|Advertisement (Sept 17, 1935, Nassau Daily Review) for Joseph H Cohen's fruit stand
Some while ago, I had occasion to stop in at the George
Washington School and noticed an intriguing dedication plaque of the building
in the foyer. The plaque had a listing
of names of members of the school board during the school’s inauguration, and
the largest name listed on that plaque was that of the school board president,
Joseph H. Cohen, the subject of the present writeup.
Born in Russia in 1886 to Nathan and Frances Cohen, Joseph
Harry Cohen's journey to the United States at the age of eight, alongside his
parents and three sisters, marked the beginning of a remarkable life of
contribution and service. The Cohen family were among the early settlers of
Woodbine, New Jersey, an agricultural community with a significant place in
history. Founded in 1891 with the support of philanthropist Baron Maurice de
Hirsch, Woodbine was created with the dual purpose of settling Jewish refugees
from Eastern Europe who were fleeing persecution, as well as providing them
with the agricultural skills to become productive members of their new host
country. (In its heyday during the initial years of the 20th Century, Woodbine
was 94% Jewish, and the first one of the only municipalities where its local
government, from Town Hall to the school district to the fire department, was
headed by Jews. The fact that the United
States is the first modern democracy in the world [the oldest existing nation
with a constitutional government in which the people elect their own government
and representatives], would mean that Woodbine was purportedly the world’s
first semi-autonomous Jewish town in nearly 2,000 years since the destruction
of the Second Temple.)
Cohen graduated from the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School
and proceeded to run a poultry farm business with his father in Woodbine. In 1923, Cohen and his family moved out to
Long Island when a 23-acre farm in West Hempstead on the south side of
Hempstead Turnpike went up for sale. His
farm focused on two products: peaches and poultry.
Upon arriving in West Hempstead, Joseph Cohen dove right
into local civic leadership. In 1927 he ran for and won the office of President
of the WH School Board. Throughout the 110+ year history of the WH school
district, Cohen’s tenure as president occurred during the most significant and
transformative era in its entire history.
Until then, the district consisted of one 8-room school building on
Chestnut Street. In Cohen’s initial
year, an expansion of that building was completed, effectively doubling its
capacity. Then, in rapid succession, two additional school buildings were voted
on and built. The Eagle Avenue School
opened Monday, November 5, 1928, and was dedicated on February 21, 1929. The
George Washington school, (originally called the Carl Street School), was
authorized by local voters in December 1929 by a 138-75 margin, at a cost of
$355,000. It opened on November 30, 1931, and was officially dedicated on Monday,
February 22, 1932, the date chosen to coincide with the 300th anniversary of
the birth of the school’s namesake, George Washington. The rapid conversion of former farms into
housing developments was transforming WH in a profound way and the district
went through a period of unprecedented growth during that time. In September 1929, enrollment stood at 613
students. Just one year later, that number grew to 776, an astonishing increase
of almost 27%.
In addition to his contributions to education, Cohen was
actively involved in the West Hempstead community. He served as the President
of the West Hempstead Civic Association, starting in 1927. A hot-button issue during that time was the
question of whether to incorporate within the Village of Hempstead. Many locals
actually advocated for incorporation, since it would ostensibly bring with it
an increased level of municipal services that were lacking in WH. Cohen’s civic
engagement also extended to the West Hempstead Fire Department, where he held
the position of Financial Secretary. Meanwhile, Cohen was an active member of
the Jewish Agricultural Society as well as at Temple Beth Israel in Hempstead.
The Cohen family's legacy extended beyond civic affairs.
Joseph's wife, Mrs. Eva Cohen, served as the chairwoman of the George
Washington PTA and on the ladies’ auxiliary of Beth Israel. Their dedication
continued through their involvement in organizations like Sons of Zion.
The Cohen family's farm along Hempstead Turnpike was a hub of agricultural activity, specializing in chicken and peaches. The farm, known as Peach Grove Farm, became a local favorite for its delicious peaches, sold at the fruit stand along the Turnpike. The Cohens ran the farm and stand until 1939, when they decided to sell the property to a developer. Thereafter, the “West Hempstead Oaks” development, with its 150 homes, took root on the property. The farm was marked with two prominent, physical characteristics; its numerous peach trees toward the front of the property and the many old-growth oak trees in the rear of the property. Hence, the lasting legacy of this farm remains with the naming of its two central streets off the Turnpike – Oakland Avenue and Peachgrove Drive.
(The developer retained many of the prized peach trees to shade the backyards of his new homes. Many of the old, majestic oak trees also remained, a few of which can still be seen today along Henry, Maxwell, Bell, and Wilson [formerly George] Streets).
After it was developed, the West Hempstead Oaks neighborhood created its own identity and formed a very active civic association of its own called the West Hempstead Oaks Civic Association to advocate for civic causes. It has been a long-standing tradition of the West Hempstead Fire Department to conduct a Santa fire truck parade on Christmas Eve, and this tradition was purportedly started by the West Hempstead Oaks Civic Association in 1942. (Other organizations like American Legion Cathedral Post featured events with Santa starting back in the 1930s, but the truck parade was first introduced by the Oaks Civic).
Joseph Cohen continued to live in a house on the Turnpike
for a number of years and ran a liquor store in Floral Park until his
retirement. His daughter Gwen (Goldie)
married Bernard Perchanok and continued to live on Elm St in WH into the 2000s.