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Telling the stories of Conklin and Kissam houses in Huntington

Alice Link, 96, explains how a spinning wheel

Alice Link, 96, explains how a spinning wheel works during a tour of the Conklin House Museum in Huntington. Credit: Jeffrey Basinger

Alice Link has a way of making history come to life. As a volunteer for more than 30 years at the Conklin and Kissam houses, two historical properties in Huntington, Link often leads tour groups of children of all ages, as well as adults, regaling them with stories and getting them to embrace their heritage.

“I tell them, ‘Does a tree live very well without its roots?’ ” says Link, 96, of Huntington.

She’s been known to quiz kids on where they’re from — trying to help them form connections.

“Does your grandma speak Italian?” she asks, followed with: “Where do you think she’s from?”

Every time Link gives a tour, it’s as if she’s doing it for the first time, says Cathi Horowitz, a former education coordinator for the historical society.

“She’s extremely interested in all the things she’s talking about. Because of that, it comes out in a personal way,” said Horowitz, 60, of Huntington. “She talks about the people that lived in the house and how they lived, and how they reacted to things. She gives the people that lived in the house life. She makes you feel as if you’re walking into someone’s home, not just walking into a museum.”

Link’s affinity for history has been a lifelong love affair. “Since I was a little girl, I wished that things could talk and tell their story,” she said.

She recalls traveling through Nice, France, along the Riviera as a girl and encountering a mysterious, abandoned mansion surrounded by weeds, with rugs hanging off balconies and windows flung open.

“So I made up a story about what caused this to happen,” says Link.

Over the years, she realized mute objects would not give up their secrets, and rather than relying on her vivid imagination, she took it upon herself to do some digging into the past.

Franco-American roots

Born in Boston, Link, an only child, moved to France with her parents when she was 7. In France, she typically spent weekends in the country, as did most families living in Paris. There she got in touch with the land and the pastoral lifestyle. American kids, she says, are missing out on similar experiences.

“They’re so far away from farm life and country life,” she mused.

With the World War II looming in the late 1930s, Alice and her family headed back to the United States, settling in Manhattan, where she studied interior design at the Parsons School of Design.

“My father was bright enough to leave,” she explains of his prescient decision to return to his American homeland.

She married, settled in Huntington in 1946, raised two sons and two daughters, and adopted a teenage girl. Link went on to get a master’s degree in the humanities and taught French and Spanish at Walt Whitman High School for 20 years. After retiring in 1986, she tutored students in foreign language and became a docent for the Huntington Historical Society.

The quintessential teacher, Link explains that the word docent, comes from the Latin, “to teach.” Her love for learning and history, she says, was sparked at her Parisian high school. In the United States, kids are taught facts, dates and numbers, notes Link. In Paris, her history teacher regaled them with stories that stayed with her for years. A favorite was the tale of Catherine of Medici, who had married at 14 and wasn’t able to conceive right away.

“They told her that if she caught spiders and she crushed them with a fork and she ate them raw, that she would become pregnant,” Link says. “And she had nine children. The medicine worked.”

Learning on the job

Link has picked up interesting tidbits visiting historians and specialists, which has helped enhance her historic tours. One example: She learned that lanterns and lamps with two wicks meant they were made to be used with whale oil. “And whale oil does not catch fire as easily as other oils, and therefore you can afford to have more wicks,” she says.

And, she’s often found herself correcting other docents on certain details, notably that the Conklin family was poor.

“They came to Huntington and bought 105 acres,” she explains, adding that the Conklin home had a dry cellar. “If you’re dirt poor, you have a dirt floor.”

A former director of education for the historical society, Wendy Andersen, 60, of Huntington, notes that Link was often on the scene observing other tour guides, and would gently correct them afterward if they erred in their presentations.

“She had such a way of telling you facts, without making you embarrassed or upset, that you learned from it — because she was so kind and generous, because she wanted you to know the real facts,” Andersen says.

Kids say the

darnedest things

If there’s one thing she’s accomplished as a docent, Link hopes it’s that she taught kids to respect history as well as the continuity of cultural traditions and conservation of the natural world. Still, she’s always amazed at the things kids say.

During a tour of Conklin House, Link showed her wards a churn, and quizzed them on what butter is made from. Their answers ranged from tea to orange juice.

She then proceeded to tell them a story about how milk used to be delivered in bottles, and as it sat, the cream rose and then it would be churned into butter.

On another occasion, while explaining how waffles were cooked on an antique waffle iron, a boy corrected her. “ ‘You’re wrong,’ he said. ‘Waffles comes from the freezer.’ ”

Over the years, she’s also figured out what’s best not to share with them, like the fact that sausages are made with intestines. “I tried that one time and learned,” she says. “The children turned vaguely green and said, ‘That’s disgusting!’ ”

Children are often amazed to learn that everyone in the past, even wealthy people, lived without heat, running water, electricity and bathrooms.

“One girl who was leaving said, ‘Where would I take my shower?’ ”

Often, kids who’ve taken tours with their classes will come back again with their parents.

“I’ll say to them, ‘You give the tour.’ It’s amazing what they can repeat!”

Despite her abiding passion for history, Link is very much living in the moment and keeping an eye on the future.

Besides her volunteer work for the historical society, Link regularly attends meetings at church and her local French club, visits Manhattan, and keeps up with her five children, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. She loves to travel, favoring small river cruises on the Danube and Adriatic or through the Norwegian fjords. An avid reader, Link is usually reading one or two books at any given time.

“I’m learning things every day,” she says.

Remarking on her mentor’s indomitable joie de vivre, Andersen says Link loves to laugh.

“It’s just so much fun to hear her tell you a story. She looks at you and then she starts giggling up a storm.”

For Link, keeping a full agenda is simply de rigueur.

“Am I going to spend the rest of my life sitting on my sofa, watching TV, or going to a meeting, to the city?” she asks rhetorically. “Thank goodness I still drive,” she says, adding, “My children don’t let me drive to Vermont anymore.”

Still, she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be able to give her beloved tours as she’s having more and more difficulty ambulating these days.

“At my age, I’m at the mercy of Mother Nature. The stuff is in my head, but it doesn’t necessarily get down to my feet.”

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