840’s by a man named Valentine Wood, but by the late 1860’s, DuBois took over its operation[2].

In 1880, as DuBois was reaching the age of retirement, his youngest son, Smith H. DuBois, moved back from Kansas (where he had briefly joined the westward expansion movement with his family) and assumed proprietorship of the business[3]. The younger DuBois, born in Springport, NY in 1845, was a Civil War veteran who volunteered in the 4th NY Infantry and took part in many major engagements. When the battle of Antietam produced the single bloodiest day ever on American soil, 17 year-old DuBois was one of the more than 17,000 troops who were wounded in the mêlée. While recuperating at a hospital near Washington, DC, he was paid a visit by President Abraham Lincoln who gave him some paper money as a token of appreciation of his service to the Union and thereafter he received his discharge to recover from his wound[4].

At the height of his active adult life Smith DuBois built up his business, and involved himself in civic matters. He established a route with a team of horses and wagons to deliver goods throughout the countryside, which made DuBois’ a popular and well-liked local figure. The fact that he served on the Board of Audit for the Town of Hempstead is testament to his trustworthy character[5].

The DuBois family was also instrumental in forming West Hempstead’s first church, Norwood Chapel, in the early 1890s, located on Hempstead Ave opposite Oakford St[6]. Notably, Smith DuBois’ daughter, Viola, on occasion was called upon to conduct the service[7].

In 1907, at the ripe old age of 94, while cutting and stacking his five-acre cornfield, the elder DuBois caught the eye of a newspaper reporter who marveled at the physical strength of a man of such an advanced age. The reporter was then astonished to learn that he was standing face to face with the only living person who rode on the very first passenger train in New York State on the Mohawk & Hudson line, which ran between Schenectady and Albany. The trip occurred on September 24th, 1831 and at the invitation of his uncle, a director of the railroad, the 17 year-old DuBois joined the inaugural voyage. When it was discovered that this eyewitness participant of one of the most significant events in state history was still alive, numerous other media outlets picked up the story[8] including some national media[9], rendering DuBois into a small celebrity. When Stephen Smith DuBois died on February 11, 1914 at the age of 100 plus one day, he was one of the oldest men in New York State.

Later that same year, an incident occurred that almost sent Smith H. DuBois to his own early grave. Running a country store in an area as secluded as Norwood in those days had always been a dangerous business and was an easy target for bandits. Indeed, over the years numerous robberies or attempted robberies occurred at the store[10]. But on the typically warm and balmy summer evening of July 22, 1914, DuBois got more than he bargained for when two men entered his store and held him up at gunpoint. Rather than empty his till, the stubborn 70 year-old leapt over the counter and grappled with the gunman, and in the ensuing scuffle, he was shot in the chest, a senseless crime described later by a judge as “the most unprovoked and cold-blooded case he had ever dealt with”[11]. Newspaper accounts relate that doctors, after failing to find the bullet, gave DuBois zero chance of survival[12]. Remarkably, however, the old man rallied and was soon back behind the counter of his store[13].

The business continued operation into the 1920s[14]. But in 1927, most of the DuBois farm, including the store, was paved over by the Southern State Parkway, and with it was paved over a major piece of local history. However, you can still see a small remnant of the old farm in a charming “blue-gabled” Victorian home on Hempstead Avenue built in 1888[15] for Stephen Smith DuBois’ daughter and son-in-law, Sophia & George W. Van Dusen.

Smith DuBois died at age 88 in April 1934 as one of only two remaining Civil War veterans in Hempstead’s local GAR post[16]. By that time, DuBois had lived to see a profound transformation of the village he called home for over half a century – a transformation from a sleepy farm community to a modern-day suburbia.

[1] “On the First Train” Auburn Democrat-Argus 25 Oct 1907 2.
[2] The circumstances surrounding the initial arrangement between DuBois and Wood are unclear, whether DuBois purchased the store outright or whether he clerked in the store for a while before taking ownership. Records as early as the 1868-69 Curtin’s Directory of Long Island list DuBois as the store owner. But newspaper reports as late as 1879 (see “Long Island Notes” Brooklyn Eagle 27 Dec 1879 4) refer to the store as belonging to Valentine Wood. As for the possibility that there were two different stores, History of Queens County (New York: W.W. Munsell & Co.; 1882) makes it clear that there was only one store, which Wood sold to DuBois.
[3] “Legion Conducts Rites for Smith H. DuBois, Soldier of the Great Civil War” The Hempstead Sentinel 12 Apr 1934.
[4] ibid.
[5] “Examining Town Bills” Queens County Review [Freeport] 23 Dec 1898 2.
[6] The earliest reference to the Norwood Chapel found by this author is from 1893 (“Free Fight in a Church” Brooklyn Eagle 20 Apr 1893 1), where the leader of the church service is referred to as “Evangelist DuBois”. The article reports an incident where DuBois came to blows with a parishioner who refused to leave when the church service finished and a closed-door executive meeting was starting.
[7] “Religious Notes” Brooklyn Eagle 2 Apr 1898 4.
[8] Among the papers that covered the story were the Auburn Citizen, Union Springs Advertiser, Utica Daily Press, Clinton Advertiser & Brooklyn Eagle.
[9] Mary K. Maule, The Boy Who Rode on the First Train, St. Nicholas Magazine August 1908 Vol. XXXV No. 10.
[10] See “An Exchange of Money” Brooklyn Eagle 7 Dec 1877 3, “Long Island Notes” Brooklyn Eagle 7 Dec 1879 4, and “Lynbrook” South Side Messenger [Freeport] 27 Jan 1910 1.
[11] “Martin Sent to Sing Sing” Brooklyn Eagle 30 Jun 1915 17.
[12] “Dying from Shot Wound; Makes Will” Nassau Post [Freeport] 25 Jul 1914 1.
[13] “Donovan Is Arrested for Assault” Nassau Post [Freeport] 12 Sep 1914 1.
[14] In the 1920 Census (Series: T625 Roll: 1127 Page: 220) his occupation is listed as “Proprietor – Grocery Store”
[15] As per the Nassau County Dept. of Assessment records
[16] “Legion Conducts Rites for Smith H. DuBois, Soldier of the Great Civil War” The Hempstead Sentinel 12 Apr 1934.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic blog! I've always wondered about a few of the older homes in the area, esp. that old Victorian house which seemed so out of place. Looking forward to more entries.