Howard Kroplick said his fascination with history turned from an interest to a passion during an hour-long visit to the Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport.
That led to an eight-year exploration of the Vanderbilt races and publication of two photographic histories, involvement in other historic causes and his being named Town of North Hempstead historian in January.
“I always was fascinated by history,” said Kroplick. “I’m not retired. I’m refocused.”
Kroplick, who had sold the publicity company he owned for 27 years, said following his visit to the Vanderbilt Museum he began an eight-year exploration of the Vanderbilt races and publication of two photographic histories. The books told the story of the races and the race course, Long Island Motor Parkway, the region’s first paved road.
“You can see how Long Island has changed dramatically,” he said of the historical photos in two books he has written.
His interest in the Vanderbilt Cup Races prompted his purchase of a 1909 Alco-6 Racer dubbed Bete Noir (Black Beast) that won two Vanderbilt Cup Races on Long Island in 1909 and 1910.
In 2008, Kroplick bought the Black Beast from a private owner in Brussels, Belgium. Built by the American Locomotive Company in Providence, R.I., it had a top speed of 121 miles per hour in its prime.
Kroplick, 62, had the experience of a lifetime when he wheeled the racer around the Indianapolis 500 race track on Legends Day, the day before the big race in May.
“It was the most exhilarating and terrifying thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I didn’t know whether the car would make it around the track.”
It was the oldest vintage race car on the track that day, but Kroplick survived the experience he preserved with a helmet camera. He said his hands visibly strained at the wheel to keep the car on course at 70 miles per hour as racers of more recent vintage whizzed by at twice that speed.
The Black Beast has also been featured at the Great Neck AutoFest the past two years. Kroplick also owns two vintage Mustangs, including a 1966 Shelby Mustang GT 350.
Kroplick wrote “Vanderbilt Cup Races of Long Island” in 2008, preceded by “The Long Island Motor Parkway” co-authored with Al Velocci that same year. He amassed a collection of 20,000 photographs to select from and found a new passion in the process.
The Vanderbilt races started in 1904 with the first international endurance race in the U.S. - 30 miles long - for the prize of a silver cup contributed by William Vanderbilt, the 26-year-old heir to the vast Vanderbilt fortune. A series of 11 races followed through 1916 along the motor parkway built to facilitate it.
His Web site about the Vanderbilt races (http://vanderbiltcupraces.com/) won two “Webbie” awards for best site in the sports and automotive categories last year.
Kroplick is currently preparing a proposal for a book about North Hempstead’s history for Arcadia Publishing, which published his previous books.
After his two books were published, Kroplick joined the Society of Automotive Historians. The books also led to his position as president of the Long Island Motor Parkway Preservation Society. After a presentation about the books for the members of the Roslyn Landmark Society, he was invited to join that organization and now sits on its board of directors.
A resident of East Hills since 1984 whose backyard was part of the Phipps estate, Kroplick said he already had an interest in the history of Long Island estates. That interest prompted him to lead an effort to restore the Mackey horse, a statue from the Mackey estate that was in another East Hills backyard. He led a successful campaign to raise $100,000 for restoration of that statue.
It was during that effort that Town Clerk Leslie Gross asked him if he’d like to be town historian - a position she told him wouldn’t be too demanding. He said yes, and has been spending 20 to 30 hours a week on various projects to preserve town history since the town board installed him in the job.
He’s hoping the Mackey horse project culminates with the statue’s installation in Roslyn’s Gerry Park. He’s recently received an engineering report to determine whether the ground near the Roslyn Duck Pond intended as the statue’s permanent home can bear its weight. The next step is to obtain estimates for statue foundations meeting the engineering specifications.
“We don’t want the leaning horse of Roslyn,” he said, adding that additional funds will be needed to hoist the horse into place.
But that is hardly an impediment to Kroplick, who bristles with energy as he talks about the projects on his growing list of things to do to preserve North Hempstead’s history.
“We should learn from it. It should be respected,” he said, sitting in his Roslyn waterfront office decorated with automobile memorabilia. “You’ve got to learn from history or you’ll repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Kroplick recalls the wholesale destruction of an historic hotel and several other structures in Jericho in the 1960s that effectively wiped out the record of that community’s history. It’s the sort of mistake he wants to ensure does not recur in North Hempstead.
“Back then they didn’t think about restoring history,” Kroplick
In August, the headstone from the grave of Elizabeth Schenck was replaced an dedicated at her grave site in Port Washington’s Monfort Cemetery, completing one of Kroplick’s projects. That prompted inquiries about other cemetery projects that Kroplick has added to his list. Currently, he is leading an effort to restore the Townsend Cemetery, a family cemetery in East Hills that was the final resting place for 13 members of the prominent merchant family dating back to 1645.
“I did not pay a lot of attention to cemeteries before,” Kroplich said.
Now he’s consulting with other historians on strategies to preserve gravesites, and finding more structures that represent a kind of hidden history in the town.
“I’m finding there are many historical buildings that are around that nobody knows about,” he said.
The monthly reports he issues to the town to provide updates on current projects indicate his focus on helping save landmarks of the town’s history.
“I see this as something I can give back to my community,” he said, “to inform my passion and to learn from the history of the town, to preserve it, educate people on it and make sure we don’t lose it.”