125 years ago, Rockville Centre was reborn

19th-century local leaders saw value in incorporating village

Looking north on Village Avenue, this photo was taken in 1889, four years before incorporation.
Looking north on Village Avenue, this photo was taken in 1889, four years before incorporation.
Courtesy Rockville Centre Public Library

The South Side Observer ran an editorial on July 14, 1893, opining that town government was no longer sufficient for the “rapidly growing” village of Rockville Centre and that residents should vote for its incorporation.

“The Observer has great confidence in the capacity of the people of this village to govern themselves wisely without incurring foolish and needless expenditures,” the editorial stated. “We believe that intelligent, broad-minded and economical citizens will be willing to serve as trustees, that the public money will not be wasted, and that the village will be greatly benefited by incorporation.”

Rockville Centre had been settled for about 200 years prior to incorporation. Many deemed independence from the Town of Hempstead and Queens County — Nassau County was formed in 1899 after the division of Queens County — necessary to provide proper electric, water, street and safety services that the Observer wrote “can only be supplied by village government.” The editorial also noted the success of Freeport’s incorporation the year before.

(The incorporation endorsement was placed on the page next to a series of unrelated editorial notes, the first of which read, “President Cleveland is reported as being much im-proved in health. He is fishing up in Buzzard’s Bay.” Below that, another note stated that one Edward Geog-han had been sentenced to “die by electricity” for the murder of his wife in Brooklyn.)

The next day, July 15, voting to incorporate the village began at 10 a.m. at Antheneum Hall, according to “A Brief History of Rockville Centre” by Marilyn Nunes Devlin, and continued until 3 p.m. There were 219 votes — 139 in favor of incorporation, 79 against and one blank.

“We are glad that the majority was so large, and that the people here had enough confidence in themselves to trust themselves with village government,” a July 21 editorial in the Observer stated. “Rockville Centre has set a worthy example to the people of Babylon, Glen Cove and other villages, where they are forever agitating the subject, but never getting down to business.”

The editorial noted that the next step was selecting a board of trustees that was “intelligent, wideawake . . . conservative” to lead a series of improvements to streets and street lighting, the passing of sanitary regulations and the securing of a good supply of water and protection against fires.

In the first village election that August, resident voters selected attorney John Lyon as its president, along with three trustees, a treasurer and a tax collector, according to “A Brief History of Rockville Centre.”

Devlin, who moved to the village in 1975 and has served as village historian for the past three years, compiled her book over the course of a year and published it in 2011. She helps run the Museum of the Village of Rockville Centre at the Phillips House on Hempstead Avenue, which is named for Capt. Samuel Phillips, who she said was one of 26 residents to sign a petition supporting incorporation.

“There’s so much history here in this village,” Devlin said. “People don’t realize.”

A week after the election, Trustee Edwin Wallace hosted the village’s first board meeting at his Maple Avenue home.

The elected officials decided at the meeting that the village budget for the year would be $1,300. (Its 2018-19 adopted budget is $45 million.) Several ordinances were passed, including a speed limit of 8 miles per hour and a $5 fine for an infraction. Peddlers were required to obtain licenses, and dogs roaming freely had to be muzzled.

By 1875, the Eureka and Live Oak fire companies were joined by the Alert and Defender Hose Companies, Devlin’s book states, and after the organization of the Rockville Centre Fire Department, the budget had grown to $2,000. In 1898, just 15 years after the first electric generating plant in the United States opened in New York City, Rockville Centre began operating its own municipal power plant.

Frank Seipp, president of the Phillips House Museum, said it was fortunate that village leaders of the late 19th century saw the value in incorporation, which, he explained, in addition to spurring the police force and electric and water utilities, helped develop codes that benefited residents.

“It’s worked so that today this is one of the garden spots of the South Shore,” said Seipp, who has lived in Rockville Centre for 50 years. “It’s the greatest place to live.”

With a population of about 2,000 at the time of incorporation, according to the village, Rockville Centre is now home to nearly 25,000 people. Though titles have changed and duties have expanded, the local government has kept its basic structure. Today, Mayor Francis X. Murray serves in the role that was formerly the president, and there are four trustees, elected on a rotating basis to four-year terms.

The duties of treasurer and tax collector have been assigned to the village administrator — currently Kathleen Murray — a professional, full-time manager charged with implementing policies and local laws adopted by the board of trustees.

“As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the founding of our village, we remember those who had the vision and commitment to incorporate Rockville Centre,” Murray said. “While we have grown over the years, our mission to keep Rockville Centre an outstanding place to live, work, play and raise a family has remained consistent. We remain focused on moving our village forward and upward in the next 125 years.”