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Amityville local lore gives ‘friendly village’ its name

Shops lined Broadway in Amityville in the 1950s.

Shops lined Broadway in Amityville in the 1950s. Credit: The Amityville Historical Society

As local lore goes, sometime around 1850, a community that had settled south of Huntington more than 100 years prior finally decided it needed a name.

The people called a meeting and ideas were tossed around, but no one could find a name they would all agree on.

Finally, frustrated with the growing tension, a merchant’s wife, named Ruth Williams, jumped up and said: “What we need here is a little amity!”

The crowd agreed, and from then on, the area became known as Amityville -- “the friendly village,” said Seth Purdy, curator of the Amityville Historical Society’s William T. Lauder Museum.

Though Purdy admitted there is another story that claims the village was named after a resident’s boat.

“People traveled from Huntington to the South Shore probably because they were curious,” he said, adding that in Amityville they found a precious commodity -- salt hay, a type of hay that grows near salt water and was used for insulating houses and feeding livestock. “Then they looked around and thought, ‘This would be a nice place to live.’ ”

Purdy, who is a lifelong Amityville resident, said the village is a community that was “established” very early.

Like many waterfront Long Island communities, Amityville settlers quickly learned to make a living off the land and the bay. Agricultural and duck farming, fishing and boat building blossomed into profitable industries, and the Amityville population grew quickly.

“As the area began to grow, there were other businesses that were needed,” he said.

In 1790, the first grain mill was built, and around that time a modest downtown began to grow along the roads that are now Merrick Road and Broadway.

“Very early on we had a doctor, as well as lawyers established here,” he said. “Both of our, what you call, suburbs to the west and the east were not highly settled and they did not develop the downtown that developed here. If there was a need for these services they would come to Amityville.”

Wesley Powell is the fourth generation of his family to live and work in Amityville. In 1908, his great-grandfather, Frederick B. Powell, opened Powell and Robbins, Inc. Funeral Directors and Embalmers in a storefront on Broadway.

Powell said he remembers his father, who took over the business in 1931, telling stories of a quaint, quiet life.

“They had a livery stable,” he recalled from a story his father used to tell, “and they used to run the horses to the fire department and hook them up to the fire trucks. They didn’t have engines.”

Around the turn of the century, Amityville became a hotspot as wealthy New Yorkers sought a cool place to retreat for the summers. To match the demand in tourism, large hotels sprung up by the Great South Bay, including the largest and longest-running, the New Point Hotel, which was four stories tall and had 60 rooms. Purdy said there were three ferry boats that brought people from the shores of Amityville to the barrier beaches so they could reach the ocean.

“It became very prevalent for tourism,” he said. “Year-round residents would rent the house out during the summer and live in their barns to make money.”

Famous visitors, some of whom purchased homes, included actors and vaudeville performers Will Rogers and Fred Stone and their friend Annie Oakley.

But aside from the summer crowds and the glimpses of glamour, Amityville retained its small-town feel, said William T. Lauder, 90, the director of the Lauder museum.

“I can remember seeing occasionally a horse and wagon heading down Broadway toward the village,” he said. “Route 110 was a tree-lined road with beautiful Victorian houses on each side. It was a quiet era.”

The character of the village changed in 1959, he said, when Broadway was widened, which wiped out many businesses that did not rebuild. But other than that, he said changes in Amityville have been “mostly small.”

Village Mayor Peter Imbert, 53, who also has lived in Amityville his entire life, said that today it remains a close-knit community with a vibrant downtown, a popular beach and ample opportunities to enjoy the surrounding waters.

“There is a strong sense of community in the village,” he said. “We take it for granted -- those of us who have lived here our whole lives -- but people have a sense of belonging.”

Powell, too, said he feels lucky to have spent his life in Amityville and raised his children there. After him, his son Wesley A. Powell, took over his family business and his grandson is currently studying to become the sixth-generation owner.

“I think the term ‘friendly village’ does apply here,” he said. “I think it is mischaracterized by people who don’t live here to an extent. They are very surprised when they come here and see the beautiful homes, they see a museum like this, they see a historical area and they’re surprised. They say, ‘Wow, why haven’t I come to Amityville before?’ ”

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