BETHLEHEM—The single aspect that separates one town from the next is the people in it, and the stories they share amongst one another.
Bethlehem Town Historian Susan Leath is aware of that, perhaps more than anyone.
“I can’t tell you how often people come to me and share their story,” said Leath. “And, I tell them to please, write it down.”
Leath’s second book, “Historic Tales of Bethlehem New York,” hit the stands last month. The historian, and author, is stepping into a realm once only occupied by the late Allison Bennett. Bennett, who passed away in 2014, was town historian for several years. During her tenure, she penned books on our hometown, sharing stories of local residents on times long gone by.
Like Bennett, Leath has taken articles she previously published in newspapers, and patchworked them into a book through The History Press.
“The challenge with this one was drawing it all together,” she said. “There were a lot of articles here, articles there, and how am I going to put them in order? How am I going to expand on them? Some things I wrote a while back and I read it now and find I need to improve that a little bit.”
Whereas the stories from the first book were told through images and brief captions, Leath’s latest book allowed her to showcase her writing abilities. Leath goes into detail about stories, and allows pictures to compliment her prose.
“The first one was very much driven by the photographs. I looked at the photographs. Asked myself, ‘What do I want to say about the photograph?’ And then, I wrote a paragraph,” Leath said of her book “Images of America: Bethlehem,” published by Aracadia Publishing in 2011. “This one, I started by being inspired by a photograph, or a building, or a thought, and then I would build from there. It’s different. It was a learning experience at the beginning.”
September will mark Leath’s ninth year as Bethlehem’s historian. After nearly a decade at her post, she still finds herself amazed at the information at her fingertips. She said her curiosity is easily sparked by driving around town, looking at local buildings and having conversations with residents. Then, there are the boxes in the town archives. The first topic in her book is dedicated to those boxes.
“When I first started, I was excited about what was in the box,” she said. “I’ve been at this a long time, and wondered if there was anything new. I’ve seen all these boxes. I went into a box that I have been in, that I’ve put things in, and I pulled out something tied with string, and I never un-did that. What’s in there?”
Leath often comes across Bennett’s notes and articles in the archives. She knew her predecessor outside from the work captured in those boxes. Both were parishioners of the same church, and both worked with the town’s historical society. “I reference her work all the time. All the time. … I’m inspired by her work,” said Leath.
Technology has made researching the town’s history easier. Leath said she now can access census reports and newspapers from decades ago, as they are all on the Internet. The information she gleans from digital records helps compliment the stories captured from decades ago. In some cases, she’s able to complete the puzzles left behind through world of mouth recollection.
There are also topics of national significance that Leath is able to localize. She shares a story on slavery, a topic not often discussed here in the Northeast. Then there is the Civil-War era letter from Samuel West, allowing the reader to pick into the mind of a man from 150 years ago.
“I hope people develop more of an appreciation for our town, said Leath. “Because, we have a great town. It’s not just Delmar. It includes all of South Bethlehem and Selkirk, and there’s some great stories throughout the town.”
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