P-J’s First Female Editor Makes History Her Story

Cristie Herbst, Chautauqua County Historical Society president, poses outside of the McClurg Museum in Westfield, which has been the home of the society since 1951. Submitted photo

Editor’s Note: The Chautauqua Region Community Foundation is commemorating its 40th anniversary this year. This week’s story was inspired by gifts to The James C. O’Brien and Cristie L. Herbst Fund for Local History

For Cristie Herbst, history isn’t just a passion; it’s a part of who she is.

As The Post-Journal’s first female editor, Herbst has cemented herself in local history, although that was never her intention.

“I never set out to be the first (female editor),” Herbst said. “I think historic milestones mostly are reached without us even noticing at the time.”

During her 30 years as editor, and prior years as a reporter, Herbst combined her love of journalism and history by asking questions and exploring the world around her. She often used the archives at the Chautauqua County Historical Society as a resource when working on stories for the newspaper.

“I always had an interest in the broader topics of national and world history,” she said. “And then I was captivated by local history when I started reading letters and diaries in the Chautauqua County Historical Society’s archives at the McClurg Museum.”

With her interest sparked, Herbst continued digging through the archives, feeding a natural curiosity for people, who they were, what they did and why.

“I became completely hooked when I dove deeply into researching the life of Abigail Fellows,” Herbst said. “She wasn’t anyone you would have heard of. I noticed her because she was the only woman included with 247 prominent men who were given special mention in the 1873 Pioneer History of the Town of Portland. I am still trying to pin down who she was.”

After retiring in 2013, Herbst was invited to serve as a trustee at the county Historical Society and worked closely with fellow history buff, and then society president, James O’Brien.

“James and I worked on several things together,” Herbst explained. “I wrote articles for TimeLines (the Historical Society’s newsletter) and James designed and edited it.”

Herbst and O’Brien also collaborated on exhibits for the museum. She wrote the copy, and he designed the final presentation.

“Chautauqua County is rich in history that has national and international reach,” Herbst said. “From women’s suffrage, segregation in America, heroism on the battlefield, the Supreme Court, humor, and yes, even Marmaduke — you find people connected to those things in our local history.”

In 2014, O’Brien passed away. Following his wishes, a permanent endowment fund to memorialize his and Herbst’s passion for educating others was established at the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation.

The James C. O’Brien and Cristie L. Herbst Fund for Local History will help local historical societies with expenses related to archival supplies, shelving and records management equipment, and local educational initiatives related to history.

“James often talked about the Historical Society’s mission in terms of preserving the life work of previous generations so that people in the future might be inspired by them,” Herbst said.

Today, Herbst serves as president of the Chautauqua County Historical Society and continues to keep history alive for another generation through her volunteerism.

“There are fascinating people just waiting to be discovered in the Historical Society Archives,” Herbst said. “People like Abigail Fellows, and the folks I met as a journalist: ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I want to know about them all.”

For 40 years, the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation has worked together with its inspiring donors, selfless volunteers and grateful community organizations to share their stories for enriching the quality of life for all who live here.

A gift to the Foundation adds another chapter in our community’s unending story. Learn more at crcfonline.org.