Helen Wilkinson Reynolds: Our Patron Saint of Local History
It has occurred to our personnel here in the Local History Room that not everyone knows who Helen Wilkinson Reynolds is. We feel like we need to change that, so we’ll start with a little blog post. For anyone who delves into local history, whether it’s searching for information on your Dutchess County ancestors, or admiring an old Dutch house here in the area, Helen Wilkinson Reynolds probably had something to do with whatever information is available to you. She was well known in the area for her passion for researching, writing, and sharing whatever history she could find. Afterall, acquiring knowledge is useless unless you are willing to share it with the community, and Helen did that for over 30 years.
Helen was born at 341 Mill Street on December 9th, 1875, the daughter of John Richardson Reynolds and Jane Hewitt Wilkinson Reynolds. The home where she was born has since been demolished, but it had served as the home of her grandfather, George Wilkinson, the second mayor of Poughkeepsie. Today her obituary seems more like a nod to all of the history that she uncovered rather than a history of her as a person, which may be the fate of all historians. But Helen was more than a historian, she was also a writer, and a preserver of history. She was almost entirely self educated, as health problems with her spine forced her to leave school at the age of 15. Helen was an avid reader though, and listened to the stories of her grandparents, which sparked her love of history.
If you’ve spent any time researching Dutchess County history, you are certain to have read at least one of her works, whether it be “Old Gravestones of Dutchess County,” “Dutchess County Doorways,” or her book on the Records of Christ Church of Poughkeepsie (among others). If you are studying local families and history, her work is essential. She was one of the earliest members of the Dutchess County Historical Society in 1914, and became the chief editor of the DCHS yearbook, which is still produced to this day. In her research she dug into the architecture of 18th century Dutch homes, while debunking the myth about Governor George Clinton and his connection to the Clinton House on Main Street (he never actually lived there). In 1924, she published “Poughkeepsie: the origin and meaning of the word,” and several other pamphlets on the history of Poughkeepsie for the anniversary of the Constitutional Convention.
Helen was also part of the team responsible for the preservation of the Glebe House on Main Street, which was originally built in 1767 as a rectory for Christ Church. In 1928, the house was being sold and there was a strong possibility that it was going to be demolished. But Helen, along with other local history nerds John Mylod, Dr. Wilson Poucher, and Judge Frank Hasbrouck, appealed to the public that it had to be preserved. The Poughkeepsie Common Council paid $20,000, while the DCHS and the Junior League of Poughkeepsie managed to raise the rest of the money to purchase the house to give to the city. Her last book was The Role of Plant Life in the History of Dutchess County, published in 1938, which gave historians a better understanding of the botanical resources in the area.
Interestingly, just a day before she died, Helen received a note and a bouquet of flowers from her very dear friend, saying how sorry he was that she was unwell. This friend was none other than a very busy President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had maintained a close friendship with Helen since long before he was the President. In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about one of Helen’s visits to the White House in her My Day column in March of 1937, saying, “Miss Helen Reynolds of Poughkeepsie, spent some time at the Congressional Library and found apparently much material in Dutchess County, New York, which she is coming down later to investigate further. My husband is just as interested in her reports as though he himself had the time to go and search through the old books and maps.” She died on January 3rd, 1943: based on her burial record, the cause of death was cancer of the stomach. She is buried in the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery.
Poughkeepsie New Yorker, January 1943
Poughkeepsie Eagle News, May 17, 1930, Jan 30, 1932, Jan 7, 1933
Eleanor Roosevelt “My Day” column, March 30, 1937
“The Glebe House, Poughkeepsie New York” – LH 720.974 Dut
Photo01 – A photograph of Helen Wilkinson Reynolds as a baby with her mother and father. 1878. – LH Collections
Photo02 – A photograph of Helen Wilkinson Reynolds in 1904 – LH Collections
Photo03 – A photograph of Helen Wilkinson Reynolds in her later years. – LH Collections