When Kingston historian Ed Ford retired in 2018, he tapped Taylor Bruck, the Ulster County Archivist, as his replacement. Ford, who died in 2021 at age 103, had been city historian for 35 years and had become so emblematic of Kingston history that the notion of a successor was almost unthinkable: how could any newcomer fill the shoes of a person who had become a city institution? But Bruck, who age-wise is the polar opposite of Ford — at age 31, he is one of the youngest city historians in the state — is a pro who cut his teeth learning how to handle historic documents at the Senate House State Historic Site when he was still a child.
Indeed, Bruck, who lives in Kingston with his wife, Jillian Nadiak-Bruck., just blocks from where he grew up, brings new energy and initiative to the role. He’s collaborating with 13 local historical organizations in an organization called the History Alliance of Kingston to create a database dedicated to the Black history of the area. He’s working with the Kingston School District on programming for next year’s 150th anniversary of the consolidation of Kingston and Rondout into the City of Kingston and meanwhile fulfilling the dream of Ed Ford to re-create the two missing lunettes in the Council Chambers at City Hall, which will complete the series of wall reliefs of historic scenes that constitute a delightful architectural garnish. He’s also promoting Kingston’s historical importance to the community of historians statewide and successfully lobbied to have the annual convention of the Association of Public Historians for New York State to be held in Kingston in 2022, for the first time ever. The three-day event, which is scheduled for September, will bring more than 100 historians to the city.
As Ulster County Archivist, Bruck lives and breathes history, which affords him a unique perspective on the region, grounded in deep time. Besides knowledge and research expertise, he also brings to the role of city historian marketing and communication skills. And he loves his native city: He has lived here his entire life and never gotten bored. “I can’t see myself living anywhere else,” Bruck says. “The deeper you go, the more you learn and the more interesting it becomes. I learn something new about Kingston every single week.”
HV One reporter Lynn Woods recently interviewed Bruck by phone:
HV One: After Ed Ford recommended you, Mayor Steve Noble appointed you city historian in 2019. What does the job entail?
Taylor Bruck: The official duties of the city historian are to promote the history of the area by hosting exhibits and lectures and also help genealogical researchers. Kingston is one of the first Dutch settlements in the nation and people come from all over the country to research their genealogy. For example, a number of Dewitt family members from Buffalo, Ohio, and Louisiana just met up here and found their progenitor, Tjerck Claussen DeWitt, who came from Holland in the 1660s.
HV One: How does one do this research?
TB: Court records are what people are most interested in, followed by land records, deeds and naturalization records. We’ve been told genealogy has become the second-most popular hobby in America, after gardening, partly as a result of people being cooped up in their homes due to the pandemic.
HV One: Were you in close touch with Ed Ford after he tapped you as his replacement? What was your reaction when he recommended you as the new city historian?
TB: It was definitely overwhelming. For the first few years [after I became historian] I was able to talk with him every week and pick his brain for any questions I was being asked by researchers. That transitional time was essential. A lot of what I’m doing now was suggestions from Ed.
HV One: Have there been any surprises since taking over?
TB: I’m surprised by how far beyond Kingston interest in Kingston’s history goes. The city has obviously become more popular downstate, and I’ve been asked to give interviews with the New York Times and other publications not located in the Hudson Valley. The United Postmasters and Managers Association, which is a federal organization, is coming to Kingston next year in June and I’ve been asked to speak to them. Kingston’s history is important to the whole state and country.
HV One: I recall that Ed devoted a room in his house to his archives. Did you inherit them?
TB: Yes. The Friends of Historic Kingston also got some. Ed had a yearbook collection that included not only Kingston High School but also Coleman and Kingston Academy. He also had a wonderful collection of directories from the City of Kingston and Village of Rondout dating back to 1870. I have Ed’s folders on virtually every topic of Kingston history, which means I never have to start from scratch. I have all his Flash Cards, which contain his personal talking points on everything he was asked to talk on for the last 50 years. I also have the notes of Harry Rigby, who was the city historian before Ed, going back to the 1950s. Rigby had a radio show called “What’s the Answer,” in which people would call in answers to trivia questions related to city history, and I have all of Rigby’s typewritten transcripts.
HV One: You were born and raised in Kingston. What fostered your interest in local history besides being from here?
TB: I was born in 1990 at Kingston Hospital. My mom was a single mother who worked at the Senate House, and on days when I didn’t have school, she’d bring me there and show me how to read, say, Nathaniel Booth’s diary and handle old documents and newspapers. I wasn’t necessarily interested as a 12 year old — I’d play my video games in the archives — but it was part of my life and just by being around them absorbed them by osmosis. I knew from a young age, don’t exhibit paintings in sunlight and old newspapers need to be protected from humidity.
HV One: That’s an unusual set of directives to absorb as a kid.
TB: It’s probably the main reason Ed recommended me. He appreciated the work we’ve done with records at the Ulster County Archives and Persen House. He was particularly impressed we got the historic marker for The Four Corners [at the intersection of John and Crown streets], which was put up in 2018 by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. The foundation works closely with the state, which is very strict about the historic research for the markers. We had to prove all four of the stone houses [located on each corner] dated back before the Revolutionary War. We have deeds for three of them, but not the fourth, which is why the process stalled for so long. We got super lucky. We flipped open Mortgage Book One and on page three found a mortgage from 1730 that specifically listed a stone house that had to be on that corner, and the Pomeroy Foundation accepted it.
HV One: Were you a history nerd in school?
TB: Everyone expects me to have history degree, but I was told it would never get me a job, so I worked on a degree in marketing and finance. That training has perhaps been more useful, since it relates to public outreach, which is so important. I went to SUNY Ulster for two years, then worked for five years before attending SUNY New Paltz. I was a senior when I took the civil service test for the Ulster County Archivist position and did well and was hired. I still need to take six classes to get my degree, which I plan to do.
HV One: Tell us more about the History Alliance of Kingston.
TB: The History Alliance of Kingston (historyallianceofkingston.com), a conglomerate organization of virtually all the historic museums in and around Kingston, including the D&H Canal Museum and the Century House, started during the pandemic after Sarah Litvin [executive director] of the Reher Center of Immigrant Culture and History and Sarah W. Johnson [director of exhibits and outreach] at the Hudson River Maritime Museum had a conversation on how to proceed with digital content since none of the museums could open. They contacted me about starting an organization. We met weekly and started a website and scavenger hunts, which led to the Black History Collaborative Research Project. It’s an open-source resource library for black history of the Hudson Valley, and we have invited different museums and cultural groups as well as individuals to share their stories. If someone had a relative who worked in the brickyards, for example, we want to know that person’s story. Eventually we hope to include a repository of oral histories. So far we’ve found even within our own collections bits of black history that haven’t been thoroughly researched yet. For example the Maritime Museum has a great photo collection featuring lots of black workers. We started saying, who are these people? We’re hoping to give the public annual updates during Black History Month.
HV One: How will the city be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of Kingston, Rondout and Wilbur in 2022?
TB: We’re talking to the state historian, Devin Lander, about having a ceremony, tentatively scheduled for May 13 and 14, and I’m working with the Kingston School District to get art and writing projects into the pipeline this winter. It’s a historic moment for Kingston, and people won’t want to miss the ceremony. Also next year, when the two remaining lunettes in the Council Chambers are installed, we’ll commemorate Ed Ford by inviting all the surviving former mayors to City Hall. I’m also focused on getting students involved.
HV One: What is the Association of Public Historians of New York State and what is your involvement?
TB: Every village, town, county and city in the state is required by law to have a historian. The association is the organization for these municipal historians and the convention occurs three days in September. I’m on the planning committee and just joined the board. I just returned from Oswego yesterday from this year’s convention, where I told the other historians about the 150th anniversary of Kingston’s incorporation and that our city was one of the nation’s first Dutch settlements, [to build support for having the convention here next year.] The first day consists of lectures and sessions in the place where they’re staying, which will be the Best Western, and the second day is a field trip in which they tour the municipality; I want to make sure these historians see both Uptown and Downtown and don’t have to choose one or the other. The third day is for field work; at Oswego it was restoring old headstones in a cemetery.
HV: Any other interesting milestones of history coming up?
TB: The 250th Anniversary of the Revolutionary War starts in 2025 and ends in 2033. The bill to create a 250th anniversary commission has passed both [state] houses and money for the celebration will be allocated to historians and state historic sites. Kingston has a lot of Revolutionary War-era history so I’m looking forward to the city really being able to take advantage of what the state has to offer. The state is also making a push [to create programming] for under-represented stories by branding the anniversary celebration more broadly as Revolutionary New York.
Some counties are setting up their own commissions. For example, Orange County has one and the legislature has agreed to fund the commission $5000 each year from 2021 to 2033. I’m going to be talking to folks [at the Ulster County legislature] this week about possibly creating a commission.
HV One: Who manages the Ulster County Archives, where are they located, and what’s the oldest record?
TB: The archives are a branch of the county clerk’s office, and part of the Records Management Center is located on Foxhall Avenue. We have court, land, census and naturalization records, but no photos or newspapers. The oldest record dates from 1658 and it consists of the order given by Peter Stuyvesant to the local government to relocate all the inhabitants of Kingston and rebuild the settlement within the stockade. If they didn’t dismantle their houses, they would be fined.
The order is in old Dutch. We have one of the largest collections of old Dutch records in the country. Because the records for the Dutch West India Company in Holland burned in the early 1900s, even scholars from the Netherlands are interested in our records. The handwritten records are notoriously difficult to read, even if you are one of the fewer than 100 people on Earth who can read old Dutch. Fortunately most of the records were translated into English in 1898.
HV One: Tell me about one of the most fascinating items in the archives, the Wampum belt.
TB: We believe it dates from 1665, but it gets complicated: The Richard Nicolls Peace Treaty called on all sachems and Dutch leaders to come together at the end of the Second Esopus War. It had a clause that they had to renew the treaty every year. We have the subsequent renewals for 14 years after. The wampum belt was gifted to Nicolls, the first English governor of what became New York State, through one of those ceremonies, but we don’t know exactly which one.[Ulster County Clerk] Nina Postupack and Chief Vincent Mann, from the Ramapos in New Jersey, got some Lenape members involved and began to renew the peace treaty starting in 2014. We meet every year with the native community and exchange gifts. The Lenape, most of whom moved to Wisconsin, and the Stockbridge Munsee participate, as have representatives from the Lakoda and from Canada. It’s one of the only peace treaties between the European settlers and the Native Americans.
HV One: Are you involved with the Persen House (the county-owned historic site and museum located on John Street)?
TB: Yes, the Archival Division manages the Person House. We do exhibits but our main mission is to invite other groups there on Saturday, who do lectures or exhibits or advocate. We’ve gotten lucky with [book store, café and bar] Rough Draft opening across the street, and now the Kingston Farmers Market is situated at the Ulster County Courthouse parking lot, right behind us, which means we get tons of visitors. We have a sign-in book asking people where they come from, and they come from all over: in a month we had more people from California than New York. In the past it used to be mostly day trippers, but now they’re coming from Colorado and over 60 countries. We gave a presentation days before the covid lockdown to the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce breakfast and showed them the data, that their patrons are coming here from all over the world.
HV One: What’s the best way to experience Kingston and its history?
TB: I’m a big fan of walking. When you walk Uptown and see the stone buildings, that’s not normal; it’s unique to only a handful of places in the country. A lot of people who live here take it for granted. If you take your time and really look at things here, you’ll see there’s only a small amount of cookie cutter places in Kingston. We have history here from all eras. There are historic signs and monuments all over the city. Stop and read them and be proud. Our city truly is brag-worthy.