Born on his father’s farm in Highland six days before Germany’s Red Baron was shot down, Edwin Millard Ford, Kingston’s iconic historian, will mark his centenary with a gathering of some 125 invited guests at White Eagle Hall on April 15.
City historian since 1984, Ford moved with his family to Kingston in 1928. He traces his love of history to early childhood. “I was always interested in research. I couldn’t stand not knowing something. I had to look it up,” he said at an interview at the modest ranch home he and his late wife Ruth purchased on Valentine Avenue in uptown Kingston in 1955.
The Ford family came to Salem, Mass. from the Channel Islands in the 1680s. “My aunt tried to get us on the Mayflower, but we didn’t reach back that far,” said Ford. He smiled.
“I’ve always enjoyed Ed’s dry humor,” said former Friends of Historic Kingston president Peter Roberts. “When asked if he’d lived in Kingston all his life, he answers, ‘Not yet.’ Ed’s eternal optimism is a wonderful attribute. It got him to 100!”
Paul O’Neill credited Ford as the inspiration of the 2012-2016 Kingston Buried Treasures lecture series on local history. “Ed Ford,” he wrote on the dedication page of the Buried Treasures book, “has done more to preserve and protect the history of Kingston than anyone we can think of.”
Ford contributed two lectures to the series, organized and hosted by O’Neill, the county commissioner of jurors.
Mayor Steve Noble has proclaimed April 15 “Ed Ford Day in Kingston.”
While his family was Presbyterian in Highland, Ford began attending the historic Old Dutch Reformed Church — “Kingston’s cathedral” — soon after arriving in Kingston. He formally joined the church at 14 and was an elder for many years.
Ford graduated from Kingston High School in 1936, the year his 49-year-old father died. He studied to be a teacher at what was then New Paltz Normal School, graduating in 1939. “It was $50 a semester, but I had to borrow the money,” he said. “Paid if off with $5 now and then. After a while they told me it was paid up.”
Ford student-taught in Pleasant Valley, but couldn’t find a job during the Great Depression. In the meantime, his mother Elsie rented a rooming house near Pratt Institute in Brooklyn where she took in female student boarders. Ford met his future wife, Ruth Vandemark of Kingston, there.
The couple dated for three years before deciding to marry in January 1942, weeks after America’s entry into World War II. At the time, Ford was working for a Manhattan ship designing firm and exempt from military service. That ended in 1943 when he was reclassified, drafted and ticketed for training as a bomber tail-gunner.
“Thank goodness I failed my eye exam and I was I was reassigned.” he said. Ford spent the remaining war years in Brazil with an Army meteorological unit. The Fords welcomed their only child, Alan, in November 1946.
Family tragedy struck three years later. “Ruth said her back hurt one night,” Ford recalled. “We didn’t think too much of it, but then she had trouble climbing the stairs to go to bed. Next morning, she couldn’t move. We called the doctor. He called an ambulance.”
It was polio. “We thought polio was only for kids,” Ford said. Famously, Franklin D. Roosevelt was stricken with the disease at 38. Ruth, who was 29, endured three years of intense rehabilitation at what would become Helen Hayes Hospital in Haverstraw. The family lived in Rockville Center.
Like Roosevelt, Ruth got around with braces and arm crutches until her death in 2000. Ruth’s handicap did not limit the Ford family from visiting by car 17 presidential homes and “every state except Hawaii and Alaska.”
Ford got into the printing business in Kingston with his “baby brother Bill” (95 this month). Bill operated the machinery, and Ed was the salesman. Ruth ran the business office for the next 40 years. Bill left after a year.
The company’s printing relationship with Multiple Listing Services required him to process photos of hundreds of buildings in Kingston. That experience not only expanded his interest in local history, but produced many of the historic photos Ford used in his book of Kingston thoroughfares Street Whys, published in 2010. Ford had previously published a pictorial book, Images of Kingston, on stone houses. “I wrote the captions,” he said.
Ford had been an activist for decades before being appointed city historian by then-mayor Peter Mancuso. He was an original member of Friends of Historic Kingston in 1965 and its president for many years. He rallied public opinion against the demolition of the old post office on Broadway and is credited with others for preventing the city from tearing down the 1875 city hall just down Broadway from the former post office.
Ford said efforts to purchase the post office building from Ralston Purina, its owner, were foiled by lack of funds and, to some extent, lack of public interest. “I agreed with mayor [Ray] Garraghan that it should be put on the tax rolls, but nobody wanted it torn down,” he said. “Ralston Purina had paid $30,000 for it [planning demolition] and wanted $60,000. We [the Friends] had only a few thousand dollars on hand, and none of the moneyed people stepped up. People didn’t realize what they were losing until it started to come down.” The site housed several fast-food eateries over the years, and is currently vacant.
Ford does not draw a direct connection between the demolition of Rondout for urban renewal in the mid-1960s and the rise of the historic movement he and others sponsored during those years. He suggests Rondout’s fate was almost inevitable. “To begin with, there was $35 million coming to Kingston, about evenly divided between downtown and uptown,” he said. “Newburgh and Poughkeepsie were getting it, why not Kingston?”
Broadway East, as the urban renewal area was designated, was “depressed” by the late 1950s, Ford said. “There were vacant storefronts with nobody living upstairs,” he said. “The banks wouldn’t loan money. If you didn’t have urban renewal, what would you have had to look forward to?” Ford allowed that some buildings could have been saved. “The wonder is, they didn’t take the other side [of Broadway],” he said.
The uptown project was “more selective,” going building by building rather than whole blocks. Enhancement of existing structures was more the norm, as witnessed by the Pike Plan on Wall Street and North Front Street.
What was his advice for living in relatively good health for a century? “Just keep breathing,” Ford replied. It’s sage advice.
“I’ve been lucky,” he said. Ford twice broke the same hip in recent years, but rehabbed without surgery. He has a balky knee that limits his mobility. He credits sensible eating, “I haven’t had a cup of coffee for 50 years and I never drank much, never took an illegal drug,” did regular exercise, and kept busy. His mother and three siblings all lived into their 90s.
A member of countless historic organizations as city historian, Ford keeps busy with his records these days, maintaining over 7,000 three-by-five-inch index cards in his careful printing. He turned his vast collection of local newspapers over to the county several years back.
His Freeman collection was used by the Friends for World War I and World War II exhibitions at the Fred Johnston Museum. “I don’t throw anything out,” he says.
Most of his meals are delivered, but he dines out a few times a month. He attends meetings of historical organizations, and fields frequent phone calls on questions of city history. He extends his gratitude to Sue Hummel, Marc and Margaret Phelan, Jane Kellar and O’Neill, among others, for their friendship and support.
His latest project is researching the old African-American cemetery on Pine Street. Slaves were buried there until the early 1800s. Minimal exploration took place when the medical complex was built during the 1970s, and Ford says more needs to be done. “It comes down to respect for people,” he said. “There could be hundreds buried there.”
The historian remains goal-oriented. “I’m always looking forward,” he says. “There’s always a project.”
He has no plans to retire as city historian, though he’s willing to work with a successor.
Coincidentally, Ford’s hundredth birthday celebration at White Eagle Hall on Delaware Avenue will be on the former path that the British marched along on their way to burn Kingston in 1777.