Democrat File Photo
With Liberty architect Robert Dadras in the background, John Conway talks about the Battle of Minisink during one of the annual Architectural Bus Tours, of which he is a part.
John Conway: The writing life suits him
By Frank Rizzo
SULLIVAN COUNTY March 1, 2013 One hundred and forty years ago this year, James Eldridge Quinlan published his comprehensive History of Sullivan County.
No writer has attempted a similar all-encompassing tome since.
Ask County Historian John Conway if he’s up to such a task, and he hesitates.
“It would take a major effort,” said the Barryville resident, who recently celebrated his 20th year in the position. “I started out with the ambition to write a successor to Quinlan. But maybe it would not be the best use of my time.”
Not that he hasn’t contributed to the task of chronicling and interpreting our history. Among his books are Retrospect: An Anecdotal History of Sullivan County and Sullivan County: A Bicentennial History in Images.
By his count Conway has penned seven books, the latest of which is Blessed by the Gods, dealing with our county’s long tradition dating back to the Lenape Indians as being a healing environment. The salutary effects of our clean air and water and landscapes contributed to the county’s growth and development.
The trend over the past century has been to move away from comprehensive narratives such as Quinlan’s History and toward more focused works. Thus Conway, despite his encyclopedic range of knowledge and interests, is perhaps mostly keenly engaged by the dark yet colorful history of gangsters in our county.
He has been working on his gangster book for over 20 years, to be titled Murder in Paradise: The Story of Organized Crime in the Catskills 1920-40.
“It’s a fascinating story,” said Conway. “If it doesn’t get made into a movie it [will be] because I haven’t written it well enough.”
He actually had it “99 percent” completed by 2000, “But my computer crashed and I hadn’t backed it up,” said Conway, adding with a chuckle, “I’m not real good at backing up.”
He had to start his opus from scratch, but feels the end result will be better as his knowledge has evolved.
As far as finding documentation and primary sources, the web has made a huge difference for those who delve into the past.
“It gives me a greater appreciation of the work of earlier historians,” said Conway, who’s done a fair amount of digging in libraries and archives himself. “The research they did was so much more difficult.”
Conway owns a large collection of county newspapers, though the 2006 flood (he and wife Debbie have a home that fronts the Delaware River) did reduce it substantially.
“A lot of the info we dig up is located in books not specifically about Sullivan County,” he said. “There are so many things that have fascinating ties to the county.”
Since Debbie became director of the county-operated Fort Delaware in Narrowsburg two years ago, Conway has dug deeper into the area’s colonial history. It predates, of course, the county’s founding in 1809.
There a surprisingly number of primary sources available, he noted: Missionaries and Indian agents visiting this area wrote about it, the latter in the form of reports for our colonial masters, the British. The written records are obscure, but could be found online, said Conway, who expressed appreciation for librarians who responded to his emailed inquiries.
He related that a number of Native American tribes commissioned him to research their history in our area. This was during the tribes’ attempts to establish a link to “tribal lands” as a basis for establishing casinos in the Town of Thompson.
“We have more access to sources and are developing a better understanding of the colonial period,” Conway said. “We’re gaining a better perspective on those eras.”
As county historian, Conway gets inquiries from filmmakers and writers looking into various aspects of this area. His help was acknowledged in one of the major biographers of the controversial birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, who got a less than welcome reception in Monticello back in 1917.
Holding a degree in mechanical engineering, Conway has made use of this knowledge for a multitude of projects over the years. As far as his day job, he works in the Development Office at The Center for Discovery, dealing with local governments and the community.
But it’s safe to say that his legacy will be intimately bound to the work of preserving and detailing history and passing it on to future generations.
“We try to leave for those who come after us the information [we accumulate],” said Conway.
Information which, presumably, could be the basis for a sequel to Quinlan’s History.
Note: The correct first name for one of Conway’s distinguished predecessors is Manville B. Wakefield.