Jun 06, 2014 Tami Scott Uncategorized
How does a math and science college major and retired school nurse/teacher become a town historian?
The link is genealogy.
“History was not my big subject,” said Marilyn Breakey, 74. “But in the late 1970s, I got into genealogy and I thought ‘that looks like fun.’ Well ‘that looks like fun’ turned into a 45-year career!”
Breakey was appointed town historian for Van Buren in January and has spent the first part of the year sorting and organizing. She recently inventoried all the files and is in the process of tackling the reference section. Her next project includes sifting through one full drawer of undocumented, unidentified photos, of which she said there could easily be up to 300. She has already found homes for two pictures of a rural school called Prattham.
“I went online, researched it — turns out [the school’s] in Mexico,” Breakey said. “I got rid of two of them!”
While Breakey describes herself as an organizational nut, it’s the time spent learning about the populace that she loves best.
“I’m more interested in talking to the people,” she said. “If someone has some interesting memories passed down from their parents by people here in Van Buren, I would love to hear from them. All they have to do is call the town clerk’s number and she will get the information to me and I’ll get back to them.”
Breakey recently interviewed a 92-year-old woman who was a student in one of the old rural school districts here. She graduated from Oswego in 1943, then a degree-granting Oswego State Teachers College.
“I want to know what the memories are,” she said.
Prior to becoming the town historian, Breakey did some intensive research about the conifer logging community in the Adirondacks. Consequently, she wrote an article that was published in Quarterly, a magazine published by the St. Lawrence County Historical Association.
She then volunteered her time filing alongside Lysander town historian Bonnie Kisselstein and became interested in the old local theatres.
“It started with two movie lobby posters that led to five volumes of the Showtime Collection,” Breakey said. “I wanted to know what the people were seeing and what the people were doing.”
Her first volume focuses on the Orpheum, which was located on the south side of West Genesee Street.
“It’s more like a cultural study of what was going on in theatres, what the people were doing, [there’s] a lot of genealogy in it,” she said.
The Orpheum includes a DVD of one of the last silent films shown there.
The second volume she wrote centers on the former Howard Opera House, where Pizza Man Pub is currently located. The third volume is on the Grange Theater, fourth is the Palace Theater and the last is about other entertainment, particularly the circuses that came to Baldwinsville in the late 1890s.
“The whole set, primarily the first four, are an interesting look at how the movies changed, the role of the women … that’s [the research] I did.”
The entire collection can be found in the local history and genealogy department of the Baldwinsville Public Library.
A little bit on Breakey
When Breakey’s not hard at work as the town historian, she’s hard at play. The 74-year-old has a passion for painting and cycling, and was once an avid hiker. In 1996, she completed a long distance hike on the New York State Finger Lakes Trail that which she would walk in parts, mostly during vacations. She was a hiking coordinator for elder hostel programs in Corning, and also an educational guide at Beaver Lake Nature Center.
“My dad was from the Adirondacks as was his father and his father,” Breakey said. “I grew up there summers so I had a real thing with the outdoors and nature.”
Now in place of footpaths, she pedals for fun, mostly at Onondaga Lake Parkway. Her annual goal is to reach 400 to 500 miles a summer, biking four days a week or 100 miles a month.
Though she hasn’t painted yet this year, she said she wants to try her hand at something new: watercolors.
“Years ago, I started with oils and figured I didn’t have the time to wait for it dry,” she said, laughing. “So I switched to acrylics, primarily landscapes.”
Breakey also likes to garden.
“I have more interests than time,” she said. “It’s fun. If it’s fun, it’s good doing it.”
Her advice to those interested in tracing their roots? Start with yourself.
“So many [people] want to start three generations back. Nobody wants to begin with themselves and move backwards,” said Breakey, adding that charts for family trees can be found online. “Start with ‘me.’ Then go to your parents, then grandparents. Then you may be able to go online and start finding information on them. The important thing is to start with [yourself].”