Torres Appoints Town Historians

New Paltz Town Councilman Daniel Torres has appointed Carol Johnson and Susan Stessin-Cohen to serve as town historians.

Torres said he had been searching for ways to ‘revamp’ the position.

“We had looked for some time to make history more modern, and more accessible through social media and other means like that,” Torres said. “So when we were thinking about that, we thought that Carol [Johnson] and Susan [Stessin-Cohen] would be great candidates for the job.”

Johnson is a lifelong New Paltz resident who worked for two former town historians, Ken Hasbrouck and Irene Martin. She currently works in the history room at the Elting Memorial Library.

“I’ve worked with New Paltz history since the early 1980s,” Johnson said. “I’ve written two books on New Paltz history [“New Paltz,” and “New Paltz Revisited”], so I’m probably the most qualified person in New Paltz to take over at the position of town historian.”

Torres said Johnson has been an incredible resource for people looking into the history of the New Paltz community.

“We thought that she brought a lot of knowledge to the table, including institutional knowledge, too, from doing this as long as she has,” he said.

Johnson said that one thing she would like to accomplish in her new position is to have a PowerPoint presentation on the history of New Paltz, and the development of the town up and running in the Community Center.

“New Paltz extends past the history of just Huguenot Street,” she said. “You can go down there and take a tour, but there’s a lot of things aside that are of interest that have happened here. So people learn why the street that they live on is named that. Or even which people from here became famous and so forth.”

Aside from her work at the library, Johnson writes a monthly column for The New Paltz Times titled, “A Hundred Years Ago.” The column displays an event’s current date in history with a New Paltz event in history that took place a 100 years ago.

“Almost everything that goes on today, you can find it already happened in some way you can relate to in the past,” she said.

Stessin-Cohen got her undergraduate and graduate degrees at SUNY New Paltz where she teaches as a history professor.

“Dan [Torres] asked me a couple of questions, and I was really helpful to what he needed,” she said. “He asked me about being town historian, if I was interested because he asked a couple of years ago, and it didn’t work out at that point. But he asked me again now, and I said I’d talk to Carol because I felt we’d really make a good team together.”

Stessin-Cohen refers to herself as a “born-again historian” because she has never taken one history class in the department.

Her biggest focus is black history and she is currently writing a book with a colleague about runaway slaves in the Hudson Valley, which she said should be published in about a year. As town historian, she said her mission will be to continue to uncover the history of marginalized people.

“Those are the people I want to look into — the people that didn’t leave hundreds of records behind,” Stessin-Cohen said. “My main focus has been looking at parallel cultures, overlooked people, for example who lived at the Ulster County Courthouse. The people who were born and raised who helped build this community. Everyone always credits the Huguenots as the builders of New Paltz, [but] It was mostly the enslaved Africans who did all of the work for them. So I’ve been looking at the Manumission Ledger and tracing people to the present.”

Stessin-Cohen is hoping to start a New Paltz historical society in which college interns, high school students and some young people can get involved. In addition, she will be speaking at the New York State History Conference in June.

Torres said both Johnson and Stessin-Cohen complement each other.

Stessin-Cohen said she and Johnson have been working together for 15 years and balance each other well.

“We really complement each other because we both have different areas of expertise,” she said. “Both of us really love local history. I’m more of the techie person and Carol is more hands-on at times. Carol is a good resource for me on certain things, and she’s a good resource for me.”

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Melissa Kramer is a fourth-year journalism major who lives for sports and music.