After 35 years as the curator, guardian and cheerleader of this city’s collective past, Edwin Ford, who turned 101 on April 15, is retiring.
Boxes of documents, books and ephemera he has collected over the years fill the living room and study of his house, will be transferred to the new city historian, Taylor Bruck, and other recipients, such as Friends of Historic Kingston (FHK) and the Ulster County archives (where Ford’s bound copies of 100 years’ worth of issues of the Daily Freeman and other newspapers already reside). But he will no doubt continue turning over the stones of forgotten subjects of local history and share his discoveries and insights. Ford no longer drives — he gave it up at age 98 — but his mind is as sharp and curious as ever and his concern that Kingston’s history be preserved as acute.
Speaking of the city’s current transformation, of the planned re-engineering of Broadway and building of the Greenline, the controversy surrounding the new development proposed for Uptown, the new businesses that have opened and the explosion in real-estate prices, Ford said preservation “should be a priority. I understand change comes, at the same time our historic heritage and architecture and history is what’s most important to me.”
Much of that historic infrastructure has been lost during his lifetime, including the old Beaux Arts post office on Broadway, most of downtown in a 1960s urban renewal project and, in more recent years, the trolley barn, which despite Ford’s protests was replaced by a chain drug store.
Yet there have been victories too — the restoration of the abandoned City Hall perhaps first among them. Last month, a property on Pine Street that once served as a cemetery for slaves, called the African Burial Ground, was purchased by the Kingston Land Trust and Harambee, preserving a most important and neglected chapter of local and American history. The news was particularly gratifying for Ford, who back in 1992 first visited and identified the site with archeologist Joe Diamond after noticing the cemetery inscribed on an 1870 map. He’s been advocating ever since for its preservation — an effort that finally bore fruit, with a visitor’s center planned for the dilapidated house on the property along with more research and possible excavation of the site.
I recently interviewed the historian at his home, a modest ranch house in Uptown where Ford has resided since 1955. (He lived there most of those years with his wife, Ruth, who died in 2005. Ford also has a son, Alan, who resides in California, along with two grandsons and a great-granddaughter who recently graduated from college). Ford’s close friend Sue Hummel also joined the conversation.
Lynn Woods: Are you from Kingston? Tell us about your childhood and early years.
Ed Ford: I was born in 1918 in Highland on a farm. My grandfather had bought it from the estate of a doctor and it was more than 100 acres. My father took it over, but my mother, who was born in Massachusetts, decided she’d had enough of farming, so when I was 10 they sold it and moved to Kingston. My father sold insurance, but back then it was not mandatory so only the rich had it and it was hard to sell. He died at age 49, in 1936. I was 18 and had two younger brothers [including Bill, who is 97 and lives at Golden Hill] and an older sister. My mother started a tearoom in a building on Wall Street, with room and board available upstairs. She became a house sorority mother for two or three colleges, at one point living in Mississippi and ended up at Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, where she rented out a house with rooms and board for students.
That was the Depression, and times must have been tough. Did you attend college?
I went to SUNY New Paltz, which was then a teacher’s college. It was a three-year program and afterwards you could teach at grade schools, but I couldn’t find a job, so I moved to New York City, where I met my wife and got a job in the mailroom at a naval architect firm. In January 1942, right after Pearl Harbor, we got married, because we knew I would be going into the service and we wanted to enjoy life first.
My wife worked for an insurance company that hired all women and forbade them to be married, because they didn’t want them to leave to have a baby after being trained, so we were married — somewhat surreptitiously — in a house in Kingston. I was in the service for three years. I was in the Air Force, in the weather headquarters, and was stationed in Brazil. In 1946, I was furloughed and came back to New York.
How did you end up back in Kingston?
I got a variety of jobs and Ruth and I moved to Long Island. Our son was born in 1946. When he was three, my wife got polio. She spent three years in Helen Hayes Hospital, in Haverstraw, where she did rehab and learned to walk again. She had a leg brace for the rest of her life and walked with crutches. Her parents lived here and they helped, and when she was in the hospital I lived with my brother Bill and his wife at their home in Kingston. Bill had started a printing business on the corner of Dederick Street and Broadway, and I worked there. After Ruth left the hospital, we rented a place on Van Buren.
How did you afford the hospital bills?
The March of Dimes paid for every single penny of her stay at Helen Hayes.
You eventually took over the printing business.
Bill ran the machines and I’d find the customers. We printed letterheads and envelopes using an offset printing machine, which had taken over letterpress. After a year my brother gave it up and I took it over, running it with my wife until we sold the business and retired 52 years later. The biggest part of the business was printing multiple listing services for real estate brokers, which consisted of a small photo and a description and the price on a half sheet of paper. We printed 17,000 of them, and I still have most of them.
How did you get interested in history?
I was always interested in local history. Because Ruth had trouble walking, we couldn’t take trips overseas, so instead on vacation we drove to 17 presidential places, either libraries or hometowns; we did history. We’d go to yard sales and pick up local history books and started a collection. I got involved with FHK when it was forming. We’d meet in people’s houses — this is before they owned the Fred Johnston house — and have committee meetings. We were all volunteers and with the small amount of money we had we bought and renovated five different houses, including the 18th-century clapboard Kiersted House and Frog Alley, both of which were going to be torn down.
In addition, you were personally instrumental in saving the 1707 stone Hoffman House. You went to New York City and convinced urban renewal officials that they should invest the money they planned to use to tear it down to instead restore it, which they did.
I was president of FHK at the time, and I thought they should know about its history. We also bought [the Federal-style brick house on] 19 Hone, 20 John and a couple of houses down on Clinton Avenue; one was going to be torn down by the bank that owned a parking lot behind it for an exit out of the parking lot. I met with them and never had such a hard time. Bankers are tough, and they laughed at me, but finally they sold it to FHK for only the appraisal the lot was worth, because they said the house was worth nothing. The other was also going to be torn down by the owner for a parking lot. We fixed up all these places on the outside and then sold them.
After urban renewal came in, FHK had the Stockade District, the Rondout, and Fair Street to Franklin designated National Historic Districts [Chestnut Street was also later designated].
The old post office, on the corner of Broadway and Prince, was torn down in the early 1970s. Could it have been saved?
The post office was abandoned in 1968 or ’69 because it was too small, also the parking was limited. It was moved to Smith Avenue. Mayor Garraghan wanted the property on the tax rolls, and along came Jack in the Box. When the [sale to the fast-food company] was announced, architect George Hutton called the head of the company — I think it was Ralston Purina that owned the chain — and said, “We want to buy it back from you.” The head of the company said, “We bought it for $30,000 and it would cost you $60,000 to buy it back,” [which was too much.] I watched them take the cupola off the top with a great big derrick.
A happier story is City Hall, which was restored.
After City Hall was abandoned [when the new City Hall was built downtown, in the late 1960s], it was empty for 20 years. I went inside with several different groups of people who were interested in buying it. The windows were broken, and when we went into the attic on the third floor there were two feet of newspapers on the floor and a leather-bound book with water pouring over it. I said to the mayor, “If you will allow me to take those records we’ll put them in a vacant building and sort them out to save them,” and he said, ‘No, I’ll take care of it,” and he hired a man who trucked it all to the dump. [Saving the building] seemed hopeless. But then I talked to [the new mayor] T.R. Gallo and we looked next door at the Water Department Building, at how important that was historically, and he started to get things going to restore it. Before the restoration, it was in terrible shape. FHK paid $1,000 to fix part of the roof. Another local historian, Bob Slater, and I went in one day, and water was coming down into the Common Council chambers, ruining the plaster lunettes. We were part of an old Dutch heritage museum committee, and we hired a firm that did plaster work to remove 10 of the remaining ones and put them in the basement of the Old Dutch Church. [They were reinstalled when City Hall was restored.]
Did you ever go downtown, before it was destroyed? I’ve learned that people who lived in Uptown seldom went downtown and vice versa.
EF: When I was a kid I went down to Yallum’s a few times. I remember that during urban renewal, all the buildings on West Strand were abandoned. One of them in that row had a water tank that came apart and took the back of the building off. The alderman planned to take it down and use it for parking, but FHK said no and helped convince the urban renewal agency to use funds to restore that building. It was number 11 or 13.
Kingston went through some hard times. When was the nadir?
When IBM left [in 1996, after years of downsizing], a lot of nice people who were supportive and got on different committees got transferred out of here, and it was a loss because of their ideas and resources.
Do you worry that Kingston’s history continues to be at risk?
All I want is to save the history, that’s my main goal, and tell our story as to why we’re here and how we came about. I’m very disappointed that the reenactment of the Burning of Kingston won’t be held his year [which commemorates the burning of Kingston by the British forces in October 1777]. That’s a loss, and I hope it will be taken up by somebody.
Another shame is the tear-down of the trolley barn, on Broadway and East Chester, which you tried to save.
It was a very unusual building that now could have been used for interpretative exhibits, since the new hike-and-bike rail trail is alongside the site. It was unique and had huge beams 60 feet long. I couldn’t see why we needed another drugstore right there, just for the taxes.
I remember the reason the city administration claimed at the time that there were toxic chemicals in the underlying soil, left by a former dry cleaner on the site.
[The drugstore company] was supposed to clear the lot and dig down 10 feet [to remove the toxic chemicals] before they put the new building up, but they didn’t do it; they just put a few testing odds and ends in place and said it was adequate. I asked the economic development director “why can’t you go down through the floor [of the trolley barn] and make a test,” but he said, “No, we can’t do it.” I made my voice heard, but it didn’t do much. You need support, but it doesn’t always happen. I did take photos of the trolley barn inside and out.
I worry about losing our bluestone sidewalks. A couple of new grant-funded projects to install new cement sidewalks might entail the removal of bluestone. The city conducted a Bluestone Survey in 2013, which recognized the value, but outside the historic districts, where it is required to be preserved, this doesn’t seem like a city priority.
The city is supposed to have a bluestone bank [which enables residents to replace and repair their damaged bluestone sidewalks.] I’m concerned about it. We are the bluestone capital of New York State because of what we had here. The bluestone was brought here from the hinterlands and it employed thousands of people and was used for sidewalks all over, not just in New York City. I encourage the keeping of any bluestone we have, if at all possible.
I see two certificates on the wall, dated 1969, commending you and your wife for helping save the beautiful brick Klyne Esopus Church, in Ulster Park. Tell us about that.
My wife saw an article in the Daily Freeman that they were going to tear it down. She looked up all the information about it and then wrote an article, which we printed in a flyer and distributed to all the stores in Port Ewen. We called a meeting and had about 40 people attend, which resulted in starting a museum to save the church. The Reformed Church still owned the building and they gave it to us for $1. We were both on the board of the museum for 10 years.
In 2010 you published a book “Street Whys: Anecdotes and Lore about the Streets of Kingston, New York,” which was a fascinating read and full of valuable information. How did that come about?
For many years, when I got information about a street that I thought was interesting, I’d put it in a card file, until I had a couple thousand cards. After Ruth died, I started to put it together. Once you start, with 300 streets, you can’t quit. I’d go to the County Clerk’s office and pick up maps and talk to people. I’d research the name of a street and who it was named after. I’ve sold 2,250 copies and gave the rights to FHK.
What has it meant to you to be City Historian?
It’s meant everything. My predecessor was Harry Rigby Jr., and I was appointed by Mayor Peter Mancuso. I look to see that hopefully our history is preserved and recognized. If that involves money, I can’t do anything about it, but I can make my views known. I’ve had maybe seven mayors in my tenure and got along with all of them.
Were you involved in selecting a replacement?
Yes. When I told Mayor Noble that I want to retire, I recommended Taylor Bruck to replace me. He’s an archivist for [Ulster County Clerk] Nina Postupack’s Records Bureau on Foxhall Avenue and has done research on different early translations of the Dutch and displayed these documents [in an exhibit at the Persen House]. He’s also from Kingston and owns a house here. The mayor took my suggestion.
What is the secret of your amazing longevity? Can you share any details of your daily life?
Some members of my family lived into their 90s, including my two brothers [one of whom is still alive].
Sue Hummel: I met Ed at FHK and I come see him and we talk on the phone regularly. He gets lots of calls. He has a nice personality, and he keeps at things.
I’m pretty calm, and I enjoy people. I fell and broke my hip several years ago, but I’m in pretty good health. My exercise is this walker, which builds strength in your arms. We go to the Bowery Dugout and I climb the stairs. As far as I know I have a good heart, and I go to wonderful doctors. I feel very fortunate. I wish anybody who gets on in years can enjoy life as I have.
I assume you’re not giving away your box of awards?
SH: No he’s not, and he’s keeping his city directories [which number about 70].