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50 Fabulous Facts About Our History

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2. WORKING RIGHTS

In 1915, Westchester’s female teachers were forbidden from loitering in ice cream stores, coloring their hair, and wearing dresses shorter than two inches above the ankle. Times they have a-changed.

3. WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The Native American name for White Plains was Quarropas, meaning “white marshes.” Historians believe the title may reference the heavy mist that settled over the swampland of the Bronx River or the groves of white balsam that possibly populated the region centuries ago.

 

 

4. The Original Plastic
Next time you turn on the radio, pick up a billiard ball, snap a photo, or use just about anything, know that Yonkers chemist Leo Baekeland probably had something to do with its creation. Baekeland invented one of the world’s first and most useful plastic in 1907 and, in 1910, formed what would become The Bakelite Corporation, the company responsible for those glossy, hard, often brightly colored plastics that defined the ’50s and ’60s (think of transistor radios and alarm clocks of the era). He spent most of his life in our county and, upon his death, was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in 1944.

 

 

 

5. THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW
Back in the 19th century, the trustees of one Tarrytown cemetery debated what to call their local graveyard. One trustee named Washington Irving offered the name “Sleepy Hollow,” arguing that the local cemetery was “enough of itself to secure the patronage of all desirous of sleeping quietly in their graves.” The cemetery, the church, and, later, the town, all took the name.

 

 

6) DID YOU KNOW?
$134.20 was the average annual salary of a Westchester schoolteacher in 1852, or the equivalent of $3,432.18 today.

1902 croton dam photo courtesy of croton historical society

 

7. THE LEGENDARY LEATHERMAN
In the 19th century, the famously nomadic “Leatherman” wandered from cave to cave in Westchester wearing only a makeshift outfit of leather pieces. Walking 10 miles each day for more than three decades, he stopped at his favorite houses to ask for food by raising just a finger to his mouth. His anonymity and penchant for never uttering a word made the vagabond a local legend, and the New York Herald Tribune even ran a front-page article titled “Who is the Leatherman?” When the Leatherman died of lip cancer in 1889, local authorities learned his real name was Jules Bourglay and that he had emigrated from Lyons, France, after sending his father-in-law’s merchant business into bankruptcy. In shame, Bourglay fled to the New World and swore to never again burden mankind. The Leatherman’s 360-mile circuit includes now well-known neighborhoods such as Honey Hollow and Bull Hill and even inspired Grammy-winning rock band Pearl Jam to pen a song titled “Leatherman.”

 

 

8. ONCE UPON A FOREST
Many fear that development has caused unprecedented deforestation in Westchester, but, 100 years ago, there were actually fewer woods in our county than there are today. Before the settlers debarked their ships, roughly 80 mammoth trees had sunk their roots in each acre—it took a colonizer one year to clear just one acre for farming. Eventually the canopies of the county had almost entirely disappeared. Gustavus T. Kirby wrote that as a child he could sit atop Guard Hill in Mount Kisco with a spyglass and watch the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge more than 40 miles south. As the railroad replaced agriculture and the Model-T Ford supplanted the need for grazing horses, Westchester’s woods slowly returned and now exist as second-, third-, or fourth-generation forests.

9. THE AMERICAN DREAM
One in five Westchesterites was born outside the U.S.

Photo courtesy of Croton Historical Society

1. MELTING POT
It’s estimated that, at one point, more than 10,000 Italian, Irish, and Eastern European laborers were working on the construction of the Croton Dam.

Photo Courtesy of Bedford Historical Society

10. BEHIND BARS
Its rusted bars, dating from 1787, the jail cell in Bedford is the oldest in the county. The 105-square-foot holding unit is currently listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and maintained by the Bedford Historical Society.

11. ALL ABOARD!
Sure, you hop on the Metro-North to zip in and out of the city, but did you know that Yonkers was home to the world’s first elevated mass transit system? In 1867, the Yonkers Railway Company backed local resident Charles T. Harvey’s invention to establish the Third Avenue “El.” The train system played a key role in promoting suburban development in our county.

12. CASTLE ON A CLOUD
Ever wonder where names like North Castle and New Castle come from? Centuries ago, settlers named a Native American camp located where IBM’s World Headquarters now stands “North Fort” because they felt it resembled a castle. The area soon became known as “North Castle” and the northern portion of the region, which was partitioned in 1791, “New Castle.”

13. CASTLES IN THE SKY
Due to all the castle-style mansions that litter its skyline, Tarrytown used to be referred to as “Millionaire’s Colony.”

14. DID YOU KNOW?
Does even the memory of detention seem torturous? In the 19th century, Westchester students received two lashes for long fingernails and a brutal seven lashes for telling a lie, according to records from the Bedford Historical Society. Writing 100 sentences on the blackboard wasn’t that bad after all.

 

15. GET WORKIN’
Caffeine in-hand, thousands of bleary-eyed commuters traverse the Tappan Zee Bridge morning and night. Few, however, know its history. Named after the local Tappan tribe and the Dutch moniker for the Hudson River (Zee), the bridge was built in 1955 to support, at peak, 100,000 vehicles per day. The crossing now carries approximately 175,000 vehicles per day, a number expected to continue growing. AAA’s Magazine, Car & Travel, also selected the TZ along with the Kosciuszko and Goethals in New York City as the three metropolitan bridges in the worst structural condition.

16. PLATFORM TENNIS, ANYONE?
Are you a tennis buff longing for some outdoor fun this winter? Consider platform tennis—known colloquially as “paddle”—which was invented by Scarsdale neighbors James Cogswell and Fessenden Blanchard in 1928. Both men brought the sport to the Fox Meadow Tennis Club in 1931—and a new cold-weather game was born.

 

 

Photo courtesy of animationarchive.org

17. Tinseltown east
Hollywood, Shmollywood. One of the first animated cartoons, “Terrytoons,” and the first Pathé newsreels came from New Rochelle.

 

 

18. Fore!
On February 22, 1888, Yonkers resident John Reid became the first person to play golf on American soil by plotting a three-hole golf course in a local apple orchard with a group of friends. Originally from Scotland, Reid named his course St. Andrews and later created the county’s first golf club behind Palisades Avenue.

 

 

 

19. SUBURBANISM
Before the days of the multiple listing service and mass development, a 1906 real estate brochure touted the quality of life in Westchester: “Harrison is a good place to live. There are over 50 trains daily between Harrison and New York City with a commutation of 10 cents a trip.” Now if only train tickets still cost 10 cents.

 

20. OPULENT OAK
Unemployment… recession… bear markets. At least one lucky hardwood is still living the good life. The “Bedford Oak,” a 500-year-old white oak located just outside downtown Bedford Village, boasts its own five-figure trust fund managed by the Bedford Historical Society. The cash supports general maintenance and the two acres of “breathing room” that surround the tree to protect it from development. And, in case the oak decides to kick the bucket anytime soon, the Bedford Historical Society planted two new oaks onsite this Arbor Day.

21. CAUSE I’M LEAVIN’ ON A JET PLANE
Quaint, clean, and quiet, Westchester County Airport may appear insignificant in the shadow of the chaotic LaGuardia and JFK. An average of 1.9 million passengers, however, pass though the airport’s gates each year on more than 32,000 commercial flights. And as one of the nation’s busiest corporate aviation facilities with roughly 70,000 corporate and charter operations annually, the airport creates more than 1,300 full-time jobs onsite and thousands more for related industries. Now there’s a stimulus.

 

 

22. A NIGHT ON THE TOWN
Westchesterites have always loved the arts. At the turn of the 20th century, socialite Martha Leonard built the six-tier Brookside Open-Air Theatre in Mount Kisco. Sporting linen suits, muslin dresses, and broad-brimmed straw hats, famous actors including Ruth St. Denis (pictured right), Ben Greet, Ted Shawn, Walter Hampden, and Sir Henry Irving and their spouses visited the amphitheater to see and be seen at summertime operas, dances, and Greek plays.

 

 
23. ROGER THAT
In 1912, Edwin Armstrong, an inquisitive college student from Yonkers, invented the FM radio. His close friend C.R. (Randy) Runyon later logged the first FM broadcast from his home at 544 North Broadway in Yonkers.

24. ON THE ROAD
$1.5 million was the cost of each mile of I-684 when it was built in the 1960s.

25. DID YOU KNOW?
It probably didn’t seem that exciting the last time you drove by it, but the Bronx River, or Aquehung, as Native Americans called it, used to serve as a key border between the Wappinger and Siwanoy tribes. The Bronx River was later renamed after Jonas Bronck, who purchased 500 acres of land from the Dutch in 1639 to become the first European settler in Westchester. When the Bronx River Parkway was completed in 1925, it became the first multi-lane, limited-access parkway in North America.

 

 

26. A PORCH WITH A VIEW
From the veranda of the Jay mansion, built in 1838, Peter Augustus Jay (pictured right), the eldest son of John Jay, peered across the oldest known man-managed meadow in New York State to the Long Island Sound more than three-fourths of a mile away. The meadow dates back at least 5,000—and possibly 10,000—years, according to archaeological shovel tests that prove Paleo-Indians burned the meadow to keep it clear for hunting, agriculture, and settling.

 

 

 

27. FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS  
Who says you need to go to Philadelphia to see an authentic 18th-century bell? Take a tour at St. Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon and climb atop the 225-year-old church tower to see a bell cast in 1758 at the same foundry as the Liberty Bell. Then listen to the sounds of the 1833 pipe organ, one of the oldest functioning organs in America, and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back centuries.

 

 

28. TICKETS, HERE
$90 was the average yearly cost of commuting from Yorktown to New York City in 1890.

29. THE MISFIT
Anyone who drives Titicus Road in North Salem has seen the mysterious “Balanced Rock,” a 60-ton boulder oddly resting on five smaller stones. Featured in Bob Ripley’s Believe It or Not series, the red granite of this “glacial erratic,” or rock that differs in size, shape, and composition from native rocks, is found only in New Hampshire and Canada. As a result, many scientists believe the rock was swept down the Hudson Highlands as a glacier passed through thousands of years ago. In 1873, John Jay, grandson of the founding father, presented an opposing theory to the Westchester Historical Society that the immense igneous boulder was a dolmen purposely perched in place by Neolithic men. Most, however, dismiss this argument as wishful thinking.

 

 

30. A GOOD THING
Martha Stewart most certainly had predecessors—the first chapter of the Garden Club of America was founded in Bedford in 1938.

31. LAND AHOY!
According to legend, in 1695 a Native American chief named Pathungo told John Harrison he could take as much land as he could ride in a day on horseback for himself. Unwilling to get his horse’s hooves wet, he marked the boundaries for a future landlocked Harrison, which is the only town close to the Long Island Sound without access to water. Another legend has it that a drunken Native American paced out the uneven boundaries of the town while selling it to a colonist for a handful of beads, bright cloth, and “white man’s wampum.”

32. MAKING ENDS MEET
$14 was the standard weekly wage for Italian construction workers in the early 1900s. Boarding houses usually charged $12 weekly per room.

 

 

 

33. ORDER IN THE COURT
One of just three courthouses in New York built before 1800, the Bedford Court House (1787) is Westchester County’s oldest government building. In fact, when judges used to slam their gavels at the courthouse, Bedford was more populous than White Plains.

 

 

34. SPY VERSUS SPY
The fate of the Revolutionary War was, perhaps, greatly altered when three Tarrytown militiamen caught Major John Andre, who was carrying the plans for the fortification of West Point—given to him by none other than Benedict Arnold.

35 FLIP-FLOPPING
Both the Americans and the British used St. Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon, now a National Historic Site, as a field hospital during the American Revolution. On October 18, 1776, the Yankees vacated the site in retreat, and, within 48 hours, the British and Hessians had settled in their wounded.

36. Pill Pusher
Perhaps the Village of Ossining’s most notable resident was its former president Benjamin Brandreth. The businessman built a manufacturing plant there in 1838 for his “Vegetable Universal Pills,” which were touted to rid the body of toxins. Brandreth’s pills became so successful that his company was once the country’s biggest advertiser, and his pills scored a mention by Herman Melville in Moby Dick. In fact, Brandreth is considered a pioneer in mass-marketing and branding.

37. DID YOU KNOW?
The word Kisco means “muddy place” in the Delaware Indian language, a suitable name for a town that sits at the floor of the Harlem River Valley. Today, the omniscient Chief Kisco towers over the intersection of Routes 172 and 117 with buckskin breeches, a feather tiara, and bow in-hand. Records, however, provide no evidence that such a leader existed. Identical zinc statues nonetheless stand in Barberton, Akron, Cincinnati, Lodi, all in Ohio, and Calhoun, Georgia. A WPA guidebook to Ohio says the statue was “not worth a second glance from the standpoint of art.”

 

38. TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL
Even centuries ago, Westchester was known for its schools. The site of the Bedford Free Library originally housed the Bedford Academy, a private school that boasted alumni including John McCloskey (the first U.S. Cardinal, pictured right), John Jay II (the grandson of Chief Justice John Jay), and William H. Vanderbilt (the son of railroad titan Cornelius Vanderbilt).

 

 

39. LAND FOR SALE
An early prospectus for Bronxville boasted: “Few New Yorkers know that within three miles of the City Limits is a varied and undulating country… There are no fences; everyone appears to own everything. You will find the lawn of one resident winding curiously into that of another, whose grounds, in turn, merge into still another occupant’s. There are no flat lawns or level gardens, but the slopes are dotted with trees, ribbed with fine rock, and starred with wildflowers.” And cue urban flight.

40. BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE
And you think this winter is cold? Seventeen thousand years ago, the mile-thick Wisconsin Glacier suffocated Westchester and most of New England in icy abandon. As it pushed from the Midwestern plains to the East Coast, the mighty Wisconsin made the county’s northwest corner hillier than its southeast (think Cortlandt versus Port Chester) and the southeast slope of Westchester’s hills the steepest. The glacier also left “eskers” (long thin ribs of debris, such as Long Ridge, High Ridge, and Ponus Ridge on the Connecticut border); “kettle holes” (deep ponds formed by glacial melting, such as Wampus Pond in Armonk); and “terminal moraines” (piles of debris left when a glacier recedes, such as Long Island).

 

 

41. A LONG, LONG TIME AGO
While the highest point in Westchester today is 980 feet, 230 million years ago, the pressure between Africa and what is now Connecticut created a jagged 40,000-foot mountain range in our county that dwarfed the Himalayas. Years of weathering eroded these peaks into the rolling hills we now call home, but the layers of Fordham gneiss found throughout the county also lay deep in the bedrock of Northern Africa—a testament to our shared history.

 

42. MAIDE!
On September 29, 1909, George Tomlinson (pictured left) crash-landed his plane at Gedney Farm in White Plains (the estate of Howard Willets) during a failed race from Grant’s Tomb to Albany. The race was sponsored by George Pulitzer to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s famous voyage. The following week, Wilbur Wright had better success completing a flight of his air machine around the Statue of Liberty and up the West Side, wowing a crowd of more than a half-million people who had never seen an aircraft in what is now arguably the busiest air-space in America.  

 

43. DOWN BY THE RIVER
They say lavish dishware is called china because the finest European porcelains came across the well-trodden Silk Road from the Far East. Little did they know, Westchester played a critical role in the creation of champion crockery. In the mid 19th century, the construction firm O’Brian and Kinkel extracted feldspar from the now eerily abandoned Baylis, Kinkel, and Oliver quarries located high above Mianus Gorge. The feldspar was crushed into a powder for china glaze and hauled by horses to the train station in Bedford Hills, from which it was shipped all over the world.

44. HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
60.1 percent of Westchesterites are homeowners.

45. Movin’ on up
40 was the number of oxen needed to move the Bedford Historical Hall to its current location in 1837. The Bedford Historical Society now maintains the hall for private parties, meetings, and exhibitions.

46. THE AMERICAN DREAM
One in five Westchesterites can claim Hispanic ancestry.

 

 

47. HI-HO, HI-HO
Although Westchester’s mineral quarries now serve as quiet hideouts for kids to collect rocks and skip stones, they once supplied the building blocks of New York City—famous Tuckahoe marble was used as foundation and siding for many famous tri-state skyscrapers in the 19th century. The advent of steel, however, pushed the Tuckahoe quarry and many other local mines out of business.

 

 

48. WESTCHESTER’S STATESMAN 
John Jay (pictured right), Westchester’s founding father, who served in every branch of the U.S. government, was buried at the private Jay Cemetery in Rye (the oldest active cemetery in the United States associated with a Revolutionary War figure). Centuries later, three bullets nicked Jay’s tombstone when a disgruntled citizen took out his anger after FDR announced his Supreme Court nominations. When Justice Harry Blackmun visited the site during the Bicentennial in 1976, he touched the bullet marks and turned to his Secret Service bodyguards to say he now knew why he would always need them.

 

49. UNDER THE SEA
The word “fjord” conjures images of bucolic Scandinavian mountains and forsaken ice sheets (or perhaps it conjures nothing). But the Hudson River is actually the only real fjord—a narrow inlet of water sunk beneath sea level by glacial weathering—in the northeast besides the Somes Sound in Maine.

50. That old chestnut
Chestnuts, used for tanning leather, railroad ties, and, of course, roasting on an open fire, used to cover Westchester’s forest floor. But when an invasive fungus from China, Endothia parasitica, destroyed most of the county’s native chestnut trees in 1890, the New York State Legislature dismissed the environmental threat with indifference. By 1930, the metropolitan area was no longer classified as an oak-chestnut forest.

With research assistance from: Alex Shoumatoff (author of Westchester: Portrait of a County), Bedford Historical Society, The Jay Heritage Center, North Castle Historical Society, The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, White Plains Historical Society, and Yonkers Historical Society.

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