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First Farmers, Then Lawyers

Midway between the North and South Shore villages of western Long Island stretched a vast prairie called the Hempstead Plains. The area was populated mostly by farmers until 1787, when the opening of the Queens County Courthouse - Nassau was then part of Queens - brought a bumper crop of lawyers to what was then called Clowesville. Today there are 1,353 lawyers listing their business address in Mineola, now the seat of Nassau County government, law and politics.

But it was newfangled transportation - planes and cars in the early 20th Century - that was Mineola's greatest claim to fame.

Mineola first became a hub in the 1830s when the Long Island Rail Road built a track from Jamaica to Hicksville with stops in Brushville (now Queens Village) and at the Clowesville courthouse. In 1839 the railroad extended a line from Hempstead Village to the main branch. The little village at the junction became known as Hempstead Branch.

One train a day with a wood-burning engine called Fred ran between the Branch and Hempstead. The fare was 42 cents. Passengers, it was said, ``marveled at the complete desolation of the area from the two stops on the plains,'' according to historian Thomas Barrick in ``Mineola: Heartbeat of Nassau.''

Actually, it was not that desolate. It was rich farmland where corn, potatoes, cattle, sheep and poultry produced considerable wealth. But by the mid-1800s, the percentage of farmers was dwindling. By 1844 the Branch had its own post office called Mineola. The first postmaster reportedly picked the name of an Indian chief who led an uprising in Nebraska. He liked the musical sound of it.

The name, officially adopted in 1858, became known nationwide in the early 1900s, as daring young aviators made pioneer flights from the Mineola fields, staking Long Island's claim to being ``the cradle of aviation.'' Glenn Curtiss came in 1909 with The Golden Flyer, which he kept in a tent next to the Gold Bug Hotel on Old Country Road. Leather-helmeted fliers hung out at the Gold Bug, nicknamed Aeronautical Headquarters. Crowds watched Curtiss take off in his box-like craft every morning. More of the curious turned out to watch a young flier named Charles Lindbergh take off on his historic flight to Paris in 1927 from the adjacent Roosevelt Field. Local aviation buffs have always counted this a Mineola ``first.''

It was not the only first out of Mineola. The first coal used as fuel on Long Island was burned at the home of John J. Armstrong, who was county judge until 1877. That was the year when the ``Old Brig'' courthouse was vacated after 90 years of housing lawbreakers. The county court moved from Mineola to Long Island City. But Mineola was not court-less for long. When Queens County joined New York City in the big consolidation of 1898, Nassau seceded, and Mineola became the new county seat.

By that time, it was a bustling community. The Meadow Brook Hunt Club still chased the fox through eastern Mineola, but many of the large farms were breaking up into small building lots. The Mineola Park Co., an 1890s developer, offered 25-by-100-foot lots at $50 and up (one dollar weekly without interest), in a community described somewhat inaccurately in the company ads as ``a few minutes ride by the Long Island Railroad from 34th St., N.Y.'' No matter how small, nearly every house was surrounded by a white picket fence.

The village was incorporated in 1906. It already had a volunteer fire department, started in 1888, and a police force since 1899. Auto racing was a popular sport and drivers vied for a chance to compete in the Vanderbilt Cup Races, started in 1904 by William K. Vanderbilt II, with a triangular course that skirted Mineola on Jericho Turnpike, and began and ended at a point west of Jericho. ``Between planes with their sputtering kerosene engines in the sky, and unwieldy cars rumbling on tracks and roads, people were asking, `What is the world coming to?''' noted the Mineola Diamond Jubilee history in 1981.

During World War I, Camp Mills, an embarkation camp set up in Garden City, filled Mineola with soldiers, while the Army Air Force was crowded into cattle sheds on the Mineola County Fairgrounds. ``Owning a store was like owning a gold mine,'' wrote Thomas Barrick. ``On an average Sunday 50,000 people visited the Rainbow Division.''

The Hempstead Plains Aviation Field, renamed Hazelhurst Field during World War I, became the site of daredevil air shows after the war. On the ground, a building boom was going on. The Mineola Theatre opened in 1927, a showplace of its time.

Two years later the Depression hit. In the '30s, unemployed Mineola men got jobs with the Works Progress Administration, painting and repairing the fairgrounds, which had opened in 1866. But in 1937 the county took over the northeastern section of the fairgrounds to erect new courthouse buildings, and in 1952, the county requested the rest of the grounds. The fair was gone, but Mineola, with its rows of stone government buildings, was still the heart of Nassau.

Where to Find More: ``Mineola: Heartbeat of Nassau,'' by Thomas Barrick; ``Mineola: Diamond Jubilee, 1906-1981,'' in the Bryant Library, Roslyn.

Related topic galleries: History, Gold and Precious Material, Imperial and Royal Matters, Queens County, Justice System, Vehicles, Queens Village

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