a resource of information on the origin & future of Richmond Hill, NY USA

What makes Richmond Hill talk?

The following article was written by Lela Riis Agnew, great-great granddaughter of Jacob and Elisabeth Riis, during her visit to Richmond Hill in November 2004.

By 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 Hill.

Jacob and Elisabeth Riis 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 I discovered a legacy in Richmond Hill even more profound then the bricks and mortar and historical documents of the past - today's community leaders who are working hard to build and preserve the treasures of their community.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 special way.

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.

Riis family homeWe 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.

Lela Riis Agnew at Church of the Resurrection 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 history.

Read more about Jacob Riis here.

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Available Books:
Book Cover - Images of America - Richmond HillImages of America 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.

Book Cover - Richmond Hill - A Children's Tale and Coloring BookRichmond Hill A Children's Tale and Coloring Book - Author 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.

Special Features:

victorian richmond hillA 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.

Maple Grove Cemetery Walking Tour"Celebrating 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. View and enjoy the slideshow here.

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