(WIVB) – His kids, Jennifer and Jonathan, knew it before he did. Back in the day, while driving around town, Dave Sherman would point out the window to some building and say, ‘There used to be a tavern there’ or ‘That used to be the post office.’
“Dad, you should be on Jeopardy!” they’d tease him. Or better yet, he should become the Amherst town historian.
Now there was an idea. Dave knew the former town historian, Bill Belinson. As managing editor of the nine local Bee newspapers, Sherman knows just about everyone. Belinson’s dad, Jake, had been an acclaimed builder who built a lot of the homes on what became Eggert Road. Dave has seen photos.
But we digress. That’s how it goes with town history. You get sidetracked sometimes. It’s hard to keep your eyes straight ahead when you’re driving the kids home from school.
Anyway, Bill Belinson died in 2007, after serving 13 years as Amherst historian. Sherman went to the funeral and ran into Patricia Lucey, who was co-chair of the town museum and wife of Patrick Lucey, the late town highway superintendent.
Sherman asked Pat Lucey what one had to do to become town historian. “Are you interested?” she said, thrilled to know someone actually wanted the job.
“Well, yeah,” Sherman said. Two weeks later, he was Amherst town historian.
It’s not the most lucrative job. In fact, it pays nothing. But if you’re like Sherman, a man with an infinite passion for history and his town, the position is its own compensation. And yes, you could say he was perfect for the job.
“Because I work at the Bee, I’ve got 140 years of history down in the basement,” he said. “Anything I haven’t committed to memory, I can probably look it up. I love history, so it seemed like a good fit.”
Sherman said about 40 percent of the old Amherst Bees are hard-bound in the basement on Main Street in Williamsville. The rest are on microfilm.
“It’s not for viewing,” he said, “but I know we have the first edition squirreled away somewhere. It was in 1879.”
He has read through some of those old papers and begun a file of particularly interesting news stories. He calls it his “You can’t put that in the paper” file.
“It’s stuff I’ve gleaned through the 1880s and ‘90s, even into the 1940s and 50s that were racist, sexist, inappropriate — and you wonder how it got published,” he said.
There’s a story of an all-black team showing up to play a local team, which refused to take the field. The story said the game was “called because of darkness.”
“Isn’t that awful?” Sherman said. “But I figured, all middle-aged older white men who were putting this thing together. There probably wasn’t a woman in the building, let alone a person of color. That’s a spinoff to being the historian, you get an inside look between the lines.”
A historian’s job is generally to field questions from people who are digging into the past. “I’ve learned to say two things,” he said. “One is ‘I don’t know’ and the other is, ‘I’ll look into it.’ You can’t snow these people.”
Once, a music writer from California called to find out about a store that sold electric guitars in Amherst in the 1950s. Sherman couldn’t find a record of the store. The address was now a church.
But another time, a woman inquired about a photo of a fire at Williamsville South from the 1960s. She said her parents were holding her in their arms in the photo while watching the blaze from the street. He found it in the Bee’s archives.
“I remembered the photo, because it’s also in the fire department’s archives,” Sherman said. “I was able to email it to her and you would have thought she’s won the Publisher’s Clearing House.”
Sherman has been a member of the Amherst volunteer force since his early days at the Bee, which is located directly across Main Street. The town and village offices are right next door in his well-contained civic world.
Sherman, who was born in Rochester, took a job as a reporter at the Bee after graduating from Buffalo State in 1977.
“I got to know all the Amherst cops,” he said. “That’s how I got into the fire department. I was always going to these fires and car wrecks. It was like, ‘Why don’t you join? You’re here anyway.’ So I joined.”
He’ll regale you with history of the fire house on Main, which used to be police headquarters. Sherman will can tell you all about the historic mill, which goes back to 1801. Perhaps his favorite topic is the War of 1812, in which Buffalo was torched by the British shortly before Amherst became a town in 1818.
“After the British burned Buffalo in 1813, Winfield Scott — as in Scott Drive — and his army, his regiment, spent the winter over there on Garrison Road,” Sherman said. “People were afraid the British were not only going to burn Buffalo, they were going to follow those guys to Williamsville.
“The American army camped in our back yard. Actually, over in Garrison Park. That’s why they called it Garrison. I’m convinced they had an army field hospital where the park is now. You go back even to 1850, there was no building on that corner. The homes start a block down.”
Don’t get him started. Did you realize there was a War of 1812 cemetery along Aero Drive in what is now Cheektowaga? He has a map in his basement showing where the bodies are buried in mass graves.
“You can tell that’s what it was,” he said. “If you ask Doug Kohler, the estimate is there’s between 500 and 600 bodies buried there.”
Kohler is the historian for Erie County. Sherman calls him the “real wizard” of local historians. He has an office in the downtown library. He’s also one of Sherman’s biggest fans.
“I’ve known Dave for years, and he’s a community treasure,” Kohler said. “We often think of history in terms of the ‘big’ picture — Saratoga, Gettysburg, the Gold Rush. But more often than not, the history we connect with most meaningfully is the history that’s around us every day.
“That’s what Dave is so good at. He brings out the unknown and underappreciated stories of the community. He helps the people of Amherst appreciate the places and buildings they drive by each morning, or how a street name ties back to one of the town’s founding families.”
Sherman said people are often surprised to know he didn’t grow up in Buffalo. He came from Rochester, “a proud graduate of the Aquinas Institute” and got a gig at the Bee after graduating from Buff State in 1977, after the blizzard.
He was a photographer by trade and had his own darkroom. So while making his way as a photojournalist for small weeklies, he was able to build a successful photography business on the side, specializing in weddings.
Eventually, he became the managing editor for the Bee papers, absorbing himself in the Western New York community while the Bee group expanded into other local towns, like East Aurora, Orchard Park and West Seneca.
Like any young newsman, he dreamed of the big-time. For him, it was the New York Times. His college friends were starting out at tiny papers around the state. But he didn’t want to uproot his wife and “hopscotch” around in search of a bigger place.
Besides, Amherst was growing in leaps and bounds. It kills him when hears people from other towns in the area declare, ‘We don’t want to be like Amherst.’ He stayed.
“You drive the Thruway east and see all these little towns and cities and it’s still 1961,” he said. “I’m not saying it was a deadend, but that’s not really growth. I can do more here.”
At 65, he’s not ready to stop any time soon. On his Twitter account, his motto is “I’m not going quietly.” But he did think he might be, uh, history a year or so ago when he suffered a heart attack.
“I did,” he said. “I had a blockage, 95 percent and I blacked out in my front yard. Luckily, one of my neighbors heard me make some sort of an awful noise. I collapsed and was barely breating. But they got me down to Buffalo General and wheeled me in. They were all waiting for me — I had my Tigers hat on.”
Yeah, he’s a big baseball fan, a fan of the Tigers, Indians and Cubs. He could talk baseball all day. And really, why can’t they play any World Series games in the day, so kids can watch? He remembers listening to Bob Gibson strike out 17 Tigers in the first game of the Series in 1968 while riding a school bus.
Anyway, he bounced back from the heart attack. “Rapid recovery,” as he calls it. He’s running the show for the newspapers, though the pandemic has made it impossible to conduct staff meetings with reporters from around the group.
“I have a very, very good staff right now and we’ve always had a very capable staff,” Sherman said. “I wish I could hang on to them longer. Every Friday now, we have a staff meeting by Zoom, which I don’t like.”
But he’s still putting out newspapers, being engaged in the community, answering questions about the town’s history and watching new history unfold before his eyes. Not a bad life.
“I’ve got a lot to do yet,” he said. “I’m having too much fun. So I’m not going quietly. You’re going to have to run me over with a bus or something, because there’s too much to do. There’s too much joy in life, I guess. And if you don’t appreciate it, you might as well go in the basement and turn off the lights.”
Of course, before switching off the lights, Sherman would probably spend an hour reading old newspapers.