A surprising early-autumn chill had settled over Village Square, where residents huddled to watch history in the making — again. On Oct. 12, exactly 135 years to the day after its incorporation, the oldest village in the Town of Oyster Bay staged a re-enactment of the ceremony in 1883.
The performance was part of the Sea Cliff Village Museum’s opening reception for its latest exhibit, “1883 . . . Birth of a Village.” Residents portrayed the village’s founders and acted out the historical signing, and afterward, visitors were invited to take a closer look at the community’s storied past through an extensive collection of documents, artifacts and photographs.
“If you like history, this is for you,” said Sara Reres, the museum’s director. “It features everything in our collection. Nothing is borrowed — nothing is from another institution. Everything is ours.”
A thick strip of red tape stretched along the walls of the museum’s first floor, framing a historical timeline of events from as early as the 1600s. Visitors squinted to read the fine print of old tax rolls, public notices and clippings from the long-defunct Sea Cliff Journal. Upstairs, a Victorian-era kitchen offered a glimpse of domestic life; recovered artifacts from the sinking of the Rye Cliff Ferry in 1918 stood, hauntingly, in a display case; and photos by Henry Otto Korten, Long Island’s premier postcard photographer, revealed the essence of Sea Cliff’s enduring charm.
“We planned our whole weekend around tonight,” said Mayor Edward Lieberman, who portrayed Sea Cliff’s first mayor-like “president,” Frederick W. Geissenhainer. “The founding fathers and mothers really set the tone and the pattern that this village now employs. They were visionaries.”
Resident John Canning, playing George Cox, the village’s first clerk, told the story of its incorporation. On Sept. 6, 1883. “electors” signed a citizens’ petition to create a municipality. C. Sackett Chellborg — portrayed by Village Administrator Bruce Kennedy — traveled by horse to deliver the incorporation papers to the Queens County clerk’s office in Long Island City. A month later, on Oct. 12, the State Legislature gave its final approval.
Lieberman, speaking as Geissenhainer, recounted his success as the founding president, whose generosity and foresight left a lasting mark on village life. “I bought an old chapel on 14th Avenue, which became the community school a few years later,” he said. “I purchased the village’s first fire engine, a Remington known as the ‘Little Giant,’ in 1884, and [that same year] the F.W. Geissenhainer Engine Company was organized.
“I developed railroad facilities for Sea Cliff, and I bought and donated a tract of land for building a depot,” Lieberman/Geissenhainer added. “To reach the depot, I opened up Sea Cliff Avenue and had it laid out and graded. I also helped found St. Luke’s Church.”
Canning said he was honored to take part in the re-enactment. “We’re a community that’s very informed by our history,” he said, “and the museum has a big role in preserving and transmitting it.”
Kennedy, a former mayor, is no stranger to Sea Cliff’s rich history. He acknowledged, though, that the contents of the exhibit, which spans generations, helped bring together bits and pieces of stories he already knew. “It’s tying up loose ends,” he said. “The reason Sea Cliff is still around is because while we embrace going forward, we never forget where we came from.”