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Preserving the past: Historical archives explored in Greenport Village

(Chris Francescani photo)

Knee deep in a massive new archiving project that commenced on her first day as Greenport’s village clerk, Candace Hall recently stumbled upon some water-damaged, leather-bound logbooks of village birth and death records that stretch back to the end of the Reconstruction era. 

With deep local roots, a sprawling family tree and seven generations of ancestors who have lived in Greenport since at least the 1920s, Ms. Hall eagerly scanned the handwritten pages for family records. What she found both disturbed and heartened her.

Locating birth records for her mother, aunts and grandparents, she saw that under “race” they were listed as “Negro.” Those same record books more broadly list the occupations of nearly all women who gave birth or died in the village through the early to mid-20th century simply as “homemaker.” 

Ms. Hall said the experience gave her chills.

“I’m so fortunate that I have the luxury to separate myself from that time in this country … As a Black woman, I’m able to put that away from my lifetime — but it’s not that far away. That’s my grandmother. That’s my grandfather. Those are my aunties and uncles and they’re still here with us.” 

Ms. Hall is gratified by the progress made so far in U.S. race relations, she said, but she was nonetheless a little stunned at seeing the historic records. 

“I’ve accomplished things that a lot of people that look like me have not,” she said, “so to see my grandparents listed as, you know, ‘Negroes’ on their birth records. Isn’t that crazy?” 

Her discovery came as part of an ambitious project to dig into the village’s past, move record-keeping methods into the present and prepare for a more efficient future. 

Mayor Kevin Stuessi, Ms. Hall and deputy village clerk Jeanmarie Oddon have embarked on an odyssey that will likely take years to complete, digging through hundreds of boxes of documents and piles of records that are spread throughout the tiny village hall, which is no bigger than a two- or three-bedroom home. 

In interviews this week, the trio’s enthusiasm for the project was clear. For months, with guidance from officials at the New York State Archives, they’ve been digging through nearly 1,000 bankers boxes and logbooks stuffed with records that stretch back to the 19th century. 

Their goal is to organize what they’ve got, determine which documents need to be preserved, which need to be digitized and then shredded — and, ultimately, what is needlessly taking up space and can be discarded immediately. 

Under state law, all municipal records being disposed of must be shredded.

“The first step is to get organized and purge. Once we get through that step, we have the ability to choose what we digitize,” Ms. Hall said, explaining that “there’s duplicates, triplicates of some of the building records.” 

An assessment of the project compiled by the New York State Archives in October identified more than 2,000 cubic feet of active and inactive records stored at Village Hall.  

Mr. Stuessi said completion of the project will certainly require funding through state grants, and noted that grant proposals are already being written. 

The project began as soon as Ms. Hall assumed her new role as village clerk

“After actually sitting in my seat for the first time,” she said, she was swiftly given a tour of the basement, which consists of five concrete-walled rooms housing bankers boxes stacked in some cases to the ceiling. Many of the boxes are water-damaged from leaks in the building. Others have been chewed up by animals that breached the basement’s windows. 

Twice so far this year, a van from the State Archives has arrived to haul away scores of boxes of old but useless records — such as cash receipts from the 1980s — to be shredded. By the end of this month, the team will have sent off some 200 record boxes for shredding.  

“These are things that are long past time of what needed to be kept, and they’re not historic records,” Mr. Stuessi said. 

Jeanmarie Oddon (left), Mayor Kevin Stuessi and Candace Hall (Chris Francescani photo)

Deputy mayor Mary Bess Phillips has also been involved, Ms. Hall said, to “make sure that although some things may not be on [a] retention schedule, there are things that are still … historically significant.”

Ms. Hall said the organization of all the village’s records will save both money and time, citing a recent example of inefficiency that resulted from disorganized files. 

“The Southold P.D. is looking for arrest records from 1994,” she said. “That’s when the Greenport Police [Department] was disbanded. So it’s like, ‘Do we have it? Do you have it?’ So the time spent digging through these old records? Well, we might not even have it at all … it’s a waste of time and a waste of money.”

Mr. Stuessi has made some interesting finds of his own. 

I’m so fortunate that I have the luxury to separate myself from that time in this country.

Candace Hall

A fan of the trails in Moore’s Woods, Mr. Stuessi had often heard rumors about a nature study guide created by Greenport High School ecology and earth science students in the early 1970s, but he couldn’t find a copy anywhere. 

“I just happened to be … opening things up and found a copy of the original booklet,” he said, adding that the study guide is now posted on the village website.

The mayor said he was later able to “walk Moore’s Woods with one of the original science teachers — who is now retired in Orient — who was 21 years old when they put this booklet together. Wow.” 

Other documents that have surfaced so far include an old, and seemingly lost, harbor study from the 1980s. 

“We’re working on an updated [Local Waterfront Revitalization Program], and I kept hearing about this harbor study that had been done years ago,” Mr. Stuessi said. “I couldn’t find it in files anywhere and I just happened upon it … So we ended up giving it to the harbor management committee, and it saved us a whole bunch of time in trying to research sort of a point in time.”

After assuming her role as village clerk in August, Ms. Hall began consulting with fellow clerks from Southold Town and Shelter Island and received training from the New York State Archives on the proper techniques for managing what are known as “permanent records” — including birth and death certificates, property records, meeting minutes and documents pertaining to the village’s public utilities.

She said that once a box has been organized and cataloged, it’s labeled with its contents and where the records came from and given what Ms. Hall described as a “destruction date.” 

Most village records, by law, must be retained for a certain number of years, similar to how the IRS advises citizens to keep three years’ worth of tax returns.  

“Six years seems to be the magic number for a lot of the state archive records,” Ms. Hall said, adding that her new system will maintain the records for seven years, just to be safe. 

The project began in the main room on the first floor of Village Hall, where stacks of documents, folders, correspondence and other paperwork were so high that staffers couldn’t see around them. That phase of the project is now mostly complete. 

“I feel like we all think a little better in that room,” Ms. Hall said of the newly organized space. “At least for me, I can’t think in a … crowded environment. So for me, that was project number one. And it also kind of set the tone for the basement and the rest of the building.”

Mr. Stuessi said the project started with the immediate past and, to some degree, will continue deeper and deeper into the past — provided some state funding is secured.

“Anything that we would want to be able to get access to relatively quickly — which would be more recent property records, building plans, etc. — that would likely be a priority of what we’d be looking to digitize.

“Historic records from 100-plus years ago would likely be something that we wouldn’t be digitizing until maybe the very end.”