Millennium or Media Madness

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On January 1, 2000 we reached a milestone aptly named by techno wizards as Y2K. While not the most creative use of English nomenclature (is it J2K in Germany or A2K in Spain?), it has sufficed as a working tool within the enormous scope of potential “may days” the "seers" predicted we would face as this new year arrived.

It is indisputable that this is the Year Two Thousand…it is not so clear, however, that we have witnessed the start of a new century or millennium. In fact, to many, the Twentieth Century officially (for lack of a better word) began on January 1, 1901clearly only 99 years from this new year. The good news is that you now have twelve more months to make reflections, resolutions, and reservations; the bad news is you’ll celebrate alone! (Wait…maybe that’s the good news!)

I had accepted the millennium hype about Y2K when I began my search for Yorktown at the start of the Twentieth Century. I was soon frustrated by the documents I examined from December 1899 to January 1900.

Mohegan InnI recalled some controversy about the actual start of the millennium when Y2K concerns began to surface. Then a note in the Album of American History, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1948, caught my eye: “…at the end of the century (did it end in 1899 or 1900?), peace and prosperity seemed to have returned.” 

Later, I was given copies of Letters to the Editor from early 1899 issues of The Highland Democrat which concerned the very same question. I then looked through material from December 1900 to January 1901 and eventually found what I was looking for…a personal account and reflection of an important passing in time.

Members of Frost and White FamiliesGeorge T. Frost, formally of Mohegan Lake, had kept a daily diary spanning 58 years. On December 30, 1900 he wrote the following: “This last Sabbath of the old year and the old century was sunshiny in the morning cloudy in afternoon and evening.” And on Monday December 31, 1900 “The Old Century is dying – dying – dying – almost gone. It has been full of wonderful events – will its successor so far eclipse it that it will seem very tame and commonplace by comparison? Before its end – probably long before – we shall all be gone – our spirits to the unseen world, our bodies to the sleep of death, never to awake ‘till the heavens be no more’. Farewell, old year – old century, farewell!”

Yorktowners of a century ago were living in a time of great change and challenge, what George Frost referred to as “full of wonderful events”. The country’s empire expansion policy of the time, while controversial, created a widening horizon for city and country dwellers alike. Wireless telegraphs brought news more quickly from around the world, and events such as the Spanish-American War, the annexation of Hawaii in 1898, the First Hague Peace Conference in 1899 and the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China were read about in local papers.

Yorktown Heights RR Station, Circa 1900Yorktown’s proximity to New York City also helped shape its changing face with the building of the second Croton Dam, begun in the late 1890’s to provide water to New York. Immigrants were flocking to America in record numbers seeking a better life, and many of those foreigners settled in northern Westchester to work on the dam. The Putnam Division Railroad, built in the late 1800’s, not only provided a New York City market for local farmers’ products (mostly milk), but also talent, as the New York commuter was born! The train also brought city people to the country to enjoy the many resorts here.

Mohegan TrolleyLake Mohegan SchoolThe Peekskill Surface Railroad (trolley) was built in 1899, which ran to Mohegan Lake, a popular resort community and the location of the Mohegan Lake School (Military Academy). The school attracted students from other states, as well as Europe, South America and Central America.

Late Nineteenth Century American prosperity brought with it more time for leisure pursuits, charitable work and associations, and Yorktown was no exception. Dances to raise money were popular everywhere, and organizations were formed to improve working conditions, such as the Yorktown Grange in 1899.  The Helping Hand Hospital, Protection Lodge #1709 of Coming Men of America, the Horse Thief Association (Guess what they did in their spare time!), and the Odd Fellows (Does anybody know how they got that name?) were all formed in the late 1890’s to benefit local society. The Village Improvement Society was responsible for putting sidewalks in Yorktown Heights in 1899.

Purely social organizations such as the Mohegan and Shrub Oak Whist Club, Ladies Social Circle of the Shrub Oak Methodist Church, the Shrub Oak Literary Society, and the Shrub Oak racetrack at Sunnyside Farm were popular at the turn of the century in Yorktown.

Breezemere CottageWhile families like the Whitneys, Vanderbilts and Astors were building “cottages” in Newport, R.I., other New York City families of lesser means were building country homes in Yorktown, many located on the beautiful lakes in town. Minutes of the Town Board frequently mention the swell in population during the summer months, which finally led to the hiring of a part-time constable, the predecessor to the Police Department.

Religious Camp Meetings were flourishing in America, as well as a strong prohibition movement. The Shrub Oak Methodist Church held an old time revival about this time with 600 people in attendance. Music was provided by “Mother” Maggie Van Cott’s Praying Band and children’s Dew Drop Band!

Uncas Lodge, MoheganOn December 31, 1900, according to the Album of American History, “Watch night services of a special solemnity were held in churches all over the nation as the Twentieth Century dawned. There were no signs and portents (etc…)”. The economy may have been flourishing, but many religious people felt social morality was in danger.

While there was no mention of the “New Century” in Westchester County Board of Supervisors’ minutes, Yorktown Town Board minutes, or other local records, residents were aware of their quickly changing world. Legislators addressed the town and county’s needs to meet the changes. Budgets of the time reflect greater sums of money spent on the “Good Roads” program (highway improvement and expansion) as society prepared for the age of the motorcar. The first automobile show at Madison Square Garden took place in the fall of 1900, and it was only a short time later that Yorktowners were bumping along in their horse-less carriages!

District #4 Class, 1900Yorktown in 1900 had a pickle factory, wire mill, many sawmills, several resorts and railroad stations, a few post offices, a major granite quarry, 13 district schools, doctors, lawyers, blacksmiths and, of course, many farms. They sent representatives to Albany; and when their governor Theodore Roosevelt was elected Vice President in 1900, they undoubtedly shared a certain pride with the rest of New York State, regardless of their politics.

They also must have mourned, along with the nation, the loss of President McKinley in 1901 when he was assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. Yet no official written record has been left, no proclamation, no Day of Mourning to let us know, a century later, what was in the hearts and minds of the people of Yorktown. (If you know of a diary that exists from the period and would like to share it, or have a personal family story to tell, let us know in our Guestbook.)

What I did find in my research is a copy of The Ladies Home Journal from December 1900, which contained a fascinating article by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years”.

Mr. Watkins wrote: “These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible. Yet, they have come from the most learned and conservative minds in America. To the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning I have gone, asking each in his turn to forecast for me what, in his opinion, will have been wrought in his own field of investigation before the dawn of 2001 - a century from now. These opinions I have carefully transcribed.”

Over the next thirteen months we will share the results of Mr. Watkins research as we approach the other “Turn of the Century”. We invite you to comment on these predictions, whether they have been realized in some way or how they can never be accomplished! In any event, we know you’ll enjoy these entries.

Prediction: “There will probably be from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America and its possessions by the lapse of another century. Nicaragua will ask for admission to our Union after the completion of the great canal. Mexico will be next. Europe, seeking more territory to the south of us, will cause many of the South and Central American republics to be voted into the Union by their own people.” 

Prediction: “The American will be taller by from one to two inches. His increase of stature will result from better health, due to vast reforms in medicine, sanitation, food and athletics. He will live fifty years instead of thirty-five as at present – for he will reside in the suburbs. The city house will practically be no more. Building in blocks will be illegal. The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare.”

Prediction: “Gymnastics will begin in the nursery, where toys and games will be designed to strengthen the muscles. Exercise will be compulsory in the schools. Every school, college and community will have a complete gymnasium. All cities will have public gymnasiums. A man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.”

Written by Linda L. Kiederer
Photos courtesy of the Town Clerk’s Office

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