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Recalling Rockville Centre women of the past who made a difference


Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of guest columns about the history of the village of Rockville Centre. Marilyn Nunes Devlin is Rockville Centre’s village historian and helps run the Phillips House Museum on Hempstead Avenue. This column recognizes Women’s History Month.

Anna K. Back

Back’s Hotel opened on Woods Avenue in 1904. A German immigrant, Back ran her establishment for 35 years. People came from as far away as Woodhaven, taking the trolley to stop 112 in Rockville Centre to enjoy the German cuisine and ambiance. Every year, Back hosted a Grand Masquerade Ball. Admission was 25 cents, which included a hat-check service.

In 1929, the hotel was sold to Karl Wegener Sr., who named it the Arbor Inn Restaurant after the large grape arbor on the property. Today, several large Tudor-style homes occupy where it once stood.

Mrs. Dwight T. Bonham

Bonham became the chairwoman of Rockville Centre’s Branch of the Red Cross in August 1924. The Red Cross would begin to offer training to 150 volunteers in courses such as First Aid; Becoming Nurse’s Aides; Nutrition; Canteen Work; Arts and Skills; Staff Assistants; and Motor Vehicle Driving and Mechanics. The Woman’s Motor Corps was formed and began transporting their fellow volunteers to both military bases and veterans’ hospitals.

During World War II, other members of the Red Cross got busy setting up War Bond Drives. They raised more than $1.5 million and were able to purchase 11 war planes. One was christened by the mayor of Rockville Centre in honor of Walter J. Halliday, who interrupted his mayoral duties to join the Army.

Mrs. M.M. Cahill

Cahill was the owner, president and general manager of the Long Island Fuel Corporation. She built it into a reliable, workable business comprising coal companies in Rockville Centre, Lynbrook, Freeport, and Laurelton. Cahill weathered a coal strike lasting six months. She once said of the corporation, “The quality of its coal cannot be excelled, and it is the policy of the corporation to educate and help those tackling the unruly furnace for the first time.”

Sarah Bayliss Johnson

Sarah Bayliss Johnson

Johnson was the first Girl Scout leader in Rockville Centre. She was also president of Camp Takawitha in Hampton Bays. At Camp Nuhn in Rockville Centre, a jamboree was held every year on the property adjacent to what is now Fireman’s Field, once known as Bennett’s Grove. Some of the activities held at the camp were hiking, cookouts, sports contests, outdoors skills, crafts, and training for earning their badges. Johnson also became one of the first Bank Directors in America.

Mrs. Augustus Kalb

Kalb was a volunteer of the Eureka Fire Company. From 1906 to 1917, she traveled to the scene of every fire. As soon as she heard the fire alarm, no matter the hour, she would make two five-gallon cans of coffee, put them and a large hamper into her buggy and drive to a bakery where the hamper would be filled with rolls and buns. Kalb then quickly drove her wagon to the fire to serve the goods to the firemen.

In 1915, the men of the Eureka Fire Company awarded her with a Fireman’s Badge, which she carried with great honor. Out of gratitude, the firemen saw to it that it was a gold one.

Edna Buckman Kearns

Kearns was an advocate for women’s right to vote. She also wrote and edited on suffrage news for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and hopped aboard trains to bring her message all over Long Island. As a member of the Woman’s Party, Kearns picketed at the White House in support of a Constitutional amendment, as well as, holding numerous meetings receptions and fundraisers at her home.

She became active in both the state and national suffrage campaigns and worked alongside Alice Paul, a well-known activist. Dressing in colonial garb, Kearns drove her wagon, the Spirit of 1776, to the Mineola Fair each year, stopping along the way to speak with people about the importance of giving women the right to vote.

Winona Caroline Martin

Martin, a librarian in Rockville Centre from 1909 to 1918, authored the book, “Twelve Tales of King Arthur.” She also was the founder of the Children’s Story Hour at the library. Martin took a leave of absence during World War I to become a canteen worker in France with the YMCA.

She sailed on Feb. 3, 1918. While on board, she contracted scarlet fever. On arrival, she was sent to the Claude Bernard Hospital in Paris. While there, she was killed during a German air raid bombing. A memorial placard dedicated to her is on display at the library on North Village Avenue.

Mary Pearson

A registered nurse, Pearson served for two years of active duty in the Army Nurse Corps in France. After returning home, she became the superintendent of the Rockville Centre sanitarium. Later, she would partner with George D.A. Combes in founding the South Nassau Communities Hospital. Pearson set the style for compassionate patient care, both at the “San,” as it was called by the residents, and instilled the same in the staff at the hospital.

Fern Schley

Schley devoted herself to helping the Unites States Committee for the Care of European Children. This committee helped bring children to the United States to live with families for their safety during World War II. Several of these children lived with families in Rockville Centre.

Helen McGrath Shannon

Shannon was a Navy Yeoman First Class during World War I. She is now honored at the Women’s War Memorial in Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Her Navy uniform, middy blouse, skirt, jacket, and cape have been donated for display there. Included are her honorable discharge, photograph, and a letter she wrote describing her daily routine at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Shannon became the first woman veteran to join the Rockville Centre American Legion Post 303. She was very proud to march shoulder to shoulder with her male members in many Memorial Day Parades.

Elsie Spelman

Spelman was the first woman to be elected to the Rockville Centre Board of Education. With no gymnasiums of their own in the mid-1900s, school children were welcomed as junior members of the Rockville Centre Club, which is now the Masonic Temple. Elsie founded the Rockville Girls Association, and the first girls’ athletic meet was held on April 20, 1917. The girls, about 200 in all, were divided into two teams, the Red and the Green. After the first year, the meets became a school-sponsored event, and the colors were changed to Red and Blue. The meets continue to this day and have earned a place of honor in Rockville Centre life.