Suffolk Closeup: A history lesson on Suffolk


The Suffolk County Historical Society kicked off its 130th anniversary late last month with a presentation by historian and former county executive, Peter Fox Cohalan, who, with remarkable detail, humor and some unvarnished commentary, spoke about the many changes Suffolk has seen through the years.

The county began as “East Riding of Yorkshire” and, the historian noted, “from there morphed into” Suffolk County in 1683, one of the 12 original counties in the Province of New York. Even after independence, when the province became a state, Suffolk was “the only county never to be subdivided.”

By the middle of the 20th century, with intense development occurring in western Suffolk, Hauppauge became the de facto county center, even though Riverhead had been the county seat — and still is — since 1727. With 50,000 residents in 1880, Suffolk began spiking in population by the mid-20th century.

There were 660,000 residents in 1960 and 1.2 million in 1980. Currently, Suffolk boasts a population of 1.5 million residents. Mr. Cohalan commented that “over-population” is now a top county problem and is the cause of the deterioration of the Great South Bay in his hometown of Islip.

Mr. Cohalan spoke of the subsequent drive in the 1960s and 1970s for secession of the five East End towns from Suffolk and their formation into a Peconic County, which is, for now, on the “back burner.”
With the change in Suffolk’s population, the composition of what had been the county’s governing body — the centuries-old Suffolk County Board of Supervisors — was challenged in court in the 1960s for violating the one-person-one-vote concept.

The vote of the supervisor of Shelter Island, with a population of 1,300, according to the 1960 census, had the same weight as that of the supervisor of Islip, with 173,000 people.

Mr. Cohalan related how, in 1979, he challenged the incumbent Suffolk County executive, John V.N. Klein, in a Republican primary. He went for an appearance on Shelter Island where Supervisor Evans K. Griffing was a leader of the Peconic County drive. Mr. Griffing had “played basketball together with my father in the 1920s,” Mr. Cohalan said, with Mr. Griffing on a Shelter Island team, and his father, John P. Cohalan Jr., on one from Islip.

That relationship affected the reception for him when he came politicking to the Island. Mr. Griffing, he said, referred to him before the assembled group of Islanders as “the kid,” declaring, “I want you to vote for the kid.”

After being elected county executive, Mr. Cohalan said he telephoned Mr. Griffing and asked the secession-minded supervisor, “What can I do for Shelter Island?” Mr. Griffing, he said, told him: “Don’t come back.”

And each time he planned to visit the Island as county executive, he said he called Mr. Griffing who would tell him, “Just this once.”

Today, with the East End having lost the clout it once had in Suffolk government, Mr. Cohalan said, “I hope the East End towns never surrender their local police departments.”

Suffolk County “is a great place to live, it has so much to offer” and there are “so many stories to tell,” said Mr. Cohalan. Some stories are far from positive. The ways in which “the Caucasians arrived” and acquired land for miniscule payments from the native Indian population was reprehensible. “The English and the Dutch were really rotten,” said Mr. Cohalan bluntly. He spoke of the Suffolk County Republican chairman in 1925 who was also the Suffolk County leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Being a Catholic was a problem politically here for many years. Mr. Cohalan noted that his father’s successful run for Suffolk D.A. in 1957 was unusual for a Catholic.

In closing, the historian said it’s vital we “get together and spread the message” of the importance of history. “It is incumbent on us that the people who come after us be given the opportunity to learn what came before them,” Mr. Cohalan said. He urged involvement with, and support of, the Suffolk County Historical Society.

The Society is housed in Riverhead  in a building at 300 West Main Street which, naturally, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It operates a history museum, where 20,000 artifacts are cared for, a library and archives and offers educational programs, events and marvelous exhibits.

It’s worth a visit to stop in and experience our shared heritage.