Over the years, North Tonawanda has given away many of its historical records. Now Daniel Bille wants them back.
"With no documents and the death of older generations, the city is losing its collective memory," said Bille, recently appointed as city historian. "We can no longer allow our history to be given away to others."
Bille said he intends to retrieve historical records on the founding of North Tonawanda.
For 40 years, most North Tonawanda city records have been taken across Tonawanda Creek to the Historical Society of the Tonawandas because North Tonawanda had no place to store them, according to H. William Feder, a former county historian and author who taught Niagara history for 30 years.
"North Tonawanda is a city that appears to be losing its identity," Feder said. "But the missing history of North Tonawanda is closer than you think -- it can be found across the canal in Tonawanda."
"North Tonawanda must regain its sense of identity and place to be included in the canal heritage projects of the Tonawandas," Bille said, referring to current efforts to restore the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo. The canal, completed in 1825, runs along Tonawanda Creek and separates North Tonawanda in Niagara County from the City of Tonawanda in Erie County.
At the request of Tom Deasey, Bille's predecessor, the North Tonawanda Common Council voted a year ago to require that the city historian take custody of all city records no longer needed by the city. State law requires that cities maintain historical records.
But so far, the City of Tonawanda has blocked attempts to get the historical records back, Feder said.
"We don't give anything back once they have been given to us," said Willard Dittmar, director of the Museum of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, where the records are being kept. "They were a gift to us to take care of in perpetuity."
The Historical Society of the Tonawandas was chartered to preserve the records and artifacts of the City of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, said City of Tonawanda Mayor Alice Roth. Even if they wanted to, the mayor and Council could not return the records to North Tonawanda, she said.
"They are the property of the Historical Society and not the city," Roth said.
"As good neighbors, we have to act like neighbors," said North Tonawanda Mayor Mary C. Kabasakalian. "When and if historical documents are found, whether they be paper records or old photographs, I'm sure the City of Tonawanda will do the right thing."
Bille said he is negotiating with the board of directors of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas.
Though North Tonawanda currently doesn't have a building in which to store the historical documents, the city has its eye on a couple of possibilities and expects to secure a building by the time it wrests the material from Tonawanda, city officials said.
"We have a common history on both sides of the canal," said Jane Penvose, a Historical Society trustee. "You can't separate them."
Even so, or perhaps because of that, North Tonawanda needs to rediscover itself, Feder said.
"There will always be an interdependency between the cities of North Tonawanda and Tonawanda -- some say it's one city in two counties -- but there's a need to identify and explain the history of North Tonawanda," Feder said. "Dan Bille is attempting to do something that should have been done years ago, to help rescue North Tonawanda from obscurity."
North Tonawanda has had a number of successes in business and industry, Feder added. During the Erie Canal era, it was one of the busiest lumber ports in the world, he said. The town also claims the oldest remaining carousel factory in the United States.
"North Tonawanda has a very rich ethnic history, but there hasn't been any effort that I know of to preserve and document this history," said Feder, who recently published "The Evolution of an Ethnic Neighborhood," a history of Niagara Falls' old East Side.
"Like Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda was blessed with a diversity of ethnic groups, each making a significant contribution in the making of a special city," he added.