Alice Kasten recalls a quote from her young daughter more than 30 years ago: "All of the other mothers are making their houses new, and my mother is making our house old."
Back then, Kasten had been decorating the family den in Great Neck with her collection of antique posters, metal serving trays and vintage food tins to re-create an old-fashioned general store.
It was more her love of history than her decorating sense that led to Kasten's choices in furnishing her home. As president of the Great Neck Historical Society since 2006, Kasten has been an advocate for the documentation and preservation of the community's historical legacy.
For her most recent project, she and Leila Mattson, 81, of Great Neck, a society board member and historian for the Village of Thomaston, completed a book that chronicles Great Neck's history.
"Port Washington, Roslyn and other Long Island communities have written local histories -- it was time Great Neck had a book," says Kasten. "Images of America: Great Neck," available on Amazon.com and BN.com, was a six-month collaboration and is a pictorial history of the area from the 1600s to 1950. It was released last fall by Arcadia Publishing, which specializes in books on local history across the country.
"The Great Neck Library's local history collection was the source for many of the images in the book," says Jonathan Aubrey, a librarian at the Great Neck Library.
"We tried to verify with more than one source," added Mattson.
Among the many sources they used were Google Books, Google Scholar, U.S. census records, newspaper archives, photos, maps, real estate records, correspondence, books and telephone directories.
'A feeling of the times'
Kasten, 68, is a retired New York City teacher who taught high school-level earth science and biology in middle school. She lives in a circa-1920s Tudor home and has always been a history buff. When she was a child, she says, her mother, a history teacher, took her "to every restoration, church and museum."
Her interest was further sparked in the 1960s, when she began collecting 19th century advertising trade cards. "Through the cards, you get a feeling of the times," says Kasten. She has combined her passion for local history and a background in public speaking to advocate for the documentation and preservation of Great Neck's history. Her first project was convincing local business owners to display posters of 1920s Great Neck street scenes. "We would like people to be aware that Great Neck has had a rich history," Kasten says.
Since then, she has been involved with multiple projects, including the Heritage Recognition Program that encourages restoration of historic structures and sites. The society also supports lectures, tours and programs, such as the popular "Attics of Great Neck," which asks residents to share their bits of history and memorabilia with others who appreciate the past.
"None of us are professional historians," Kasten says of the 50 volunteers who are fellow society members. "We have become historians because we are interested."
North Hempstead Town Historian Howard Kroplick praises Kasten's efforts, saying she "is dedicated to the preservation of all things Great Neck, and I appreciate her hard work."
Kasten says she is alarmed by the number of older homes that have been demolished. She understands that their antiquated layouts with tiny kitchens and no bathrooms on the main floor often are unappealing to new home buyers. But as vestiges of the past, these homes "teach you so much about who and what the community was, and once they're gone, you're not getting them back," she says.
In an effort to slow the loss of historic structures, the Heritage Recognition Program pays homage to homes or buildings with architectural or cultural significance, says coordinator Joan Wheeler of Great Neck. "The whole idea is for people to recognize why these homes are important and to think twice before knocking them down," says Wheeler, who declined to give her age. So far, 13 homes and buildings have received engraved metal plaques indicating their place in local history, including the Great Neck Park District's Great Neck House -- the town's first library.
Now the society is focused on raising money to save the Stepping Stones Lighthouse on Long Island Sound. "If it is torn down, the Coast Guard would put up a new beacon that would serve the same purpose," Kasten acknowledges. "But what about the spirit? Lighthouses are part of our past, and to destroy them, I think, is wrong."
What impresses Kasten about Great Neck's history, she says, "is how it has undergone multiple transformations -- from mill and farm town, to an era of grand estates, to resort destination, to enclave for Broadway actors, to the cosmopolitan community it is today."
Picnicking in the country
Before direct train service from Manhattan in 1909, vacationers traveled to Great Neck by steamship to picnic in the country. Hotels and other businesses sprang up along Steamboat Road, which was close to the ferry. "Postcards from 1907 reveal the steamship economy that developed on the north side of town," says Kasten, who collects ephemera from long ago Great Neck.
"People used postcards for sending brief messages like we use email today," adds Mattson.
Wealthy industrialists built grand estates, many with dairy barns, greenhouses and other buildings, Kasten says. To run them, they hired immigrants, including many Lithuanians. Attracted by its proximity to Manhattan, many Broadway actors, writers, and other celebrities came to town in the 1920s, Kasten says. By the 1930s, as estate owners sold their land, developers built suburban homes.
Of Great Neck's glamorous past, Kasten says, "I love the big 125-acre estates and Gatsby-size parties, flowing liquor and British-style house parties -- all that happened here." However, she says, the real stars who made Great Neck a vibrant community were "its many immigrants in the 1800s, who came here penniless off the boat, and farming families like the Allens and the Bakers, who worked hard and became Great Neck's businessmen and prominent citizens."
Kasten hopes everyone who reads "Images of America: Great Neck" will learn about Great Neck's rich past. And she realizes that history continues to be made. "I would love to write a second volume -- post-World War II to the present," she says, "to tell the stories of Great Neck's most recent immigrants from the Persian, Asian, Israeli and Orthodox Jewish communities."
Interested in researching local history? Here are five tips to get you started:
Start with your family. Go through old letters, photos and videos and interview family members on their recollections of early life in town. Speak with longtime residents to hear their stories.
Photograph or video contemporary people and buildings in town, then compare them with archival photos and maps of people in places from the past to see how things have changed. Today's images serve as a documentation of the present for future generations.
Visit your local library. Many, like the Great Neck Library, have extensive local history collections with books, photos, letters, atlases, maps, phone directories and files of old newspaper clippings.
Visit your local historical society and chamber of commerce; contact the official village historian. Also, the Long Island Studies Institute, a cooperative endeavor of Hofstra University and Nassau County, is a major center for the study of local and regional history. The institute's research facility, open to the public, includes archival collections, books, photographs, newspapers, maps, census records, genealogies, government documents, manuscripts and audiovisual materials.
Long Island Memories, at longislandmemories.org, has databases of local 19th and early 20th century newspapers
Nassau County Historical Society, at nassaucountyhistoricalsociety.org
Suffolk County Historical Society, at suffolkcountyhistoricalsociety.org