Visitors to Southold Town Hall are treated to a history lesson each time they enter the Main Road building thanks to a devoted public servant who dedicated her life to preserving the area’s rich past.
Town historian Antonia Booth framed nearly 60 images dating back to the town’s humble beginnings and hung them in the hallway — a labor of love and a type of project she was known to do for others, including a photo timeline of Greenport’s history at Floyd Memorial Library and a display of historic Peconic photographs and informational documents at Peconic Lane Community Center.
Creating a learning experience where people can immerse themselves in history is how most people will remember Ms. Booth. The 87-year-old Southold resident died peacefully Friday, in her home surrounded by family, eldest daughter Victoria Cortese said in an interview.
“She really wrote her own obituary — she was so organized and pre-arranged everything,” Ms. Cortese said. “Preserving history was very important to her.”
Ms. Cortese said she had suggested to her mother to write down the most important details of her life so she would be remembered how she wished when she passed.
She also shared Ms. Booth’s notes with The Suffolk Times, which begins:
“My name is Antonia Sullivan Booth. I was born on June 22, 1929, during the Great Depression at 30 East 69th Street in Manhattan. The doctor who delivered me and later my three brothers, Everett Edward Hawks, also delivered all the Lindbergh children, including the one who was kidnapped and killed.”
Ms. Booth’s story includes details about her upbringings, marriage, children and work, ending with how then-Suffolk County Clerk Judith Pascale proclaimed Oct. 14, 2008 as “Antonia Booth Day in Suffolk County.”
Ms. Booth was given the honor for “maintaining the unique history of Suffolk County and continues efforts to raise public awareness of the documentary resources she preserves for the public’s use,” according to the proclamation.
Ms. Cortese said she believes her mother’s fondness for keeping bygone times alive stemmed from a longing to know more about her family’s Irish heritage. When Ms. Booth decided to return to school and study history in the 1980s, she commuted to Stony Brook University from Southold with Ms. Cortese, who studied to become a social worker.
As a graduate student, Ms. Booth worked as an assistant to the University’s president John Marburger, Ms. Cortese said, adding that her mother earned a master’s degree in history.
“She was the first registered town historian who had a degree in history on Long Island,” Ms. Cortese said, reading from Ms. Booth’s notes, referring to a new New York State town historian program.
Prior to returning to school, the mother of eight children worked as a news editor between 1969 and 1973 for the former Watchman newspaper, which was owned by her second husband, Clement Whitney Booth Jr.
Ms. Cortese said some of her mother’s highest achievements included working on various local history books, such as “Trawling My Town,” which benefited Maureen’s Haven and John’s Place; and “Images of America: Greenport,” which she co-wrote with Thomas Monsell.
Another proud moment for Ms. Booth was her work with the town’s 350th anniversary in 1990.
Her efforts to maintain that Southold — not Southampton — is the oldest English settlement in New York is a common theme throughout her career.
“As town historian, Ms. Booth held aloft the seal of Southold Town like a shield and used her expertise and rhetorical flair as weapons in what often became a testy war of words with her counterpart in Southampton, Robert Keene,” The Suffolk Times wrote in a Jan. 3, 1991 article. “Such verbal barbs made Ms. Booth a heroine for Southold Town. At the 350th parade anniversary parade, Ms. Booth was visited at the reviewing stand by many parade-watchers and grateful Southold residents who told her how much they enjoyed her latest comments on The Great Settlement Debate. They were proud of their warrior.”
For her dedication and planning efforts for that celebration, she was named Government Person of the Year (an award now categorized as Public Servant) by The Suffolk Times in 1990.
Town Supervisor Scott Russell described Ms. Booth as a close friend and said he was devastated by the news of her passing.
“It was an honor having her as a colleague for the 25 years that I have been here,” he said in an email. “We both loved local and U.S. history and had countless conversations. She was the consummate professional, trusted adviser and a wonderful person.”
One project Ms. Booth took on, but didn’t see to fruition was having Southold’s Andros Patent, a 1676 town document that dealt with water rights, returned from the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Town Clerk Betty Neville said Ms. Booth, known to many as “Toni,” had tried to retrieve the document, which she said was hidden for safe keeping in Brooklyn during the Civil War.
“Toni worked very hard on that — unfortunately to no avail,” Ms. Neville said, adding that the Brooklyn Historical Society claims the Colonial-era decree was given to them and has declined the town’s request to have it returned to Southold.
Dec. 30 would have marked Ms. Booth’s 30th year as Southold’s town historian. Ms. Neville said her contributions to the town will live on in history books and the hallways of Town Hall.
“There’s going to be a void,” she said tearfully, “but her contributions will remain with these beautifully arranged photos.”
The family will receive visitors Tuesday, Nov. 29, from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. at DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Home in Southold. The Liturgy of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30, at Saint Patrick R.C. Church in Southold.
Top file photo: Southold Town historian Antonia Booth and Supervisor Scott Russell discuss the historical photo display at the grand opening tour of the new Peconic Lane Community Center on Sept. 26, 2011. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)