Little Neck: The Evolution of a Village

For purposes…

By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

Little Neck, one of the oldest settlements on Long Island, was still referred to as a village in the early years of the 20th century. An area of some six square miles situated on Long Island’s north shore it lies 14 1/2 miles from Manhattan.

For purposes of comparison it is interesting to note that by 1928 it had a population of 7,500, 85 percent of whom were native-born. A tallied 677 commuted via the Long Island Railroad on the 24-minute ride to Manhattan while a 60-trip monthly ticket cost $9.19. The tax rate was $2.74 per $100 of value and the one newspaper was the Little Neck Ledger founded 85 years ago. Flushing High School was reached via the bus on Northern Boulevard which the then Chamber of Commerce estimated was a “20 minute ride.” The Public Library was housed in the only elementary school, P.S. 94.

Originally, Little Neck was a much larger area and was at one time called Little Madnan’s Neck for the little neck of land jutting out into the bay. That name probably harks back to the Matinicock Indians who originally inhabited the area and called it “Mad-nan-nock.” Some old records refer to that area as “Cornbury” for Lord Cornbury, an English governor. By the late-17th century it was known as Little Neck.

For some time I have been curious about the designation of what I know as Little Neck Bay as “Matthew Garretson’s Bay” on old maps of the area. I have an old postcard from the turn of the 20th century showing Fort Totten at “Matthew Garretson’s Bay.” Recently, I learned that a colony of Dutch settlers under the leadership of Matthew Garretson settled in the area that is present day Little Neck in 1632 and named the bay after their leader. In earlier times it also was called “Schouts Bay.”

Little Neck is a smaller area today than it originally was because the Long Island Railroad established a station in Douglaston parsing off a part of the area in 1876, and it was further diminished in 1928 when Nassau County decided to separate the land on their side of the boundary and call it Great Neck.

When real estate developers came to Little Neck in the early 1900s, they were unhappy with the village’s name and a petition requesting a change was circulated. However the older residents preferred the original name and the petition failed to win support from the majority.

To go back to our story of earlier times, we find that under the English Duke of York, the colonists of the area petitioned for the right to have an assembly and interestingly enough the Duke consulted none other than William Penn who stated that “they should be governed by laws of their own making in order that they be a free people.”

The governing Duke took his advice and in 1683 Thomas Dongan was sent to assume the governorship and brought with him permission for a general assembly to be held. Soon courts of justice and a colonial legislature made up of the governor, his council, and 17 members chosen by the people were established.

After the early days of establishing the settlement, the colonists had time to make their farms and plots more attractive, and Little Neck and the surrounding areas became known for the beauty of their orchards and gardens. The most famous was the French Huguenot, Robert Prince, who started the first nursery on Long Island in Flushing in 1730. The English settlers brought quinces, the Dutch, varieties of currants and gooseberries and the Huguenots imported the Lady Apple and the Belle Pear.

Many old family names have become familiar as they descended down through the years. Prominent among the names going back to the early settlement of Little Neck include Hicks, Cornell, Haviland, and Van Nostrand. Among the notables was the 19th-century farmer poet, Bloodgood Cutter, a rather unusual type of poet who was dubbed “The Poet Lariat,” by Mark Twain when they met on a trip to Europe and the Holy Land.

Wyant Van Zandt donated and had built the original building for the Zion Episcopal Church. Other denominations were to follow and build their houses of worship, including the Little Neck Community Church, St. Peter’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, St. Anastasia Church and Christ Lutheran Church.

Before the advent of the railroad a stage coach operated in Little Neck. Later the coaches would meet the train though earlier they had traveled into the city and back.

Until the early 20th century, farming was the principal way of earning a living in the village, but there were other ways that the natural surroundings offered. Oysters and clams were plentiful in the bay and were sold to buyers at the town dock. Shad were also taken to the New York Market as well as flounder and other small fish. Blacksmiths were essential to the way of life until the early 20th century, and the Alley boasted a grist mill, a woolen mill and a general store nearby.

By 1907 the automobile was coming of age and farms were beginning to change hands — older residents selling to developers. With the growing population and new homes being built, stores appeared on Northern Boulevard and the transition to today’s community evolved from a country village to a suburban enclave of New York City. It was becoming a completely different Little Neck from the small hamlet of 23 houses, a hotel and a church which had comprised the village of 1873.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer. Send any e-mail to JBBAY@aol.com.