Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Martin V. Wood – West Hempstead’s Most Accomplished Local Politician

The following article appeared in the Winter 2010 edition of the WH Community Support Association newsletter (I have since added minor modifications).

In West Hempstead in 1881, there lived a tall, demure, middle-aged farmer named Martin V. Wood, who resided on a modest farm with his wife and two daughters, directly across from where Hall’s Pond Park is currently located. Born on January 23, 1838, Martin grew up on a homestead located a stone’s throw from where he eventually settled, and spent his boyhood years helping his father, Valentine Wood, with farm work and at his general store, and attending local schools1. Martin likely spent some years of his schooling at the old ’Trimming Square’ School (at the corner of Dogwood Ave & Nassau Blvd) where a young Walt Whitman once held a job as schoolmaster2. Shortly after getting married in 1861, Martin purchased a farm adjacent to his father’s and for the next twenty years quietly busied his time in agricultural pursuits and raising his family3.

All that would quickly change in July, 1881. Martin had an uncle named William L. Wood, a grocer from New York City, who died childless in July of that year. Aside from his day job, William was also a Tammany politician who held various public offices including assistant alderman, police justice and member of the NYC Board of Education, and had amassed a small fortune from his business dealings. (William L. Wood was also a principle investor in the New York & Hempstead railroad, West Hempstead’s first rail line, which began service in 1870. The engine that served that line was named the ‘WL Wood’. The local train depot, at the north end of Valentine Wood’s property, currently where the St. Thomas parking lot is located, was given the name “Norwood”. With this investment, Wood was probably serving the dual purpose of helping provide rail service near the homes of his brother and nephew and perhaps also creating a faster and cheaper way to transport produce from Long Island to his grocery business in NYC.) His estate was valued at $175,000, a small part of which he bequeathed to the children of his nephew, Col. Alfred M. Wood, a Civil War hero who was wounded and captured at the First Battle of Manassas and at one time was Mayor of Brooklyn. Martin V. Wood was shocked to learn, however, that the bulk of his uncle’s estate, $150,000 ($3.3 million in today‘s dollars), was willed to him. It was reported at the probate hearing that the deceased selected Martin as the primary beneficiary because “he was a staid, straightforward, honorable man who would not be disturbed by possession of wealth but use it as a sensible man”.4

With his new change of fortune, Wood tried his hand in local politics and ran for Town of Hempstead supervisor in 1882 as a Republican, a position which he won. The widely popular Wood then went on to serve a record eight consecutive terms as Town Supervisor (back then, terms lasted one year). He was finally narrowly defeated in 1890 by 43 votes, only because he even lost support of many admiring republicans who felt that, “they are opposed to any one man having a life mortgage on the highest office in town, no matter what his peculiar fitness may be5”. However in 1894, he again won the Town supervisorship and served another two terms in that position. During this span, the Town of Hempstead underwent a period of expansive growth, going from a population of a little over 18,000 in 1880 to over 27,000 just twenty years later6. (The latter figure would have comparably been higher, but no longer included the entire Rockaway peninsula, once part of the Town of Hempstead but later annexed by greater New York City in 1899. As an aside, the greater NYC annexation plan originally included all of Inwood and most of the Village of Lawrence, but angry residents of Inwood & Lawrence successfully fought off the attempt to be swallowed up by NYC. In April 1899, Governor Theodore Roosevelt signed the Doughty Bill, named after the bill's sponsor, Assembyman G. Wilbur Doughty, redrawing the Queens-Nassau border further west. [Doughty Blvd. in Inwood, along the new border, is a living testament to that effort. G. Wilbur Doughty went on become TOH Supervisor and then Nassau Co. Supervisor and helped establish a virtual Republican dynasty in Hempstead & Nassau that lasts to this day, largely from the benefit of the perception that the GOP was the best party to protect LI from the encroachment of the liberal political policies of New York City. His nephew, J. Russell Sprague created the position of Nassau County Executive and served in that capacity from 1938 to 1953]. A year into the annexation plan, many residents of the Rockaways were dissatisfied by the diminished level of services and representation once they became part of New York City. This compelled Doughty to advance another bill in the NYS Legislature in 1900 that would establish a new township and join Nassau County. Had the bill passed, a new jurisdiction would have been formed as the "Town of West Hempstead". That bill never came to the floor, however, because the Nassau County supervisors came out against the plan7). Martin V. Wood presided over Town government during this period of change, when numerous roads were macadamized, gas and lighting districts were formed, and new school districts were established.

One of the more interesting issues during Wood's tenure involved the establishment of School District 25 in Garden City in 1886. When the Town of Hempstead sold a large swath of the Hempstead Plains in 1870 to A.T. Stewart to create Garden City, Town citizens agreed to sell their common lands with the provision that the monies obtained from the sale should be placed into a trust fund and that two-thirds of the accruing interest from that fund should be devoted to support the public schools of the Town. However, the manner of distribution of those funds was left to the discretion of the board of town auditors. When SD 25 broke off from SD 1 (Hempstead) in 1886, it was discovered that the Garden City School District was not receiving their fair share of disbursements from this fund. At issue was whether the Laws of 1870 included newly established school districts or only the ones that existed at the time the law was written. SD 25 then sued the Town of Hempstead and the NY State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiff, forcing the Town of Hempstead to compensate Garden City for missed payments8.

Martin V. Wood was also the founder and president of purportedly the oldest bank in Nassau County, the Hempstead Bank, est. 1887. Hempstead Bank was for years one of Nassau's premier financial institutions. (In fact, the name Hempstead Bank survived as late as 1983, until a series of mergers and acquisitions brought it to an end. Hempstead Bank became Northstar Bank in the ‘80s, and then Fleet Bank in the ‘90s, and was ultimately swallowed up by Bank of America in 20059). For a time Wood was also president and director of the Hempstead and Nassau Gas Companies10.

Unfortunately, Wood was predeceased by his wife Harriett11, and a daughter, Jeanette12. He was survived by a younger daughter, Wilhelmina, who never married. Jeanette married William S. Hall, a prominent citizen who was a trustee of the Freeport Bank and at one time County treasurer. When Martin V. Wood died on Feb. 22, 1911, he bequeathed almost his entire half million dollar estate to his grandson, Martin V. W. Hall13.

Martin V. Wood standing
in front of the Hempstead

Upon his grandfather’s death, Hall became president of the Hempstead Bank and ably guided its continued progress for the next 30 years14. Hall inherited Wood’s beloved farm in West Hempstead and occupied the magnificent twenty room colonial home that Wood had built on the property. Hall died in 1944 and his widow, Elizabeth, continued to live in a cottage on the property at least until the mid 1950s, around the time Nassau County began to acquire land across Nassau Blvd to create a new park15. Thereafter, Hall’s Pond Park, as it came to be known, became a tribute to the local legacy of the Wood and Hall families.

(Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Hall’s Pond Park as a County Park16).

1 See Portrait and Biographical Record of Queens County (Long Island) (New York: 1896, Chapman Publishing Company) Valentine Wood owned a farm just south of Hall’s Pond. Martin V. Wood’s farm was located due east, across the street, from Hall’s Pond. See Atlas of Queens Co., Long Island New York (New York: 1891, Chester Wolverton) Plate 031.

2 For an overview of this school and the Walt Whitman connection, see the essay by Thomas F. Heffernan, Walt Whitman Here in Trimming Square (Garden City: Adelphi University Office of Publications) here -

3 Portrait and Biographical Record of Queens County (Long Island) (New York: 1896, Chapman Publishing Company).

4 “A Poor Man’s Sudden Rise to Wealth” Brooklyn Eagle 29 Jul 1881 4.

5 “On the Far Rockaway Branch” Brooklyn Eagle 31 Mar 1889 11.

6 Compare 10th Census of the United States Vol 1 (Washington, DC: 1883, Government Printing Office) 269, and 12th Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1900, Part 1 (Washington, DC: 1901, US Census Office) 280.

7 “Fifth Ward Bill Dropped” Brooklyn Eagle 6 Feb 1900 1.

8 State of New York, Dept. of Public Instruction, 35th Annual Report of the State Superintendant (Albany: 1889, The Troy Press Co.) 148-152.

9 See

10 “Nassau County Gas Company” Brooklyn Eagle 30 Jan 1903 10.

11 “Mrs. Wood Left Large Estate” Brooklyn Eagle 22 Jan 1910 1.

12 “Mrs. William S. Hall” Brooklyn Eagle 15 August 1908 2.

13 “Martin V. Wood’s Will Filed” Brooklyn Eagle 13 Mar 1911 5.

14 “Martin V. W. Hall” NYT 25 Mar 1946 19. Leadership of the Hempstead Bank remained in the family as Martin V. W. Hall’s son, Bruce, assumed the presidency into the 1980s. Bruce died in 1995.

15 See “Malverne Landmark Burns” NYT 4 Apr 1954 56. According to the Nassau County parks website, the County purchased Hall’s Pond Park in three parcel between 1956 and 1970. The large home that Martin V. Wood built on his estate at the southern approach to West Hempstead (where the Exxon gas station is now located) eventually fell into disrepair and was ultimately burned by vandals in 1954.

16 A placard at the southern end of Halls Pond commemorates the official opening of the County Park in 1961.

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