Taking Back Katonah

In the 1890s, when the City of New York condemned the land on which the village of Katonah was built for the construction of the city’s new reservoir system, dooming the town to surefire submersion upon its completion, Katonah residents banded together and literally moved their village. With horses pulling over 65 buildings and Victorian homes over timber tracks, the townspeople relocated Katonah a half-mile north.

A century later, in the late 1990s, that communal spirit endured when residents came together to reject the proposed construction of a Starbucks in their downtown region, claiming the corporation’s presence would tarnish the hamlet’s mom-and-pop atmosphere.

So when domestic diva Martha Stewart, who bought her $16 million estate in Katonah in 2000, recently sought to trademark the town’s name for her line of home furnishings, potentially positioning her with control over the name’s use, you can be sure that locals did not take warmly—or quietly—to the idea.

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In fact, the Katonah Village Improvement Society, a non-profit organization that strives to “foster an appreciation for the history and traditions of the Village of Katonah,” already has an event lined up on Friday, June 29, to raise funds for its “Nobody Owns Katonah” campaign.

The event will aim to spread awareness about the issue and raise money needed to cover “research, filing fees, court fees, expenses associated with publicity, and more,” according to Lydia Landesberg, president and spokesperson for KVIS. “So we have some significant expenses. I’d love to raise around $5,000 dollars from the event.”

What’s in a Name?

All the huff over a name may seem incomprehensible to outsiders unfamiliar with Katonah’s heritage, which has always stressed sharing, not ownership; the little guy, not corporations.

The village was named after Chief Katonah, a prestigious Native American sachem of the Ramapough Nation who lived in the area and was involved in land deeds with early settlers throughout the area. Sometimes he would even sell the same piece of land multiple times, said Landesberg.

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“It wasn’t because he was trying to cheat anybody; it’s just that the Native American concept of ownership was so different, so to them, you couldn’t really own something like land,” she explained. “It’s like owning the air or owning the clouds. So he’d sell the land, and if it wasn’t being used, he’d sell it again. They thought land was there for everybody to use.

“When I think about on the media trying to get a trademark on his name and establish ownership of it, I think how Chief Katonah must be turning in his grave,” she continued. “How foreign that concept would have been.”

While Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Stewart’s company, contends that the name was selected to honor the hamlet, residents’ concerns lie in two main areas: restrictions the trademark may place on the use of the name by local businesses, and the possibility that Stewart’s vision for her collection might misrepresent Katonah’s image and history.

“If someone wants to open up a business and market things using the name, they will need to go to Omnimedia and ask for permission every time. The burden would fall to the small business owner, and Omnimedia has deep pockets, so to them it would be like swatting a fly,” said Landesberg.

The second point of concern is that the company is “marketing products that portray an image that is not true to the town,” according to the KVIS president.

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“Katonah has a well-known registered district of Victorian homes, and she has put out a line of Colonial furniture, so it’s recasting the image of what Katonah is,” she said. “And regardless of promises, a registered trademark is a commodity and it can be sold. It’s a brand. And there’s no guarantee that five years down the road the company won’t sell the brand off to a foreign conglomerate and make us lose any dialogue we have now.”

The Little Village That Could

To date, KVIS, which has pro bono legal counsel and a trademark researcher, has opposed the trademark, and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia has filed a motion to dismiss the opposition. KVIS has until August to respond.

For its “Nobody Owns Katonah” campaign, the group has organized an event on June 29 at Bedford Hills studio and performance center MoonRocks, featuring wine and refreshments; live music by local musicians; guest appearances by a members of the Ramapough Lenape Nation and the New Jersey Commission of Indian Affairs; and comments by Landesberg.

“We pledge our support to the residents,” said Autumn Wind Scott, a member of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, which traces its ancestry to Chief Katonah. “We really honor our sachems—living or dead—and for someone to come into a well-established town that honors its history, and then seek to profit from that—well, it bastardizes a much-revered ancestor of a very large Indian nation. It certainly requires our attention and monitoring.”

On the lineup for musical performances on Friday are Marc Black, Jean Bratman, and Susannah Keith. Tickets for the event, which starts at 8 p.m., cost $25 and all proceeds will go to toward the campaign. To order, call KVIS at 914-232-1003.

Thoughts or comments? Send us your feedback at comments@westchestermagazine.com.

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