Piecing together Hempstead's history

Bellmore Library program brings the past to life

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Tom Saltzman knows the Town of Hempstead well. As the former town historian, he oversaw the storage of decades-old documents such as deeds, grants and maps archived from Hempstead’s 1644 settlement to today. But, he said, while the documents provided essential information, a visual history of the town was largely absent. “About 10 years ago, I went onto eBay and put in ‘Hempstead, N.Y., in postcards,’” Saltzman told an audience at the Bellmore Memorial Library on Jan. 22. “The only early picture of Hempstead Town Hall I had ever seen was on a postcard.”
“I had worked there for 30 years,” said Saltzman, who retired in December, “and you can read minutes, you can read any of the documents in the town’s history and nothing comes close to seeing a picture.” He showed a photo of the wall behind his former desk, full of postcards that chronicle the town’s evolution. One shows the first Hempstead Town Hall — a small building with tall windows and a three-story tower — that was purchased in 1874, nearly a century after Hempstead was split into North and South townships. The town hall became essential to accommodate Hempstead’s growing population — from 4,000 to about 11,000 between 1800 and 1870. The receiver of taxes, town clerk and town supervisor all needed spaces to operate. Before the town hall, official business was conducted in meeting houses, hotels and taverns, Saltzman said. “For 90 years, we had basically no place to keep our records — it’s actually amazing that we have as many things as we do today,” he said. The town board issued bids for the construction of a new town hall in 1917. Architect Steward Wagner’s design was chosen, and it closely resembled the town hall’s current iteration. Completed in 1919, the iconic clock tower accented the brick building. By 1929, extensions were necessary due to Hempstead’s still-growing population. New wings flanked the sides of the original building. After World War II, even more was added, and Front Street was widened from two to four lanes. The town hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 7, 2018. Another postcard shows the pointed white spire that stretches high into Hempstead’s skyline from atop the United Methodist Church. It has hardly changed since it was built in 1855. The design replaced the original construction built in 1822. The second postcard of the church that Saltzman acquired showed a fenced-in graveyard. “The churchyard of the Hempstead Methodist Church is the final resting place of at least 120 people who are buried there,” wrote church historian Edward G.J. Richter in an undated letter. “Much of the information on these people has not been found.” During the 1920s, the tombstones were buried. The graveyard contains people from at least 28 different families, including the Baldwins, Bedells, Pettits, Snedekers and Willets. No information was copied from the tombstones besides names and incomplete dates of deaths. “In several cases, it is difficult to determine if they died in the 1800s or 1900s,” Richter wrote. United Methodist Church was awarded Landmark Status in May of 2000. Other postcards revealed more history, including the original looks of St. George’s Church, Parish House and Rectory, the Hempstead Fire Department, the Prospect School and more. Saltzman said that historic files are open to the public, by appointment, in the Town of Hempstead archives. Schedule a tour by contacting the Town Clerk at (516) 812-3046.