Sullivan County Historical Society History Preserver Award 1997
James Burbank (1900 – 1975)
Like Manville Wakefield, James Burbank combined a strong interest in local history with impressive artistic talents. He left behind a diverse legacy which includes Fort Delaware, the official seal of the Sullivan County Community College and a reinvigorated Historical Society.
He was born April 22, 1900 in New York City, but when his mother died he and his brother were sent to Sullivan County to live with their grandparents in Fosterdale. From these early years developed his lifelong love of county history. His education concluded with eighth grade and in 1917 he enlisted in the Navy and embarked on a career which spanned three decades. He served on a number of different ships; at some point he had a Torpedoman’s rating, but towards the end of his career his specialty was photography. As he matured, his artistic interests surfaced and whenever shore duty provided the opportunity he took art courses at Pratt Institute. His work impressed the Navy and during his last years in the service he was attached to the Naval Recruiting Bureau designing posters and pamphlets. He retired as Chief Warrant Officer in 1948. Also, during his navy days he married Josephine Woll from Brooklyn on May 16, 1931. They had one daughter, Mrs. Margaret (Burbank) McIntyre, known as Peggy.
Burbank’s interest in history had several facets. One of them was genealogy. Early in his life Burbank became interested in learning more about his ancestors and was proud of their role in the growth of the republic. A John Burbank settled in Rowley, Massachusetts as part of that great Puritan migration from England in the 1630’s and there were Burbank ancestors who served in most of the nation’s wars. In 1971 as a result of his research he published a pamphlet entitled, “Jacob Durgin Burbank: His Ancestors and Descendants, 1600-1971.” He also published research on his mother’s family: the Scotts.
Another area of interest was the Sullivan County Historical Society. After retiring from the Navy, he settled in Narrowsburg. He was appointed Sullivan County Historian September 16, 1948 and by the next year the Society’s records indicate that he took the lead in reconstituting the Sullivan County Historical Society which had become inactive during the Second World War. Newspaper articles invited interested persons to attend a meeting on April 12, 1949 to renew the Society. That spring Burbank was appointed Chairman of the committee to draft a proposed Constitution and a set of By-Laws for the Society and was also named Chairman of the Nominating Committee to propose the slate for the first Board of Directors.
His energy led him in different directions. During the 1950’s he observed that the Catskill Game Farm and the North Pole were effective in attracting visitors to their areas. He believed that the colonial history of this area would be of similar interest and decided to build a colonial fort just north of Narrowsburg to be called Fort Delaware in honor of a similar fort on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River whose location has been lost. Stock in the venture was sold and the fort was built. It was in operation from 1957 to 1970, but never prospered financially. Fortunately, the county stepped in and purchased the fort which remains today an important county attraction.
Another ambitious project in which he invested a lot of time was that of developing a cemetery atlas of Sullivan County which would list everyone buried in Sullivan County cemeteries with particular reference to any person who served in the military forces of the United States. He thought this research would be of great assistance to future genealogists. Alas, this work has been lost. A more successful venture entailed a photographic record of the County. He wrote to the Town Historians and asked them to list the important places in their towns. He was then able to go to Albany and obtain the services of an official photographer to take pictures of these sites. The Society has many of these photographs in its archives.
Several people who knew Burbank have used the same word to describe him: meticulous. He made precise maps, wrote pamphlets on the county’s history and began imposing some order on the Society’s archives. He was active in the Chamber of Commerce and helped plan the annual participation in the Sportsman’s Show held in Grand Central Palace in New York City. Along with Fred Starck of Callicoon, he was one of two men from Western Sullivan appointed to be on the Board of Trustees of the newly formed Sullivan County Community College. He designed the college seal and took an active part in the search for a college site, but resigned in the late 1960’s because of disagreements with college policies.
William Burns, the present Archivist for the Society, often comes across evidence of Burbank’s careful work in organizing the resources of the Society. It is, therefore, appropriate in 1997 that James Burbank be honored as one of the County’s History Preservers.