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.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Pelham's Town Historian in 1922 Wrote of Pelham Lore in the Local Newspaper

Joan Elizabeth Secor was a remarkable woman.  Mrs. Secor was one of the most beloved residents of Pelham Manor.  She also was the driving force behind, and leader of, the Manor Club.  Joan Secor was a social and cultural force in Pelham Manor. She lovingly devoted much of her adult life to the success of the Club.  She nurtured both the Club and its members tenderly and with great attention. 

Mrs. Secor, as she was known to many, became president of the Tuesday Afternoon Club in 1900.  When that Club merged into the Manor Club (which became a women's club) in 1914, she served as president of the newly-merged institution as well.  She stablized the finances of the Manor Club.  She presided over the fund-raising for, and the construction of, the new clubhouse that is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  She grew the Club and oversaw it as it became an important part of the social fabric of the Town, a role that it continues to play to this day.

In addition, Mrs. Secor was appointed by the Town of Pelham to serve as one of its earliest Town Historians, if not its first.  She served in that role for several years.  She retired from service Town Historian (and as president of the Manor Club after 26 years) in May 1925 when she departed for California to live with family members. Mrs. Secor died suddenly in her home in San Francisco on Saturday, July 23, 1932.

In 1922, Mrs. Secor published an essay on "Landmarks in Pelham and Vicinity."  Two years later, the essay ripened into a booklet entitled "Landmarks in and Near Pelham" published by the Town of Pelham in 1924.  Mrs. Secor's initial essay was published in the September 15, 1922 issue of  The Pelham Sun.  The essay touched on Ann Hutchinson, Split Rock, Split Rock Road, French Huguenots, the Old Pell House, Pelham Dale, Christ Church, Reid's Mill, the Priory, the Neutral Ground, the Boston Post Road 17-Mile Marker, Old Boston Post Road, St. Paul's Church, Glen Island, and many, many other area landmarks.  

Mrs. Secor said it well when she noted why she had written an essay on "Landmarks in Pelham and Vicinity."  She noted:  

"The possession of these historic landmarks is of great value to a community.  They lend it dignity, solidity, a sense of being firmly rooted; let us preserve them about our neighborhood that it may not lack this mellowing influence in the midst of modern improvement."

Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog transcribes the text of Mrs. Secor's essay published on September 15, 1922.  It is followed by a citation and link to its source.

Joan Elizabeth Klink Secor in an Undated Photograph.

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"Landmarks in Pelham and Vicinity
By Joan E. Secor
Town Historian

As is well known, the three racial elements which entered most largely into the early colonization of this part of our country were English, Dutch and French, the very nomenclature of the region easily confirming this.  Pelham, Westchester, New Rochelle, East Chester plainly reveal the story of their origin -- Puritan, Patroon and Huguenot having early left an impress upon the character and customs of the inhabitants.  In the early years of the nineteenth century, when Washington Irving laid the foundation of an American literature with his Knickerbocker History, Sketch Book and other writings descriptive of the Hudson River region, James Fenimore Cooper immortalized this particular vicinity in his famous novel 'The Spy.'  Its scenes and action occur in that part of the country lying between the Harlem River and White Plains; many of the incidents taking place in Roosevelt's Woods, where Pelham Manor now stands, on and about Prospect Hill, Hutchinson's Creek and East Chester village below.

The story of Ann Hutchinson, famous among early colonial annals, from whom Hutchinson's Creek derives its name, is part of the history of this region; in fact much Revolutionary history centers here.  Indian traditions, Dutch barter, French Protestantism, English allegiance marked the various periods of the section's growth until the Pelham of to-day would appear to possess little in common with that former Manor of Pelham so closely connected with the early struggle of American independence.

Every neighborhood, however, be its growth rapid or slow, retains some of the distinctive features of its primitive development, which, as time goes on, become the abiding landmarks of the locality.  An ancient church, an old mill, a house in ruins, a giant tree, a highway, a mouldering headstone may severally constitute the sources out of which tradition weaves its tales of a life that has gone, and from which romance clothes in the living garments of the present, forms that have long vanished.  The life of to-day is ever modified by that of yesterday; whether consciously or not, we are moved by the spirit of the past.  It would not be possible in these brief pages to consider at length the historical  records wherein the early life of Westchester County developed, or trace minutely the evolution of the particularly vicinity now comprised in Pelham Township, in one corner of which pretty Pelham Manor came into existence about thirty-eight years ago; we must proceed upon general lines although in the midst of historical associations of vital and far-reaching interest.  Prior to the Revolution, we read that Pelham formed a portion of the old manor of that name which originally embraced nine thousand one hundred and sixty-six acres [sic], the Lordship and Manor of Pelham being the title under the original grant.  Thomas Pell was its lordly owner, who was succeeded by his nephew John, as second lord [sic] of Pelham.  A descendant of these lords of Pelham (so-called) lived afterwards in what was known among us as 'The Old Pell House.'  This stood in picturesque decay just over the brow of Prospect Hill in full view of the Boston Turnpike.  The house stood upon Revolutionary ground, and many a bullet has been taken from its sturdy walls, when under process of repair.  A gentleman living in the neighborhood tells of removing locks and keys rusty and useless with age, from its doors, which bore evidence of having been made a century or more ago.  In early spring when the apple blossoms of its ancient orchard opened their pink hearts to the sun and the moss looked greener on the surrounding stone fences, the old house seemed to quiver responsively to the awakening throb of life without -- its gray walls took on the tender pinkish hue of the lilacs in its door-yard, its dormer windows seemed less doleful as if the ghosts of those it had sheltered in the past, starting a moment from their long sleep, looked out regretfully upon the life they had once known and loved.  The blossoms of many springs, the snows of many winters fell upon the old house; its walls held the secrets of a century; something human seemed imprisoned in them -- faded, sad, it stood a figure of the past but is now reduced to the elements in the course of modern rehabilitation.  If one follow the shore road southward until the Bartow property is reached, and entering there, wander at will over the green slopes and meadows, he will come at length to the burying ground of many of these Pells.  Surely a good place to sleep, where the salt breath of the Sound and a gleam of snowy sails float softly across the mounds and occasionally a bat throws its weird silhouette athwart the stones.  We of to-day who journey so largely by rail, and motor can scarcely comprehend the relative importance of the old-time highway.  Then it was the open door of escape to the world outside, the sole means of communication with other districts.  The mail, the express, the traveling public came by that means into remote neighborhoods.  Life centered there, events focussed [sic] in the public houses along its line; every tree, every bush, every turn had its uses or perils.  There was a personal and proprietary interest felt in the highway which would not be possible in these days of rapid and easy communication.  In this immediate vicinity one of the most famous of these highways yet in existance [sic] is the Old Boston road or King's Highway, as it was once called.  In early days it was the direct stage coach line to Boston, following the course of Hutchinson's Creek until it reached a spot where the water was shallow enough to ford, crossing where is now a well-known quarry, then on by a second detour until it re-entered the present Boston Post Road near what is now known as the Reynolds property and so on to New Rochelle.  In later times a bridge was built at East Chester and the distance shortened to the good town of New Rochelle, but in the old days there was no bridge; it was not needed.  With six horses, sometimes eight, well in hand, fords, toll-gates, hills and dales counted but little on the journey.  No shrill whistle of steam or discordant jangle of bells disturbed the stillness -- only the cracking of the whip, the rumbling of the wheels or the chirrup of the driver woke the echoes as the coach tooled merrily on, following the well-lettered sign boards fastened to the trees along the highways.  The 'Old Boston Road' now marks the boundary line between Pelham Manor and Pelham Heights.  As we pass and repass there may not be some echo of that rumbling coach of long ago reach us across the years?  Some smile or sigh perchance of occupant mingle with our own as we linger upon the ancient highway, fully realizing that it is now one of the few remaining links connecting the old life with the new, yet marking . . . more distinctly the separation which exists between the old order and the neew one.  'The Split Rock Road' as it is famously called by [illegible] Road to the Manor house of John Pell, can boast of an age equal with that of the Boston Road.  It was once the sole highway of communication between this neighborhood and City Island, where numerous fishermen and pilots obtained a livelihood.  The road derives its name from the presence of a fissure in a huge rock not far from where one enters it by the Boston Road!  Through this fissure a tree has slowly forced its way as if veritably rending apart the solid rock by the working of those mysterious, unseen forces which forever baffle the comprehension of man.  The presence of this and kindred huge boulders throughout this section of country where ledges of rock are not numerous, justifies the assumption of an age almost prehistoric perchance the far-off glacial epoch, at which period similar masses of rock were known to have been deposited over the earth's surface.  They are with us today -- in our dooryards along our daily paths, by the wayside; nature's giant landmarks rolled into place by Titanic forces, silent, immovable, grim with the years, guarding their impenetrable secret as the cycles pass.  Before the first sail ever whitened in a new world harbor, before Spanish discoverer, Dutch trader, French refugee, English colonist ever departed from their separate shores these mighty stones were here where the Indian and wild animal roamed.  The dignity of age, the mystery of isolation hangs over the 'Split Rock Road;' 'there are sunny stretches in it too, and royal arches of interlacing boughs, then deepening shadows, while here and there in autumn a scarlet creeper twines itself about a branch as if some secret vein had suddenly o'erflowed and left a crimson trail.  It was along this road that Washington's army retreated after his defeat at the battle of Long Island during the war of the Revolution, so the old road has re-echoed the sound of marching feet and pointed a path of safety to the brave men who struggled for our independence in the early days.  Possibly one of the most interesting of the landmarks about us is St. Paul's Church at East Chester with its fading graveyard.  Here is something almost mediaeval [sic], quite out of keeping with the bustle of encroaching business interests now developing upon all quarters of the venerable enclosure.  This church at East Chester was founded over two hundred years ago, although the present edifice has not been in existence for so long a period; it is, however, over one hundred and fifty years old, having been erected in 1765.  The records in connection with its history are of great interest and value.  There are many tombstones in St. Paul's churchyard, bearing dates as early as 1710 and 1712.  The epitaphs, too, upon the mouldering headstones take one into an unfamiliar atmosphere of religious sentiment and expression; they are pedantic, painful, Puritan, oracular with warnings which somehow seem strangely accentuated by the old English lettering, almost undecipherable, in which they are cut.  As the daylight dies over St. Paul's and a purple haze floats upward from the marshes across the decaying tablets and moss-covered vaults of the churchyard, instinctively one recalls Gray's famous elegy and wonders if indeed 'some mute inglorious Milton' may not rest here among the East Chester dead.  The old church sowns few traces of the years that have passed over it, its bell-tower still guards the sunken slabs as faithfully as when the earth was freshly turned about them, its open door invites the present as it did past generations to enter and worship.  Symbol of life in the midst of decay, it stands a serene monument to the faith which has endured from the foundation of the world.  We leave it with regret, trusting that the requirements of an encroaching city will not too soon destroy so unique a landmark in our neighborhood.  Christ Church in Pelham Manor, too, must be mentioned here as one of the landmarks close at hand, in that,, although founded as late as 1843, it was the 'first building devoted to religious worship and instruction ever commenced in Pelham.'

The beautiful stone house known as 'The Priory,' now a private residence, was some seventy-five years ago a fashionable boarding school for New York girls..  The 'Priory' is a fine specimen of old English architecture and has many interesting associations connected with it.  There is, on the Boston Road, between the Esplanade and Pelhamdale Avenue, a small brown stone bearing the mark '17 m.'  This stone is known to have been there over one hundred years, the marking indicating that it is seventeen miles from that spot to the City Hall in New York City.  It is without doubt one of the old milestones of the Boston Road.  A venerable gentleman who once lived in the neighborhood, whose associations with Westchester County dated bac to the opening years of the last century recalled many unique features of the vicinity that had disappeared since his boyhood; the flour mmill on Hutchinson's Creek, the toll-gates between here and New Rochelle, the old-fashioned houses, upon the sites of which to-day are modern ones.  He recalled also many interesting incidents of the old families of the county.  It was within his remembrance that Glen Island (once a pleasure ground) was the private residence of the Depau family, and here Louis Napoleon when in exile passed many an idle day in company of young Louis Depau and other congenial spirits; thus it seems an Emperor of France has traveled our familiar paths and breathed our air, and now he, too, is dust.

Echoes of this same illustrious French Family come to us too, from the old Coudert house [Editor's Note:  Known Today as "Pelham Dale" and "Pelhamdale" at 45 Iden Avenue] near Wolf's Lane whose one-time occupant was a member of the famous 'Old Guard' of the first Napoleon.  So the ears which once caught the terrible 'Caira' of the Revolution, the arm which upheld the bronze eagles of the great Emperor himself, feet that have marched beneath the fluttering fleur-dy-lys of the French battalions, have left their lingering echoes here in our very midst.

The possession of these historic landmarks is of great value to a community.  They lend it dignity, solidity, a sense of being firmly rooted; let us preserve them about our neighborhood that it may not lack this mellowing influence in the midst of modern improvement.

The old strains of blood are dying out, the old estates disappearing, the stone walls are crumbling, the old-time boundaries are changing, herer and there some ancient tree still hymns in its lofty top the grace and glory of the by-gone days; in this vicinity as in others, nature's immutable decree is manifest.

'The old order changeth.
Giving place to new.'


Source:  Secor, Joan E., Landmarks in Pelham and Vicinity By Joan E. Secor Town Historian, The Pelham Sun, Sep. 15, 1922, p. 6, cols. 1-4.

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