5 Questions with Cynthia Curtis, president, North Salem Historical Society

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Image courtesy of Cynthia Curtis

"5 Questions With" is an occasional series that introduces influential and interesting people in North Salem.


How did you come to call North Salem your home?
In 1976 Frank (my then husband-to-be) and I were looking for a place to call home and be within commuting distance of Manhattan where we both worked. A quick process of elimination directed us up the rail line to upper Westchester where we were hoping to settle and raise a family. We both fell in love with a somewhat dilapidated older home that had lots of charm, character and history, but needed a tremendous amount of work. Guess you could say we were young and foolish because to this day we are still working on that house! But, we love it, we raised our three children here and now we enjoy visits with our grandchildren in our home in Croton Falls.

What is your role here in town?
After our daughter Lauren was born, I decided not to return to Manhattan and instead turned my attention to being a mom and getting to know our neighbors and this town. A neighbor talked us into attending a local historical society event in Croton Falls and from that moment I was hooked! Not too long after that I started attending town board meetings to observe, and eventually got up the nerve to ask that improvements be made in Croton Falls. Front Street was two-way, parking was parallel and most folks just double-parked in front of the post office. It was amazing that it worked, sort-of, but definitely needed improvements. One morning someone triple-parked and I sat in my car waiting for him to get his mail, get back in his car and reopen the roadway! I went to the town not with a complaint but with a drawn-out plan of how the Front Street area might function better with one way traffic and turned parking. After that, the town board asked me to volunteer to serve on a committee to obtain grants for Croton Falls and help envision an improved hamlet area.

I spent the next decade working with town board members and Drew Outhouse, highway superintendent, to develop the Croton Falls renovation project. That work taught me that I would never be interested in serving on anything but the local level. Two sets of plans with two separate engineers, three levels of grants, Federal, State and County, plus local money, throw in two major utility companies…what a complex project just to have some sidewalks, parking and landscaping done. But, it was worth it.

Also, in the early ‘80s, the town board appointed me to the newly formed historic preservation committee. We wrote the local historic preservation law and formed the first commission. I started to appreciate more the interesting history of this town. By 1985 I also became a trustee of the historical society.

From historic preservation committee I was appointed to the planning board (4 years), then elected to the town board (15 years) and then back on the planning board in 2008 where I continue to serve as the chair. When I was a council-woman I was liaison to the library and later served as one of their trustees. I also became a trustee of the improvement society in the ‘80s, at times serving as president. Today I am president of the historical society and co-president of the improvement society.

What should people understand about the work that you do?
What I enjoy the most about the historical society is doing research. It has gotten so much easier because of the internet giving access to documents all across the country - even Europe and Asia (did you know that the Emperor of Japan sent a Yew bush to President Grant and remnants of the original are still thriving here in North Salem?) I recently learned that from a query to myself and town historian Susan Thompson; we work closely together and that makes it so much easier and enjoyable! It’s very rewarding to find a person’s connection to someone who lived in North Salem one, two or three hundred years ago. Find the original deed to their home or even a picture from an old newspaper.

My work on the planning board is a lot more involved. Aside from reviewing and approving applications for subdivisions and developments, we also make recommendations to the town board for code changes. I also assist with stormwater reporting and regulatory questions. I enjoy my visits to Town Hall - we all help each other out and we get to interact with a lot of townspeople. Helping people is the best – whether it is navigating your way through the town’s code book or the GIS maps to understand more about what’s permitted or not, to pointing folks in the right direction to deal with an issue.

Can you share a funny story from your time in this position?
I probably shouldn’t confess this one, but I did try to venture across the Titicus Reservoir valley with a friend when the water was drained, and it appeared that you could do so without incident. Wrong! Don’t ever try it. Of course, today it would be illegal.

We were trying to find remnants of the original stone walls that defined the properties. It’s like quicksand! We dropped to our knees, then went flat, but we couldn’t stop laughing, and of course that meant we sunk even more. And then this deer came prancing across right in front of us. How could he do that?! I envisioned the headlines: “President of the Historical Society and Town Board Member Rescued from the Middle of the Titicus!” We never made it that far and managed to crawl back out safely. Again, never, ever try it!

What do you feel makes our town so special?
Glad you used that word, “special.” For my election campaigns years ago two friends designed a logo for me – North Salem, A Special Place – and I had it printed on hats and tote bags that I still see being used by friends all over town. (I just gave one of the few hats that I have left to Susie Thompson.) That’s been a driving force for my volunteer work; this town is a special place and it is so worth keeping that way.

In 1985 when I first went on the planning board, they had just adopted the 1985 Master Plan. I was very involved in writing the zoning ordinance that carried out the vision of that plan and remains the vision we have today for North Salem – to preserve the special character of this town. We are small in size and population and have such a diverse community. Our little hamlet areas are special, our open spaces and trails are really special, our parks and playing fields, our volunteers – especially our emergency crews, fire and ambulance, police and highway. When you stop at a little shop to buy a coffee or pick up lunch most likely you know everyone in the room. We are a special community. It takes a lot of work to keep it this way, but everyone pitches in to make that happen.

Anything else you'd like to add?
I hope I can keep this up! The best thing I/we can do for the town now is to pass on our knowledge to the next generation of volunteers who will one day take our place. At the historical society we have a wonderful group of volunteers who are doing just that – we all pitch in and help each other. We also keep in touch with the school district and try to encourage them to send students our way, not only to learn about North Salem’s past but to become involved with research and projects. We are all replaceable but it is better if you first take the time to pass on what you know and help teach/guide others who will learn (sometimes from your mistakes) and keep North Salem - A Special Place!

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