Sojourner Truth Lived in Ossining

c.1797 – 1893

Sojourner Truth, c. 1864
Photographer: Mathew Brady.
Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

So, Sojourner Truth.  Her name is ubiquitous with Black History month and abolitionism, but what do you know about her?  In an informal, unscientific poll I took, I got answers that ranged from “I think she ran the Underground Railway,” to “Is she going to be on the $20 bill?” to “Didn’t she give some famous speech?”

Only that last part is true.

While Sojourner Truth was indeed an abolitionist, she was so, so much more.  The more I dug down into the details of her life, the more amazed I became at her accomplishments, her fierce determination and her deep spirituality.

First, we’re able to know so much about her because in 1850 she dictated her memoirs to friend Olive Gilbert and they were published.  This Book of Life would be added to and republished in 1878:

You can read it in its entirety here if you’re interested.  (Isn’t the internet great??)

One of the most surprising things I learned about Sojourner Truth is that she was enslaved entirely in New York State.  It’s stunning to me to that the buying and selling of Africans was a thriving business in the North, starting with the very first Dutch inhabitants. By the 1700s, 42% of all New York City households owned slaves, a figure that was second only to Charleston, South Carolina.[1]

Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree, in about 1797, to James and Elizabeth Baumfree.  One of about ten children, the family was enslaved by a Col. Hardenburgh who owned a large farm in Ulster County, NY.

Sojourner Truth plaque in Ulster County

Her first language was Dutch, and she was said to speak with a Dutch accent when speaking English (which then brings into question the stylized “dees, dems and doze” accent she is often quoted as having in her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. But more on that anon.)

At the age of 9 (or so), Isabella was sold “for the sum of one hundred dollars, to one John Nealy, of Ulster County, New York; and she has an impression that in this sale she was connected with a lot of sheep.”[2]

Because at this point (she was NINE!) Isabella could only speak Dutch and the Nealys could only speak English, she was frequently whipped for her misunderstanding and confusion.  Within a few years, she was again sold, this time to a tavern owner named Martinus Schryver who lived nearby in Port Ewen.  She would later describe this as “a wild, out-of-door kind of life. She was expected to carry fish, to hoe corn, to bring roots and herbs from the wood for beers, go to the Strand for a gallon of molasses or liquor as the case might require . . . morally, she retrograded, as their example taught her to curse; and it was here that she took her first oath.”[3]

Within two years, Schryver sold her to a John Dumont in New Paltz, New York.  

So, before she was 15, she had been taken from her family and sold as chattel to three other men.  

Around the age of 18, she was “married to a fellow-slave, named Thomas, who had previously had two wives, one of whom, if not both, had been torn from him and sold far away.”[4]  She would have about five children with Thomas.

Now, beginning in 1799, New York State began slowly abolishing slavery – so slowly, that it would take until 1827 for it to be completely outlawed.  As described in her Narrative:

“After emancipation had been decreed by the State, some years before the time fixed for its consummation, Isabella’s master told her if she would do well, and be faithful, he would give her ‘ free papers,’ one year before she was legally free by statute. In the year 1826, she had a badly diseased hand, which greatly diminished her usefulness; but on the arrival of July 4, 1827, the time specified for her receiving her free papers, she claimed the fulfilment of her master’s promise; but he refused granting it, on account (as he alleged) of the loss he had sustained by her hand.”[5]

Furious, Isabella would sit down and spin about 100 pounds of wool before taking her infant daughter and walking away from the Dumonts early one morning (walked away, not run away. The distinction was important to Isabella.)   She would eventually find herself in the home of the Van Wageners, an abolitionist, Quaker couple.  When John Dumont tracked her to the Van Wageners, they offered $25 for Isabella and her infant.  Dumont acquiesced, and Isabella lived with the Van Wageners (and took their name) until she was legally freed by the State of New York a year later.

Once free, Isabella Van Wagener wanted to find her young son, Peter, who had been sold away by John Dumont at the age of 5.  Now, post-1799, slavery in New York State operated in a bit of a gray area.  While the law abolishing slavery would free all minors once they reached the age of 21, and specifically outlawed selling slaves out of state, these laws were enforced only occasionally.  However, Isabella Baumfree was not to be trifled with and she marched down to the courthouse.  Long story short, she got her son back from Alabama where he’d been sold – a remarkable feat for a woman.

A page from court documents pertaining to Isabella (Baumfree) Van Wagener’s suit to regain her son, Peter.
Credit: NYS Archives

It’s at this point in her life that Isabella Baumfree Van Wagener’s Ossining connection arises.  It’s a very complicated story and even the Narrative doesn’t get into the particulars, but let’s just say that in 1833 she was hired to be a housekeeper for what can really be only called a cult, led by one Prophet Matthias.  They all ended up in a house in Sing Sing/Scarborough called Zion Hill (still standing today as part of the Beechwood condominium complex) living with Benjamin and Ann Folger.

We can be quite certain that she really did live here, because Benjamin Folger implicated her in the murder of one Elijah Pierson, a follower of Matthias and resident of Zion Hill, who mysteriously died after eating blackberries.  But though accused of murder, Isabella went to court, sued Benjamin Folger for libel and, amazingly, won.  See Miguel Hernandez’s article here for a deeper dive.

Isabella would continue working as a servant for about ten more years, before she heard the Lord call on her to preach.  She changed her name to Sojourner Truth on Pentecost Sunday, 1843 and began preaching against slavery.  By all accounts she was a very charismatic speaker and an inspiring singer.   She would go on to dictate her memoirs, and with the proceeds, buy a house in Massachusetts.

In 1851, Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.

Go and read it now.  I’ll wait.  

No really, it’s short, you should read it. Here’s the link again.

Now, the thing is, this is probably not at all an accurate representation of the speech Truth gave. A transcription was published at the time and is very unlike the version that has become associated with Truth.  It wasn’t until 1863 (hmm, what was happening then?)  that the version linked to above became the accepted version. (For more on this, check out Wikipedia here.) But let’s just say it sounds pretty stereotypical linguistically and not at all like someone who spoke with a Dutch accent.

Regardless, I think we can agree that Truth’s speech enlightened many who heard it, as did her life story.

Truth would move to Michigan, join a Seventh Day Adventist sect there, all the while preaching about equality.  

She would die in Battle Creek, MI in 1883, in a home that she owned, bought with money she had earned from her writing and speeches, surrounded by her children.  

A remarkable woman and a remarkable life.


[2] P. 36,

[3] P, 29,

[4] P. 46,

[5] P. 49,

Edith Carpenter Macy – Philanthropist, Leader of Girl Scouts

Edith Carpenter Macy – Philanthropist, Leader of Girl Scouts

Today’s Women’s History Month post is celebrating Edith Carpenter Macy (1869 – 1925).

Edith Carpenter Macy, plaque located at the Edith Macy Center.
Photo from the Girl Scouts Archives

If you’ve ever shopped at the Chilmark Center on the border of Ossining and Briarcliff Manor,  you’ve been wandering through what was part of V. Everitt and Edith Carpenter Macy’s eponymous farm and estate.

Also, if you’ve ever bought a box of Girl Scout cookies, you were enjoying a fundraiser popularized by Edith Macy in the 1920s, in her position as Chair of the Girl Scout Board of Directors.  

Edith Macy lived amidst great privilege.  Marrying Valentine Everit Macy in 1896, she would benefit from his prodigious wealth (he inherited $20 million at the age of 5 thanks to his father’s canny merger with Standard Oil – but more on that in another post).  

The 1900 Census notes that she and Everit had a butler, a 2nd butler, a cook, 3 maids (kitchen, chamber and ladies’), a laundress, and a nurse living with them on Underhill Road.

But though it might sound like she lived the American version of Downton Abbey (sorry, it’s that 2nd butler listed above!) Edith Macy spent much of her time working for the good of others.

Like many of her neighbors (Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, Carrie Chapman Catt and Elizabeth Underhill, just to name a few) Macy participated wholeheartedly in the fight for women’s suffrage.  And once the 19th amendment was passed in 1920, (though let’s not forget that New York State passed a women’s suffrage act in 1917), Macy became the Director of the Westchester League of Women Voters.  

But Edith Macy wasn’t content with only being associated with suffrage – she was also active in charities that directly helped poor women and children.

Now, one of the things I enjoy about writing these posts is that not only do I learn about the individuals I write about, but I gain granular insights into what the world was like “back then.”  In writing up Mrs. Macy’s story, I’m reminded about all the things we take for granted today, such as the right for women to vote, pure food, and not seeing the majority of your children die before they reach adulthood.

One of the many organizations Mrs. Macy was involved in was the Henry Street Settlement.  According to the Scarsdale Inquirier,  “Long before the milk situation in New York city was satisfactory, [she] took an active part in the work of the Henry Street Settlement and furnished pure milk for the babies to that settlement from [her] farm at Chilmark.”[1]

I think it’s worth unpacking that snippet a bit, because we so take for granted that the milk we get in our supermarkets is safe for human consumption.  But back at the turn of the 20th century, that was decidedly not the case.  In 1901, in response to rising infant mortality rates, especially in the poorer sections of Manhattan, the Rockefeller Institute commissioned a report on the sanitary conditions in New York’s milk industry.  They documented the generally filthy conditions found in local dairies, such as open vats of milk stored in stables and near manure piles that resulted in skyhigh bacterial content that sickened and killed thousands of infants.

So this “pure milk” the Macys supplied to the Henry Street Settlement was more than just a small PR stunt – they were actually responding to a serious need until routine pasteurization of milk was adopted in New York City in 1912.

In 1914, she helped found the Westchester County Children’s Association – an organization that still thrives today and, true to its original mission, provides direct support for children’s programs while also lobbying on behalf of policies that will benefit Westchester’s children.

Macy’s interest in women’s suffrage rather naturally steered her to the Girl Scouts, an organization she would help lead from 1919 – 1925.  She thought it was never too early to educate girls about citizenship and how they could be effective, useful members of society.  Indeed, one of her first initiatives was to involve the Girl Scouts in the final campaign that helped pass the 19thAmendment. 

Vintage pin and patch celebrating Edith Macy. Photo credit

Sadly, Edith Macy died suddenly at the age of 55.  In her honor, her husband purchased 200 acres of land and established the Edith Macy Center, a permanent place for Girl Scout leaders to receive training.  The Edith Macy Center at 550 Chappaqua Road is still active today and still named after her.

Dedication of Camp Edith Macy in Great Hall, 1926.
Left to to Right: “Warmth”, Ruth Mitchell; “Light”, Oleda Schrottky; “Food”, Elsa G. Beeker.
Plaque of Edith Macy on the wall behind them
Photo credit the Girl Scouts Archives

[1] Scarsdale Inquirer, Volume VI, Number 12, 14 February 1925

Jeanne Eagels — Star of stage and film.

Jeanne Eagels — Star of stage and film.
Jeanne Eagels, as a war orphan in the 1918 play “Daddies,” produced by David Belasco

Okay, first, if you are under the age of 95, you might ask, who is Jeanne Eagels?

Well, she was a big Broadway and film star in the 1910s and ‘20s — in fact, one of the biggest.

And her Ossining connection is that she owned not one, but two estates here:  a 30-acre estate called “Kringejan” at 1395 Kitchawan Road, and 22-acres of land and a house on Cedar Lane Road.

In fact, I’m convinced that these two photos below were taken in the front garden of Kringejan, 1395 Kitchawan Road (today’s Rt. 134):

And here’s a description of her 2nd home in Ossining, on Cedar Lane Road:

Courtesy of the Ossining Historical Society

In those days, Ossining was quite the place for the gentry to land – businessmen, bankers, writers and actors were snapping up farms and transforming them into elegant country estates.  According to Eric Woodard and Tara Hanks in their biography Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed, Eagels fell in love with the Ossining area when she was making silent films at Thanhouser Studios in New Rochelle.

Hers was the classic “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” story that America values.  A small-town girl comes to the big city and makes good.  She starts by nabbing bit parts in around 1908, and by dint of hard work, talent and luck, reaches the top of her profession before her untimely death at the age of 39.

1924 even found her on a list with Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Guggenheims and Harrimans when the income tax payments of Manhattan’s wealthiest were made public.  

But somehow, that’s not at all how she’s remembered.

She lived most of her life on that tricky front line where she was applauded for her success while at the same time condemned for it.  She was raised up and then torn down time and time again.  The insatiable curiosity of the press and the public transformed almost every detail of her life into something salacious.  

So, let’s try to separate the fact from fiction and give this accomplished woman her due.

Jeanne Eagels was born Amelia Eugenia Eagles in Kansas City, Missouri in 1890.

The story goes that Jean Eagles [sic] ran off with the Dubinsky Brothers Stock Company at the age of 15, though she was really 18.   Starting off with a few small parts (and possibly by marrying one of the Dubinsky brothers) she clawed her way to the top there.  At the time, stock companies were how most people living outside cities got their entertainment in the years before film and radio.  And also how many actors got their starts.

These companies were constantly touring, often doing one night stands, after which the company would sleep sitting upright on chilly trains as they overnighted to the next stop.  They played all sorts of venues, from legitimate theaters to church basements to tents in the nicer weather.  On the rare occasion they played more than one night in a particular town, there were limitations about where they could stay because many hotels wouldn’t rent rooms to actors due to their supposedly loose morals.  (And maybe because more than one had skipped out without paying.)

Sometimes they played in theaters, sometimes in tents . . .

She left the Dubinsky Brothers in 1910 (and changed her name to Jeanne Eagels) to join a tour of Jumpin’ Jupiter, landing on Broadway for three weeks in March of 1911.  While the show was savaged by the critics, Eagels managed to land on her feet and score a job in the chorus of The Pink Lady, a Klaw & Erlanger production.  

Jeanne Eagels is third from the left in this c. 1910 photograph.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library – Billy Rose Theater Division

From here on, she’d continue to work for the most influential producers on Broadway, such as Charles Frohman, David Belasco, and the Shubert brothers.

Arguably, her most famous role was as Sadie Thompson in the play Rain. Whether you know it or not, I can guarantee you’ve heard of it somehow, or at least of the character of Sadie.  Based on what was at the time considered a wicked and immoral story by Somerset Maugham (written in 1921), it’s about a prostitute named Sadie Thompson and the married missionary who falls in love with her as he tries to save her soul.  It was provocative, controversial and just downright shocking.  

Audiences couldn’t get enough of it.

Rain first premiered on Broadway in 1923. Lee Strasberg, the father of Method Acting, called her Sadie “One of the great performances of my theater-going experience . . .  An inner, almost mystic flame engulfed Eagels and it seemed as if she had been brought up to some new dimension of being.”  

(Fun fact:  Gloria Swanson sold her Croton-on-Hudson estate to finance the silent picture version of Rain called Sadie Thompson, which she produced and starred inOther actors connected to Rain in later films include Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth.  And, in 2016, the Old Globe Theater in San Diego premiered a musical version also called Rain. It’s a story that continues to fascinate.)

Anyway, Jeanne Eagels was as big a star as you could be back then.  She appeared on Broadway and took her shows on the road, often selling out when she was the star.  The Cleveland News ran a story about her which noted her “Lightning energy . . . Eyes snap.  Voice trills.  She seizes the attention.” It goes on to praise her realism and emotionalism – attributes it seems that most actresses of the time lacked.

In 1925, Eagels secretly married Ted Coy, a famed Yale football player and supposedly the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. He is still such an icon that in 2008 Sports Illustrated voted him most likely to have won the Heisman Trophy had they had it in 1908.

Ted Coy, legendary Yale football star.

But Eagels didn’t allow marriage to slow down her career.  She stayed with Rain until 1926, when she left to take on the role of Roxie Hart in the original play of Chicago. But her private life – a failing marriage, health problems, mental instability – got the better of her, and she quit that show.

It’s at this point of her career that the legend of her temperamental nature becomes the story. 

Here’s an excerpt from an article in the Milwaukee Sentinel from May 6, 1928, during the tour of Her Cardboard Lover, the show she did after Rain:

Miss Eagel’s eccentricities are of long standing.  Before each performance, the company and management wait anxiously to see if she will appear at all.  When she does, nobody knows what she will do on the stage, and the stage manager stands ready to ring down the curtain in case of trouble.  

The article goes on to describe how she simply disappeared when the show moved from Chicago to Milwaukee:

Days passed, the theatre remained dark, the company idle, the management began to tear its hair, already made gray by the erratic star. Towards the end of the week, the lady of mystery turned up with the simple explanation that “She hadn’t been feeling well.” It was too late to do anything in Milwaukee, but there was a fine advance in St. Louis. So the manager bought flowers for the star and the company took turns petting and pitying her and asking no questions.

But the newly formed Actors’ Equity Association (of which Eagels, along with her New Castle neighbor Holbrook Blinn, had been unsupportive and refused to join) brought her up on charges for behaving unprofessionally, levied a $3,600 fine equal to two weeks’ salary (or $48,000 in 2016 dollars) and banned her from appearing on the Broadway stage for a year. 

In response, Eagels just went off and made films because she could. She had made some silent movies before her stage career took off, and film producers had never stopped clamoring for her.

However, her personal demons were taking over, and after missing two weeks of shooting, she was fired from MGM’s Man, Woman and Sin, a silent film in which she was co-starring with John Gilbert. (Since she’s in the final cut, it seems like most of her scenes had been shot.)  It’s also around this time the gossip columns start calling her “Gin Eagels” because she was known to drink hot gin “prescribed by her doctor to relieve persistent neuralgia.” (Let’s not forget, this is all during Prohibition.)

For the last year of her life, most of her press mentions concern her health (many hospitalizations), her divorce (in lurid detail), and her films.  And, of course her tragic death.

Her last project was a 1928 film called The Letter. It’s her only talkie, and she was posthumously nominated for a Best Actress Oscar Award (it went to Mary Pickford instead.)

Here’s a link to a scene.  She does not look like she is at her best here.

Sadly, the story that’s mostly remembered is the tragedy of her early death, and her erratic behavior.  This was helped along by a titillating biography written in 1930 by a muckraking Chicago reporter.   Called The Rain Girl: The Tragic Story of Jeanne Eagels, her death was attributed to heroin addiction and alcoholism.

Eagels’ story was still bankable in 1957 when Columbia Pictures produced a highly fabricated biopic based on the Doherty book, starring Kim Novak:

Even the New York Times was not immune to capitalizing on her death.  Her 1929 obituary makes sure to remind everyone of her volatility and instability.  It even took the time to follow up on her cause of death, publishing an article several days later that quoted the City Toxicologist’s finding that she “died from an overdose of chloral hydrate, a nerve sedative and soporific.”

The Times would go on to cover her funeral, burial and the settlement of her estate, noting that it totaled over $88,000 (that’s $1.1 million today) and consisted of her Ossining home, nearly $12,000 in jewelry and furs, and a rare Hispano-Suiza autocar.

 A 1927 Hispano-Suiza motorcar. Imagine living in Ossining when cars like that were on the road! Today this car could sell for up to $450,000

Clearly she was troubled and likely an addict of some kind, but I’m not trying to be an apologist here for unprofessional behavior.  The fact of the matter is that she was a remarkably successful actress, and producers kept hiring her because she sold tickets and made money for them.  Looking at her films today, it might be hard to see the appeal, but back then, she was the cat’s meow.

A still from her last picture, The Letter

Kathryn Lawes – The Mother of Sing Sing

Kathryn Lawes – The Mother of Sing Sing

Today’s post highlights the life and work of Kathryn Stanley Lawes, known as the “Mother of Sing Sing.”

Now, Kathryn Lawes’ story was actually my entry into Ossining history – when my husband and I first moved here, one of the first things we did was go to the Ossining Library and check out every book we could find about Ossining.

Of course, many of them were focused on Sing Sing Prison.  Built by convicts in 1825 using stone quarried on site, it has featured prominently in the history and lore of our town. And Hollywood’s films of the 1930s, starring actors like Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, and Bette Davis, and where the terms “Up the River,” “The big house” and “The last mile” were coined, helped burnish the myth and mystery of the prison. (Fun fact: Many of these films were actually shot inside Sing Sing’s walls, using real prisoners as extras and sometimes engaging the actual Warden, Kathryn’s husband Lewis Lawes, to play a version of himself.  In 1934, Warner Brothers even built a brand-new gymnasium for the prison as a thank-you.  Here’s a partial list of films if you’re interested.)

One of the first books I read was Ralph Blumenthal’s “The Miracle at Sing Sing,” a biography of Kathryn’s husband, the progressive and once well-known Warden Lewis Lawes.  In charge of Sing Sing from 1920 to 1941, he instituted many reforms and remains the longest tenured prison warden in its history. He also seems to have had the highest profile of any prison warden ever, appearing in movies, giving lectures world-wide, hosting his own radio program, writing books, articles, a Broadway play, and even a couple of screenplays.  He also oversaw more executions than any other Sing Sing warden (303, to be precise, with four of them women.)

His wife, Kathryn, was beloved by Sing Sing’s inmates — to the point that they all called her “Mother.”  In addition to raising three daughters inside the prison walls, she would regularly go into the prison and visit with the incarcerated.  She arranged for every man to get a Christmas present; she would help them write letters to their families; she would even intercede on their behalf with the Warden on occasion.

In 1937, the Logansport-Pharos-Tribune wrote one of the few articles about her and described how she “Took – not sent –  food and clothes and money to a family left desolate by the husband’s imprisonment.   She saw to it that encouraging letters went to hopeless young criminals.  Many, many dollars found their way from her purse to the pockets of newly released men,  frightened to face freedom again. . . When a convict’s mother or near relative was dying, the convict was permitted to leave the Sing Sing walls for a final visit.   On such occasions instead of going under heavy guard, he was taken in Mrs. Lawes’ own car, often accompanied by the Warden’s wife herself.” [1]  

Her youngest daughter, Cherie, recalled how her mother once gave away a favorite dress of hers so that the daughter of one of “the boys” could wear it to attend a high school dance.

Kathryn hosted Labor Day picnics for inmates, Halloween parties for the neighborhood children, and made sure the mess served special meals for Thanksgiving and other holidays.

The inmates knew that they could trust her, with one quoted as saying that telling Mother Lawes something was “like burying it at sea.”

She was especially kind to those in the death house awaiting execution, quietly helping to make their cells brighter, spending hours talking to them, helping out their families – to the extent of putting the families up in her own home as the execution date drew near and arranging their final visits.   She also made sure that every prisoner had a decent burial if they had no immediate family.

Little things, perhaps, but important.  And so deeply compassionate.  

In 1936, the “boys” sent her this handmade birthday card:

Courtesy of the Lewis Lawes Archive, John Jay College, NYC

Kathryn was born in Elmira, New York in 1885.  Born into genteel poverty, she was ambitious and smart.  At 17, she took a business course and landed a job as a secretary in a paper company.  It’s around that time she met Lewis Lawes, who was working as an errand boy in a neighboring office.  But Lewis’ father was a prison guard at the Elmira Prison, so it was rather natural that his son would follow in his footsteps.

Kathryn and Lewis married in 1905 and started their family.  Lewis quickly rose through the ranks in the New York prison system first in Elmira, then in Auburn.  In 1915, he became Chief Overseer at the Hart Island reformatory, living right in the middle of the facility with Kathryn and their two young daughters.  There, Kathryn found time to work with the boys, some who were as young as 10, giving many of them the first maternal attention they’d ever experienced.     

Still, it’s quite hard to flesh out Kathryn’s story.  She gave very few interviews and those that she did give read like someone wrote them without ever talking to her.  Much of what we know about her surfaced only after her mysterious death.

You see, what makes her story so complex (and dare I say compelling?) is that she died at the age of 52 after falling off the Bear Mountain Bridge.  

What, you say?  But yes, it’s true.

I hate to hijack a Women’s History month post with a true crime mystery, but it can’t be helped.  

On October 30, 1937, the New York Times published an article entitled “Wife of Warden Lawes Dies After a Fall.  Lies Injured all Day at Bear Mountain Span.”  In it, the NYS Police said that she had jumped or fallen from the Bridge. Though conscious when discovered hours later by Warden Lawes, their son-in-law, and Dr. Amos Squire the Westchester County Medical Examiner, she died of her injuries soon after arriving at Ossining Hospital.

A few days later, a follow-up story was published in the Times that quoted heavily from Dr. Amos Squire (the former Sing Sing Prison Doctor as well as Medical Examiner), asserting that he had gone back to the scene of the accident.  There, he found “her high-heeled shoes caught between two boards of a walk” and concluded that she had gone hiking, perhaps venturing down the trail to pick wildflowers.  He surmised that she had tripped, rolled hundreds of feet down the steep embankment towards the river, breaking her leg in the fall.  Then, he asserted, she dragged herself 125 feet to the spot where she was found twelve hours later.

I mean, really.  So many things here –

First, how perfectly horrible.  What a ghastly way to die. How could this have happened to such a universally beloved woman? 

But then, the mind starts to whir . . . Were fifty-two-year-old women in the habit of hiking in 1937?   In high heels?  And how convenient that her high heels remained stuck between “boards of a walk.”  And what about this dragging herself one hundred twenty-five feet southward with a compound fracture to spot where she was finally found?  Finally, was it coincidence that the Westchester County Medical Examiner was Dr. Amos Squire, the former Sing Sing prison doctor and old friend to the Lawes’?  

There’s so much to unpack.  But I’m going to leave it there, for another time.

I’d rather try to concentrate on her life and the good she did in her relatively short time on earth by sharing some of the condolence letters Warden Lawes received. [2]  More than anything, they give us a picture of the truly kind, benevolent influence she had on the lives of so many:

Joe Moran, Prisoner # 47-342 wrote “With the passing of dear Mrs. Lawes, the only ray of sunshine ever to be found within the walls of Sing Sing has gone forever.  She lent courage to the condemned, she comforted the sick and she brightened the lives of the friendless.   The men branded with numbers shall never forget the many kindnesses and acts of charity administered to them by the woman they regarded as their mother.”

Edward McIntyre, a former inmate, said “I don’t believe a kinder soul ever lived.  And I know this from watching her making her daily visits to the sick and being at all times ready to help somebody who was in need.”

Even the mothers of inmates sent in condolences: “She was highly appreciated by me because she was kind to the inmates, especially my son.  Only two weeks ago he praised her to me.  He said ‘Mother, Mrs. Lawes is right fine.  Mrs. Lawes always says ‘hello boys’ in a motherly tone.  And you know, she does not have to recognize us.  But she does.’”

The inmates were inconsolable when they heard the news of her sudden and shocking death. Finally, against his instincts, Warden Lawes was forced to do the unthinkable – open up the prison gates and allow two hundred or so “old-timers” to march up the hill to the Warden’s house to pay their last respects at her bier.  Two hundred men walked through the gates to freedom and two hundred men walked back into the prison.

That year, there was no Halloween party for local children, nor any Christmas presents for the inmates of Sing Sing ever again.

To this day, her good works are remembered by preachers and highlighted in their prayers and sermons

[1] The Whitewright Sun (TX) 11 Dec 1947

[2] Find them in the Lewis Lawes Archive at John Jay College

Margaret (Marge) Griesmer – Founder, Open Door Health Clinic.

Margaret (Marge) Griesmer – Founder, Open Door Health Clinic.

Today I want to focus on someone who made a tremendous difference to thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people in and around Ossining – Margaret “Marge” Griesmer.

Too often I feel these theme months concentrate on folks who are already famous and top of mind for the average person (Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Sally Ride just to name a few.)  While these women of course are extremely influential and deserve our attention, what about those women who work in the shadows, effecting crucial change, but aren’t affiliated with a great cause like abolition, women’s suffrage, or the space program?  What about someone who quietly and methodically labored to bring excellent, low-cost health care to the working poor and marginalized community members?

Now, those of you who live in Ossining are no doubt familiar with the Open Door Medical Center.  Located on Main Street, it’s the original site of what has become a multi-million-dollar chain of Federally-qualified health centers that primarily serve the un- and underinsured throughout Westchester.

Well, the subject of today’s post, Margaret Griesmer, was the driving force behind the founding and development of local, low-cost medical centers that started in an Ossining basement in 1972.

Born in 1934, Griesmer graduated from the Mercy School of Nursing in Detroit, Michigan.  Marrying soon after graduating, she moved to Ossining with her husband and had four children.

In 1970, the family relocated to Berkeley, California for a year when her husband, an IBM mathematician and researcher was granted a sabbatical.

While there, Griesmer volunteered at the Berkeley Free Clinic – a self-determined “radical volunteer health collective . . . that believes that health care is a fundamental human right.”[1]  Griesmer was inspired by what she saw and was determined to replicate the concept in Ossining.

Free health clinics were actually growing in popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s, thanks in part to the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty.   But when New York State decided that maybe such clinics should have some sort of oversight and licensing requirements, many clinics shuttered.  It’s here that Open Door found its niche.  As a registered nurse herself, Griesmer was uniquely positioned to work with local medical professionals and get the needed licensing to operate.

The first Open Door clinic was located in the basement of the First Baptist Church, Ossining.[2]  With an all-volunteer staff (doctors, nurses, technicians) it was only open Tuesday/Thursday nights and Saturday mornings. Still, that first year, the clinic saw over 1,000 patients.[3] Griesmer was also skilled in creating partnerships, and reached out to businesses in the community for support. Just a few of the organizations that contributed in various ways to help fit out that first clinic include IBM, the Ossining Chamber of Commerce, A.L. Myers furniture store, and the Junior League of Westchester [4]

Here’s are a few pages from an early pamphlet that outlines Open Door’s mission and services, printed just as they were moving from the basement of the First Baptist Church to their larger home at 165 Main Street:

1976 Open Door pamphlet
Courtesy of the Ossining Historical Society

Their goals were wide-ranging and egalitarian:

1976 Open Door pamphlet
Courtesy of the Ossining Historical Society

The speed at which Marge Griesmer and her volunteers were able to facilitate their move to 165 Main Street, all while continuing to serve patients at their old location, is astonishing.

1976 Open Door pamphlet
Courtesy of the Ossining Historical Society

In 1988, Open Door took over the adjacent building at 163 Main Street.  Since then, they’ve hired full time physicians, nurses, technicians, dentists, specialists, social workers, psychologists, started a pre-natal program in collaboration with Phelps Hospital, opened centers in Mt. Kisco, Brewster, Mamaroneck, Port Chester, Sleepy Hollow and pioneered school-based health centers in Ossining, Port Chester, and Webutuck.

Open Door in 1987 expanding into 163 Main Street
Photo from Open Door Family Medical Center website

Today Open Door serves over 60,000 patients a year throughout Westchester. And, as has always been the case, their medical centers are open to anyone — fees are on a sliding scale.

In a 1994 New York Times article, Griesmer articulated her goals: “Our mission is to ensure that those who are least able to pay have maximum access to health care. It could be anybody from the small business employee to the immigrant laborer to the part-time worker.”  

In 1998, Griesmer tapped Lindsay Farrell as her successor, a former volunteer who started helping out in 1986.  Farrell continues in the CEO position today, carrying on Marge Griesmer’s vision to make quality health care available to all.

Lindsay Farrell and Marge Griesmer Photo
Photo from Open Door Family Medical Center website


[2] The Gazette, November 2022

[3] The Citizen Register, 2/6/1974

[4] The Citizen Register, 12/19/1972

The Maryknoll Sisters

The Maryknoll Sisters

For today’s post, I thought I’d highlight a group of women who have devoted their lives to making the world a better place – the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic.

Maryknoll Sisters in Punahou, Hawaii c. 1920s
Photo from the Maryknoll Mission Archives

Maryknoll is just one of several places that have a pretty big footprint in Ossining but exist on the sidelines of Ossining’s collective consciousness. At least, I don’t often think about it unless I happen to run (or drive!) along Pinesbridge Road.  

Maryknoll Seminary on Pinesbridge Road, Ossining

But in recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know some of the Sisters there, and their lives and accomplishments are certainly worthy of a Women’s History month post.

First, what exactly IS Maryknoll?  Officially, its title is the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, and includes the Fathers and Brothers of Maryknoll and the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic.  Founded by Father James Walsh and Father Thomas Price, they received Papal approval in 1911 and wasted no time in finding a home for their seminary.  Purchasing several tracts of land in Ossining, they hired Italian masons who had worked on the Croton Dam to build many of the Maryknoll buildings – hence the remarkable stone masonry evident. (According to Brother John Blazo, the Maryknoll Historian, it was decided to give the cupola a particularly Chinese theme in order to motivate the missionaries to go to far away places and spread the word of God.)

But back to the Sisters.  They were founded in 1912 by Mary Josephine “Mollie” Rogers (later known as Mother Mary Joseph.)  She’d gone to Smith College and become inspired by the active Student Volunteer Movement there and the idea of overseas missionary work.  

Mary Josephine “Mollie” Rogers, c. 1910.
Photo from the Maryknoll Mission Archives

Fortuitously, she met Father Walsh and began working in his office to help him get his Society started. Brother Blazo tells the story that Father Walsh had found it increasingly difficult to purchase some of the parcels of land he needed to put together the campus he envisioned.  Sensing that there might be anti-Catholic sentiment at the root of it, Mollie Rogers dressed up in her most formal Smith College-wear and purchased the land on behalf of the Fathers, looking to all the world like a rich, Westchester matron.

Working in tandem with the Fathers and Brothers, it took almost a decade for the Sisters to be officially recognized by the Catholic Church.  Mother Mary Joseph, along with few others, charted a course through unmapped waters – theirs was the first group of American religious women whose primary mission was overseas service. Frankly, it seems like the Church didn’t know what to do with them –  they were rebuffed again and again by Church leadership, both here and in Rome.  But by 1920, they were officially approved to begin their mission work.  Soon, they were serving in faraway places like Manchuria and the Philippines and China, and women from all over the world were joining their Sisterhood.

According to their website, what Mother Mary Joseph asked from her Sisters was “Charity, fearless honesty and speaking the truth in love as they give witness to God’s love and devote their lives to service overseas.” 

Sister Mary Joseph with novitiates at Maryknoll.
Photo from the Maryknoll Mission Archives

World War II interrupted their mission work, especially in Asia – there, some Sisters were put in prison, others were arrested and deported.  Two Sisters disappeared and were never found.  In the States, when Japanese Americans were put in concentration camps, Maryknoll Sisters went with them.

Maryknoll Sisters in China, c. 1940s
Photo from the Maryknoll Mission Archives

Over the decades, they’ve opened schools, clinics and hospitals, expanding their reach into South America, Africa, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.  They’ve nursed lepers in Hawaii, AIDs patients in El Salvador, taught English in Jakarta, provided social work services to Sudanese refugees, guided Vietnamese asylum seekers through a maze of red tape, performed surgery in Guatemala, started health clinics in Tanzania, nursed the sick in South Korea – in short, as their website says, they serve “the poor, the ailing and the marginalized around the world.”

Each one of these remarkable women has gone through rigorous training programs, learned several languages, and lived for years in foreign countries, often in great peril, as they served in some of the most unstable and violent regions in the world. 

The Maryknoll Sisters campus in Ossining offers space for nuns to take a breather between postings, opportunities for further training, and as a home base to serve locally.  Both of my sons fondly remember the Sister who was a regular in their 2nd grade classroom at Brookside School (just across the street), and how it was always a treat to be in her reading group. 

Currently, there are nearly 300 sisters serving in 18 countries.  

My interactions with them have been inspiring and humbling – they are all more informed about current events than anyone I know.  They also take a keen interest in politics and democracy, understanding that it is a potent tool to effect change.  But it’s their sincere belief in social justice, peace, and humanity that really sets them apart.

I asked one of the sisters what made her want to be a missionary nun and she told me the following story: 

 “When I was a very little girl, my father took me to see some shacks that had appeared at the end of our very nice street.  ‘They’re called Hoovervilles,’ he told me. (Yes, Herbert Hoover was President when she was a little girl!)  I cried.  ‘But we have to help these people, they can’t live like that.’ My father shook his head – ‘There are too many of them and they need too much.  There’s nothing we can do.’  Well, I think that was moment that started me on this path – I was only about four years old, but I’ve never forgotten that moment.  Yes, there ARE too many and they DO need a lot.  But there’s always something we can do.”

In the spirit of Women’s History month, may I suggest that you peruse a few of the biographies of these inspiring women here.

Vera Neumann — Legendary Designer

Vera Neumann — Legendary Designer
Vera at work, c. 1970s

Do you know who Vera Neumann was?  Perhaps your mother or grandmother owned a Vera scarf? Or maybe you bought some Vera dish towels from Crate & Barrel or a Vera scarf from Target not too long ago?  She’s an absolute legend in the world of textile design and her Printex printing plant was located right here in Ossining, at 34 State Street.

So settle in, tie a brightly hued scarf around your neck, and read on . . .

Born in 1907 in Stamford, CT, Vera was creative from the time she could hold a pencil.  The story goes that her father nurtured her talent by taking her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every Sunday as well as hiring a sign painter to give her drawing lessons.  Vera went on to study at the Cooper Union and started out as a fashion illustrator and freelance painter of murals for children’s rooms.  (Wouldn’t THAT have been a thing to grow up with on your wall!)

She married her husband George Neumann in the 1940s and they became the power couple of textile design.  With her limitless imagination and his business acumen, they built a wildly successful and long-lived company.  Their first commission was placements for the B. Altman department store, with Vera screen printing the entire run on her dining room table.  After that, it was a race to keep up with demand.  

The post-WWII world complicated matters, and it became difficult to source fabrics.  An oft-repeated story is that Vera came across a stash of silk parachutes in an army surplus store and began screen printing her whimsical, colorful, ever-changing designs on silk and so created her iconic line of scarves.

Outgrowing one studio after another, Vera and George settled in Ossining, buying the former Smith-Robinson House at 34 State Street and fitting it out for their Printex plant.  (An 1810 Georgian mansion, it’s still standing today, barely, and is one of the few remaining buildings in Ossining built with prisoner-quarried Sing Sing marble.)

34 State Street, Smith-Robinson House/Printex
Courtesy of the Westchester County Historical Society

With their living space and office right next to the plant, Vera’s reputation and creativity thrived.  

Vera and George Neumann in the design studio of Printex. Photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. (1951), from the Library of Congress
The Living Room
Photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. (1951), from the Library of Congress

Look at that shiny wood floor! And that fireplace!

The printing plant
Photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. (1951), from the Library of Congress
The office suite of Printex
Photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. (1951), from the Library of Congress

How fabulous was this?  River views and no commute? Wood floors and fireplaces? And just look at the Georgian decoration around those doorways! I wonder if any of it survives today?

The Printex company employed many Ossiningtonians.  Dr. George Hill, their neighbor at 30 State Street, provided medical services to Printex employees.  He also helped connect young people with jobs there.  Local artist Donna Chambers was one of them, and the training and inspiration she received no doubt helped inspire her to become a professional artist who creates remarkable quilts and jewelry today. 

And here’s just a tiny selection of Vera designs, from a 2015 exhibit at the Alexander Gray Gallery in New York:

If we were going to play six degrees of Vera Neumann, we can connect to President Harry S Truman and First Lady Bess Truman, who chose Vera’s Jack-in-the-Pulpit design (below) for the upholstery in the White House solarium. 

Jack-in-the-Pulpit design – note, the shadows are part of the design. It is one of Vera’s most popular, in active use from 1952 to the mid-1980s – a remarkable run!

We can also connect to Marilyn Monroe. who famously wore nothing but a Vera in her last photo shoot (with photographer Bert Stern.) I’d love to post a Marilyn photo here, but I can’t afford the rights, so here’s a link to a photo instead.

But one of the most admirable things, I think, about Vera Neumann is that she kept her price point low enough so anyone could own a Vera. While other designers charged upwards of $25 a scarf, Vera’s averaged from $2 – 10. (Remember inflation! $25 in the 1960s is about $250 today.)  “I don’t believe only the wealthy deserve good design,” she said and meant it.  And her inexhaustible creativity meant that the market was never saturated with the same thing, so even these “cheaper” scarves were unique and special.

In the 1950s, as their family grew, George and Vera decided to build their dream house, reaching out to the leading architect of the day, Marcel Breuer.  On their plot of land at the top of Finney Farm Road in Croton, with magnificent views of the Hudson and beyond, Breuer’s modernist design is a triumph.  Still standing, and recently restored, it was on the market in 2020 for $4.2 million. Take a look here and here.

Vera and George travelled widely and collected art – Alexander Calder (who briefly lived in Croton as a child) was a close friend, and the Neumann lawn was decorated with a large Calder sculpture, a gift from the artist.

In the 1960s, the company branched out into clothing and home textiles, and sales skyrocketed. Here are a few outfits I plucked off Ebay/Pinterest:

And here are some home goods items:

Ooh, I’ll take one of each please!

Sadly George died in 1960 and Vera sold Printex in 1967, though she remained active as a designer and board member for decades.

Vera Neumann in her Ossining studio, c. 1974

She lived in her beautiful home with her dachsunds and cats, swimming daily in her indoor pool until 1981, when she moved in with her daughter in Ossining.  

Vera Neumann died in 1993, designing to the end.  An artist, a trendsetter, a savvy businesswoman, hers was certainly a life well-lived who brought joy to everyone who saw her designs. Check out more of her work here.

Dr. Ruth Murray Underhill – Ossining Anthropologist

It’s Women’s History month and I’m going to try and blog about as many of Ossining’s inspiring women as I can.  (I must editorialize a moment though and confess that I don’t much care for these theme months.  It seems to me we’re perpetuating exactly what we’re hoping to fix, the idea that women’s history or Black history or any of the other myriad histories that are celebrated on a monthly basis are a separate thing from just plain history.  But, until we teach a deeper, more inclusive history, I guess we need to keep doing this. Sigh.) Okay, off my soapbox.  

For my inaugural Women’s History post, I want to share a bit about an Ossining woman I’m sure few have heard of – Dr. Ruth Murray Underhill.

Dr. Ruth Murray Underhill, c. 1960 (University of Denver)

She was one of several remarkable Underhill siblings who pushed the envelope of what was acceptable and expected at the time – her sister Elizabeth was a lawyer, a banker and a suffragist, and her brother Robert a mountaineer.

The daughter of Abram S. Underhill and Anna Murray Underhill, Ruth’s pedigree stretched back to one of the earliest European settlers of this country – Captain John Underhill who arrived on this shore in 1632.  (More on him in a moment.)  Further, according to a 1934 article in the Democratic Register, the Underhills were related to a William Underhill of Stratford-upon-Avon who reportedly sold William Shakespeare his home.  How’s that for a fun fact?

Dr. Ruth Murray Underhill was a renowned anthropologist celebrated for her work with Native Americans.  She was also a social worker, a writer, a lecturer, a professor, a Supervisor with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and a local television/radio host.  Multi-lingual, Underhill spoke several Western languages, as well as Papago and Navajo.

Ruth was born in Ossining in 1883 and grew up in this rambling Victorian at 38 Linden Avenue that her father had built in about 1878. (I’ve always wondered about this grand house just off the corner lot. Now I know.)

She attended Clara Fuller’s Ossining School for Girls and went on to Vassar College, graduating in 1905.

Unsure of her true calling, she spent the next decade searching, briefly serving as a social worker for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, then traveling to Europe to study at the London School of Economics and Munich University. When World War I hit, she volunteered for the Red Cross.

In 1919 she married Charles Crawford, but they would be “divorced amicably” a decade later.  

In 1920 she published a novel entitled White Moth about a successful woman in the business world, which was respectfully if not enthusiastically received.  You can read it here if you like and form your own opinion.

After her divorce, at age 46 she went back to school, enrolling in Columbia University.  Dr. Ruth Benedict, a professor in the Anthropology department (and a bit of a legend), encouraged her to pursue a PhD in the field.  At the time, the Dr. Franz Boas, considered by many to be the “father of modern anthropology” was the Chairman of the Anthropology Department and seemed to be unusually encouraging towards female students – Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston also studied with him, though a bit before Ruth did.

For her doctoral thesis, Underhill lived with and studied the Papago (Tohono O’odham) in southern Arizona for over three years.   Out of that came her Autobiography of a Papago Woman (1936) about Maria Chona, a Papago elder and leader of her tribe.   This was the first published autobiography of a Native American woman.  Now, I cannot tell a lie — some of the attitudes are a little cringy for today’s sensibilities.  But for the time it was groundbreaking – Underhill documented the rites, ceremonies and history of Chona and her tribe.  Underhill even wrote about the rituals surrounding menstruation, which must have been shocking for that time.  Heck, it’s kind of shocking for THIS time.

Underhill received her doctorate in 1937 and began collaborating with Dr. Gladys Reichard at Barnard studying Navajo culture. From there, Underhill went on to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, becoming Supervisor of Indian Education and helping develop curricula for Native American reservation schools.  (The irony of course is that one of her ancestors, Captain John Underhill, is infamous for his brutal tactics against the Native Americans in the 1600s.  He led several bloody massacres and murdered hundreds (if not thousands) of Lenape during the Dutch era in New York State.  Here’s an example of a nearby atrocity he spearheaded.)

Underhill spent her career traveling extensively, studying, writing and teaching. Here’s her 1952 visa to Brazil which I include just because I have this image:


Ruth ended her career as a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Denver and died just shy of her 101st birthday.

Credit: Fremont Davis, 1941.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute Archives

Edward Kemeys – Ossining Artist

This is my inaugural post as the Ossining Town Historian (yes, I was so appointed on January 1, 2023.)  

As such, I thought it appropriate to highlight an Ossining story (okay, Scarborough, but close enough for history.)

Sometimes I think one could easily play Six Degrees of Ossining – mention any person or any place in the entire world and you could connect it back to Ossining (or Scarborough or Briarcliff) in less than six degrees.  

First, for you runners out there, does this statue look familiar?

“Still Hunt” by Edward Kemeys
Central Park, NYC

If you’ve ever run a race in Central Park, you’ll be familiar with the steep hill, sometimes called “Cat Hill,” right after the Boathouse at about East 76thStreet.  It’s there, almost at the top, that you see this remarkably life-like panther crouched in the shadows on top of a rock to your left.  

The story I’m about to share delighted me and I hope you’ll find it just as interesting.

But let’s set the stage first — those of you who are familiar with Ossining might know of Kemeys’ Cove.  Today it’s a condo complex near the Jug Tavern and the Arcadian shopping mall.  But back in the day, it was homestead of one of the first European settlers in the area. (Watch this space for a post about the pre-European people who lived here.)

Just after the Revolutionary War, William Kemeys, a wealthy shipowner from Scarborough, England left the mother country due to his lack of enthusiasm for the Church of England and the social constraints he suffered from because of that.  He came to America looking for tolerance, acceptance and opportunity.  Taking a brief foray up the North River (as the Hudson was called in those days), he found a delightful spot in which to settle: “There he built a long low ceilinged English House of red brick facing south on the cove and called the place Scarborough after the English town from whence he came. The house was still standing about 1870 until the property passed out of the hands of Edward Kemeys, the great grandson of William Kemeys and was demolished.”[1]

Now, it’s this Edward Kemeys that concerns us here.  Born in 1844 in Milledgeville, Georgia (“during a sojourn of his parents to the South”[2]) to Abby Brenton Greene and William Kemeys.  Abby sadly died soon after Edward’s birth, and he spent much of his childhood on the Kemeys homestead in Scarborough, with his grandparents Judge Edward Kemey and Gertrude Bleeker.  

At the outbreak of the Civil War, our young Edward enlisted in the 65th New York Volunteer Regiment, eventually attaining the rank of Captain of Artillery.  Edward and the 65th served nobly at many battles,[3] Antietam and Gettysburg being perhaps the most well-known today.  

After the war, Edward studied civil engineering and helped survey Central Park.  But his heart wasn’t in it — he soon became interested in animal sculpture and went west to study animals (so the story goes) and then to London and Paris to learn how to sculpt.

Here’s a slightly more in-depth history on Kemeys and his work written by the NYC Parks Department[4]

“Still Hunt” was by no means his only famous sculpture – if you’ve ever been to the Art Institute of Chicago, you’ve seen his handiwork —  the two bronze lions at the entrance were sculpted by Kemeys.

One of a pair of lions at the entrance of the Arts Institute of Chicago
sculpted by Edward Kemeys

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also has a number of his works on display – this one, called “Mutual Surprise” is one of my favorites:

“Mutual Surprise” by Edward Kemeys
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here’s a link to his New York Times obituary just because I like obituaries.  

I still do wonder why Edward let the Kemey’s homestead go.  Seems like it would be an idyllic spot for an artist.

But there you have it, from Ossining to Central Park to famous sculptor.  

[1] From a xeroxed history with no author information found at the Ossining Historical Society

[2] From the same xeroxed history with no author information found at the Ossining Historical Society

[3] See here for more:


FDR Park and the Comte de Rochambeau

“The code word is Rochambeau, dig me? . . . You have your orders now, go man go!”  (From Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda)

I originally wrote this post back in December 2022 in honor of the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to the White House:  

French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden toasting each other at the State Dinner hosted at the White House on December 1, 2022 (Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

At the time, there was all sorts of talk about how France was America’s first ally, during our glorious Revolution of 1776.  So, I thought it would be interesting to share some nitty gritty details about a local spot where the French Army encamped during the American Revolution on their way down to Yorktown, Virginia where they helped us defeat the British in 1781.

However, the Harry Potter Forbidden Forest Experience had other ideas.  

They had loaded in an enormous amount of equipment and closed off a big section of Franklin Delano Roosevelt State Park.  And they’d set up right on top of the campsite and the historical markers I sought. But, as of February 15, all is clear and now the story can be told.

(As an aside, if you missed the Harry Potter Experience, it’ll be back next Fall, so try and snag a ticket.  They are not cheap, but it’s definitely a fun experience for young and old.   (No they’re not paying me to say this!)  Plus, the company has left the park better than they found it, with both new and upgraded trails. So win/win.)

On August 21, 1781 Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau and his army first encamped within the boundaries of today’s FDR Park to rest before their big march south to attack the British in Virginia.

General Rochambeau. Painting by Joseph Desire Court (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.)

Local historian Lincoln Diamant wrote about their sojourn in our backyard in this charming article for the New York Times in 1996 (back when the NYT still published charming articles of local history and culture.)

Now, Rochambeau’s army of 3,500 had arrived in Westchester in early July.  They met up with George Washington’s army, camping in Ardsley, and Washington and Rochambeau planned the upcoming offensive.  

Rochambeau commandeered the nearby Odell House in Hartsdale as his headquarters.  (See here for more on this Westchester Historic Site.)

Diamant mentions that the two armies “exchanged civilities,” and shares a description written by a French officer of a banquet the Americans offered that consisted of ”la haute cuisine Americain . . .  vegetables, beef, potatoes, lamb, chicken, salad (dressed with nothing but vinegar), puddings and pie — all heaped upon the same table, and often upon the same plate.”

I can just see the French officers chuckling to each other behind perfumed, lacy handkerchiefs at such peasant fare and rough presentation, can’t you?  Oh, those Americains! I dread to think what the French thought about the wine served.

Washington took a few weeks to decide where he was going to launch what he must have known was the Colonies’ Hail Mary attack on the British.  By late August, Virginia had been selected as the attack point.

The two armies split up and began marching.  The French took a slightly different route, but all were marching through 90* heat, in wool uniforms, carrying heavy loads up to 60 pounds over some pretty hilly terrain. 

It’s at this juncture that Rochambeau’s army stopped in what is today FDR Park, camping near Crom Pond, on the property of one Caleb Frost, a Tory who had long before escaped south behind British lines.  According to Diamant, the precise location of this campsite is noted as near “Solomon Hunt’s Tavern in the pleasant settlement of what is now Yorktown Heights (near the corner of Hallock’s Mill Road and U.S. 202)”

They only stayed one night, heading off to Verplank to cross the Hudson River at King’s Ferry, marching south to Virginia, to the Siege of Yorktown and the Battle of the Chesapeake (I know I don’t need to tell you what happened there.)  Let’s just say that without General Lafayette (who was waiting there in Chesapeake Bay), General Rochambeau, and all the French soldiers fighting and dying for our cause, we would not be the vibrant, independent country we are today. 

So yeah, France really IS our first ally.

But the story doesn’t end there. In 1782, on their way up to Boston to embark on ships that would return them to France, Rochambeau’s army would return to this campsite for almost a month’s stay in September/October. As they packed up to leave, Rochambeau was very nearly arrested. You see, mill owner Hallock was miffed that the French army had cut down trees and destroyed some of his fences (3500 men will do that), and so had the local sheriff try to collect 15,000 livres from Rochambeau in damages. Ever the diplomat, Rochambeau defused the situation by offering to pay a significant, but much lower amount. While I certainly understand Hallock’s ire, in the big picture, Hallock would have likely had nothing if the British had won. Plus, the sign below notes that Rochambeau’s army had made improvements to the Crom Pond to give themselves more access to water and their work had also benefited mill-owner Mr. Hallock. I think Mr. Hallock was being unreasonable. Don’t you?

Here is the sign I have been waiting to photograph

The National Park Service has helpfully put together this Washington – Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Trail Brochure which you can use to follow in the footsteps of these patriots all the way from Boston down to Yorktown, Virginia.    (I know what I’m doing this summer . . .)