More than a hundred people gathered inside the Elmont Memorial Library in early April to learn the history of Fosters Meadow. Most of those in attendance were direct descendents of the original families who lived in the German farming community, which was founded in the 1850s and covered Elmont, Franklin Square, Valley Stream and parts of Queens. One of the speakers for the event was Gerald Rottkamp, whose family has deep roots in the Elmont community.
“My grandfather owned farmland on Hempstead Turnpike” Gerald said. “It began right where the McDonald’s and carwash are and stretched to where the Sewanhaka High School starts.”
The Rottkamp history began with Bernard Rottkamp, who arrived to New York City from Germany in 1847. He married Caroline Engle in 1851 and moved with their 14 children to Fosters Meadow. While four of their children died, the remaining 10 all married and farmed in Fosters Meadow. Their sixth child, Henry Rottkamp, was Gerald’s great-grandfather and owned farmland throughout Nassau County, including the land that Gerald’s family eventually purchased. Although they no longer own any farms on Long Island, Gerald’s family history still lives on. Newsday’s owners built the paper’s headquarters in Melville on land purchased from Gerald’s father.
Although the branches of the Rottkamp family gradually grew apart, Gerald’s branch of the family still holds family reunions that bring together more than 200 Rottkamps. The reunions also serve as the perfect chance for Gerald to update his family tree, a responsibility that he inherited from his aunt, as he hopes to preserve the history of one of Elmont’s oldest families. The next Rottkamp reunion is scheduled for 2022.
“The Rottkamps were all over Elmont,” Gerald said. “Half of the people buried at St. Boniface Cemetery are related to the Rottkamps in some way or another.”
But the Rottkamps were only one of the big-name families in Fosters Meadow. Elizabeth Bailey, a descendant of the Reisert family, discussed the quirky nature of the early Valley Stream community in which her ancestors found themselves. With names like Tiger Town, Rum Junction, Hungry Harbor, Cookie Hill and Skunks Misery, Bailey painted the image of a farming community with its fair share of problems with drinking and hunger. But despite Valley Stream’s rocky start, this was where German immigrant Friedrich Riesert founded his farm in 1854. His son, Frederick, eventually bought a swampy piece of the farmland from his family and, with his wife Anna, famously “built a farm out of a swamp.”
“Because the farmland was so wide, the Reiserts had airplanes conduct emergency landings on their land,” Bailey said. The sight of these landings sparked an interest in aviation in Frederick’s son, Jacob, who would go on to serve as a Navy pilot in the Pacific during World War II. On his last mission, Jacob piloted his plane through anti-aircraft fire in an attempt to sink an enemy destroyer. Afterwards, he managed to guide his men to a friendly aircraft carrier, but he himself was wounded by anti-aircraft fire. Keeping his plane over the carrier, he over-exerted himself until, exhausted and injured, he missed his chance to bail out safely. He was found dead in the water, according to the Military Times Hall of Valor, where accounts of the actions of gallantry medal recipients may be found. Jacob was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions, and his name
is one of many commemorated on a plaque in front of Valley Stream Central High School.
The Reiserts’ Valley Stream farm eventually became Curtiss Airfield, where famous aviators like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart had their offices. But as time went by, the airfield closed down, and now the land is home to Green Acres Mall.
Franklin Square’s St. Catherine of Sienna church along New Hyde Park Rd. is one of the few buildings to remain from the past. Jeffery Jones Jr., yet another Fosters Meadow descendant explained that members of the St. Boniface parish founded St. Catherine’s because they wanted a church closer to their homes.
“Peter Herman, Jacob Hoffman, August Kalb and Nicholas Kreischer petitioned the Bishop of Brooklyn to build St. Catherine’s,” Jones said.
The church was consecrated in 1909, with the founding families donating 10 of the church’s stained glass windows. More than 100 years and many renovations later, St. Catherine of Sienna, now part of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, still stands.