BRIARCLIFF MANOR, N.Y. – Karen Kotter Smith and Jan Wagner face more than 40 years of catch-up work to do as co-presidents of the Briarcliff Manor-Scarborough Historical Society. But they are determined to do it, piece by painstaking piece.
Smith and Wagner, both long-time residents of Briarcliff, have been active in the Historical Society for nearly four years. The organization was created in 1974, but did not have a permanent home until it found space in the lower level of the Briarcliff Manor Library a few years ago. Now with a new home, new leaders and a fine eye for detail, Smith and Wagner are piecing together Briarcliff’s rich history since Walter W. Law developed the village in the 1890s.
“We have lots of stuff that has been stored in wet basements or hot attics for many years,’’ Smith said. “Neither is a good place for historical artifacts. Many things, unfortunately, were misplaced or lost their identification information. We have a lot of catch-up work to do.”
Wagner likened the project to putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle. “We’re whittling away and slowly finding where the pieces fit,’’ she said, “but many pieces, dates and locations are without identification.”
In New York, a museum or historical society that wishes to organize as a nonprofit education corporation must petition the Board of Regents for a charter to operate. The BMSHS has had a Provisional Charter almost since its inception in 1974. But to obtain an Absolute Charter, it requires full organization of the archives, proper storage, financial strength and transparency, membership outreach and educational programs.
Both Smith and Wagner are working towards the day BMSHS is ready to petition the Regents. Having an Absolute Charter is also necessary to apply for grants.
“Our primary goal is to get the Absolute Charter,’’ Smith said. “We want to be eligible for all that’s out there and not leave anything on the table.”
The co-presidents have already taken several steps to create community awareness of the Society. They distribute a newsletter several times a year, they have upgraded the Society's website and offered more events. A recent dinner at Sleepy Hollow Country Club drew 140 guests and raised nearly $13,000.
The women are also working with neighboring communities to generate attention for their programs, and they have benefited from the experience of other organizations. The Society hosted a discussion on Westchester County cemeteries in September – there are no cemeteries in Briarcliff, by the way – and historian Carl Oechsner led a tour in April of the Croton Aqueduct.
“We’re getting a good response to our programs,’’ Wagner said. “They’re free, they’re local and they’re entertaining.”
The volunteer assignment is a labor of love for Wagner and Smith, who relish in the discoveries they are making as they sift through the items currently in the Society's possession. Some recent discoveries include a graduation certificate of a student from Briarcliff Union School in June of 1909 and a quilt made by first grade students in 2002 that represented what the children loved about Briarcliff. Those students are now finishing up high school.
Smith thanked former members and boards of the Society "for keeping things going when we were without a home, but with the opportunities we have in our new location, we've re-doubled our efforts,'' she said.
Smith and Wagner are unified in their passion for Briarcliff history and attention to detail. The assignment is time consuming, and must be done precisely, but they find it rewarding and enjoyable.
“Both of us love Briarcliff,’’ Wagner said. “When BMSHS finally had a permanent home and the need for this work to be done was apparent, somebody needed to step up and do it, and we did. We both have organizational minds and want to get this done. And we get along together!”