THE BOROUGHS OF BROOKLYN AND QUEENS
COUNTIES OF NASSAU AND SUFFOLK, LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK
1609-1924 by HENRY ISHAM HAZELTON

ROCKVILLE CENTRE

Rockville Centre as a name was used first in 1854. In 1850 there was only about six houses in the village. Before that time the territory had formed a part of Near Rockaway, now East Rockaway. Robert Pettit bought from Stephen R. Wiggins the property on the south side of Merrick Road between Village and Lincoln Avenues and built a store. That was about 1850. Before that time the property had belonged to the DeMott family, and at one time it was occupied by a tavern. Having the store, Mr. Pettit sought the postmastership, but it was necessary to fix the name. Smithville was chosen in honor of Rev. Mordecai Smith, who owned a large farm comprised within the boundaries of Village avenue on the east, Merrrick Road on the south, and the Long Island Railroad tracks on the north and west, although the road had not been built. Smithville was not accepted since there was another post office by that name. Smithtown fared no better, when it occurred to someone that Mr. Smith was nicknamed Rock Smith and Rockville was accepted. It was common (as stated) to differentiate the Smiths by such names as Bull Smith, Nants, Blue and Rock. And there had been a Rock Smith in Hempstead continuously for 200 years. Centre was added to differentiate the place from other Rockvilles.

The old Methodist church was organized as early as 1792. It was built on land given by Isaac Denton, and was a cheap wooden affair, 20 x 30 feet in size. It stood west of Ocean Avenue just across from Trial Inn. David and Michael DeMott and Samuel Osborn were appointed trustees of "the house called at Near Rockaway for the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Rev. William Phoebus was the first pastor, and the church was a part of the Jamaica and Rockaway Circuit." It has been regarded as the third Methodist Church erected on Long Island. In 1854 the men who plotted the first real estate development in Rockville Centre gave ground for a parsonage.

After the dedication of this first "meeting house," the Rev. Benjamin Abbott was appointed to the circuit. For 15 years, beginning in 1810, the church was connected with "the Jamaica Circuit" then until 1836 with the Hempstead Circuit and until 1842 with the Jamaica and Rockaway Circuit. In 1825, the church was rebuilt; in 1849, when the Rev. "Rock" Smith was pastor, it was enlarged and remodeled.

In 1869, with the advent of the railroad, the new impetus caused a large number of those who attended the "Old Church" to conclude that the time had come to organize a Methodist Episcopal church in each of the villages.

E. T. Thurston, pioneer druggist in the village, who in 1917 wrote a history of St. Mark's, says the plan was to retain the old building for funerals and reunions. "Many, however, resented this," said Mr. Thurston, "and decided to remain. Then followed a religious feud, famous for its bitterness and legal complications." Conference officials were in sympathy with the movement for division and soon commanded it. The meeting for the organization of the present St. Mark's was held on June 21, 1870. Those present included Rev. John B. Merwin, the presiding elder; the Rev. Charles Kelsey, the pastor, William Davison, Benjamin Pearsall, Nathaniel Combs, Robert A. Davison, Oliver P. Davison and Wright Pearsall. After the organization, with St. Mark's in Rockville Centre, St. James' at Pearsall's Corners and the "Old Church" as constituted circuit, the Rev. Charles Kelsey became the preacher in charge.

Services were begun in a roughly constructed building on the west side of Banks Avenue near the Merrick Road, known as the Tabernacle. In 1871 the Rev. Charles P. Corner became the minister in charge of the young churches, St. Marks and St. James. The Mother church was severed from the parent body and was organized as the First Methodist Protestant Church, with the Rev. R. S. Hulsart as pastor.

As an incorporated body St. Marks Methodist Episcopal church has been in existence since May 21, 1900. The Rev. John J. Foust became its first pastor under the incorporation, serving four years from 1902. Other pastors have been the Rev. Wilbur E. Schoonhoven, 1906, serving four years; the Rev. William G. Coffin, 1910, serving two years; George Ellsworth Bishop, 1912, and the Rev. Dr. Richard Hegarty who took charge in 1916. The Campbell Memorial organ was presented by Caroline Campbell. A Men's Association and Bible class was formed in Mr. Bishop's pastorate.

In 1832 there were several stores, besides the postoffice, three hotels, three churches, still the weekly newspaper which had changed its name to "The South Side Observer," a wheelwright shop, a paint shop, a blacksmith shop, a drug store, a tin shop and a factory where fifteen persons were employed and where hand and machine knitting, hammock making, also tropical beds, schoolbags, fly-nets for horses and other things were manufactured.

In 1854 Mordecai Smith's farm was bought by several men and cut into building lots. This was the first real estate development. An advertisement of the property and a map were filed in the county clerk's office. The advertisement closes by saying: "The Rockaway Bay, renowned for its abundance of game and shell fish of all kinds lies within less than a mile from the village. The property is partly improved, a postoffice being already established and stages passing three or four times to and from the City of New York. Gentlemen wishing a country seat will find it to their interest to secure lots in said village." The only improvement on the stages to New York was to take a sailing vessel which made a weekly trip from East Rockaway.

In 1868, John P. Rhodes having disposed of the Smith farm, bought the farm of Israel Wright lying north of the first, and laid it out in building lots. The first buyers appear to have been a group of retired sea captains from Maine who were no insignificant part of the added population the first few years. The railroad coming in 1867 brought more inhabitants, and commuters began to live in Rockville Centre and do business in New York. In 1924 the majority of the residents were commuters in one way or another.

The Eureka Hook-Ladder & Bucket Company, organized September 25, 1875, with John R. Sprague as foreman, was the first in the village. It had a hand-drawn ladder-wagon built by C. H. Losea, the local wheelwright. The Live Oak Engine Company followed with a hand pumping engine, using the driven wells as a source of water. With the laying of water mains, the hand pumping engine was displaced by hydrant pressure which could be maintained for any length of time.

When the seeds of the Roman Catholic faith were planted in Rockville Centre six little families gathered to worship in a blacksmith shop where the first Mass was celebrated along in 1887. From that day until 1924 the seeds have increased more than a hundred fold. A two-story building erected at a cost of $100,000 stands in the rear of the grammar school, and St. Agnes parish enjoys a handsome church on College Place. At first Bishop Loughlin of Brooklyn permitted the Re. Father Connell of Rockaway Beach to officiate occasionally; but in the summer of 1888, Father Robinson took charge of the little flock. He was a Paulist from Fifty-ninth Street, Manhattan, on sick leave. He ministered to the parish until 1889 when he returned to New York. After that Father Maguire came every Sunday from Hewletts to celebrate the Mass. The blacksmith shop was forsaken and services were held in Gildersleeve's Hall in the Institute Building on Village Avenue. Father Maguire remained until 1891 and died soon after taking leave.

The village of Rockville Centre was incorporated in the summer of 1893, and the trustees held their first meeting in the house of Edwin W. Wallace on August 26. He was the grandfather of Edwin W. Wallace, member of the assembly. John Lyon was elected village president, and Edwin Wallace, Glentworth D. Combes and Edwin D. Seabury were chosen trustees. The board appointed W. H. Connell village clerk. George R. Mount was the first street commissioner. The Board of Health consisted of Alexander Davison, C. E. Gritman, and H. R. Williams. Nelson L. Seaman was treasurer and C. A. Spedick, tax collector. Joseph A. Shelly, was appointed the first patrolman, at $10 a week. The tax rate was $0.35 per thousand. The village water supply system was established as a municipal plant by public vote in 1895 and the electric light plant was added in 1897.

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The Village of Rockville Centre

Transcribed and Edited© Linda Pearsall Harvey