We recently learned that the New York State Historical Association, which has played a key role in protecting New York’s historic sites and artifacts for more than a century, is now defunct, having officially been absorbed by the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. It is safe to assume that the museum will not retain the Association’s mission, that of promoting and preserving history throughout New York State.
Lake George residents have a special interest in the former Association, in part because it was founded on Lake George in 1899, met annually at the Fort William Henry Hotel and counted residents like John Boulton Simpson among its first trustees. It also had its first permanent headquarters in Ticonderoga’s Hancock House, built specifically for that purpose by Horace A. Moses in 1926.
Of greater importance, without the New York State Historical Association, there would be little of Fort George or the Lake George Battlefield left today. New York State had begun to acquire the parcels that comprise the parks in the 1890s, but had little idea of what could or should be done with them.
The Historical Association stepped in and assumed responsibility for maintaining the sites. Under the association’s auspices, the stone bastion was rebuilt and the bronze statues honoring Sir William Johnson and King Hendrick, Isaac Jogues and the Native Americans were installed.
The association assumed responsibility not only for protecting the sites but promoting them, as a 1930 editorial in the Lake George Mirror acknowledged. “An officer of the New York State Historical Association told the Mirror editor a few days ago that something could be done at Fort George Park if the people of this section would only ask for it,” editor Art Knight wrote.
By “something,” the officer and Knight meant a reconstructed fort and a museum to house artifacts similar to that of Fort Ticonderoga’s, which was already attracting 80,000 visitors a year.
New York State’s Conservation Department ultimately became the sites’ steward, but the New York Historical Association continued to play an active role in promoting awareness of New York’s history.
During its prime, historian Bruce Dearstyne has written, the association “managed a research library, operated Seminars on American Culture in the summer, offered programs to train teachers in state history, sponsored a statewide network of Yorker Clubs to stimulate interest in state and local history in the schools, hosted National History Day, and published or co-published a number of scholarly works.”
Because no organization now fulfills those functions, a group of distinguished historians and former state officials have signed a public letter to state legislators urging them to demand the Fenimore Art Museum preserve not simply the name of NYSHA but its duties and responsibilities as well.
Lake George residents in particular, who cherish their history and respect the association’s role in preserving it, might wish to convey that same message to New York State Senator Betty Little and Assemblyman Dan Stec.
Photo of Fenimore Art Museum (courtesy Wikimedia User Beyond My Ken).