Ed Ford, who was city historian for 35 years and died at age 103 on April 29, leaves a legacy that succeeded in permanently establishing Kingston as a city of history, noteworthy for its restored 18th-century stone houses and city hall as well as significant historic sites. The city would be a much-diminished place were it not for the inspiration, knowledge, and persistence of Ed Ford. Mr. Ford, as many called him, was “a one-man historic preservation movement, who was the chief advocate for saving the city’s historic architecture when those who ran the city government did not necessarily see its importance,” wrote author and local historian Lowell Thing in an email. His pursuit of this goal did not involve alienating people, but on the contrary, he won over hearts; nearly everyone who worked with Ed became his friend. He had “an unassuming, almost eager willingness to befriend and assist, a consistent optimism, and a great sense of humor,” wrote Thing.
This slight, modest man who often had a smile on his face and melted your heart with his kindness worked tirelessly to raise awareness and win people over to his vision, which often involved bringing back to life some forgotten and forsaken piece of the past that resonated with historic significance. His accomplishments are too numerous to list in their entirety, but we will list some of the highlights.
An early member and officer of Friends of Historic Kingston (FHK), Ed helped create the national historic district that preserved Kingston’s unique heritage of 18th-century stone houses, several of which were targeted for destruction. (On at least one occasion, he personally intervened, convincing state urban renewal officials who had designated funds for the destruction of the 1707 Hoffman House in the late 1960s to instead spend the money on the building’s restoration; the Friends also rescued several houses by purchasing them from the urban renewal agency.) He was influential in creating the city’s Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission (HLPC) and, as city historian, was a permanent member. Ed led the battle to save Kingston’s 1874 city hall, working with fellow preservationists to get the building, which had been abandoned and was falling into ruin, designated as a national landmark and persuading then-mayor T.R. Gallo to obtain a multi-million dollar grant to restore it and relocate the city offices back to their original home.
His other favorite projects, according to FHK executive director Jane Kellar, were Company Path, Frog Alley, the Sharp Burying Ground, the Fred J. Johnson House and the FHK Gallery. One of his most significant accomplishments was the preservation of the Pine Street African Burial Ground, which was officially established in 2019. It was a project Ed “pursued tirelessly for about 30 years,” noted Kevin McEvoy, a member of the city’s Heritage Area Commission and Conservation Advisory Council. “It was a great joy to have him with us long enough for him to see this injustice done to the African-American community begin to be corrected and the significance of the burial ground recognized.”
Ed was also the author of two books, Images of America—Kingston, published by Arcadia Books in 2004, and Street Whys—Anecdotes and Lore about the Streets of Kingston, which was self-published in 2010. For Street Whys, which sold thousands of copies, Ed researched the history of 300 streets, relying in part on his extensive collection of city directories. Ed also taught a course on local history at SUNY Ulster, served on numerous boards, and was a deacon and elder at Old Dutch Church, according to Kellar.
A ‘Johnny Appleseed of history’
Edwin Millard Ford was born in Highland in 1918 and moved with his family to Kingston in 1928. He graduated from the New Paltz Normal School (now SUNY New Paltz) in 1939 and moved to New York City, where he met his wife, Ruth. During World War II Ed served as a staff sergeant in the Weather Division of the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Brazil. After the war, he and Ruth had a son, Alan, and were living on Long Island when Ruth was stricken with polio. During her rehabilitation at a facility in the Hudson Valley, Ed moved to Kingston and joined his brother Bill’s printing business, taking it over after one year and running it with his wife until the couple retired in 1989. Unable to travel due to Ruth’s disability from polio, the couple took excursions to nearby historic sites instead and developed a passion for local history (besides their activism in Kingston, they were instrumental in saving the Klyne Esopus Church in Ulster Park). Ruth died in 2005.
“No matter how difficult the fight or task he had to face, Ed always persevered and never in a confrontational way,” said Ulster County Clerk Nina Postupack, who worked with Ed on numerous projects. “He was always lending a helping hand, and his greatest joy was sharing the history of this city and county.” One project involving the county had to do with restoring a damaged lunette in city hall. Twenty-three lunettes originally adorned the council chambers walls, each depicting a scene from local history, but three were damaged beyond repair. Ed wanted to recreate one of them, and Paul O’Neill, Ulster County commissioner of jurors, raised the money for the new lunette, dedicating it to Ed Ford in a 2014 ceremony.
O’Neill credited Ed and more specifically, the George Clinton bicentennial event of 2012, which Ed helped organize, with inspiring the Buried Treasures lecture series, which O’Neill ran for several years to popular acclaim. “Ed made history come alive,” said O’Neill. “And he was so sharp: when I would call him up and ask an obscure question, nine times out of ten he pops out the answer.” If there were setbacks to some cause he was fighting for, “he never became bitter or backed down.” Rather, in each encounter “he converted someone who had been opposed to preservation,” O’Neill recalled. “Ed turned more than one person into an avid historian…he was a Johnny Appleseed of history.”
Choosing a successor
One benefit of his longevity was that it allowed Ed to arrange for a smooth transition of his legacy. Shortly after his 100th birthday, he approached Ulster County archivist Taylor Bruck about picking up the baton. “He said ‘you’d be a great next historian,” recalled Bruck, who was then just 28 but had grown up in the world of historic archives—his mother worked at the Senate House—and clearly was not leaving Kingston, having just bought his grandmother’s house and gotten engaged.
Bruck spent many hours with Ed before and after succeeding him as city historian in 2019, a job that entailed transferring Ed’s sizable archives to an archival vault in Bruck’s basement. Up until a few months ago, Ed was discussing projects, including ways in which the new owner of the Hutton Brickyards could preserve the history of brickmaking, culminating in Bruck’s recent visit with the company’s representatives to discuss ideas. “Ed taught me how to work with people,” Bruck said, recalling that a favorite topic of Ed’s was his experience as an Eagle Scout with a local Boy Scout troop. “He talked about how they had ingrained in him the values of honor, respect and loyalty.”
“He was a beacon of goodness, a torch bearer for preservation who inspired others to value our history,” noted Kellar in her written remembrance. “Ed will be remembered as a local treasure who made things happen.”
“We are saddened by the passing of our former city of Kingston historian, Ed Ford,” wrote Mayor Steve Noble on the city’s Facebook page. “Ed had a vast knowledge of Kingston and is an irreplaceable treasure who graced our city for 103 years. He will be missed by all who knew him. My heart is with his family during this difficult time.
“Edwin Millard Ford was the soul of Kingston,” said Assemblyman Kevin Cahill. “He and his work were the embodiment of the spiritual immortality of a community that cherishes its history. Ed’s deep knowledge and cataloguing of our past was only exceeded by his insatiable thirst for more knowledge about who we are and how we got here, his favorite subject…It is a sad day for Ed’s family and friends and for our community. May his memory be as lasting as the history he shared.”
“Ed Ford was a great man, with an understated manner, an irrepressible sense of humor, and an unparalleled knowledge of Kingston history,” said Hudson Valley One publisher Geddy Sveikauskas. “He was responsible not just for saving the city hall from the wrecking ball but for the development of an appreciation of the past in a whole generation of Kingstonians. I will miss him always.”