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Hoping for a return of the Bellmore Historical Society

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Many of Bellmore’s surrounding hamlets and villages — Merrick, Freeport, Seaford, Wantagh and more — have historical societies or groups that help preserve the area’s past. So why not Bellmore?

The question was the topic of conversation at a Bellmore Memorial Library event Monday night, which called for a revival of Bellmore’s historical society. Roughly five years ago, the original historical society folded under waning leadership, leaving two-thirds of the group’s collected Bellmore artifacts under the library’s supervision. No one has since filled the role of preserving Bellmore’s history.

Following the advice and guidance of a panel of leaders from nearby historical societies, the meeting ended with hope for a re-emergence of Bellmore’s historical society. A few of the roughly two dozen attendees left their contact information at the door, offering to take charge of the initiative.

“The important thing for our children — our grandchildren — is to keep the history of the town alive,” said Judy Bongiovi, president of the Seaford Historical Society, referring to the benefit of such organizations. “It’s more than showing them a sewing machine from 1908.”

“We’re keeping history alive in our own little community because we’re proud of what came before,” Bongiovi added.

“It definitely gives the community a sense of place,” said Regina Feeney, a trustee of the Freeport Historical Society. In the Village of Freeport, Feeney has helped residents learn about past occupants of their homes and the swamp-like areas that existed before paved streets.

“When people talk about Long Island history, there’s a tendency for them to talk about the North Shore or Suffolk county. They don’t talk about the South Shore,” Feeney added.  “I think it’s important for us as communities to promote our communities, because we’re part of Long Island, too.”

The groups represented at the event, which included the Wantagh Preservation Society, all have the same mission: research, record and protect the area’s relics and history, ensuring possessions belong to the community, not to any one individual or group.

Each one functions differently, however. The Seaford Historical Society runs out of a late 1800s schoolhouse, while the Freeport’s headquarters is in a 150-year-old cottage. Both are privately owned, which means volunteers must maintain the sites. Wantagh’s headquarters, meanwhile, is owned by Nassau County.

For Bellmore, though, things are more tentative. Whether a new historical society would have its own place of operations is unclear. Although the society’s original charter still stands, it will take a petition to the New York State Department of Education to resurrect it. With a charter, the group can occupy a new space or fundraise.

But the initial groundwork is there. Historical records and items are “more accessible than ever,” said Martha DiVittorio, the Bellmore Library’s head of community outreach, who has been the keeper of the left-behind collection. At the library, several items have been digitized and organized, and any resident can stop by to take a look.

The guests’ recommendations also came with warnings. “It’s work. It’s not a tea party,” said Tom Watson, president of the Wantagh Preservation Society. “You have to run it like a business,” and make sure each member contributes, he said. Watson recruited members through “old-fashioned,” communication.

Historical societies also come with “ebbs and flows,” he added, recounting his own experience of rebuilding Wantagh’s group. “You’re not going to turn it around overnight,” Watson said. “It took us a long time to change the culture within our society.”

“Long Island has a very rich history,” Bongiovi added, “and we’re going to lose it unless we promote it.”

The contacts for the new Bellmore Historical Society were unavailable by press time. If you are interested in joining the effort, contact agarcia@liherald.com. Keep reading the Herald Life for updates.