Book on the Hempstead Plains weaves history, nature

The sun illuminates Hempstead Plains Preserve as it rises on a Saturday in June. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The tall grasses shimmer in the early summer breeze, their golden, feathered tops dappled by the morning sun.

Birdsong fills the air; a sparrow glides over the waving rows of flora.

And less than a quarter mile away, traffic on the Meadowbrook State Parkway is at a standstill.

OK, only kidding on the last point: Even Long Island’s often-crowded modern roads are moving well this Saturday morning in June. But here at the Hempstead Plains Preserve in Uniondale — just a few hundred yards from Exit 4 of the Meadowbrook — time seems to have not so much stopped but hurtled itself, like a time machine, into the deep past.

“You’re really looking at a primeval landscape that goes back almost to the Ice Age,” says Molloy University history Professor Paul D. van Wie as he gazes out at this idyll from the porch of the preserve’s solar-powered Education and Research Center, nestled by the east entrance gate to the campus of Nassau Community College.

Indeed, if you can ignore the massive new Nassau County Police Department Center for Training and Intelligence that looms over the northeast part of the preserve and the 12-story NCC Administrative Tower soaring to the west, you can almost imagine that you are on the Long Island of 1907 or 1859, or even 1792 — a time when the vast Hempstead Plains, the largest prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains, was the dominant feature of what is now central Nassau County.

Extending south from about Old Country Road to Hempstead Turnpike and running east from roughly the Queens border to just west of Suffolk County, the Plains were a veritable sea of wild grass. The area served many purposes, but for two centuries, the farmers who made up the bulk of rural Long Island’s population used it as the grazing ground for their sheep and cattle. Hunters were also attracted to the Plains by the abundant game and fowl. Some farmers managed to grow crops here, but the sandy soil made it less suited for agriculture than other parts of Long Island. Although estimates have varied, the Plains are now believed to have been about 40,000 acres in size.

“That’s a tremendous expanse of land,” emphasizes van Wie, who has a PhD in history and is editor of the recently released book “The Natural and Human History of Hempstead Plains,” published by Friends of Hempstead Plains.

“This book is an integral part of the educational mission of the Friends,” van Wie writes in the preface, “to further an appreciation of the importance of the Plains as a key element in its preservation and restoration.”

And yet, he notes to a Plains visitor, “most modern Long Islanders don’t even realize it existed.”

Molloy University history Professor Paul D. van Wie, who edited...

Molloy University history Professor Paul D. van Wie, who edited the new book about the Plains, examines grasses at Hempstead Plains Preserve in June. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

‘Tall grass prairie’

It existed because of the glacier that once extended across what is now Long Island’s North Shore. As it receded, about 10,000 years ago, sand, gravel and other debris from the glacier coursed down upon the flat land below. Layer upon layer of this sediment built up on the outwash plain, creating a soil chemistry that allowed grasses to dominate, soaring in some parts of the Plains to the heights of a man.

Botanists call the Plains a “tall grass prairie” — distinguished by the presence of about a half dozen species of tall grass, including bluestem, broomsedge and purpletop. The Friends of Hempstead Plains — a not-for-profit organization of which van Wie is a board member — has kept its piece of this prairie alive and well. These 17 surviving acres of the great Hempstead Plains are a preserve on the grounds of the college, comanaged by the organization since 2000. (Nearby, the 25-acre county-owned and Friends-managed Francis Purcell Preserve is another remaining piece. Its adjacency to NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum and the Long Island Marriott provides an equally striking juxtaposition between old and new.)

Combined, the two preserves make up a tiny portion of the prairie that once stretched about 16 miles — making the scale and significance of the Plains a difficult thing to imagine today. “The Natural and Human History of Hempstead Plains” will help.

Published in May, it’s a lavishly illustrated anthology of articles and papers on various aspects of the Plains — their ecology, history and impact on human inhabitants from the time the prairie was a hunting ground for indigenous people.

Contributors include scholars of the Plains, past and present: prominent contemporary Long Island historians such as van Wie and Hofstra emeritus professor Natalie Naylor as well as names from the past, including one that may be familiar to Long Islanders today, Henry Hicks (1870-1954). Hicks was a member of the family that founded a popular and still-existing nursery and whose 1892 article about the flora of the Plains — included in the anthology — was originally his thesis at Cornell University, where Hicks studied agricultural science. A 1918 study of the Plains by the prominent naturalist Roland M. Harper (1878-1966) is also included in the new book accompanied by his black-and-white photographs, which managed to capture its vast scale even as the Plains were beginning to be subsumed by Long Island’s development.

Maps along with artist and Friends board member emeritus Harriet Carotenuto’s botanical illustrations help tell the story of the Plains then and now.

It was on Hempstead Plains that New Market racecourse was established in 1665. Looking west in 1908, from the Carman Avenue Bridge over Long Island Motor Parkway in East Meadow, the photographer records a bird’s-eye view of the vastness of Long Island’s prairie. An air show, about 1921, in the area that would become Roosevelt Field mall highlights the Plains' flatness. | Photos by Garden City NY Village Archives; Cradle of Aviation (air show)

Historical trails

The huge swathe of wild grass was one of the most striking features to visitors to Long Island in the past. One of its first descriptions comes to us from the journal of an English physician traveling the area in 1741. “4 p.m., going across this great plain, we could see almost as good a horizon round us as when one is at sea,” wrote Dr. Alexander Hamilton (no relation to the Founding Father and Broadway star). “Nothing but long grass grows upon this plain,” he noted and described it as a labyrinth, where trails meandered into nowhere, forcing him to “blunder about a great while,” as he got lost near Hempstead Village.

“A grassy belt,” was how the Plains were characterized in an 1819 pamphlet, “with scarcely a tree, covered by herds of sheep and cattle, interspersed with pools of water and frequented by sportsmen for the purpose of shooting the plover that inhabit it.”

Today, outside of the preserved patches of prairie grass and familiar place names — Plainview, Plainedge, East Meadow, Meadow Brook — the Plains (not to mention the plover) are largely vanished. It was here that Long Island’s suburbanization began, when, in the 1870s, retail magnate Alexander T. Stewart proposed to create a new community amid what some newspapers at the time described as a “wasteland.” The result of Stewart’s purchase of 8,670 acres of grassland was verdant, tree-lined Garden City. Later, Levittown grew out of the Plains, sealing their doom as parcels of the commonly used land were sold off to accommodate the postwar population boom.

The Plains figure into almost every aspect of Long Island history; and they made an impression on almost every major historical figure associated with the area. During his 1790 presidential tour of Long Island, George Washington commented on the expanse of the Plains as his carriage rolled along the narrow roads from Jamaica, Queens, to Hempstead.

Walt Whitman, who was born close to their eastern edge, pondered the Plains through the window of a train on its way east from Brooklyn, writing about them in a series of newspaper articles on his Long Island travels. Civil War regiments trained on the Plains (a plaque to one of these “Camps of Instruction,” Camp Winfield Scott, stands today on the corner of 11th Street and Washington Avenue on the grounds of the Nassau County Courts, itself built on land that was once part of the Plains).

Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss tested planes on the Plains in the early 1900s, and it was there, in 1918, that the U.S. Army opened a base that became known as Mitchel Field — one of the largest and most important military airfields in the country at the time.

The Plains even had a role in sports history. It was on the Plains of what is now Garden City that the New Market racecourse — recognized by historians of the sport as the first racecourse in America — was established in 1665. Originally used by British Army officers to exercise and train their mounts, it soon attracted New Yorkers to then-remote Long Island to watch and wager on the steeds that galloped across the expanse.

With the emergence of modern Nassau County in the postwar era, memories of the great Plains seem to have been largely erased.

Biology Professor Betsy Gulotta, conservation project manager for Friends of...

Biology Professor Betsy Gulotta, conservation project manager for Friends of Hempstead Plains, first encountered the prairie when she first began teaching at Nassau Community College. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Nature’s classroom

In 1969, Betsy Gulotta, a newly hired Nassau Community College biology professor, began leading her classes to the grassy area a short walk from their classroom. “One of my favorite things was taking my students on field trips,” Professor Gulotta said. “So, it was just easy to walk over there.”

“There were plenty of plants and animals to see within walking distance,” she said, noting that bird’s-foot violets were abundant and upland sandpipers — now long gone from the Plains — still nested in the grass. Gulotta said there are more than 250 kinds of herbaceous plants, and recent bird surveys indicate there are more than 30 species of birds throughout the year. Mammals include rabbits, meadow voles, white-footed mice and shrews.

But she said she didn’t know the open space near her classroom was the Hempstead Plains until she met a botanist who was there doing research. “That’s how I learned how important it was,” she said.

In the mid-1980s, another botanist came to study the area and discovered an endangered species: A form of grass called sandplain gerardia. “That got my attention,” Gulotta said.

The discovery also attracted the notice of environmentalists and The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit. Gulotta and some of her colleagues joined forces with the organization to see about saving what she learned was a precious piece of open ground. “There wasn’t much left by then,” she said, citing development in the 1970s, principally the construction of the Coliseum. “We asked the college if they would consider setting aside the acres that were on their property and turning it into a preserve,” she said.

To get the college’s approval, the partnership would need the county’s, and in 1988, Nassau County agreed. (“By happy coincidence,” as van Wie wryly notes in his chapter on the history of the preservation efforts, Betsy Gulotta’s husband, the late Thomas Gulotta, was then the Nassau County executive.)

Brittany Champey, center, of Garden City South, Anthony Marinello and Tim Butler,...

Brittany Champey, center, of Garden City South, Anthony Marinello and Tim Butler, both of West Hempstead, walk a preserve trail while in search of native plants during a June evening program hosted by Friends of Hempstead Plains. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Preserves take root

That year, the 17 acres on the campus (which, it turned out, had been slated for development) as well as another 25 acres at what is now Purcell Preserve, were earmarked by the county for perpetual preservation.

The Nature Conservancy would oversee the new Hempstead Plains Preserve until 2000, when Betsy Gulotta and others formed Friends of Hempstead Plains. With help from Nassau Community College, the organization now manages the property, offering class visits, public tours, scouting activities and volunteer days, where one can assist the Friends in removing invasive species (an ongoing challenge, according to Gulotta).

One can easily see Hempstead Plains Preserve’s attraction for educators, students, nature lovers as well as artists and photographers: It’s a dazzling vista — as if a door to the past was suddenly swung open.

And it’s a place that still yields surprises beyond the sheer incongruity of its presence in a heavily developed corridor of Nassau County: As we walk along the preserve’s main path, admiring the flora swaying in rhythm to the wind, van Wie spots something: “An old wagon trail,” he says pointing to a faint, narrow trace snaking north through the tall grass.

Likely, he says, it was a cart path connecting Hempstead and Westbury. “There were a lot of roads that crossed the Plains,” he says.

Some formed the footprint of modern roads, such as nearby Merrick Avenue. Others vanished, becoming chimeras like the mighty Hempstead Plains, ghostly echoes of a Long Island that is largely vanished, but that, in this small corner, still allows us to appreciate its once-majestic expanse.

"The Natural and Human History of Hempstead Plains," was published in May 2022 by Friends of Hempstead Plains. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Learn more

“The Natural and Human History of Hempstead Plains,” published by the Friends of Hempstead Plains, can be ordered for $30 through the group’s website, The website includes information about visiting the preserve as well as getting involved as a volunteer. 

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