a resource of information on the origin &
future of Richmond Hill, NY USA
What makes Richmond Hill talk?
following article was written by Lela Riis Agnew, great-great granddaughter
of Jacob and Elisabeth Riis, during her visit to Richmond Hill in November
Lela Riis Agnew
I recently had the great fortune of walking in the footsteps of my great-great
grandparents, Jacob and Elisabeth Riis,
who moved to Richmond Hill in the 1890's. I grew up reading Jacob's books,
studying his photographs, and treasuring family stories told by my grandmother
Martha. And though I had walked the Lower Eastside of New York where Jacob
did some of his most important work, I had not been to their beloved Richmond
My first visit to Richmond Hill in November, 2004 was a magical learning
experience. I discovered a legacy in Richmond Hill even more profound
then the bricks and mortar and historical documents of the past - today's
community leaders who are working hard to build and preserve the treasures
of their community. These leaders made Richmond Hill talk to me in a most
Over the past year, I have developed a great admiration for the work of
the Richmond Hill Historical Society. I was thrilled to learn of this
exceptional organization and its commitment to advance and disseminate
information on Richmond Hill through documentation, study, interpretation,
and advocacy. Everyone I met through the Society extended a gracious welcome
and made me feel right at home.
The wisdom, warmth, and largeness of spirit that I found in Nancy
Cataldi and Carl Ballenas
made this personal journey especially meaningful to me. Nancy and Carl,
my hosts, first took me to Maple Grove Cemetery,
where we visited the grave of Elisabeth Riis. Maple Grove is cared for
very well and projects a spirit of respect without mournfulness. Beautiful
trees surround Elisabeth's grave. I particularly appreciated the fact
that the Richmond Hill Historical Society generously replaced the little
lamb atop her grave. I knelt down to touch the stone that Jacob laid in
honor of his little "Lammet" and I closed my eyes thinking about her days
in America. How frightening it must have been to leave Denmark and struggle
to live in New York City in the 1800's. She, like most in her day, worked
hard to raise a family and leave the world better then she found it.
One of the reasons historical societies and historians are so important
is that by preserving memories and the news of previous generations, they
encourage us all to reflect on our responsibilities as human beings and
citizens of democracy. My moments in Maple Grove made me think of my family,
especially my mother (who is named for Elisabeth), but also about how
America was, and will always be, thankfully, a nation of immigrants.
also went to see the site of the Riis family home. While the home was
sadly tom down in the 1970s, I was happy to hear that progress is being
made in the Richmond Hill area to protect places on the National Register
of Historic Places and establish zoning ordinances that preserve the integrity
of the community. As I walked on the same land my family called home over
100 years ago, I once again felt the responsibility to reflect on the
legacy of Jacob and Elisabeth Riis. Do I appreciate life the way they
did? Do I try everyday to be a Good Samaritan as they were for their fellow
citizens? Do I strive to make the world around me a better place, just
as they did?
Through the generosity of Nancy and Carl, I was also able to explore other
parts of Richmond Hill, including The Episcopal Church
of the Resurrection, where a beautiful stain glass window celebrates
the life of Elisabeth. The staff was warm and the church was so very peaceful.
I look forward to worshipping in this church on our next visit. I also
enjoyed some of the Board members and the owner of the Simonsons Funeral
Home, who generously donates space for the offices of the Richmond Hill
Historical Society's Archival Museum.
All of the spots that I visited in Richmond Hill were very special. Richmond
Hill is obviously one of those fortunate places that has a vivid past,
full of wonderful people and memories, but one that is also full of energy
today. I imagine that Richmond Hill's future will be even brighter than
its past and that the Richmond Hill Historical Society will chronicle
the entire parade of life.
The purpose of my visit
to Richmond Hill extended beyond the historical and into the future. My
husband David and I had also come to New York for the Peacewords Foundation,
a non-profit that I founded to inspire young people to use the mediums
of art to promote peace, much like Jacob Riis used his photography, writings,
and lectures to change so many lives. On November 9, our reception honored
the Immaculate Conception School and the Richmond Hill Historical Society
with the first Peacewords Heroes Award. Over the next year, Peacewords.
Executive Director, Kathleen Stelling, and I will work with these wonderful
students to teach them how Jacob Riis used mediums to make the world better
and inspire them to use their abilities to make social change in today's
Richmond Hill. We are extremely excited about this program - you can learn
more at www.peacewords.org
We certainly expect to visit Richmond Hill many more times in the years
to come. I especially look forward to joining the Richmond Hill Historical
Society at the Annual Dinner Dance in 2005. On that visit, I know that
I will continue to learn more from all of you about Richmond Hill's unique
Richmond Hill - The
Richmond Hill Historical Society with authors Carl
Ballenas and Nancy Cataldi have written
this comprehensive book on the history of Richmond Hill. Read
more about this book and how to purchase it for your collection.
Children's Tale and Coloring Book -
Carl Ballenas created a coloring book
on the history of Richmond Hill including rare photos, text and stories.
What better way to enjoy while learning and appreciating our community.
Read more about this book
and how to purchase it for your collection.
Slideshow of Victorian Richmond Hill - Thanks
to Joseph DeMay, Jr. for his enormous contribution in creating
this fascinating slideshow of
images that show many locations of early Richmond Hill from the turn
of the 19th century along side its corresponding present day image from
2003. View and enjoy the slideshow here.
the Living Spirit" - Thanks
to Joseph DeMay, Jr. for creating this slideshow
of the Walking Tour at Maple Grove Cemetery, where students portrayed
the notable people who have been laid to rest at this historic cemetery.
and enjoy the slideshow here.