For Columbia County Historian William Better, history is a living thing. Not only that, but, he says, “Historian has always been my dream job. I was born and raised here, and my family has been here for 300 years.”
“The role of the historian is more about the preservation, interpretation, and presentment of local history,” Better said, rather than a “collector of things,” in other words, to function as an archivist or a museum. Further, they are not a genealogical resource.
Better, who has served as county historian since January 2020, shares the feeling of many of us that Columbia County is a unique place.
In a county of approximately 60,000 residents, he points out, the history of which “includes one president, one almost-president, multiple governors, the epicenter of the Shaker religion, the birthplace of the first truly American art movement in the Hudson River School, and the home of a number of prominent artists and noted authors throughout its history.”
On top of all that, the Declaration of Independence was written by five people, noted Better, and “one of those five people was Robert Livingston.” Livingston would be buried in the Clermont Livingston vault at St. Paul’s Church in Tivoli.
“When you think about it,” he continued, “for a small county, Columbia County’s influence at all levels of government, society, and culture has been significant throughout the last 300 years. What I view my job as is to try to promote what not every place can claim, that is, our depth and breadth of influence in American history. We have a disproportionally large place in American history.”
That the county’s rich, deep history is not conveyed as well as it could be to the children growing up here is something Better is hoping to see change. “In many cases our history is something you only realize with more adult reflection. We don’t do enough to promote our history.”
Currently, Better said, work is afoot with county Senior Planner Don Meltz and county employee Shari Franks on developing an interactive, online map of historic sites in each municipality.
“If you were to drive into a particular community in the county, you could pull up on your GPS a self-guided tour of historic sites within that town,” Better said. “We hope to have this done by the end of this year or early next year.”
Looking further ahead, 2026 brings with it the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and local historians are already gearing up. “One of the things we’d like to do is identify things for our school age children to be aware of,” said Better.
Meanwhile, with Halloween right around the corner, this Thursday, Oct. 28, Columbia County hosts storyteller Jonathan Kruk for an interactive show, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” at the Clarkson Chapel, Route 9G, Clermont. Shows are at 5 p.m. (geared toward children) and 7 p.m. (for all). Cost is free. Please RSVP to Shari Franks at email@example.com. COVID-19 protocols are in place, masks are required, and social distancing is observed.
The county historian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Matt Murell at email@example.com.