August 18th marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in federal elections. Although New York extended suffrage to women in 1917, communities across the state are taking this opportunity to remember the roles and contributions of local women. Dutchess County Clerk Bradford H. Kendall joins these celebrations by highlighting the work of Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, one of the most outstanding historians of Dutchess County.
Helen Wilkinson Reynolds (December 9, 1875- January 3, 1943) was a member of the prominent Reynolds Family of Poughkeepsie and a prodigious scholar of Dutchess County History. In a career spanning 32 years, she conducted research into practically every aspect of the county’s past, publishing numerous articles and books. Though best known for her two groundbreaking works on local architecture (Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley before 1776 and Dutchess County Doorways), her writings spanned the spectrum between studies of local plants to the records of churches and municipalities.
Poughkeepsie-based Historian Holly Wahlberg observed that Reynolds “confronted difficult challenges including inaccessible and decaying historical records, vanishing local landmarks, limited publication opportunities for local historical research, and the tendency by some to dismiss the importance of local history. Reynolds’ energy and impeccable standards of scholarship elevated local history to a new level of usefulness and reliability.”
Former County Historian Joyce Ghee has pointed out how extraordinary Reynolds’ accomplishments were: “Helen Wilkinson Reynolds was a woman with not a degree to her name, not even a high school diploma. A spinal affliction brought her formal education to an end at age 15. Everything she became – historian, researcher, writer, institution leader, and advisor to public leaders – was of her own making.”
Reynolds joined the Dutchess County Historical Society soon after its founding in 1914, becoming editor of the annual Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook in 1921. In partnership with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she launched the society’s long-running publication series, which documented details ranging from gravestone inscriptions to early colonial municipal records.
Her diverse projects frequently brought her to the Dutchess County Clerk’s Office to consult deeds and other records maintained by the county. As part of that work, Reynolds developed an index of maps contained in early deeds that are not replicated in the other county map collections. The index and corresponding maps have been digitized with searchable features and full color scans. The atlas is accessible by visiting: https://www.dutchessny.gov/Departments/County-Clerk/Docs/Un_Indexe_Map_Atlas.pdf.
Dutchess County Clerk Bradford H. Kendall stated, “Helen Wilkinson Reynolds was both an outstanding historian and a symbol of the central role that women have played in making and documenting Dutchess County History. Her guide to our rare early maps, which is now available on our Historical Resources page, demonstrates that her work remains essential a century later.”
“Although she never served as Dutchess County Historian, Helen Wilkinson Reynolds looms large in the history of Dutchess County and as a historian of our county,” said County Historian William P. Tatum III, “She truly established Dutchess County History as an independent field of study. Practically every study of Dutchess County’s past intersects with her scholarship in some fashion.”
For more information on Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, please consult Volume 28 (1943) of the Dutchess Historical Society Yearbook, which is accessible for free online via the Dutchess County Historical Society website at dchsny.org/yearbook/.