Thursday, June 16, 2016

Stoney Hill Cemetery, Harrison


Stoney Hill Cemetery is one of the more unusual burying grounds I have visited. Because the site was abandoned for many years, it was absorbed into the forest. Only recently, through a dedicated restoration effort, have the hundreds of burial markers been reclaimed from the wilderness. Most of these markers are rough, unmarked fieldstones. The cemetery belonged to the African-American community known as Stoney Hill or "The Hills," which began around the time of the American Revolution, when the Quakers of Purchase Meeting manumitted their slaves and gave them 6.5 acres to live on in a rocky, hilly area of what is now the town of Harrison (at its peak, the area of "The Hills" covered 400 acres). 

At its height, Stoney Hill had several hundred residents, and between 200 to 400 individuals are thought to be buried in its cemetery. The community also had its own church and schoolhouse. The people worked hard as laborers, servants, coachmen, laundresses, and gardeners to the neighboring wealthy communities. Several dozen men from Stoney Hill enlisted and fought in the Civil War, including the one to whom this gravestone - now sadly broken - was erected (the marble marker is military issue, and you can just make out what I believe to be the letters of his company and regiment). 


Most of the people buried in Stoney Hill Cemetery were given simple, unadorned fieldstones. They may have been unable to afford more elaborate markers, but the lack of decoration may also speak to their African heritage and/or Quaker background. 



This marker is one of the few commercial gravestones we found. It was very difficult to see the inscription, but by waiting until the sun struck through the canopy just right, I was able to make out the words "Harvey Seymour / April 1, 1805 / March 10, 1904." I found Harvey Seymour in one federal census, in which he is listed as a laborer. The Harrison Public Library posted an article about Seymour in their digital collections, dating to 1903, which reads:
BORN IN SLAVERY DAYS
Mr. Harvey Seymour (Colored) Will Celebrate His Ninety-Eighth Birthday To-Morrow.
Always Lived in This Vicinity. 
Up in "The Hills," a former colored settlement north of St. Mary's Lake, near Silver Lake Park, just across the White Plains village line, to-morrow Mr. Harvey Seymour (colored) will receive all persons who wish to call and pay him respects on his ninety-eighth birthday. The venerable colored man was born in "slavery days in New York State." He was twenty-two years old when the laws of the Empire State made "all men free and equal" before the law. This was in 1827. He was born in King Street, Harrison, east of White Plains, and followed farming all his days. In early life he married, and, following out the old Biblical command of increasing and multiplying, he became the father of eleven children. Two of these still live -- Alonzo Seymour, of this locality, and Mrs. Mary Latham, of Troy, NY. The old man is still in vigorous health. Last week he sawed a cord of wood. His picture which was left yesterday at THE ARGUS office, shows him to be a bright and active man. It is his desire to shake hands with all who will call to greet him. He lives on the old "Alf" Martine place, near Purdy's grocery store. He says he can remember when White Plains had only one house west of Broadway and east of the Bronx River, and that was the old Jacob Purdy house still standing in Spring Street, near Mott Street.
The library also preserves a copy of Harvey Seymour's marriage record: he married Jane Halstead (a.k.a. Jane Gaul, after her stepfather) on February 25, 1835, in Grace Church. The couple's son, William Henry Seymour, served in the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Civil War. He survived the war, only to die of dysentery at home in 1866.

Twenty years later, Jane Halstead Seymour filed for a mother's pension from the federal government. Harvey submitted the following deposition as part of the application:
I raise home vegetables &c. on my patch of ground, which keeps us. I also raise potatoes and cabbage and turnips &c. for winter use. Also some apples. This, along with occasionally a few dollars I earn, and my son's help, is the way in which we have lived for years. 
I own this property, which has about one acre of ground. I don't know what it is valued at, but my son pays about $2.40 a year for taxes on it. Neither myself nor my wife have any other property of any kind from which we derive income. We own nothing in the world except this property.
For more information about the Hills, see the book Freedom Journey: Black Civil War Soldiers and the Hills Community, Westchester County, New York, by Edythe Ann Quinn.

Zar Cemetery, Chestnut Ridge


Those of you who are long-term readers of this blog may remember my spring 2014 obsession with Chestnut Ridge, the lost hamlet. Long story short, this small community of shoemakers was settled sometime around the Revolutionary War, began to decline in the late 19th century with the encroachment of industrialization, and was finally bought out by Arthur W. Butler, a banker who converted the area into a sprawling estate. Virtually all of the farmsteads were destroyed, along with the Chestnut Ridge Methodist Church, and even graves were moved from the former hamlet into Oakwood Cemetery. However, one cemetery remains in its original location and is now part of a nature sanctuary.



The dated stones date from 1824 to 1915, but many of the roughly shaped fieldstones in the cemetery are likely older. Most of these stones are not inscribed at all. The stone above, inscribed with the initials E. A. M., is an exception. The "M" likely stands for Moore, a common name in Chestnut Ridge.

The newer stones are marble, such as this obelisk, located in the corner of the cemetery.



While the story of Chestnut Ridge is tinged with sadness - an entire community churned under the wheels of industrialization and Gilded Age splendor - it has a somewhat happy conclusion. Thanks to Butler's widow, Anna Foster Robinson Butler, the area that was Chestnut Ridge is now accessible to anyone who wants to enjoy it. The trees have reclaimed the old farmsteads and pretty much obliterated any visible remains of the old community, aside from the stone walls, which still jag through the forest, sometimes at impossible angles. 


It's a good place to go if you're interested in nature photography, particularly of wildlife. I was a little on edge as a bear was spotted in town a few weeks ago - not in the sanctuary, but on a residential street! But we managed to avoid the bears this time. Instead, we saw a red-winged blackbird and a red squirrel (photographed by my dad). Note the red theme - what could it mean?



Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Return to Spencer Optical

Back home for a few weeks before my summer fieldwork begins, I decided to check out the truly impressive work that the historical society has done in making the woods surrounding the old Spencer Optical site into a fully fledged historical hiking trail. I was blown away by their accomplishments. The area that is now the trail was filled with trash and debris. Now it is completely clear, allowing people access to one of the loveliest spots (in my opinion) in the town.

You'd hardly know that 120 years ago this idyllic patch of forest was the site of the foremost manufacturer of eyeglasses in the world. Or maybe you would - if you looked hard enough.


I set out onto the trail determined to find some lenses. As you may recall from my previous posts on Spencer Optical, children have been finding lenses in these woods for decades, and we even found one in our excavation of the St. George's/St. Mark's Church. However, I had never found any lenses at Spencer Optical myself, until now.

The trail begins on the side of the river opposite the factory site, then crosses the river and passes straight through it. For reference, here is a plan of the Spencer Optical site in 1885, featured in a Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. As you can see, the site consisted of two buildings: the main factory building, which was two stories with a tower and was made of brick, and the storage building, which was smaller and made of wood.



You can see both of these buildings in the photographs taken during the planning of the New York City watershed project in 1896. At this point, the factory had been abandoned for several years. The Spencer brothers had struggled to find a buyer for the property, which was essentially worthless after the draining of Kirby Pond cut off its power source. Then, in 1896, the site - along with a large portion of the town - was acquired to construct the New York City watershed. Many buildings in the downtown area were torn down; it's possible that the factory buildings were torn down at this time, too, but I haven't been able to confirm it. After the 1890s, the area surrounding the factory buildings reverted to wilderness.



Walking through the trail, it is difficult to imagine that it was ever a thriving industrial center. The area is packed with trees and the ground is covered by a thick carpet of leaves and brush. However, looking closely, some clues stand out. To begin with, there is the huge dam that we explored in fall of 2014. When intact, the dam closed off what was known as Geer's Pond. Now the water flows through it freely.

There are little chunks of brick and other debris washed down the river, which you can see on the first half of the trail, but the real discoveries begin when you have crossed the river and come to the side where the factory stood. It's difficult to capture in photographs, but there is a huge mound that is almost certainly the brick factory building pictured above. You can't tell what the mound is made of, because it is covered with leaves and brush, and there are even trees growing out of it, but if you dug down into it, I guarantee you would find the collapsed form of the building.




Surrounding the mound, you can find masses of bricks, chunks of mortar and cement, and random pieces of rebar - as well as the lenses, pictured above. When I first saw the lenses, I thought they were the broken pieces of a bottle. In fact, most of what I found in this area were not the lenses themselves, but the waste from the glass "blanks" into which the lenses were punched. They were on top of a small mound, beside a much larger mound, which I am guessing was used as a trash heap by the factory. The larger mound is covered with leaves, while the smaller mound looks like it was washed down from the larger one by rain and/or erosion, which is why the lenses were visible at the surface.

My guess is that if you excavated the larger mound - or perhaps just a section in profile - you would find a lot more glass and other debris from the period when the factory was in use. To give you an idea of its scale, the factory produced about a half million pairs of eyeglasses per year, from 1874 to 1888.


Saturday, January 30, 2016

Almshouse Stories: Destruction of the Almshouse Cemetery

[An undated newspaper clipping forwarded to me by Philip Hayes, a very knowledgeable follower of our historical society's Facebook page]

SAW MILL RIVER PARKWAY TRAFFIC ROLLS ON GRAVES OF PAUPER DEAD

Only one headstone remains standing at County's Old Burial Ground at East View, ploughed under for highway improvement.

BY CYNTHIA LOWRY

EAST VIEW, Nov. 14. The purring wheels of modern automobiles traveling the Saw Mill River Parkway here pass over the graves of dozens of paupers. One headstone remains standing, ghost-white against the brown hillside, a silent marker of a Westchester Potter's Field which made way for the needs of the day.

The small cemetery was the burial place for inmates of the County Home who were without family or had no other place in which to be interred. It was a small plot of land at the East View Station. The potter's Field was in use for over 100 years, but was not used after the county acquired a new cemetery near Grasslands Hospital. The last burial was made there around 1920.

The burial ground was flat, so when the land was taken to build the parkway, the graves were covered with about 20 feet of dirt, and the Saw Mill River Parkway runs along on a ridge high above the graves. None of the graves were disturbed in the construction last year.

Francesco Servello, a one-time inmate of the County Home, was one of many buried there. His is the only grave which was not disturbed, and, with its simple fieldstone cross, stands like a neglected sentinel beside the parkway.

But Francesco Servello has not been forgotten, for once a year someone -- no one at the County Home knows who it is -- comes to the grave and puts flowers on it. Now, the spot is bleak and uncared for, with dead palm branches lying across it, and a stick from which once floated a small flag.

To get to the grave, one must either climb the wooden rail along the Parkway, or climb a barbed wire fence by the railroad tracks, and walk along the sharp brambles to the lonely marker.

According to Peter Makulov, an employee of the County home since 1915, the graves were all marked with either fieldstone or wooden crosses.

Almshouse Stories: Ann Eliza Young

The Westchester County Almshouse circa 1900 (Harvard University Library)
For those of you who have been following the long saga that is my journey to the PhD, you might be interested to know that I submitted my Master's thesis on Tuesday. The title is "'A Corpse instead of a Pauper': Graveyards as Sites of Ideological Production in 19th-Century Westchester County, New York." This is the newspaper article from which that title was taken, published in The Mount Kisco Recorder in 1886:
A CORPSE INSTEAD OF A PAUPER
Mrs. Ann Eliza Young, an aged widow, once quite well to do, and residing all her life at Tuckahoe, was taken to the County Almshouse, last Thursday morning, and died of fright and a broken heart in the carriage which landed her at the door. The old lady wept all the way to the almshouse, and prayed that death might overtake her before she became a pauper. When the carriage stopped at the door she looked out of her carriage window, gave a shriek, threw up her hands and fell dead. Mrs. Young’s husband was once a prosperous stonecutter, and they lived in comfort, but about 20 years ago he was drowned, and since that time the widow has maintained herself on what remained of his property. This being all gone and she being childless, she became a county charge. She was buried at the almshouse. 
And here is some of what I wrote about it:

While the story of Ann Eliza Young featured in the Recorder in 1886 may have been colored by some degree of journalistic flourish, the almshouse records attest to its essential truth: that a woman who had "lived in comfort" could easily fall into a state of destitution in her old age ...

Ezra Yerks, a 69-year-old shoemaker and resident of Mount Pleasant, expressed a sentiment similar to that of Ann Eliza Young when he was admitted to the almshouse in 1867, suffering from paralysis: according to his admission record, "[h]e asserted on his arrival here that he would rather die than be obliged to become an inmate of a Poorhouse" (Record No. 159) ...

Despite what the title of the article implied, death had not spared Young the fate she had feared: she was, in death, treated as a pauper. A burial at the almshouse spoke to the same anxieties that surrounded the confinement of a living person: those of anonymity, disgrace, and exclusion from society. Buried in a sterile institutional setting, among strangers, in a grave that, if marked, was given only a minimal slab with a number, the pauper dead were denied the normative 19th-century program of rituals and trappings that served to beautify death and dignify the deceased. The starkness of the paupers’ graves, without an epitaph or icon to mitigate the terror of mortality, recalled the grim Calvinist attitudes of the early colonial era which had long since given way to romanticism.

Furthermore, paupers were not even guaranteed what had come to be considered every person’s fundamental right: that of an eternal resting place. In the 1920s, the Westchester County Almshouse graveyard was destroyed to build the Saw Mill River Parkway. A similar fate befell many other institutional burying grounds in the 20th century.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Almshouse Stories: Nicola Lofrano

After reading this story from 1892, I couldn't help but investigate:
Visitors to the Westchester County Almshouse have probably had pointed out to them an Italian named Nichol Lapano [sic], who is eyeless and armless. While employed by the Mount Vernon Water Company, several years ago, in Yonkers, nitro-glycerine exploded, maiming the unfortunate man for life. His life was despaired of for several months, but his great vitality brought him through. He was subsequently sent to the County Almshouse at East View. His counsel sued the company for damages, and obtained a judgment of $7500 in the courts. An appeal was taken to the Court of Appeals, and last week that body affirmed the judgment. Westchester News 25 December 1891 
Nicholas Lapano, an Italian, while in the employ of the Mount Vernon Water Company attempted to thaw out some dynamite cartridges, when they exploded and he lost both eyes and both hands. He sued the company in the circuit court and got a verdict for $7,500. The company took the case to the court of appeals, which has just affirmed the decision of the court below. Lapano is now an inmate of the Westchester County Almshouse. The Eastern State Journal 26 December 1891
However, my searches for Nichol(as) Lapano turned up nothing. I searched every variation of the name I could find. Finally I decided to search for "Mount Vernon Water Company" and "dynamite" and came up with this - the details of a lawsuit brought by Nicola Lofrano against the New York and Mount Vernon Water Company.
The complaint alleged that the plaintiff was employed by the defendant as a day laborer to dig out a reservoir, and aid in the construction of a dam at or near Pelhamville, in the county of Westchester; that the defendant negligently provided and used frozen dynamite cartridges and unsafe and improper means for softening the same; that the plaintiff was ordered and directed by the defendant to place said frozen dynamite cartridges before the fire in the open air, and warm one side first and then to turn them around and warm the other side, and that in doing so without any negligence or carelessness on his part, the cartridges exploded, to the serious injury of the plaintiff.
Unfortunately, that's all I've been able to find on him via the internet.

Tales of Providence: Frederick Almy and Mary Jane Usher DeVoll

Frederick Almy DeVoll
While perusing some old photographs at a used books store in Providence, I came across four portraits belonging to the same family. Since they were all being sold separately, I thought I should buy them in order to ensure they would stay together (perhaps that was the seller's intent all along). I have always loved perusing stores for old photographs but it frustrates me immensely when they aren't labeled with the subjects' names. Equally frustrating is when they're labeled "my mother" or "cousin Jane." Thanks, 19th-century people, that really helps.

Of the four photographs that I bought, three seem to be of the same person, Frederick Almy DeVoll. The other was his wife, Mary Jane Usher DeVoll. While researching them, I was able to uncover many interesting details about their lives, and in particular about their children. Frederick was born about 1845 in Massachusetts and Mary was born about 1844 in Rhode Island.

Frederick first appears in the 1850 census in Westport, Massachusetts. Since this census doesn't list relationships between members of a household, I had to rely on other evidence to confirm my speculations. Barney Wing, a 61-year-old sailor, was married to Abby Wing, age 48. Mary A. DeVoll was their daughter, age 24. Susan, Benjamin, and Frederick were Mary's children. But who was the children's father? The family obelisk in the Westport Point Cemetery (shown below) reveals that it was Benjamin DeVoll, who died in 1848, leaving his then 22-year-old wife with three children under the age of six.