Watershed for women at Time and the Valleys Museum

The women in the photo are all sisters: Eva, Mary, Nellie, Harriet and Nancy Smith. The sisters were all Quakers, educated women and residents of Eureka, one of the towns removed for the building of the Rondout Reservoir. Nellie Childs Smith (center), the first female lawyer in Sullivan County, was admitted to the bar in 1916 – a full year before women could even vote in the state. (Time & the Valleys Museum)

Women in New York State achieved the right to vote in state elections on November 6, 1917. It would take three more years to achieve passage of the 19th Amendment providing women the right to vote in national elections, but that earlier statewide victory in New York was a key moment in the battle.

To commemorate the centennial anniversary of that milestone, a special program will be hosted by the Time and the Valleys Museum in Grahamsville on Sunday, November 5 at 2 p.m. “The Right to Vote: 100th Anniversary Commemoration” will begin with a talk by Charles Ford of Newburgh, who will speak about early suffrage efforts from 1800 to 1834, including movements around the world and advances made by suffrage champions Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Alice Paul.


Ford’s talk will be followed by a presentation on prominent early-20th-century women in Sullivan County. Archivists from the Time and the Valleys Museum will speak about 19th-century physician Phebe Low, one of the earliest practicing female doctors in Liberty; Elisabeth Worth Muller, founder and president of the Monticello Suffrage Club; and Nellie Childs Smith, the first female lawyer in Sullivan County, who was admitted to the bar in 1916 – a full year before women could even vote in the state.

A striking photograph taken prior to that accomplishment shows Nellie (1885-1972) surrounded by her four sisters: Eva and Mary Smith on her right, and Harriet and Nancy Smith on her left. The sisters were all Quakers, educated women and residents of Eureka, one of the towns removed for the building of the Rondout Reservoir.

Once Nellie passed the bar, she practiced law through the Monticello firm of Lyons, Smith and Washington, and was later the assistant county attorney and then attorney for the Town of Neversink from 1955 until her death in 1972.

Admission to the program costs $3 for adults, which includes refreshments and museum admission. Museum members will be admitted free.

The Time and the Valleys Museum was founded as a grassroots effort by a group of locals with a shared interest in preserving the history of the communities taken by the building of the reservoirs. Beginning in 2003, the group spent a year learning what it would take to open a new museum, and by 2004 acquired not-for-profit status. A temporary charter from the New York State Education Department followed, and the early days of the new museum were housed in the Town of Neversink Town Hall.

Fundraising and the collecting of photographs and artifacts allowed the group to establish a local history resource center, and in 2011, the Time and the Valleys Museum was moved into its current home: a wing of the Daniel Pierce Library on Main Street in Sullivan County’s Grahamsville.

“Water and the Valleys” is a permanent exhibit, newly renovated, that chronicles the history of the Rondout and Neversink watershed area from early geological times to the 20th century. It features videos and interactive activities that include a Native American artifact guessing game and the opportunity to have a go at grinding corn with a mortar and pestle.

“Tunnels, Toil and Trouble: New York City’s Quest for Water and the Rondout/Neversink Story” is an interactive exhibit about the New York City water supply system and the towns that were removed to build it. At the turn of the last century, New York City’s need for water was growing rapidly, and in 1905 the New York State Legislature allowed the City to take Catskill lands to build dams, reservoirs and aqueducts. Shortly thereafter, the service of notices for condemnation through eminent domain began. Videos are included in this exhibit along with hands-on activities: Visitors can try their hand at digging and building a dam with sand and rock.

“Picture Yourself(ie) in the 1930s” is a new exhibition that contains life-sized 3-D vignettes depicting different scenes of everyday life in the ’30s. The tableaux are designed so that visitors can step into a scene and become an integral part of it. Cameras and mobile devices are encouraged to capture selfies – with props or costume elements, in some cases – in a 1930s barber shop, schoolroom, farm scene, millinery shop and more.

Museum director Donna Steffens is enthusiastic about the future of the Time and the Valleys Museum. On the horizon is the July 2018 opening of a 1930s-era Catskills family farm recreating the homesteads lost when reservoir-building took the land. It will be located on property behind the museum, and include an 1880s barn, a farmhouse, milk house, a workshop powered by water and a blacksmith and woodworking shop. The exploration of what local farms were like will be experienced with the latest in technology, including a variety of tours for mobile devices.

Regular hours at the museum are Memorial Day through Labor Day, Thursday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. or by appointment. During the rest of the month of September, the Time and the Valleys Museum is open weekends from noon to 4 p.m., and on other days and times during the year by appointment or during programs like the one this Sunday. Regular adult admission is by a suggested donation of $5, or $2 for kids under age 16. Children under age six are admitted free, as are residents of the Town of Neversink and Town of Denning. As a Blue Star Museum, free admission to Time and the Valleys Museum is offered to active-duty military personnel and up to five family members. Groups, camps and schools are always welcome, and guided tours are conducted for 15 to 100 people throughout the year.

“The Right to Vote: 100th Anniversary Commemoration,” Sunday, November 5, 2 p.m., $3, Time & the Valleys Museum, 332 Main Street (Route 55), Grahamsville; (845) 985-7700, www.timeandthevalleysmuseum.org.