As Dan’s Papers celebrates its 60th summer, we look back at not only the history of our paper(s), but also of the East End as a whole, and nowhere is a better record kept than Riverhead’s Suffolk County Historical Society (SCHS). Founded in 1886, the four-time platinum winner of Dan’s Best of the Best North Fork Museum has established itself as the authority on Suffolk County’s diverse and treasured history.
“There is no shortage of museums across Long Island, but each museum, specifically in Suffolk County, tells a small piece of the story,” Executive Director Victoria Berger explains. “We are the only one in Suffolk County that tells the bigger picture.” There are several elaborate exhibits currently on display in the SCHS museum, each delving into a different element of the county’s past. Berger is in charge of choosing the exhibits that appear in the museum’s gallery spaces, and she puts great care into picking those that hold tremendous educational value and/or will attract a great deal of visitors. “Selecting exhibits becomes a balance between the two: education and public interest,” she says.
One exhibit currently on display is The Long Island Express: Remembering the 1938 Hurricane, which recounts the monstrous storm that rocked the East End 80 years ago. Curated by Jaime Karbowiak, it features newspaper reports, personal accounts, photos of the destruction and artifacts salvaged from the wreckage. Guests can view the collection in the Noel J. Gish Gallery through February 2.
The Silver Screens of Suffolk. Celebrating the History of Film: 1900s to 1960s (pictured at the top of the page) does just as the name implies, honoring the incredible—though not widely known—contributions that Suffolk County made to the pre-Hollywood age of silent films, and illustrating the evolving industry’s connection to our local theaters. “We try to tell stories that the average resident might not know about Suffolk County,” Berger remarks. “We want them to come in here and take pride in their own history.” On display is a massive private collection of movie posters, programs, heralds and theater window cards, spanning everything from black and white classics to colorful animated pictures. The exhibit is on display in the Sylvia Downs Staas Gallery through April 27.
With an impressive 25,000 physical objects in the museum’s possession, it’s impossible to display them all at any given time. “We have been collecting art since the 1800s, and many of our finest paintings [and other objects] have never come out of storage to be put on display in the public eye,” Berger says. Seeking to showcase these hidden gems, the SCHS introduced the Spotlight Series, which focuses on one particular type of object in their collection.
To prepare for the first of these new exhibits, Spotlight Series: The Paintings, the SCHS pored over the 250 paintings in their permanent collection to bring forth the very best of the best, a wide selection of works from well-known and amateur artists from the 19th and 20th centuries that demonstrate beauty, quality and community connection. The paintings are on display in the Weathervane Gallery through February 23.
The second exhibit in the Spotlight Series is A Moment of Tranquili-Tea, which showcases the most intricate 19th century teapots from the museum’s collection of more than 100. They are on display in the History in the Hall section of the museum through February 2.
Upcoming exhibits to look forward to include Oh, Sweet Spring!, a cornucopia of floral arrangements, feathered hats, textiles and sculptures that celebrate the coming of spring; When Women Wore Whales, an examination of the garments and accessories made from whales that were in fashion during the 19th century; and a yet-untitled exhibit featuring a wide range of items used by equestrians and horses.
In addition to the rotating exhibits, there are several on permanent display. “They’re timeless, and they have such strong educational value that we feel that they should always be on exhibit,” Berger says. “Even though the other exhibits rotate depending on topic, the permanent exhibits really tell a more complete story of how Suffolk County developed.”
The first of these is So Ends This Long Journey, which focuses on the whaling industry and its vital role in the development of the East End and Long Island as a whole, including recent research into the roles that Native Americans and African Americans played.
Visitors to the Arms and Armament exhibit will find 18th century flintlocks, 19th century guns and Civil War memorabilia from the brave Long Islanders who fought for this country.
Early Suffolk Transport takes visitors on a journey to the early days before electric cars. See the wagons, sleds, bicycles and carriages used to get around the island, and gaze upon the 1905 Oldsmobile owned by John Van Mater Howell of Southold, the first automobile to set its tires on the East End.
Although everything on display at the museum holds great educational value, there is one item that Berger finds most exciting: the Hulbert Flag. “It’s our most controversial artifact,” she notes. It was made by Captain John Hulbert of Bridgehampton and carried by his militiamen in 1775. It bares a striking resemblance to the first American flag, and it’s heavily debated whether Hulbert’s flag influenced the iconic design.
In addition to the objects on display at the museum and those found in storage, the SCHS collection has amassed tens of thousands of documents, books and photographs dating as far back as the 1600s, long before Suffolk County began keeping its own civil records. The collection includes diaries, biographies, periodicals, maps, ancestor charts, scrapbooks, Bible records, postcards and much more. This makes the library and archives an invaluable resource to researchers, and serves as one more reason why the SCHS is truly the best of the best.
Explore more of Suffolk County and the East End’s storied past at Suffolk County Historical Society, 300 West Main Street, Riverhead. 631-727-2881, suffolkcountyhistoricalsociety.org