Saturday, March 14, 2009


By Peter W. Sluys
The years following the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were years of uninterrupted growth for Pearl River.
The proximity of Camp Shanks - one of the largest ports of embarkation during the second World War - became a spur to growth for Pearl River and all of Orangetown, as returning servicemen came to live in the barracks, and learn at Columbia University and other New York schools under the G.I. Bill.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a frequent visitor to Camp Shanks, talking with the men and their families about the promises of world peace brought by the United Nations, to which she was a delegate.
The end of the war created an unprecedented demand for housing, and that demand was met throughout Pearl River, as what had been farmland was bought up by developers, and turned into housing for soldiers anxious to bring their families into the peace of a suburban life many had not previously known.
Bridge major factor
The great migration into Pearl River was amplified by the building of the Tappan Zee Bridge, which opened the heartland of Rockland County to Westchester and New York in a way that the Palisades Parkway never did.
The opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge, development in Pearl River took off like a rocket.
In the late forties, as that development was going forward, the Pearl River Hospital went into bankruptcy, and was bought out of bankruptcy by Brooklyn physician Dr. Harry Gegerson. The hospital - which had been founded in 1935 - was a 24 bed facility, on South Middletown Road, and it was at that hospital that generations of Pearl River residents were brought into the world and passed out of it.
In 1960, Dr. Gegerson applied to the Town of Orangetown for permission to expand the 24 bed hospital to a 76 bed facility, a request granted by the Town of Orangetown.
However, by 1968, the State Health Department had put tremendous pressure on the hospital to close, an effort which was ultimately successful in 1974.
The two story frame home which houses the hospital was built at the turn of the century, and was then known as the Frederick Egler Estate. It now serves as a home for elderly residents.
Typical family
Typical of the people who came to Pearl River in the fifties and early sixties were the Carson family. According to Debora Carson Hanzus, her family, consisting of parents, grandparents and fellow siblings, moved to Pearl River from Queens in 1960, moving into a "brand new development on Margaret Keahon Drive and Graney Court."
Joining the Carsons in the new development were the Murphys, Murrays, Wallachs, Dybas, McNamees, and many other families.
"There were still plenty of adventures for kids - construction sites to play in, Murray's Lake Swim Club in Montvale, or drive- ins," Hanzus told Our Town.
Then too, there was the firemen's carnival, the annual soap box derby "when Central Avenue would be closed as the soap box racers would speed down the hill", Hanzus said.
She also remembers the Pearl River of the 1960's - "the old Central Avenue school, clothing stores like Kitty Cary, the Pearl Shoppe, Andy's Mens Wear, and Theise's, where you could get your Girl Scout uniform."
"We may have then stopped at the auction outlet to browse at their 8 cent wall of toys, where you had your choice of what seemed like a hundred items. Next was Fields jewelers, where I got my ears pierced," Hanzus said.
On the next corner was "Tucker's Bakery, where you'd have to take a number of Sunday mornings to buy their delicious crumb buns and flying saucers. While waiting, my grandfather would give me a quarter and I'd go to Braunfeld's Candy Store to buy the New York Sunday News, and a candy bar for me."
Hanzus continued "Down at the other corner was Catcher's Drug Store across from a real police booth. Pearl River also had Sanford's Pharmacy, SunTag's Drugs and Singers."
There was no shortage of grocery stores either - Joyce Realty was a Grand Union, Pearl River Lanes was Food Fair, Walgreen's was an A&P, and Empire Tobacco was called Finest Supermarket. What later became
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ShopRite started out as a car lot for Ted Schultz Ford on the top of Central Avenue," she remembers, and (as Mae Matern remembers a generation earlier) Hanzus remembers that "the winters seemed snowier then, and my dad would take his girls all the way to the top of Margaret Keahon Drive and we'd sleigh ride straight down.
"Dad would whistle all the way, as we laughed and held on tight. The rest of the neighborhood would be sleigh riding too, and a young newlywed couple would stay at the bottom of the hill to hold back cars."
The developments filled up with people almost as soon as the builders completed them. It was an era when a house which would later retail for more than $200,000 could be bought for $10,000 - and with a mortgage to boot.
Those who lived in the city and surrounding areas were anxious to come to Pearl River.
Schools for babyboom
The growth of Pearl River meant the growth of the Pearl River schools. In 1950 - at a cost of $114,000 - the William Street Elementary School was constructed in the center of town.
Three years later - at a cost of $300,000 - the Evans Park School was built just behind North Middletown Road. In the same year, voters approved the purchase of 35 empty acres between Mountainview Avenue and Holt Drive for a future high school - that cost $80,000.
It was clear throughout the fifties that more schools would be needed, as the baby boom generation was being born. In 1955, the Lincoln Street School was built at a cost of $350,000, and in 1957, voters approved a $435,000 bond resolution to construct additions to the old Naurashaun School and the new Evans Park School.
In 1959, the voters approved the new Pearl River High School, which was constructed over three years at a cost of $2.5 million. The new Franklin Avenue Elementary School was built in 1964 for $807,000, and the Pearl River Middle School was ready to go in 1966, at a cost of $2.7 million.
And so, in a little more than 15 years, the school district had to add or upgrade four elementary schools, a middle school, and the high school - sure proof of Pearl River's tremendous growth.
Library grows too
While this growth was going on in education, the Pearl River Public Library was also growing. As Mae Matern remembered, the library started in the reading room of the Unique Hall, and then moved - thanks to the John H. Secor Post of the American Legion - to 33 Ridge Street, the former Hopper Bowling Alley.
By 1960, the library had completely outgrown that space. Under the leadership of the Rotary Club of Pearl River, by 1962, the voters had approved a new $196,000 bond issue.
In 1966, the library adopted its motto - an American bald eagle with spread wings, the motto adopted from a wood carving of the same design made by George W. Hadeler and donated by him to the library that year.
The library expanded again, with plans begun when your reporter was president of the Pearl River Library Association, and carried forward to completion by Carolyn Johnson, director of the Pearl River Library, and the trustees board, headed by Pearl River resident Robert Schnell.
A friendly town
The Pearl River of the 1950's and early 1960's was the Pearl River truly of "friendly people."
Neighbors took the time to learn the name of new neighbors, and many were the welcoming parties.
Bridge clubs and poker clubs sprung up all over town, and civic associations got a powerful impetus from the many new families who moved in.
Doors were unlocked - there was never a need to worry, as neighbor always looked out for neighbor.
More than one child the age of Debora Carson in the fifties and sixties would spend the time going from door to door, getting cookies from older residents, doing chores, and earning pocket money.
Scouting thrived
The Boy Scout organization - which always had been strong - grew in strength throughout the nation, and Pearl River was no exception to the growth.
Young men vied with each other to become Eagle Scouts, who were held up as model young men in the community. Troop 36 of Good Shepherd Church was one of the best troops in Pearl River, and had a consistent rivalry with Troop 37.
Scouting grew and grew, and Pearl River boys went to the National Jamborees, Philmont Scout Ranch, Camp Bullowa, and the Bullowa Adirondeck Scout Reservation, learning scout skills from men who had fought in the war, and knew wilderness and other survival skills firsthand.
It was a time of patriotism, fostered by men like Sid Bond. Bond - whose son is now the president of the Pearl River Board of Education - taught his scouts by example, not only woodcraft but leadership.
World War II veterans like attorney H. Grant Warner gave up their times to the scouts as well, teaching the young men whose families had just come to Pearl River about 100% Americanism.
In a larger sense, it was a time of robust faith in America, a time where educational excellence in schools was expected, where the problem of drugs was non-existent, and when Pearl River had a boundless optimism for the future.

Building boom starts
That boundless optimism continued into the mid-1960's, and with that optimism came growth of another sort.
In 1967, the Uris Building Corporation took title to 370 acres left by Dr. Montgomery Maze in the southeastern section of the hamlet. There, in what had been woodland, they built Pearl River's first and only skyscraper, in a grandiose plan to build 11 buildings which were later reduced to four.
The development would have its fits and starts over the years, and become the centerpiece of numerous real estate and political wrangles, but would ultimately also be the land on which the national headquarters of Mercedes Benz of North America would come to Pearl River, bringing hundreds of jobs in its wake.
While that new industry was building, old industry was closing. By 1966, 500 people were employed at the local Dexter Folder plant, but that number was quickly to be reduced, and by the fall of 1972 there were fewer than 50 employees.
During its 78 years in Pearl River, Dexter employees had formed the hard core from which membership was drawn for civic, fraternal, religious and charitable organizations and community projects, but now Dexter's contribution to Pearl River was finished, and the factory was closed.
Lederle Laboratories was still a big employee not only for Pearl River, but for all of Rockland County, but the nature of employment was changing. Pearl River was becoming a bedroom community, a commuting community, favored not only by those who worked in New York City but those - New York City fire fighters and police officers - who protected New York City.
Wave of immigrants
With the wave of immigration came new organizations, particularly the Ancient Order of Hibernians, whose Division 3 was founded in Pearl River in the 1970's. It is now one of the strongest fraternal organizations in Pearl River, with more than 800 members. The AOH is the largest fraternal organization in the history of Pearl River, outstripping even the Free and Accepted Masons in their heyday.
The growth of Pearl River's population meant not only the addition of new schools, and new jobs, but also the growth of new churches, with St. Margaret's (which celebrated its centennial last year) growing to such an extent that St. Aedan's Church had to be created to help serve the Roman Catholic community of Pearl River. The Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, and many other protestant denominations also enjoyed significant growth, and Pearl River also got its first Greek Orthodox Church in 1962, followed in 1963 with Pearl River's first synagogue, Beth Am Temple (see separate story).
War hits home
While the fifties and sixties were times of unparalleled growth, Pearl River did not escape the war in Vietnam, any more than the two world wars and Korea bypassed the hamlet.
Those same young men who had grown up in the Boy Scouts listening to the World War II and Korean veterans tell their tales of courage and struggle, cheerfully volunteered to serve their country.
Among those scouts was Robert Bauer of Troop 36 in Pearl River.
Bauer volunteered for the Army in 1964, and trained to be a helicopter pilot. During his Army training, he would come back and spend time with the scouts from Troop 36, going on hikes with them, and camping with them at Camp Bullowa. The younger scouts enthusiastically crowded around the Eagle Scout who was going to be an Army pilot, and Bauer - the gentlest of soldiers - would tirelessly answer questions from the scouts, even long after the entire troop should have been in their sleeping bags, asleep under the stars.
Many a scout was touched by Bauer's love of country, and his love of duty, and it seemed inconceivable to any of them that anything would happen to their friend, Eagle Scout Robert Bauer.
Bauer earned his helicopter pilot's wings, and was sent over to Vietnam to fight there for his country.
Months after his arrival, he led his helicopter into a fire fight to rescue some American soldiers, and the helicopter was shot down, and Bauer was killed. Also to die in the conflict were Heinz Ahlmeyer, Michael Kernan, and Paul Lifireri, and their sacrifice brought home again to Pearl River in a way that nothing else could, the pain and waste of war, which the veterans of World War I, the Second World War, and the Korean war knew only too well.
But the Vietnam war was something different in Pearl River as it was throughout the country: it was a war which had no defined ending, a war where the veterans were not welcomed home with a parade or with thanks for their tremendous sacrifice, and it was a war which took some of Pearl River's bravest and best young men.
Despite the fact that the nation was ambivalent about the Vietnam war, Pearl River residents remembered those who had died int he conflict, dedicating a garden park at the library to the memory of Lt. Heinz Ahlmeyer, and dedicating a plaque in the Braunsdorf Memorial Park in the center of town to the four Pearl River men who had died in a land half a world away. But still, there was no parade, and no thanks to the veterans who had borne the storm and returned.
The Vietnam war years saw the continued growth of Pearl River, and the change of Pearl River as well.
The cost of education shot up, as the teachers union threatened job actions and other strikes, and won material concessions from the school district in the late 1960's and early 1970's, concessions which led to the meteoric rise in teachers salaries, and the consequent increase in school taxes.
Then too, the era of the counterculture brought with it to Pearl River the question of drugs. Though drugs had always been available in New York City, now they became a problem for Pearl River, and it was a problem which was responded to with vigor by Pearl River residents.
Though the Vietnam war and the counterculture produced some dissidence in the community, still the overwhelming mood continued to be one of optimism, as Pearl River teams won championships, Pearl River students excelled, and went to leading colleges and universities, and Pearl River enjoyed a continued period of growth, despite recessions and depressions.
Our Town launched
The year 1973 saw the beginning of a new era in Pearl River journalism, as Our Town came to Pearl River under the leadership of Arthur R. Aldrich and Roger McCarthy. That original corporation was founded by Aldrich, McCarthy, Ted Schultz, Mel Liebmann, and Jack Dubiner.
Aldrich and McCarthy were then young men who had worked together at the old News Leader Independent, and came to Orangetown and Pearl River because they saw the need to continue what had been a "great journalistic tradition." That tradition began with the Pearl River Searchlight, the first of many weekly papers published exclusively for the community. It was founded in 1893 by William Sherwood, and established a Pearl River office in 1938 when the name was changed to the Orangetown Telegram, and the Pearl River Searchlight.
In addition, there was the Pearl River News, which was founded in 1922, and taken over in 1924 by Thomas A. Dexter of the Dexter Press. Dexter sold it in February of 1938, and the paper ceased publication four months later.
Dexter issued the Pearl River Informer before he acquired the News in 1922.
For daily news, Pearl River has always been served by the Rockland County Journal News, with the Pearl River reporter for many years being Robert P. Knight, now the city editor of this newspaper. Knight left the paper after the Gannett chain acquired the Journal News.
"You know, more than 25 years in Pearl River we have always been at the community's service, and it will stay that way for many years to come," Aldrich said.
By 1984, Our Town reporter Ed Brophy was writing about how the complexion of the community had changed, with about "35% of Orangetown's population of Irish descent; many have been and remain city civil service workers who commute daily to jobs in New York."
"Others have found employment or started businesses right here. Their shops are sprinkled throughout the town, with names such as Sheridan Insurance, the Irish Cottage, Farrell Realty, Healy- O'Sullivan Travel...Mary Meagher is a resident who discovered Pearl River while on a church picnic from the city years ago.
"We lived in Queens at the time, and my husband and I were house hunting on Long Island. Then I remembered the beauty of Pearl River from the picnic. We circled in this direction, and well, here we are," Meagher said.
"Mary is president of the Pearl River based Irish Arts Forum of Rockland County, a lively little lady of warm conversation, she is interested in preserving the history and traditions of the Irish...One of the young ones, who is also the secretary of the forum is a dark haired Celtic beauty Doris Donohue. Doris is of Pearl River, and has acted and danced in many of the forum's productions."
"I heard of Pearl River while I was still in the Bronx," she says, "I liked what I saw, especially the Irish American community. I am here now nine years and I enjoy the town, the Irish culture, and the people I have met, and only 45 minutes from Broadway..." Donohue said.
"[the late] Cornelius "Connie" O'Sullivan knows Broadway well from the days when he patrolled the streets of New York. He is now a partner in Healy-O'Sullivan Travel, and a prominent member of the Irish community in New York."
"I brought my family here in 1969 on the advice of my coworkers who were residents here themselves. I had New Jersey on my mind in those days, but the rules of my job didn't allow moving there. It's just as well, since we are very happy now, here in Pearl River; it's my home," O'Sullivan had said.
"O'Sullivan is a founding member and past president of the Irish American Cultural Center in Blauvelt, and is active in Division 3 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. As part of his duties in the AOH he helped create the annual Irish Feis here in the county. In its 10 years of existence, the feis has become the largest on the east coast, drawing judges and participants from as far as Canada."
Words prophetic
Brophy's written words have proven almost prophetic, as Pearl River continues to be a magnet for many Irish Americans, and home to not only one of the largest Ancient Order of Hibernian organizations in the county, but also to the ever popular and ever expanding St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Anyone who has once attended a St. Patrick's Day Parade in Pearl River will never forget it: the thousands of marchers, the tens of thousands of spectators, and the feeling of Irish friendliness, community, and pride; once experienced, never forgotten.
The tremendous success of the St. Patrick's Day Parades is due in large part to the work of Mary O'Sullivan and John Devlin, who have worked for more than a decade to make each St. Patrick's Day Parade the biggest and best ever.
In the 1970's and 1980's many community organizations that flourished had disappeared, including the Pearl River Jaycees, the Knights of Pythias.
Still, many organizations have continued over the years, with not only the Ancient Order of Hibernians, but the Rotary Club of Pearl River, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Pearl River Senior Citizens Club, the Benevolent and Protected Order of the Elks, the PTA's, the Masons, the Muddy Creek Four, the Lions Club, the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, and of course the Pearl River Fire Department, and the Pearl River Alumni Ambulance Corps.
Anyone who has ever had a loved one in jeopardy, and has had the call responded to by the Pearl River Ambulance Corps will always remember with gratitude how the ambulance corps members put service of their neighbors first, and anyone whose house or business has ever caught fire will also remember the bravery, skill and courage of the officers and fire fighters of the two companies of the Pearl River Fire Department.
Near century of service
The proud traditions of the fire department goes back more than 94 years, when the Pearl River Hook and Ladder Company was chartered on July 10, 1903, followed by the Excelsior Fire Engine Company that began in February of 1912. The Pearl River Fire Department was formed in 1921 to coordinate what had been competition between the two companies in battling fires.
In the 1970's, 1980's, and in this decade, education in Pearl River went through a profound change, not only with the increased professionalism and militancy of the teachers, but in changes in administrators, and methods.
It is widely conceded that the district, under former Superintendent Dr. Arthur Williamson, had reached a crisis state when school board president Robert Bergman led the committee which selected Dr. Michael Osnato to be superintendent of schools for the Pearl River School District, now more than seven years ago.
Osnato was to create a revolution of his own, emphasizing professionalism, learning, and tax savings.
Osnato re-energized the district, bringing it the state's Excelsior Award for Quality, and national and international recognition, and leading Pearl River students near the top of the heap in New York State in terms of Regents diplomas and other academic achievements.
As always, in politics, Pearl River has taken an active part with two Orangetown supervisors - John Komar and Jack Lovett - being from Pearl River. In addition, many councilmen have been from Pearl River, including the late Cornelius "Connie" O'Sullivan, the late Niel O'Sullivan, the late Charles McLiverty and the late George Raboni. Current Pearl River councilmen include Robert Bergman and Denis O'Donnell.
Tragedy and loss
While the story of Pearl River has been one of continuous growth and expansion, there have also been tragedy in the untimely deaths of Connie O'Sullivan, Niel O'Sullivan, Charles McLiverty, and George Raboni. The funeral of each of these four councilmen drew thousands of their friends, to pay tribute to each of the different contributions the four men had made to life in Pearl River and to Orangetown.
There were other and great tragedies as well, as high school age young people died as a result of accidents.
The first of these tragedies was the death of high school football player Brian Armstrong, at a football game in Spring Valley. The young man had his neck injured in a play, and subsequently died at the hospital. All Pearl River mourned his loss.
That mourning came again to the community - and very forcefully - in this decade when high school student Alicia Brady died in a car accident, and when Robert McKiernan was killed in an accident in Nanuet. The community came together to support the families of the young people, and to show again that in Pearl River, people are there for each other, in good times and tragic times.
The tragedy of the war of Vietnam was erased for many Orangetown residents who had fought in that war, in the last week of April, 1991.
The victorious local units that had fought in Desert Storm against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein came to Pearl River to march down Central Avenue, and thousands of local residents turned out not only to cheer them, but to cheer the men of Vietnam, who now marched under the banner of Vietnam Veterans of America.
As the Vietnam vets wheeled down Central Avenue, led by the Humvees and other paraphernalia of a war two decades later, the people of Pearl River burst into sustained cheers and applause. The sacrifice of Ahlmeyer, Bauer, Kernan, and Lifireri had not been in vain - Pearl River remembered, and Pearl River saluted those other Orangetown residents who had gone to war, and come home.
As the third millennium dawns, Pearl River has stabilized as a bedroom community with vibrant civic organizations, a good retail base, and strong financial services. No longer does Dexter Folder or even Lederle Laboratories provide the bulk of jobs in the community, as Lederle has said from time to time that even they may leave Pearl River. Rather, high technology is now the ever growing employer of Pearl River residents, with Fujitsu Communications, the national headquarters of Mercedes Benz, and other corporations making their home in Pearl River. Certain it is that in the years ahead that the old Uris Office Park - now known as Blue Hill Plaza - will expand, and in some ways change the face of Pearl River, and the eastern face of Pearl River will certainly change, as the town debates and ultimately decides what use will be made of the now largely abandoned Rockland Psychiatric Center.
The decisions that the community will make on these issues will affect the quality of life into the next millennium, but even as change and recreation, lifestyles, finances, and interests change, one thing will never change: In the year 2222, when the successor to Postmaster Mike Tuttle is seated in his office - wherever that may be - he will still know that a letter addressed to a person at "the town of friendly people" is a letter that has to be delivered to somebody in Pearl River, New York.

1 comment:

Sydney Smith said...

Peter sure was an excellent writer of Pearl River and Rockland County history.