Sullivan County Historical Society History Preserver Award 2000
Delbert Van Etten
Delbert Van Etten was born in 1927, attended Liberty schools and graduated from Liberty High School in 1945. He joined the army almost on the day that Japan surrendered and was sent overseas to serve in the Army of Occupation in Germany. Though Del recalls that at the time he did not know one drink from another, the army, for some bizarre reason, put him in charge of a bar, but Del’s real talents were eventually discovered and he was sent to a school to be trained to be a draftsman. Though his army career was brief, that training had a long-term effect on his life. After returning to civilian life he worked for almost fifty years as a draftsman with several local engineers such as Olney Borden and Dolph Rotfeld. In 1962 he married Rita Stewart and they had two children, Sarah and John, who have twice made Del and Rita grandparents.
What is the source of a local historian’s interest in his town? In reflecting on his lifelong fascination with his Liberty neighbors and their buildings, Del wonders if it was his grandfather that first stimulated his imagination. His grandfather, Alfred Hector, had a farm in White Sulphur Springs and as a boy Del remembers riding into Liberty while his grandfather entertained him (or himself) with stories of the families who lived along the road. Thus it was that as a man Del found himself a draftsman by day, but in the evenings, he was thinking about the old buildings and the old events that still echoed in his neighbors’ talk.
In the late 1960’s he and Rita joined the Sullivan County Historical Society. It was a busy time as the Society had the opportunity to move from its limited quarters in Monticello to a portion of the former Hurleyville High School which the county government was setting up as a museum. Del was elected President of the Society in 1972 and 1973 and was greatly involved in all the planning and moving.
Del’s reputation as a valuable source of knowledge about his town grew and he was appointed Village Historian in 1972 and Town Historian in 1976. His appointment as Town Historian brought him into contact with one of Liberty’s great mayors, Ida “Skippy” Frankel. It was “Skippy” who brought up the idea of developing a Historic District in Liberty. For some time Del had been concerned that one of Liberty’s finest buildings, the Keller House, would be torn down and he accepted the Mayor’s challenge. Two years of work were required but, eventually, by 1978 he was notified that Liberty Village District had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to the Keller House, the District includes the Hillig Building, the Palm Garden, the stone bank building, the Liberty Methodist Church, the Dr. Tomkins’ home, as well as several smaller buildings. Owners of these structures are free to modify the interior of these structures, but to maintain historic continuity, they are not permitted to modify the exterior appearance. Since then Del has assisted other groups such as the Lutheran Church in Liberty to secure similar status.
Also, in the late 1970’s, Del became a columnist. From 1977-78 he wrote a column entitled “Liberty Chronicles” for the Liberty Evening News. Copies of these columns provide a valuable source of information about the Town. Del also played a crucial role with regard to another Liberty newspaper, the Liberty Register. When that paper was being sold, Del contacted members of the family and was able to secure permission to remove the back issues of the Register from the building. Rita recalls they took up so much space in their home that in one room there was only a narrow corridor through piles of Liberty Registers. One set of back issues was given to the Historical Society and is now permanently preserved on micro-fiche.
The Liberty Historian was honored in the 1980’s when he was elected President of the Hudson Valley Historians Association which at that time included eleven counties. The Association meetings attracted some forty historians or associates and met in locations of historic importance such as Olana. Both Del and Rita recall these meetings as some of the most stimulating they ever attended.
The last few years, Del has been involved in another project: helping to create the Liberty Museum. Though at present the Museum is best known for its art exhibits, Del has been promised that eventually the second floor will be given over to the preservation and study of materials relating to Liberty’s history.
In looking back over the long decades during which Del has worked to preserve the memories of his town, one must feel grateful for grandfather Alfred telling all those stories and for stimulating the curiosity of a young boy. Those conversations have certainly borne much fruit.