Sullivan County Historical Society History Preserver Award 2002
John Conway is a man of many talents. He has tried his hand at different jobs and has been successful at all of them, but he always returns to an early love: Sullivan County history. In reflecting on the direction his life has taken, he senses the important role that his father played in developing his mind. His father ran a gas station in Monticello, but found time to be a voracious reader and books such as Quinlan’s “History of Sullivan County” occupied a prominent place on his shelves. His father passed on to John a love of knowledge and the expectation that every day should include some new learning experience. Also, he encouraged John at an early age to begin accumulating his own books and to build his own library.
At Monticello High School, John found time to be on the wrestling, soccer and baseball teams and graduated in 1970. Initially, the years working in the family business suggested a career related to automobiles and he, therefore, enrolled in Georgia Tech to study mechanical engineering. However, once in college, other interests emerged. He had two great teachers: one in history and one in political science. They opened a new world by suggesting a novel idea: namely, that the study of history could be fun. John was encouraged to move beyond the plodding world of textbooks and to enter the world of libraries where with the help of his own imagination documents and letters could come alive and reveal the rich human emotions of some historical event. These two teachers thus continued to build on the foundation his father had already lain.
Besides automobiles and history, John discovered that he had another talent in a completely different area. He enjoyed being a radio sports announcer and was good at it. He began covering Georgia Tech football games, but soon had a program that covered all the sports in the Atlanta area. In fact, at one point after graduation, he was considered for the position as official radio announcer for the Atlanta Braves. By the 1970’s he was back in Sullivan County and working with radio station WSUL as news reporter, then news director and finally operations manager.
Unfortunately, radio work had an uncertain future in a county where the main industry, tourism, was in decline and John took a job as Purchasing Agent for the Town of Fallsburg. He continued his radio work with a program entitled Brunch Break, which included questions about Sullivan County. By 1987, he was the host for a two-hour show on WVOS that averaged 200 calls per airing. Later in that year, he began writing a column about the county for the Times Herald Record entitled “Retrospect.” He wrote this weekly column for eleven years while he was also writing a column about Ulster County.
Again in that decade his engineering side reappeared and in 1983 he went to work with Service Scaffold where he was employed for seventeen years. Part of his job involved the designing and fabricating of equipment for the transit industry. John is proud of the fact that much of the equipment he designed is still in use. An important event during this period was his marriage on New Year’s Eve, 1988, to Debra Suslosky Keator, a writer for the Times Herald Record.
One of John and Debbie’s ventures was not as successful as they had hoped. Several years ago with some partners, they purchased Eddy Farm on the Delaware River above Port Jervis. The hotel traced its history back to the days of the rafters and with his strong commitment to historical preservation, John was afraid that new owners would tear it down. Though eventually they had to sell, John still believes the effort to keep the hotel open was worthwhile. They were able to preserve a property which a rich historical background and to restore buildings that were badly in need of repair.
Part of John’s fascination with the county is that so much of it is unexplored. He recalls that when the State legislature in 1809 formed the county large parts were quite literally unexplored and even at the end of the century when the nation had been largely opened up for settlement, land was still being cleared for farming in the county. Apart from Quinlan’s history, much of the county’s early history has been lost, but John finds that thanks to the chance discovery of a document or a casual conversation, he is continually discovering new things about the county.
One constant he finds in county events is that of geographical rivalries. He notes that when the county was first formed and Monticello was chosen as the county seat, wrangling in the new legislature delayed the appropriation for a county building for several years. Later, in 1844, when the county building burned down, there were loud voices from different communities in the county who wished to move the county seat from Monticello to their town. These geographical rivalries seemed to anticipate the great struggle during the years 1963-1967 to determine the permanent location of the community college.
As a historian, John has also had the fun of rediscovering people who were famous in their day, but whom time has forgotten. He cites a man named Alfred B. Street who lived in Monticello in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. By 1850, Street was one of America’s most famous poets and his poetry, dealing with places like Kiamesha Lake and White Lake, celebrated the rural beauty which was still unspoiled in that day. Yet today few people have heard of him, even as many English teachers are unaware of the association of Stephen Crane with this county.
John himself is particularly interested in what he calls the Silver Age of the Hotel Industry: the era that roughly paralleled the Victorian and Edwardian years. In an era when railroads initially opened up the county as a tourist destination the first generation of hotels provided a foundation for the great resort industry which grew up in the twentieth century.
John’s productivity is impressive. He has had to do his research and writing in the hours left over from his day job. Yet over the years he has had four books published: “Trifles and Poppycock” (1984), a new edition of Stephen Crane’s “Sullivan County Tales and Sketches” (1995), “Retrospect” (1996) and “Dutch Schultz and His Lost Catskill Treasure” (2000). He has been the host of a very popular radio show on county history. He teaches a fifteen-week credit course on county history at Sullivan County Community College and estimates that he gives more than thirty talks a year to various groups as well as serving as a source person for the media and curious individuals who are looking for information about the county.
In 1993, in recognition of his knowledge, the Board of Supervisors appointed him to be the County Historian. In that position, he joins a number of former Historical Society members – James Burbank, Manville Wakefield and William Smith – who have served in that position. John believes that the primary role of the County Historian is to make the detailed research of historians available to the general public and to endeavor to share the fascination of history with a larger audience. Out of respect for all that he has done to pass on that fascination, the Society is pleased this year to award the History Preserver Award to County Historian John Conway.