April 11, 2018
NEWBURGH, N.Y. -
Orange County Historian Johanna Yaun recently discussed the history of Newburgh during a talk at Mount Saint Mary College’s Desmond Campus for Adult Enrichment.
From a network of bootleggers operating secret distilleries during Prohibition to Urban Renewal erasing important landmarks in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Orange County Historian Johanna Yaun discussed the forgotten history of Newburgh during a recent talk at Mount Saint Mary College’s Desmond Campus for Adult Enrichment.
Inspired at a young age to advocate for local history, Yaun’s passion for preservation cast her on a journey that included museum work, archaeology, and training in traditional building techniques. By the age of 30, she had served as a historical society director, restored a historic house, and was appointed as the Orange County Historian and Orange County representative to Hudson Valley Greenway.
One lesser known tale of Newburgh’s past is that of several massive distilleries operating in the city and beyond, both during and after the Probation Era, Yaun explained.
For 15 years, two men from Newburgh ran 11 illegal distilleries located around Orange County. One of the biggest was run out of an abandoned hat factory in the City of Newburgh. It was estimated that in the five years after Prohibition ended, the operation had dodged $15 million in taxes, to say nothing of its profits.
“As these distilleries would get raided, they would just shift their operations to another place,” explained Yaun. “The feds were going crazy trying to figure out how production never ceased.”
Yaun also debunked a few tall tales about Newburgh, including one that was told to her in her youth: “When I was a kid I went to Horizons on the Hudson, the elementary school on Montgomery Street. We used to walk every Christmas down to the Crawford House about a block away. I have a very early memory of going on tour, seeing all the decorations, and being told that the first goldfish in America came here to Newburgh. It stuck with me my whole life.”
So when Yaun became director of the Crawford House, one of the first things she did was research the topic. According to her, after a trip to France around 1830, Captain Henry “Bully” Robinson of Newburgh brought goldfish back with him and put them in his pond. He would often give them away to children and friends, it was reported. These have been cited as the first goldfish in America. However, notes Yaun, Webster’s Dictionary mentioned goldfish in 1817 as being a household pet, more than a decade before Robinson had obtained any.
Yaun’s talk was part of the Desmond Speaker Series.
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