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To take risks in the political and civic arena required a different Barnum: Sarah Ann

Life Was No Circus

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IN HER LONG hoop-skirted "Little Women" dress and prim white collar, Sarah Ann Baldwin Barnum of East Meadow faced up to high-powered politicians, high- rolling land speculators and recalcitrant farmers -- and made her mark on 19th Century Long Island.

But though she played a seminal role in opening the Hempstead Plains for the development of Garden City -- and she once owned Island Park, which was called Barnum Island -- Sarah Ann Barnum is barely a footnote in Long Island histories, partly due to the circumstance of her name. As the wife of Peter Crosby Barnum, she was -- according to the custom of the times -- known as Mrs. P.C. Barnum. As the name could easily be confused with circus impresario P.T. Barnum, it was. Where Mrs. Barnum went, the legend grew that P.T. Barnum was there, elephants and all.

"The local folk have preferred folklore to history," notes Hofstra professor of American studies Joann P. Krieg, in refuting the legend that Barnum Island had once been circus winter headquarters. The legend borrowed from the history of neighboring Long Beach, where developer William Reynolds was said to have used Jumbo the famous circus elephant to haul planking from Coney Island's Dreamland for the boardwalk. Though Jumbo was already dead when Long Beach was developed in 1907, other elephants made the journey -- more for publicity than practicality. "Every history of Island Park that I read credited the name Barnum Island to P. T. Barnum," recalls Hofstra historian Natalie Naylor, who researched the community. A local newspaper credited Barnum with giving the island to his ailing sister, Phoebe Ann Barnum, for a health cure. P.T. Barnum never had a sister Phoebe Ann.

It was Sarah Ann Barnum who bought the island for use as an alms.house -- one of the many civic projects she orchestrated from her 2,500-acre family ranch in East Meadow. (A teacher in the Barnum Woods School, built on the site, was unaware of the origin of her school's name, Naylor recalls. Principal Peter Valente does know, though for convenience, he may give the school's name as "Barnum as in Barnum and Bailey Circus.")

Sarah Ann Barnum "pursued her ideals without fanfare letting fellow civic workers take the applause," historian Clinton E. Metz wrote in a 1984 Long Island Forum published by the Friends for Long Island's Heritage. Metz found a brief reference to her in an 1896 Queens County Biographical Record. Only six women -- as against almost 1,600 men -- were considered worthy of listing "in that pre-feminist era."

Barnum was no pushover even in that pre-feminist era. Her obituary in the South Side Signal noted that she "exercised a greater influence in public affairs than almost any man in the township." She had a substantial start in life in 1814 as the daughter of Thomas Baldwin, a wealthy farmer who owned the largest hotel in Baldwin (The community was named for the family). Since Thomas was a teetotaler whose customers were constantly inviting him to "have a drink with me," he delegated the hotel management to his wife, Susan.

Sarah Ann was married at 17 to a much older Samuel Carman, who died in 1842, leaving her with two young daughters. Four years later she married P.C. Barnum and had two or three more children. (Accounts vary.)

While he commuted to his clothing stores in Manhattan, she managed the family ranch. "Her fine horses, cattle, sheep and swine were famous all over the Island," the South Side paper noted. Histories of Garden City usually start with Alexander T. Stewart's purchase of 7,071 acres of the Hempstead Plains to build his dream village in 1869. Not mentioned is the woman who opened the door for Stewart's purchase.

Looking out over a vast sea of grass from the cupola of her Front Street mansion, she visualized a community of low-cost homes rising on the Hempstead Plains. In 1862 the state Legislature gave permission to Queens County towns, which included Nassau, to sell their "common lands" if approved at a town meeting. Proposed land sales twice went down to defeat. The farmers clung to their pastures.

Barnum persisted. As leader of the Queens County Agricultural Society's Ladies Aid, she circulated petitions for another referendum and canvassed door to door. She focused on the 1862 law that allowed towns to auction their common lands with the provision that two-thirds of the money be used for public schools and the other third for support of the poor. The farmers began to realize that the sale would reduce their taxes. Barnum narrowly won by 650 to 630 votes. The plains went on the auction block.

Two weeks before the deadline for submitting bids, Stewart rode in with a dazzling offer of $55 cash per acre, a total of $401,140. Garden City was soon under way.

Barnum turned her attention to providing a humane home for the poor, then housed under deplorable conditions in Freeport. Hog Island (the original name for Island Park) seemed ideal for a poor farm in 1874, remote enough so as not to disturb any neighbors and spacious enough for inmates to be put to healthful work raising their own food.

While county supervisors procrastinated, Barnum learned one night that a syndicate was about to snatch the island to build a huge summer resort. She took the reins of her family carriage and drove alone through a snowstorm 10 miles over treacherous roads to Oceanside where, at the edge of a creek, she shouted for help.

The nearest neighbor, Albert Anderson, heard her shouts, shoved his rowboat into the stream and ferried her across to the island. (The Brooklyn Eagle account has her wading ashore.) Before she left that night, she had persuaded the owners to sell 450 acres at a price slightly below $30 per acre.

She advanced $13,360 of her own money, later selling the site to the county at the same low price. She had outwitted the speculators, who reportedly were offering $75,000.

Barnum continued to attend meetings of the county supervisors, where she was jokingly known as the "eighth member." Candidates for office frequently sought her advice. "In no case was a candidate beaten whose cause she had championed," the Brooklyn Eagle reported. This was more than a quarter century before women won the right to vote.

As chairwoman of the Ladies Visiting Committee, she also monitored the poor farm. It had a brief life. When Nassau seceded from Queens County in 1898, the farm and buildings were sold, netting $40,000, which Nassau used to construct its first county center in Garden City.

"Mrs. Barnum's Useful Career Ended" in 1893, the South Side Signal obituary reported. She is buried with her husband and three of her children in Hempstead's Greenfield Cemetery.

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