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Niagara Falls historian has his own colorful history

NIAGARA FALLS – Teacher, philosopher, author, soldier, historian, politician and most certainly a storyteller.

At age 82, H. William Feder has worn more hats than most of us can dream of.

But Niagara Falls remains a central theme and this former Niagara County legislator continues to have a vision for the city and its renaissance.

He also is the former Niagara County historian. His 620–page doctoral dissertation, which was released in 2000, was a seven-year study of “tunnel town,” which tells of the historic East Falls in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Lost in time to blight, the area was once a bustling hub of the city, home to thousands of immigrants who built the underground tunnels beneath the city that were used to carry the water between the Niagara River and the Niagara Power Project.

Feder said there has been renewed interest in his dissertation, titled “Evolution of an Ethnic Neighborhood That Became United in Diversity,” which is in its fourth printing and is used by many research centers.

As a legislator he initiated and guided the Niagara County Historic Trail Project. He also served in the U.S. Army as a member of the 61st Ranger Team.

Feder, a retired history teacher, has received 36 public service awards and has been a featured speaker for the New York State Conference of Historians.

Despite all his own accomplishments, he speaks with glowing pride of his wife, whom he calls “my bride,” Beverly Feder, the artistic director of the Greater Niagara Ballet Co. They have been married more than 50 years and raised three children, Colleen, Kevin and Cara.

“It starts here,” said Feder of a plan for a Niagara Renaissance. “We have powered the whole world, not only with electricity, but with stories and examples.”

What is a Niagara Renaissance?

I want people to rediscover the magnificent traditions. I want people to see (the city) through the eye of the poet, the architect, the geologist, the militarist, the honeymooner. There are all these visions we don’t see. We only see one part of it. I am hoping we encourage people to see Niagara Falls through all of these eyes, because it is such a delight. It enriches lives all over the world.

Why do people who live here take all of that for granted?

I think it is hard because we are working so hard. People should take time to check out the lunar bow.

What is a lunar bow?

Young men used to say, “Let’s go look at the lunar bow.” They might have had other intentions or they may have had a love of science they wanted to share. It’s a rainbow at night. When you look at the city, you have empty streets and houses and businesses. We need to look for a rainbow in the middle of the night. Maybe we should all go down during the next full moon and look for this.

Isn’t this a myth? Have you seen a lunar bow?

I have, but I haven’t seen it lately. I have to get my eyes re-examined and my hearing aids fixed … But there is a poem that says, “Fair above all is Niagara by moonlight.” They are referring to the lunar bow.

Tell me about your “bride.”

She has done something here in Western New York and Southern Ontario with ballet. I first decided I wanted to marry her … she was putting on a show with 80 children who were handicapped. She had them going on stage. There was not a dry eye in the place and I thought, what a wonderful lady. I figured maybe she could even help me. I had to propose.

How long have you been married?

It will be 51 years this summer. And we have the same birthday, at the same time of the morning. We were both born at 1:15 in the morning on June 29. I don’t know what to say about that.

You seem to have a lot of pride in Niagara Falls, but you don’t just talk about it, you’ve done quite a bit of work on behalf of Niagara Falls.

You don’t want your home to suffer. You want people to see (what Niagara Falls once was). I used to work at the railroad. I was an usher at the show down the way. I used to box for Harry Fuller. I grew up near Deveaux and spent time by the river. There’s a whole story here that has been lost.

What has happened to the Falls today?

People who visit barely get out of their cars. They run over and take pictures with their cellphones. Years ago, when we came by train, they went into a hotel. The hotels had eight or nine barber chairs and lounges. Why would you have these lounges unless people were going to stay?

Have we lost a lifestyle?

I don’t know. Have we torn down better buildings than we put up? (In the Niagara Falls Public Library) they hold the secrets of the past, a belief in what we do … the paintings, the history, the folklore.

Your dissertation spoke to that history.

(As a legislator) I represented the East Side for a long while. Niagara Falls itself once had more immigrants than any city in the state, outside of New York City. Urban renewal wanted to take three churches, Holy Trinity and two Armenian churches. I played a role in stopping that because for Armenians who had lost their homes, the churches became their homes. I went through a lot of tears with people. It was a nasty time. Today, Holy Trinity Society has tours through that church.

You wrote about tunnel town. What is that?

Tunnel town was the forerunner to the East Side. You had all these immigrants … Organized crime, from Toronto to Cleveland, was controlled on the East Side of Niagara Falls.

If you had all the power what would you like to change in the city?

I would like to set up meetings where people can begin to talk and not just talk, but also listen to each other. I’d like to see forums where ideas are discussed. We also have to recognize the people who made this community. There’s the energy of all these magnificent people who came here and made a community. They made their love for their community a way of life. I will be 83 in June and in a way I am cramming for my finals. What do I want to see? So many people had dreams here and wanted to do something. So many people were just beautiful individuals and their dreams are here. Ordinary people’s dreams are here.

Could we see another book from you?

I am trying to write a novel based on the context of what I have done already, but it’s hard. I have trouble with novels … I am attempting to put together one special story that maybe someday others will enjoy.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.