Posts Tagged ‘Hudson Valley’

I thought I’d return to discussing some of the previous “incarnations” of some of our most recognizable Nyack area buildings.

THE VANILLA FACTORY:  This quirky building on the corner of Piermont Avenue and Main Street is the oldest brick commercial building in the village, having been constructed in 1836. It originated as Ross’s General Store on the main floor with various manufacturing businesses occupying the upper floors. For many years all of the space above was a shoe factory (Nyack was for a time known as “Shoe Town”). A hoist still present in the building was installed during the tenancy of a furniture moving and storage company. In 1924, Seeley & Company began manufacturing of extracts and flavorings here, and the pleasant aromas would lead to the building being known forever after as “The Vanilla Factory”. One of the most interesting incarnations was from the early 1970s to the 1990s – “The Elizabeth Seeger School” an alternative High School founded by 5 breakaway teachers from the Dalton School in NYC. Currently the building houses offices and residential space, but the old hoist and other mercantile details can still be seen around this fascinating building that has changed so little on the outside!

photo by J.P. Schutz
CASCADIAN BOTTLING COMPANY: Ever been driving or cycling on River Road in Grandview and wonder what in the world that long low Grecian Temple was on the west side of the road approaching the bridge? That building and the large mostly unseen warehouse behind it were for years Grandview’s only industry.

photo courtesy of Rich Ellis

The first business there was the Onderdonk Stone Quarry, where brownstone for New York City’s luxury brownstones were mined going back to the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s. There had been a hat factory there in the 1800s that failed in the Depression of 1893. The old building was raised and the property purchased by none other than D.W. Griffith, my grandmother’s old boss, and one of the most important director/producers of the silent age. Think “Birth of a Nation”… yeah, THAT D.W. Griffith.  The city’s water was not in the best shape at the time there being a switchover from the old aqueducts to the new water tunnels, so spring water was bottled here and shipped from Nyack down to NYC under the name of Crandel Spring Water. Griffiths would bring his friends including the Gish Sisters up to Grandview for both relaxation and shooting of scenes in his films. My grandmother, Irene Lane Dunn, was Miss Lillian Gish’s stand-in for scene set-ups and also did what few “stunts” would be called on for Gish’s character; she would also play small or medium roles in the films as well. (I would later meet Lillian Gish several times when I would sing Christmas Parties at Helen Hayes MacArthur’s house, and she would always refer to me as “Little Irene’s Grandson”.) My Nana fondly remembered shooting several films in Grandview and Piermont and South Nyack and found them a nice change from Fort Lee and Brooklyn which were where the studios were mostly housed at the time. (If anyone is interested, the last film my Nana appeared in was “Bathing Beauties of 1922” – not kidding!) My grandmother would never leave New York and continued on the stage here, but Griffiths and the Gishes and the Studios all moved west, and the bottling company was sold in 1920 to become the Cascadian Products Company bottling carbonated water and later sodas.  From around 1930 to the mid-1960s their premier product would be ‘Cliquot Club Soda’. By 1960, the plant and spring were purchased by the Raso family and the name changed to Spring Water Beverage Company; and in 1968 another name change and a return to just bottling spring water, under the name Canaday Eagle Spring Water.  Operations ceased in 1975. The front building was converted to a unique residence and the rear warehouse in to a recording studio. Those remain the uses to this day, although one can still see the fountain on the lawn and a number of other remnants of the bottling and spring water days. The property consisting of house, recording studio and warehouse, spring, waterfall is currently listed for sale with Rich Ellis of Ellis Southeby’s Realty.
photo by J.P. Schutz

COUCH COURT: The building on the southwest corner of Broadway and Depew has been many things in past years, including the Orangetown Town Hall and the location where the New York State Supreme Court met several times when needing to do “downstate” business.

photo by Barbara Gill Porta

Built in 1854 for A.J. Storms of the Storms Tub and Pail Company, it would then pass into the hands of Captain Edwin Stillwell of the Nyack Ferry until 1882. In 1885 it was purchased by the Couch Family and gained its current name.  Dr. Louis Couch would use the building to house his Homeopathic Practice and his family, including his ground breaking daughter, Natalie. I’ve mentioned the formidable Ms. Couch in a number of prior postings – she was a suffragette and great proponent of women’s rights and she was in charge of the ambulance crew that were first on the scene of the Analine Dye Factory explosion.  Natalie Couch Williams was born in Nyack and graduated Wellsley College in 1907 and continued onto Fordham Law School where she graduated first in the class and became Rockland County’s first woman attorney. In Nyack, she organized the first women’s Republican Club in New York State immediately following passage of women’s suffrage in 1920. While maintaining a law office in Nyack, she would also go on to become Journal Clerk to the New York Assembly (another ‘first woman” achievement for her) and be legal secretary to NYS Supreme Court Justice Arthur S. Tompkins. She was nominated by the Republican Party and ran for the State Assembly as early as 1934 (and was defeated by another woman, Democrat Caroline O’Day who had the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, in the first woman vs. woman US election).  She was married to State Senator Lawrence G. Williams.

In her 66 years, she would become the first woman elected President of the Rockland County Bar Association, the first woman to be Vice-Chair of the Rockland County Republican Committee, and the Police Justice for Grandview-on-Hudson. She was considered a key member of the election committees of Governor Thomas E. Dewey and the failed Presidential bid of Wendell Wilkie. She was hosting a “Citizens for Eisenhower” rally in Nanuet when she was stricken with a fatal heart attack in 1956. In a story about her death, The New York Times would call her “New York State Republican Leader”.  Her law offices at Couch Court would become from 1942 to 1951 the Town Hall for all of Orangetown, and the Supreme Court of New York met there several times. During the time that she was the only female lawyer in Rockland, she had two male lawyers as employees of her practice. 

After her death, Couch Court would house a Medical Supply outlet and other healthcare related businesses. Later renovated and refurbished, the gracious building now serves as home to my own office – Better Homes & Gardens Rand Realty of Nyack; along with the real estate investment company Rock-n-Real Estate; K.A. Consulting; internet designers Center Line Design; and a residential unit on the top floor.

photo by J.P. Schutz


Read Full Post »

For those who religiously trek to Arthur Ashe Stadium at Forest Hills each September, or remain glued to the US Open on their televisions or computers for the duration, it may come as a bit of a shock to discover that the Nyack Country Club Open Tennis Tournament was for many years a major competition.  National and Internationally ranked stars came to Upper Nyack to compete in the event which was covered daily by the papers from New York City and around the world.

The building and grounds currently known as the Nyack Field Club on Midland Avenue in Upper Nyack for a time belonged to Pierre Bernard (aka “Oom the Omniscient”) who called it “Braeburn Country Club” when he acquired it in 1918. However, prior to 1918 it was called “The Nyack Country Club” and that was the period of its’ national reputation.  The savvy planners of this tournament generally timed it for the month of September, allowing world-class and seeded tennis players – male and female – to finish up the competition at Forest Hills and then stay in the New York metro area while they then competed in Nyack.  Held under the auspices of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (now the National Tennis Association), the Nyack Open even had its’ own corporate sponsor, the Spalding Tennis Ball company.  I found references to the tournament as far back as 1893 in The New York Times and 1894 in The New York Sun – both references making it clear that it was already a fairly well-known tournament by the early 1890s.  As far as I can find in my research, I can verify the tournament continuing at least through 1915, and it was reported daily in the Times and the Sun, as well as being previewed in both papers months in advance.

In 1904, The New York Times reported 110 Contestants for the titles which included Mens Singles, Mens Doubles, Womens Singles, Womens Doubles and Mixed Doubles.  The Spalding Tennis Annual of that year had this to say about the 1904 competition:

“The courts, which are considered especially fine, were in the best of condition. Good weather made it possible to run the tournament through to its completion without interruption and added considerably to the attractiveness of the picturesque club house and grounds. Many contestants availed themselves of the privileges of the club, which are extended to all players during tournaments, and all expressed themselves as having enjoyed a most delightful week.”

So, if we had ourselves a major stop on what was the equivalent of our modern Pro Tour, we should have had ourselves some major players in the area, perhaps even a Tennis Star? Well, it appears that we did indeed have a hometown tennis hero, or heroine as it turns out, Augusta Bradley Chapman.

photo courtesy of Rockland County Sports Hall of Fame

Born Augusta Bradley in January 1875, she was the daughter of socialite Augusta Tremaine Bradley and Stephen R. Bradley, founder of the Fiber Conduit Company of Orangeburg, known worldwide as “Orangeburg Pipe”.  She would be a lifelong resident of Nyack and Upper Nyack, and marry George L. Chapman, himself a tennis player of note, and later the Vice President of The Nyack Bank.  Her professional tennis career spanned 30 years (three decades in pro sports, there’s a record to be proud of!) and was considered one of the finest women players, indeed finest women athletes, of her era.  She won over 60 major tournaments, including the Nyack Country Club Singles Championship, the Singles State Championship of New Jersey, and 7 times won the Hudson River Tennis Association (which included Forest Hills) Singles title. Her performances in Women’s Doubles with partner Mrs. Marshall McLean would place them in Second Place in the 1915 US Open and finally win First Place in the US Open in 1917 (due to the USA’s entry into WWI, the 1917 US Open was renamed “The 1917 Patriotic Tennis Tournament”). She would also win First Place in the country in Mixed Doubles that same year and same tournament with her mixed doubles partner, Nathaniel Niles.  Augusta Bradley Chapman would go on to represent the United States of America in the Wightman Cup Tournament against the players of the United Kingdom.

As noted in the annals of the National Tennis Association, the Tennis World mourned pioneer Augusta Bradley Chapman’s passing on February 11, 1949, having been preceded by her husband. She was 75 years old and still resided in the Nyacks.  In 1977 she was elected to the Rockland County Sports Hall of Fame, becoming chronologically the first woman in the Hall, and first Nyacker as well.  She and West Nyack’s John Koster (pioneer in pro-bowling, 4 time national champ) are the earliest athletes so honored, both being at their peak in the early years of the 1900s.  Augusta Bradley Chapman is one few professional athletes in the Rockland Hall that lived their entire lives here, a distinction she shares with Pearl River resident John Flaherty, formerly of the West Nyack Little League and catcher for a little team called The New York Yankees, with whom he caught for the likes of Mariano Rivera and Rogers Clemens, and in the 2003 World Series helping to cap his 14 year career.  

It seems amazing to me that with all of the tennis courts in the area, as far as I know, none have been named in honor of our hometown tennis queen Augusta Bradley Chapman. Perhaps I’ll “lob”-by for one!

Read Full Post »

It sure is political season, isn’t it? Seems you can’t turn around without bumping into some reference to this year’s local and state elections and – enough already! – NEXT year’s presidential election. Since everyone is talking about this week’s mayoral debate at the Nyack Center, while serendipitously Nyack Library chose the following as its local history picture of the month, I’ve decided to discuss a very famous man’s political speech not 100 feet from where the candidates debated on Wednesday.

photo: Nyack Library History Collection

The photo shows the Doersch Brothers Grocery, which was located just steps away from the current Nyack Center in the building that would come to be known as the Broadway Theater, then the Tappan Zee Playhouse.  Currently the closed Chef’s Market occupies the spot – a spot that began as a warehouse and closed, became a Grocery and closed, then a movie theater that closed for 27 years, then a live theater that closed, then rebuilt as a Grocery… that closed.  One of the topics in the mayor’s debate was the economy and the state of downtown businesses, and on September 1, 1868, Horace Greeley stopped by to make a political speech discussing very similar issues and 1500 people filled what would become the Tappan Zee Playhouse while another 300 had to be turned away. Greeley opposed monopolies and the vast accumulation of wealth by real estate developers who bamboozled the public with schemes that seemed to promise wonderful things for everyone but at heart were nothing more than ways to line the developers’ pockets. His own paper The New York Tribune, opened up the closed doors of congress and the railroad barons and openly opposed government subsidies for the already profitable railroad barons and real estate speculators, along with the vast wealth being acquired by a very few while jobs were lost all across the country. His speech would discuss his insistence that the federal and state governments should be instituting high protective tariffs and sponsoring internal improvements and infrastructure support for the benefit of the people as a whole rather than creating laws and regulations that benefited a tiny few.

Sound familiar?

Horace Greeley was a fascinating, quirky and sometimes self-contradicting figure – no wonder all of Nyack turned out to see him, he must have fit in perfectly! And by the way, he never said: “Go West Young Man”… that’s a never uttered paraphrase ranking right up there with “Play It Again Sam” and “Beam Me Up Scotty”.  Born in New Hampshire, he moved to New York City in 1831 and by 1834 was involved with the publishing of The New Yorker joining his name to political reforms along with such luminaries as William Seward (who’d become Lincoln’s Secretary of State and purchased Alaska for the USA).

He established his daily New York Tribune and its’ weekly national version The Tribune in 1841.  He was a great supporter of workers rights and his own business reflected that: excellent work conditions and hours, a profit-sharing plan, organization of his workers and cooperative groupings. His paper garnered great respect for its higher tone, lack of sensationalism, cultural additions like book reviews and straightforward reporting. It also gained him a large following to whom he could present his views and causes.  He espoused Women’s Rights and suffrage and opposed Slavery – though he bemoaned both the political machinations and the sometimes violent behavior of some Abolitionists.  He supported the Temperance movement to a point. He opposed the Mexican War feeling that it only benefited the slave owners of the south.  He was appointed to fill a Congressional vacancy in 1848 but only served 3 months as he continually reported on what REALLY went on behind closed doors in Washington and his editorials strongly condemning the Kansas-Nebraska Act (effectively opening the possibility of additional slave states in the northern prairie territories – resulting in rioting, death and political upheaval in “Bleeding Kansas”) would prove to put a gulf between Greeley and his former friend Seward. Greeley’s support of a gentleman named Abraham Lincoln over the Republican Party’s chosen frontrunner – William Seward – served to clinch Lincoln’s nomination and Seward’s everlasting hatred.

Though he supported Lincoln, Greeley was not one to let things rest when he perceived what he believed was injustice or political posturing. He was tough in Lincoln and initially argued that we were better off without the South and should let them secede. He did eventually come to Lincoln’s way of thinking regarding preserving the Union as a whole, but stridently criticized Lincoln for not freeing the slaves immediately. He was not one to wait for change to come, he demanded it now, and did everything he could to become part of the change himself. Perhaps that passion was what brought so many people (a very large crowd for Rockland County in the 1860s) out to listen to him speak.

Oddly, after the Civil War, Greeley supported amnesty for Confederate Officers and angered many Northern supporters by posting bail for Jefferson Davis!  He did continue his support for universal suffrage for all races and for women, and the rights of workers. He was not an avid expansionist, but rather recommended an orderly westward movement. What he really said was “The best business you can go into you will find on your father’s farm or in his workshop. If you have no family or friends to aid you, and no prospect open to you there, turn your face to the great West and there build up your home and fortune.”  He was frequently misquoted in his lifetime too, and once quipped, “I never said all Democrats were saloonkeepers; what I said was that all saloonkeepers are Democrats.”

He was a man of diverse and sometimes odd interests that ranged from literacy to election reform to spiritualism to phrenology – and really, advocating Women’s Rights in the mid-1800s? He was never seen in public without his full-length duster coat and his bright shiny umbrella even on the hottest and sunniest of days.  And yet, even after his public gaffe with ol’ Jeff Davis, he remained immensely popular. In 1872 he would become the Presidential Candidate for BOTH the Democratic Party and the then existent Liberal-Republican Party. In his acceptance speech of the Liberal-Republican nomination, he said “The masses of our countrymen, North and South, are eager to clasp hands across the bloody chasm which has so long divided them.” But a Greeley Presidency was not to be – he lost steam and all interest in the subject when his wife tragically died, and he foundered without her, dying of a broken heart and loneliness just a few weeks after the election to which he paid such little attention. He had garnered 44% of the popular vote and his electoral college votes were posthumously assigned to three candidates of minority parties.

Horace Greeley was a real American Character, and one of the finest compliments I’ve ever received was from someone who called me ‘Horace Greeley, Jr.’ intending it as an insult.  For Horace Greeley firmly believed that the USA’s best times were ahead, and that only by joining together – North and South, Male and Female, Worker and Employer, Democrat and Republican, White, Black, Native or any other ethnicity – would we find our best destiny and fulfill the dreams of our Founding Fathers.   I’d like to think that those were precisely the reasons that on that day in September of 1868 so much of Nyack turned out to listen to a political speech.

Read Full Post »

On July 4th, 1774 – two years to the DAY when Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” would be signed by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia – the local residents of Nyack, Blauveltville, Snedens’ Landing, Tappan and Tappan Slote (Piermont) got together to sign a remarkable document that would come to be called “The Orangetown Resolutions”.

They met at Jost Mabie’s Tavern (now known to us as the Old ’76 House Restaurant, having served food since 1686 making it America’s Oldest Dining Room) a location that would later frequently feed Washington and his officers and be the prison for English Spy John Andre. In response to the positively reckless way in which the current monarch (George III) and his parliament were using and abusing their American Colonies, and particularly in regards to the closing of the port of Boston, they wrote:

“We cannot see the late Acts of Parliament imposing duties upon us, and the Act for shutting up the port of Boston, without declaring our abhorrence of measures so unconstitutional and big with destruction… That we are in duty bound to use every just and lawful measure, to obtain a repeal of Acts, not only destructive to us, but which of course must distress thousands in the mother country… That it is our unanimous opinion, that the stopping all exportation and importation to and from Great Britain and the West Indies, would be the most effectual method to obtain a speedy repeal.”

Not exactly a cry for out-and-out war, but the threat of a total embargo of goods from England was a serious one, branding the group with accusations of treason and sedition.  A similar closing of the port of New York would destroy any exportation of foodstuffs and iron goods from Orangetown and violate the terms of the English takeover of New Netherland from the Dutch which guaranteed that the port of New York would always be an open port and allowed to trade freely with all nationalities and countries. Our locals saw their own futures in the ruinous blocking of the port of Boston – the results of the Boston Tea Party, which in itself was only the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s reaction to the “Intolerable Acts” passed by Parliament and King George III which seemed determined to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

One of the signers of the Orangetown Resolutions – John Haring – would in turn be our local representative to the First Continental Congress.

photo from Old 76 House website

The Old 76 House Restaurant is located at 110 Main Street in Tappan, and is open year round for Lunch and Dinner with Brunch on Weekends with Candlelit and Fireside Dining in Autumn, Winter and Spring.

Read Full Post »

Many Nyackers are unaware that Oak Hill Cemetery contains an entire section dedicated to Nyackers who either died fighting the Civil War or were Civil War Veterans. Two Generals are actually buried there, but one was particularly special – he convinced Abraham Lincoln that the time had come for African Americans to be allowed to fight in combat in the Union Army for after all, who had more of a stake in the outcome…? Read on…

civil war memorial


At a time when it seems that selfishness and partisanship often appear to be the rule of the day in all levels of government, I thought a Nyack story about a public figure devoted to fairness, justice and the spirit of “All Men  Are Created Equal” was in order. Many of us have seen the movie “GLORY” but may not realize that Nyack shares in that glory…

Daniel Ullman (sometimes spelled “Ullmann”) was born in April of 1810 in Delaware, and moved to New York City after graduating Yale University in 1829 (you’ll note, he was all of 19 years old!). He passed the bar in New York and began a law practice.  Also something of a minor politician, he ran for Governor of the State of New York in 1854, gaining 26% of the vote.  When the Civil War began, he volunteered and was made a Colonel in the 78th New York Infantry. In August of 1862 he was captured at Cedar Mountain and became a prisoner of war at Libby Prison.  He was paroled in October, and immediately went to Washington to speak to President Lincoln about an idea he thought would help save the Union, and represent just what our Nation was supposed to be all about.

The idea was the inclusion of Black Soldiers – free and those freed from bondage – as regular members of the Union Army. Not servants, not support or camp followers. Soldiers.  A somewhat radical idea for that time period (despite the numerous African-American soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War) President Lincoln was at first cool to the idea, concerned with how some of the top brass of his own troops might feel about the concept, AND the fact that his own coup – The Emancipation Proclamation – was due to become law on January 1, 1863. Too many “radical” ideas at once might break the remaining states of the Union apart.  After that stunning proclamation, Lincoln called Ullman back to D.C. further discuss the idea.

photo: public domain

In January of 1863, Ullman was promoted to Brigadier General and sent to Louisiana under the command of General Banks, where his orders were to raise five regiments of African-American troops, given the designation of Corps D’Afrique, though commonly nicknamed Ullman’s Brigade.  Despite this victory for Civil Rights, all was not smooth sailing for Daniel Ullman and his troops.  In a letter to General L. Thomas dated May 19th, Ullman would bemoan the lack of respect for his troops – the tendency of lower level officers to attempt to use his troops as nothing more than ditch diggers and drudges and those officers’ reluctance to believe African-American troops would be “capable” under fire – and the overall lack of competence of the white junior officers assigned to his command.

Vindication for Ullman and his recruits was just days away – the troops would see their first major action on May 27, 1863 when they advanced over open ground in the face of devastating artillery fire.  Ullman’s Brigade, made up almost entirely of men born into enslavement, desperate for the freedom our Constitution promised all men, stormed the Confederates at a place on the Louisiana shore of the Mississippi River ironically named PORT HUDSON!  They would not win this military battle.  Many of the soldiers desperate for their freedom found their freedom that day only through the boundaries of death. The battle they won, however, was mental and moral. General Banks would write in his official report of the Battle of Port Hudson that: “Whatever doubt may have existed heretofore as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this day proves…in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders.”  Another “cherished” myth – that African-Americans could not effectively fight as a unit – was laid to rest.  For really, who had more of a stake in the outcome of this conflict than men for whom victory meant liberty and defeat continued bondage?  Amazingly, the display of courage shown by the Corps D’Afrique in the Battle of Port Hudson actually spurred more enslaved men to escape their masters and join the Union Army.  Please note that the more famous assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina – chronicled in the movie “GLORY” – and fought by the African-American freemen of the 54th Massachusetts occurred several months AFTER Ullman’s troops made their history at Port Hudson. And recall, while Colonel Shaw of “Glory” fame commanded African-American freemen – tradesmen, scholars, artisans and professionals from New England – Ullman commanded former slaves fighting for their very existence.

Ullman’s Brigade was officially renamed “The United States Colored Troops” and served with distinction through the seige of Mobile in early 1865.  However, in February of 1865, Ullman was detached from his command and sent to New Orleans for “rest”. For at heart, Ullman was a thinker and advocate, not a warrior.  The stress of a command constantly plagued with prejudicial suspicion and distrust, and the constant uphill battle for equal treatment had worn him down.  By the spring of 1865 he had developed a serious alcohol problem and was mercifully taken off the front lines, and out of the command structure he’d had to constantly buck for two bloody years.  He was mustered out in August of 1865 and given the rank of Major General.

After the war, where else would he retire to but Nyack-on-Hudson?  He spent the Reconstruction years with literary and scientific studies – and speaking on tolerance and his assertion that “equality of education and universal suffrage” was the right of all citizens of this country, and would be the only means towards healing in the South. Unfortunately, his dreams of equality and suffrage would not bear fruit in the South for almost a century.  Daniel Ullman – Lawyer, Statesman, Scholar, General and Civil Rights Pioneer – died peacefully at his home in Nyack on  September 20, 1892 at the age of 82.  He is buried on the slopes of Oak Hill Cemetery in view of his beloved Hudson. An adopted son of Nyack, perhaps, but so welcome in the diverse tapestry that is our history. Heroes, real heroes, are in short supply in any century, and I’m proud to claim this hero as one of “ours”.

Oak Hill Cemetary on US 9W, across from Nyack Hospital.  Take a walk through the magnificent burial grounds and offer your respects to General Ullman’s grave, along with the other celebrities, authors, artists and politicians making up Nyack’s “permanent” population.  

photo: J.P. Schutz

Read Full Post »

The combined Earthquake/Tsunami/Nuclear tragedies the nation of Japan is dealing with this week led me on one of my searches only to find a tie-in to our wartime history here in Nyack, and fortunately, a memory we can all truly be proud of and cherish – Nyack’s WWII U.S.O. and their commitment to our Japanese-American soldiers. 


Photo by Toge Fujihira; Bancroft Library collection U.C. at Berkeley


It was not easy being a Japanese Immigrant living in the United States during World War II, and in a way it was worse being “Nisei” – that is, a United States citizen whose parents immigrated from Japan but was born here (if it was your grandparents who immigrated you are “Sansei”).  Naturally, those folks of Japanese heritage born here as citizens thought of themselves as just that – Americans – when suddenly their neighbors began to think of them as being enemies and foreigners – when they were already somewhat alienated from their parents’ generation having grown up in American schools with an American mindset. Though their parents, the “Issei” had to have been astonished, frightened and saddened by the seizing of their property and their imprisonment in internment camps during WWII, for the Nisei those emotions had to be joined by one even stronger – anger. Their own country had imprisoned them, seized their homes and their assets, and established laws that barred their presence on the West Coast and denied them the right to join their own country’s armed forces.  110,000 Japanese-Americans spent the war in these camps (along with about 10,000 German-Americans and about 500 Italian-Americans).

And yet, in 1943 – when the ban on serving in the military was lifted on Japanese-American men – those men signed up in droves.  The 442nd Infantry Regiment, made up entirely of Nisei soldiers, was sent to the European front and remains the most decorated regiment in the history of the United States Armed Forces including 21 Medals of Honor.  And all this while their wives, mothers, fathers, sisters and younger brothers were still held in camps back in the USA. So much for the supposedly “questionable loyalty” of Americans of Japanese heritage.  Ironically, the 552 Field Artillery Battalion of the 442nd Infantry would free the surviving prisoners of Dachau while some of their own relatives lingered in interment back home.

How does Nyack fit in?  By 1943, the largest of the military embarkation points on the east coast was built right over Clausland Mountain from Nyack in Orangeburg, named Camp Shanks, but nicknamed “Last Stop, USA”.  Over 1.5 million G.I.s would depart from Camp Shanks for Europe – and each night as many as 1600 young men from the Camp would find themselves walking the streets of Nyack (and we think the bar situation is somewhat outof-control NOW? Though to be fair, as mentioned in a prior post the Broadway Theater in Nyack held more than that number).  Some of the soon-to-be-decorated Nisei units would pass through Camp Shanks and those soldiers would head to the streets of Nyack looking for entertainment like any other American G.I.s.photo: Toge Fujihira, Bancroft Library UC Berkeley

The Nyack U.S.O. was located across the street from the Theater in what is now The Runcible Spoon (my favorite hangout attracted hoards of uniformed visitors back then too, only now the uniforms are those of bike teams…) and was extremely popular with the service men.  Many locals volunteered their time to feed and entertain the young men about to risk their lives  – and found it a very rewarding experience. Nyack U.S.O. hostesses in the pictures  include Mrs. J. Knapp,  Mrs. T. Rudden and Mrs. J. Maisseo. In March, with the first large group of new Japanese American soldiers due in Camp, A.L. Esplin and Helen Zolkis directors of the Nyack U.S.O. and Peter Aoki of the Japanese American Citizens League met and decided to make a special evening for them.  Through the Citizens League, Nisei young women living in New York City (WE didn’t inter thankfully!) were invited to join the U.S.O. in Nyack for a special dance evening for the departing Nisei soldiers – 125 responded and came up for the event.  The three organizers are seen below with Miss Kunimatsu of NYC and Private Kudo formerly of Los Angeles and whose family resided at the time in the Heart Mountain interment camp. Yuriko Amemiya, a Nisei modern dancer and member of the famed Martha Graham Dance Company and teacher at the NYC New Dance Group Studio was on hand that evening as well to perform for the 200 troops and 125 young ladies who attended the event.  Known as just “Yuriko” professionally, she too had originally been from the West Coast, sent to an interment camp but relocated to New York and Martha Graham’s company in 1943.

photo: Toge Fujihira, Bancroft Library UC Berkeley

For other towns and cities with U.S.O.s the event may have been radical, but… this is and WAS Nyack. It’s not that prejudice or discrimination does not or did not exist here – it is simply that it is seldom allowed to take too much of a hold, or to overwhelm the hearts and minds of this special community – especially in times of great need.  If you’d like to show the people of Japan that in this time of need that Nyack still cares about the Japanese people, contact the Nyack Branch of the Red Cross at 143 North Broadway (845-358-0833) or www.redcross.org and donate to Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami. People can also text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation to help those affected by the earthquake in Japan and tsunami throughout the Pacific. 

Read Full Post »

In February of 1879 a remarkable woman passed away here in Nyack.  She was born right here in Rockland in 1808 to John and Jane Moore of Tappan – her father was well-known all over Rockland and he owned the Mill on the Sparkill Creek. He was one of the wealthiest men in the area at the time, and invented an improvement on the Mill Wheel that was utilized all over the Hudson Valley. He was proud to have his Mill producing blankets for the Union Soldiers fighting the Civil War.  It is frighteningly unclear how this freeborn young lady wound up enslaved but kidnappings of free african-americans were not unknown at the time and despite her father’s notoriety and community support it appears her family was unable to liberate her from her bondage in the American South.

photo: Nyack Historical Society

She would meet her husband during her period of slavery – Edward Hesdra was the “mulatto” son of  a white Jewish Virginia planter and a free black woman from Haiti.  They would purchase her freedom and flee north, settling first in Greenwich Village where she began a laundry and a money lending business.  Through hard work and smart investment, she soon owned (in her own name, it appears her hubby was not so industrious) her own home, and a dozen other properties on MacDougall, Sullivan and Bleecker Streets.  Having established the beginnings of her personal fortune, she moved herself and her husband to Nyack for its’ healthier environment.

Here she would again establish another laundry business and another money-lending business while continuing to operate her businesses and manage her properties in Greenwich Village.  Soon she would own additional properties in Nyack and nearby Bergen County along with her local and city businesses and properties. By the standards of the time, she was quite a wealthy self-made woman – by today’s standards a multi-millionaire.  She and her husband were also quietly helping others still in bondage in the unrepentant South – by opening their home as a station on the “Freedom Trail” – the mysterious and legendary Underground Railroad.  With the night sky’s constellations as their guide and the threat of torture or death behind, intrepid men and women slipped away from plantations and farms seeking the north and freedom meeting helpful “station keepers” – both white and black – on their dangerous journey to freedom.  (A new sculpture in the center of Frederick Douglass Circle at Central Park West and W.110th Street shows the constellation “map” used by the fleeing slaves – drop by and check it out!)  Though many chose to run the tracks all the way to Canada and away from the United States, some of the fugitives would choose to stay in Nyack – led there by the constellation map and the Nyack Brook – or in New York City where they could lose themselves in the large free-black community.

At the time of her death in February 1879, Cynthia Hesdra had acquired quite a fortune, and her death sparked a precedent setting and much publicized court battle by her heirs, including her husband.  Previously unknown Wills, additional falsified wills, unknown relatives and fraudulent heirs all marked a battle that played itself out in the Courtroom and in the Papers, until 1890 when it was finally all settled.  The New York Times of June of 1890 would sum up the contentious probate battle in a series of stories called “For An Ex-Slave’s Fortune”.  The case would mark the first application of a new law in New York State that allowed for comparisons between known and disputed signatures.

The historically significant Hesdra House stood at the corner of Main Street and 9W but was torn down to build the utterly charming and well-utilized tan and brown building on the corner that formerly held a pet supply center and a rug store.  You may sense my sarcasm here, and though even though as a Real Estate agent I am in favor of development, I consider the loss of a historic structure without a significant reason and well-researched development plan to be nothing short of sinful.  We have so little left in the area that is significant historically, let alone significant to our long-term African-American community, and I wish that there had been some responsible thought in maintaining a home that played a pivotal past role to so many people alive today.  Granted, there is a historical marker in place on the corner – but in a final insult to a woman who went from freedom to enslavement to self-made real estate tycoon, the home is listed in her HUSBAND’s name on the marker, despite the house and the fortune coming from HER industrious nature.  If you cross 9W from the marker and walk down the hill to the Provident Savings Bank, you can see one of the few places where the Nyack Brook is not culverted, but still open to the sky – the same sky that led fleeing slaves to the Brook, where they would follow its’ banks to a safe haven in Cynthia Hesdra’s corner home.  A local resident recently proposed that the brook property be acquired and a Village Park established with historical markers to explain the significance of the site, and benches to allow one to sit and appreciate an untouched part of Nyack’s original environment. I would like to heartily second that wonderful suggestion!

photo by Michael Herrick

If you want to find out more about Cynthia Hesdra, Dr. Lori L. Martin, a Dean at John Jay College in NYC and a Nyack native has written a book that like the New York Times series of the late 1800s is called “The Ex-Slave’s Fortune”.  Local and significant history at its finest.  Look for it on Lulu.comhttp://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-ex-slaves-fortune/3889603

Read Full Post »

Updating this post to reflect that just this past week, regulations regarding safety at chemical plants has been struck down and returned to previous more dangerous levels. Politics and greed continue to gamble with our health and safety…

Like many others, I have been heartened by promises both in Washington and Albany to reduce the number of superfluous or redundant government agencies that are bleeding our national and state budgets.  However, among the most foolhardy suggestions of our newly elected “slash-and-burn” politicians are the elimination of government run product safety and consumer protection agencies. Really, haven’t we learned our lesson that industries allowed to operate without any public oversight tend to start sacrificing public safety in pursuit of more profit?  There are countless examples some of these “reformers” should bear in mind: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the R.M.S. Titanic, the Union Carbide Plant Explosion in Bhopal, the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and this past year’s BP Gulf oil rig explosion are some of the worst disasters that resulted from the drive for profit superceding safety concerns and common sense.  Closer to home, the brick industry in Haverstraw became so greedy that in 1906 they undermined the village itself, causing a landslide that took 5 streets, 2 avenues and 21 buildings with it, killing 19 residents.

photo: Hudson River Valley Heritage Archives

The American Aniline Products plant was located on Cedar Hill Avenue – the picture above shows what it was like prior to the morning of January 30, 1919.  It was just after 9:00 and the 400 plus students of the Liberty Street School across the street from the factory had already begun class.  (It’s hard to imagine the response of today’s parents if there was a factory manufacturing toxic chemicals literally across the street from their kids’ school!)  Overheating chemicals in the drying room of the factory’s first floor ignited and exploded the walls of the ground floor outward, another blast would rip a hole that tore through the upper floors and roof.  The hundred employees on-site fled for their lives as the explosion rocked all of Orangetown and plate glass windows shattered all over Nyack.  All of the windows of the school facing the factory were blown into the school, covering the students with broken glass.  Amazingly, the force of the blast was so strong that the size of the glass shards were minute and only one student was seriously injured by the glass.  The 400 students evacuated to Hudson and School Street and joined what appeared to be the rest of the population of Nyack in watching the conflagration.

photo: Nyack Library Parkhurst Collection

This was perhaps the greatest day for the Nyack Volunteer Fire Department.  Due to their heroic efforts, the ensuing conflagration was confined to the factory, one home and one garage.  Three of the factory’s employees lost their lives that day, with 15 others seriously injured.  What is not known is how many of the residents and workers (not to mention the firemen) would have their health affected by breathing the extremely toxic fumes of the burning aniline dye. See, in 1919, either no one knew – or possibly no one cared – that breathing aniline fumes was toxic and likely to cause cancers, particularly bladder cancers later in life.  (Having a father who suffered from asbestosis, contracted well AFTER the construction industry was well aware of the dangers, suggests that the second scenario though horrifying is indeed possible).  The factory owners would eventually be fined the sum of $2500 for their negligence, after the President of the company and the Superintendent of the factory pled guilty of  violating state labor laws and village ordinances in the storing of explosive chemicals – yet they violated those laws and regulations KNOWING there was a school across the street.

photo: Hudson River Valley Heritage Archives

Though the families of those who perished or were injured might disagree, Nyack learned its lesson with a miraculously low loss of life.  Had the vector of the explosion been slightly different, the outcome could have been far, far worse.  So while our rhetoric-spouting politicians yammer and bleat about cutting government spending they might want to concentrate on the real waste, and not checks and balances put into place to keep our industries’ need to satisfy their shareholders from slipping into disregard for public safety and human lives. I wish more of our elected officials of all persuasions spent a little more time studying history and a little less time studying the polls, remembering that they were elected to do public service, not elected to get re-elected.

Read Full Post »

For the rest of her long life she was tormented by the same nightmare. She would find herself with her back to the pit facing the guns of the Bolshevik Firing Squad as did her brothers and her uncle the Czar, and all of her cousins. They would fire and her lifeless body would land atop theirs in that shallow pit she could never forget.  She was the last of the Romanov Family to remember what life was like in Imperial Russia.  Born in 1906 to the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess, she was the childhood playmate of her cousins Princess Anastasia and Prince Alexei and their sisters, and was related to most of Europe’s royal families.  She fled with her mother and one brother into exile in 1918, and would later again have to flee the Nazis from Bavaria. Where would she find safety and peace? Why Nyack, of course.  She passed away here 10 years ago in January of 2001.

photo: pubic domain

Nyack’s Russian Orthodox Community is one of the “quietest” and least known of our many diverse ethnic communities.  I remember a day during my summer college break of 1982 – I was working with the Orangetown Assessors office doing a full reassessment of all the homes in the township and was (not surprisingly) assigned Nyack.  One day we were on Cedar Hill Avenue being escorted through a Victorian house by a woman with a fairly heavy Russian accent. The walls were festooned with lovingly framed old photographs – I gasped when I recognized one as Anastasia and the other Romanov sisters and pointed it out to my supervisor who was quite possibly a bigger history nerd than I am.  He looked and then pointed to another: “That one is Czar Nicolai and Czarina Alexandra in their car!” The lady of the house just beamed at us, and then from behind we heard this deep commanding voice.  “You know of them? Tell me what you know of them…” We turned to see an elderly man with a ramrod straight back and sliver hair in a military cut.  His daughter proudly informed us that her father had been one of the Czars Imperial Guards, and the old gentleman led us to the parlor where we sat for hours drinking tea from glasses and listening as he told us stories of the days of the Czar, the fear and horror of  the Revolution and his escape to freedom in the United States. He told us that Princess Anastasia did NOT survive her escape attempt with brother Alexei (their burned remains would be found only a few years ago and DNA tested proving his story correct) but that a Romanov Princess of the House Royal was living right here in the Nyacks.  He spoke very highly of The Tolstoy Foundation and Holy Virgin Protection Church located across Cedar Hill Avenue from his home.

With the help of many others including composer Serge Rachmaninoff and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Countess Alexandra Tolstoy (daughter of author Leo Tolstoy) began the Tolstoy Foundation in 1939. Through her foundation, she assisted more than 500,000 people to escape the atrocities of war and religious and political persecution while building a new free life in America honoring their past heritage, but assimilating quickly into the American Mainstream. In 1941 with the help of a “private donor” she acquired the Reed Farm in Valley Cottage.  There new refugees could come and learn English and modern working skills and live until they could move out into the greater community.  Many chose to stay close by and so Nyack’s Russian Community was born.  It became obvious that a church other than the one on the grounds of the Foundation was needed for this small but thriving community, and after a few temporary locations around the Village, the parish opened the doors of its new member-built sanctuary The Holy Virgin Protection Russian Orthodox Church in 1957, it’s church school is still considered one of the finest in the Russian Diaspora.  As you come across the Tappan Zee Bridge, you can see her golden-burnished dome lifting itself above the buildings around it as this quiet church caters to its dedicated parishioners. 

 After years of flight and turmoil, Princess Vera Constantinova would finally find a place to rest, arriving in at the emigre enclave on Lake Road in Valley Cottage in 1951.  She began to work selflessly for the Tolstoy Foundation, eventually splitting her time between the Foundation (and the St. Sergius Chapel on the grounds there) and an apartment she found in New York City.  Princess Constantinova and founder Countess Alexandra Tolstoy would continue to dedicate their tireless work to the Tolstoy Foundation for much of the rest of their lives, eventually moving back to the center into the Adult Home where Tolstoy passed away in 1994 and the Princess in 2001. 

If you have never had the pleasure of touring the lovely Holy Virgin Protection R.O. Church, make a date on your calendar to attend their now locally famous “Holiday Boutique ala Russe” usually in late November. Here Russian arts and crafts are sold and celebrated, samovars steam and russian delicacies are lovingly prepared and the visitor is permitted to tour the sanctuary.  The book store is a delight for craft fans and history buffs alike.  The Church and the Tolstoy Foundation are a great credit to these Great Ladies and to all the other men and women – royal or not – who came here and from sorrow and loss created hope and a future, forever intertwining the threads of their history into the fascinating tapestry of the Nyacks…  “Do Svidanya”, ya’ll!

photo: Holy Virgin Protection Church website



Read Full Post »

Who knew?  Nyack was deeply involved in a three-sided German spy ring during World War I (the other two points being Hoboken and the neighborhood of Chelsea on Manhattan’s West Side) that resulted in a number of sunken ocean liners and cargo vessels, the deaths of a large number of civilians, and an attempted GERM WARFARE attack on American Shipping. All while the United States of America was still a NEUTRAL Nation.  It’s not often that two of my great interests – Nyack History and the History of the Great Ocean Liners intersect, so this story is doubly fascinating to me.

Kronprinzessin Cecile's Hoboken Pier. photo: ancestry.com

December 26, 1914 – Europe had been at war since August when a disgruntled Bosnian student decided to vent his frustration at the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Austro-Hungarian Empire by sending several bullets through the space occupied by Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, resulting in a rather peeved Empire along with its’ German allies and the commencement of the rather too-optimistically labeled “War to End All Wars”. 

Upon declaration of war in August, a number of the Great Ocean Liners like England’s Lusitania, Mauritania, Cedric and Olympic; France’s France and Paris; the Netherlands’ Noordam; and THIRTY ships of German registry, including the Krownprincessen Cecile (with a good portion of the German Government’s Gold Treasury Reserves aboard!), Vaterland, President Grant and Friedrich der Grosse were all trapped in American Ports and told to stay in those neutral waters for an unknown time period.  In New York Harbor the English, French and American liners docked at what is now Chelsea Piers, and the German, Dutch, and Norwegian liners docked across the river in Hoboken (you can still get awesome Sauerbraten at Helmers on 12th Street in Hoboken, just up from the old liner docks and where the trapped German sailors ate almost daily!)

Literally thousands of European Merchant Marine Officers, Crew, Stewards and Stewardesses were on “extended shore leave” in NYC and Hoboken with nothing to do and little news from home. At the beginning of the War, due to America’s polyglot population, there was almost as much sentiment in favor of the Central Powers as was in favor of the Allies.

The German high command realized it needed spies in the USA – and needed to find a way to get thousands of experienced sailors and officers back from their hiatus in Hoboken and on to German Naval Vessels.  A ring formed with German and Austrian nationals and ex-pats – the money and offices were in Chelsea, the construction of fire bombs and germ-warfare canisters of tetanus, meningitis and hoof-and-mouth were constructed in the engine rooms of the impounded liners in Hoboken (particularlythe Friedrich der Grosse, where the germ canisters were made) while communications and a faked US Passport “factory” was located in the St. George Hotel in Nyack! And who was the head of this very sophisticated ring? Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff, no less than the German Ambassador to the United States.

Our local Nyack Passport forger was Lt. Hans Adam von Wedell, and the Courier and Communications expert was his wife, the Baroness von Wedell.  The Lieutenant’s M.O. was to get longshoremen and drifters on the New York, Hoboken and Nyack docks and piers to apply for US Passports and then buy them back at a premium, supplying them to groups of sailors from the trapped vessels and other reserve troops coming from all over North America (and if they were trapped in Asia at War’s Outbreak, coming home the long way – through neutral Honolulu to San Francisco then by train to Nyack or Piermont or Hoboken and picking up a new Swedish, Norwegian or Dutch identity to leave the US and return to Central Europe).  It all went swimmingly – with hundreds getting out on North European liners, and what was doubly ironic – the Baroness frequently using the Lusitania to get to France and slipping over the border to bring news back and forth between the High Command and the German Ambassador turned chief of espionage, Count von Bernstorff.

As Autumn turned to Winter, the forger started to get cocky and brag in the local bars here and in NYC about what he was doing to those who had German last names… it proved the undoing of the Passport end of the ring – von Wedell began to feel the heat coming this way and pretended to flee to Cuba! Instead he took a lovely drive up the Hudson for a while then was back at the St. George for Christmas Dinner after services at Nyack’s Dutch Reformed Church.  He had arranged for passage for himself and four high-ranking reserve officers (with bogus passports) on the Norwegian liner Bergensfjord sailing on January 2. On December 26, he sent this communiqué explaining his “disappearance” – it began:

HOTEL ST. GEORGE: Felix Fieger, Proprietor, Nyack-on-Hudson, December 26, 1914.
His Excellency The Imperial German Ambassador, Count Von Bernstorff, Washington,
D. C. Your Excellency: Allow me most obediently to put before you the following facts:
It seems that an attempt has been made to produce the impression upon you that I pre-
maturely abandoned my post in New York. That is not true…

As it turns out, the telegram of explanation would only serve to solidify Lt. & Baroness von Wedell’s guilt to posterity. On January 2, 1915 Federal Agents in a fast pilot-boat caught the Bergensfjord before she reached The Narrows and International Waters – and after lining up all the male passengers, took the four fleeing German Reserve Officers off and into custody.  Unbeknownst to the Feds, the von Wedell’s were aboard (the Baroness having arrived back on the Lusitania just in time to catch what she thought would be their “lifeboat home”) and lacking photos of the couple, the pair escaped US Custody.  Unfortunately, only the bogus passport scheme was shut down – the firebombs produced aboard the impounded Ocean Liners at Hoboken would go on to sink or burn a number of cargo, transport and passenger liners with serious loss of life. The germ canisters (Thank God!) took too long to get to the Port of New Orleans (where the intention was to sicken the migrant workers picking food, the dock and port workers and the crews of food supply ships) and without more sophisticated refrigeration, expired before they could start an epidemic.  Though things could have been far worse, the fact exists that Nyack’s spies cause much pain and grief.

So, you are asking, what happened to Lt. and Baroness von Wedell? Once the Feds realized their error, they wired London and a British Naval Courier vessel met and boarded the Bergensfjord as it approached the English Channel and took the couple into custody.  However, before the Courier could return to the Admiralty, she was spotted, targeted, and with Teutonic efficiency, torpedoed by a German U-Boat and sent to the bottom with all hands on board, including the Lieutenant and his Baroness.  Karma, anybody?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: