Spring Valley Mine

Spring Valley Mine

Running along Spring Valley Road, I’ve always been intrigued by the big mound that’s at the corner of Spring Valley and Glendale. Do you know the one I mean?

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But, as is so often the case with these curious and intriguing sites I run by (and really, the whole reason I started this blog), I wonder about them in the moment,  but immediately forget about them as soon as I’ve passed.  In this case, however, someone else had noticed this mound and casually mentioned that the mound was the tailings of a silver mine from the 1800s. Wait, what? A mine? A SILVER mine? Right in our neighborhood? And when in the 1800s was it worked?  By whom?

Then, more recently, in the course of hearings for the expansion of the Sunshine Home, folks started protesting about proposed digging and blasting that would take place right above this mine. (Check out this link for more details.)   Hmm, so the mine extends from Glendale almost down to Cedar Lane Park?

One local affirmed that there is indeed a mine behind the houses on Spring Valley Road.  He told me that there was an entrance on his property, and years ago he’d poked around inside the first chamber.  Then the ceiling was about 5 feet high. However, now it’s filled with sand and mud with a constant stream of water running out of it — he said he’d even rigged up a pipe to take advantage of the mine to water his garden. He also told me that he had a neighbor who had been born there in the 1920s and told stories of swimming in the mine with his brother. Ah, yes, the good old days before the kiddies were tied to their tablets and screens!

But what was the story of this mine? Was there really silver in there? Who discovered it? How much was dug out, who did the mining – oh, so many questions!

First, mining was, if not a big business in Ossining, at least fairly well established. According to this New York Times article from 1856, a productive silver mine was located  “A few rods north of the State Prison, the entrance being only a few feet from the river and on a level with the railroad. It consists of a perpendicular shaft 130 feet in depth, having as many as nine chambers or galleries branching off in various directions, and severally of 80 to 100 feet in length.”

According to this same article, silver was first found at that site in 1770. Here the reporter gets quite purple with his prose, describing how “A fisherman found near the mouth of the present shaft what proved to be a lump of silver cropping out from a limestone rock. He subsequently tried to explore further by means of a powder blast but, unfortunately, his hopes themselves were blasted . . . and the poor fisherman received no other reward than that what beneficent Nature kindly bestowed, by silvering o’er his head with age.”

Ouch, New York Times! Who knew they were so punny back in the day?

I only share this story in such detail because I think the tone of it is pretty amusing and it shows that mining, specifically silver mining, was a going concern in the area since before the Revolutionary War. The article goes on to say that the ore retrieved from that particular mine there was turned into bars of silver bullion nine to twelve inches in length.  That’s a lot of silver!  However, many, if not all of the investors were members of the British Army, so the War put a stop to mining operations.   (Sorry Redcoats!)  It wasn’t until the 1850s that mining recommenced, when patent medicine maker Benjamin Brandreth decided to try to restart the mine.

Here’s an interesting article link and a photo of the now-blocked up mine shaft.  (I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this from the train.)

Copper and lead had also been discovered in the nearby Kemey’s Cove area in the 1820s.  Called the Sparta Mine, it was excavated by the Westchester Copper Mine Company who   brought miners over from Cornwall, England to work the site.  Funny how much of Ossining seems to have been settled by people coming from far away — England, Portugal, Italy, South America, just to name a few.  But I digress . . .

Okay, these are quite nice stories, I hear you saying, but you’ve fallen into an Internet hole.  What do they have to do with a mine all the way across town on Spring Valley Road?  Well, I thought it interesting to think of Ossining, Sing Sing then, being a mining town.  Plus, it lends credence to the idea that mines were not uncommon back then.

So back to Spring Valley . . .

The Westchester County Historical Society has a photo of our Spring Valley Mine – well, at least a photo of the mine opening:

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They describe it as the “Old Silver mine on Rose property on corner of Spring Valley Road and Glendale.”  I think this is located at the bottom of that mound mentioned earlier.

Gray Williams, the Town of New Castle historian, has established that a Mr. Williams (a relative perhaps?) owned property with a silver mine at #31 Spring Valley Road in the 1850s and it seems that the mines were noted between 1850-1862 on local maps.

Further research led me to another local historian who has made an exhaustive search of Westchester County records, and sheds a bit more light on this specific area.

He’s traced land ownership back to 1784, when a Lewis Miller received property in Mount Pleasant (now Ossining) from the Forfeiture committee. (I can only assume that this means the land had previously been owned by Loyalists, was seized by New York State after the Revolutionary War and auctioned off. Check out this informative article from the New York Public Library site for more information on how that all went down.)

Now, the following is pretty dry — I’m reproducing what amounts to a chain of title in rather excruciating detail because I think it clarifies the location of the Spring Valley Mine, or at the very least establishes that a mine did indeed exist.   Feel free to skip ahead . . .

Lewis Miller died in 1831 and his will instructed his executors to sell his real estate only after the death of his wife. (Considerate fellow, no?)  His legatees were told to use money from the estate to support Henry Hunter, “a colored man.” Hannah Miller, Lewis’ widow, died in 1854. Henry Hunter lived in the house on the property until his death in 1864.  (I wonder if Henry Hunter was a slave or a freeman like his neighbors up the road, the Heady family.)

Though no record of land purchase exists, in 1864, a 40 ¼ acre plot was sold to Josiah Lewis by the executors of the estate of Lewis Miller.[Liber 536, p.91] The property was described as being approximately 158 feet from the road, and near the mouth of a silver mine.  The red outline of the map below shows the boundaries of this parcel:

map

Basically, it looks like it encompassed what are today the Cedar Lane Park and Sunshine Home parcels.

Josiah Miller kept this property until 1893 when he sold it to Harry R. Miller of New York City. [Liber 1307, p.389] Harry Miller defaulted on his mortgage and the land was sold at auction to George H. Fowler in 1898. [Liber 1491, p.58] Fowler sold to Edwin McAlpin in 1905; McAlpin sold to Edgar VanEtten in 1912 and VanEtten to Russ H. Kress in 1917. (Russ Kress’ property was featured in this blog post.)

Then, there are three smaller properties along Spring Valley Road on the map above labeled R.E. Robinson, S. Lewis and J.B. Carpenter that make up the original property of William Edwards, who purchased it in 1856 from Martin W. Sanford. [Liber 360, p. 186.]  The names are hard to read, but you can take my word for it.

William Edwards sold the portion of the Edwards land labeled J.B. Carpenter, which borders the original Lewis Miller property near the location of the silver mine, to his daughter Elizabeth Ann Smith in 1879. [Liber 965, p. 366]   Neither of these deeds mention a silver mine, but in 1846 when Sanford bought the property from Richard Palmer, the deed refers to the same corner as being “near a mine hole.” [Liber 188, p. 134] When Palmer bought the land in 1843 from John Smith, the deed says that the tree at the corner is “a few feet south of the old mine.” [Liber 104, p. 213] Smith bought the land from John R. Swift in 1840, with the same wording regarding the mine in the deed. [Liber 92, p. 349] In 1837, John H. Hammond to John R. Swift – same language. [liber 72, p.107] 1833, Hammond buys from Henry Hunter (same Henry Hunter from above)[Liber 51, p. 179] 1828, Lewis Miller and Hannah, his wife sell to Henry Hunter, “a colored man” for $40 the approximately four acres of land, the western corner described as being “near the mouth of the mine hole.” [Liber 34, p.415]  This part is a little confusing to me, because earlier it was noted that Lewis Miller’s 1831 will instructed that Henry Hunter should be supported by Miller’s estate.  But I suppose they could have sold him a bit of land AND helped support him.  (Interestingly, the 1817 New York State Gradual Emancipation Act decreed that all slaves born before 1799, were to be freed by 1827.)  Perhaps this was Lewis and Hannah Miller’s way of emancipating and helping out a former slave?

But okay, okay, enough.   You get the picture.  There definitely was a mine (and probably some slaves too) in the neighborhood.

Sadly, I’ve not been able to uncover any information about the mine itself, just that it existed.  I don’t even know what was mined there, or when it was active.  I can only surmise, based on the comments from the titles and deeds listed above, that the mine was discovered and worked sometime before 1828, as that is the first mention of a mine or a mine hole.  But nowhere is there a mention of an active mine, and I’ve hit a dead end in my research.  (If anyone else knows more, please comment!)

Now, just to throw some confusion into our story, I discovered another New York Times article, this one from May of 1894, that seems to describe two mines in this general area:

NYT 3

Hmm, where could this road over “Long Hill” to Yorktown be?  Is this our Spring Valley mine?

The article goes on to describe another mine in the area:

NYT 2

Now, according to an old map I own (c. 1890s?), there was indeed an old church located at the corner of what is now Spring Valley Road and Blinn Farm Road.  Are there ruins of an old mine here, too?

Map 1890

This article is certainly clouding the issue of exactly where and what kind of mine(s) we are discussing.  However, my confidence in the reliability of this article is rather shattered by the last paragraph of the article:

NYT 1

Am I reading this right?  It is almost as if this reporter is suggesting that since no records exist of these mines, they must have been built BEFORE the Native American settlers, by some “Race whose history is unknown to us.”  You don’t just think, anonymous 19th century New York Times reporter, that there are records somewhere, but you were just unable to find them?

But hey, why not assume that these mines were constructed by some unknown race?  Who knows, maybe the Nine were digging mines here long before Andrija Puharich moved here and communicated with them via cassette tape?  (Inside joke.  Check out this blog link for more info.)

However, as mentioned before, New Castle historian Gray Williams found that the existence of mines in this area were noted on maps from the 1850s.  And the various titles of the properties in question consistently refer to a mine or mine holes.  So many people seemed to be aware of these mines.  The only conclusion I can draw about the above article is that this New York Times reporter from 1894 didn’t research this very well.  Plus, I think it’s been fairly well-established for quite a while that Native Americans resided here for at least 3,000 years before Henry Hudson showed up in the 1600s.

This is turning out to be a rather unsatisfying post — I feel as if I’ve uncovered a lot of details, but ultimately don’t really know any more than when I started.  Which was that there was a mine of some sort that operated at some point in the 1800s along some section of Spring Valley Road.

If anyone reading this has anything to add, please write a comment!!!

 

George DeBarbiery — Ossining World War I casualty

George DeBarbiery — Ossining World War I casualty

Driving by, or visiting St. Augustine’s cemetery, have you ever noticed this grave, this statue of a World War I doughboy?

George silhouette

This is one of those little local mysteries I’ve wondered about for years and have only just stumbled across enough information to inspire further research. So sit back, brew yourself a cup of tea, and let’s begin.

I happen to be a World War I history buff – “All Quiet on the Western Front” is seriously one of my favorite books. Plus, I had a great-Uncle who died in 1916 in the Battle of the Somme, so this grave has always intrigued me. All it says on it is “DeBarbiery” and it wasn’t until fairly recently that someone clued me in to the footnote at the base:

George Plaque“Sergt. George De Barbiery, 1890 – 1918, Co. A, 305th Inf’y, Died in France”

So, who was George DeBarbiery? And why did he rate such an elaborate grave?

Well, he was one of Ossining’s own who heard the call and enlisted. A member of Company A of the 305th Infantry who died in France just six weeks before the Great War ended.

Joseph George De Barbiery was born on July 17, 1890 and, according to the 1915 census, George lived with his parents Lorenzo and Louisa at 21 North Highland Avenue. Both of his parents were born in Italy – his father in 1854 and his mother in 1860, and both came to the United States as teenagers. By 1915, they were naturalized US citizens. George was a “natural born citizen” and, it seems, their only child, still living at home at the age of 25 and working as a roofer. By the time he enlisted, in 1917, he’d changed jobs and was a “master doorhanger” for the Chevrolet Auto Works in Tarrytown.

According to his draft registration card (signed by Danbury Brandreth, for you Ossining historians!) he was of medium height and build with dark brown hair and eyes. He was not bald and his Army serial number was 1,696, 987.George De Barbiery Draft card

(Have I mentioned how much I love the Internet??)

He enlisted as a private, was promoted to corporal two months later, shipped over to France in April of 1918, and was promoted to sergeant in August of 1918. He died in September from wounds received in action.

It’s often forgotten that WWI was not a popular war in the US. It began on July 28, 1914, a month after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary, was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist. Then all hell broke loose – the Russians mobilized, the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia, the Germans invaded Belgium and Luxembourg and started in on France, which caused Great Britain to get involved, the Ottomans jumped in and — No, wait, don’t doze off, it gets better!

Yet, while Europe was erupting in war of previously unseen scale, the US didn’t get involved until 1917. An attempt to raise a volunteer army was made, but it took the Selective Service Act of 1917, which instituted a draft for all able-bodied men between the ages of 21- 30, to amass enough men to fight.

Anyway, our man George was swept up in that draft, registering on June 5, 1917. I wonder how he felt about it – seems like he had a good job, though he was still living with his parents. His draft card notes that he had served as a “coal passer” in the US Navy for two months at some point, so this wasn’t his first experience with the military. (I just started going down an Internet hole to find more information on this previous service, but have restrained myself as I’d like to post this to the blog some time this year . . .)

On September 10, 1917, he got on a train heading to Camp Upton on Long Island for three months of basic training. (Today that’s the site of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.)

Now, all the rest of the information I’ve found comes from the difficult-to-read-but-fascinating-nonetheless “History of the 305th.” Take a gander here if you have the time.

Irvin Cobb, in the Saturday Evening Post, wrote of these recruits:

“I saw them when they first landed at Camp Upton, furtive, frightened, slow-footed, slack-shouldered, underfed, apprehensive — a huddle of unhappy aliens, speaking in alien tongues, and knowing little of the cause for which they must fight, and possibly caring less. I saw them again three months later, when the snow of the dreadful winter of 1917-1918 was piling high about their wooden barracks down there on wind-swept Long Island. The stoop was beginning to come out of their spines, the shamble out of their gait. They had learned to hold their heads up; had learned to look every man in the eye and tell him to go elsewhere, with a capital H. They knew now that discipline was not punishment, and that the salute was not a mark of servility, but an evidence of mutual self-respect between officer and man. They wore their uniforms with pride. The flag meant something to them and the war meant something to them. Three short, hard months of training had transformed them from a rabble into soldier stuff; from a street mob into the makings of an army; from strangers into Americans. After nine months I have seen them once more in France. For swagger, for snap, for smartness in the drill, for cockiness in the billet, for good-humor on the march, and for dash and spunk and deviltry in the fighting into which just lately they have been sent, our Army can show no better and no more gallant warriors than the lads who mainly make up the rank and file of this particular division.”

Our George was one of those cocky, good-humored men.

(An interesting tangent – Irving Berlin, who was gain later fame as a Broadway composer/lyricist, was a recruit there too, and wrote a revue in 1918 called “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” that featured this song:

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Of course, George deBarbiery didn’t get to enjoy the pre-Broadway tryout that took place in Camp Upton in July 1918 because he was already in France at that point.)

George would have trained at Camp Upton from September 1917 – April 1918, when he was shipped over to France. Apparently, that was one of the most brutal winters ever experienced on Long Island: “Many a day was spent indoors on account of the cold, the thermometer at times venturing to twenty below zero. The wind whistled through the chinks of the draughty barracks; the cannon stoves waxed red hot; the thud of rifle butts on the mess hall floor resounded early and late.”

So, the recruits spent much time indoors, singing company songs like these:

I took out ten thousand Insurance,
For bonds I gave fifteen bucks more,
To wifey and mother
I ‘lotted another
Ten dollars, and then furthermore.
I ran up big bills at the Laundromat
And finally payday was there.
I went up for my dough.
But the answer was “NO”
You’ve already drawn more than your share.

In April, the war began in earnest for George and the rest of the 305th:

“An ominous twenty-four-hour leave in which to attend to final business affairs was granted early in April. The advance party of the Division had sailed. On Palm Sunday, it seemed that every woman within a radius of a hundred miles came to see Johnny off; the camp never looked so decorative; tearful wives, mothers and sweethearts were there by the thousands to say “Good-by.” Yet the agony had all to be gone through with again, another week-end. At last, on Sunday morning, the fourteenth, we were told to line up and empty our bedsacks of straw and to pack the barrack bags— more fuss than a bride might have packing her trousseau. Repeated formations; repeated inspections, eliminating this and that. Yet some of the boys carried away enough to stock a country store. Then, in the night, barracks were policed for the last time ere the troops marched silently to the waiting trains — a secret troop movement which all the world could have known about. Not a man was absent from his place, a fact which speaks wonderfully for the spirit and discipline of these New York boys, about to leave home, the most wonderful city and the most wonderful people in the world— about to undertake the most difficult and heartbreaking job of their lives.”

I wonder if Lorenzo and Louisa, George’s parents, made the trip from Ossining to Yaphank to bid their only son goodbye. I know I would have.

Arriving at the docks in Manhattan, George and the rest of the 305th boarded two British troopships bound for Europe – the RMS Cedric and RMS Vauban. An account of that survives in the ever-helpful “History of the 305th”:

“Everybody gotta go below decks! Not to have one last, long, lingering look at the harbor — at Old Girl Liberty, whose shape adorns all our baggage? There was nothing secret about the way we boarded the Cedric and the Vauhan. Despite the fact that when our ferry-boats steamed from Long Island City around the Battery to the piers, the skyscrapers of lower New York waved countless handkerchiefs, and whistles tooted like mad, someone thinks that if we all keep below while the transport steams down the Harbor in broad daylight, no German Secret Service agent will suspect for a moment that American troops are crowded aboard! Oh, well, let’s try to get a thrill out of fooling ourselves even though we fool nobody else. And must even the port-holes be closed up tight? Phew! It’s stuffy enough below decks with ’em open. Just look at what we’ve got to sleep in, row upon row, double tier, scarcely room between those dividing boards for the shoulders to fit in, to say nothing of letting one roll over and be comfortable.

Perhaps it was just as well to preclude the heartaches which a free view of the receding coastline might have produced, to let the men focus at once all their attention upon the inconveniences and novelties of their life aboard ship. There were many of both. Though First Sergeants ate in the main dining-room of the Cedric, the messing accommodations for the men in general were awful — crowded, rushed, confused, smelly and disagreeable, two or three sittings necessary. The fish was particularly discouraging, and fish-day was by no means limited to Friday. Already there was ample proof of the food shortage in England, if the service aboard an English vessel could be accepted as evidence. Many were the arguments and the fist fights precipitated by the insolent little buss-boys and the stewards. Particularly grating were the attempts to sell privileges, extra portions or favors by the crews . . . Nobody was in very good humor those first days, anyhow. The Cedric was greatly overloaded, four thousand troops being jammed in where about eighteen hundred had previously been carried.”

Oh, I could just post the entire account but I will restrain myself. They had excitement but no damage when their convoy was attacked by German U-boats somewhere in the Atlantic. Also, there were a few civilians on the Cedric, the Archbishop of York and the famed explored Sir Ernest Shackleton. How’s that for random and strange facts?

The convoy landed at Dover and the US soldiers were transferred almost immediately across the Channel to Calais. In late April of 1918, the war was looking very grim indeed, and George and his regiment likely had very bad feelings about what was to come:

“Nor were hearts any less sober the next morning when we gathered on the quay for transportation across the Channel. A sentry striding the breakwater looked, oh, so realistic, in his full kit: helmet, gas mask, cartridge belt, rifle and fixed bayonet! He must have come right out of the trenches we had read so much about. Good old Chaplain Browne, too, had straight dope that morning, which he whispered in confidence to some of the officers; that the Germans were breaking through toward the coast; that before night we would be digging somewhere in the support trenches; that the British felt Calais to be doomed, and that we were simply being fed to the slaughter.

Through the rain and the confusion on shore, through a maze of ambulances, all driven by women, the Regiment found its way to Rest Camp No. 6, East, past swarm after swarm of tenacious urchins either selling their sandy chocolate, bitter candies and sugarless cakes, or screaming, “Souvenir Americaine; penny, penn-ee!”

The Regiment, it seems, spent the next couple of months marching around France, being shuffled around until a battle could be found. They finally ended up, it seems, in Lorraine, near the Vosges, where they fell into trenches and participated in a few skirmishes:

“Who will forget the first shell that came over, or the sudden barking of a battery of 75 ‘s seemingly right behind one’s left ear? Who will forget the Cierman aeroplane landing signal which, with indefatigable precision, mounted the sky at periodic intervals during the night? Who will ever forget the first ghostly flares rocketing skyward from numerous points of the German line or the fable of the old, one-legged German on the motorcycle dashing madly from one end of the sector to the other, setting off a bunch of sky-rockets now and then to fool us into thinking there were large bodies of troops opposed to us?”

Our George spent less than five months in France.

While I can’t be sure that the following is exactly how he perished, his regiment was involved in heavy battle on the date listed as his death, September 29, 1918. It seems likely, then, that the account below describes more or less when and where he met his end:

“The moon was rising when the Second Battalion, under command of Captain Eaton, filed out of Le Claon whither it had been withdrawn a few nights before into the woods, past the burning house and popping ammunition dump ignited by shell fire, through La Chalade, with its gaunt spectral church, through Xouveau Cottage, where the last hot meal was due and which was not forthcoming, through the winding bayous and up to the forward lines on the Route Marchand. 

Here’s a map of France noting the area in which George was likely killed:

The Second Battalion was to lead the attack followed in close support by the First Battalion and then the Third. On our left was the 306th Infantry, in column of Battalions also. The Division was to attack in line of regiments.All night the men clung to that steep hillside, or herded into the dugouts awaiting the “zero” hour, while from their midst heavy mortars in the hands of the French played havoc with the German wire. Back on the roads, paralleling the front, the artillery was massed hub to hub. Shortly after midnight their pandemonium broke loose; the steady roar of great guns was deafening terrifying. Jerry must have thought a whole ammunition dump was coming at him.

The chill September air was blue with fog and smoke and powder, the dawn just breaking as the silent columns filed up through the steep hillside toward the jumping-off places, ready to go over the top with only raincoats and rations for baggage, armed to the teeth.

This was just what we had all read about long before America got into the war; this was just what the home folks doubtless imagined us to be doing every day. Could anyone who was there ever forget the earnest, picturesque figures with their grim-looking helmets, rifles and bayonets sharply silhouetted against the eastern sky; the anxious consultation of watches: the thrill of the take-off; the labored advance over a No Man’s Land so barren, churned, pitted and snarled as to defy description; the towering billows of rusty, clinging wire; the flaming signal rockets that sprayed the heavens; the choking, blinding smoke and fog and gas that drenched the valley.

Despite the intensity of the shelling, the maze of wire revealed no open avenues and there was difficulty in keeping up with our own rolling barrage as it swept over the ground before us at the rate of a hundred meters in five minutes. Pieces of cloth and flesh staked with the rusty, clinging barbs: a number of men were impaled on stakes cleverly set for that very purpose.

With difficulty, the leading and supporting waves were reformed in line of “gangs” or small combat groups before plunging on into the ravines, there to become lost or separated from their fellows until after climbing to some high point above the sea of fog they might determine again the direction of advance by a consultation of map and compass and a consideration of whatever landmarks rose above the clouds. No concerted resistance was met with until about noon, after three kilometers of wooded terrain had been covered. There, a stubborn machine gun resistance and a heavy shell fire persuaded the Second Battalion, reinforced by companies of the First, to dig in while they spread their panels on the ground to indicate to the Liberty planes overhead the point of farthest advance. At last we were to get some assistance from the air!

Casualties there had been in great numbers from enemy shelling and from lurking snipers; but like North American Indians, we continued to stalk our prey from tree to tree.”

I can only surmise that George deBarbiery met his end somewhere in this battle, perhaps “going over the top” and crossing No Man’s Land to be felled by a sniper’s bullet, or perhaps immolated by a German shell. I just hope he wasn’t one of those unfortunates impaled on a stake.

But this is not quite the end of George’s story – it took three years for his body to be transported back home and buried in St. Augustine’s cemetery. Remember, this was the first time American soldiers had been conscripted to serve in an overseas war, and Americans were not buying General Pershing’s argument that to bury a soldier alongside his comrades where they fell was the greatest glory and honor that the grateful country could bestow upon them. No, as one mother from Brooklyn wrote to the War Department, “My son sacrificed his life to America’s call, and now you must as a duty of yours bring my son back to me.”

Facing this outpouring of feeling, the War Department polled each soldier’s family to find out if they wanted their son’s remains transported home.   Over 46,000 did, and it took over two years and $30 million to recover all the dead.

George deBarbiery was but one of them.

Peter Fonda Shot – John Lennon writes song about it

January 7, 1951
Rock Hill, 235 Cedar Lane, Ossining, New York

“Peter Fonda, 10-year-old son of Henry Fonda, actor, was reported in a fair condition tonight in Ossining Hospital after having accidentally shot himself yesterday with a .22 caliber pistol. The accident occurred on the Rock Hill estate of Rush H. Kress, retired chain store executive.”  New York Times, 1/7/1951

No really, it’s true! That headline is more than just click bait – Peter Fonda really WAS shot (in 1951) on the premises of the Kress Estate in Ossining. And John Lennon DID write a write a song about it (in 1965), though he changed the pronoun to “She.”

Perhaps you know the song, “She said, she said” off the album Revolver:

She said, “I know what it’s like to be dead.
I know what it is to be sad.”
And she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born . . .

 Let me back up a bit. What we know today as Cedar Lane Park (at 235 Cedar Lane) was formerly known as Rock Hill, owned by Rush H. Kress. You may have heard of the S.H. Kress stores – a chain of five and dime stores like Woolworth’s and Kresge’s? Well, S. H. was Samuel Kress, Rush’s older brother. A lifelong bachelor, he ran the company with the help of his two brothers, Rush and Claude. By 1929, the Kress brothers were so wealthy, and had such an extensive art collection, that they founded the Kress Foundation to “Promote the moral, physical and mental welfare and progress of the human race.” Grandiose, no? But the brothers, Samuel and Rush especially, collected Renaissance and Baroque art on a grand scale.   Today, if you go to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, you will find 2,493 pieces of art donated by them, not to mention about another thousand donated to museums around the country.

So deep was Samuel’s reverence for art, he gave money to Mussolini to restore Italian landmarks damaged by World War I.  (Following that tradition, Rush paid to restore the St. Georg Church in Nuremberg-Kraftshof in the 1950s, where many Kress ancestors were buried.  It’s nice to have money.)

The Kress stores were known for their unique architecture.  According to the National Building Museum, “Samuel H. Kress… envisioned his stores as works of public art that would contribute to the cityscape.  To distinguish his stores from those of his competitors, namely F.W. Woolworth Co. and S.S. Kresge Co., he hired staff architects. Kress achieved retail branding success not merely through standardized signage and graphics, but through distinctive architecture and efficient design. Regardless of their style, from elaborate Gothic Revival to streamlined Art Deco, Kress stores were designed to be integral parts of their business districts and helped define Main Street America.”

Kress stores certainly defined Main Street America in the 1960s when they refused to serve African-Americans at its lunch counters.  (To be fair, they were not the only national chains to do so.)

Many of the buildings still stand today, re-purposed and placed on the National Historic Register.

Okay, but what’s the connection to Cedar Lane Park, Peter Fonda and John Lennon?   Right, sorry, sorry, I got lost down the Internet.

In 1916, Rush Kress bought the 72-acre Rock Hill estate from General Edwin A. McAlpin, President of D. H. McAlpin & Co. (later called the American Tobacco Corporation) and Proprietor of the Rock Hill Poultry Farm:

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That’s a nice looking cock!

(Ossining history sidebar:  McCalpin married Anne Brandreth, daughter of Benjamin Brandreth, maker of Brandreth’s Vegetable Pills.  They were married at Trinity Church in Ossining and lived in Hillside House, now known as the Victoria Home.  Not quite sure where the chicken farm fits in, though.)

But back to Rush Kress — he divided his time between his apartment at 225 West 86th Street (aka the Belnord), Rock Hill, and traveling overseas to acquire the afore-mentioned art.

Under Rush’s guidance,  Rock Hill was transformed from a Blue Ribbon Poultry Farm into an elegant estate with lavishly sculpted grounds, greenhouses, cottages and a grand manor house.

Here’s a view from the Cedar Lane gate, circa 1930, looking over the pond:

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Here’s that same view today:

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Hard to believe this is the same property, no?

Here’s a shot of the Cedar Lane gate, also circa 1930:

1920s winter photo Rock Hill

And here’s that view today:

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If you scramble up the hill on the far side of the pond, you’ll come across the ruins of two large, old greenhouses.  Built by the American-Moniger company, they were the height of greenhouse fashion.  Here are a couple of photos from the 1950s (courtesy of grandson Rush Kress via Steven Worthy’s Facebook page “Save the Kress Buildings at Cedar Lane Park“):

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Virginia Watkins Kress, former Broadway showgirl and 2nd wife of Rush H. Kress, with her mother and one of her children during the 1950s at Rock Hill Estate.  A student of art at the University of Arizona (where the family wintered) she was apparently very influential when it came time to distribute the fabulous Kress collection of Renaissance and Baroque art to nearly 100 institutions across the US.

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And here’s one more:

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Handyman George Francis Dean with one of the Kress children.

It was in the colorful 1950s that Peter Fonda was driven down from his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, along with one of Rush Kress’ grandsons, Anthony Abry and another boy.  Peter’s father Henry was honeymooning in the Virgin Islands with his new wife Susan, and his mother, Frances, had committed suicide six months earlier.  Seems like the three boys were on their own . . . After Peter shot himself that unsupervised winter afternoon, he was driven to the Ossining Hospital by the Kress family chauffeur.  (Good God, could you imagine that drive??)    He was operated on by Dr. Charles Sweet (also the Sing Sing prison doctor) and it was touch and go there for a few days.

Fast forward fifteen or so years, when the Beatles are dropping acid in Benedict Canyon:

Regarding “She Said She Said,” John remembers:  “That was written after an acid trip in L.A. during a break in The Beatles tour where we were having fun with The Byrds and lots of girls.  Peter Fonda came in when we were on acid and he kept coming up to me and sitting next to me and whispering, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead.’   We didn’t want to hear about that!  We were on an acid trip, and the sun was shining, and the girls were dancing (some from Playboy, I believe) and the whole thing was really beautiful and Sixties.  And this guy – who I didn’t really know, he hadn’t made ‘Easy Rider’ or anything – kept coming over, wearing shades, saying, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead,’ and we kept leaving him, because he was so boring.  It was scary, when you’re flying high: ‘Don’t tell me about it.  I don’t want to know what it’s like to be dead!’”  George recalls:  “I don’t know how, but Peter Fonda was there.  He kept saying, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead, because I shot myself.’  He’d accidentally shot himself at some time and he was showing us his bullet wound.  He was very uncool.”

Unless he shot himself more than once (and it was the ’60s after all, so who knows) he was probably talking about that day at Rock Hill.  And John Lennon turned it into a song.

In 1959, Rush Kress sold Rock Hill to the 52 Association, a philanthropic organization that provided “recreational facilities for veterans of both world wars and the Korean conflict.”  At the time, it was reported that the estate “overlooks the Hudson River, consists of thirty-seven buildings, eleven of which are residences . . . The property also includes two lakes, a swimming pool, a tennis court and barbecue pits.”

Sometime in the 1990s, the Town of Ossining acquired it for a park.  If you walk around the pond today, you can still see some decaying wooden lifeguard chairs around the perimeter, no doubt left over from the 52 Association days.

And if you bushwhack around the rest of the property, you can see all sorts of ruins slowly being erased by the unchecked vines and trees.

Hard to believe it all once looked like this:

1920s fountain, south of Lakeview cottage

 

 

 

Jeanne Eagels, the original Sadie Thompson

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

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Jeanne Eagels, as a war orphan in the 1918 play “Daddies”

Well, she was a big Broadway and film star in the 1910s and ‘20s.

And she owned a 22-acre country estate right here in Ossining, described by the NY Times as situated “in the hill country north of Briarcliff and east of Ossining with a six-room house and outbuildings.”

In those days, Ossining was quite the place for the gentry to land.  Eagels’ Ossining connection was oddly strong — not only did she maintain a country house on Cedar Lane in the 1920s, she had also previously owned an estate called Kringejan at 1395 Kitchawan Road. According to Eric Woodard and Tara Hanks in their biography “Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed” [buy it here if you’re interested] she fell in love with the Ossining area when she was making films at Thanhouser Studios in New Rochelle. (Who knew that there were silent film studios in Westchester? Not I!)

Her house is still standing at the intersection of Cedar Lane and Stormytown Road.  It has always caught my eye because it is completely out of character with the more modern and unassuming houses on either side. But I didn’t really think much about it until my friend Guy Cheli happened to mention that some silent film star named Jeanne Eagels had lived there.

And then I got a little obsessed.

Jeanne Eagels was born Amelia Eugenia Eagles (or Jeannine Eagels) in Kansas (or in Boston), in 1890 (or somewhere between 1889 and 1894.)

The story goes that she ran off with the Dubinsky Brothers Stock Company at the age of 15 (or 17 or 21.)   Starting off with a few small parts (and possibly by marrying one of the Dubinsky brothers) she clawed her way to the top.

Arguably, her most famous role came in 1923 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 the scandalous 1921 short story by Somerset Maugham about a prostitute named Sadie Thompson and the missionary who rapes her (okay, I’m taking gigantic liberties with the intricate plot,) Rain first premiered on Broadway in 1923 with Jeanne Eagels starring as Sadie Thompson. 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.”  Clearly, she was no slouch in the acting department.

1924 Eagels in Rain

In 1928, Gloria Swanson produced and starred in the silent picture version called Sadie Thompson. Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth also starred in later iterations of this story. 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 on Broadway and in film.  After her death, the NY Times reported that she left an estate totaling over $88,000 (that’s $1.1 million today) that consisted of her Ossining home, and nearly $12,000 in jewelry and furs. The Times also noted that she owned a Hispano-Suiza autocar, which sounds fantastically antique.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 10.16.36 AM 1927 Hispano-Suiza. Imagine living in Ossining when cars like that were on the road.

Eagels’ story was still bankable in 1957 when Columbia Pictures made a biopic called “Jeanne Eagels” starring Kim Novak.

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She was, however, considered to be temperamental and unreliable. Here’s an excerpt from an article in the Milwaukee Sentinel from May 6, 1928:Eagels article

The article goes on to describe how her reputation was cemented when she starred in a 1926 play called “Her Cardboard Lover,” and 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 had been unsupportive and refused to join) brought her up on charges, levied a $3,600 fine equal to two weeks’ salary (or $48,000 in 2016 dollars) and banned her from appearing on the stage for a year. (Imagine AEA doing such a thing today!)

In response, Eagels just went off and made films.  Here’s a link to a scene from her last film, “The Letter.”   It’s her only talkie, and she chews the scenery so magnificently that she was posthumously nominated for a Best Actress Oscar Award (it went to Mary Pickford instead.)

The Letter poster

And now you know who Jeanne Eagels was.