The Havemeyers and Birches: A Walking Tour – A Land of Peace and Plenty
by John W. Bristow, April 18, 2002
Location: Ramapo College Campus
Site 1: York Room in Birch Mansion
It is a warm, sunny Indian summer afternoon in late October of 1890. The sun slants through the nearly new leaded panes of a west window, bringing out the golden hues in the oak paneling, especially in the intricately carved manes of the mantelpiece lions. The sun strikes the full bellies of the bearded conquistadors and the cornucopia maiden flanking the hearth. In the center of the room two men and two women are seated on matching love seats. Between them there is a phonograph mounted on a metal tripod and they look up at the mouth of the huge tin speaker which sports painted enamel calla lilies.
Theodore Augustus Havemeyer has ordered this latest model from the Boston Store in Paterson, and along with it, he has given his eldest daughter Lillie a half dozen brand new recordings. With her mother Emily and husband John Mayer, Lillie feels it is a housewarming of sorts, a harvest celebration of the completion of the beautiful villa her father has had constructed for her and her family. That her parents once opposed her marriage to the young man her father had brought from Newport to manage Mountainside Farm seemed an eternity ago. Since purchasing the first portion of the farm in 1879, “T. A.” and Emily had been blessed by remarkable prosperity. Three of their nine children had married, and their first three grandchildren had been born.
TA’s prize Jersey cows gave the most milk of the best quality, and mated to bulls like the famous “Carlo,” they annually produced pedigreed offspring to both increase the size of the Mountainside herd, and to be sold at auction. Under John Mayer’s able hands, the sheep, horses, chickens, pheasants and pigs were equally fecund, and the produce gardens grew larger by the year. From a few hundred acres Mountainside Farm had grown to over 2000 acres. Fueling all this growth, the Sugar Trust that he and his brother had established was yielding record profits, and in a year the American Sugar Refining Company would control nearly all of United States sugar production.
Site 2: Carriage entrance way outside Birch Mansion
Clinton Page held the reins of the pair of Belgians who had dragged the stone boat from the little woods along the nearby week, where the Italians had spent the morning driving star drills with sledgehammers to free these capstones from an enormous glacial boulder. They were nicely matched, just right for finishing off the carriage entrance to the Mayers’ new house. Page loved hearing the Italian workgangs; they sang Puccini, Donizetti, Dellini, and of course, Verdi–nothing like the music he had grown up with in Boston. As construction foreman, he’d come to know and respect the immigrant men picked up from the immense labor pool at Castle Garden on Staten Island.
Though they sang longingly of their homeland, this place was becoming home to some of them. At least half a dozen had been married on the Havemeyer estate in the past year. Their children would be bom here in the Ramapo Valley, not in Sicily or Palermo. Page had also gotten to know the Mayers and Mr. Havemeyer, whom all his employees referred to affectionately as “The Boss.” Since coming to Mountainside in 1887, Page had overseen the building of the stone walls, two dams–one just above the spot where they had quarried these capstones, another up in the Green Mountain Valley-and this fine villa for the Mayers. Not everyone was happy with the mansion; the Bergen Democrat editorial pages liked to point to it as an example of what the greed of the Sugar Trust and the coddling of Republican Congressmen led to–plundered public pockets and increasingly lavish homes for the robber barons.
Senate investigators had found that the Trust engaged in a wide range of monopolistic practices. The Trust offered volume-based discounts to wholesalers and grocers associations who made large purchases, while denying grocers who bought from competitors any trade; employed detectives to gather information on the sale of sugar by competitors, fixed scales to avoid taxes; and worked incessantly to stop possible competition from other refined sugars like beet, maple and sorghum. Fully meeting the image of an industrial “octopus,” the Sugar Trust had as subsidiary interests railroad construction, land development and quarrying companies in the West; tea, coffee, and wholesale grocery businesses; companies which held plantation land in Cuba, or lent money to Cuban planters; distilling companies for alcohol and wines made from refinery by-products; the Brooklyn Cooperage Company, which owned 30,000 acres of timber land in Pennsylvania, 40,000 acres in the Adirondacks, 70,000 in Arkansas, and 90,000 in Missouri to supply barrels for shipping the refined sugar across the continent. The Trust controlled the point of distribution as well, the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal, the largest independent freight terminal in New York City. The fleet of wagons, 300 horses, sick ward, veterinarian, blacksmith, and harness shops of another subsidiary, Brooklyn Transportation Company, did all American Sugar Refinery Company’s trucking, and the Trust’s own coal company supplied fuel to the refineries. Over all this presided Henry O. Havemeyer, President, and T.A. Havemeyer, Vice-President. In their appearances before state and national boards of inquiry, the two brothers presented a formidable combination, Henry’s pugnacity tempered by the smiling, white-whiskerred countenance of T.A., whose diplomacy frequently won favorable treatment for the Trust.
Site 3: “The Lodge”
In 1890, Lillie and John Mayer, or anyone walking down this lane would have had a clear view across the Valley Road to the Havemeyer Mansion, Lillie and her eight siblings’ country home since 1879. But the network of curvilinear carriage roads, some still marked by flanking rows of spruce and fir, were laid out not for walkers, but for the Four-in-hand, the plaything of the Coaching Club, a group of men who in 1876 brought the sport of the English aristocracy to New York City. Mountainside Farm was often a stopping point on Coaching Club outings lo Tuxedo Park; each “whip” as the drivers were called, arranged for fresh replacement teams of horses at 10 to 15 mile intervals along the route. Here at Mountainside the drivers would be served an elaborate buffet banquet before continuing north to Tuxedo, the rural playground for New York’s wealthiest families.
As avidly as in New York City, where the coaches began their trips from the Brunswick Hotel, residents of the Valley would turn out to watch the parade of coachmen. The Illustrated American of June 20, 1891, calling coaching
“an exotic that only flourishes under the most favorable circumstances of wealth and leisure,” testified to the popular fascination for this spectacle: “the only street rivals it has as ‘drawing cards’ are the circus and some big man’s funeral. A parade of four-in-hands will always attract crowd of all sorts and conditions of man. The great unwashed and the Fifth Avenue dandies, ladies of high degree and little girls with unkempt hair, dirty clothes, and dirtier faces; hostlers and stable boys, and nearly every Englishman who happens to be in town, will be found at the meet. And if the horses be only well-groomed and the harness has been properly burnished; if the driver knows how to handle the ribbons and there are a number of pretty women on the coaches, what more attractive sight can any city afford? Every man who has done much driving must feel his pulse quicken and a sense of enjoyment pervade his whole system when sitting behind four quick, well-put together horses . . . Add to this a pretty woman on the box-seat and a picturesque road, and the man who can sneer at this combination of attractions must be a surly dyspeptic or a snarling hypochondriac.”
Lillie, despite being an excellent horsewoman, was banned like the rest of her sex from this novel and conspicuous pastime, but the oldest of her four brothers, Charles, “Carlie,” to his intimates, was a darling of press and public on these outings. Spectators were as keen to see the finery worn by the drivers as the smart coaches and horses. The New York Daily Tribune of May 26, 1895 noted “Charles F. Havemeyer, on his black and blue coach, drawn by the famous Havemeyer team of high-stepping bays, was accompanied by Mrs. Havemeyer, wearing a gown of pearl gray silk, combined with black satin, trimmed with white lace, and a small black hat.”
Both in New York and here in Mahwah, newspapers and magazines kept the public apprised of the Havemeyer’s activities. Emily Havemeyer was the Jackie Onassis of Gilded Age New York; in 1895, her portrait graced the cover of a popular magazine that described her as “[a woman] with artistic taste . . . tall and commanding of figure, a face equally commanding, but not cold–a full, round, good face, with two very black eyes full of both dignity and fun flashing in a frame of glossy black hair … one of those of whom some one has said that all men who would feel noble ought to see, every day–a beautiful woman.”
Those high-stepping bays, and the other teams, might have on occasion taken a drink from this stone water trough, sculpted by some of Clinton Page’s singing stone-cutters and haulers. In 1890, the men also labored on this building, ‘The Lodge,” where guests of the Havemeyers and Mayers stayed. The Lodge’s Tudor Revival style, like the Four-in-hand, imitates English aristocratic tradition. The second story half-timbering looks structural, but is only decorative, as are the gable end flared eaves and scalloped vergeboards, whose motifs meet at the ridge in cedar kingposts now showing their age. Artifice truly triumphs on the roof; those lichen-covered cedar shingles are really copper, textured to look like wood grain and laid so they would seem to be shingles. The asymmetric floor plan, the central chimney with its pair of octagonal pots, diamond-paned sashes– all evoke a medieval English country house. In 1890 England would also have been echoed in the surrounding landscape, which was turned into a deer park. Six hundred acres between Valley Road and Ridge Road were fenced in, to contain a small local herd of deer. Mr. Havemeyer perhaps took his lead from his fellow Tuxedo Club member Pierre Lorillard, who five years before had fenced in some 8,000 acres of the Ramapo Mountains around Tuxedo Lake. As Lorillard had at Tuxedo, here at Mountainside Havemeyer stocked the nearby brooks with trout, and he imported exotic hares and pheasants to share the fenced fields and forest with the deer. The 8000 pheasants at Mountainside made it the largest pheasantry in the country.
Such plenty amidst seasonal scarcity meant that, despite the barbed wire and a full-time gamekeeper, Valentine De Gies, the deer, hares, and pheasants did not go completely unmolested. In February of 1893, Mr. Havemeyer’s local counsel William M. Johnson of Hackensack had four local men–Peter May, E. C. Carpenter, Edward Carlough, and Anthony Sheffield–arrested for poaching pheasants. A week after having reported that the men had each paid a $5 fine (after which Sheffield threatened to shoot the gamekeeper), the Ramsey Journal printed a retraction of sorts, declaring that according to the accused, they were wholly innocent. Guilty or not of poaching, hunting posters and barbed wire in the woods were new ideas to local men, who had usually grown up hunting without much thought to private property. Deer, rabbits, squirrels, trout all had until recently been part of the commons. Men like Havemeyer and his fellow estate owners were the principal agents behind early fish and game laws, just as in a previous generation “Frank Forester,” who had hunted the Ramapos in the 1840s and 1850s, brought English aristocratic notions of bag limits and seasons to the northeastern United States.
The privatization of local game never quite took with folks outside the fence. Edith Glasgow reads here from a letter by Theodore Havemeyer’s son Henry, and is reminded of a story:
The entire woods between Darlington Avenue and West Mahwah Road, (that’s all that land, well, Glasgow Terrace, where the College is, right on down) were fenced in for the deer park. At times I have counted as many as 75 deer coming to be fed in back of my sister’s (that was what’s now the College, the big the York House). This fence was 12 feet high, with strands 3 inches apart, being of barbed wire. The strands ranged from 4 to 12 inches apart at the top.’ And when I first came to Mahwah, of course, that was still a deer park. And it was nothing to look up from the table and there’d be a deer looking in the window. And you’d go out and feed them. And one year, Jim decided that we should have some venison. So he went up in the back, and he was going to shoot a deer. They were right out the window, they were all there. Till one happened to look up at him; he put the gun in the corner, and that’s the last. . . (laughter) believe me, we could have used the deer right then.”
Her son Ted recalls similarly relaxed attitudes toward the pheasants: “My dad used to tell a story about Mr. Birch having a comfortable chair over across the river. His men would release the pheasants over in a little wooded area, right at the edge, and if a pheasant came over toward Mr. Birch, well, he’d shoot it. But if it went back into the woods, my dad and his brothers and whoever else was there would shoot them. (laughter)”
Whether here on the preserve or up on their mountain land, T.A. and his children not only enjoyed proprietary control of the game animals; they also had the benefit of the expertise of a number of the farm workmen, who served as guides and drovers when a hunt was organized. One of these men–York Jennings, who lived with his large family up in the “Holler” –taught Lillie and her brothers and sisters to shoot.
Site 4: Trophy case in gym
In the 1890s upper class outdoor activities such as hunting for sport and Four-in-hand coaching gave way to boxing, football, bicycling. All of these sports began as the province of a very exclusive club, the sons of America’s wealthiest men, who imbibed the cult of strenuousity at Yale, Harvard, and Columbia as an antidote to the effeminate gentility that had come to clothe America’s upper class. Combining the requisite character of leisure class activity in being conspicuously unproductive with the promise of character building, the craze for college athletics swept the nation at the turn-of-the-century. Economist and social critic Thorstein Veblen in 1899 saw all this competition as training for up-and-coming capitalists:
“The culture bestowed in football gives a product of exotic ferocity and cunning. It is a rehabilitation of the early barbarian temperament, together with a suppression of those details of temperament which, as seen from the stand point of the social and economic exigencies, are the redeeming features of the savage character … Modern competition is in large part a process of self-assertion on the basis of these traits of predatory human nature. In the sophisticated form in which they enter into the modern, peaceable emulation, the possession of these traits in some measure is almost a necessary of life to the civilized man. But while they are indispensable to the competitive individual, they are not directly serviceable to the community. . . Ferocity and cunning are of no use to the community except in its hostile dealings with other communities. . . Any individual who enters the competitive struggle without the due endowment of these traits is at a disadvantage, somewhat as a hornless steer would find himself at a disadvantage in a drove of horned cattle.”
Though certainly less ferocious than football, another sport represented in these trophy cases–golf-also began as an elite pursuit but became a staple of the middle class. In 1888, when the first permanent golf course in America was set up in a cow pasture in Yonkers, New York, Theodore Havemeyer was one of less than a dozen men in the country who knew how to play the game. In 1894, when the United States Golf Association was founded, T.A. was elected president, serving until his death in 1897. Early in that year, he gave an interview to a New York Times reporter in which he took stock of the progress of the game:
“The game in this country has had a remarkable growth. I was surprised last year at the rapidity with which it was taken up by our people… The game has come to stay; there is no longer any question on that point. For the development of health, vitality, and good nature, I know of no better sport in the world, and I am glad it has secured so firm a hold in this country. The outlook for its future growth and welfare is most favorable, and there is only one possible danger to my mind, and that is that in certain localities it may be overdone.”
There are in the United States today over 20 million golfers on some 12,000 golf courses. While tennis, incubated by Havemeyer and his peers at Newport, only became a sport of the “common” people in the last two generations, it too started as a diversion of the rich. As you step back outside and are greeted by tennis courts, baseball fields, and spectator stands, seemingly indispensable focal points of not only American college life, but American life in general, such that many people’s main identification with place today is through their “home” team, be mindful that it is in in the 1890s that professional sport in America is born.
Site 5: Havemeyer Mansion
Henry O. Havemeyer, second of T.A.’s sons, didn’t have to wait for college graduation to get an automobile, but when he graduated from Yale in May of 1900, having been class president,, he immediately motored home to Mountainside, traveling the state-of-the-art macadamized road which his father had had constructed a decade before. The future looked bright to Henry–in six weeks, he would marry Charlotte Whiting of New York and Newport, and they would soon make their home here, in the old Bockee house just to the south of his widowed mother’s house.
TA had died in April 1897, at only 57 years of age, from pneumonia caught on a late winter Coaching Club outing. Had he lived longer, the Ramapo River Valley and the rest of Mahwah would likely have had its landscape shaped even more noticeably by him. As it was, for nearly two decades, the profits of the Sugar Trust, gleaned from cane fields in the Caribbean and along the Gulf Coast flowed into the Valley, where they financed the growth of Mountainside Farm. This house–T.A.’s mansion–like so much of the Valley’s history, is linked to New York City, via Henry Brazier Hagerman, a New York lawyer who’d married a local girl, Anna Hopper Bogert, in 1814. The Hagermans lived in Anna’s grandfather’s–Andrew Hopper’s–pre-Revolutionary era homestead that stood just to the north of the Havemeyer mansion, at the corner of Halifax Road and the Valley Road, and it was not until 1850 that the brick portion of this house was built by Hagerman for his son Andrew.
The New York connection continued when Jacob De Castro of the DeCastro and Donner Sugar Refining Company bought the Hagerman house and farm in 1876. But within the year, as the Havemeyer sugar empire gobbled up its competitors, De Castro, who had celebrated the Fourth of July with friends with a picnic, music and dancing here on a beautiful July evening, had by November moved out, renting the place to the Havemeyers to help meet expenses incurred by the failing refinery business. On January 8, 1879, Theodore purchased the De Castro estate for $30,000; almost simultaneously, DeCastro and Donner went under. They were not the only sugar refiner to fail in the late 1870s. After the Civil War, U.S. sugаr production had increasingly tended toward monopoly. Gulf State sugar production had completely collapsed during the war, and recovered only gradually. The scarcity of raw sugar, just as America’s sweet tooth was growing hungrier, led to high prices and bigger profits for well-positioned refiners like the Havemeyers, whose 7-story refinery in Brooklyn was one of the most modern in the world. T.A. had become a partner in 1861, but it was not until just prior to purchasing the Ramapo Valley estate that his labor began to ease. Having begun working in the refinery at age 10, he was quick to point out that “for 25 years I was out at work at 7 AM and did not leave the refinery until 7 PM. Many times I worked all night long. While I was a as a single man my expenses never exceeded $50 a month. Pilot bread and cheese made many a meal…”
It was a long way from pilot bread and cheese to the meals regularly served here and at the Havemeyer’s three other homes. Growing up in Austria, Emily De Loosey’s family had 14 pastry cooks; the same number served their “town house,” at 244 Madison Avenue. There they were joined by 25 other servants–the chef had his understudies, the coachman his grooms, the butler his assistants, the housekeeper her maids, and Mr. and Mrs. Havemeyer and each of their children, as they outgrew their nurses, had his or her own body-servants. An only slightly smaller retinue served the household here at Mountainside. And what did the inside of that household look like? Unlike the New York Times and Daily Tribune, the Ramsey Journal, though faithfully reporting on activities at Mountainside, never gave its readers a glimpse of the interior of the mansion. Some idea of how lavish it was can be gleaned from this 1895 magazine description of the Madison Avenue residence, which had recently been remodeled by high society’s new architectural darling, Richard Morris Hunt. The Collier’s reporter took readers to an afternoon reception at the Havemeyers:
[Driving) through the high wrought iron gates, the horses feet ring and echo upon the stone pavement of the courtyard, and you step directly from the carriage into the house. You are now in a great hallway, the walls of which, like the floor, are all of white marble, though the floor is covered with soft thicknesses of crimson velvet … perhaps it is about 4 o’clock–imagine a sprinkling in twos, threes, and larger groups of ‘smart men and women–the men in frock coats with boutonnieres, the women resplendent in fashionable frocks . . . At 5 o’clock electric lights spring into being everywhere, in the most unexpected places, and then the scene literally becomes brilliant. . . and you enter the Louis Quatorze drawing room . . . with its many-mirrored sides and lights, to pay your respects to the hostess … on the right side are the reception rooms, the salon and dining room, on the left is the ballroom. Upstairs, [mounting] the grand staircase, flanked by broad and heavy tapestries, you stumble into the conservatory, with an open way in the center looking down into the salon. Next to this is what Mrs. Havemeyer calls the antique room, and quite rightly, for it is filled with all sorts of rare and costly antiquities.
Each of the Havemeyer homes had its own art gallery; while her brother-in-law Henry’s wife Louisine Elder Havemeyer, with the help of her friend Mary Cassatt, was collecting Goya and El Greco and nearly cornering the market in French Impressionist works, Emily and TA amassed old masters. Emily Havemeyer was a regular shopper at Tiffany’s; on 28 visits between February 1895 and April 1897, she spent over $5000 on jewelry, china, parasols, cigarette cases, and silver ware. Some now anonymous servant who walked the Valley Road to the mansion each day had as her task the care of the paintings and bric-à-brac alone.
While the Havemeyer’s homes were all equipped with the most modern technological innovations, the decor often bespoke sentiments of anti-modernism, the fin de siècle recoil from modern experience. While some members of their class took flight from the “over-civilized” modern world in pilgrimages to Japan and India, bringing back to America their fascination for Eastern religion and art, the majority of affluent Americans merely borrowed an ersatz Orientalism through the acquisition of exotic objects. Architect Hunt designed entire rooms for the Havemeyers, Vanderbilts, Astors, Belmonts and their set. Along with Carrarra marble, Louis Quatorze and Quinze armchairs and divans, Dresden figurines, and Greek statuary, Mrs. Havemeyer filled her house with Oriental bric-à-brac. The “Chinese Room” in the townhouse contained loads of Chinese and Japanese pottery in a bamboo display case, Persian tapestries hung on the walls, and palm courtyards swept one away to the land of Scheherazade. “The first thing you’ve got to remember,” Richard Morris Hunt once said to his son, “is that it’s your client’s money that you’re spending. Your business is to get the best results you can following their wishes. If they want you to build a house upside down standing on its chimney, it’s up to you to do it.” These were the days before income taxes, so the sky was indeed the limit.
The homes for Mountainside employees, such as these two country cottages across the road from the mansion, are much more typical of what postbellum homebuilders were constructing for the middle-class. These vernacular Italianate dwellings, though much modified now, still show the architectural ideals of Alexander Jackson Downing, who declared in his 1842 book Cottage Residences that “So long as men are forced to dwell in log huts and follow the hunter’s life, we must not be surprised at lynch law and the use of the bowie knife. But, when smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country, we know that order and culture are established.” As the country’s preeminent golfer, T.A. valued a nicely cropped, uniformly green turf, and it is likely that these two houses were the first in the Ramapo Valley beside the mansions to sport front lawns.
Site 6: Halifax Rd. Corner
Until 1890, when T.A. had it demolished to add a north wing containing servants’ quarters, a laundry, and kitchen, there stood on this corner what was probably the most noted structure in the Ramapo River Valley–Andrew Hopper’s “Inn” or “Tavern.” Around 1850, when historical chronicler and artist Benson Lossing visited the Valley in search of tales about the Revolutionary War, he heard many of the stories Valley residents were raised on, focusing on the exploits of General George Washington, who had enjoyed the bed and board of patriot Hopper in 1777, 1780, and 1781, when the Continental Army camped on the meadows just on the other side of the road. Stories still circulate about various midnight escapades in which the quick thinking and martial valor of Hopper saved the hide of General Washington, who in one oft-told variant flees in his underwear out the back door as Hopper unloads his shotgun into a pair of British soldiers.
Like so many visitors to the Ramapo Valley, Lossing remarked upon its beauty: “I passed two days in the romantic valley of the Ramapo. Every rocky nook, sparkling water-course, and shaded glen in that wild valley has legendary charm.” Though Lossing was disappointed not to meet Hopper’s ninety-eight-year-old widow Maria Laroe Hopper, he had the testimony of an earlier pilgrim to the site. In 1849, Maria had obligingly showed off the bed where Washington had slept, but the visitor had gone off almost as impressed by the widow herself:
“The ancient matron has none of the garrulity of old age; on the contrary, as she adverted to past scenes, a quiet stateliness grew upon her, in beautiful harmony with the subject. Rarely will another behold the sight, so pleasing to ourselves, of five generations, each and all in perfect health and intelligence, under the same rooftree. She spoke of this with evident satisfaction, and of the length of time her ancestors had been on the soil; in truth we had never felt more sensibly the honorableness of grey hairs…”
After her death that same year, all of the subsequent occupants of the house passed on the stories; T.A., having heard that Washington often sat before the fireplace of the Inn, had its stones preserved and incorporated into the kitchen of the new wing. A plaque commemorating the Hopper house can be seen attached to the north wall of the 1890 addition to the Havemeyer mansion.
Site 7: Continental Army Encampment Memorial
Of T.A.’s children, the history and landscape of the Ramapo Valley seemed to get the greatest hold on his son Henry. Long before he returned here with his new bride, it had truly become his home. In the mid-1890s, he assembled a series of photograph albums of pictures he had taken of Mountainside; along with photos of the family, farm employees, and buildings, many taken from the cupola of the mansion, there were beautifully composed images of the Ramapo Mountains, particularly the rocky outcrops above the Valley, and of the Ramapo River, which meandered gracefully through the middle of Mountainside’s best meadows. In the album were a number of photographs of the oak tree under which General Washington was supposed to have stood while reviewing the troops; when the old tree collapsed years later, probably around 1910, Henry erected this sandstone monument in its place.
The Halifax Road, which predates the Revolution and had until T.A.’s reign been a quiet country road leading up into the best pass through the Ramapos south of the Clove, became the center of activity from 1880 until TA’s death in 1897. Directly across from this spot stood the coach barn, which housed every manner of wagon, runabout, buckboard, and buggy, as well as coaches. Nearby were the stables, for over 50 horses, and beyond to the south, behind them, were greenhouses that supplied the mansion with fresh cut flowers and the vegetable gardens, where the gardeners always toiled in white shirts and neckties. Mountainside was run as efficiently as the sugar refinery. Ted Glasgow recalled:
When my great-grandfather, and subsequently my grandfather, were in charge of the poultry division, their records had to be meticulously done. They were all handwritten, and every egg, every chicken, every, whatever anybody on the farm received, was in the book.”
The poultry division, whose buildings were located out in these fields, was an important part of Mountainside’s operations, supplying eggs and meat for the employees and for the needs of the New York house (3 cases of 24 chickens to a case and 8 or 10 turkeys each week), but it also became an arena of competition with other bird fanciers. Again, from Ted Glasgow:
Mr. Havemeyer brought the family to Mahwah. He did a lot of researching looking for, quote, ‘the best,’ and they came from Scotland by way of Hereford, England. My grandfather was actually born in Hereford, England. He was an ‘underground farmer,’ as we jokingly say, over in Scotland, he and his brothers. And his brother became quite ill because of the mining. So they all got out of it, and most of them went to Hereford. My great-grandfather became a gardener, and I have a photo of him, I should have brought it, a photo of him and his family sitting in one of his gardens around the house, an absolutely spectacular garden for a private home. But he was also a poultryman, and he was part of the convincing of the Havemeyers to raise fantail pigeons, and my grandfather took it over on my great-grandfather’s retirement, and after so many years as the international champion, my grandfather’s best friend up in Fairfield, Connecticut said to him, ‘Jim, when are you going to die, so one of the rest of us can win.’ He used to take squabs from the winning pair, and beat the previous winning pair, who had been sold. He was tricky.”
Edith Glasgow noted: “He won first prize over 270 pigeons from all over the world. Emperor Hirohito bought two of the offspring, and paid $1000 each.” Henry Havemeyer’s childhood interest in birds extended to wild birds as well; in his photo album there is a picture of someone shimmying way up into a tree to raid a redtail hawk’s nest. By the time he was 18 he had also taken his passion for collecting beyond the Ramapo Valley, collecting birds, eggs, and nests in Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere, all of which made their way back to his private museum behind his mansion. After his death in 1965, the collection, one of the the largest private ornithological collections in the country, was donated to Yale University’s Peabody Museum.
Site 8: Junction of Halifax and Washington Roads
Though there were horses, chickens, pigeons, pheasants, hares, pigs, and sheep on the property, a superb herd of Jersey cows was the centerpiece of Mountainside Farm. Their home, which stood here just to the north of the road, was as palatial as the Havemeyers’: the central section of the barn was 266 feet long by 45 feet wide, and four large wings extended from it. 260 stalls, all of them bearing a sign with the name of the resident cow, were surmounted by an immense hay loft; in front of each stall, along with a salt lick, there were husk rugs to keep the cows from bruising their knees when they lay down. More than forty men attended the Jerseys, who were rubbed down and curry-combed every morning. Milkers were required to wash their hands and to use a fresh towel after milking each cow. No loud talking was permitted in the cow barn. Water for the cows was warmed slightly by steam in the winter. The result of all this pampering was that the Mountainside Jerseys on average yielded more than twice the volume of milk of other cows.
The milk was taken into the blue, white, and yellow-tiled dairy wing and placed into long tin receptacles which were cooled by water dripping from 400 tons of ice stored in the loft above. Even in mid-August, the temperature in the dairy was a cool 50 degrees. The ice came from the pond across Halifax Road; about midway along its east bank stood a marvelous array of inclined planes, all of which led up to the stepped levels of an enormous ice house. Ted Glasgow remembered:
“Now, wintertime, the pond is marked for cutting, and here they’re in the process of cutting, and then they take it on upinto the ice house. But look at the size of the blocks. Here is a closer shot, with the steam engine to haul the ice up the ramp… Here they’ve already taken some ice out, and look how close to the edge they’re working, it was thick ice.”
Not always thick enough. On January 5, 1893, the Ramsey Journal reported that “Two Italians fell in the Havemeyer pond while cutting ice”; on the same day the paper announced that John Whitby and John Henion had skated from Darlington to Suffern on the River.
Dairy workers had the latest equipment to produce the finest butter from the rich cream skimmed from the milk; the packaged butter found ready purchasers in New York, where hundreds of pounds were transported by train from the Mahwah station each week, packed in boxes in trays of ice.
Many of the dairy workers were housed in a 3-story boarding house that stood along Halifax Road, just to the left of the pond as you are facing it. After T.A.’s death, the dairy and other farm operations were scaled back some, but they continued after 1900 under Henry Havemeyer. Edith Glasgow recalls that during Henry O. Havemeyer’s era at Mountainside: “About 15 or 18 lived on the farm, the rest came from West Mahwah, and walked down the road at quarter to six, you could set your clock by them, and they worked to six at night, and then they’d go back. And of course they got huge wages, they got $30 a month. Polish, Russian, Slavic. Many of the women worked in the house. There was the butler, three or four housemen…”
Once electric refrigeration eliminated the need for the huge volume of ice, the dairy loft was turned to other purposes. Edythe Glasgow tells it:
You kids don’t know what fun is. Truly! Truly! Mrs. Havemeyer, there was a tremendous, two tremendous barns over there, and over the top of the dairy, there was a great big room, oh, that room must have been a hundred foot square. And, that was the recreation hall, and twice a month, Mrs. Havemeyer would have an orchestra come, and we’d have, there used to be dance on Saturday night. She’d furnish all the soda and root beer, and stuff like that–ice cream–and the women–all the women in the neighborhood, would make cakes and sandwiches and we’d go have the barn dance. Christmas, special holidays, were just for the ones on the farm, but otherwise, people came from all over. No one was turned away. ..I know people that would come all the way from Monroe, now that was back in the Model T days, when Monroe was an hour and a half trip. It took you an hour to go to Paterson, but people used to come from all over to go to these dances. . . They used to walk from Oakland up.
Her son Ted:
Every Halloween, the Havemeyers had a, well, every holiday, but in particular I remember the Halloween parties, and part of the barn would be cleared out for the party for all of the employees and their children. And the last time that I went, I was dressed up as a monkey, and I had a collar, and my sister had the other end of the leash. I was hopping around in the Grand March, hopping around supposedly like a monkey, and the whole room was decorated with these huge shocks of corn, and pumpkins, the smallest would be bigger than these pots, just tremendous things. Mrs. Havemeyer felt sorry for me and came out on the floor and picked me up, and led me away from my sister, and my sister kept marching around, and she took me back over to the side, where my mother and father were sitting. And she gave me a silver dollar. And Mr. Havemeyer saw what she gave me, and he took the silver dollar and gave me a fifty cent piece. His claim was that my father didn’t work on the farm.
Site 9: Sycamores at end of Washington Road
It is a warm, sunny Indian summer afternoon in late October of 1590, and on the floodplain field in front of you, the stubble of unharvested corn stalks and broad leaves of squash and pumpkin plants between them are tinged with brown from the first frost. In the language of the people who have planted these fields, it is pooxit, falling leaves month. It is still two decades away from the day when Henry Hudson will sail the Half-Moon up Mahicantuk, the great southward-flowing river which will soon come to bear Hudson’s name. For now at least, all the land from Kittatinni– the “endless mountain”–to Mahicantuk was Minisink–the land of the Minsee or Munsee Lenape.
Beyond the fields, closer to the river, smoke rises from half a dozen wigwams built of bent poplar saplings and covered in elm and basswood bark. The gourds hanging from poles at the edge of the fields are empty now, the purple martins they housed having recently flown off in a huge flock to join their brethren swallows heading south over the sand dunes. Women chatter to each other while they grind corn or tan deer hides; nearby, their children interrupt their chestnut-cracking to hold a mock battle. A few men are off in a field closer to the bank, gathering the last tobacco plants of the season. Up on the bare rock ridge above the village, men have scattered dried corn to trap migrating flocks of passenger pigeons.
The Lenape band living here seemed cradled by the land around them. Though their names for the landmark points visible to the west–just to the south, “Halifax” or “Monroe Ridge,” with the bare promontory of “Hawk Rock” breaking the green wall midway up its height; slightly north, “Green Hill,” marked by a similar outcrop; and the pretty pass running between them–are lost to us, one imagines that for the children born here on this meadow, these places went deep inside them. The cackle of the kingfisher on the river, the “konkareee” of the blackbird; in the mountains they came to know achtuw, deer (literally “it is indeed watching”), kweenshuknai, “long tail,”(the panther), tim’ w, “it cuts off,” (wolf). They knew well the forest birds whose names mimicked their calls–p’lów, the wild turkey, kookoo’s, the great-horned owl, and kookootit, the screech owl. The Lenape children knew too the manitouwok, the spirit-beings whose images decorated the doorways of the wigwams and were carved into their dugout canoes. This field, the river, the mountains, tekenec’ su–all Creation–were home to these people in a way that we may never fully know. “Home” for the Lenape truly encompassed all the creatures and phenomena brought into existence and controlled by the Great Spirit. Their ideal was aways to remain in accord with this order.
Like Lenape people all throughout the region, the people of this village frequently reenacted in a ritual drama lasting for “ten and two days” their ancient understanding of the Cosmos and their place in it. Somewhere here on this floodplain field there no doubt stood a “Xinwika’on,” literally “Big House,” the Lenape term for both the ceremony and the temple which was constructed to house it. The Big House stood for the universe: its floor was the earth; its four walls were the four quarters of the world; its roof was the vault of Heaven, where the Creator resided; the post which stood in the center of the Big House was the staff of the Great Spirit. The eastern door was both the place from which day began and also the symbol of the beginning of all things, the western door the point of sunset and cosmic termination. On the center post hung the revered mesi’ngok, the carved masks that were the visible symbols of the invisible manitouwok.
Within the Big House, an oval, hard-trodden dancing path encircled the center post. This “Beautiful White Path”–waliapaleexidj–was the path of life, down which all Lenape wended their way toward the western door where all ends. On the twelfth and final night of the ceremony, the dance leader concluded with these words:
Now, my kindred, for the last time we go out to pray, everybody with all his heart. And you know that we shall go out to the east and shall carry with us the wampum that is left unused because that is our heart when we appeal for a blessing to our father with whom belongs the Delaware’s soul. And let us consider, every one of us earnestly, as the prayer reaches up above, and we express our faith with this wampum in our heart, because through ten and two levels of the sky we lift our prayer-appeal to where dwells him Our Father the Great Spirit, even the Creator.”
The path tread by so many Lenape men and women over so many years, and the remains of their many campfires, the wigwams, food caches, tool workshops–indeed, all trace of their home here–was destroyed in the 1950s, when the gravel was mined for constructing the Ford plant at the entrance to the Ramapo Clove. That site was the location of an even larger Lenape village, Mawewi. For years, there were shelves of stone tools, broken pots and other remains of both ancient villages in the offices of the McKee Brothers quarrying company. At Yale University’s Peabody Museum, stored away in the archaeological collections, are dozens of artifacts collected from these fields by Henry Havemeyer and his children, along with a small leather notebook recording their location. Like the photograph albums he assembled and birds he collected, the stone traces of the Lenape village were physical representations of how place–this place–had come to have a hold on the worldly Havemeyers.
Site 10: River bank
Everything in the region which bears the name “Ramapo” commemorates the Lenape designation for the river. In its written form, the place name “Ramapo” did not stabilize until the early nineteenth century; before 1860, it had a dozen spellings and pronunciations. Almost all of those who have lent their thoughts to the original meaning of the Lenape word “Ramapo” have neglected to point out that the Lenape language completely lacks the r sound. Whatever the original word was, it did not begin with the letter r. When the Lenape borrowed Dutch, German, or English words that contained the sound, they pronounced it as a trilled l. Given this rule of thumb, it seems possible that the original prefix of the word we now know as “Ramapo” may have contained the trilled l sound, and was heard by the early Dutch settlers as r, since their ears were already accustomed to hearing this sound shift in the other direction.
In the early nineteenth century Moravian missionary John Heckewelder conjectured that “Ramapo” was probably corrupted from Wulumipeek, meaning “a round pond or lake.” Later in the century, Edward Ruttenber suggested that “Ramapo” came from a Lenape word meaning “place or country of the slanting rock.” Though the true pronunciation and meaning of the Lenape word may not be recoverable at this point, it is reasonably safe to assume that the final syllable of the word was pok, meaning “pond.” There are ” pogues” retained in place names all over the Northeast, testament to the ubiquity of the Algonquian language in this region before European settlement.
If you stand here in July or August, or anytime when the Ramapo River is low, you can see the remains of the stone fish weir behind which Lenape men speared perch, shad, trout, catfish, pike, sturgeon, and eels (whose Lenape name–shaachameek — meant “straight fish”).
Site 11: Trading post
As you walk along the edge of the field on this artificial levee, notice the plants that grow here. Along with the Kentucky bluegrass, there are many familiar plants of open places– dandelions, thistles, ragweed, English plantain. This last one was called “Englishman’s foot” by the Lenape, for wherever the English tread, this plant seemed to spring forth. Like the bluegrass, dandelion, and its companion herbs, it is an alien brought unwittingly upon the clothes of the European settlers and upon the coats of their livestock, which grazed happily on many native plants that were not adapted to survive the teeth and hooves of domesticated animals, the Lenape having had none.
Before the Englishman’s foot arrived on this meadow, there came in the year 1700 the feet of a Dutch woman, Blandina Bayard, widow of Peter Bayard, whose uncle, Peter Stuyvesant, had been Director General of New Netherland, and the titular ruler of New Amsterdam, until he surrendered the colony to the English in September of 1664. Blandina was the daughter of Dr. Hans Kiersted, a surgeon for the Dutch West Indies Company at its post in New Amsterdam. Her mother Sarah became fluent in Lenape and served as translator and mediator on many occasions for the Hackensack band of Lenape across the Hudson River; after her husband died, Hackensack sachem Oratam granted her land between the Hackensack River and Overpeck Creek, just north of the Dutch settlement at Bergen. Like her mother, Blandina must have had friendly relations with the Lenape, for in August of 1700, a year after her husband had died, some 19 Lenape deeded to her a tract of land that encompassed the Lenape villages of Ramapough, lapough (along the river in what is today Oakland), and Campque (the Campgaw area in Mahwah and Franklin Lakes). In exchange, the Lenape received “sundry goods and wares … to the value of one hundred and twenty pounds current money of New York.”
The widow Bayard soon established a trading post on this 12 by 16 mile tract, choosing to locate it very close to the place where you are now walking. The village you’ve just visited is most likely the reason for her choice of this site, which provided ready access for Lenape hunters who brought in bear, deer, beaver, panther, fox and other skins for trade. Trade was hardly a new activity for the Lenape, who for thousands of years had been skillful traders with a wide network of Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples throughout the eastern seaboard. Wlalowe, the Lenape word for the black fox, meant “substantially precious,” i.e. the most valued in trade, and woaks, the term for grey fox, was literally “it goes crooked,” i.e. not as valuable in trade. Still, trade with the Europeans was a powerful acculturative force; by 1700, one could see in the Lenape language a change which suggested their entrance into the market economy. The Lenape term for a shilling was kwuti na’henem, i.e. “one raccoon,” speaking of the standard value of a single raccoon skin in trade. By the time Blandina Bayard began trading with the local Lenape, they well knew just how to “give good weight,” and their appetite for European trade goods–sugar guns, livestock, clothes, alcohol–had already begun to devastate local game populations.
It had not always been so. Throughout the early 17th century, European observers recorded how they obtained valuable furs (and also foodstuffs and tobacco “for trifles” –beads, bits of red cloth, and wampum, the shell “money” which the English quickly learned how to manufacture in large quantities. Even when they received utilitarian objects–knives, hatchets, mirrors–the natives opted to use them in strange ways, hanging them from their necks, obviously more delighted by the glint of sun off them than by their sharp edges. All of these objects were highly valued by the Lenape because of their spiritual qualities. To the Lenape, the colors white and sky blue-green represented the cognitive and social aspect of life, the purposiveness of mind, knowledge, and greatest being, as did light, bright, and white things generally. These colors were thought to be good to think (with). The prefix w a– appears in all sorts of Lenape words connoting positive attributes: wali’ nakewsowa’ kan (fine appearance); waliapaleexid; (“the Good or Beautiful White Path,” the symbol of the transit of life in the Big House Ceremony); wampum, the shell beads which carried such supercharged ritual significance in the Big House ceremony.
Thinking of wampum as some sort of primitive currency completely misconstrues the nature of Lenape life: it represented a magical power capable of annulling the effects of any potentially harmful influences present whenever gifts were exchanged. Wampum had to be given; the belts and strings of wampum so familiar to us from iconography of early European contact with natives on the Atlantic coast were transferred as necessary pledges of sincerity of spirit and purity of purpose.
The sincerity of spirit and purity of purpose that the Lenape recognized in Blandina Bayard and her mother was hardly universal among the Dutch and English. On February 25, 1643, soldiers under the orders of Willem Kieft, the Indian-hating Dutch Governor of New Netherlands, massacred 80 Lenape at their village of Hoboken; 30 Lenape were murdered the same night on the island of Manhattan. During the next two decades Minisink was the scene of intermittent warfare, concentrated along the Hudson Valley and other regions of expanding Dutch settlement. By 1664, when the Dutch, partly due to their exhaustion in fighting these wars, surrendered New Amsterdam to the English, the Lenape were greatly demoralized. Many had lost their faith in their gods, medicines, and leaders. The Big House ceremony, performed faithfully nearly once a month before European contact, now was enacted but once or twice a year, and only in those villages that still had enough of their people to carry it on. Lenape leaders who sold lands now did so knowing that they must abandon them to the rapacious Europeans. Here in the Ramapos, still the frontier in 1700, there was more hope, and the Lenape yet looked forward to a future in which they might accomodate the sheweneka –“salt water people.”
Site 12: “Slave Cemetery”
The deed to this land reads that it was given “for divers good causes and several kindnesses received” from Blandina Bayard, and that phrase suggests that the Lenape looked at the exchange of land very differently than Europeans. Since in their minds land could never be “owned,” the deed was their concession to the strange European custom of making marks on parchment when gifts were exchanged. This explains why this same tract of land–the “Ramapo Tract”–was “sold” again in 1709, to a group of land speculators from New York City. Blandina Bayard had died in 1702, and her son Peter and his wife Rachel, as well as Blandina’s nephew Lucas Kiersted, still carried on the trade with the Lenape band here, at least until 1710, when Rachel Bayard and a number of other Ramapo settlers, along with some Lenape, threatened a surveyor who was here working for the New York speculators. For the next four decades, the Ramapo tract was the scene of a classic colonial struggle over land, with suits and countersuits, and a cast of characters too confusing to name. All the while, the Lenape were steadily losing ground in their own struggle to retain their homeland. By 1758, when the Easton Treaty gave up Lenape lands in northern New Jersey, the Ramapo River Valley was firmly in the hands of the salt-water people.
Between 1720 and 1740, the number of families living on the Ramapo tract nearly tripled, to around 40. Along with their cattle, sheep, agricultural tools, and furniture, the early 18th century European immigrants to the Ramapo River Valley brought a very different sort of property–human beings. Among the pioneer families in the area who held slaves were the Bogerts, Bartholfs, Terhunes, Van Allens, Hoppers, Maysingers, Lydekers, Ackermans, Vanderbeeks, Garrisons, Smiths, Westervelts, Harings, and Ryersons. As surely as the sod of this field was originally broken by Lenape hoes, it continued throughout the 1700s to be worked by men and women whose ancestors, or sometimes who themselves, had survived the long passage from Africa in the holds of ships of the Dutch West Indies Company. Lucas Kiersted perhaps had slaves here when he operated the trading post, since it is known that before his death at mid-century, he had given liberty and sold land to his slave Hannibal.
In 1743, Kiersted sold his land to his brother-in-law, Hendrick Laroe, who built a homestead just outside these cemetery walls. This land then passed through a number of hands, but after the Revolution, it was in the hands of Andrew Hopper, the tavernkeeper and compatriot of General Washington, who also kept quite a few slaves. Records show that in 1779, Hopper bought a man named Coffee, a woman named Comfort, a child, Lall, and another man named Bill, and in 1802, he purchased “a negro wench and child for $250.” In the same manner that the labor of black sharecroppers on sugar plantations indirectly built the mansions and barns and bought the baubles for the Havemeyers, the labor of black slaves here in the Ramapo Valley won new wealth from the land for the Hoppers and their neighbors, who used that wealth to acquire more property, including some of the human beings who are buried in these graves.
As you can see, most of the graves here have unmarked east-facing headstones, and the footstones close by indicate that many of the burials were of children. Though local tradition refers to this as the “slave cemetery,” at least some of these individuals were actually free. Due to the efforts of Quaker and other abolitionists, the New Jersey Legislature in 1804 passed an act to gradually abolish slavery in the state by declaring that after the following July 4th, children born of slaves would become free–males at age 25, females at age 21. Joseph Harrison, whose headstone indicates that he died in 1860 at age 41, may have had parents who were slaves, but he would have gained his freedom. Samuel Jennings was born about a decade after New Jersey enacted its gradual emancipation law, and would have been a free man for nearly half a century when he died in 1888. This cross was placed by Lillie Havemeyer Mayer, who had grown up knowing and no doubt loving Sam, one of the many laborers at Mountainside farm.
She must also have loved his son Samuel Jennings, since she left him $300 in a will she made out in Paris in December of 1899. Seven months later, while her husband John was in Newport with their two oldest children, attending her brother Henry’s wedding, Lillie came back from visiting her mother one afternoon. Upstairs, she exchanged a few words with Clinton Page, the foreman who had stayed on after the construction to become her helpmate, reading to her every afternoon. She passed the nursery where her 6-month-old son was sleeping, entered her bedroom, and putting a revolver to her head, fired. She died the next day.
Site 13: “Hopper Cemetery”
The Dutch pioneers and their slaves were not the only ones to bury their dead in the easily dug sand and gravel of this bank of the Ramapo. In 1893, the Ramsey Journal reported that workmen digging in a sand bank along this side of the river “unearthed a skeleton of a man, standing upright in the sand. The skeleton is supposed to be that of an Indian, as stone arrow heads and relicts were found by his side. Mr. Meyers (John Mayer?) expects to mount it and preserve it as a relic.” Throughout the history of the European and then American conquest of this continent, native peoples, when driven from their homelands, have lamented that they left behind the bones of their ancestors. Sometimes it seems as if Americans could not move quickly enough to put miles of space between themselves and their kin, both alive and dead. Hoppers, Hagermans, Smiths, Laroes, Bartholfs– few of the surnames represented here have descendants in this area any longer. With each generation, memory of who they were and where they lived fades. Like the river cutting into 27 the bank and claiming headstones and ancestral bones, time relentlessly attempts to erode our continuity with the past.
Site 14: La Roe-Hopper-Van Horn House
Some sense of how fluid the social and economic life of the area was in the 18th and early 19th centuries can be gained from considering this house. Known most commonly as the “Van Horn House,” it became the property of Abraham Van Horn only in 1849, a century after it was built by Hendrick Laroe’s oldest son Jacobus. In between, at least eight other families called this house their home. In 1889, T. A. Havemeyer added the house and farm to his Mountainside estate, and in 1917 it was sold once more, to Stephen Birch, who had once worked as a chauffeur for the Havemeyers. In local memory, when Steve Birch was in grade school, his classmates would feed him from their lunchboxes, as he came to school most days hungry and without his own lunch. With the aid of the Havemeyers, Birch graduated from the Columbia School of Mines in 1898, and took his hunger to the Copper River Valley of Alaska, where, in the wake of the Klondike gold rush, prospectors had found a number of rich copper deposits. Ted Glasgow remembered:
My mother used to tell a story about old Steve overhearing some people, two other men in particular, talking about a particular strike, a particular load of copper. She contended that he got on a faster train and they never came back.
With money staked by Henry O. Havemeyer, Birch bought claims in the region and then battled contesting claims in court, eventually emerging victorious. In 1906, Birch brought together the financial might of the J. P. Morgans and the mining expertise of the Guggenheims to form the Alaska Syndicate, otherwise known as the Morgan-Guggenheim Trust, which, like the Sugar Trust, had its headquarters in New York City; just as Theodore Havemeyer never had to set foot in Haiti or Louisiana during the many years that sugar profits poured in, J. P. Morgan and Daniel Guggenheim never once stepped on the Alaskan tundra. From New York they controlled the copper mines, as well as the banks, the stores, the salmon fisheries, steamship lines, and the railroads that made the exploitation of this far-away resource possible. In charge of the day-to-day operations the Syndicate put the ravenous Stephen Birch, who, after he worked with the Syndicate to form the Kennecott Mines Company in 1915, became chairman of this new octopus.
In 1917, Henry O. Havemeyer and his surviving siblings (his elder brother Charles had also taken his own life, in 1902) sold over 700 acres, including this house and the Mayer mansion, to Birch. Developing a prize herd of Guernsey cows, as well as some sheep and poultry, he kept much of the land in agriculture, at a time when Mahwah was increasingly losing its farms to suburbia. After he died in 1940, his son Stephen, Jr., under the new name of “Mahrapo Farm,” continued farming, focusing his interest on a large herd of Black Angus. There are many people in town who tell stories of how Birch used to have armed guards to protect the herd, whose grazing land just across the road here was in the eighteenth century the “commons” of the Ramapo Tract.
There has been no commons here in the Ramapo Valley for nearly two centuries, for the commons belongs to a time before runaway individualism turned this and the rest of America into a Land of Desire. Certainly by 1917, American landscapes and mindscapes were largely the property of the corporate money economy. Luxury, once a sin to the republican farmers and merchants who fought a Revolution against a decadent England, was becoming the goal of one and all. Throughout America, possession–being through having–was beginning to triumph, and pageantry and artifice were replacing direct engagement with the living world. Home, once a place more spiritual than material, was becoming something one purchased, improved, and then sold for a profit.
In some sense, the only reason that the estate landscape of the late 19th century has survived into the late 20th century is because copper replaced sugar as a source of wealth that could keep hundreds of acres of prime developable land out of the hands of newly hungry men who would build their own empires upon real estate. Were it not for the Havemeyer – Birch succession, with multiple generations being fed by wealth created far away where other landscapes were being away carved up, this landscape would have been long ago carved into the sort of houselots that now stand where the Havemeyer boarding house once stood, or across the river at the Ramapo Hunt and Polo Club, one of whose houses sports a lawn up to the bank where Lenape men once stood with spears, their eyes intent on the flash of silver scales.
Site 15: Birch Mansion
Poor men take centuries to make a landscape; wealthy men buy their landscapes and so can shape them overnight. About the time that Stephen Birch bought the Mayer Mansion, deer park lands, the Van Horn House, and the land across the river and up into the mountains, he also bought from the Havemeyer heirs this arch, which once graced Theodore Havemeyer’s home at 244 Madison Avenue. He and his son after him brought their own ideas of home to the valley, but they were increasingly private notions. The Birches were legendary for their lavish parties, parties which never included local people except as hired help. No one recalls dances that brought folks all the way from Monroe. Most memories of Stephen Birch, Sr. sound more like this story from Ted:
He was a nasty old man; my brother and sister were playing along the side of the road, just outside of the stone wall. Old Steve came along in his horse and wagon and snapped the whip at my brother, who yelled pretty loudly, and my father happened to be at home, and ran out of the driveway and yelled something at Steve, who was then going pretty quickly up the road. My dad went back into the house and got the shotgun and fired a shot just to help him along a little bit.
The homes that wealthy men build can become prisons of sort to their sons and grandsons, who, isolated by their wealth from the surrounding community, cut off from the erotic commerce of daily living in a heterogeneous social world, stay focused on keeping what possessions they have rather than on how to give them away. In 1970, Stephen Birch Jr., who increasingly shrank from contact even with his own small social circle, died, and today he is remembered more for what he had than who he was. A quarter century later, Henry Havemeyer, T.A.’s grandson, died in an upstairs room of the Havemeyer Mansion, where he had been living like a hermit.
This manuscript is part of the John W. Bristow Papers.