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Treasuring Past Shapes An Historian's Future 

An historical tour of Shrub Oak is exciting if your guide is White Plains historian Renoda Hoffman. Her descendants settled the area, building homes on Main Street, Stoney Street, Glen Road and James Street.

Hoffman's main ancestors, descended from the Ferris family of Shrub Oak, started with Jeffrey Ferris who came over from England in 1632.

John James, Hoffman's great-great grandfather, lived on the corner of Main and Stoney streets.

Hoffman is not a shrinking violet. Deep down, she's tough and persevering, in spite of an aura of old world gentility.

"I always wanted to be related to Jesse James," she said, not disappointed that John James was thought to be illegitimate.

Her grandmother and grandfather, Elizabeth Ferris and Gustave Brown, lived on Stoney Street and Glen Road, where they raised 13 children, including her father, Alonzo.

She noted her grandmother routinely fed the area's legendary "Leather Man," a character dressed head to toe in leather who lived in caves around what is now the Taconic State Parkway area.

Her grandfather, Gus Brown, was an itinerant worker who traveled around fixing watches. He'd even deliver the Sunday paper to the wealthy summer people who lived around Lake Mahopac.

In 1893, they presented a gift to Gus Brown - tickets, hotel reservation and enough money to visit the Columbian World's Fair in Chicago, an event he dreamed of attending, but never thought he could.

Her aunt Lena (Helena Brown) was born in a house on New Street. She married the superintendent of one of the iron factories in Peekskill, Harry S. Gwynne, related to the Vanderbilts.

Owning a car was one thing when cars first came out, driving it was something else. Rules and regulations for moving vehicles, including a driver's license, were as yet unheard of circa 1910.

Hoffman's uncle, Charlie James, forgot how to stop his brand new car, driving it into the garage and out the rear wall. Both James and Hoffman's father treasured this anecdote and repeated it often.

Despite his brother-in-law's hapless automobile incident as a young man, Hoffman's father, Alonzo, went into the hacking or taxi business in Peekskill.

He also took a week's job with Ajax, a strong man who was performing at the Peekskill Theatre, putting a board across his chest, then inviting six or seven people to stand on it.

However, the main trick in the act was to keep a car from taking off. The strong man held ropes attached to the car like reins. To keep from being dragged off the stage, he was also tied with rope attached to a hook firmly anchored in the stage floor.

"Dad would start the car, the momentum lifted the rear wheels off the floor, spinning, wildly, but the strong man was able to hold the car," Hoffman related, having heard the story from her father, although the event took place long before she was born.

"One day, my dad, hurrying to the theatre, had a flat tire. Not having time to change the tire and still get to the theatre on time, he kept on going. He drove onto the stage, but the trick was doomed. The rear wheels would not raise from the floor, and the car not only wanted to go forward, it did. The car and Ajax went flying off the stage."

Born in Peekskill at their house on James Street, Renoda Brown was only 9 months old when her father moved the family to White Plains in 1920, although she returned to Peekskill and Shrub Oak every summer of her youth, visiting her large family.

A quiet man, but a lot of fun, Alonzo now had a steady mob working for a clothier. Who would have dreamed that his daughter would become the historian for the City of White Plains in 1970?

Channel 34 in White Plains has begun a series of Renoda Hoffman's historic photographs and commentary.

"I like the idea of doing a television series on the changing face of White Plains," she said. "I have hundreds of photographs that people can enjoy while learning about White Plains as it used to be."

"Round and About Broadway" was her first televised show, shown every Monday in December. Next, with the date to be announced, is "And Tehen Came the Galleria," recreating the City of White Plains before it underwent a massive facelift. The Galleria opened in August, 1980, part of the urban renewal project that cost $100 million.

Encouraged by the success of her previous books, It Happened in White Plains, and Yesterday in White Plains, she'd even consider And Then Came the Galleria as the basis for a third book.

"I'm looking for an angel who has $25,000 to help publish it," Hoffman commented.

The author/historian came upon her new-found career in her later years.

"I was just a housewife until 1960, happy and content with my family, never volunteering for things," she said.

However, she did take a part-time job in 1947 to help out her neighbor who was principal of Purchase Elementary School. Working as a school secretary for a few hours a week for many years turned out to be her life saver.

Married almost 23 years to Howard C. Hoffman, known as "Pete," an engineer with the City of White Plains, she recalled, "Pete was the talker - more socially adept. Through him, we knew a lot of people," she said.

When he taught radio at night school (now kown as adult education), she took dressmaking.

"We were very close; I was very shy and retiring. If I heard someone lecture to a group, my immediate thought was, 'I couldn't do that'."

Aware that her husband was desperately ill in 1960, Hoffman revamped a viable future for maintaining their home and educating their son. To that end, she became a full-time school secretary at Purchase School, a job she held for 30 years, retiring in 1977.

When Pete died in 1960, Hoffman was crushed by his death, soldiering on seemed to be the only way to assuage her grief. It was this job that led to her commitment to the history of White Plains.

In 1961, Mary Andrews, a local photographer, presented a slide lecture at the school. Hoffman assisted by fitting slides into the projector, making sure each one was the right one for Andrews' commentary.

After working with Andrews on several slide programs, Hoffman sensed a reawakening of her fascination for history. Subsequently, Andrews invited her to join the Westchester County Historical Society. Before long, Hoffman was invited to be a trustee.

"I didn't know if I could do it!" she remembered, noting that Andrews told her to "Take it!"

The Westchester County Historical Society was run by volunteers in the '60s, albeit professionals such as doctors, lawyers, teachers and college professors. Hoffman, who had never attended college, was an exception.

However, they took her under their wing, teaching her the rudiments of running the county historical society and much about local history.

She remembers being terrified at giving her first report, but mustered up the courage at a full board meeting, thanks to the encouragement of her fellow volunteers.

In 1977, she became the society's first woman president in its 103rd year of existence, a post she held for three years, until 1980. She was asked, in 1964, to edit the society's quarterly publication, a popular booklet entitled, "The Historian," ordered by history buffs throughout the U.S.

That meant "do the whole darn thing," Hoffman recalled.

However, retired Army Colonel Louis Frohman, a local photographer and member of Westchester County Historical Society (WCHS), offered his help. Together, they put out two editions before he laid the project in her hands for the next 20 years.

In 1984, Hoffman ended her tenure as editor of "The Historian," turning it over to younger volunteers because she was writing books, co-founding the White Plains Historical Society and restoring the interior of Washington's Headquarters, known as the Purdy House, at 60 Park Avenue, White Plains, mostly at her own expense.

As editor of "The Historian," Hoffman became known to historians all over the United States for the integrity of the writing and the little known but relevant history she unearthed, according to fellow historians throughout Westchester County.

During her stint as editor, Hoffman was appointed historian of White Plains. Her salary for the task, to which she was appointed in 1970 by then-Mayor Richard Hendey, was zero.

She remembered Hendey as being less than supportive, telling her upon announcement of her appointment in 1970, "Now you run along and do whatever historians do." That included paying for everything herself, except stationery. Today she has a budget that cannot exceed $1,500.

A city administrator telephoned her just as 1990 was coming to an end.

"Renoda, you know they cut back on your budget!" he said.

He was floored by the ire of this gentle lady who has learned how to defend the world of local history.

According to Renoda, he was taken aback, and replied, "Hold it, take it easy! Renoda, we'll work on your budget!"

What does a historian do?

"History is our business," said Hoffman. "It's done in different ways. There are no rules for us."

A historian does anything that would be connected to a city's history with a date on it, even a little memento, like an old-fashioned dance invitation.

Hoffman is a great record keeper, using acid-free paper to mount newspaper articles, including obituaries in voluminous scrapbooks. Old newspapers like The Daily Argus, The Daily Reporter and The Daily Record supply priceless memorabilia for her scrapbooks, merging with current events in White Plains.

Together, she said, they form a complete history that is supplemented by hundreds, maybe thousands, of slides she has taken of every block of the city.

A card table in her living room has scissors, paste, newspapers neatly stacked and a scrapbook ready to be filled. The wonder is that she's up to date and ready to clip and paste tomorrow's news about people and events in White Plains.

About five years ago, she got permission to store her records in a small space in the White Plains Library, including her assessment books for the village of White Plains dating back to the 1870s. They list everybody's name, address and what they paid in taxes.

She also rescued a lot of things from the village court, old summonses, judges' summations or verdicts, and what the guilty had to pay.

In addition, she found a huge file in the old civilian defense building that contained legal papers from the 1860s to the 1900s, past records from the city that were never catalogued, but are now safe.

Hoffman has archives at White Plains Library and is trying to get an archivist to work on school records that go back to the last century. They contain dates, names, and addresses that are supplemented by high school yearbooks from 1898 to the 1930s.

Hoffman has been able to write two books, hold the office of president of the Westchester County Historical Society and edit its publication "The Historian," and co-found the White Plains Historical Society while holding the office of White Plains historian.

Proceeds from the sale of Yesterday in White Plains and It Happened in White Plains are donated to the historic Jacob Purdy House, owned by the City of White Plains.

As vice-president of the White Plains Historical Society since 1984, Hoffman immediately put the complete restoration of the Purdy House on her agenda, regardless of the expense.

Last year, General Washington's headquarters (1776 and 1778) at 60 Park Avenue, known as the Purdy House, was finally restored at a cost of more than $100,000, with $47,000 toward the restoration of the interior from the sale of Hoffman's first book, Yesterday in White Plains, and an additional $25,000 from IBM. The City of White Plains paid for the exterior restoration.

Hoffman's books are sold at White Plains Public Library, but word-of-mouth creates an astounding number of sales. Book stores take 40% of all sales, while Hoffman's method assures that 100% of the proceeds from her book sales will go toward the restoration of Purdy House.

Hoffman, it seems, cannot be filed and categorized like historical minutia - she's always looking toward tomorrow to learn something about yesterday.

Source: Kathy Grantham, North County News, January 16 - 22, 1991