History of Ronkonkomas details 3 population waves

A beach pavilion on Lake Ronkonkoma in the

A beach pavilion on Lake Ronkonkoma in the 1920s. (Credit: Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society)

A lot of people will say that their families have been in Lake Ronkonkoma from the beginning.

But what most of them mean is that their families have lived there since the 1950s, when an influx of people moved from Brooklyn, Manhattan and Nassau County, and made a permanent residence out of what was previously a summer resort town.

For Jim Browne, he has lived in the area for 78 years but his family has been coming out to Lake Ronkonkoma since the 1870s.

“My father brought us out here during the Depression,” said Browne, 82, who still has a view of the lake from where he lives now, Lake Shore Assisted Living on Lake Shore Road. “We lived in his mother’s summer house.”

Browne’s family has lived through all three “waves” of population booms made infamous in “Three Waves,” the premiere historical account of Ronkonkoma written by resident Ann Farnum Curtis in 1975. After publishing the book, Curtis founded the Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society and pledged all proceeds of the book to the society, which continues today.

Dale Spencer, curator of the Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society Museum, recently published a subsequent history book, called “Lake Ronkonkoma,” co-written by resident Keith Oswald.

Spencer said Lake Ronkonkoma was originally settled by four Indian tribes that split the land around the lake, but the first population wave refers to the late 1800s after the Long Island Railroad was completed and the wealthy began coming to the lake during the summer.

“By the 1880s, there were a number of hotels that popped up around the lake and within walking distance from the station,” Spencer said. “There were four fancy hotels right on Railroad Avenue and a couple hundred people would come out on the weekends.”

The second wave came with the completion of William Vanderbilt’s Motor Parkway and the rise of the automobile, which made the lake a destination for the middle class in the 1920s.

Over the next 20 years, Spencer said the local economy boomed.

Lake Ronkonkoma was The Hamptons,” he said. “The Hamptons were too far away.”

Beach pavilions became big business. They popped up all around the lake with large dining areas, restrooms and amusement park-type rides, including toboggan launches and water slides.

“Now there were thousands of people coming out on a nice day,” Spencer said.

Even celebrities like Greta Garbo and Jackie Gleason were known to frequent the lake, as well as the town’s most famous resident, Maude Adams, the original Broadway actress to play Peter Pan, who owned 700 acres in what is now known as the Cenacle Woods. She eventually donated the land to the Sisters of the Cenacle, who use it as a convent and retreat center.

The final wave occurred post-World War II.

“After the war the whole culture changed,” Spencer said. “People wanted to settle down. Summer bungalows became permanent homes.”

Spencer said since then, life has remained basically the same.

But not exactly, said Browne, who moved to Bohemia while raising a family but always considered Ronkonkoma his home.

“It’s just enormous now,” he said. “When I was growing up, it was a small town. Everybody knew everybody else.”

He said he moved back to Ronkonkoma to another assisted living facility about six years ago, and into the Lake Shore facility this year. He likes being able to look out at the lake, where he spent so much of his life swimming, lifeguarding and ice sailing. Though he says the lake, and the way the community has revolved around it, is one of the biggest changes he’s seen.

“The lake itself is the same,” he said. “That’s for sure. But now there’s nobody out there.”

Ellyn Okvist was born and raised in Lake Ronkonkoma. She said her family goes back six generations in town. She said the lake has gone through cycles, including a period in the 70s and 80s when it was unusable.

“You could drive by the lake and smell the stench,” she said. “At that time, the whole town really deteriorated.”

But Okvist said the community has bounced back from that and the future of Ronkonkoma is bright. She founded the Lake Ronkonkoma Heritage Organization to try to bring neighbors together and revitalize the town, and she said so many organizations in town - the Chamber of Commerce, the Lake Ronkonkoma Civic Organization and the historical society - have done so much good work already.

“The important thing is just to have a love and respect for your community,” she said. “And we really do.”

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