The Real Story of Sleepy Hollow
from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2012 |
Washington Irving could spin a tale so well that even Charles Dickens was in his thrall. "I don't go upstairs to bed two nights out of the seven," the English novelist said, "without taking Washington Irving under my arm."* Irving's success was long in coming, but it enabled him to move to a delightful house, Sunnyside (Fig. 1), in the Hudson River valley, the area that had helped put him on the international literary map.
Filled with handsome furnishings, many of them original to the house, Sunnyside is open to the public. Stand in the book-lined study, and you can easily conjure up Irving, happily writing there. What is harder to figure out is the architecture. It looks Dutch, which is regionally appropriate, but also vaguely Scottish. Large numbers set into the west wall, just under the steeply sloping red-tiled roof, indicate that the house was built in 1656. That, it turns out, is just another delicious bit of fiction from the creator of Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle: Irving designed the house himself in the 1830s.
Historic Hudson Valley, a nonprofit organization founded sixty years ago by John D. Rockefeller Jr. as Sleepy Hollow Restorations, oversees in part or in whole a necklace of beautiful properties strung along the Hudson River. They range from the homey Sunnyside at the southern end to the grand Montgomery Place, a nineteenth-century estate nearly eighty miles to the north (Fig. 3). In between are the crown jewel, Kykuit, a stone mansion that John D. Rockefeller Sr. built for his family a century ago (see frontispiece); Union Church of Pocantico Hills, which has a relatively plain interior but is studded with stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse (Fig. 2); and Van Cortland Manor, where visitors can chart the lives of an early American family (Fig. 4).
The least imposing but most fascinating HHV property is Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills (Fig. 6), a woodsy living-history museum in Sleepy Hollow, where a visitor may well be greeted by one of the resident chickens. Established in the 1680s by the staggeringly rich Dutch-born Frederick Philipse, it was a provisioning plantation-part of more than fifty thousand acres that he owned in the area-that produced flour, hardtack, and other goods for domestic and international consumption and operated until shortly after the death of his son, Adolph, in 1750. The site has been open to the public, on and off, since 1943, but until recently the story that visitors heard there was, in one critical way, as fictitious as an Irving tale or the date on Sunnyside's wall. Focusing on the Philipse family or their tenant farmers, HHV was not falsifying history, but committing a sin of omission. Now, it has conscientiously corrected that through exploring and exposing the most painful component of Philipsburg Manor's past. The story told today, one that is by turns devastating, enlightening, and moving, centers on the people who labored in the manor house, the mill, the dairy, and the gardens. They were Africans, twenty-three enslaved men, women, and children who enriched the Philipse family, who skillfully ground the grain of the tenant farmers, and who, after 1750, were sold and their families torn apart. Unlike Adolph Philipse, who was based in Manhattan and stayed at Philipsburg Manor only intermittently, they lived there year-round.
Slavery north of the Mason-Dixon Line is something that smug northerners often know nothing of, or would like to ignore, but it existed throughout the colonies. New York State did not abolish it until 1827, just thirty-four years before the Civil War began. Historic Hudson Valley began to think about addressing the issue in 1999. "The impetus to change came gradually," the organization's president, Waddell W. Stillman, says. "In bringing the enslaved Africans forward we were reaching for relevance to contemporary American culture. We came to see that the legacy of slavery was racism, and that racism was also at the root of other social ills. Addressing slavery would be within our museum mission if it arose authentically from the site, as it does. It helped us also to understand that the African-American history of Philipsburg Manor was American history, not just African-American history, and getting over that hump made us see our story as both unique and mainstream."
* Charles Dickens, Speeches: Literary and Social (London, 1870), p. 25.
HHV drew on many sources. They established an African-American advisory board to help advise them and implement change, and it continues to take an active role in the life of Philipsburg Manor. The monthly meetings of the advisory board and HHV staff "were intense and cathartic," Stillman says. "We forced ourselves to discuss intimately what no one wanted to address. The all-white paid staff and the African-American volunteers asked much of each other, sometimes too much, and yet each side delivered beyond all expectations." Overtime, there were long, often difficult training sessions and discussions, but the work paid off.
There were two principal goals: First, to educate people-including hordes of schoolchildren who come to the site-about slavery in the North. Second, to discuss cultural diversity, the relationships between Africans and European tenant farmers, and the entanglements of international commerce. A vital issue is the dispelling of myths about slavery and about enslaved people. Lynda Jones, who joined the advisory board early on and later also became HHV's director of human resources, says, "We wanted to make sure that they were shown as individuals. They were intelligent, they had families, they loved their children. We're trying to get people to understand that." Thom Thacker, the site director of Philipsburg Manor and Union Church as well as the program director at Kykuit, says, "History often portrays enslaved people as objects, the things done to them. We shifted object to subject, what they did."
As important as the information that the interpreters (guides in period costume) present is the way in which they do so. When they speak of the enslaved individuals at Philipsburg Manor, they refer to them by name-Ceaser, Abigal, Dimond, Susan-and that specificity both vivifies and gives enormous weight to the narrative. The interpreters know the names because the 1750 inventory of Adolph Philipse's property listed each enslaved person (see Fig. 11), just ahead of such holdings as oxen, sheep, and silver spoons. When an interpreter in the manor house picks up a delicate eighteenth-century cup and asks quietly, "What was it like for Massy to make cocoa for Mr. Philipse?" your heart drops. In that instant, you understand that Massy probably never savored such luxury, chocolate, that she never drank from anything so exquisite. Move on to the fully functional gristmill (Fig. 8), newly reconstructed but based on excellent documentation, and you can marvel at the thought of Ceaser, the master miller, who ran highly complex machinery and, as Jones points out, "had to understand higher mathematics and other languages of tenant farmers."
There are few things as reprehensible or as cruel as enslavement, but some visitors at Philipsburg Manor are still stunned that it existed there. They may go on to insist, Thacker says, "that slavery was kinder and gentler in the North. But there were plenty of punishments besides whipping, including burning at the stake. Brutality was not only physical-a family could be separated and sold away at the whim of the owner."
HHV also made significant tactile changes. Like most museums, it is not keen to use reproductions, but saw the merits of doing so here, particularly in the rooms where the enslaved persons worked and in two rooms that are portrayed as bedrooms, though the 1750 inventory had suggested were empty. Kathleen Eagen Johnson, a lecturer and museum consultant who was the longtime curator and director of collections at HHV, says, "It's good for experiential learning." To convey the breadth of goods that the Philipses traded, they filled the two rooms with exact reproductions of items that were inventoried in the warehouse spaces of Adolph's New York City house, as well as things cited in business documents or found in archaeological digs at Philipsburg Manor. Consumer goods and bales also fill the rooms. "I have seen kids actually quiver when they see the hands-on reproductions arrayed on the table for them to touch," Johnson says.
Because the Philipse family sided with the British during the American Revolution, they lost their property after it. The furnishings in the house are not original to it, but they are very fine, of the period, and reflect the 1750 inventory, right down to the manacles on the window sill of Adolph Philipse's otherwise beautifully equipped bedroom. The harder thing, Johnson says, "was to find artifacts of high quality that would represent enslaved people's lives. It's easier to deal with the rich because things survived. Trying to re-create the slave world was a challenge." The items that represent the slave world are telling: a broad-brimmed straw hat, for instance, or a violin, since fiddle-playing was a common practice. "We wanted to have objects that let people know that there were mothers and fathers and babies here," she says. "If you have little shoes, people imagine a child wearing them." Other items are reminders of the roles various individuals would have had. "We made one woman a healer," so in a chest we have medicine vials, things wrapped in paper, to show her skills and knowledge."
The biggest commitment overall is clearly to education, which comes in many forms. On a typical day, Philipsburg Manor hosts about 120 schoolchildren. Before they take a tour, they have an orientation in a large room where wall displays vividly portray the history of slavery in the North. Of particular interest are the New York newspaper advertisements about runaways. Though invariably shocking, they reveal a lot about both slaveholders and the escapees and they are also the basis for an imaginative HHV project. In an annual art contest, "Pretends to Be Free: Imagining Runaway Slaves," high-school students choose an advertisement as an inspiration for an artwork and write accompanying statements. For adolescents who often ask why someone who was enslaved just didn't take off, this can be a particularly good learning experience. HHV keeps the best work for its permanent collection, and the best is extraordinarily powerful and imaginative (see Figs. 12, 12a).
A particularly important ongoing project is a series of dramatic vignettes that Michael A. Lord, the site manager at Sunnyside, wrote. High-school students, after months of training, present them regularly at Philipsburg Manor. "In the proper context, you understand a bit how complicated the situation was," Lord says. The African-American advisory board worked with him, and Jones admires the ways in which Lord's pieces subtly convey the intricacies of slavery. One, for instance, depicts the ways in which enslaved people negotiated for the rights to do something-visit a sick relative, for instance-by bargaining with the only things they had: skills and labor. At the end of every performance, students step out to take questions from the audience, which puts them in the role of educators.
"We are constantly looking for ways to engage with high school students," Thacker says. Until funding dried up, a youth conservation corps, working mostly at Philipsburg Manor and at Sunnyside, cleared land. For seven summers, Rocking the Boat, a nonprofit organization, sent kids from the South Bronx to Philipsburg Manor where they built colonial-era boats. There are numerous hands-on programs that are tailored for various age groups, and ones aimed at students from the large numbers of immigrant families who have recently moved to the area. HHV also provides extensive materials to assist teachers both before and after their visits and is expanding technologically to help educators and students who cannot get to Philipsburg Manor. "We are looking at being the go-to place for teachers about slavery in the North," Jones says. "We want to convey our message beyond our borders. It is the story of America, it is the story of the world."
History is fluid, and HHV continues to develop Philipsburg Manor and to work on addressing highly charged issues. "We set out to reinterpret Philipsburg," Stillman says, "but the unintended result is that the reinterpretation changed our museum. The visitor experience is different because we're talking not only about social history but about individuals, whom we honor if we represent them with fidelity. Visitors are asked whom they identify with or what they would have done in similar circumstances. This has given a new moral dimension to our work that energizes the museum and engages the visitor. We didn't anticipate all this at the outset, but it has been a great gift to everyone." Few institutions get or take the chance to reinvent themselves. It is difficult, it is sensitive, it is full of pitfalls. And, at Philipsburg Manor, it works.