HISTORICAL SKETCH OF WOODLAWN HEIGHTS
By Raymond E. Leggiero
It all began while the Indians were still roaming freely and hunting over these lands, when the Dutch West India Trading Company decided there was money to be made in this newly-discovered land. The government of the Netherlands sponsored this company, but also had a further interest in establishing colonies. They arranged for the company to have a monopoly in this area and provided armies to enforce the company's operations, with the provision that the company shares its profits with the government. One of the company's main inducements to attract talent was the establishment of the patroon system. Under this program, members of the firm who could organize a colony of about fifty people for a four-year period would be given a large parcel of land over which he had rights of a feudal lord.
In the year 1664, a lawyer, Jonkheer Adrian Van Der Donck was the first of his profession to arrive in the New Netherland, the headquarters of the company in this area. He worked as a sheriff and attorney in their operation under Van Rensselaer, a diamond merchant, and Wilhelm Kieft, both of whom were company directors. As a result of his efforts, the company and Kieft owed him money. They arranged payment by allowing him to buy land from the Indians and establish a patroon.
He sought and found a tract of land that was fertile with running water, for he intended to build mills which required a power source. The southern boundary of this property was at Spuyten Duyvil Creek. It then ran north for eight miles along the Hudson, east to the Bronx River. These boundaries were the same as those of the Township of Yonkers, formed in 1788, including Woodlawn Heights. After the dams and mills were erected along its banks, the stream became known as Saw Creek, now called the Saw Mill River. (These dams were only removed in 1892 for sanitary reasons.) The area became popularly known as Colen Donck or Donck's Colony and De Jonkheer's Landt. (Jonkheer was a title given to Dutch nobility, however, the Dutch pronounce J as Y and after the English came, they translated this into Yonkers.)
As time passed, Van Der Donck became politically opposed to Peter Stuyvesant, a newly-appointed Director General for the company. He returned to Holland in an effort to have Stuyvesant removed but ran into an unsympathetic government who backed Stuyvesant. The government detained him in Holland until 1653 when they permitted him to return. He died, frustrated, in 1655 over failure to develop his land. The site of his garden is now at the parade grounds to the west of Van Cortlandt Lake. In 1910 workmen were laying a sewer across Van Cortlandt Park and discovered ruins of the Van Der Donck house, including lead window frames, bits of delft china and samples of bricks near the present Van Cortlandt house. Some of these things can now be found in this landmark.
It is about this time that the Van Cortlandt and Philipse families entered the picture. These families and their inter-marriage played a prominent part in the evolution of this area.
Frederick Philipse arrived here in 1653 as a carpenter, became a builder, real estate operator and eventually the wealthiest man in town. He continued to accumulate land and by 1686 he had acquired the remaining Van Der Donck patroonship plus part of Westchester County from Indians and other proprietors. He ultimately owned 22 miles of prime real estate along the Hudson, from Spuyten Dyvil to the Croton River. It was known as Philipseborough. He built two mills and a castle at Sleepy Hollow and located his manor house at Getty Square Yonkers. Philipse continued to gain wealth not only from the rental of farmland, but was said to be heavily involved in the shipping business. He had married twice into other wealthy families, the latter marriage being to the sister of Stephanus Van Cortlandt. Stephanus was a large landholder in Westchester County north of Croton. The original Frederick Philipse died leaving most of his manor to a grandson of the same name.
The Van Cortlandt family had already been established prior to the arrival of Philipse as the result of settlement by Oloff Stephenson Van Cortlandt in March of 1638. Oloff was very successful in independent business ventures and became a rich man. His status was further enhanced when he was appointed Mayor of the New Netherland in 1654, a position he held until the British took control ten years later. One of his sons, Stephanus, married Gertrude Schuyler daughter of the Mayor of Albany. Stephanus became the first native born Mayor of this City and acquired a vast estate. He had a younger brother Jacobus who married an adopted daughter of neighbor Philipse. Jacobus bought 50 acres of land from his father-in-law in 1699 and other neighbors sold him an additional 100 acres. Ultimately, he held a large part of the City of Yonkers south of Kingsbridge. In 1710 he was the third Van Cortlandt to become New York's Mayor.
It is noteworthy that when the British took control, they continued the patroonships calling them manors and until 1775 these estates remained intact, descending to the nearest male heirs. The Estates of both Frederick Philipse and Stephanus Van Cortlandt were elevated to manor status during the 1690's after Westchester County had been formed by the British in 1683.
Jacobus Van Cortlandt was the one who dammed Tippets Brook, (original spelling), in 1700, creating Van Cortlandt Lake, comprising a general area of 75 acres. He had a saw mill and a grist mill erected at the site and the tenant farmers from as far as the Mile Square used to haul their wheat to the mill for grinding. The Mile Square Road ran from Van Cortlandt Lake up a steep hill, through the park exiting at 233rd Street, then continued northeast along the easterly border of the park, north to Mile Square. Parts of the road have been known as Mt. Vernon Avenue, and now as Van Cortlandt Park East. The mills continued to be operated by the Van Tassel family until the late 1800's. The grist mill was destroyed in June of 1900 when it was struck by lightning. However, the grist mill stone was mounted as a sun dial and preserved. The saw mill stood until 1903, when it had to be removed by park employees because of its dilapidated condition.
The Van Cortlandt family is mentioned extensively in this story because succeeding generations continued to play an important part in the folklore and development of this area. (One can become readily confused when making reference to this large family at different historical periods, because several of them were named after ancestors. At one point in 1823 the male ancestry chain was broken and the descendants of a daughter, who had married into the Beebe family, had their names legally changed to Van Cortlandt, successfully preserving this historic name.)
REVOLUTIONARY WAR PERIOD
One of the original tenant farmers under the Philipses was Matthias Valentine, who occupied a high ridge bordering the Mile Square to the West. This hill afforded one of the finest views known to the area, with the Palisades peeking through to the west, over the beautiful woods and Tippets (Tibbetts) Brook. To the east was a picturesque sight of fields, brooks, the Aquahung (Bronx) River, and Long Island Sound in the distance. Today, St. Joseph's Seminary occupies this site. Apparently, as years passed, his numerous descendants settled on various sections of this vast property. At the time of the Revolutionary War, the hill was rented by two grandsons, Thomas and Gilbert. Other area farms were rented to William Hyatt, Frederick Brown, Jesse Husted and John Devoe. General Washington is said to have made his headquarters at the Valentine house during the course of his army's movement from Long Island to White Plains; Thomas Valentine is reputed also to have aided in this cause.
The movement of the colonial army was along the Bronx River Valley and, in order to delay the pursuing British, Washington ordered General Heath to build a redoubt at the southeast corner of what is now Woodlawn Cemetery. That section was the Bussing farm, until sold to the cemetery in later years. The guns of this emplacement pointed down the present Bronx River Parkway covering the Old Post Road and an important bridge across the river. This redoubt site continues to be a treasured feature on the cemetery grounds even today and is marked by a plaque. The aforementioned bridge was built by farmer John Williams, who, at one time, charged a toll for its use.
Williams had originally settled here about 1753. The area continues to be known as Williamsbridge.
Part of the Valentine family lived in a house located at Woodlawn Road (Bainbridge Ave.) and Van Cortlandt Ave., built in 1770. An encounter between contending forces in 1777 took place here when the colonials chased the British from within its walls and then pursued the Red Coats to the Boston Post Road. Isaac Varian bought the house and 1,000 acres of surrounding farmland in 1789. The house has been preserved as a landmark and is occupied by the Bronx Historical Society, who uses it as their headquarters. It had been moved across the street (adjacent to Reservoir Oval) from the original site, to make room for an apartment house constructed in recent years.
During the war this entire farmland area was not occupied by either of the contending forces and was known as no-man 's-land. However, in many respects this proved very disadvantageous to the farmers who were plagued by two separate groups of marauding outlaws. These groups were attempting to profiteer as a result of the war. One group, British oriented, was known as the cowboys. The skinners were the Americans of the same bent. Farmers from the Croton River to the general vicinity of the New York City limits were terrorized, beaten and robbed by the outlaws. These episodes are very clearly depicted in Cooper's tale The Spy. On one occasion Thomas Valentine was seized by them and was threatened to be hanged if he did not give them money. With a noose around his neck, he was finally able to convince them that he was broke and they released him.
Another very notable incident occurred in our immediate area-- that of the tragic tale of Chief Ninham. It took place on August 31, 1778, near 237th Street and Oneida Avenue, at Van Cortlandt Park East. One of the British commanders, Simcoe, leading the British Legion dragoons, was engaged in a skirmish with patriots. A group of more than 40 Stockbridge Indians came to the aid of the patriots and put up a desperate struggle against superior numbers. Chief Ninham wounded Simcoe and was then killed by an orderly named Wright. Ninham, his son and sixteen other Stockbridge Indians met their fate and are buried at that site. A bronze memorial tablet, placed on June 14, 1906 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, bears the following inscription:
August 31, 1778
Upon this field
And Seventeen Stockbridge Indians
As Allies of the Patriots
Gave Their Lives for Liberty
A few years earlier, members of the Van Cortlandt family became very heavily involved in the war on the side of the colonials. The grandson of Philipse, on the other hand, was a British partisan who fled to England at the outbreak. Col. Philip Van Cortlandt, a member of the Convention of 1776, led the entire colonial congress from New York to White Plains on horseback June 30, 1776. At the same time another Van Cortlandt, Augustus, the City and County Clerk, was hiding the city records in a family burial vault. This became known as Vault Hill and can be found today northwest of the Van Cortlandt mansion, at West 252nd Street. Later on, in the War in 1781, Washington kept a string of campfires burning here to deceive the British while the colonial army moved to Philadelphia. Washington occupied the Van Cortlandt mansion for a brief period of time in the same year. Frederick Van Cortlandt built this stone house in 1743 and it continues to be preserved today along with many Revolutionary relics contained within. Pierre Van Cortlandt served as Lt. Governor under Clinton for 18 years, beginning in 1777 and during the course of the war.
AFTER THE WAR
The manors were outlawed by an act of the State Legislature immediately after the war. As a result, the Philipse Manor was confiscated and sold off in small parcels. However, the lines of the ancient manors were used as boundaries when the Legislature divided the counties into townships on March 7, 1788. Woodlawn was, at that time, part of the Township of Yonkers.
The farmers in this area prospered under the manorship system because the rents were reasonable and they received good prices for their produce at nearby New York City markets. When the land was offered for sale, however, many of them decided to buy. William Hyatt paid $265.00 for 87 acres in the vicinity of McLean Avenue near Webster. Frederick Brown bought 114 acres nearby, paying $342.00. The southerly section, a 147-acre parcel, was owned by the Valentines, with the Varian homestead adjoining on the southwest. As mentioned earlier, the Varian property was obtained from the Valentines by Isaac Varian in previous years. (A great grandson, Wilber Varian, attended the little schoolhouse in Woodlawn before the turn of the 20th Century. In 1902 he started a real estate business in New York City. Shortly thereafter, in 1904, he located his offices at 2777 Webster Avenue, where he operated for many years.) The Bussing and Tier families were present to the southeast. In the immediate area of the Ninham battle and now located in Van Cortlandt Park was the site of the Devoe farms. The road (now just a path in the park) connecting these farms was called Devoe Lane. Early maps show this road to lead to old Jerome Avenue into Westchester. Frederick Devoe's house was one-half mile up the lane, leading westward. Daniel Devoe resided near the entrance to the lane.
In the year 1832, the Harlem Railroad was constructed running along the Bronx River. It consisted of a single track with turntable to reverse engine direction at selected points and was steam powered. A small station was built here with a principal station at Williambridge. The Williamsbridge station was equipped with a turntable. This development marked the initial population growth incentive in rural area. This action surely must have had some influence on the thinking of Absalom Peters who was searching for a site for a new burial ground to service the needs of a rapidly growing New York City in addition to providing regular transportation, the railroad was essential for the delivery of weighty stones needed for the distinguished monuments now contained within the gates.
In 1863, Reverend Peters and a group of other prominent citizens incorporated Wood-Law Cemetery (original spelling) by purchasing land from the Tier and Bussing families. Facing the cemetery entrance on its northeast corner is a street named Peter's Place, so named to commemorate the cemetery’s founder. Shortly after the initial acquisition of land, other property was obtained from Samuel Valentine. Mr. Valentine retained land in the area of the present tennis courts in the park, and in the present extreme northwest corner of the cemetery, where he continued to farm. Because the cemetery had no immediate use for this newly acquired parcel, they permitted him to continue to cut rye on his former property. The old Valentine homestead site is now occupied by the present cemetery-receiving vault. The entire cemetery today occupies about 400 acres.
At this time there were not more than a half dozen houses in the Woodlawn community. In the following ten years, however, some forty or fifty houses were built. In 1870, the executors of Gilbert Valentine began to sell the remaining property. Some perceptive real estate speculators bought acreage and then sold it again in smaller plots. J. Romaine Brown picked up about 4 ½ acres and then resold it in lots after a very short time. As a result, a number of small homes were built in the vicinity of 235th and 236th Streets. Edwin K. Willard acquired most of the remaining available land in our area from the estates of Valentine in 1871 and Frederick Brown shortly thereafter. It was Mr. Willard who was chiefly responsible for the development of the Village of Woodlawn Heights. (Let us bear in mind that this area was part of Westchester until annexation to the City of New York on January 1, 1874.) Willard formed the Woodlawn Building Association and had the entire area surveyed and plotted. This was accomplished by Rudolf Ross and George Opdyke. The association then proceeded to sell alternate plots of land 40 x 100 feet to any buyer who would build a house on the property. Several dozen families took advantage of this offer and many homes were built in an area from 237th to 240th Streets. Mr. Charles Bazzone, a long-time resident of this community, reports that his family bought lots at $100.00 each and had a house built for about $1,700.00. This house stands today at 4301 Kepler Avenue. These families became the real pioneer residents of this section.
In its early development, Woodlawn Heights was truly a small country village, far removed from the hustle and bustle of rapidly growing New York City to the south.
Farms and beautiful trees surrounded the infant community and the view from the higher sections was truly panoramic. Scores of fruit and nut trees were scattered throughout the entire section.
To the north, the McLean family owned the land west of Kimball Avenue and they had a mansion there. Because of the importance and influence the McLeans have had on our immediate and neighboring area, we shall give a brief account of the McLeans and that area to the north of Woodlawn Heights.
The McLeans emigrated to this country in 1679 from Scotland, settled on Staten Island, and located subsequently in New York City late in the 18th Century. George W. McLean, a direct descendant of that family, was one of the best known residents of New York State about the time of the Civil War. He was the founder of the original Old Guard serving as its commander for 25 years with the rank of major. Among several of his positions, he held a seat on the stock exchange and served on the original Park Commission. He had a town house at 3 West 34th Street, in New York City, and, as was the custom of the time, had purchased a country estate outside the City.
In the early 1800's land to the north and west of Woodlawn Heights was known as the Highland Farm. The boundaries extended along Kimball Avenue, from the present McLean Avenue to just south of the racetrack, then westward over to the Old Jerome Avenue.
George McLean purchased this 100-acre site and an additional six acres lying just to the south of McLean Avenue, which he converted into a lake. The lake, fed by natural springs, was intended to serve primarily as an ice pond to supply ice for use in the mansion on the estate. Eventually, the pond was stocked with fish and became known as McLean's Lake.
In later years, children would fish and swim there. Rowboats were rented from a Mr. Thomas, who also had a refreshment concession. A brook about six feet wide ran off from this pond, south through the woods into Woodlawn. It traveled along the west side of Katonah Avenue for about four blacks to the vicinity of 234th Street. The brook, which contained various small fish and frogs then, ran past the area of Roemer's florist into the cemetery. This winding waterway then flowed out of the cemetery at 233rd Street, returned again into the grounds, feeding a beautiful little lake along its easterly border, then continued to the Bronx River.
The original mansion built on the grounds was erected by a Mr. Lockwood and comprised of only 12 rooms. McLean made several additions, until finally there were 21 rooms in all. Surrounding the mansion were acres of fruit and vegetables, brilliant green lawns, colorful flower gardens and many fruit trees.
George W. McLean passed away in 1884, and eventually the estate 'was purchased by his brother, James, the president of the Manhattan Life Insurance Company. After James died, the property passed on to his sons who sold it to D. H. King, a well-known New York City builder.
In 1907 the section containing the mansion was sold and the Hillview reservoir was built there. Later, the easterly section was sold in lots at public auction. East of the McLean property were farms owned by the Scott and Hyatt families. Prior to the disposition of the McLean Estate, the Scott property was divided into building lots and sold at public auction in 1889. The Hyatt property was divided and sold in the same manner in 1892.
On the west, the cemetery grounds did not extend past Oneida Avenue and a gigantic row of spruce trees marked the northern boundary of that property. From Oneida to Jerome Avenue were woods and swamplands, a portion of that area being used as a rock quarry. (Similar terrain can be found today in the park not very far away.)
Prior to 1875, it is reported that the sparse settlement of Woodlawn Heights was as follows: There was one house each on 234th, 235th and 236th Streets. On 237th Street, five homes could be found; while seven dwellings were on 238th Street, four on 239th Street, and only three on 240th Street.
The first Manual produced by the Woodlawn Heights Taxpayers and Community Association in 1919 confirmed this when it reported as follows:
"…at first five houses were built including Barry's, Stone's at 239th (249 E.), Foley's old house which later burned down, Van Dusen's on 239th and Paul's on 237th opposite the old Methodist Church. Others build shortly thereafter were Williams’, Bloomer's on 240th (250 E.), Garrett's, Metzer's (250 E. 238th), Flailing's on 240th (402 E.), Kirby's, Conover's and the old Woodlawn Club. The only other houses in the area were those of Varian (on Kepler Ave.), Roemer's (on 234th) and several small houses on Vireo."
Probably the oldest house still standing today was not mentioned in that synopsis. The old Valentine house at that time was still in the park area, to be moved at a later date to its present site on 233rd Street, between Oneida and Napier Avenues near the florist.
E. K. Willard donated the land and a contractor, named A. Stager, built the first Church in Woodlawn Heights, at the top of the hill, on 237th Street, between Kepler and Katonah Avenues. The cornerstone was laid in December 1875, and the Methodist Church was dedicated on the following Easter Sunday, 1876, opening its doors to an enthusiastic congregation. Years later, when the church relocated to its present quarters, the building was used as an annex to P.S. 19.
The very first school was started in a house on the south side of 238th Street (believed to be 250 E.), between Kepler and Katonah Avenues. There were two classrooms on the first floor and a teacher for: each room. About forty students were enrolled. After graduating, (about 5th grade), children would have to travel to Mosholu or Kings-bridge by stage. Prior to the establishment of this primary academy, children of all ages would have to travel out of the area for schooling. It wasn't until September of 1893 that a regular school building was erected in Woodlawn, on E. 234th Street. Resthaven nursing home presently occupies this same building.
In the early days, when a doctor was needed, he was summoned from Kingsbridge, many times by the letter-carrier who made his daily rounds from Kingsbridge to Woodlawn. A young doctor, Thomas Darlington, would respond to such a call. Dr. Darlington, some years later, became New York City's Commissioner of Health.
Prior to the opening of food stores in the area, most needed food was obtained from traveling peddlers. Meats were delivered from Mt. Vernon by Mr. Webber who traveled here several times a week. Joe Sturm became a well-known peddler of various farm products and fish. He reportedly settled in this community eventually.
As it became apparent that this community was growing fast, Griswold and Garrett opened a village grocery in 1875 at the corner of 233rd Street and Katonah Avenue; a gas station stands today on this land. The second oldest store still stands on the northwest corner of 235th Street and Katonah Avenue and was operated in the early days as a grocery store by Harvey Smith. Today, a dry cleaning store is at this location. Many of the stores now in this shopping district were constructed in the decade just after the turn of the century.
The growth of the cemetery was responsible for the establishment of several stonesmiths, monument dealers and florists in the vicinity of Webster Avenue and 233rd Street.
Many of these businesses remain today and are operated by descendants of the original families. Of course, the presence of the Harlem Railroad Station attracted other enterprises to the area. Some small hotels were built to serve as rest and refreshment stations to those making the long journey to funerals. (Jenkins, when writing The Story of the Bronx, and making reference to the cemetery, wryly made the following comment: "Near both entrances are situated monument makers, gardeners, florists and 'hotels.' Why is it that near cemetery entrances there are always located so many 'hotels,' whose chief function seems to be to dispense liquid refreshments? Are mourners and drivers of hearses such a thirk lot? Or do visitors go to a cemetery as they would to a park or museum and make a picnic of their visit?")
In addition to the aforementioned establishments, a button factory was operated for several years by a Mr. Isabell on the southeast side of 233rd Street near the river.
At this time the streets were not entirely completed and large boulders or trees were often found in the roadway. The grades were very steep and where Katonah Avenue is, it was very low and swampy. A two-plank wooden boardwalk was constructed along a section of Katonah Avenue, adjacent to the brook, enabling pedestrians to traverse this muddy area. Sidewalks were built in succeeding years, the first being the blue-flagg type. Many of these walks continue to exist.
The initial land comprising Van Cortlandt Park, was purchased by the City of New York, for use as a public park in 1889. Apparently, the additional sections were acquired subsequently; today the park area encompasses about 1,132 acres.
According to early maps, many of the area streets and thoroughfares had different names. The road adjacent to the park, now known as Van Cortlandt Park E., was originally part of the Mile Square Road and was known, at the turn of the century, as Mt. Vernon Avenue. In 1912 this road was widened from an irregular, narrow road to 100 feet. The present name was adopted in 1913. Some of the other streets had names before the City numbered them in1894. East 235th Street was Willard Avenue and was interrupted by the Lundrigan property, between Oneida Avenue and the Park. Wagons traveling west met a dead-end at this point, but thanks to the owners, pedestrians were permitted a continuous walk on a path going through the property. The street recovered at Napier Avenue and continued to the Park. East 234th Street was called Clinton Avenue, and 236th Street was known as Opdyke Avenue. In our section, 233rd Street was Grand Avenue. Central Avenue ran south past Gun Hill Road (Williams Bridge Avenue). In Westchester County this road is still known by this name, but it is called Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. Bainbridge Avenue of today, starting at the Woodlawn elevated subway, was the Woodlawn Road of years past. The cemetery owned property right up to the banks of the Bronx River and Webster Avenue was not extended through this area until 1900 when the City took a strip on the eastern boundary. In the process of construction, the beautiful pond and surrounding garden referred to in previous pages were eliminated. This ended an era for youthful skaters who once frequented this spot, and a pleasant view for passengers of the railroad was forever erased.
THE TURN OF THE CENTURY
About ten years previous to the turn of the century, the City was in the progress of installing a second aqueduct from the Croton reservoir across Van Cortlandt Park. (The initial one was laid in 1842). This event had significant impact on the future settlement of our community. Many of the workers laboring on the pipeline decided to buy homes here, Woodlawn being close to this vast project. The upper section in the general area from Oneida Avenue to the Park became known as Irish Town and some old-timers affectionately called the lower section frog hollow. The latter nickname probably derived from the streams and swampy sections in the lower part of Woodlawn. (Because families have been satisfied with living in Woodlawn Heights, succeeding generations have remained here in great numbers.)
A growing population caused the community to call for appropriate expansion of services and area improvements. Two organizations were in existence during the mid 1890's, one being the Woodlawn Improvement Association, the other known as the Central Improvement Association. Knowing that their effectiveness would greatly improve, leaders from these two groups met together on April 25, 1895 and reorganized. This was the birth of the Woodlawn Heights Taxpayers and Community Association. History shows that this organization in succeeding years would do more to hasten the development of this community than any other single force since the initial sale of land by Mr. E. K. Willard.
By today's standards, however, Woodlawn Heights at that time was still a relatively small community, with no local firehouse, post office or library. The enrollment at the Public School was ever increasing and the only stores for the most part sold only food. If any other shopping were necessary, a person would have to walk to Williamsbridge or travel by train and later trolley to other areas for larger stores. Mr. James Havender reports that he would walk to Williamsbridge to do the family's large weekly shopping by cutting across fields leading from the railroad station, for there were few houses to interrupt the trail.
The old Woodlawn public school still ended mid-way in the primary grades and students would either walk to Williamsbridge or take a trolley to Fordham to complete their education. The only direct way to commute to the City was by way of the railroad, as the trolleys only ran as far as the McComb's bridge.
From about 1892, Joe Bush was the lamplighter in this area. At about 5:00 P.M. daily he would begin his rounds. Starting in lower Woodlawn at Vireo Avenue, where he lived over Schrader's barn, he would walk the entire area with his small ladder and blow-torch, igniting all the lamps.
The firehouse was established at its present location on July 1, 1899. It is reported that the house looks the same today as it did then. The only difference is the absence of horses, which were used to draw apparatus. Previous to the establishment of the local house, firefighters would respond from Kingsbridge or Wakefield. Mr. Charles Bazzone recalls a big fire at the corner of 239th Street at Katonah Avenue, at which an entire building was burnt to the ground before the apparatus from distant points, reached the scene.
For entertainment, the Roemer sisters report that Schrader's barn, at 234th Street and Vireo Avenue, was used for occasional dances, as well as Varian's Hall which also contained a bowling alley on the lower floor. Incidentally, the Varian Hall referred to was located at the north side of 237th Street on Katonah Avenue, where the school now stands. It was built by Mr. Hiran Varian and was at first used as a dance hall on the upper floor and a bowling alley and pool parlor on the lower floor. After many years, the upper floor was converted into an apartment, the street level, being rented as stores to a barber shop and a butcher. Prior to construction of the present public school, this building was moved across the street to the southeast corner where it stands today.
There were May Parties and, of course, several sporting activities in season. An activity Jenkins mentions was the Scotch sport of Curling. These events took place with great regularity during the winter at Van Cortlandt Lake near the dam. The rest of the lake was given to regul skating.
It may be well to digress at this time from strictly historical narrative, in an effort to depict Woodlawn as it was actually seen through the eyes of a young boy in a ten-year period, beginning in 1892.
Woodlawn Memories of Jim Havender 1892 - 1902:
The decade is firmly entrenched in my mind because I moved away from Woodlawn in 1902 and therefore, my memories are not confused with ensuing years.
My old home was on 235th Street, then called Willard Avenue.
It had no house number, nor did any other house at that time. It is now number 66, but alterations made throughout the years changed it beyond my recognition.
The only heat we had was a stove in the kitchen and another in the dining room. The parlor was closed off in the winter and wasn't reopened until late April. Only a hero or a dope would venture into this room in the wintertime. The floor of the cellar was plain earth. We got our drinking water from a spring about 300 ft. east of the house. I went to that spot so many times, I could still pick out the exact spot, even though the whole area is built up today. Dishes and clothes were washed with rain water collected from the roof gutters. This water was stored in an outside well and was drawn into the house by a long-handled pump.
We had no electricity and kerosene lamps gave us sole illumination. The streets had gas lamps. At 5 o'clock daily a lamplighter would appear to light each street lamp one after the other. There was no water or sewers in the street. Our toilet was a 2-holer in the backyard. The family villain would be the last one who used it before retiring for the night and had left the door wide open while it snowed all night.
When it did snow heavily, the school closed, although the school was not more than four blocks away from the house. There were no homes along the route, so no one cleared away the snow. The winters were a trial without question. Many were down with pneumonia and funerals were not a rarity.
The spring and summer made up for the savagery of the winter. The air was filled with songs of birds and wild vegetation was thick and luxurious. You could almost live without money at that time of the year. Late in May we picked plentiful strawberries and, later on, blackberries and raspberries. Since very early, Woodlawn was a farmland, many abandoned orchards still produced fine fruit, free fox the picking. There were apples, peas, peaches and cherries. There were four apple trees about 100 ft. east of the tennis courts, which produced large strawberry-shaped apples. I have never seen any like this anywhere else.
In the fall, we had an endless supply of the various walnuts, butternuts and chestnuts that grew throughout. Close to the spring where we got our drinking water there was a small grove of butternuts and a line of fine apple trees that extended almost to 233rd Street.
Of course, just about everyone had a Vegetable garden to supply their own family needs. My family, in addition to a garden, had chickens, a couple of goats and at least a dozen peach trees, two quince trees. (Quinces were quite common at that time, although rare today.)
There was no better place for the study of nature than old Woodlawn in the spring and summer. The teachers in the old school took us out on nature walks and taught us the names of trees, various forms of vegetation and also the birds that were flying about.
We had many May Parties. We would head for the park as a small army with long streamers attached to poles. Every one invited to the party would bring an item of food, for nothing was 100% on the house.
There was always a king and queen as leaders of the parade. Once I was almost chosen king, but the queen refused to function if I were picked, so I got the heave-ho for that party.
We walked in our bare feet for our entire summer vacation and didn't put shoes on again until school began in September.
There were only three stores in Woodlawn in those days-- a butcher (Mr. Cass) on Webster Avenue, and two food stores. One of these stores was located at the corner of 233.rd Street and Katonah Avenue, owned at that time by Mr. Holland. Mr. Smith owned the other, at the northwest corner of 235th Street and Katonah Avenue. Mr. Smith would sell kerosene oil for our lamps. After filling our oil can, he would squeeze a potato onto the end of the spout so that we would not spill any on the way home.
On Saturday, we would do our big shopping for the week at Williamsbridge where there were more and larger stores. We were able to take one diagonal short cut through the fields from Woodlawn station right to stores near Gun Hill Road and purchase our weekly leg of lamb.
There is one giant elm tree that I worshipped as a little fellow. I figured that it was over 1,000 years of age. That old giant would not be around when I grew to an old man. I gaze upon that same tree and aside of me, it is now the youngster and will probably be good for another seventy years if let alone.
I close this reminiscence on that note.
Mr. Havender is an attorney and the son of Joseph Havender who for many years owned the monument business on Bainbridge Avenue, near the Woodlawn-Jerome IRT subway station. Mr. Havender at the time of this writing is a very active individual and an expert swimmer. He spends his summers as a lifeguard at Cape Cod. He has returned to his native Woodlawn to reside, after an extended absence. We are very grateful for his commentary.
It was during the latter part of that decade, so vividly described, that the charter of Greater New York went into effect. On January 1, 1898 the entire annexed section north the entire annexed section north of the Harlem River including Woodlawn Heights became officially known as the Borough of the Bronx.
As Woodlawn continued to develop, road traffic also increased and the intersection at 233rd Street and the railroad tracks became very dangerous. To remedy this problem, a bridge was constructed over the-tracks- in 1905.
In 1903, under the direction of Mr. C. W. Schmidtke, president, and Mr. John H. Price, secretary, the Woodlawn Taxpayers Association became increasingly active. Their persistence in petitioning various City departments, transportation and utility companies resulted in the transformation of a small, unlighted, rural community with dirt roads to a modern section on the northern fringe of the City. Lampposts were installed, streets paved and sidewalks established. The unpaved streets were a popular problem because of the dust created prior to paving made it necessary to have a water wagon sprinkle them regularly. In these early days, the City was very busy buying additional parkland in the area. This began to worry the local residents because the land area available for residential development was shrinking. They were successful in limiting further park expansion, when they obtained agreement from the City in 1906 to finalize the local park boundaries.
Electricity was introduced here about this time, when the New, York Edison Company interested many residents in subscribing to this new wonder.
The trolley service to this area was quite a problem and battle between the Association and the Union Railway were common. It occurs to this writer that many more people walked than rode from Woodlawn to Williamsbridge and Mosholu during those years, because the installation of sidewalks along the cemetery boundaries was quite an issue. The community won this fight and the resulting miles are still in evidence today along Jerome and Webster Avenues. Pedestrians strolling along these walks today are rare when compared to the old days.
Originally, the community wanted the Interborough Rapid Transit Company to extend the proposed elevated subway to the City Line. In 1906 they actually opposed the granting of a franchise unless the company would agree to this extension. Fortunately, the battle was lost, for had this happened, the geographic small town flavor would have been forever lost, and this area would have been markedly different today.
The first annual dinner dance, held by the Woodlawn Taxpayers Association, took place on January 31, 1906. An entertainment, dance and supper was held at Varian's Hall and the pre-inflation cost was 50 cents per person, supper included.
During this century's second decade, Woodlawn residents were very busy building many of the neighborhood churches. Until this period, the only churches standing were St. Stephen's on 238th Street and St. Luke's, then located between Katonah and Kepler Avenues, at the top of the hill. In 1913 this church was relocated to the present building on Katonah Avenue.
The influx of Catholics into the area precipitated the establishment of St. Barnabas Parish in 1910. At first, a storefront at the corner of 240th Street and Webster Avenue was used as a Chapel until the church was erected in 1911.
St. Mark's had its beginnings in November 1911, also in a storefront. This arrangement continued until the dedication of a Parish House Chapel on June 14, 1916.
Hopewell Hall was used by members of the Presbyterian faith, who held weekly services there. The hall was located about a half block east of Martha Avenue, on 240th Street. The Presbyterian Church was constructed in 1913 and dedicated on May 10, 1914.
The increasing population was placing quite a strain on the area educational facilities and, for a time, P.S. 19 used the building vacated by St. Luke's on 237th Street as an annex. St. Barnabas began holding elementary school classes in February of 1913 in their church basement. St. Barnabas' present elementary school was built in 1915.
After the first great world war, the twenties did not roar into this community, but rather the local residents went quietly about their business of living and improving their neighborhood. The estimated population of the area at this time was about 3,500.
In 1920, through the efforts of the Woodlawn Taxpayers and Community Association, the 238th Street Bridge was built to Wakefield.
It is reported that the first buses ran up Katonah Avenue during, February of 1922. At first, the operator owned each bus on the line and the resulting service was spotty. These buses ran from Woodlawn all the way to 155th Street and Broadway, along Jerome Avenue. The buses replaced the trolley service, which had been discontinued south of the Woodlawn IRT subway station at that time. Regulated company service started about 1926.
In September of 1924, the first area high school was developed when St. Barnabas opened its doors to a class of 29 boys and girls that fall.
As a result of another successful fight by the Association, a new public school building was opened on 4318 Katonah Avenue in 1924. To make room for the school, the former Varian Hall building was moved across the street, a procedure that took months and had the street tied up during this course of events. P.S. 19, incidentally, is actually called Edward Eggleston School. Mr. Eggleston was an American novelist and historian who lived in the 1800's and was a former president of the American Historical Association.
The great depression affected Woodlawn along with the rest of the country. People were so involved with the task of just living through this trying period, that there are few recorded significant area events.
It wasn't until the late thirties, just prior to the second great world war, that the normal community pace was resumed. The first library opened in November, 1938, as a result of concerted community action, spearheaded by the Woodlawn Taxpayers and Community Association. The association, under the direction of Mr. Thomas Coogan, requested and obtained the first area traffic lights which were installed in February of 1939, along 233rd Street, at Napier, Kepler, Katonah, and at 237th Street and Katonah Avenue. As the traffic light was being installed at Kepler Avenue, the mechanics probably witnessed the final closing of the original Woodlawn schoolhouse. Evander Childs High School had closed that annex which it had been using since the time P.S. 19 had moved into its new building on Katonah Avenue years earlier.
Automobiles were relatively numerous in this area in the late thirties. A complaint was received by the Association in November 1938 about cars actually parking overnight in the streets and in some cases in vacant lots by jumping the curb.
The first New York World's Fair was in full swing during 1939. Evidence of this event was found in Woodlawn, along 233rd Street, where amber streetlights were installed during April to guide motorists to the Fair at that time.
The June walk was a big event during these years and the annual turnout included almost the entire community. The 1939 affair reportedly attracted 5,000 parents and children.
On November 10, of the following year, St. Mark's new church was, dedicated, and opened to its parishioners in 1940.
Our fine area schools were well represented in April 1941 when the publication of P.S. 19 called Trumpet won second prize in a nationwide competition with the other elementary school publications.
Since the Pre-World War II era, the physical nature of Woodlawn Heights has changed little. The few remaining parcels of vacant land have diminished steadily.
A large, new Post office building was opened in 1950. (The original Woodlawn Post Office Branch opened in a store front about December 11, 1944.)
More recently, through the, efforts of the Woodlawn Taxpayers a Community Association, a modern library facility opened its doors in 1968.
We will conclude our historical journey on that note. We have witnessed the development of a community from a wooded farm area in the early days to one of the most desirable residential areas within the City limits of New York today.