It seems almost inevitable that Donald Bayles would take an interest in local history.
The Southold resident, who will turn 100 on Dec. 10 and has written multiple history books, is part of a three-generation dynasty that’s played a pivotal role in chronicling Long Island over the centuries.
“I've kept pretty, pretty busy over the years. Now I'm kind of running out of stuff to write history about,” he said at a birthday celebration hosted at the Longwood Public Library on Sunday, adding that, despite his work, he doesn’t really consider himself a historian.
The local history room at the Longwood library is named for Bayles’ father, Thomas Bayles, who wrote a local history column for the Long Island Advance and published more than 50 pamphlets on Long Island history.
Donald Bayles’ grandfather, Richard Bayles, was also a Suffolk County historian who wrote multiple books on the history of the county.
“The Bayles family … were, I like to say, jack-of-all-trades,” said Melanie Cardone-Leathers, local history librarian and archivist at Longwood Public Library. “They were printers, they were surveyors, they were photographers, historians. They documented the history of the community, either through photos, through letters, through diaries, or even just surveying the community, the land and the area.”
Cardone-Leathers, 46, of Ridge, who heads the Bayles Local History Room at the library, said the family preserved “the history of the community.” She described their contributions as a “treasure trove of information,” and credited the materials with providing a foundation for the library’s collection of archival materials.
“They show that everyday people are important to preserving history,” she added. “Their diaries, their photos, their letters — people don’t realize how important these are to researchers.”
Donald Bayles has continued his family legacy with the publication of multiple books on Long Island history, including a book on the history of Coram, and the history of Camp Upton in Yaphank, which served as a military training ground during World War I and an Army reception center in World War II.
“I like to say that Don Bayles really had no choice but to be a lover of local history, because it was in his DNA,” said Gail Lynch-Bailey, 66, president of the Middle Island Civic Association and the Longwood Alliance, which has published some of Bayles’ work.
“Even though he's 100 years old, his memory is so sharp and so wonderful, he can still recollect where everything was when he was a boy here and how much things have changed, and that kind of information is so important. That's why we're so happy that he's written it down into a bunch of books that we have on hand,” she added.
Bayles said he took an interest in history after he was approached by a Longwood middle school teacher for help with a class project about 30 years ago.
The teacher, Paul Infranco, reached out to the World War II veteran for help with a local history assignment he was working on with students after reading published letters from Bayles’ two great-uncles, who were killed in the Battle of Cold Harbor during the Civil War.
"He helped us out with how to go about researching it," Infranco said. And then, what could have been a one-time collaboration turned into a long-term partnership, with the pair working together on many of Bayles' books.
Infranco, who volunteers with the Longwood Alliance, said the historian is working on a book about the history of Longwood schools.
“I’d like to think that they saved the best for last. His grandfather was good; his father was very good. Mr. Bayles is excellent,” Infranco said.