Van Houten’s Landing
Oral History Project
Eugene R. Brown
Hi – I’m Gene Brown, and I’ve lived here almost all my life. I was born in May of 1927. My father bought the house the following September, and I have lived here ever since.
My father bought the house from a Mrs. Polhemus, but she had not been living here very long. The house was built way back in about from 1856 to ’59 by a John Felter. Mr. Felter ran a boat yard down right next to Van Houten’s. It wasn’t Van Houten’s, it was another boat yard. Felter lived here from at least 1859 for a few years, but then he sold it to a William Jersey, and Mr. Jersey lived here for about 50 years, until, I believe, the 1920s. And then it belonged to one or two other people for short times, and then my father got it in 1927.
My early memories seem to be connected, of course with the neighbors, but, interestingly enough, with the various delivery trucks that came. Of course there was no shopping mall then, no supermarket, all the purchases had to be made locally. There was a vegetable man who came around once or twice a week in his truck. There was a baker who came, maybe twice a week, and he had his big wicker basket with bread and cookies and all sorts of things, and since he came to a house with children – I had two older brothers – there were always things to bribe purchases – you know - cookies and cupcakes and things.
Of course this was the age when ice was still delivered. Of course, as the older generation might know, the kids always flocked around the ice truck, hoping the iceman would chip off little scraps of ice for them to suck on.
Then there was the milkman. Now the milkman had a horse for his wagon – I remember the horse. The horse came down Upper Van Houten Street into Ellen Street, but when he got as far as the corner of Ellen Street and Lower Castle Heights, the horse could not make it up Lower Castle Heights. So while the milkman came to our house, the horse himself turned the wagon around, and when the milkman had made his deliveries here and to my neighbors, the horse had already turned the wagon around, ready to return the way he had come.
Of course in those days there was not the present Upper Nyack School. There was the old schoolhouse on what is still called School Street, where the school itself was. That of course is now built up. There are several houses there, and the houses on School Street itself are still very well kept. The school, of course, had many, many fewer children than the present Upper Nyack School has. Each room had one grade and when I first went there, I believe that the 5th and 6th grade, and the 7th and 8th grade had the same room. They doubled up, and of course the teachers doubled up too. The principal at that time was Fred Smith, a very fine man – very stern. You did not fool around with Mr. Smith. His word was law.
One thing I remember was that every morning we had an assembly. Four of the rooms, which were all in a row – a wall opened up – you could unfold the wall and make all four rooms into one big room. So we had an assembly every morning, probably 15 or 20 minutes, that’s all it was. There was singing. We had the Old Blue Song Book, I believe it was, and there were patriotic songs and fun songs, folk songs, spirituals. We had a crackerjack teacher named Miss Falk. She was my first grade teacher. She played the piano beautifully – an old upright piano – and she would play. Since we had the assembly every week, and the school went to 8th grade, everybody got to know those songs by heart.
I was never an athlete, but I remember I always won the 40-yard dash on the field day. And I remember the pie eating contest. We had a field day with games, athletics, races and that sort of thing. Anthony Salamone – you may hear from one of his family –I don’t think they would mind me saying he always won the pie eating contest, with pie all over his face.
One thing I remember very strongly at the school was that at that time our dear lady of the theater, Helen Hayes, lived only a walking distance away, and at one time Helen and Mr. MacArthur’s daughter Mary attended the Upper Nyack School and Helen Hayes would often visit the school on special days. She always came to commencement. Somebody in the senior class, as an English lesson, would invite her and she would come. When I graduated from 8th grade she was there. That was lots of fun of course.
To mention some of the activities of kids growing up in the ‘30s, on Lower Castle Heights and Ellen Street, Van Houten Street – I think, more than today, these activities, sports and games, were related to the time of year. Now as I sit here today, it’s early April. If there would come a nice, warm day and the sun was out, suddenly there would be marbles, out on the street or on the living room floor. All kids had marbles. Everyone had roller skates. They didn’t have the inline skates, the roller blades and modern things like that, but everybody had roller skates. The kids had the key around their neck that you would tighten the skates with. Fortunately we had North Broadway – sidewalks there – and the roller skating season would begin.
In the summer, the farthest we might go would be to Rockland Lake Landing - the continuation of what is now Nyack Beach, and that was quite a long walk – it was a mile and a half just out to the Hook, to the beach, and it was another couple of miles, I think, out to what was a little boat landing. Boats, I believe, came all the way from New York City. There were picnic tables and a lunch place and a merry-to-round- and that was lots of fun – at the time. I don’t think it lasted too long, because that was a very far distant memory. I can barely remember it. The round foundations are still there in the weeds.
In the fall we often went to the football games up at the Nyack High School which was then at the top of 5th Avenue, where the BOCES school is now. That was of course the era before all schools had gyms. The high school had a gym, but there weren’t the professional games under cover in the big domes and all that, so football was very much in mind in the early fall before Thanksgiving.
I remember, if I may leave Upper Nyack for just a moment, the Nyack team always played Tarrytown, and when they played over at Tarrytown, everybody went down to the Nyack ferry – of course there was no Tappan Zee Bridge then – and we took the ferry across to the Tarrytown High School. Late in the afternoon you would know who had won the game by the behavior of the people on the ferry boat. If everybody was looking at the scenery, very downcast, you knew that Nyack had lost. If there was cheering and revelry and the accordion man was playing his accordion, then you knew that Nyack won.
I haven’t mentioned yet, but there were very few cars in the 1930s, and you played on the streets and you went sleigh riding on the streets. Now, usually Tallman Avenue, just over the line in Nyack - that was always closed off – I don’t even think it was paved then. But occasionally Castle Heights which was the main – still is the main hill street – would be closed off and, as I remember it, even when the streets weren’t closed off – we always went sleigh riding on it.
John Lodico will remember the day – maybe he’ll give his version of this – when he and I were sleigh riding right out in front of the house here and I was on my belly on the sleigh and he was kneeling on top of me. We went down the hill toward the boat yard. At that time there was a big wooden fence, and we approached the fence - and suddenly I woke up. I was in the Nyack Hospital, lying on a bed. Johnny had the sense to jump off and come screaming up the hill. He knocked at the door and yelled for my mother- who wished that I would be screaming, along with Johnny.
And then there were the fires. In those days there were no laws against burning leaves out in the street, and I remember late autumn – my father would burn the leaves out on the edge of the road, and we would put potatoes out among the leaves. By the time we finished burning the leaves, why the potatoes would burned on the outside and not done in the center – but they were awfully good – that was wonderful!
In the winter I remember the river did occasionally freeze over, and people did skate on it. My father was always a little afraid of the water, and especially ice, and we were not allowed to go out onto the ice – but people did sometimes.
Living where we did, I was bound to be interested in the out-of-doors, especially with this beautiful view of the river and nice landscaped, open properties around us. My parents were outdoor people – my father was quite a hiker. We often hiked over Hook Mountain – there was a trail from the top of the mountain down the front of mountain. A big sign now says that rock climbing or scaling the cliffs is not allowed – but there was a trail. We often went up over the mountain.
My mother, in Ohio, grew up on a poultry farm where my grandfather raised prize poultry – all kinds of fancy fowl – peacocks and pheasants and things like that. He was an outdoor person, and I think from the very beginning I was interested in outdoors. Then my parents usually had birdfeeders and put seed out.
Then when I went to high school, the Rockland Audubon Society was started in 1947 and one of the leaders in that society was Bob Deed of South Nyack. Although I was just a teen-ager, he invited me to go on some of their field trips, and he often went birding himself, and he would take me along – he knew I was interested. He was a wonderful person, a mentor not only to myself, but to many young people who were interested in birds – and so I became interested at that time in the Audubon Society. That was the beginning. I have always been interested in birds – and nature in general.
After I got a car I could drive up to Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park, and that was a much wider territory, of course than just Hook Mountain and Rockland Lake. I still bird very avidly at the Hook and around Rockland Lake, but about 10 years ago I met Jack Focht, who was the director of the Trailside Museum at Bear Mountain. Jack Orth was an earlier director I had met and who also was a mentor – but those were very early days when I didn’t have a car.
When I met Jack Focht, he had started what he called the League of Naturalists – the Bear Mountain League of Naturalists – which started out to study the natural history and the cultural history – first of just the area of Doodletown – which was a living community until the park took it over in 1965. Jack started this group to study both the cultural history - the history of the place - and also the natural history. Then, within a few years this was expanded to cover the whole park – the Indian lore, the artifacts, the villages, and the bird life, the mammals, amphibians, the plants, how the forest had changed.
The problem of sharing the park for people – especially the multitudes from the metropolitan area and New York City – and making recreation available to them – and still keeping the naturalness and the habitats for the flora and the fauna of the park – which is a real challenge. Of course the park is so close to a metropolitan area – and if I may say so, I think personally, that Jack Focht has done a wonderful job - he, and of course the commissioners and all the people concerned with the park. The park covers over 50,000 acres, and recently there have been additionally many acres in Sterling Forest.
But my chief area of study is around the area of Island Pond – which is just east of Route 17 and the area of the Sloatsburg and north of there – Tuxedo Park. This and the adjacent area of the park, which I enjoy, is the wildest part, virtually unchanged over the years. It was of course lumbered at one time, but now there’s second or third growth forest growth there – so it’s pretty wild.
What we do is that each person – and there are many people involved in this, including all the different facets of study – we keep track of just where this is – we have a grid – like A-17, B-12, or whatever it is – the whole area is divided that way. This is important, especially for nesting birds, to know where they are - and if there’s a wild plant, you don’t want it broadcast everywhere, but among ourselves we want to know where it is. So we keep track of these things, and this way we know which things are going down or increasing – the effect of certain things.
For example, in recent years there has been a large increase in the wild goose population. So then someone will say, “We’ve got to control the geese – there are too many of them. So we’ll shoot them.” So some of the general populace will say, “Oh no – that’s cruel.” So somebody’s got to decide.
It’s the same way with the deer. At one time there were deer in the Hudson Highlands, and then they got shot down. Indians used them for food and the Europeans came and shot them and cut the forest. The deer need the forest, so they were gone. Then they began to come back. The forest came back and there were laws regulating hunting, so now there are people who want to shoot deer in Harriman Park. So this has to be regulated. If we keep track of how many deer there are, comparatively – we don’t know exactly how many – we can compare, as time goes on, what was there 10 years ago – or what a park ranger 20 years ago said. Then we have some idea of the total population.
When the subject came up of doing more to preserve the boat yard or perhaps make this a historical district – statewide or national, on the National Register or whatever – I was quite excited. I kind of felt a paternal interest, you might say, in this whole area since I had lived here for so long.
One of the earliest things I remember as a child is the whistle – the old whistle down there that blew, maybe at 7:30 in the morning, or something like that, and I’m not sure what it meant – whether they started work then, or they turned on some of the machinery. Anyway, it blew very faithfully, and I remember, since the house did face the boat yard, being very interested in it. There was always something mysterious about it, because we were not allowed actually to go inside – naturally – it was a commercial place to work in. There were injurious places where people could get hurt.
Being close to the boat yard was always interesting. Some of the old houses are still here, many with original features. This area has not changed. I’m afraid, a little apprehensive, driving through Rockland County. Not too long ago I went to visit a friend a few miles away - in a very nice house. But when I started home I got completely lost – went around twice in circles, because I had no idea where I was. Most of you know, the county has changed greatly. The population increased greatly – and naturally, it had to.
But this area has not changed. The people here have always been very friendly and neighborly. That’s one reason I have stayed here. I’m sure people have wondered: “Why does he want to stay in that old house year after year?” One of the main reasons is because it is a very neighborly place. People have always been kind – to my parents before me, to my 2 brothers before me, and even presently, now – so I’m here for another 20 years.
Recorded in Upper Nyack, NY
April 3, 2004
Click tabs to swap between content that is broken into logical sections.