Farmingdale history: Village slowly evolves and perseveres

Farmingdale historian William Johnston talks about the origins of the village, changes the area has seen and his high hopes for the community's future. Videojournalist: Brittany Wait (May 10, 2012)

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One hundred years ago, just outside what is now Farmingdale Village Hall, trolleys passed by carrying residents on a dirt road that is now Main Street.

The Cross Island Trolley line ran between Huntington and Amityville, said Farmingdale historian William Johnston, 79, who has lived in the village for the past 50 years. Just as the highways today are mainly east and west, public transportation, at that time, was mainly east and west.

In 1695 Thomas Powell settled in the area that would later be named Farmingdale. He purchased 15 square miles of land, known as the Bethpage Purchase, from three Native American tribes; the Massapequas, the Matinecocks and the Secatogues.

For the next 150 years, his descendants were the only ones to inhabit Farmingdale, and nearby communities.

Farmingdales growth has been slow, but steady over the years, changing to the needs of the larger community, Johnston said. This community was basically a somewhat isolated farming community, up until the beginning of the small industries.

Until the completion of the Long Island Rail Road in 1841, families were isolated while making a living by harvesting and selling produce. At this time, the Farmingdale station was merely a wooden platform.

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Over the years, with increasing train service, they found that having trains stop across Main Street didnt help the traffic flow, even if it was just horses and wagons, back then, Johnston said.

So, in 1896, the train station was moved 1,000 feet to its present location off Secatague Avenue, on Front Street and Atlantic Avenue, just north of Conklin Street.

Soon after the station was relocated, additional homes were built, more shops opened, a church and post office sprung up, and fire companies serviced the community for the first time. Later, the first higher learning institution on Long Island, Farmingdale State College, formed in 1912. The formation of small industries included bottle-making and picture-framing companies, a half-dozen pickle factories, a silk dye company and a number of florists.

After World War II, an influx of former soldiers, many coming from New York City, moved to the area to raise their families. Many of them moved to Farmingdale Village, which was incorporated in 1904.

There was a great eastward migration on Long Island, said Johnston. That kicked off a surge of housing development in this area.

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In 1953, the Farmingdale School District had one building, for K-12. About eight years later, the school system had nine buildings -- six elementary schools, two junior high schools and one high school. Today, the district has six schools in total.

I think this reflects the tremendous growth of the community over a very short period of time, Johnston said. The population spiked, of course, along with the growth of Main Street, in terms of shopping and services. This was, of course, before there were suburban shopping malls, big box stores and online retail.

The area was also home to a major aircraft industry after World War I. Grumman, Republic and Fairchild were just some of the firms that began manufacturing parts to build planes.

Republic closed their buildings in Airport Plaza in Farmingdale and at the Republic Airport in 1987. Grumman was purchased by Northrop Aviation and merged to become Northrop-Grumman Aviation. Its headquarters moved to California. Fairchild sold its portion of Republic Airport in 1969, but kept manufacturing for other aviation companies until 1987 and then closed down completely.

Losing the aircraft industry significantly impacted the community, Johnston said. During World War II, each company was employing about 25,000 people.

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In the 50s and 60s, there was a more diversified retail scene on Main Street. There were clothing shops, shoe and hardware stores, along with stationery and electrical appliance stores.

With the increasing number of shopping centers, big box stores and growth of online shopping the number of variety of stores has diminished since then, Johnston said.

Two hardware stores on Main Street, Schmidts and Wollys, along with Farmingdale Shoes, closed in the early '60s.

They sort of gradually disappeared one by one, Johnston said. Many of them were gone before anyone really took great notice. Of course, the people in a sense decided themselves that they were patronizing the shopping centers and the big box store because of the lower prices.

With many empty stores, Closed signs and graffiti sprayed on windows, the success of Main Street in the 50s and 60s may seem like a distant memory.

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Not to Johnston. He still remains optimistic that Main Street will thrive like it once did.

Its a place that is going to make progress. It will have to adapt to the times, Johnston said. I think were on the right track and I just wish I could be around to see the final result. Im hoping for the best for a great little community.

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