Van Houten's Landing Oral History Project
Winston C. Perry Jr.
My name's Win Perry. I live at 319 N. Broadway, Upper Nyack. I was appointed (Upper Nyack) Village Historian by the Village Board. Nobody else wanted the job. I think it was 1973. My grandsons are the 9th generation (of Perrys) who live within 2 miles of Hook Mountain - they live in Valley Cottage.
The first Perry ancestor in this area was a hotel keeper at Rockland Lake Landing then called Slaughters Landing. The legend in the family is that he came over from Prussia. He may have been a draft dodger - I don't know. He did serve as a private in the Shore Guard Militia during the Revolution.
His sons were farmers in Upper Nyack and Rockland Lake. A grandson, Daniel Perry, moved to the foot of what is now known as Perry Lane and started a boat building business. His son followed him in that business there.
His grandson, Harry Perry, was a store keeper. He had the distinction of going bankrupt on 3 different corners in Upper Nyack. My father explained that the wealthy people who had big summer homes on North Broadway would insist on charging their groceries, and then there would be a depression and they wouldn't be able to pay, so he finally gave up the store business and worked as a butcher over in White Plains, and he got pneumonia going in and out of the cooler and died as a very young man.
My father was only 3 when he died, and his mother lived only a few years longer, so that he became an orphan and was taken in by his mother's sister Laura Coyle Pitt. The sisters were Coyles - it was a family of, I think, 6 girls and 1 boy. The girls all watched out for each other. Laura was married to Charles Pitt. They lived here for a while.
My father's father died when he was quite young. One of his stores was right diagonally across the street here. And then he was postmaster also. The post office was a little pigeon-holed section on the counter - it wasn't what we think of as a post office today. But when my grandfather died, Aunt Laura and Uncle Charlie, my great-uncle, technically, took in my father and his mother. As I said, his mother didn't live very many years thereafter, and after that Aunt Laura and Uncle Charlie continued to act as parents to my father, and foster grandparents to me. I knew them very well growing up.
Uncle Charlie was a carpenter, a builder - and one of my first summer jobs as a kid - I think I was 13 years old - was helping him put a wood shingle roof on my father's house. He had a great collection of tools in the old work shop out back - which his father had built in 1895, and I still have those tools.
Well, I went out to Berkeley, California to study architecture - that's where I met Betty. When we came back, we moved in with Uncle Charlie, who was a widower by that time. When he died, my father inherited the house and gave us a third of the value, and we bought the other two thirds. So we moved in with all the furniture, the tools, the treasures, the things that were here.
I'll have to say that my interest in local history really came from my parents, primarily my father. He had collected quite a few local antiques, artifacts and documents, photographs, over the years, and passed them on to me. I've had a lot of fun preserving them and interpreting them and using them. I've tried to learn more about the early history in this area. It has been a multi-generational family hobby.
It (Upper Nyack) has changed significantly. I think maybe the biggest change is that the Upper Nyack School is no longer at the head of School Street. The older portion of School Street that goes up from Broadway to the west, led to the front of the school. Then out toward Highmount Avenue was the athletic field of the school. There were wonderful pick-up ball games there every evening, in the school yard, for the local kids. It's something it's sad to see has disappeared. It produced some great athletes - not me - but I used to enjoy watching them.
Other than that, the remarkable thing is that the neighborhood has changed so little, particularly our Van Houten's Landing - the old downtown part of Upper Nyack - is really very much the way it was when I was a child. What's now Hartell's Deli was Gerhart's Ice Cream Parlor. The part of the store where you bought your ice cream was much smaller than the store is now. They have extended the back into what I guess was the Gerharts' living quarters, or store rooms. They lived on Ellen Street, so I guess it must have been a store room. Anyway, the store's a little different than it used to be.
The Village Hall was a general store, a candy store, then part of it a liquor store. So the uses have changed over the years, but the building's just the same. A few new homes have been built in what we used to call Under the Hill, on Van Houten's Street - where you live, Jane. The Deitch's house is a relatively new house - it was built during my life - I can remember the house that was there before. And the Esmay's house is new. I can't remember the house that was there, but my father told me there was a little tiny fisherman's shack - really not much more than a one-room house.
The whole area from the river up to a couple hundred feet west of Broadway and from roughly Highmount Avenue or the side of Van Houten Street up through and including Castle Heights Avenue, including the backyards of those houses was all owned by John Van Houten at one time. He had purchased a piece of property that was notched out of the adjoining farm. It really centered around the landing. I think that was the signal that business was picking up and a little neighborhood was developing around the businesses, whereas previously everything in Upper Nyack had been farms.
John Van Houten and his son John Jr. and his daughter Eleanor, whose name was Ellen Van Houten Tallman, sold off small lots that became the homes of the people whose livelihood was earned on the river, one way or another - either boat building or captains of boats, or some related business. So that was really the origin of our neighborhood.
The most common style that there are most of, was originally one room per floor - like the house next north of mine - where very often the kitchen and dining space was in the basement, there was a living room on the main floor, and perhaps 2 bedrooms in the half story above - with the little low windows. Very likely there was no indoor bathroom. They took their bath in a washtub in front of the fireplace. The outhouse was 50 feet in the back lot, and the well was in the other side of the lot. No plumbing, no electrical, and the houses were very simple. They would have had local red sandstone foundations - stone was quarried in this neighborhood. Some of them who had a little more money had brick on the front and stone around the sides and back.
There were, I think, 32 little houses built of a very similar plan - maybe 18 feet by 22 feet - something like that - pretty tiny. At least 24 of these houses remain, although most of them have been added on to and very often the additions are bigger than the original houses. The one across Van Houten Street from mine is the only one that remains in its original form.
Even though it (319) doesn't have a raised basement, like the one across the street, you can see where the sandstone walls in the basement were whitewashed, and before the porch was added to the south side of the house there was a door that came out into a lower area where you would step up to the lawn. The house consisted of just the living room and hall - what they call a 3 bay house - 2 windows and a door - and a half story above with low windows, 3 windows, just like the house to the north.
The north wing we're sitting in now was a part of a 2-story house that was moved here and tacked on. You can tell from the old joints that are no longer used, in the beams in the basement. And you can tell that the original part of the house was only a story and a half by going up in the attic and looking and seeing the old roof line and even some of the old shingles are still on it.
(Moving houses) was done surprisingly often in the old days. The house next north of the fire house used to be much closer to North Broadway. And, going up Castle Heights, the first house after the Village Hall used to be a half a block away on the East side of Broadway. It was moved up there by Justin Du Pratt White when he built the big house that is now Summit School.
Then across the street in what is now the Heiders' house - the big, brown Victorian house, was built by James Voorhis, who was owner of the boatyard at one time, there was actually a little 13-foot square building right out on the sidewalk. You can still see the concrete foundation, and it's identified on old maps of the neighborhood as a butcher shop. And indeed, the Heiders found meathooks in the 13-foot square building attached to their garage in back, so it looks as though perhaps either that was a store room for the butcher shop, or it was the actual butcher shop that had been moved back of the house at a later date.
The old store on the corner of School Street - the building is still there. There's not currently a retail store tenant in it, but Gina and Olaf who own the building, do intend to rent it out again, in the future, as a store. There are periods in its history when it was divided in half - I remember when there was a candy store in one half and a liquor store in the other half, when I was a child - catering to the vices of all ages. When my grandfather had a store there, he sold merchandise on 2 floors, which is quite hard to visualize today.
Then, in their side yard, to the north of the building, was a little structure that was an office of the steamboat company. You could buy your ticket there for a ride from Van Houten's Landing to Manhattan and back. One of the most interesting historic documents that has come to light recently, is a contract between the Rockland Steamboat Association and John Van Houten, to build a steamboat. They paid him some cash, but also gave him the privilege of collecting some fares from passengers from Upper Nyack bound for New York City - part of the deal. It described the steamboat in quite some detail - that was to be built here.
There were boats engaged in commercial freight business. They used this as their home port. Some of them were called packets. I think that for the most part they didn't follow a set schedule. Like a trucker, they would make a trip when they had a load to take somewhere.
I don't think there was ever a regular ferry from here. Some of the boosters of the neighborhood in the early 19th century thought that this was going to be the center of transportation rather than Nyack. The first church was built here, and the first road over the mountain was the Old Mountain Road in Upper Nyack. It was a big deal to build Route 59 - originally the Nyack Turnpike - because they had to conquer the West Nyack Swamp in order to get across the county. So a lot of early traffic really turned west at this point. Some of the local boosters thought it was going to be the center of Nyack, but they got it wrong.
The houses on School Street were built about 1885, or the late 1880s by James Voorhis, who also built the big brown Victorian house on the corner of Broadway and School Street - and for that matter, the store on the north corner. The obvious guess is that he was building homes primarily for his employees. It became like a little company town. He would pay them on Friday and collect the money back again on Saturday. But they have been very desirable homes for people - starter homes, homes for people who didn't need a big house, homes for older people - a very happy part of the community. People wonder about the strange juxtaposition of row houses with bigger homes, but it has really worked out fine.
I think the expression, "the under the hill gang" was invented by John Lodico, whom you must talk with - He tells very good stories. The Van Houten Steet and Ellen Street and Lower Castle Heights area was commonly called "under the hill" when I was a child. My Aunt Laura, who lived here, used the term. Judging from what John says, I guess people down the hill used it about themselves.
In the 1940s, when I was growing up, and I guess perhaps for a generation before, it was almost entirely Italian Americans. They said it reminded them of hill towns in Italy, facing the water that way. They felt very much at home there, and a number of families started out as laborers in the construction business and worked their way up in business. We had a court secretary, court stenographer, and of course by the third generation the kids were all going to college and into a variety of professions.
It has appealed to creative people - we've had a variety of visual artists and the other arts - film makers and theater people. So something about the neighborliness of the small homes close to the river, the view of the river, is very appealing.
Recorded at the Perry home
April 3, 2004
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