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Commentary: The History of Shrub Oak
by Lawrence Constant

In the current battle over a Shrub Oak historic district, there was one comment recorded in the local newspapers which I should like to redress: "There is nothing of an historic nature that ever happened here."

Shrub Oak is an historical village. True, George Washington never slept here; however, other famous Americans have been involved in its history. Even one possessed with the least amount of architectural knowledge can see that Main Street is the venerable Main Street, America, preserved under glass. Thereupon is situated the oldest house in the hamlet, which was built in 1769, and features a diminutive stair railing, originally brought over to Massachusetts by the Pilgrims. Allow me now to show evidence of Shrub Oak's long and rich history.

The first settler here was Joshua ("Jocky") Hyatt, who leased a farm in 1686 [sic] from the Van Cortlandt family, making this the oldest spot in Yorktown continuously inhabited by the white man. It was after Joshua that Shrub Oak was first named "Hyatt's Plains". The settlers drifted in rather slowly thereafter.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, the village of Shrub Oak consisted of eight buildings clustered about Main Street, according to Otto Hufeland in his Westchester County during the American Revolution (1926). Presumably, most of these were dwellings. In addition to Main Street, Hufeland indicates that Route 132, Barger Street, and Mill Street had already been laid out by this time.

No major battles occurred in the area during America's War of Independence; however Shrub Oak was by no means immune from the shock waves of this conflict. Several local men served in the Continental Army, including Jonathan Hart and John Conklin. At the nearby Hyatt homestead on Route 6, which still stands, the Marquis de Lafayette trained troops and even spent a night. British soldiers once came through the village to plunder; one of the homes they raided was that of Mrs. Martha Oakley, who was obliged to sit on a trap door to conceal the silver she had hidden beneath it. Where now stands of the home of Mrs. William Geis, Sr. on main street, there was a house which contained a tavern. A bold Tory captain, suspected of being a spy, was shot at the gate while trying to escape. The house was later purchased by John Paulding (1758-1818) who was one of the captors of Major John Andre, the man entrusted by the traitor Benedict Arnold to deliver the plans of the fortification at West Point to the British.

After Andre's capture at Tarrytown, Washington desired that the major be brought to him at his headquarters at Garrison, ordering that the lesser-traveled roads be used, to avoid any attempts of recapture. As a result, on the rainy morning of September 26, 1780, before dawn, the morose and heavily-guarded Major Andre passed through Shrub Oak along Main Street, enroute to his tragic fate.

After the Revolution, by 1789, there was built in the village a Methodist Church - one of the first in the county - upon land owned by Pierre Van Cortlandt, Jr., whose father, Pierre, Sr., had been a Congressman, Lieutenant-Governor of New York, president of the convention which established the Constitution, and a personal friend of George Washington. (Pierre Jr., in his own right studied law under Alexander Hamilton; served as a Congressman; and was a higher general of the local militia, with James Fenimore Cooper, author of "The Last of the Mohicans", serving as his aide). This first Methodist meeting house in Shrub Oak stood about where the large Denver-Hallock monument is, in the southeastern portion of the Old Shrub Oak Cemetery. Several circuit-riding ministers preached in it, the most famous of which was the celebrated Reverend Francis Asbury 91745-1816), the man responsible for the flourishing of the Methodist faith in America. Asbury, who preached in Shrub Oak on more than one occasion, was a welcome visitor in the homes of such notables as Meriweather Lewis, John C. Calhoun, and Washington.

It was in the latter half of the eighteenth century that the hamlet acquired the name "Shrub Oak Plains", this coming about due to the presence of Shrub Oak trees which formerly thrived in the local sandy soil.

In 1829, Shrub Oak acquired its post office, the word "Plains" having by this time been dropped from its name. The first postmaster was John Hyatt, a descendant of "Jocky", who kept a store located behind the present Century 21 Real Estate office on Main Street. Today's post office at Shrub Oak is the oldest existing in Yorktown Township.

In the 1840's, the village of Shrub Oak experienced what has been described as a "building boom"; the stately Darrow-Migliaccio house on Main Street being an example of the type of home constructed during this period.

According to Beer's 1867 Atlas of New York and vicinity, we find that, just after the Civil War, the village proper boasted at least 23 dwellings, a post office, Gilbert Darrow's "Hall & Store", William Roake's store (which now contains the delicatessen opposite the library), a Methodist parsonage, a cemetery, a Methodist Church, a school house, the office of Dr. James Hart Curry, William Lee's "Shoe Shop", Henderson's blacksmith shop, Tredwell's Wheelwright Shop, and the Willow Brook Preparatory Academy (also known as Dr. J. Richard's Classical School), it was the most advanced. The full import of this will be realized when one considers that the Yorktown of 1867 consisted mainly of scattered farms.

Very early then, Shrub Oak acquired a distinct identity. This also came about due to the personages who inhabited the village; for the 1860's and 1870's was a classic time there, often spoken about by the old people in this century. There was the (lay) Reverend Benjamin Currey, the abolitionist and underground railroad "conductor", who styled himself "the poor man's preacher", because he would not accept payment for delivering sermons. His son, Dr. James Hart Curry, an army surgeon during the Civil War, was one of the early physicians in the region. Then of course, there was John Coleridge Hart (1822-1872), born in the Hart homestead on Stony Street, who made a fortune in pharmaceuticals in New York City. Through his grandmother, Mary Coleridge (wife of Joseph Roake, with whom she settled upon Stony Street in c. 1789 and founded the Roake family in America), John was related to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), author of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan". His residence upon Main Street, built in the 1820's, now houses the library dedicated to his memory.

In 1867, work was begun on the present Methodist house of worship, an ivy-clad Gothic edifice, built of stone drawn from Piano Mountain and a quarry on Stony Street. At the ceremony of the laying of the cornerstone, held on June 29 of that year, an address was made by the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887). He was the brother of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe (authoress of Uncle Tom's Cabin), and had served as Abraham Lincoln's orator during the recent Civil War.

Shrub Oak was also the cradle of Roman Catholicism in Yorktown. The first regular Catholic masses were said in the township as early as 1872, in the home of Mrs. Thomas Jones, situated at a short distance west of the village. The old Methodist Church building was then rented for a time, and in 1880 a store building was purchased and altered into a house of worship, called "St. John the Evangelist", which stood opposite to the entrance of the library (the rectory built behind it now serves as a private residence). St. John's - the first Catholic church in Yorktown - was the mother Church of St. Patrick's at Yorktown Heights, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Shrub Oak; the latter being the first church in the world named after the first native-born American saint.

The premise that Shrub Oak was an advanced village for its time can be further supported by the fact that, by 1885, there was a literary society here, appropriately named "The Shrub Oak Literary Society".

In 1885 the village was set "all aglow" the arrival of General Daniel E. Sickles, an extraordinary personage who had been a Civil War general, a post war diplomat (including Minister to Spain under President Ulysses S. Grant) - and, the acquitted assassin of the son of the author of "The Star Spangled Banner". Sickles, a personal friend of Mrs. Augustus Field of Stony Street, was entertained by the nervous members of the Literary Society in the old Methodist Church building, which had been serving as the hamlet's public hall.

An extraordinary personage in his own right was "The Leather Man", a leather-clad tramp who made regular stops in Shrub Oak from 1885 to 1889. Born Jules Bourglay in Lyons, France, he traveled - on foot - a yearly circuit which stretched between the Hudson and Connecticut Rivers. The legendary Leather Man, who was never known to speak, lead a solitary existence, living in caves.

Prior to 1900, there was a lot of wealth concentrated in Shrub Oak. Scharf's 1886 History of Westchester County, New York reports that several residences in the hamlet were owned by New Yorkers.

About 1890 there was built a horse track on the farm of Charles W. Carpenter, whose beautiful 1825 residence - the recently razed Sunnyside Antiques - was universally known as "The Showplace of Shrub Oak". The track, which lay on the southerly side of Route 6, was later bisected by the construction of the Taconic State Parkway. Its heyday was from 1896 to 1912; and it was a marvel of the country round, with the races being attended by important people. During the pioneering days of aviation, in the early 1920's, a pilot used to give local adventurers rides in his open cockpit airplane, using the horse track as a runway.

Mrs. Arthur Lee, in her booklet "A History of the John C. Hart Library" (1970), describes her native Shrub Oak of 1920 in this manner: "In Shrub Oak some were farmers, there were two stores, a post office, a saloon, two blacksmith shops, the present Methodist Church, and St. John's Roman Catholic Church, directly opposite what is now the library. There were a few wealthy landowners, one of whom (W. Carpenter above) had a race track, and several city families who owned summer homes in the area. The school had two rooms containing eight grades. (This schoolhouse, situated on Main Street next to the Methodist Church, is now a home).

Thus, the year 1920 saw a Shrub Oak that was much the same as the 19th century village, with one very important exception; for it was in that year that Yorktown's first library was established, the John C. Hart Memorial Library, in the former home of its namesake, whose daughter, Mrs. George Dresser, M.D., had willed it to the township on the condition that it be utilized as a library.

Seven years later the small rural school districts of Jefferson Valley, Mohegan and Shrub Oak were consolidated into "Central Rural School District #1, Shrub Oak, New York." (The core district of the Lakeland Central School District, formed in 1951). For this new central district, a charming red brick school was erected next to the Hart Library, which contained grades 1-12 and thus offered the children of northern Yorktown a local high school for the first time. Completed in 1929, the building was constructed by James Forrestal (1892-1948), who later was Secretary of the Navy from 1944 until 1947, in which year he became the first U.S. Secretary of Defense. The school is currently in the process of being converted into the administration building of the Lakeland district.

A student at this Shrub Oak School during the 1940's and early 1950's was Benjamin ("Billy") Civiletti, who went on to become U.S. Attorney General under President Carter. Civiletti, during his tenure of public service, has played an important part in the events of recent American history, such as advising the President to grant a pardon to Patricia Herst; negotiating the return of Korean businessman Ton-sun Park, during the "Korea-gate" scandals; reorganizing the FBI; and acting as President Carter's personal envoy to Miami, during the 1980 race riots there.

In the 1940's Shrub Oak was still very much the same sleepy village it had always been. The men and women of the Shrub Oak area did their part in World War II however; 94 served in the armed forces, with four of these giving their lives in the cause of freedom. Reverend Lawson, a black bishop, who preached dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's funeral in 1949, lived on Barger Street. The Lawson cemetery there, was the first all-black burial ground in this area.

The construction of housing developments, begun in 1927 with Sunnyside Estates (Sunnyside Avenue area), has accelerated in the Shrub Oak area since the 1950's, until the village has almost been surrounded by subdivisions. Since the 1950's, the bulk of the hamlet's population has changed from those descended of old families to newcomers from New York and elsewhere - a trend which also had begun in the 1920's.

Today the old village of Shrub Oak itself has not change drastically since the 1860's. Indeed, were John C. Hart to return to life, he would not feel disoriented strolling down Main Street. Also, there are still many living in the hamlet with such original settlers names as Strang, Curry, Tompkins - a far higher proportion than in other sections of the township.

I have in this outline endeavored to make my readers realize that there is more to Shrub Oak than it just having the coldest temperatures in the county - as one opponent to the historic district defined its historical value.

The historic areas of Main Street and adjacent streets should be preserved in a landmarks preservation area. Where else in Yorktown is there a complete village which has remained unchanged for more than a century? Indeed, where in the whole region is there a store (such as the delicatessen aforementioned) that has been a store as long as anyone alive can remember - and was such even when the grandparents of today's senior citizens were young? An historic district would preserve the beauty of Shrub Oak; deter robbers and vandals; and unite the village through pride. For these reasons, and for the fact that such a district would give the potential home buyer something extra and special, a la Williamsburg, property values would go not down, but up. Common sense readily testifies to all this.

In debating anything, one should adhere to pure facts and refrain from hysteria-rousing and intimidation. The historic district's aim is not to run people's lives, rather its sole aim is to preserve the external beauty of a unique section of the town from being defiled for reasons oftentimes stemming from profit. I might add that the historic district ordinance does not apply to all of Yorktown - or even to all of Shrub Oak, for that matter. Some of us who have moved here from New York believe that we can change Yorktown into a Westchester version of the Major Deegan Expressway, and when we are done move north and then do the same to Fishkill, Rhinebeck, Wappingers Falls, etc. We all have a responsibility to our town's past, and should act accordingly. The only benefit in this is to ourselves.

If one has been following the public meetings and news accounts of the battle over the Shrub Oak historic district, one hears at every turn that certain opponents' American rights are being usurped. Really, a large part of what has been wrong with this country in the last 15 years of so, is that Americanism, when taken up at all, is defined as the right to profit, or used to defend trite, materialistic quests. His true meaning, the inalienable rights of man (such as freedom of speech, press, religion) and the idea that all men are created equal, has been lost. I think a lecture on the true meaning of America - given by one of our fellow citizens just released from 444 days of brutal captivity half a world away - is much needed in Yorktown.

Any melodramatic, propagandistic talk of Shrub Oak being held "hostage", and flags flying half-mast for it, is a disgrace and most insulting to the memory of those suffering fifty-two and their families. There is no comparison.

Lawrence Constant is the pen name of a local historian, not a member of the Landmarks Preservation Committee, whose work appears in these pages from time to time.

 North County News, Vol. 3 No. 34, January 28 - February 3, 1981

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