Memory Lane

MEMORY LANE

CONNETQUOT, NEW YORK

Betty Kuss

Oakdale is fortunate in having residents, past and present, who are proud of and dedicated to local history.  We spoke with two such individuals, Sallie Kachel and Rhoda McManus, residents of the Idle Hour neighborhood of Oakdale.  When Rhoda was a teacher at the Idle Hour Elementary School, she incorporated local history into her curriculum because she felt that “children who knew the history and the relevance of where they lived would respect it more.” (1) Sallie, also a retired teacher, has volunteered for many years as a docent for the Connetquot River State Park. During our conversation with them about their memories of the area, they mentioned Betty Kuss, a name that has become synonymous with Oakdale local history.
We first heard of Betty years ago, when we were asked the local-history question, “Who is the Byron that Byron Lake was named after?” Being unable to find the answer by searching through books and newspapers, we turned to some long-time residents for assistance.  People had some theories on who Byron Lake was named after, but no one knew for sure. A couple of people remarked that Betty Kuss probably would have known the answer, but she had died.  It is disappointing that we did not have the opportunity to speak with Ms. Kuss about Byron Lake or any other local history topic. However, it has led us to the realization that Betty Kuss and her work are excellent topics for Memory Lane.


Elizabeth (Betty) Rhodes grew up on Colton Avenue in Sayville, where her father, George S. Rhodes, owned a lumber yard for decades.  In 1948 she married Donald J. Kuss, a Bohemia, New York, resident, and they settled in Oakdale. (2)  Donald Kuss first worked for his father-in-law’s lumber business, but would become an influential figure in politics in the Town of Islip.  Although Betty was not a politician, she was heavily involved in the community. She was the founder and chairperson of the Adelphi Historical Society. The society would change its name to the W.K. Vanderbilt Society when Adelphi University sold their Oakdale satellite campus to Dowling College. Beginning around 1964, Betty wrote a local history column titled “Early Oakdale” for the Suffolk County News.   The column was published for years and was successful in promoting local history. It also gave her the means to solicit photographs and information from Suffolk County News readers concerning Oakdale history.  A few years later, Betty and her husband divorced, but she remained in Oakdale and continued with her historically oriented publishing.  In 1983 she produced the first volume of her book Old Oakdale History.  It was a collection of local newspaper articles and hundreds of lithographs, photographs, and maps of Oakdale from 1869 to 1900.


Another one of Betty’s many accomplishments as the chairperson of the Vanderbilt Historical Society was working with the Town of Islip to establish a museum in the former home of the “Oyster King,” Jacob Ockers on Montauk Highway in Oakdale.  The museum, which was dedicated to the early settlers of Oakdale, opened in 1978 and consisted of objects that were donated, purchased, or salvaged.  Items in the museum included a photo of William Nicoll VII, an early set of brass post office boxes from the first Oakdale post office, and the 1836 tool box of David Brown, who managed the Ludlow Farm.   Betty, in her pursuit of preserving history, became an amateur archeologist, digging in the former garbage dumps of the estates to unearth historical artifacts.  One of the museum’s rooms contained hundreds of bottles that she and the younger members of the historical society excavated from the former dumping ground for the W.K. Vanderbilt estate. There was also a Victorian toy room, which housed a collection of toys she saved by going through a landfill where “trash” from the attic of a Victorian home had been dumped.  And she did more than just dig in landfills; she also dove into Long Island waters.  She felt that shipwrecks and the artifacts they contained were being overlooked and needed to be investigated. In order to do this, in the late 1960s and early 70s she chartered boats to take groups of historical society members and professional divers to search out and explore Long Island shipwrecks.


Some of Betty’s most significant projects were not only concerned with preserving history, but also the environment.  In 1971 she became involved in a battle to save the headwaters of the Connetquot River from a proposal to build an industrial park near the site.  Betty compiled a series of articles published in the Suffolk County News titled “How Do You Replace a River?”  The series won her the New York Press Association Award for community service in 1972.  Her interest in the Connetquot River State Park led to her formation of the organization Y.O.U. (Your Organization United), an environmental coalition. She was also the co-founder of the Friends of Connetquot, which she formed to protest the proposal by the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historical Preservation to turn the club house of the South Side Sportsmen’s Club into a bed and breakfast.  The Oakdale Chamber of Commerce membership voted Betty Kuss Citizen of the Year in 1980.  She was cited for her involvement in historical and environmental projects not only in Oakdale, but also in the Town of Islip and Suffolk County.


Betty’s interest in Oakdale, in particular the Friends of Connetquot, continued even after she moved from Oakdale to Sagaponack around 2000.  In a letter sent to the Suffolk County News editor, she thanked Rick Lazio for securing a federal grant to put a sprinkler system in the main building. She said that this would allow her to bring the South Side Sportsman’s Club historical collection, which she started in 1964, back home.  (3) This is the last mention of her activities.


Betty died on March 6, 2008 and is buried in St. Ann’s Cemetery in Sayville.  Her many contributions to the community include collecting historical artifacts, establishing a historical society and museum, and preserving the Connetquot River State Park from development.  She also wrote a book and a newspaper column about Oakdale history. However, one of her greatest attributes was her ability to spark an interest in local history for others.  She wanted to get people thinking about and preserving local history, which she clearly accomplished.

  1. Artist Colony [Personal interview with Rhoda McManus]. (2016, October).
  2. Kuss-Rhodes. (1948, March 13). Suffolk County News. Retrieved November 22, 2016, Fultonhistory.com.
  3. Letters to the Editor. (2000, October 26). Suffolk County News, 15. Retrieved November 22, 2016, from Futltonhistory.com.

 

Sallie Kachel & Rhoda McManus Interview