Monday, January 30, 2012

The First Americans, 1: Asiatic Origins


Today’s American Indian population of more than 2.8 million counted in the 2010 Census is in sharp contrast to the native population in 1609, the year Henry Hudson sailed up the river that bears his name. The entire North American continent was then the exclusive domain of Indians.
A mere hundred years later, the Indian tribes of the Hudson Valley had sold their highly desirable lands to Dutch or English colonists, usually for a song. The Indian tribes of the region--Mahicans and Munsees--then scattered to the four winds, leaving only names on the land and a few tribal members in isolated remnant groups.
Some Hudson Valley tribes found their way to Massachusetts, others to upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. To find descendants of these tribes today, one would have to travel to Wisconsin or to Ontario in Canada, where small bands still live on reservations.
A similar extinction drama was played out in the Massachusetts Bay colony after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620. Eventually, a whole section of American ethnography was pushed from their lands and settled on reservations in what were considered to be undesirable areas of the republic. In some cases, as in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), they were given lands that proved to be oil-bearing, making a few rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
Indians owe their name to a monumental gaffe committed by Christopher Columbus five centuries ago. Thinking he had reached India in 1492, he called the people he encountered "los Indios." 
Eventually, it was recognized that he had not reached Asia but had discovered an unknown continent. By then, the word "Indian" or a close variant had entered the major languages of the world.
To rectify Columbus's error and avoid the stereotypes that have sprung up, it is fashionable today to refer to Indians as "Native Americans." Although it may be politically incorrect to demur, the term Native American is as much a misnomer as was Indian. We Americans are all descended from immigrants; Indians merely got here sooner than the rest of us.

The Land Bridge

Originating in Asia, ancestors of the so-called Native Americans are believed to have reached Alaska from Siberia by a land bridge exposed in shallow Bering Strait. Geologists refer to the twin areas of Russia east of the Lena River and northwestern North America west of longitude 130 degrees as Beringia.
Although not very likely in a warming planet, a drop of only 120 feet in today's ocean level today would create a land bridge again and reveal the link from one continent to another. It seems clear the first Americans arrived in what is North America well before the last major glaciation and then made their way southward. Hugging the shoreline along the still ice-covered part of the continent, they depended on fish and shell fish for sustenance.
Evidence of their passage along the ocean strand may exist under shallow Pacific coastal waters. Robert Ballard, explorer of the Titanic wreck, has indicated an interest in such a project.
Their migration was for the most basic of reasons: food. Once past the southern limit of glacial ice, these hunter-gatherers traveled inland in small bands, moving with the game that supplied them with meat and furs.
Always seeking new regions where animals and plants were plentiful, they explored ever southward as the climate moderated. Taking whatever a bountiful nature offered, they made no effort to increase or propagate their food supply by domesticating animals or rising crops.
Eventually, wandering groups reached the southernmost tip of South America.  Excavations at the Monte Verde site in Chile have yielded radiocarbon dates of 12,500 years. This date, however, is not universally accepted. Other sites in the Americas have been claimed to have even earlier dates, and the jury is still out.
Nevertheless, by traveling as little as three miles a week, the distance between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego could have been covered in about 70 years. Along the way, mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths as large as elephants, and other animals all fell victim to their primitive flint-tipped spears.
Unlike later Indian hunters, who killed only as much as they needed for food, clothing and shelter, their Ice Age forbears killed wantonly. Ironically, by slaughtering their quarry in mass kills they hastened the extinction of the very animals upon which they depended.
Two such animals were the camel and the horse, once common on the plains of western America. Soon after the end of the Ice Age and before their total extinction, these quadrupeds also used the Bering Strait land bridge for migration--but in the opposite direction.
Spreading westward across Asia, the primitive wild horse of the steppes was eventually domesticated. When Indians encountered mounted Spanish explorers in 1539, all memory of earlier horses had been lost, and they regarded the strange new animals with awe. Once introduced to the horse, however, the Plains Indians quickly adapted to an equine way of life.

Old vs. New Worlds
At some time after 11,000 years ago, rising sea levels cut off the Bering Strait land bridge, blocking the passage of Stone Age peoples. That the Indians who occupied the New World were still living in the Stone Age when Columbus reached these shores has long interested scientists.
What was it that kept Indians from matching the growth of civilizations of the Old World?
First and foremost, the Indians had remained non-literate. Developed in the fertile Mesopotamian plain as an adjunct to trade and government, writing and reading gave the Old World an initial leap forward. These two skills led to logical thought, mathematics, science, medicine and invention. Useful arts followed: engineering, dam-building, irrigation, intensive agriculture, ceramics and metallurgy.
Reading and writing paralleled still another phenomenon--cities that sprang up abruptly in the Old World about six thousand years ago. Elaborate systems of piping and aqueducts supplying water over long distances provided public baths and carried off wastes, accelerating the clustering of peoples. Initial agricultural cultures soon gave way to commercial and industrial civilizations.
Cities became states and nations with stratified social and economic hierarchies. These record-keeping bureaucracies were regulated by a judiciary and a priesthood, and governed by a ruling minority.
In contrast, the Indian lifestyle of foraging, hunting, fishing and farming limited them to small groups of families and clans gathered in temporary camps and small villages. Their only political organizations were tribes and loose confederacies.
Unlike the sheep, goats, cattle, horses, donkeys and camels of the Old World, with the exception of the dog, the animals available to the Indians did not lend themselves to domestication. In northern Europe, even reindeer and elk were tamed and harnessed.
Lacking domestic animals, Indians in the Western Hemisphere were largely doomed to continuing their nomadic lifestyle. Without draft animals and the plow, their attempts at raising crops necessarily were rudimentary. And without beasts of burden and wheels to provide transport, possessions other than the most portable tools and utensils quickly became impediments to a wandering lifestyle.

Editor’s Note: Look for the second part of this series, “The First Americans, 2: An Inevitable Conflict of Cultures.” 

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Solving the Riddle of Anthony’s Nose


Historians have long puzzled over Anthony’s Nose, the name of the granitic prominence at the southern gateway to the Hudson Highlands that serves as the eastern anchor of the Bear Mountain Bridge
.     Two possible origins are recorded for the odd name of this topographic feature. One is Spanish, the other, Dutch. Let’s explore the Spanish claim first.

Spanish Claims
From time to time, an elusive tale surfaces and asserts that Esteban Gomez--not Giovanni da Verrazzano--discovered the Hudson River, which he named for St. Anthony.
That Gomez, a Portuguese sailing for the Spanish crown, explored and mapped the North American coast a year after Verrazzano's 1524 voyage is not in dispute. Gomez may indeed have given the saint's name to our river. On later Spanish maps, a Rio San Antonio is shown at about this latitude.
Maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morison, however, gives solid credit to Verrazzano, sailing for the French, for the discovery of the river. In his fascinating and diligently researched work, The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America, Morison devotes an entire chapter to the exploratory voyages of Verrazzano between 1524 and 1528.
Gomez, on the other hand, gets short shrift from Morison. He is mentioned--unflatteringly and only in passing--on six scattered pages. After fomenting a mutiny, Gomez took over the San Antonio, one of the ships of Magellan's expedition, and returned to Spain, where he became a teller of lies about Magellan. Morison says nothing about the 1525 voyage of Gomez.
No evidence exists, however, that Verrazzano or Gomez penetrated any deeper into the continent than the Upper Bay. As former Westchester resident Robert Boyle pointed out in his now-classic 1969 work The Hudson River, the true honor for the discovery and exploration of the river falls to the navigator after whom it is named: Henry Hudson, sailing for the Dutch
The Gomez story is occasionally embellished locally with the claim that he reached the Hudson Highlands. According to this legend, as his ship sailed past the highest peak on St. Anthony's feast day, June 13th, he named it St. Anthony's Nose.
Nice try--but no cigar. Anthony's Nose--or St. Anthony's Nose, if you insist--is not the highest mountain in the area. And the progression of this mountain's names went in the opposite direction--and then back again. First called Anthony's Nose early in the 17th century, toward the end of the 18th century, it mysteriously became St. Anthony's Nose. Just as mysteriously, in the 19th century it became Anthony's Nose once again.
As a college student majoring in geology and an avid hiker, I came to know the trails and peaks of the rugged Hudson Highlands. Storm King, Crow's Nest, Bear Mountain, and the Dunderberg Massif on the western side of the river, and Mount Beacon, Breakneck and Bull Hill on the eastern side are all taller and more impressive than Anthony's Nose, which barely reaches 900 feet. It is still the highest point in Westchester County, easily nosing out Dickerson Mountain on the old Valeria property.

Dutch Origins of Anthony’s Nose
Solid evidence exists for the name’s Dutch provenance. In the years after Hudson’s exploration of the river in 1609, Dutch pilots sailing their sloops on the river named every prominent natural feature useful for navigation, including Anthony's Nose.
Identifying a specific Dutchman as the Anthony of the nose is not easy. Early sources give that honor to Antoine de Hooges, an official of the colony of New Netherland at Fort Orange (Albany).
In his 1836 Letters About the Hudson and Its Vicinity, magazine publisher Freeman Hunt described a visit with Philip Van Cortlandt at the Upper Manor House near Peekskill. Van Cortlandt, who had joined the American cause in the Revolution and became a brigadier general, liked to be addressed by his military title.
Hunt wrote: “General V. is the owner of Anthony's Nose (on the river), as it is called. He gave me the origin of that name.” Van Cortlandt claimed that the peak was named before the Revolution for a Capt. Antony Hogans who had an enormous nose. Antony Hogans was probably the Anglicization of Antoine de Hooges. This would have been a likely name conversion in a society moving from Dutch to English.
Washington Irving later recounted an often-repeated anecdote about the naming of the mountain in his whimsical 1809 satirical work, Knickerbocker's History of New York. Irving insisted it was named for the prodigious and bejeweled nose of Anthony Van Corlear, Peter Stuyvesant's courier, who was dubbed "Anthony the Trumpeter" and who drowned trying to swim across Spuyten Duyvil Creek.
The late Richard Lederer spent a good part of his life tracking the origins of Westchester’s names. In his exhaustive The Place Names of Westchester County, he records that the name Anthony's Nose was first used in the 1683 Indian deed to Stephanus Van Cortlandt, patroon of Van Cortlandt Manor.
Perceiving a nose in this rocky mass was not easy for some observers of the mountain. Inveterate traveler James Kirke Paulding noted in his 1828 guidebook, The New Mirror for Travellers, "The most curious thing about it is that it no more looks like a nose than my foot."

The Impermanence of Place Names
Place names often undergo transferred identities. Consider the famous "Turk's Face," a rocky feature on Breakneck Mountain, itself sometimes called Turk's Face Mountain. Long a landmark for travelers on the Hudson about two miles north of Cold Spring, this rock formation bore a striking resemblance to a human face.
One indefatigable English traveler, John Maude, jokingly remarked in 1800 about the Turk's Face during a voyage between Albany and New York City: “The profile of the Face Mountain so strongly resembles the profile of the human face, that I had for some time my doubts whether art had not assisted in improving the likeness. I have seen other blockheads which did not possess so sensible a countenance.”
In 1846, a rapacious quarryman blew Turk's Face to smithereens. With one mighty blast of black powder, Capt. John Deering Ayers reduced 10,000 tons of picturesque scenery to a pile of rubble. Ayers blew himself to kingdom come a few years later while checking an explosive charge that failed to go off. Conservationists of the period saw his violent end as justly deserved retribution.
Despite the disappearance of the stone visage, the name Turk's Face Mountain persisted.  By the beginning of the 20th century, however, the long-vanished Turk's Face was being remembered as St. Anthony's Face, according to Wallace Bruce, author of a series of popular guidebooks to the Hudson River. References to it as St. Anthony's Face, of course, led to inevitable confusion with Anthony's Nose farther to the south.

St. Anthony’s Nose Again
The first occurrence of St. Anthony's Nose in print was in Charles Carroll's account of a passage through the Hudson Highlands by sloop in April of 1776. Carroll, a member of the Continental Congress, was sailing up the Hudson with Ben Franklin on an unsuccessful mission to Canada to get the Canadians to join the American cause. He later signed the Declaration of Independence and became a U.S. senator.
Carroll recorded that the vessel encountered a storm in sailing around “the cape called St. Anthony’s Nose,” where a blast off the mountain tore the sloop’s mainsail to shreds. An aquatint etching by J.W. Edy, after a drawing by G.B. Fisher, bears the title, View of St. Anthony's Nose in the North River, Province of New York, 1795.  More recently, an early name of the hamlet at the little-used Manitou railroad station was St. Anthonysville.
The derogative quality of the name St. Anthony's Nose has always been bothersome to this writer. Would any sincerely religious person disparage a gentle saint like St. Anthony of Padua, a Portuguese-born Franciscan monk and patron saint of the poor? According to legend, he once preached to an attentive audience of fish.
St. Anthony's Nose has the same derisive, antireligious ring found in comparative references to the posterior part of a roast chicken or turkey. (Depending upon one's prejudices, this usage described it as "the Parson's Nose" or "the Pope's Nose.")
In his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Eric Partridge notes the latter expression first appeared in print in 1788. This would agree timewise with the corruption of Anthony's Nose to St. Anthony's Nose. If derogation was the objective behind calling it St. Anthony's Nose, Charles Carroll's unwitting and unquestioning use of the term is ironic: Carroll, one of the richest men of his time, was a prominent Roman Catholic layman.
We should not conclude that abandonment of the saint's name and the return to the use of Anthony's Nose on today's maps necessarily represents a setback for the good father. Think of it instead as another small victory in a never-ending battle against mindless bigotry.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chester A. Smith, 2: Fighting Peekskill’s City Hall


The honeymoon of Chester Smith and the newly elected Mackay administration in 1940 was short-lived. As in many marriages, the split came over money.
During the campaign, Mackay and his Democratic Common Council candidates had promised economies in government. Once in office, however, they surprised Smith and other supporters by proposing a 1941 Peekskill budget that called for spending a whopping $766,777.06.
Moreover, they proposed hefty raises for city officials: a 43% jump in salary for the city judge (from $2,800 to $4,000), a 33% boost for the corporation counsel (from $3,000 to $4,000), and a 20% increase for the city clerk (from $2,500 to $3,000). The administration also proposed to create the post of deputy comptroller with a salary of $3,600 for newly elected comptroller Albert E. Cruger.
Democratic council members made another tactical mistake; this one fatal. Chester Smith tended to monopolize and even dominate council meetings. Council members began to ignore him and disregard his suggestions and requests.
Smith's Non-Partisan Citizens Committee declared its opposition to the new administration's proposed budget. It bought newspaper advertising and mounted a direct-mail campaign that reached all 2,671 eligible voters.

The council countered with a series of high-handed tactics. Instead of scheduling the budget vote at the traditional location, the Peekskill High School gymnasium, they stirred up a hornet's nest by choosing the inappropriate and much smaller three-year-old Municipal Building.
To further discourage voter turnout, the council set the time of the voting for the brief 90-minute period between 7:30 and 9 p.m., Tuesday, December 3, 1940. Only two voting machines were installed. The new administration was obviously making it difficult for voters to show their feelings about the budget.
The strategy backfired. Despite these roadblocks, 622 taxpayers turned out on a cold winter night. A line three-deep snaked its way out of the Municipal Building's rotunda and down the curved staircase onto Main Street. Many waited for hours to vote; some gave up and returned home.
To accommodate the waiting crowd, voting continued until after midnight. In the final tally, an overwhelming 80% said no. The actual numbers were 499 against the budget and only 123 in favor of it.
"Last night's election was a definite repudiation of the present city administration," opined a Peekskill Evening Star editorial the next day. The paper followed this with another strong editorial calling for selfish political maneuvering to stop.

Fighting City Hall
Immediately after the vote, Chester Smith called upon Mayor James Mackay and council member Horton, who had both defended the budget, to resign. Mackay was no neophyte in politics--he had been Peekskill's president in the mid-1930s when it was still a village. An executive with the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency at 10 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, Mackay decided the game wasn't worth the candle and stepped aside.
In January of 1941, the weekly Highland Democrat hailed Chester Smith as its "Man of the Year." Editor George E. Briggs praised him as both a "king maker" and a "king toppler."
The Common Council named a council member, 65-year-old banker William T. Horton, to serve out the remainder of Mackay's term.
 Horton was the retired manager of the Fifth Avenue branch of the Corn Exchange Bank in New York City. He had chaired the committee that framed Peekskill's city charter, had served on the Peekskill Board of Education and would later become Peekskill's city historian in 1946.
The resounding defeat of the 1941 budget had an instant salutary effect. A chastened Common Council suddenly found $19,010.90 that could be cut from the budget, reducing it to $747,766.16. Chester Smith and the Non-Partisan Citizens Committee quickly gave their blessing to the new budget. A second budget vote was scheduled for Monday, December 30, 1940.
This time the high school gymnasium was the polling place, and remained open an ample eleven hours--from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Surprisingly, the same number of voters--622--turned out. Equally surprising, the split was again 499 to 123--only this time the majority approved the budget. The taxpayers had made their point.
Budgets, of course, are an annual chore. In 1941, a 1942 budget totaling $705,280 was proposed by the Democrats. Again an unhappy Smith went into action, mounting an anti-budget campaign that called for a reduction of $65,772.80, cutting expenditures to $639,507.20.
Non-Partisan Citizens Committee advertising included a sample ballot pointedly showing voters which lever to pull down to vote against the proposed budget. The council stubbornly refused to reduce the budget.

The Voters Speak
But more than the budget was at stake. Each party also had a slate of candidates running for mayor, council members and other city offices. On Tuesday, November 4, 1931, 1,357 Peekskill residents went to the polls. A convincing 71% rejected the budget.
Voters also voiced their displeasure with the Democrats. The entire Republican slate was swept into office, including 53-year-old Ralph F. Hopkins, a well-known local architect, as mayor, and six Republican council members.
In addition to many local residences, Mayor-elect Hopkins had designed the village's Colonial Revival-style Municipal Building in 1936, and such landmarks as the Masonic Temple (gutted by a disastrous fire on January 20, 2001), and the Guardian Annex. In 1950, he would design Genung's department store, which later became the Howland department store and now houses offices.
Before a new 1942 budget was put to a vote, Chester Smith reiterated his demand that $65,772.80 be cut. Knowing that the new administration would have to live within any budget approved by taxpayers, the lame-duck Common Council outdid themselves. They cut items totaling $77,838--18% more than Smith had demanded.
Smith and his committee gave the reduced budget of $627,442 their blessing. Voting was set for Tuesday, December 23, 1941. Only 385 voters showed up at the polls, but 73% of them approved the budget.
He was also instrumental in securing for the Field Library the 13-room Victorian house at 124 Union Avenue, the former Dwight Stiles Herrick residence. The house badly needed repairs, and taxes were owed by the owner, Mrs. Ida M. Adams. When Peekskill began an action because of nonpayment of taxes, Chester Smith raised the money to pay them by selling a portion of the property. He also raised $10,000 to renovate the house and an additional $13,500 as an endowment fund. After extensive repairs, the Herrick house--now the Peekskill Museum--was opened to the public on May 17, 1946.
Mayor Ralph F. Hopkins would serve three two-year terms. The Hopkins administration eventually alienated Chester Smith. In the 1947 election campaign, Chester Smith and his Non-Partisan Citizens Committee retaliated by backing the Democrats. Peekskill voters roundly rejected the Republicans in November. Under Mayor John N. Schneider, the Democrats were returned to power.

Golden Years
Chester Smith had always been a lover of books. A prolific author in his own right, he created dozens of pamphlets and brochures on a variety of subjects ranging from narrow local issues to the question of Prohibition. He began his writing career with a novel published in 1913. The American Comedy, about Putnam County’s political families, is now a collector’s item.
Over the years, Chester Smith had been the prime mover in Peekskill's Friendly Town Association. He donated two parcels of undeveloped land to the Association and convinced others to do the same. The result was seven privately owned parks open to the public. At the time, Peekskill only had six city parks. When Peekskill decided that the Association's parks would have to remain on the tax rolls, he offered to give them to the city. Peekskill declined. Smith decided to sell the parklands he had contributed.
In 1954, the Drew Seminary for Young Women, a private secondary school in Carmel, N.Y., declared bankruptcy. Smith, a trustee of the Methodist school, was appalled that it was unable to pay its debts. Legally, the school was free of any obligation to pay, but he felt that the debt should be paid in full.
"I got a good price for them," he crowed. "But I could have done better. I insisted in putting in the deeds that the property never be used for the manufacture or sale of spirits. A lot of prospective buyers balked at that." He added, "I couldn't help it, though. I'm a good Methodist. Been fighting the liquor people all my life.” He used the proceeds, $43,000, to pay the unpaid portion of the Drew Seminary's debt.
To everyone's surprise, in the mid-1950s, Chester Smith decided to become a lawyer. At the age of 74, he graduated from the New York Law School on June 18, 1959, with the degree of Bachelor of Laws. Following graduation, he was injured in an automobile accident, suffered a heart attack and twice failed to pass the bar examination.

Failing Health
A lifelong bachelor, in his later years, Chester Smith lived alone after the death of his mother and later his sister, Edith M. Smith, in 1950. On July 24, 1968, he fell in the basement of his home at 730 Hudson Avenue, after suffering what may have been a mild heart attack.
Four years later, he died in the morning of September 29, 1972, at the West Ledge Extended Care Facility on East Main Street in Peekskill, less than two months short of his 88th birthday. His obituary made the front page of that day’s edition of the Peekskill Evening Star. It revealed that there were no immediate survivors, and burial would be in Peekskill’s Hillside Cemetery.
Peekskill owes much to Chester A. Smith. Without his untiring efforts, it would not have come into existence as a city when it did. He left his mark on Peekskill in the form of numerous plaques and memorials to its famous citizens that dot the city.
Chester Smith's voluminous papers, including 88 diaries diligently-kept from 1897 to 1967, were deposited with the Syracuse University Library. If anyone could take satisfaction from a life spent in service to a community, it was Chester Allen Smith.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Chester A. Smith, 1: Fighting to Make Peekskill a City


When the Southern states decided to leave the Union in 1861, Gen. Winfield Scott offered this mollifying advice to the North: "Say to the seceding states, ‘Wayward sisters, depart in peace.’"
Similar concessionary words were not heard in the town of Cortlandt or in Westchester County 75 years ago when Peekskill, an incorporated village since 1816, wanted to become a city. The town and the county both opposed the move, and fought it fiercely every inch of the way.
Peekskill's struggle to get out from under Cortlandt's thumb was as bitter as any quarrel between Balkan factions. In the process, Peekskill voters surprised political pundits by crossing party lines and switching loyalties to accomplish the change.

Sentiment for Separation
The movement for independence from the town began in 1934 at a meeting at Peekskill High School. Citizens gathered to protest the high salaries Cortlandt officials had voted themselves when the country was just beginning to emerge from the Depression.
Stephen D. Horton had planted seeds of separation as early as 1894, when the village of Peekskill had a population of less than ten thousand. Horton was Peekskill's president. ["President" was an archaic title used when villages incorporated. It was later dropped and replaced by the title of "Mayor."]
 Little was done about promoting the idea of independence, for four decades. In 1936, village president James Mackay, a Democrat, appointed a committee to draw up a city charter.
A year later the committee presented its proposed charter. Following an unsuccessful attempt to amend it, village trustees sent the charter to Albany, where the Legislature passed it. Gov. Herbert H. Lehman signed it, subject to its approval by the people of Peekskill. At a special vote held in 1938, 71% percent of Peekskill's voters approved the charter.
Opposition quickly surfaced. In a surprising about-face, Peekskill's Republican board of trustees now demanded sweeping changes in the charter. One amendment would take away voters' right to approve the annual city budget.
Although school budget approval by voters is common today, voter approval of a municipal budget, a holdover from colonial days, was an unusual arrangement in the 1930's.
Surprisingly, too, most members of the original charter committee caved in and came out for the amendments. So, too, did all of Peekskill's trustees. Even the influential Peekskill Evening Star, originally a charter proponent, now supported the amendments.
A few stalwarts formed an Advisory Committee to Protect the Charter, and continued to fight for the charter as written. A Committee for a New Charter opposed them. From this contest emerged the Citizens Non-Partisan Committee, with Chester A. Smith as its self-proclaimed head.
 In July 1939, Peekskill held a referendum on the proposed amendments. Only a third of those who voted so overwhelmingly the year before turned out. Nevertheless, 56% of those who voted were for leaving the charter as written.
In the municipal election campaign of 1939, the pro-charter Democrats and the anti-charter Republicans went head to head. Smith, a registered Republican, and his Non-Partisan Citizens Committee backed the Democratic slate, which won handily in the election on November 7.
Among the winners was 58-year-old James Mackay, former village president and now mayor-elect, and five Democratic candidates for the Common Council. With the defeat of the Republicans, the opponents of the charter, Chester A. Smith and his Non-Partisan Citizens Committee, became a political force to be reckoned with for a decade.

Meet Chester Smith
Chester Allen Smith would have welcomed the title of "Mr. Peekskill"--if anyone had been enterprising enough to bestow it on him. Without question, he deserved it. His life was a latter-day Horatio Alger story. A Peekskill native, he was born on November 15, 1884, the son of Louis H. and Abbie Lent Smith. His father was a descendant of John Howell, who arrived in America on the Mayflower in 1620. His mother's great grandfather was Isaac Lent, who fought in the Revolution.
Chester Smith learned shorthand from his father, a teacher in Putnam and Westchester schools. He eventually attained a speed of 330 words per minute and became a public stenographer in Peekskill.
Early in 1907 he was appointed official court stenographer in the Ninth Judicial District of the State Supreme Court and worked there for 47 years until his retirement. During World War I, Chester Smith served with the U.S. Army as a field clerk in Virginia. He was a founding member of Peekskill's American Legion post.

Academic Honors
While working as a court stenographer, he attended Columbia College, graduating with a B.A. and General Honors in 1923. His essay entitled "The Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire" won him the Chandler Prize in History. The following year he earned an M.A. His thesis was titled "Church and State in Maryland, 1760 to 1776," a study of the role it played in creating the Constitution's doctrine of the separation of church and state.
Chester Smith was a member of Peekskill's United Methodist Church and, beginning in 1916, represented the church at conferences for almost fifty years. But he could also be combative and a troublesome gadfly. As a believer in the peace movement, he once tried to have the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" removed from the Methodist hymnal.
Also a lifelong opponent of alcohol and cigarettes, he was years ahead of his time in pointing out the dangers of tobacco and smoking. He would never sell a piece of real estate unless the buyer agreed that it would not be used in the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages. In 1933, he was an unsuccessful “Dry” candidate for a place on the New York delegation to ratify the 21st Amendment that repealed Prohibition.
One of his greatest contributions to Peekskill was the support he gave to the Field Library. In 1920 he headed a committee to purchase the former Second Presbyterian Church on South Street for the library, which was then located on Smith Street. He secured a donation of $25,000 from James B. Ford to renovate the building. Later, he gave the library a three-story fireproof addition, the Louis H. Smith Wing, in his father's memory.
Perhaps Chester Smith's most enterprising contribution to Peekskill was his Friendly Town Association, begun in 1920 as the Friendly Town Club. It was a one-man chamber of commerce.
Largely supported by contributions from him, the Association honored Peekskill citizens for outstanding service and marked historic sites with bronze tablets. Chester Smith also encouraged local citizens to donate land to the Association from which seven parks, totaling 20 acres, were created.

Opposition from Cortlandt
The Peekskill officials elected on November 7, 1939, never took office. From the outset, the Republican town board of Cortlandt was antagonistic to the idea of Peekskill becoming a city. The town board sued to invalidate the election.
After the charter and the election were upheld in the state supreme court and the appellate division, the town of Cortlandt stubbornly took the case to the court of appeals. That court overturned both the charter and the 1939 election on the technicality that proper legal notice had not been given before the 1938 vote approving the charter.
Undaunted, Chester Smith announced that he would make an end run by having the State Legislature confirm the charter. Myle J. Holley, Peekskill's village president since 1937, openly opposed the charter. Smith called for him to step down--which he did on January 13, 1940. For eight days Peekskill was without a president or mayor. D. Wiley Travis, Jr., another member of the Peekskill board of trustees, was named President on January 21, 1940.

Victory at Last
In the meantime, the bill that would have validated Peekskill's charter languished in the Legislature, awaiting a special message from Governor Lehman requesting its passage. Taking the bull by the horns, Chester Smith telephoned the governor in Albany and asked him to meet with a delegation from Peekskill. The governor agreed.
At their meeting on February 27, 1940, in the governor's office in Albany, Chester Smith pointed out that Cortlandt was standing in the way of Peekskill becoming a city. He asked Lehman to send a message to the Legislature requesting passage of the legislation that would make this a reality.
Ever the smooth politician, the governor demurred. "Go back and petition the Westchester board of supervisors again," Lehman told them.
Speaking for the group of four from Peekskill, Smith pointedly asked, "And if they deny the petition again, will you stand with us and ask the Legislature to pass the validating act?" The governor, a Democrat, made no reply, but Smith took his subtle smile as evidence of his agreement.
Again the Westchester board of supervisors turned down the Non-Partisan Citizens Committee's petition. Lehman sent his message to the Legislature, and the Legislature acted. Governor Lehman's signature on the bill marked the end of the city's long and painful birthing process. The town of Cortlandt had lost the costly litigious battle.
One hurdle remained: another election--this time on April 9, 1940. Again voters spoke loud and clear. James Mackay and the Democratic slate were again elected, some by impressive margins of two to one. Peekskill officially became a city on April 12, 1940.

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