Home News Local News Suffolk County’s ‘own Smithsonian’ celebrates its 130th anniversary
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Suffolk County’s ‘own Smithsonian’ celebrates its 130th anniversary

The Suffolk County Historical Society, founded in 1886, built its museum on West Main Street in Riverhead in 1931. Photo: Carl Corry

The Suffolk County Historical Society is celebrating its 130th anniversary in 2016 and has a new executive director in Victoria Berger, who started earlier this year. She recently gave us a tour of the building.

The historical society dates back to 1886, but it moved to its current location in 1931 after Alice Perkins, a widow whose family owned a milling business, a button factory, a clothing store and the Perkins Electric Company, deeded the property in 1925 to the organization for $1 with the stipulation that a museum would be constructed on the triangular site or it would be reverted back to her, according to the National Register of Historic Places application.

By early 1928, the design was fashioned by August H. Galow — the same architect of the Hotel Henry Perkins, which was built across the street in 1928-1929 — and by 1930 the society raised $51,000 through the sale of its previous museum and through the efforts of its Ladies Auxiliary.

The money wasn’t enough to build the entire plan, but the society moved forward with the central building. A cornerstone was laid on Oct. 12, 1930 and the building was dedicated on May 10, 1931.

“It was built to be a museum and has always remained such,” said Berger, who noted that initially a lot of the society’s artifacts and collections were kept in judges’ offices of Suffolk County. They kept outgrowing spaces and would move to larger facilities until the museum was built.

Construction of east and west wings that were part of Galow’s original design were added in 1950-1951 through a bequest from Cora B. Reeves Barnes; a north wing was added in 1963 through the bequest of Sylvia Staas.

Currently, about 60 percent of the 1 ½-story, 12,500-square-foot building, located at 300 W. Main St., is made up of exhibits, public meeting spaces and program rooms. The other sections are nonpublic and house the collection under climate-controlled conditions.

“We’re kind of like Suffolk County’s own Smithsonian,” Berger said.

The accredited museum’s collection includes a library with over 20,000 original documents, such as court, town and tax ledgers, genealogical data, deeds, birth certificates or copies of registry information and photographs of places long gone.

“Our library is a wonderful place for anyone who is conducting research across Suffolk County,” Berger said.

The museum is also open for public meetings and hosts discussions with authors. On July 16 at 1 p.m., Stephen Scanniello, curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at New York Botanical Gardens, will be on hand to discuss his book, “A Rose by Any Name” as part of the museum’s “Book & Bottle” series.

Currently on exhibit at the museum is “Fullerton’s Long Island: The Lure of the Land,” which includes more than 70 photographs by Hal B. Fullerton from the late the 1800s depicting agriculture and recreation on behalf of the Long Island Rail Road.

In its transportation room, the museum also has a 1905 Oldsmobile that Berger said is believed to be the first automobile to arrive on Long Island, not to mention native American arrowheads and pottery, furniture and natural history items going back to primitive eras.

Perhaps the most controversial item in its permanent collection is the Hulbert Flag, which some believe was made by Capt. John Hulbert of Bridgehampton and carried by him and his militiamen from Fort Ticonderoga to Philadelphia in 1775.

“Some early historians believed it may have been the flag that became the concept for the American flag, although more and more historians dispute that,” Berger said.

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Carl Corry

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.