How Near Rockaway became Rockville Centre


The Rockville Centre Historical Society is working with the Herald to provide some of the history of the Village of Rockville Centre. Over the coming months, we will share stories and photos of turn-of-the-century buildings, homes and important village milestones and people. We thought that a good place to start would be to recall how Rockville Centre got its name.

In 1848 or 1849, Robert Pettit set up a country store on Merrick Road, not far from Smith’s Pond, to serve a sparsely settled community called Near Rockaway, which included the area of what is now Rockville Centre, Lynbrook and East Rockaway. It had been called Near Rockaway since about 1660 by the settlers of Hempstead, because it was nearer to their town than Far Rockaway.

Pettit decided to apply for the establishment of a post office, since there was none in the region other than Hempstead. He was required to submit a name of the village to officials in Washington, D.C., and he decided to honor an outstanding citizen of the region — a fine old patriarch, 80 years old, who was a preacher, a justice of the peace and the owner of the local gristmill. His name was Mordecai Smith, and his nickname was “Rock” Smith, because he came from the Rock branch of the Smith family. 

Pettit considered the name Smithtown, but was told there was already a Smithtown. He subsequently submitted the names Smithfield, Smithburg and Smithville, but they, too, were already taken. The name Mordecai didn’t seem usable, so Pettit decided to try Smith’s nickname, and submitted “Rockville.” Once again, he was turned down. The name was already claimed. 

In desperation, Pettit added “Centre” to the name and it was approved. In 1849 he hung out a sign for the “Rockville Centre Post Office.”

The Village of Rockville Centre first advertised lots for sale in 1854, but it was not incorporated until 1892.

The new village had some important citizens who helped shape the core of our town. One was Francis F. Wilson Jr. (1868-1943), the son of Francis French Wilson, a prominent citizen around the time the village was incorporated. F.F. Wilson Sr. was a founding member of Rockville Centre Library, the RVC Improvement Association and the Ascension Episcopal Church, and the first president of the Board of Education. (The Wilson school is named for him.)

The family moved to Rockville Centre from New York City in 1882, when F.F. Wilson Jr. was 14. He became a well-known architect and builder in town, designing summer “cottages” in the 1890s, public buildings such as the power station, on Morris Avenue, and the Episcopal Church rectory on Village Avenue. He was instrumental in the surge of development in the village in the 1920s, and was the architect for the Hollywood Court development in 1929, as well as the concrete house at 100 Lakeview Ave.

Wilson Junior designed his own home, at 64 Hempstead Ave, around 1905, when he married his wife, Carrie. The property originally extended to Irving Place, but was subdivided in 1923. Although the house has changed a bit over the years, many of the features are still recognizable.

We invite everyone to learn more about the history of the village. We have many resources available. The village museum, called the Phillip’s House, is at 28 Hempstead Ave. You can visit by appointment and learn more about how the village got its start. There are clothes, household items, and maps and photos from when the village was incorporated.

Also, visit our website,, where you can find many stories and pictures depicting how Rockville Centre came to be the village we call home. Our phone number is (516) 670-5737 (call for an appointment), and our email address is Give us a visit. We look forward to hearing from you.

Jim Belling is a member of the board of trustees of the Phillips House Museum and the Rockville Centre Historical Society.