This article by Charles Anderson was first published in “The Old Station Timetable,” of January 1978.
The area in which Skylands is now located was a prime source of wood for the smelting operations at Ringwood during the 1700’s. Small farms were carved out of the stony hills where some level ground could be found. These were mostly along the Eagle Valley Road out of Sloatsburg (NY) and along the Wanaque Valley Road. The Ramapo Mountains were gradually cut up among small owners.
Around 1880, Stetson, a counsel for J.P. Morgan, with several associates bought up 1200 acres of these small holdings and established several large estates. Part of the Stetson property is now Skylands. His mansion was baronial and impressive. Sheep were grazed on the front lawn. A nine-hole golf course was laid out on land laboriously leveled. His wife was a paraplegic but could drive a buggy. Each year he cut additional miles of wood road through the estate so that she could travel about the property. Eventually, over 20 miles of road were cleared. Most of them are still available for hiking. They are easily distinguished from old wood roads used for lumbering by their easy grades, uniform width and solidly built stone bridges.
In the 1900’s Clarence Lewis bought property In Mahwah and lived here. He was a lawyer for the multi-million dollar firm owned by the Solomons of New York. Retiring a very wealthy man in 1933, aged 53, he was to live 30 years more. He owned a large piece of land east of the Birch property on the north side of the Ramapo River extending to a piece of Pierson property which extended west from the Glove and north to Pierson Ridge. Another large acreage owned by Lewis lay on both sides of the easterly third of Bear Swamp Pond, separated from the Stetson estate by a small piece of property owned by one Hines. When the Stetson property was up for sale, he bought it intending to join it with the Bear Swamp acreage. It is believed that Hines refused to sell, and he was not able to do this.
However, Skylands was his. He tore the house down. There are two stories giving a reason why, neither of which may be true. One states that his mother did not like the Stetson house, the other, that being a tallish man he bumped his head in several places while going through the house. At, any rate, the present building was put up in Jacobean style from stone quarried locally and embellished with interiors purchased from old castles in Europe. His mother died a year before the house was completed.
In the many years that he lived at Skylands, being an ardent horticulturist and well able to afford 60 gardeners, he developed an English style series of plantings complete with statuary and vistas, most of which are being restored today. Late in life he offered his estate to the New York Botanical Gardens. They insisted on a large endowment which he was unwilling to provide. The deal fell through. Later, he offered the property to Shelton College at a very reasonable price on condition that they follow his advice on management. They would not listen, he discontinued his help, and the college soon went bankrupt.
Developers were ready to purchase and carve the estate when Robert Roe purchased for the state 250 acres, the first acquisition of land under the Green Acres Program. House and grounds had been sadly neglected during the college ownership. Some restoration work was done on the house, and work was started In reclaiming the neglected gardens. However, with only ten gardeners, reclamation Is progressing slowly. The dedicated staff had made it possible for us to visualize the beauty of the gardens.’ Each year new discoveries of hidden beauties are made. Lewis’s dream of an estate extending from Skylands to the Ramapo has been realized. The boundaries of Ramapo Park have been extended past Bear Swamp Pond and now join with the wooded acreage of Skylands.