2012-01-20 / Columnists

Rock Solid

Searching For Fannie Holland
Commentary By Vivian Rattay Carter


Fannie Holland’s granddaughter, Fannie Holland Bamman, circa 1896. Photo courtesy of Marie Velardi. Fannie Holland’s granddaughter, Fannie Holland Bamman, circa 1896. Photo courtesy of Marie Velardi. A long journey concluded for me on January 2, 2012, when I submitted the content for “Images of America: Rockaway Beach,” to the publisher. The book should arrive by summer, 2012; the date will be announced soon on my webpage, www.rockviv.com.

My book tells the stories of several Rockaway families, including Dr. William Werner, star physician, lifeguard and basketball player, who practiced obstetrics at the Rockaway Beach Hospital and Dispensary. William Auer’s Seaside tent colonies, bungalows and amusements are also featured. The many business and civic ventures of John Jamieson, devoted lay leader of First Congregational Church, are also highlighted in sepia. A peep into the history of Rockaway Beach surfing is included, and the St. Camillus Marching Band was a late but prominent addition, after I received several fascinating vintage photos of the unit.

I’ve been wondering what it would have been like to live in America during the pre-bureaucratic era, when holiday parades were the pop culture equivalent of The Super Bowl, all firefighters were volunteers, and the largest employer in the United States was NOT the U.S. Postal Service. In those days, when you received a package, the postmaster printed your name in the newspaper as notice to come in and pick it up. Now THAT gave you a reason to buy the paper!

Over the past three years of research, however, one subject eluded me – Fannie Holland. I looked high and low for anything, but the determined widow who made sure Rockaway Beach became a civilized place, remained a tantalizing mystery. Once, I thought I had found an image of her online, but the young lady in the straw boater and ruffled shirt turned out to be her granddaughter, Fannie Rilla Holland Bamman, who lived a colorful life at Beach 130 and Beach Channel Drive, until her death in 1961.

I may not have found a photo of the woman I call the “Mother of Rockaway Beach,” but I did find some other interesting items.

A tour guide to 1880s Rockaway Beach described the Holland Hotel, with 25 rooms for rent, as “strictly a family hotel, of the quietest, neatest, most comfortable character …Mrs. Holland, the matronly owner, manages everything personally, and every guest receives particular attention and good care.” Too bad hoteliers like Fannie are in short supply today. Instead, we have the infamous Jay Deutchman of Scarsdale and his ilk.

No, I never found a photo of the Holland family matriarch. I ended up finding something better. I actually found Fannie. That is, I found the site of her remains.

I had parked my car in a York College lot one day last April, and walked off in the direction of the Jamaica branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. I had been digging through their historical collection, trying to locate a photograph of Fannie Holland, her obituary, or even a single news article. I had come up empty, time after time. I don’t know why, but as I left the parking lot, I paused to look through a nearby fence at what seemed to be a disheveled clump of weeds.

What I saw took my breath away. My search for Fannie Holland was at an end. There, surrounded by chain link fence, festooned with weeds and vines, and littered with a discarded office chair and items of filthy clothing, were the headstones of Fannie and Michael Holland, and several of their children. This serendipitous discovery stopped me in my tracks.

What was most shocking was my later discovery that the graveyard had truly been abandoned. Someone had apparently locked it and discarded the key! Nobody in the buildings and grounds department at York College had the slightest clue about the cemetery; the First Methodist Church of Jamaica, which had moved to Hillside Avenue at the turn of the century, absolutely denied having any connection to the plots.

Thanks to Quaker Josephine Frost, who transcribed each of the tombstones back in August 1911, we can confirm the names of all 91 people who are buried there. Yet, none of the appropriate state, city, or nonprofit agencies appears to have any clue about the plot at Liberty Avenue and Guy R. Brewer Boulevard. This amazes me, since burial places are still considered important to people of most cultures and religious traditions.

My find on that cold spring day evolved into a dedicated pursuit of remembrance. I began networking with Cate Ludlam, who had spearheaded restoration of nearby Prospect Cemetery. Each time I went to the library, I would stop at the Holland gravesite for a few moments. Now that my book is done, I’d like to be sure that the remains of the Holland family are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. Key settlers of Rockaway Beach, they saw to it that the new village had a school, a church, a post office, a grocery store, and a nice family hotel. Too bad that the guys who wielded power in twentieth century New York City messed it all up, in short order.

Fannie Holland’s contributions may have been overlooked by prior generations simply because she was a woman. We should not do the same. Perhaps by the time the crocuses end their winter hibernation, something can be accomplished. A group of church members, schoolchildren, and Scouts wielding rakes and trash bags would be a good start. How about the first nice weekend in March?

Please send an email to VCARTER@ nyc.rr.com, if you would like to help in this endeavor.

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