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Amy Folk hired as Southold’s new town historian

Amy Folk spends her days dedicating herself to local history, working as an archivist and collections manager for organizations like the Oysterponds Historical Society, Southold Historical Society and Suffolk County Historical Society. Now, Ms. Folk, who is also president of the Long Island Museum Association, is taking on another role: Southold Town historian.

Ms. Folk, whose new position began last week, replaces Antonia Booth, who had been town historian for almost 30 years when she died in November.

“Toni would be a tough act to follow,” Supervisor Scott Russell said in an email, adding that the town had some “excellent” candidates to select from for the job. “Amy is already immersed in local history and is affiliated with several historical societies. This combined with her enthusiasm for history and vision for the future role of that office makes her perfectly suited.”

Although she’s worked as a professional historian for close to three decades, Ms. Folk hadn’t always planned on becoming one. In fact, she started her undergraduate career as a biology major on the pre-med track at Stony Brook University but switched to history when she found out she would have a dissect a frog.

Nonetheless, she said, scientists and historians are similar in that they both try to prove theories using facts.

“Like a scientist, you’ve got to put your facts out there and somebody else has to examine them to make sure they’re right,” she said.

The best part of her job, Ms. Folk said, is the intense research she gets to throw herself into. Two of her favorite subjects have been featured in books she co-authored with former Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming: the history of Plum Island and the true story behind the 1854 Wickham axe murders.

It’s “exhilarating” to be able to answer questions that may have gone unanswered for years or that people may not have had all the facts about, Ms. Folk said.

“I think all historians share that,” she said. “When we put together a puzzle and we find that final piece to give us all of our answers, we are all just elated, whether or not it’s something somebody else found out in the past and we’re retracing and checking their steps.”

Ms. Folk said one of the most challenging parts of her job is trying to get people to look beyond the myths and examine what really happened, good or bad. Legends have their place and bring a community together, she said, but facts should also be acknowledged.

Jeff Walden, director of Mattituck-Laurel Library, said Ms. Folk has always been more than willing to help whenever he calls her for research guidance.

“She’s a tremendous researcher,” he said.

Ms. Folk said history should be looked at from the bottom up, not the top town.

“History is about the people and all those local people in their everyday lives forming history,” she said.

Ms. Folk, who has lived in Cutchogue for 15 years, began delving into the North Fork’s past once she was hired as collections manager at Oysterponds Historical Society.

“She really knows her stuff,” said Elsbeth Dowd, the organization’s executive director. Ms. Dowd said Ms. Folk possesses all the characteristics of a great museum archivist: attention to detail, the ability to follow through, organizational skills and the knowledge of best practices for taking care of the society’s valuable collections.

“You walk with her through our collections here, looking at the documents, at the journals, at the paintings, at the old tools and old furniture, children’s toys, musical instruments, cameras — you name it, she know’s something about it, which is so, so wonderful,” Ms. Dowd said. “Without somebody who knows the stories behind our collection items, I mean, what’s the meaning in it, really?”

As Southold Town historian, Ms. Folk already has her sights set on a few projects. Mr. Russell has asked her to help address black history in Southold, something he said is often overlooked. He said Ms. Booth was interested in that aspect of the town’s history and that officials would like to see it continue.

With scattered documents and other mitigating factors, the task won’t be easy. But Ms. Folk said she wants to dive into the issue of slavery, hoping to learn when the first slave arrived in Southold and the identities of local slave owners.

“Every subject, I’m a magpie,” she said. “If it’s shiny and historic, I want it.”

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Photo: Amy Folk peruses an old issue of The Suffolk Times last Thursday at Oysterponds Historical Society in Orient. Ms. Folk was recently hired as the new Southold Town historian. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)