Massapequas' history is richer than most know

The 1796 Hotel Site sign, as seen on The 1796 Hotel Site sign, as seen on July 5, 2014, on Merrick Road in Massapequa pays homage to brothers Silas and Peter Van De Water, whose entrepreneurship helped their family adjust to changing times. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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Massapequa isn't as young as it looks.

"Everybody looks at Massapequa as a community that began in the 1950s," said Bill Colfer, president of the Historical Society of the Massapequas. "They don't realize we go back to 1696."

That may be because, unlike some other Long Island towns with rich histories, only a handful of homes in the community -- Massapequa, Massapequa Park and North and East Massapequa -- predate 1900. To help residents catch up to the town's past, more than a dozen mostly blue markers dot the roadsides.

Since 1985, the Historical Society has erected 15 of the cast-iron historical signs, averaging about one a year the past decade alone. They stand 6 feet tall but still didn't seem to get much notice until George Kirchmann, a society member and former history professor at Fordham University, started writing a monthly blog in 2013 highlighting a sign. His entries about the area's history hidden in plain sight attracted reader responses that ranged from surprise about their neighborhood's history to offerings of additional information and suggestions of new sites for signs.

Inspired, Kirchmann -- who has lived in Massapequa since 1993 -- augmented the blog entries with more research and wrote "Signs of the Times: Massapequa's Historical Markers" ($10/$13), a 40-page glossy booklet published by the Historical Society.

Massapequa is believed to be the first community on Long Island with an at-a-glance guide to its historic markers in book form. Some that Kirchmann highlights:

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West Neck graveyard

On the south side of Merrick Road, adjacent to a 7-Eleven and just a few doors away from the All American Drive-In, lies the burial ground for the Jones family, the earliest settlers in what is now Massapequa. Headstones date to the mid-1700s and include the remains of a Revolutionary War officer and Samuel Jones, a prominent lawyer and anti-Federalist who helped craft the Bill of Rights.

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But there are two mysteries about the small plot: Who owns it and who rests there. "When the Society put up the sign, we tried to find out whose jurisdiction the property was under," Kirchmann, 73, said. Neither the village, the Town of Oyster Bay nor the county knew. "It seems to fall into a sort of ownership oblivion."

Most of the ornate Jones family tombs and monuments are clustered at the west end of the graveyard. The eastern half of the property appears empty. But Kirchmann points out its undulating terrain. "I think these may be unmarked graves," he said, noting that in the 18th century, the wealthy Jones family had slaves and servants whose remains could be in the invisible resting places.

 

1796 Hotel

The hotel established by brothers Silas and Peter Van De Water on what is now the corner of Orchard Street and Hicksville Road was an early example of local entrepreneurism. The brothers expanded a tavern on the site that had been operated by their father and, to attract more customers, they set up a stagecoach line that ran from Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn to the hotel, making several stops along the way. When the 1840s establishment of the Long Island Rail Road made their stagecoach line obsolete, the family began a shuttle-coach service for passengers from the Farmingdale station. As Massapequa began to attract sportsmen, the Van De Water hotel became the lodging of choice for famous guests, including future president Chester Arthur and former Union general Joseph Hooker.

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Farm District

After the Civil War, what is now North Massapequa and Plainedge became a robust farming area populated mostly by German immigrants and a few Italian and Asian families. They grew produce, which was sold initially to the wealthy Jones and Floyd-Jones families that lived farther south, but was soon shipped to markets in New York City, too. Flowers also were grown here, and there was at least one poultry farm.

The Farm District vanished during Long Island's postwar suburban boom, but its historical sign (erected by the Society in 1994) sits in front of a small plot. Frank Hoerauf, a landscaper whose family has lived in the area for decades, sells garlic, tomatoes, onions, peppers and cucumbers from his roughly 1,200-square-foot roadside plot. "I definitely enjoy it," said Hoerauf, who refers to himself as Farmer Frank.

 

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The Flying Field

An airport in Massapequa Park? Yes, what was known as Fitzmaurice Flying Field opened in May 1929 as part of a real estate development scheme that anticipated an explosion of home-buying related to the opening of nearby Jones Beach State Park that summer. The developers "touted the advantages of having an airfield for the use of residents, who apparently would be wealthy enough to own a plane," Kirchmann said.

The stock market crash in October 1929 helped ensure the development went bust, and the 21-acre airfield -- named after World War I airman James Fitzmaurice -- became a flight school, a hangar and a base for a skywriting company. In 1954, the local school board purchased the property and the Hawthorn School was built there. The building now houses the Nassau County Police Academy.


Jones Beach Marker

Of the 15 historical signs erected by the Society since 1985, the first and only one located outside of Massapequa honors its first white settler: Thomas Jones. The namesake of Jones Beach moved to what was then called Fort Neck in 1696, with his bride Freelove Townsend, daughter of a prominent Oyster Bay family. Jones, who had a checkered and mysterious past, managed to build himself quite an empire in the isolated swamps of the South Shore, and became one of the Island's largest landowners.

He was born in what is now Northern Ireland and had been a privateer, known in modern parlance as a pirate. He had a whaling company on the remote barrier beach south of the bay that fronted his home and that would eventually bear his name.

It's uncertain where the whaling station would have been located on the remote, raw, often-flooded Jones Beach of 300 years ago. For the 1985 plaque, a site near the heavily trafficked Central Mall was chosen, ensuring that thousands of Jones Beach visitors would learn a little more about Jones.


Massapequa Historic Complex

In the mid-19th century, Elbert Floyd-Jones -- a direct descendant of Jones Beach namesake Thomas Jones -- decided it was high time for the extended family to have its own place of worship instead of having to make the long trip every Sunday to St. George's Church in Hempstead. Old Grace Church was built in 1844 and still stands today. It's now part of a Massapequa Historic Complex that includes a servant's cottage, relocated from its original location near the current Bar Harbor branch of the Massapequa Library, and the DeLancey Floyd-Jones Free Library. Founded in 1896 by Floyd-Jones, a West Point graduate who fought in both the Mexican and Civil wars, it was the first public library serving the Massapequas.

After the new Grace Church opened across Merrick Road in 1962, the 1844 church fell into disuse. In 1969, a group of concerned local citizens organized to protect the old building from vandalism. That group of citizens became the Historical Society of the Massapequas and later, in 1980, raised money to lease and preserve Old Grace Church. It is also where the Society continues to hold its monthly meetings, in part to plan future signs of the past.


HOW TO GET THE BOOK

For more information on "Signs of the Times: Massapequa's Historical Markers," call 516-799-2023 or visit nwsdy.li/signstimes. The book is $10 if purchased at a Historical Society-related fair or event, and $13 if sent by mail.

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