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TimesLedger history columnist’s passion leads to preservation

On a warm afternoon last week, as another winter continued to slowly fade away, Joan Brown Wettingfeld picked through a pile of artifacts in the sun porch at her Bayside home detailing both the distant and recent history of her neighborhood.

Speaking as though she were conducting a lecture, Wettingfeld picked up a framed map that depicted Bayside as it was in the 1700s and pointed out the family names labeling the neighborhood’s many farm plots.

“Some of the descendants of these families still live in the neighborhood,” she said. Wettingfeld might have added that her husband’s family had a 16-acre farm in Bayside that operated until just after World War II.

When she paused momentarily to think of interesting residents of Bayside, she pointed to the house next door with a smile and then pulled out a novel by Dennis Hamill, a prolific novelist and a columnist for the Daily News.

“He’s my neighbor — a writer,” she explained.

Wettingfeld, who writes a regular column for the TimesLedger Newspapers about the history of Queens, has had a lifelong love affair with recorded events in the past that she said was first bestowed upon her by her father, Joseph Brown, who founded the Bayside Historical Society.

“My father was very good at entertaining us with stories at the dinner table,” she recounted.

While attending PS 130 as a child, she had a teacher who loved to travel and would send Wettingfeld photographs from her summer vacations. She remembered seeing pictures of her teacher on a camel in Egypt as particularly exciting.

After graduating from Bayside High School, Wettingfeld attended Barnard College, where she studied history. An excellent student, she was offered scholarships to several prominent colleges and decided to attend the women’s college at Columbia University — like her father before her who was also a history student — so she could stay at home. She later went to St. John’s University, where she was one of the first students in the school’s new library science program.

It was in 1964 that Wettingfeld became active in preserving Bayside’s history. After her father retired, he was looking for something to do with himself, and soon father and daughter were hard at work to restore and preserve Fort Totten.

“We got Bayside really interested in returning it to what it was,” she said.

When Wettingfeld retired from her career as a librarian in the public schools in 1994, she found herself in the same position as her father had been. She was walking down Bell Boulevard when on impulse she walked into the offices of the Bayside Times and asked the publisher if he would like someone to write a column.

“I noticed you have nothing about the history of this area,” she said.

She is still telling the stories of what once was in Queens and is active on the Bayside Historical Society’s board. She was also on the Borough President’s History Advisory Committee for a number of years.

At the society’s meeting last week Wettingfeld was surprised when President Carol Marian presented her with certificates from state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), Borough President Helen Marshall and City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) recognizing her recent 90th birthday.

“Because I’m 90 years old, I guess they figure they better do something fast,” Wettingfeld quipped.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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