Joshua Stoff is the curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, NY, where since 1982 he has developed the Museum’s collection and exhibits. The museum focuses on the history of aviation and spaceflight as it relates to Long Island, covering its contributions, manufacturers, significant events & aviation pioneers.
A collection of 75 aircraft and spacecraft produced locally or closely related to Long Island are on exhibit in its galleries. Josh is the author of 20 books on aviation and aerospace history.
1 Why is Long Island called ‘The Cradle of Aviation’, and why is its geographic location important?
Long Island is called the Cradle of Aviation because its history goes back to the very dawn of flight, from the experimenters of the 1890s and the first years of the 20th Century. Nassau County, in the central part of Long Island, was known as the Hempstead Plains. It was the largest natural prairie east of the Mississippi, with miles and miles of flat open fields, and was a natural airfield. There was train service from Manhattan, where a lot of the early aviators lived or got their funding from, so the earliest airfields in the country sprung up on Long Island because of its proximity to New York.
The first Air Meets in the U.S. were held at Belmont Park and Nassau Boulevard. In the pioneering years before World War One, aviation and airfields developed here and grew bigger. Because Long Island was situated on the eastern edge of the U.S. and at the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean, any aviator making a trans-Continental or trans-Atlantic flight either began from or ended on Long Island, usually at Roosevelt Field, which was an airport before it was a shopping mall. In the 1920s and 30s, it was the largest civil airport in the U.S.
Every aviator of note came here and made historic flights; Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post…all the greats in aviation. Long Island was either their home or port of call because Roosevelt Field was literally the ’World’s Premier Airport’. It was the center of the aviation world between the two World Wars.
2 As the curator, how important is preserving the institution’s physical archive and collection?
Long Island has had such an incredible history with aviation, and we’re the keepers of the flame, preserving this important part of history, both in deserving aircraft and our tremendous archive, which is one of the best aviation archives on the East Coast with photographs, archival materials, books, and manuals. Since the late 1970s, when the museum began, there’s been a steady build-up of this collection. It is one of the most noteworthy aerospace collections in the U.S., both in terms of the diversity of aircraft and our library and archive, which is kept quiet because that part of the collection is not open to the public.
Researchers contact us all the time, looking for materials. It really is a tremendous collection. Someday, we hope to have the library housed in a new building. We have a capital campaign going on for this- hopefully, that will come to be in the next couple of years.
3 What type of accessible digital assets in the collection does the museum have online?
We’ve had an ongoing project for many years now to digitize our photo collection. There are some 50,000 photographs and 50,000 negatives. We don’t even know what they all are as we are slowly going through them. The eventual goal is to have them all online where people can access them and see the photos and read their captions. A lot of this is already digitized and online.
You could go to our website and click the ‘Archives’ button, or www.nyheritage.org, which will take you to the 30,000 images that are already there. We hope in the future to complete this project. When it’s done, there will probably be 100,000 photos online. They will be accessible to researchers and the media, who can obtain copies if they wish.
4 What are the three oldest or most unique artifacts in the museum’s collection?
Our collection is unique since it is so diverse. We have aircraft covering 100 years of flight, from the earliest years of the 20th Century until today. We have civil and military aircraft, jets, general aviation aircraft, some airline types and we have spacecraft too. What’s unique about it is not the size, like larger aviation museums…because very few have the diversity, range and span of the collection that we have.
Highlights for me are the Bleriot- one of the oldest airplanes in the U.S., an original from 1909, and the type flown on Long Island during the 1910-1911 period; the Grumman Goose, a Pan American airliner -which was acquired in the 1980s and was fully restored. Then there is the Lunar Module, probably the most historic vehicle ever built on Long Island. It is the only spacecraft that took a human being to another world and was built right here by Grumman.
5 Did the pandemic change how the public engages with the museum’s content?
One of the things the pandemic has done is that we’ve moved to a lot more online experiences for education. Our education department now does STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) activities online for schools all around the country. Since many of our educational programs and lessons are online, they can be accessed anywhere in the world. We started a program where students could book a lesson and have a live person showing them things in the museum and teaching them STEM aspects.
Through our digitized collection and website, researchers can contact us anytime, whether they’re writing a book or looking for information or photographs. We keep a low profile with the archive because the curatorial staff is very limited. Someday it will hopefully become more prominent, and once it is promoted, I’m sure that we will be swamped with inquiries.