The Freeport Story
by Cynthia J. Krieg, Village Historian
Freeport, or as it was originally called Raynor South, later Raynortown, was founded in 1650s by Edward Raynor, after he came from Hempstead village. These were the Great South Woods with beautiful streams, well supplied with fish, flowing to a bay that yielded plenty of fish.
In colonial days, Raynor South was known as a “free port” by seafarers. The legend is that boat captains landed their cargo to avoid the fees charged for bringing goods into New York City or Sag Harbor. More likely, since there were no waterways large enough for big ships to dock, smaller local boats used dock space that local baymen provided without having to pay a fee. In 1853 the residents voted to change the name to Freeport.
Many of the first real changes came with the arrival of the South Side Railroad in 1868. This brought out “city” people who built summer cottages and created a need for such improvements as paved roads, electric lighting and police. A referendum in 1892 decided the issue of incorporation.
In the Gay Nineties era, John J. Randall and his partner, William G. Miller, increased their real estate acreage by filling the lowlands with dirt from the bottom of man made canals. Woodcleft Canal and Randall Bay are examples of these canals.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Freeport was famous for its oysters that were shipped all over the world. Brooklyn purchased many of the local ponds to supply water for its citizens. Oysters require a rare combination of both fresh and salt water to thrive. When Brooklyn pumped out the water, this salinity was adversely affected and the oyster industry went into a decline.
Hotels on or near the waterfront sprung up and Freeport became a popular resort. A 200 room hotel overlooked Woodcleft Canal and there was a beach with a bathhouse. Amusement parks, hotels, inns and other popular bathing beaches were responsible for bringing the rich and famous to the area.
Show business people found Freeport a perfect place to relax and many built homes including Tom Smith (father of aviatrix Elinor Smith), Leo Carrillo and Victor Moore. Over 400 actors called Freeport their home in this period. They formed the actors’ organization that became world famous. The LIGHTS (Long Island Good Hearted Thespian Society) built its clubhouse on Fairview Avenue and its members often gave far reaching publicity to Freeport when they mentioned the village in their stage shows all over the world. Some of these members included John Philip Sousa, Gentleman Jim Corbett, Al Jolson, the Ringling Brothers, Will Rogers, Flo Ziegfeld and Irving Berlin. Later show biz personalities who lived in Freeport were Gabriel Heatter and Guy Lombardo.
Boating and fishing, both sport and commercial, abound here, and the Nautical Mile (Woodcleft Avenue) is a working port with docks for commercial fishing boats, retail fish stores, boat dealers, boutiques and fabulous restaurants. We have just added a marina for boaters to come in and enjoy our waterfront. In the Great South Bay are bayhouses that are still being used by our baymen.
Freeport residents are proud of our municipal assets: water department with its own wells, power plant (one of three incorporated villages on Long Island who do so), a police force and a volunteer fire department. Other assets include a recreation complex with both indoor and outdoor swimming pools, steam and sauna, exercise room, gymnasium and ice rink. A variety of programs are offered at the Rec and other village parks.
Our culturally diverse village of 43,000 also features a public library that was built, in 1924, with community contributions, as a memorial to our veterans from the Civil War to the present. The Freeport Historical Society was organized in 1942 and purchased its museum (an 1861 bayman’s shack) in 1962. Its mission is to preserve and celebrate Freeport’s long history.
Freeport is located in Nassau County and the Township of Hempstead. There are three townships (North Hempstead, Hempstead and Oyster Bay). These date from colonial times. North Hempstead broke from Hempstead during the Revolution, because of a basic disagreement over which side to support. There are also two cities: Glen Cove and Long Beach. Each of these governmental entities delivers services (and collects taxes).