From April through October, Historical Society meetings are held on the fourth Tuesday of each month at 7:00 pm. The exception is our annual banquet in June instead of our normal meeting, the date of which varies each year. View this year’s list of speakers here.
History of the Historical Society
In 1974, in response to the national effort to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, the Sterling Town Council appointed council member Dorothea Field as chair of Sterling’s Bicentennial Commission. Committee members were Hazel Fralick, Ron Smith and Erwin Fineout. Eventually the list included 33 people representing 29 cooperating businesses and organizations.
The town made space available for a museum on the second floor of the Little Red Schoolhouse. This had not been used as a school since the 1950s and at the time was being used as the Town Hall. The second floor was cleared and cleaned. With the help of town Highway Superintendent, Miley Flack, and his crew, an old stove was obtained to provide heat for the workers. Over a two-year period, culminating in 1976, the committee painted the schoolhouse and prepared exhibits.
The Old Classroom exhibit was set up by Hazel Fralick and Jeannette McIntyre. The 1976 celebration was to focus on Arbor Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and a week in August. Word got around and before the summer was over some 500 people had visited the exhibits.
Secretary, H. Lucille Flack, recorded the following in her minutes of the June meeting:
“June 28, 1976, a meeting of the Bicentennial Committee with Dorothea Field, Chair and Hazel Fralick, Town Historian, was held to make a decision about forming a historical society. The meeting was chaired by Erwin Fineout. The following people who attended, made a decision to form The Sterling Historical Society: Dorothea Field, Hazel Fralick, Lucille Flack, Polly Fowler, Harry Fowler, Donald Sweeting, Hallie Sweeting, Mary Conroy, Clair Conroy, Joel A. Field and Erwin Fineout.“
At the July 26, 1976 meeting, the following officers for the newly formed society were elected: Erwin Fineout, President (first president for 10 years); Lucille Flack, Secretary (who served for 31 years); Harry Fowler, Treasurer (who served until his death). Committees were formed and agreement reached as to the purposes of the society:
• Stimulate an interest in the history of the town
• Perpetuate the Sterling Museum
• Help preserve town records
• Raise funds
• Promote the society and work toward the eventual establishment of a (state) charter
• To do research, writing and tapes to document historical events not already recorded
• To better preserve books, records and documents now existing and preserve them for the future
• To travel around the town, locate historical sites and preserve them
• Plus annual calendar, pamphlets, a movie, a video, TV reports, Internet page, annual newsletter
Beginning in 1976, additional exhibits on the second floor of the Little Red Schoolhouse were created depicting early American themes. These ncluded a working model of a mill by Erwin Fineout, an exhibit about house moving by Erwin Fineout and George Sheldon, a barber shop, a kitchen, early hunting and fishing activities, the Civil War, Hunter’s store, musical instruments, a signature quilt, a school exhibit and more. Parts of an old barn were used to frame exhibit areas.
For more than 40 years, the Sterling Historical Society has done a great deal to stimulate interest in history and has attracted members from as far away as California. Half of our members have addresses outside the immediate area, but enjoy vacations here and have links to the town of Sterling and the Village of Fair Haven. Thirty-five hundred people receive our annual newsletter.
• Membership has grown from 45 in the early 1990s to 252 in 2012.
• Interpretation of our local history is enriched by numerous publications. Twenty local history books and publications have been published or endorsed. For example, our former Town Historian and Historian for the Historical Society, Hallie Sweeting, published six books about local history. The former Village of Fair Haven Historian, Erwin Fineout, published two books, one of which is a history of Fair Haven Beach State Park, where he was superintendent for 10 years. The Historical Society’s Historian-at-Large, Robert Kolsters, has published two richly illustrated books about the history of Fair Haven.
• The Sterling Historical Society is the only central New York historical society with a weekly newspaper column, Tales of Sterling, which has seen publication of over 500 columns since 1999.
• Since 1998 we have produced the annual community calendar with various historical themes.
• Seven public Historical Society Meetings are held each year, including a sold-out annual banquet and annual historic site picnic meeting at locations throughout the town.
• Production of videos: Fair Haven: A Renaissance Resort and The Golden Age of Rail, a 16 minute documentary video available on DVD with extras running over two hours.
• We have also sponsored two boat tours: The ninety-minute Elizabeth E. Bay Tour and the Muskrat Ramble electric launch tour of Sterling Pond and Creek out of Fair Haven Beach State park. The Muskrat Ramble features a narrated tour recorded on audio CD relating both historical and nature related commentary by local historians and long time residents. It included a recording of the 1920s hit, “Muskrat Ramble” recorded by Edward “Kid” Orey.
• We have conducted more than thirty senior day bus tours for visiting central New York groups. The tours include such activities as historical stories, Fair Haven Beach State Park, the Civilian Conservation Corps/German prisoner of war camp site, Sterling Nature Center, Fair Haven Village, Little Sodus Bay, lunch at the historic Pleasant Beach Hotel and local storytellers in addition to guide commentary.
• The Society coordinated designation on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Sites for the 1835 Sterling Center Mill Complex and for Sterling’s Little Red Schoolhouse (now our museum).
• We are also involved in placement, maintenance and refurbishing of roadside historical markers throughout the Town of Sterling.
The following people head up today’s 250-plus member society. This is followed by a list of the major contributions that have been made to our work of sharing history.
President • Pat Shortslef
Secretary • Susan Parsons
Treasurer • Jim Chaffee
Trustees • Leigh Shortslef, Sue Allen, Richard Fernquist, William Brophy
Deputy Secretary and
Membership & Newsletter Committee Chair • Sue Allen
Historian-At-Large • Robert Kolsters
The A Team • Bill Brophy, Jim Chaffee, Robert Flack, Jack Parsons, Frank Perkins, Keith Raymond, Fred Scott, Leigh Shortslef, Neil Shortslef and Glenn Trinder.
Regarding major construction projects since 2004, the A Team prepared and restored the railway signal tower, furnished the railway office in the tower, installed new bathroom facilities in the museum, managed and provided labor for the new 1400 sq foot exhibit building. The town of Sterling has officially named the museum’s railway signal tower area, Sterling Heritage Park.
Sterling Town Historian for the Town of Sterling, New York • Susie Parsons
Fair Haven Village Historian for the Village of Fair Haven, New York • Susie Parsons
• Roger Malcott donated the railway signal tower located originally at Sterling Station at the junction of two rail lines just south of Fair Haven.
• Raymond A. Waldron — $7,000 toward repair of the Sterling Center grist mill; $20,000 bequest, which covered most of the cost of new display building that bears his name.
• Jane Sant Brockman — $5,000 to Sterling Historical Society
• Fred and Raejean Kaplan — $3,000 for painting of early view of Sterling Station — Fair Haven rail corridor during the railway era.
• Harry Snyder, Jack and Susie Parsons and Chris Drogi for construction of 18-foot working miniature railroad of the same three-mile railway corridor
• Finger Lakes Arts Council — $2,000 towards production of Golden Age of Rail movie for its music arts component
• New York State — grant of $20,000 for moving railway signal tower and a grant of $12,500 for electrical service, railway tower displays, track, broadcast railway sounds, rail track and hand pump car
• Joan Kelley, former Town Supervisor, for generous support and for administration of grant monies
• Town of Sterling for ownership and maintenance of Sterling Heritage Park and Little Red Schoolhouse utilities
• Russell and Jean Turner – A dramatic moment in the finances of the Sterling Historical Society: Midwest collector pays $60,000 for original copy of 1830 Book of Mormon
Some years ago, the collector flew in with his daughter to meet with the Sterling Historical Society board of trustees. The board had decided to sell its copy that had been given to the society by Russell and Jean Turner many years ago. That decision had been made after determining that currently there were no Church of Latter Day Saints members in the Sterling area.
The book had been printed in Palmyra, the area where the church originated. The decision to sell it was prompted when a visitor identified the valuable book on an open shelf at the museum and said that it had substantial value. He estimated its value at around $8,000 and offered to be an agent to sell it.
Bill Irwin, then a trustee, took the initiative to go online and identify a collector who specialized in such books. That collector already had one of the largest collections and offered $60,000 and no fee. Thus, the transaction took place.
The trustees decided to set up a permanent investment for $50,000 in the name of Russell and Jean Turner and never to spend more than the interest earned. The annual investment earnings are around $2,500. The remaining $10,000 was set aside in a publication account and since has been used that way. Book sales help replenish that account.
A footnote: Some months after the sale, we learned that the market for such books had dropped some $20,000, but we were all set, thanks to Bill Irwin.