Syosset is a hamlet with a rich and fascinating past, with roots that can be traced back to the turbulent and exciting days of its founding, expansion and evolution, all set to the backdrop of the wild frontier of the nation’s earliest days.
Tom Montalbano is a member of the Oyster Bay Historical Society and a lifelong Syosset resident. His interest in Syosset history began in 1990; it was at that time he volunteered to conduct a series of interviews with longtime local residents which, upon completion, became the basis for Montalbano’s 2001 book, Syosset: Images of America.
Citing a deep love of the area and his unwavering interest in his home town, Montalbano is an expert on the historical happenings that founded and shaped Syosset into the stalwart and close-knit community that it is today.
The Founding of Syosset
Syosset (originally settled as “East Woods”) was part of a land purchase made by Welshman Robert Williams from the Matinecock Indians in 1648. This tract of land also included the territories that later became Hicksville, Plainview, Jericho and Woodbury.
The name, long believed to be of Native American origin, is more likely the result of sloppy phonetic translation of the Dutch name for Oyster Bay, which was “Schouts Bay,” pronounced “seeOTTs” and often spelled in early historical texts as “Siocits” or in various other forms. The hamlet of Oyster Bay, a well-established community that housed all the government offices for the larger Oyster Bay Township, actually changed its name briefly in 1846 to “Syosset,” (a further degradation of the name on which it was based) and for the next two years, maps of the region listed what we now know as the hamlet of Oyster Bay as “Syosset.”
“When the Long Island Rail Road opened a station on Jackson Avenue in 1854, they decided to name it after the most populous community in the vicinity, which still appeared on many maps and legal records as “Syosset,’” said Montalbano. “From that point forward, our area became “Syosset,” a name that was made official in 1855, when we got our first post office.”
Prior to the arrival of the railroad, Syosset was a farming community. Farmers supplied produce, dairy and meats to larger settlements on Long Island and, eventually, to New York City, transporting their goods by horse and wagon. Due to technical and financial hardships, a Long Island Rail Road extension, which was originally intended to stretch from Hicksville to Cold Spring Harbor, ended up stalling when the tracks reached Syosset and the little hamlet of fewer than 250 people became the terminus of the branch. This meant that farmers from all around the area had to travel to Syosset to use the railroad to transport goods quickly and competitively into the city and beyond.
Soon, hotels, restaurants and stagecoach services sprang up in the vicinity of the train station, as Syosset had become a transportation hub for residents of Oyster Bay, Huntington, Cold Spring Harbor and other villages not served by the railroad. By 1890, the community had a thriving pickle factory located on the south side of the railroad station, and farmers were raking in big profits supplying the facility with entire fields of cucumbers and cabbage. Eventually, a cucumber blight soured the pickling industry and many farmers began selling off land to wealthy Manhattan industrialists, who replaced the planting fields with extravagant summer mansions.
“This period, often called ‘the Gold Coast Era,’ lasted several decades, during which time, Syosset was a lively combination of multimillion dollar estates and the farms that supplied them with food,” said Montalbano. “This era also saw the beginning of the Jackson Avenue shopping district we know today.
How Did Syosset Become What It Is?
Syosset’s Gold Coast era fizzled out during the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the 1940s and World War II, the defense industry had moved into town and soon attracted the majority of able-bodied laborers, putting local farmers in a bind. When a potato blight struck the area after World War II, builders saw an opportunity to purchase farmland inexpensively and soon began to convert Syosset’s quiet, green landscape into a bustling suburbia.
Important Early People
Some of the most notable early families were the Ketchams, the Cheshires, and the Schencks, followed by the Van Sise and Jackson families later on. During the Gold Coast Era, Syosset was home to some of wealthiest, most prominent families of the 20th century.
“Other major players in the development of Syosset include Albert Bayles, who founded the Syosset Fire Department in 1915, Frank Manarel, principal of the original Syosset School on Split Rock Road (later Superintendent of Schools) who was responsible for major advances in our school system, and Ralph Kaiser (“The Mayor”), who started Syosset’s first Chamber of Commerce in the 1950s.” said Montalbano.
Montalbano’s 2001 book, Syosset: Images of America, has sold more than 6,000 copies to date. His most recent book, The Syosset Fire Department: 1915–2015, is available exclusively at www.lulu.com. All profits from this book will be donated to the Syosset Fire Department.