There are tour guides, and there are Tour Guides
Tom Bernardin started work for the National Park Service in 1978 when he
was hired as an interpretive historian, a formal title for the
well-trained federal tour guides at the newly opened (1976) historic
site of Ellis Island. Unlike today's view behind Ellis Island of a shoreline park
uncluttered Jersey City shoreline, Ellis in 1978 was surrounded by the
gritty industrial activity of a part of the harbor that was in decline.
Rangers could boast of some electric lights on the tour route and of a
total of six flush toilets on the island, and tours moved through
walkways framed above with heavy plywood to protect visitors from
falling plaster. All public visits were restricted to guided tours for
The island had no exhibits, films, displays, dioramas, gift shops or
food available on the island. The rangers were the whole show--they were
master storytellers, greeting each tour at the ferry slip and guiding
visitors through the original part of the island for an hour and a half,
describing the immigration process and answering questions. They also
asked questions of their own, querying former immigrants and their
families about their experiences. An accumulation of these stories added
layers of complexity to each ranger's tours that one cannot find in
today's static displays. Those of us who can compare the old Ellis tours
and present-day Ellis still miss the richness of the earliest tours,
before the island was restored.
The tour season before restoration was limited by the weather, when
travel to unheated buildings was tolerable--about six months a year.
While many seasonal rangers moved on into full-time career positions
elsewhere, Tom preferred to work at Ellis for the months he could and do
something else the rest of the year, such as offering slide lectures
about the island. His interest in this story of immigration inspired him
to run a nationwide search to solicit recipes from the families of
immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. These were published in
The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook.
The following is his introduction to the
cookbook. A passion for history
and a love affair with the Statue of Liberty started it all. . .
1972, on a very serendipitous and rainy November Saturday
shortly after I arrived in New York, I found myself on a
walking tour of cast-iron architecture given by a most
remarkable woman, Margot Gayle. There, squeezed into a
doorway on lower Broadway, I heard the history of New York
unfold through its rich architectural heritage. She spoke so
enthusiastically of the city’s growth and history that as
the gray day turned into a darker evening, I felt as if! had
been transported to nineteenth-century New York. The
cast-iron buildings, lampposts, and street clocks were from
another world. She easily knew the importance of preserving
our past and was most anxious for us to understand. I then
joined Margot’s organization, the Friends Of Cast-iron
Architecture. My membership card arrived attached to a small
magnet to use in testing a building to see if it was made of
iron. I was hooked!
I shortly became a volunteer and would often trek down to
her West Ninth Street Greenwich Village apartment. We spent
many hours typing and talking. It was, and is, a rich and
rewarding experience just to be in her company. Soon we
mounted a campaign to save thirty of’ the old bishop-crook
lampposts that once lined the streets of Manhattan. At that
time I was teaching English to recent immigrants to America
but due to the fiscal crisis of 1976, found myself out of
work. Margot knew I was a collector of Statue of Liberty
memorabilia and suggested I try to find a job there. I was,
and still am, so enamored of the Statue that it had never
occurred to me that one could actually just go there and
find a job. Within a few days I was interviewing for a
position at the Statue and also for one at Ellis Island,
both being part of The Statue of Liberty National Monument.
It was on another rainy cold day in April 1978 that I first
went out to Ellis Island. That was several years before the
restoration began and the buildings were in deplorable
disrepair. Only a small part of the island was safe enough
to take visitors through, and after a two-week orientation
and education program, we started giving tours of this
dramatic and wonderful place. I found myself becoming
gradually more absorbed in the stories of the people who had
come there so many years before. On days when no visitors
came, we had the run of the island and we began to explore.
I’m not sure I encountered any ghosts, but certainly the
deserted island and the buildings were filled with an
overwhelming sense of importance and drama. Being part of
its history and sharing it with wonderful coworkers and
friends was certainly more than I could ever have hoped for.
I returned for two more seasons, leaving shortly before
Ellis closed once again, this time to begin restoration.
It was not so easy to walk away from such a profound
experience, and soon I developed a slide-lecture program
entitled “Ellis Island- The Golden Door.” I presented over
fifty of these programs, mostly to senior-citizen groups and
nursing homes. Many of these people I was now meeting had
been processed at Ellis at the beginning of their lives; and
they were thrilled to know that their deep courage was being
recognized by the people of America. Their “Plymouth Rock”
was being saved for future generations, for all of us to try
and learn of their extraordinary saga.
In giving tours of Ellis and talking with the immigrants, I
became aware of how important food was to their experience,
not just on a nutritional level, but as a means of bringing
with them, and preserving, this part of their earlier lives.
Soon they would shed their old clothes, learn to speak some
English and, reluctantly or not, become Americanized. But
their love for their foods from the old country was
something they could not and, thankfully, did not give up.
The rich smells from their kitchens surely brought a deep
nostalgia for people and places they had left behind.
A couple of years later I did a national recipe search. This
was a new experience for me and I had no idea what to
expect. Well, once again Ellis island has brought me a
heartening experience. The generosity and encouragement of
the responses were beyond my wildest expectations. Some of
the recipes I received were from the immigrants themselves,
but most were from their children and grandchildren. Many,
if not most, were very anxious to share that part of their
lives that was so deeply affected by their immigrant
ancestors. indeed, some of the letters read like love
letters to the past they remember so well through the smells
and memories of sharing foods they loved. I know for myself
that all I have to do is make some Boston Baked Beans, and
the smell alone transports me to Lawrence, Massachusetts,
and the five of us laughing, joking, and teasing, with our
parents desperately trying to maintain order.
My sincerest thanks go to all of you who were so kind to
share your memories with me. And, of course, to my special
friend, Margot Gayle. Thank you all.
November 1991 Tom Bernardin
when he isn't lecturing, writing, or touring around Ellis and Lower
Manhattan, one can find Bernardin working on many historic preservation
projects, such as raising funds to purchase and install historic
replica lampposts in New York City neighborhoods.
Post Office Box 1267
Old Chelsea Station
New York, NY 10113