Sampson State Park, military museum worth the trip

Originally published August 11, 2007

Dr. Nathan Newman celebrated his 91st birthday last week. Newman practiced dentistry for 65 years then moved to Ithaca two years ago to be near his daughter, Susan. It's because of his story that I'm going to recommend that you drive 33 miles to visit the Sampson World War II Naval War museum and Sampson State Park in Romulus.

Newman was born in August 1916 in Rockaway Beach, Long Island, where his parents had moved to avoid a polio epidemic. After graduating from high school he attended the three-year pre-dental program at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and spent four years at its School of Dentistry. He graduated in June 1941 and immediately applied to the United States Air Corps, which just as quickly turned him down.

As he tells it, “I wanted to serve my country and get rid of Hitler, but the Army sent me a very nice letter telling me there were no commissions available at that time. After Dec. 7, more men and women entered military service so more medics and dentists were required.” 
Provided / Henry Stark
A view of the reconstructed dental room of Dr. Nathan Newman in the military museum at Sampson State Park.
Newman's first assignment was at Maxton Air Base in Laurinburg, N.C., where glider pilots were being trained for the first time. He served as a base dentist for the next 3 1/2 years. Other assignments brought him to Florida and Pennsylvania until 1946 when he was discharged from the army. He returned to New York City, where his parents were living, and worked on starting his own dental practice — but not in the city.
“I liked the country. I had spent all my summers on farms and I always tooted around with the farmers so I was looking for an area outside the city,” he said. An Army buddy had an office in Westchester County's Bedford Hills and told Newman about a vacant office in town. “It was a nice quiet town of only 1,800 people, and the office already had plumbing in place, so I rented it,” he said. It cost him $60 a month.

At this point, Newman had an office with no equipment. Fortunately, an old Army buddy told him about an imminent sale of used military medical equipment at Sampson Naval Training Base on Seneca Lake in Upstate New York, the present location of the Sampson World War II Navy Museum.

“I figured I could get some good equipment cheap, so I took the overnight train from Bedford Hills to be first on line the next morning,” he said. “When I saw about 100 people already on line I thought, what a waste of time and effort this has been!”
Provided / Henry Stark

Dr. Nathan Newman, 91, stands outside the military museum at Sampson State Park in Romulus. In 2004, Newman donated back to the museum the dental equipment he had bought from the former naval training center nearly 60 years earlier.

But the line moved quickly, and in about an hour Newman had purchased an almost-new dental chair as well as an x-ray machine, a dental unit complete with air and water dispenser and drilling equipment, wall cabinets and dental instruments. Newman served patients in a half-dozen Westchester County towns for more than 57 years with the same equipment until he decided to retire in September 2004.

Newman was faced with a problem: since he wouldn't need his office any more, what should he do with all that dental equipment?

A patient who had trained at Sampson during the war had been a volunteer helping to set up the new museum. He knew Newman had purchased his equipment there and wondered if the museum might not like to have it back after 50 years. With the dentist's OK, the patient inquired and the museum management enthusiastically accepted.

And here's the really exciting part. The museum painstakingly replicated Newman's dental office in a room exactly the same size. (It looks like it's about 11 square feet.) The chair, complete with a newly installed mannequin, (Newman assures me he never treated any dummies!), x-ray machine, cabinets, dental unit and dental instruments have all been set up exactly as they were in Bedford Hills, and Newman's diploma is even hanging on the wall.

More about the museum
The military museum, which is located in Sampson State Park, sits on the site of the former Sampson Air Force Base and Sampson Naval Training Station. Part of it is devoted to the Navy and part to the Air Force. It's staffed by WWII veterans who are happy to give you a tour, which, depending on your personal interest, will take 30-60 minutes.
Krystal Westfahl, the museum director, told me she and some of the veterans lead 2 1/2-hour bike tours. (If you don't bring your own bike, you can rent one there.) One tour includes the base and its buildings, and the other concentrates on the history of the land from the last glaciation of Seneca Lake through the present day, with emphasis on World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. During WWII it was the second largest naval training station in the country. Besides five sections of interesting indoor displays the grounds are dotted with vintage airplanes, naval guns, boats and a torpedo.

Sampson State Park
Sampson State Park is one of the largest state parks in our area and one of the most beautiful. Thomas P. Watt, the park's manager, told me, “If you combined the acreage of Robert H. Treman, Allen H. Treman and Buttermilk Falls state parks you'd just about equal the acreage of Sampson State Park.” Watt has been the manager since May 2003 and has just returned from a year of duty in Iraq. The park has 309 camping sites, 245 of which have electricity available.
If you visit the park, you can swim in Seneca Lake and use any of a number of shelters, picnic tables, grills, fireplaces and playgrounds. There's even an outdoor senior (low impact) fitness trail for those of you who might want to discover how out of shape you are. Concessions stands on the grounds sell wings, hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, sodas and ice cream. And if you choose to arrive lakeside, the marina has 103 slips. There's plenty of parking on the shore in case you want to watch the submarine races. (I should probably tell you that “watching the submarine races” is a term from my much younger dating days that many readers will recognize, and some won't. Please don't e-mail me to say you waited five hours and didn't see a sub!)

Henry Stark writes columns on regional travel, wine and food that appear in the Life section of The Ithaca Journal. Send your questions and comments to him at