Jefferson Valley's Heritage
Indians, Antiques and Tall Tales
by Joseph Nazar
Of enormous concern to Yorktowners in these first days of the 1980's is the debate over the proposed Jefferson Valley Mall; an issue which already promises to be one of the most serious of the decade. With everyone's mind upon it, it should be appropriate to present an outline of the history of the mall's "host hamlet," as it were.
Historically, the area known as Jefferson Valley, in addition to the village proper which has always been centered around the junction of Wood and Main Streets, included a large portion of northeastern Yorktown, comprised of all the farms on Wood Street and Route 6N, north of the Putnam county border, all those on Old Route 6 (Main Street) and Old Jefferson Valley Road, from the Somers line in the east, to about the present location of Lee Road in the west; and also, all the farms along Gomer Street, south to Cording Road. The roads herein described, with the exception of Lee Road, were the only ones there before the advent of housing developments.
The valley itself is defined principally by Indian Hill on the north, with its highest elevation of 751 feet and on the south by the hills which Gomer and Quinlan Streets traverse. (It is to be noted that what is meant here as Gomer Street is the road before 1965, more of which shall be spoken on further.) As one would expect, these hills afford magnificent views, the most accessible of which is the one from Quinlan Street. From there one can see Bear Mountain, the Highlands, Carmel and even the foothills of the Berkshires.
At the foot of Indian Hill lies Lake Osceola. A glacial remnant of the last ice age, it once formed part of a large lake which stretched westward to Mohegan. Prior to its present name, which it had acquired by the 1880's, Lake Osceola had borne several other designations, including "Round Pond" and "Jefferson Pond."
The first recorded human inhabitants of the Jefferson Valley area were the Kitchewank Indians, a subdivision of the Mohegan or "Enchanted Wolf" tribe. The Reverend Robert Bolton, in the revised edition of his 1848 work, The History of the Several Towns, Manors, and Patents of the County of Westchester From its First Settlement to the Present Time, published in New York in 1881, states that the principal settlement of the "Amerinds" in the Yorktown area was upon the summit of Indian Hill, and that they had a burying ground on its southerly side. He goes on to state that Indian Hill was the last spot inhabited by the Red Man in Westchester County.
Mrs. Benjamin Bailey, who for years operated a store on Main Street, remembers that during the 1920s one or two Indian couples in native dress would come to Jefferson Valley in the summer and ascend Indian Hill to the Indian cemetery to pay their respects to their people whose remains lay there. Upon their descent, the Indians would stand on the corner of Mrs. Bailey's property on Main Street; face east; and pray - in a most silent manner.
It is said that the first white settlers in Jefferson Valley were the Gomer family, who lived on what is now Gomer Street and it was for them that this road was named. In 1697 all of northern Westchester County was granted as a manor to Stephanus Van Cortlandt by King William III of England. In 1734, when his domain was partitioned among his heirs, the Jefferson Valley area, as part of "Great North Lott No. 4," was given to Colonel John Schuyler who married "De Heer" (Lord) Van Cortlandt's daughter Cornelia. It was Colonel and Mrs. Schuyler who were the parents of General Philip John Schuyler (1733-1804), the great soldier, statesman and close friend of George Washington; Philip and his siblings being the heirs to their parents' estate in turn.
J. Thomas Scharf, in his History of Westchester County, New York (Philadelphia, 1886), records that it was after the partition of 1734 that land sales were first made to settlers. There are a few homes in Jefferson Valley which date from before the Revolutionary War. One, bearing the marker "c 1740," is the former antique store on the corner of Wood and Main Streets and we therefore might assume that a general settlement of the district had already begun by the start of that struggle.
Through the years traditional Jefferson Valley families have included the Archers, Bargers, Birdsalls, Currys (from whom Curry Street was named), Lounsburys, Travises and Wildeys.
During the Revolution, no major skirmishes occurred in this area. However, on the rainy night of the twenty-fourth of September, 1780, Major Andre was conducted through Jefferson Valley over Route 6N and Main Street, on his way to the Robinson House near Garrison after his capture at Tarrytown. General Washington wanted Andre brought to him there , but gave orders that the party avoid the main roads. The choice of the route taken would suggest that, at the time, Jefferson Valley was a remote district.
It is ironic to note that the Reverend Stillman Boyd settled in Jefferson Valley in 1853, at the junction of Main Street and Route 6N (the present Frank Mackler place), where Major Andre passed on the way to Garrison. For it was Stillman's grandfather, Captain Ebenezer Boyd of the Third Regiment of the Westchester County Militia who stopped Andre in Yorktown, as he was attempting to make his way to New York before his capture. Although it was said he suspected him, Boyd did nothing more than advise Andre to stop for the night at the home of Andreas Miller, thereby losing his chance for the immortality attained by the captors. In front of the Mackler home once stood a very old tree in which, according to local tradition, was a sword, supposedly thrust through it during the revolution.
Some of the men of Jefferson Valley who served as soldiers in the War of Independence were a Captain Dan Strang, of the Jefferson Valley Strangs; a Colonel Hyatt, whose residence was allegedly the Boehme-Martens house, which stands on Main Street; and Sergeant Gilbert Forman who, while on detached duty in Yorktown, was captured by the British. Forman later escaped and after the war, settled upon what was much later the Peter B. Curry farm on Gomer Street.
The present name of the area was first given to it by one of its inhabitants, the renowned Dr. James Fountain (c. 1789-1870), in honor of the third president of the United States. I, myself, have seen the name recorded as early as the 1830's on a deed to a farm on Gomer Street.
Doctor Fountain was one of the most eminent men in the history of Jefferson Valley. In addition to being, in his day, one of the most distinguished physicians in the state, he was very active and well respected in the Westchester County Medical Society, the first county medical society in New York. Fountain owned many acres of land in Jefferson Valley and, at his residence on Main Street, he specialized in the raising of different varieties of fruits.
Dr. Fountain's son, Hosea, who was also a doctor with a practice in the neighborhood of Yorktown Station (now the village of Yorktown Heights), wrote this of his father (extracted from the article, "Early Country Physicians," by Otto E. Koegel, which appeared in the September 20th, 1964 issue of the Patent Trader: "His field of labor extended from Fishkill to Tarrytown and from the Hudson River to beyond the Connecticut line. He kept the best horses and rode constantly in the saddle; he was very active, was up and away before we were up. He would ride all day. Then in the hot weather I have known him to strip to the skin and help his man draw hay off by moonlight; then off in the morning again as usual."
In addition to Fountain, a few of the other leaders which Jefferson Valley has furnished include James Conklin Travis of Gomer Street (1838-1891) who, despite his having had a leg amputated due to a non-combat Civil War injury, went on to become a well-known lawyer in Westchester County; a Yorktown supervisor in 1872, and a justice of the Westchester County Court of Sessions. Mr. Travis' home was what was later the Edward Lewis farmhouse on Gomer Street. However by 1885 he was living in Yorktown Station, where in 1891, he died in a sleigh accident.
By 1834, there is a mention in Franklin Cuch's [sic] Genealogy of the Hill, Dean, Pinckney, Austin, Barker, Anderson, Rhoades and Finch Families, (Newburgh, N.Y. 1907), of the country store in Jefferson Valley of John Strang & Co. On the fifteenth day of April, 1850, the post office of Jefferson Valley was established, with Harvey Green as the first postmaster and today this hamlet's small post office, with its rural village atmosphere, is the last of its kind in the township.
According to Beer's 1867 Atlas of the Vicinity of New York, published in New York, the village proper of Jefferson Valley contained two combination blacksmith and wagon shops; a store; a combination store and post office; and "H. Rankin's Hotel." At a small distance to the east from the center of the village there was another blacksmith shop and also a schoolhouse.
The school was situated on the westerly side of northern most Gomer Street, where the white house on Gomer Court now stands. (Gomer Street having formerly followed a course straight down the hill to meet with Main Street and Route 6N, more of which shall follow later). The schoolhouse appears as early as c. 1851 on a map of the county in the possession of the Yorktown museum, and one of the teachers there was the grandmother of Mildred E. Strang (1904-1974), an educator and superintendent of the Yorktown school district. In 1914 a new school was built across the road (the present yellow house). In August of 1941, when the Shrub Oak (now Lakeland) school district closed it down, the school was one of only two one-room schoolhouses left in Westchester County.
In the summer of 1874, one of the strangest events in the history of Yorktown occurred. A tornado arose suddenly out of Lake Osceola and lifted a house on Route 6, between Gomer Street and the Somers line owned by Leonard Curry completely off its foundation. Leonard's grandson, Hart Curry, currently of Yorktown Heights, states that, in addition to the house, a wagon loaded with hay was lifted into the air and carried two miles to the east; and then down again - with not a straw out of place.
By 1900, the village of Jefferson Valley had acquired at least two saloons, which gave it a small amount of notoriety. Mrs. L. C. Penn, born in 1881 to Edward Munson Frost and his wife, Mary Ann Lee, and who moved to Gomer Street with her family in 1891, recalls: "We (she and her siblings) were not allowed to go there (into Jefferson Valley) because of the saloons. My father was a Temperance Man."
It was about the year 1903 that this section of Yorktown had its first regular house of worship, the "Union Chapel." A small, interdenominational Protestant church, which basically served the inhabitants of Jefferson Valley. Even though it boasted a Sunday school. Services were held on Sunday afternoons, so that the members of the congregation might be able to attend their regular churches. The building, now a private residence, still stands on the southerly side of Main Street, slightly to the west of where this road is joined by Route 6N. Sometime in the future, the Union chapel may be the subject of another article.
As the 1900's progressed, the area gradually became more settled and urbanized: The automobile, the telephone and electricity were introduced; Main Street and Route 6N were paved for the first time during World War I. And the first development ever in Jefferson Valley, Osceola Heights, went up in 1923. This is the community clustered about Perry Street, which was named for the developer, a young man by the name of Lester Perry.
It should be noted, however, that Jefferson Valley remained a rural district from the time of the Gomers until the 1950's that Yorktown experienced what was perhaps the greatest event in its history - the building boom and corresponding population explosion.
After World War II, farmers-for this was always an agricultural township-found that the sharp rise in taxes had made farming unprofitable, if not impossible. They began to sell their land to developers who erected houses on a "mass Manufacture" basis. (prior to the 1950's, a developer would sell a person a lot, and that person would have to have his home built himself). The first postwar development in Jefferson Valley was Chapel Hill (Lewis Avenue area), which was begun in 1955 on the west side of Gomer Street.
With the increase in population came a demand for more classroom space and the Lakeland Central School District built the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School on Gomer Street in 1957. It was the third school to have existed on the northern section of that road, and thus the third to have existed in Jefferson Valley.
One of the side effects from this postwar growth was a heavy increase in traffic which brought about the construction of "new" Route 6 in 1965. The new road altered Jefferson Valley considerably. Main Street was now on the southerly shore of Lake Osceola and Gomer Street, which used to descent a rather steep hill and meet "Old Route 6" at its junction with Route 6N, was rerouted to the east to meet with Curry Street - much to the dismay of old-time residents. Its northernmost section was severed and renamed Gomer Court.
However, the construction of a "New Route 6" as opposed to a widening of Main Street ("Old Route 6") left the eighteenth century, rural Vermont atmosphere of the latter road and Route 6N intact and the Jefferson Valley area probably now has the largest collection of barns still existing in Yorktown, many standing on theses two roads.
Now Jefferson Valley is confronting a new issue - the proposed mall which has its origins in a 1961 Town Master Plan that called for a large, retail shopping center on the 50-acre site lying off Route Six between Lee Road and Hill Boulevard. This is not the place for me to espouse my own beliefs of whether such a mall would be beneficial or detrimental. However, I can say that its advent would certainly be a most important event in the history of Jefferson Valley, especially when one considers that it is being heralded as a "major regional mall."
Note: A main source used in the preparation of this article was the booklet "The History of Jefferson Valley" compiled by the 5th grade class of the Thomas Jefferson School in 1959-60, in cooperation with, and supervised by their teacher, Mrs. Charles Abele. The information was contained by interviewing old area residents.
Source: North County News, February 6 - February 12, 1980
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