JANUARY 2021






Introduction




Hicksville grew substantially in the late 1800s, attracting newcomers from many places, including Indiana , Illinois , and (of course) Brooklyn .  Many of them had served in the Civil War, and they saw the post-war years as a time to try to make new starts.  Prussian-born August Fleischbein left behind his Brooklyn butcher shop to become proprietor of the Grand Central Hotel.  Irish-born tinsmith James de St. Legier also left Brooklyn , and set up shop on Broadway.  Eventually, his son John opened a bicycle shop next door.  A growing village like Hicksville offered lots of opportunity for veterans who were ready to set out on new ventures.


 



deliberately inverted to attract
more attention, an ad for
John De St. Legier’s shop

Huntington Long-Islander, November ? 1896

Huntington Long-Islander, April 23, 1900

In this article, I focus on another of those veterans, Herman Menge, someone whose name you’re not likely to recognize.  Since I began writing Ancient Hixtory, however, almost every time I’ve tried to research my topics, I’ve come across old news items that mention him.

By now, I’ve developed quite a liking for this man, and I think that his contemporaries did, too.  When Hicksville had a parade, Henry Menge would be given a place of honor in it.  A public ceremony?  He’d be on the dais, and most likely, he’d be asked to speak.  He may have lacked higher education, and yet he was chosen as a delegate to a state Republican convention.  When Father Lawrence Fuchs organized a charity auction at St. Ignatius, who other than Henry Menge would have thought of donating gilded potatoes as auction items?

Let’s take a look at his life.  Along the way, we’re bound to acquire some new insights into old Hicksville .


***


Beginnings

Henry Menge was born in 1848.  When he was seven, a New York State census recorded that the Menge family resided in Brooklyn, that Henry’s father was a baker, and that (according to his parents) everyone in the family had been born in Germany.  Not long after that date, Henry’s father died.  The 1860 U.S. census listed his mother as a single parent, supporting herself and her four children by making garments.  Life could not have been easy for the family.

When the Civil War erupted, Henry was a boy of thirteen.  Only three years later, however, he seized an opportunity to ease his mother’s financial burden.  President Lincoln asked that New York supply 12,000 troops as soon as possible for short-term service (one hundred days), so that the regular Army troops who were protecting Baltimore and Washington D.C. could be redeployed for battle.  Governor Seymour agreed, immediately dispatching 3,000 men in existing National Guard (then a brand-new term for state militia) regiments.  The remainder would come from new temporary Guard regiments.  Henry joined one of the latter, a Brooklyn-based regiment led by Col. Frederick A. Conkling, who had led a similar unit earlier in the war.

Young Menge likely had to misstate his age in order to enlist.




Colonel, and once Congressmen, Frederick Conkling,
who led the 84th New York National Guard Infantry

Matthew Brady photograph, via
the Library of Congress
 
  

The new regiment was sent to Baltimore .  Although it fought no true battles, it did fight a few skirmishes with small bands of Confederates, in which it suffered some casualties.  When its time was up, Pvt. Menge and his comrades returned to Brooklyn .  He was unharmed, he had seen that there was more to the world than Brooklyn , and he probably was feeling ready to start leading his own life.  In part, that was because his one hundred days of active service had automatically granted him deferment from being drafted into the regular army, which remained at war.


***


To Hicksville

Presumably, networking with other German-Americans was what led him eastward to what today is Nassau County , where he had settled by 1875.  That year, he married Johanna Rosche, the daughter of a German-born farmer who lived in Hempstead .  In June 1880, a Federal census recorded that he and his wife were living there with her father, on the latter’s farm.  Henry – like one of Johanna’s brothers – was a silver beater.  The silver got beaten in Hicksville .


 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 6, 1910

It is noteworthy that when Johanna Rosche married Henry, her older sister Frederika was already married to the Rev. Paul Matschat.  The Matschats then were living in Canajoharie , New York , but they had resided in Hicksville for a year or two following the war.  They would return to Hicksville a year after Johanna’s marriage, at which time the good Reverend would begin his continuous tenure at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church .

A personal observation: On the census in 1880, Paul Matschat did not identify himself as ‘German’ or’ Prussian,’ but instead as ‘Silesian.’  Perhaps that was because Silesia, after years of allying itself with Austria and other German states that were strongly opposed to joining a Prussian-led Germany, had recently been annexed by Prussia, and the annexation had rankled Matschat.


***

An Arcanum, a Fantastic Light Guard, and Fun

Later in the 1880s, Henry and Johanna resided in Hicksville , and it appears that they fit in well.  Newspapers reported that they, especially Henry, were active in many social groups.  We’ll look at two of those here.

The Royal Arcanum was one of the first “open” mutual assistance societies in America , created so that working people could invest in whole life insurance without having to belong to a special fraternal group.  It was founded in 1877, at which time it was unique, in that it employed a formal method of assessing insurance risk.  Its contemporaries, like the Knights of Honor, issued insurance policies without assessing risk, and eventually, they all failed.  Who knew?

Could insurance be fun?  Evidently, it could in Hicksville .  The Long-Islander for September 6, 1889 reported that the Labor Day picnic held by the Royal Arcanum’s Hicksville Council had been a “blow out.”  It was led by Herr Gelb’s Celebrated Brass Band of New York, which rode in a wagon pulled by four festooned horses.  Twenty-three wagons and carriages of Arcanum members and guests followed it.  They proceeded up Broadway to Jericho, then south to Jerusalem Avenue and Marie Street, then east to Broadway again, and finally north again to the Grand Central Hotel.  Upon arrival, there were a few speeches, some singing by the Hicksville Quartet, a picnic, bowling (for prizes), lots of “refreshments,” and outdoor music and dancing that lasted until 4:00 AM Tuesday.  Hicksvillians certainly knew how to party.

Henry Menge was one of the organizers of the event; he also served as the council’s Orator, which meant that he spoke publicly at events during the year.








Almost every village on the Island had
a Royal Arcanum Council

1894 Brooklyn Citizen Almanac
 


Joseph Steinart,
local, town, and county jurist, and
namesake of The Fantastic Light Guard

Hicksville Public Library collection

Around the same time, Menge also was active in another organization, new, and unique to the village: The Joseph Steinert Fantastic Light Guard.  Named in honor of the respected local jurist, its nominal purpose was not clear.  On the other hand, its de facto purpose was obvious: to have a good time, and while doing so, to raise money so that its members could have another good time in the future.  Henry Menge served as the organization’s Secretary.

In February 1892, at the time of its annual Masquerade Ball, the Light Guard had fifty members.  According to the news reports, the ball attracted five hundred
revelers to the capacious ballroom of the Grand Central Hotel (it is not at all surprising that August Fleischbein, who ran the hotel, was a member of the group).  Dinner for five hundred mandated the use of most of the hotel’s many dining rooms.  At the ball itself, Justice Steinert and his wife led the Grand March.  It was a complete success, for sufficient funds were raised to cover the Light Guard’s next summer beach excursion.


***

Fire Chief

Menge’s name often appears in the news in connection with Hicksville ’s firefighters.  In October 1902, when the Southern New York Volunteer Firemen’s Association held its convention in Hicksville , he had been one of a few men chosen to be take care of the “Arrangements” – which implies that he was known for his ability to get things done.  

In 1904, when Hicksville’s early fire companies decided that the time had come to band together, and create a formal Fire Department, Menge was chosen as Hicksville ’s first Fire Chief.  The following is an excerpt from a short but detailed history, written by Joseph Steinert, Jr.




Huntington Long-Islander, December 12, 1919
 
  

Being Fire Chief brought new responsibilities, of course, and it also meant participation in numerous public activities, some festive, and some solemn,

Huntington Long-Islander, May 31, 1907

Decoration Day was the name then commonly used for
Memorial Day, which was established to honor those
who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War.  The
Catholic Cemetery ” in Westbury since has been
integrated into the Cemetery of the Holy Rood.


***

Grand Army of the Republic

Henry Menge also took an active role in the Grand Army of the Republic, a large – there were 410,000 members at its peak – fraternal organization that advocated on behalf of Union veterans of the Civil War.  It lobbied for the establishment of pensions for war veterans, and it promoted fair treatment of veterans by society – including their being allowed to vote if they happened to be black.

Like the Arcanum and the Fire Department, the G.A.R. had a serious purpose, but it was not averse to comradeship and fun.  There were regular local meetings, occasional get-togethers with other nearby Posts, and annual National Encampments.  In 1915, Menge attended the encampment that marked the passage of fifty years since the end of the Civil War.  Ironically, President Wilson, a southerner, addressed the Union veterans.





 

 

 

 

Being active in nearly everything led to scheduling conflicts.  In 1915, attending the G.A.R. National Encampment in D.C. meant that Henry missed a meeting of Fire Commissioners.





Huntington Long-Islander, March 24? 1905

Huntington Long-Islander, October 1, 1915


***

Changes

Henry Menge was becoming an integral part of Hicksville , appearing at public events, and also being involved in behind-the-scenes phenomena.  He was spending less time with his business.  Around 1894, he made known his desire to be appointed to fill the then-vacant position of local Postmaster.  When the local politicos named someone else to the job, much of the town was outraged.  Within a few years, Menge and a number of other one-time Democrats had joined the local Republican Association, and several of them had been elected officers of it.

In 1899, Menge was chosen to be one of Hicksville ’s Republican delegates to the Town convention.  In 1903 (when he was 55), the Long-Islander referred to him as part of the “young blood” in the local Republican Party.  The next year, he was a delegate to the State Republican convention.


*

During these years, Brooklyn and western Queens were amalgamated into New York City .  Although the City did a great deal of planning before amalgamating, it does not appear that Long Island had given much forethought to dealing with the three Townships that were to be left behind.

At first, all options seemed to be open, including annexing them to Suffolk County .

 




 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 18, 1898

It’s interesting to see that Henry Menge was given an important role in the discussions that ultimately led to the formation of Nassau County .  I guess that one should not be surprised – people always had confidence in him.

Once it was determined that the former Queens Townships would not join Suffolk , the choice of a seat for the Nassau County became a matter of great interest.  Hempstead, Mineola, and Hicksville all vied for the honor, and Henry Menge was asked to be one of the pro-Hicksville participants in the process.  It appears that Hicksville ultimately gave its support to Mineola, accepting the argument that it couldn’t garner enough support for its own cause, and that its interests lay closer to those of Mineola than to those of Hempstead .


***

The Colonel

As the years passed, people started to think of Henry as the village’s Grand Old Man.  With amicable respect, the newspapers started to refer to him as Col. Menge.

He still was frequently chosen to be Grand Marshal for one of the principal parades (i.e., for Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day), for which he would proudly don his old uniform.  1910’s Independence Day parade was special, for on that day the extension to the school on Nicholai Street was formally dedicated, and thanks to “the Colonel,” Civil War veteran groups came from Brooklyn , marched in the parade, and presented two American flags to the school.

When people saw Henry Menge at a public event, they might not even bother to wonder which group he was representing – it might be the Royal Arcanum, the G.A.R., the Republican Party, the Fire Department, the Village Improvement Association, or all of them at once.


*

Hicksville did not learn of its three World War I soldiers’ deaths until very late in 1918.  On the next spring’s Memorial Day, the village’s parade led to the Triangle, where three oak trees, one for each man lost, were planted.  Henry Menge personally planted one of them.  Five weeks later, on Independence Day, the village had a large celebration for its returned veterans, and it then dedicated the commemorative boulder which bears the names of those who served in that war.  Henry Menge and Louis Meyer, Hicksville ’s last surviving Civil War veterans, shared a place of honor in the parade that day, riding in an automobile, together holding up an American flag.

By 1924, even the official program for Hicksville ’s Memorial Day observation listed Col. Henry Menge as the ceremony’s final speaker.
 




 

Huntington Long-Islander, May 23, 1924

Menge was a widower now, and at 76, he had slowed down.  A whimsical but poignant newspaper report described his life in retirement as encompassing a flower garden, a goldfish, and a radio that refused to work.

He passed away about a year later.  He was buried next to Johanna – not in his adopted Hicksville, for which he had done so much, but in Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills National Cemetery , where he was surrounded by the ranks of graves of countless fellow veterans of the Civil War.



 

Cypress Hills National Cemetery

untappedcities.com


*****


One Last Item: Gilded Potatoes

And finally, the odd incident to which this article alluded at the outset.... 







Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 8, 1897
 


Huntington Long-Islander, March 7, 1919

Several things about donating the two potatoes strike me.  The very concept of it is delightfully quirky.  The concealed gold pieces were unexpected rewards for the bidders’ generosity (incidentally, $2.50 in 1919 dollars would be equivalent to almost $40 today).  The potatoes were chosen so as to promote two popular varieties.

Moreover, the event was in support of a Roman Catholic organization, and Henry Menge was Lutheran. Over the years, Father Fuchs and Hicksville ’s “Colonel” appeared at, and spoke at, many of the same ceremonies.  This little episode suggests that they had got to know and appreciate each other.

See You in February!