Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, March 14, 2014

“Life and Practice" of a Country Lawyer Living in Pelham Manor in the 1880's

Henry Waters Taft was a brother of William Howard Taft who served as President of the United States.  Henry was an attorney who began his career as a “salaried” associate with the New York City law firm of Simpson Thacher & Barnum, now known as Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP.  In 1889 he joined the law firm of Strong & Cadwalader, known today as Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft LLP.  Although late in life Taft had a residence in New York City, he lived for many years during the 1880’s in Pellham Manor and even served on the Executive Committee of the Pelham Manor Protective Club during the 1880’s before the Village of Pelham Manor was incorporated.  For a more complete biography of Henry Waters Taft, see Henry Waters Taft, Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Waters_Taft (visited Mar. 14, 2014). 

Henry Waters Taft in 1908.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons, from the U.S. Library of Congress Division of
Prints and Photographs Under the Digital ID ggbain.03468.

In 1941, The MacMillan Company published Taft’s career memoirs entitled “Legal Miscellanies:  Six Decades of Changes and Progress.”  In addition to the account of his adventures during the Great Blizzard of 1888 quoted in yesterday’s Historic Pelham Blog posting, the book contained a brief account of Taft’s “life and practice in the country” during the time he lived in the rural area known as Pelham Manor. 


On account of considerations of economy and a taste for the intimate contacts of a neighborhood life, I started my married and professional life in a small village of Westchester County, then twenty miles from the center of my professional activities in New York city, but, measured by the convenience of access, more than double that distance.  There were, perhaps, twenty houses in the village, and no stores.  All of the residents were commuters, and all governed by considerations of economy.  There were three or four lawyers, three clergymen, several small bankers, three or four merchants, several school teachers, a civil engineer, and one landowner who had developed the settlement.

There was also a railroad station agent, but he was so little occupied with the few trains on the remote branch road that he was able to furnish the little community with coal, and conduct a small livery stable with an equipment of one horse and a buggy.  Altogether, the community in its social life, and to a considerable extent in its business life, was rural in character.  Necessary supplies were delivered from a village two or three miles distant, whence also came our family doctor.  He came on horseback, and even when bringing our children into [Page 9 / Page 10] the world he officiated in his riding clothes.  At one limit of the township was a small railroad station where there was the so-called Town Hall, a brick building about twenty feet square, but amply large to accommodate as many citizens as wished to attend at political meetings to deal with local affairs.  New Rochelle, Pelhamville and Mount Vernon, were in a radius of about three miles; but the intervening territory was farm land, grazing fields or vacant spaces. 

The following tabulation shoes the growth in population during sixty years and the process of converting the entire region from scattered country villages into populous cities with suburban characteristics.  The comparison of population is made between 1880 and 1940, the latter date being taken from the census of that year.

Bronxville 1880 – 395  1940 – 6,888
Mount Vernon 1880 – 4,856  1940 – 67,362
New Rochelle 1880 – 5,276  1940 – 58,408
Pelham 1880 – 2,540 [6]  1940 – 12,272 [7]

[6] Includes the area of City Island and Pelham Bay Park section which was segregated in 1900 [sic] and made a part of the Borough of the Bronx, New York City.

[7] Includes Pelham, North Pelham and Pelham Manor.

White Plains was the county seat of Westchester County and was in every way a country town with a population of only 2,381 in 1880, which had increased in 1940 to 40,327.

These were the conditions that prevailed for the first ten years of my practice (1882-1892), and I conducted my professional life in the spirit and practice of a country lawyer.  I was, however, at the same time the sole employee in the New York office of a lawyer ten years my senior, where I was office boy, clerk, errand boy and [Page 10 / Page 11] copyist, at eight dollars a week.  Of course, all legal activities in the great County of Westchester, which extended for about thirty-seven miles north and south, and with a varying width extended from the Hudson River to the Sound, were closely related to White Plains, the county seat.  But except for a few near-by settlements, the only means of transportation was the New York & Harlem Railroad, and some lawyers traveled fifty miles to reach the county seat.  For me, it was a long journey.  At break of day there was first a buggy drive of 3 or 4 miles to Mount Vernon, whence a slow train took me to White Plains.  The journey occupied several hours. . . .”

Source:  Taft, Henry W., Legal Miscellanies:  Six Decades of Changes and Progress, pp. 9-10 (NY, NY:  The MacMillan Company 1941). 

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