HAVERSTRAW, N.Y. - Trying to quantify the amount of time it took to put together the Haverstraw Through The Years exhibit is difficult for Town Historian Stephen Cobb. Just the 1800s portion of a timeline took an entire day.
But the excitement of discovering interesting pieces of history, like how a jazz pioneer was inspired by the blues sung at the brickyards or the Babe played some Sunday baseball in the town, made it all worth it.
Haverstraw Through The Years is a history exhibit currently on display at the King’s Daughters Public Library that was assembled by Cobb, part of the town’s Quadricentennial Celebration.
“I’m considering this not finished yet,” Cobb said. He still plans to add information World War I and II, and cover the Algonquins and other ethnic communities. “It’s a work in progress.”
The exhibit begins 400 years ago with the naming of the area, “Haverstroo,” which translates to “oat straw” or land of oat and straw, named by the Dutch back in the early 1600s. Exhibit information is arranged topically and includes research-driven histories of the brickyards, ethnic communities, the fire companies, schools, and businesses, along with a plethora of old photographs provided by many people who live in town.
One of the photographs was provided by the family of Frank Hessian. It’s a picture of the Haverstraw Knights of Columbus baseball team from some time in the 1920s. Pictured with Hessian and the team, standing in the back row is none other than the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth.
State law at the time prohibited the playing of professional sports on Sundays. So, professional players would seek games elsewhere, often for a fee, Cobb explained. One Sunday, Babe Ruth found his way to Haverstraw.
Another fascinating piece of Haverstraw history is the town’s unintended jazz influence, and it starts with the brickyards, of which there were many along the Hudson River. (In 1883, the town’s brickyards produced over 300 million bricks.)
The brickyards were worked mainly by African-Americans, whose history dates back to the late 1700s. In the 1790 census, there were 238 slaves accounted for in the town.
Willie "The Lion" Smith, a Jazz musician and a master stride pianist, who was major influence on Duke Ellington, was quoted in a book saying he first heard the blues in Haverstraw from the tunes sung down at the brickyards in a book.
“This music that was so important to him as a musician, someone who was developing jazz, the first time he heard it was here,” Cobb said with excitement. The brickyard blues may have had a similar influence on George M. Cohan, the father of modern Broadway.
In his show tunes Cohan incorporated the blues. Cohan didn't outright state it the way Smith did but growing up he did spend summers in Haverstraw. The house he stayed, which is no longer there, was on Division Street and couldn't have been more than 100 yards from the brickyards.
And prior to the advent of jazz, there were 100 soldiers from Haverstraw who fought in the New York 95th regiment in the Civil War, who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg and helped force the Mississippi 2nd regiment from the Confederate Army to surrender during the battle. (One of the soldiers from the regiment who died on July 4 was named John Phillips. There is some certainty he is an ancestor of Town Supervisor Howard Phillips, Cobb said.)
The regiment's battle flag is on display in the Phil Rotella meeting room at town hall.
The exhibit will be displayed in Town Hall through the end of July and will return to the King's Daughters Library in August.