When it comes to preserving local history, Jack Smith has paved the way — literally.
After he retired from his teaching job of more than 30 years, Smith was free to do whatever he wanted.
But rather than just relax at home and take up a hobby, the passionate 66-year-old founded the Cumsewogue Historical Society instead, which has been integral in keeping the vast history of its surrounding communities in the forefront.
“I started to research the history of the area and realized there was quite a bit here,” Smith said in an interview. “So why not start a historical society? There’s a lot here and I thought it would be a fun thing to do.”
Smith even maintained the original Algonquin spelling of Comsewogue for the society; Cumsewogue loosely translates to “the place where many paths meet.”
For all his work in bridging the gap between the past and present for the Port Jefferson area and beyond, Smith is a 2016 Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.
Mike Eiermann, the Cumsewogue Historical Society treasurer, called Smith a true “mover and shaker” in the community during an interview.
“We have to try to keep up with him,” Eiermann said. “He’s very dedicated, very knowledgeable and is fully invested in what he does.”
As president and founder of the historical society, which was formed in 2008 and has about 30 members, Smith has accomplished a lot.
He and the group went to great lengths to preserve the old Terryville Union Hall as their main headquarters in the time following the society’s inception. Built in 1887, the union hall stands as the last historical building in Terryville, and Smith convinced local legislators to buy it and obtain funding for interior restoration. Now several showcases dedicated to local historical industries are inside the building, for example, the Porter automobile factory.
There are also roughly 120 vintage photographs of the community on display.
Smith established Heritage Day, a beloved event that exposes students from Comsewogue elementary schools to historical artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and demonstrates what life was like in the community then.
Smith said the program helps give students the unique opportunity to not only learn about the community’s history but also to see, touch and experience what life was like “before all the housing developments and shopping malls.”
But perhaps Smith and the historical society’s greatest achievement so far came in October when the Gentlemen’s Driving Park — the last Victorian-era harness racing track on Long Island where Terryville bettors once gathered to watch horses “race in heats” — officially opened to the public after several years of work to resurrect the nearly forgotten historical site.
The opening was attended by more than 100 people and served as a testament to Smith’s dedication to his cause. He discovered a faint outline of the horse track from a satellite image on Google Earth after hearing about its existence off Canal Road, visited the leaf-covered path in the woods with his wife Pam, and ultimately reached out to then Brookhaven Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld and other council members about acquiring the entire 11-acre plot, clearing the overgrown path, and actively working to restore the track as close to the original 1880s footprint as possible.
“I am proud that our society has been able to preserve so much of our history that came perilously close to being lost,” Smith said.
He also uncovered various artifacts surrounding the track, including a pair of field glasses where the finish line was on the track, as well as a ticket to a race at the Gentlemen’s Driving Park on July 4, 1892, which is now on display at the historical society’s headquarters.
Without Smith, the horse track and its history would certainly have been erased, according to Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell.
“He was very diligent in doing the research and finding all the information he could on the track and he’s been that way with all of his endeavors,” she said.
Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), who worked alongside Smith to restore the track, said in an email statement Smith’s work in the community makes him more than deserving of the Person of the Year honor.
“His passion, meticulous care and diplomacy are appreciated by all who know him,” Cartright said. “His efforts to create and implement the annual Heritage Day, his comprehensive background and the lectures he gives at the library and his work and research to preserve the track are all done to celebrate the history of our community. I’ve had the privilege of knowing [him] both personally and professionally for many years.”
Smith said his love of history can be traced back to when he was in fifth grade, where his younger self first took an interest in consuming maps and all things geography related. He went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in history and master’s in special education, which would be utilized at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, where he taught high school students from 1974 until 2005.
It was there he met his wife Pamela, a secretary at the school. She said they didn’t realize it at first but the two actually grew up around the block from one another in Centereach and even went to the same high school.
She said her husband is “very caring and extremely interested in helping the community.” History, including his own personal history, is a part of his daily life.