Sunday, February 7, 2016, at 2 p.m.
Warwick
Albert Wisner Library
Warwick, New York

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I’m taking the Hatching Cat on the road! My very first presentation will be on February 7 at the Warwick Albert Wisner Library, which was just named the Best Small Library in America 2016 by Library Journal.

Over the next year or so, I hope to bring the Hatching Cat to libraries, historical societies, and museums throughout New York State. If you know of a library or group that you think would be interested, please contact me and let me know.

We’ve all heard of the crazy cat lady, but what about the crazy cat man?

In the 1800s and early 1900s, when most New York City residents tossed stray cats (and dogs) into the rivers, many men–including sailors, firemen, policemen, politicians, and hoteliers – welcomed alley cats with open arms.

Peggy Gavan, author of The Hatching Cat: True and Unusual Animal Tales of Old New York, will wind the audience through the streets of Old New York and Brooklyn as she tells amazing stories of nine strapping men (9 lives) and the alley cats they adopted. Hear about:

  • The Brooklyn Cat That Survived the USS Maine Explosion
  • The Cat That Flew Around the Statue of Liberty
  • The NYC Post Office Feline Police Force –and 6 More Amazing Tales

 

Fun for cat fanciers and history fans alike! Register by calling the library at 845-986-1047 or in person at the Help Desk if you live nearby.

 

 

 

 

Hog

I’m not sure where this is, but the caption for this photo is: “The last hog raised on Manhattan Island” (1910). Museum of the City of New York Collections

With Groundhog Day just days away, I wanted to write a story in remembrance of Staten Island Chuck, the poor groundhog that died shortly after Mayor Bill deBlasio dropped her (turns out Chuck was a Chuckette) during the mayor’s first prediction ceremony in 2014.

I couldn’t find an interesting groundhog story from Old New York, but I did find a story about a hog that lived on a farm in Staten Island’s Sandy Ground community. This silly-but-sad hog tale has an interesting historical connection to Dorothy Day, the Brooklyn native who was a renowned journalist and Catholic social activist.

The Great Hog Adventure

In December 1911, Herman Conrad Oechsli, a plumber and part-time farmer in what was then called the Borough of Richmond (the borough was renamed Staten Island in 1975), called on three of his neighbors to help him reign in and slaughter his 400-pound Berkshire hog. John Foster, Robert Brinley, and William Farley all responded to his call for help.

John Foster told Herman that he had once been a cowboy in Wyoming, so he suggested using a lasso to catch the hog in his pen. The hog wasn’t too pleased with the lasso — you might say he was fit to be tied — and took off running with Foster dragging behind. Apparently, Foster had gotten a little rusty in his skills, because he had become entangled by his end of the lasso.

The large hog broke through a gate and started running in the direction of St. George. “Stop me!” Foster yelled as the three others chased man and swine for almost a mile. The chase caused quite a stir among residents of the Sandy Ground community, who all gave Foster and the hog a wide berth as they ran down the street.

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Herman Conrad Oeschli grew up on his family’s 22-acre farm at 469 Bloomingdale Road in Staten Island. Although this photo was taken sometime around 1950, the farm and old farmhouse probably looked very similar in 1911 when the great hog struggle took place.

At last, the giant hog had to stop out of sheer exhaustion, allowing John Foster time to disentangle himself. Needless to say, the story does not have a happy ending for the hog, as John was more than happy to do the honors for Herman.

 The Sandy Ground Community

The Oeschli Farm was located on the outskirts of a small enclave in the Rossville section of Staten Island that is now known as Sandy Ground. Located inland near the island’s South Shore in what was once called the Westfield district, Sandy Ground is the oldest continuously inhabited free Black settlement in the United States.

Much has been written about Sandy Ground, so I won’t get into too many details, but a brief overview may be of interest to those not familiar with this community’s history.

Originally inhabited by the Raritan Indians, the Westfield district of the Borough of Richmond remained largely uninhabited by European settlers until about 1661, when Pieterse Wynant (aka Peter Winant) and some other men established the first permanent European settlement in the area (Wynant’s homestead was near the old Blazing Star Cemetery on Arthur Kill Road north of Rossville Road).

Another early settler was Daniel Perrin, a Huguenot from New Jersey who was granted 80 acres of land in what was then called Smoking Point by Governor Benjamin Fletcher in 1692. During the mid 18th century, the area was known as Blazing Star, for a popular tavern of that name. The Blazing Star Ferry, established in 1722, was first operated by Anthony Wright, who paddled folks over the Arthur Kill to Woodbridge Township, New Jersey, for many years prior to the Revolution.

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Sometime around 1835, the area formerly known as Smoking Point and Blazing Star was renamed Rossville, after Colonel William E. Ross, a prominent early settler. Ross built his Ross Castle (later called Lyon Castle), a replica of Windsor Castle, on a bluff overlooking the Blazing Star Ferry on the shores of the Arthur Kill. 

In 1828, a year after slavery was abolished in New York State, a free African-American ferry boat owner-operator named John Jackson bought 2.5 acres in the area, which was the first recorded purchase of land by a freed black man on Staten Island. Captain Jackson operated a ferry to New Jersey (and later, to Manhattan); some speculate that he may have played a role in the Underground Railroad, ferrying slaves across the Kill Van Kull to New Jersey.

During the 1830s and 1840s, free black oystermen who had fled Maryland and Virginia came to the island to harvest oysters in Prince’s Bay on the island’s South Shore. Then in 1850, two New Jersey brothers of African descent, Moses K. and Silas K. Harris, bought property near the intersection of today’s Bloomingdale Road and Woodrow Road, which was considered to be within walking distance of the bay (about 2 miles). Although the sandy soil was considered useless, the Harris brothers were able to prosper by growing  strawberries and asparagus on the land.

By the early 1900s, about 150 families — all descendants of these original black setters — were living in the Sandy Ground community.

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Although the Harris brothers’ homestead was demolished in the 1980s, the home of Isaac Harris, the son of Silas Harris, still stands at 444 Bloomingdale Road. The house was designed by famed architect Standford White in 1906, who reportedly drew up the plans as a gift for Isaac Harris’ years of service on his household staff. This home is one of only about a dozen of the original old homes still standing in the Sandy Ground community.

On April 20, 1963, Rossville was hit by the worst of three brush fires to devastate Staten Island. Although a few remnants of the original Sandy Ground settlement still exist, most of the original houses were destroyed in the fire. Today the neighborhood is dominated by townhouses that went up beginning in the 1970s, when developers began snatching up parcels of land for literally a steal from the black land owners.

For more information or to take a virtual tour of the area, visit Forgotten New York’s tour of Sandy Ground or visit the Sandy Ground Historical Society.

The Oechsli Farm and Dorothy Day

Herman Conrad Oeschli was the son of Conrad and Louise Oechsli, two Swiss immigrants who came to America sometime around 1880. The couple purchased a 22-acre farm and farmhouse at 469 Bloomingdale Road, where the family lived for the next 60 years.

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Based on its location north of Pleasant Plains and west of Maguire Avenue, and the fact that the Oechsli’s farm was 22 acres, I believe the land had previously been owned by P. Clarins, depicted in this 1874 atlas of Westfield, Richmond County.

Herman Oechsli was born in Manhattan on November 13, 1884, and was married on September 1, 1910, to Caroline L. Woreth, also a native of Switzerland. The couple had a daughter, Carolyne, born in 1912; a son, Frank, born in 1914 (he died in 1919); and a son, Bernard, born in 1915.

In addition to helping out on the family farm and trying catch hogs, Herman worked as a plumber and later as a deputy city clerk.

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Herman and his family lived at 455 Bloomingdale Road from the 1930s until his death on January 1, 1944. Today, this circa 1930 home is surrounded by more modern brick and aluminum-sided homes built in the 20th century. 

For many years before and after Herman’s death, the Oechsli farm stood unused. Then on August 28, 1950, at the urging of social activist Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker newspaper purchased the farm for use as a Catholic work camp. They named the camp the Peter Maurin Farm in honor of Dorothy’s former co-founder of the Catholic Worker.

Several years later, Dorothy wrote about the farm in Catholic Worker:

Our farm is better than our neighbors, Mr. Gerecke’s. It is 22 acres and was owned for the past sixty years by a Swiss family, and well cared for and loved. There is a beautiful little barn, right now being converted into a chapel and conference hall, and the house has eleven rooms, spacious hall and two attics, besides porches, front and back. There is an outer kitchen which we are transforming into a bake shop, where we will bake bread for our New York breadline; there are carpenter shops, toolsheds, chicken coops, pig pens, corncribs, a feed house, carriage shed, blacksmith shop and so on in the way of outbuildings.

There is an attractive woodlot and tiny pool grown over with rushes and water lilies, which can be dug out. There are three acres of asparagus, which provide a work project for all who come, for weeding, hoeing and mulching, and roundtable discussions go on meanwhile. There are pear trees, grapevines, work to do at once, even without tools and materials to do them with.

The work camp at Peter Maruin’s Farm thrived for about 10 years — members of the German Bruderhof community even made the farm their home in 1954 — but in 1960 the Catholic Worker sold the land and started a new camp at the Rose Hill estate in Tivoli, located on the Hudson River just north of Rhinebeck, New York.

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Shortly after Dorothy Day’s death on November 29, 1980, the Catholic Worker farm at Tivoli (where Dorothy is pictured here) was sold. A new Peter Maurin Farm in Marlboro, New York, was established, where it continues to operate today. 

Today, the Peter Maurin Farm grows much of the food for Manhattan’s two Catholic Worker houses and soup kitchens. Eight thousand pounds of kale, onion, potatoes, and other produce are shipped from the farm every year to help feed about 100 people a day on the soup line and about 50 house residents.

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There are no farms or hogs in sight in this satellite view of 469 Bloomingdale Road (Google Earth).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Following a long journey from Ireland to New York on the S.S. Essex, Miss Bridget Cork arrived in New York City on February 14, 1894, and was delivered to Mayor Thomas F. Gilroy at City Hall.

In 1893, America celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One of the many guests of honor at the opening ceremonies was Cristóbal Colón de la Cerda, a descendant of Christopher Columbus and the 14th Duke of Veragua.

The Duke arrived in Chicago by way of New York City, where he spent several days touring the city with Mayor Thomas Francis Gilroy and other members of the city’s Columbus Reception Committee of One Hundred.

So what does Christopher Columbus, Mayor Thomas Gilroy, and a Spanish Duke have to do with an Irish cat from County Cork? Well, it is because of the Duke’s visit to America that this quaint story about an Irish cat named Miss Bridget Cork can be told. In fact, one could almost say this cat story is tied to the discovery of America. Okay, maybe I’m stretching it a bit, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

 

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New York City, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, and Chicago had all vied to host the World’s Columbian Exposition. In fact, it was during this spirited competition that Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun, dubbed Chicago “that windy city.” On April 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the act that designated Chicago as the site of the exposition. The event was supposed to take place in 1892, but it took longer than expected to prepare and produce the exposition.

Our story begins on April 23, 1892, the day President Grover Cleveland sent the Duke of Veragua an invitation to attend the opening ceremonies at the World’s Columbian Exposition as a guest of the government and the people of the United States. The Duke arrived in New York a year later on April 15, 1893, aboard the American Line steamship appropriately named S.S. New York, accompanied by his wife, Dona Isabel de Aquilera, the Duchess of Veragua; his son, Don Cristobal Colon de Aguilara; his daughter, Dona Maria; his brother, the Marquis of Barbolis; and the Marquis’ son, Pedro Columbus de la Corda.

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Born in Madrid in 1837, Don Cristóbal Colón de Toldeo de la Cerda y Gante, Duke of Veragua, Marquis of Jamaica, and Admiral and Adelantado, Mayor of the Indies, was the thirteenth in direct descent from Christopher Columbus.

The first person to greet the Duke to America was U.S. Navy Commander Francis W. Dickins, who had been selected to represent the United States Government. Commander Dickins presented the Duke with the Freedom of the City (today we call this the Key to the City) and then escorted the royal family to the brand-new Waldorf Hotel on Fifth Avenue, which had opened only one month before in March 1893.

During his time in the city, the Duke and his family were guests of numerous grand receptions at City Hall, the Waldorf, and other locations throughout the city. The Duke of Veragua also visited Mayor Thomas F. Gilroy at his home in Harlem at 7 West 121st Street, took a tour through Central Park, and visited Grant’s Tomb.

Following a three-month stay in America, the Duke, his family, and their 92 shipping trunks departed New York on board the French liner La Bretagne. Despite being entertained by the city in a most elaborate fashion, the Duke reportedly left without giving the mayor or any other political dignitaries a thank-you letter or gift.

Commander Dickins apparently had better manners…

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The Duke of Veragua and his family were the first guests to stay in the Waldorf’s state apartments, a suite of nine rooms for visiting foreign dignitaries located on the second floor, overlooking Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street. Pictured here is the Henry IV drawing room. Built in 1893 and connected to the Astor Hotel in 1897, the Waldorf Hotel – later the Waldorf–Astoria – was razed in 1929 to make way for construction of the Empire State Building. Princeton University Library

A Cat Arrives at City Hall

On February 14, 1894, a pine box with slats on top arrived at New York City Hall. Acting Secretary McDonough was not sure what to make of the box, and was even worried that it might contain a dangerous device.

“What is it?” asked Mayor Gilroy. “A cat!” McDonough replied, after hearing the cat meow. “By George, there’s a real Gaelic tone to her voice,” said one joker in the office. “Yes, and she has County Galway whiskers,” said another.

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Born on June 3, 1840, in Sligo, Ireland, Thomas Francis Gilory was a key member of the Tammany Hall organization, beginning as a messenger for “Boss” William Tweed, and serving as confidential secretary for Henry W. Genet, Tweed’s Tammany Hall successor. He was New York City’s 89th mayor, serving just one term from 1893-94.

Inside the box was also a letter dated February 12, 1894, as follows:

My Dear Mayor Gilroy:
Last August I sailed from the United States, with the United States ship Monongahela under my command, for Queenstown, Ireland. Upon our arrival and during our stay there we received the most hearty welcome and gracious hospitality from all the Irish people, and particularly so from the gallant Mayor of Cork, the Hon. Augustine M. Roche.

Remembering your kindness to me in New York when I had the honor to represent the President of the United States in charge of the courtesies to the Duke of Veragua while he was the guest of the Nation, I wanted to bring back to you some token from that beautiful country, and the Mayor of Cork kindly gave me—not a tigerbut a gentle cat with a heart whose warmth is only exceeded by those of her countrymen.

Hence, I send to you today, by express, Miss Bridget Cork, accompanied by appropriate verses, composed by Mrs. Franklin Weld of Boston, with a chorus set to music. The clever lines I hope will please you, and that you will accept Miss Bridget with my profound gratitude, and with the best wishes for her welfare as well as your own, believe me to me, very sincerely yours, F.W. Dickins, Commander U.S.N.

Described in The New York Times as a handsome, good-natured purring cat, with a soft coat of dark gray and stripes of a darker hue, Bridget Cork had traveled from Queenstown to America with Commander Dickins on the SS Essex, which had arrived at the Norfolk Navy Yard on February 11. She then traveled by train to New York City in the pine box.

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Commander Francis William Dickins, 1898

No one at City Hall could tell if the following verses composed by Mrs. Weld went to “Wearing of the Green,” “The Cat Came Back,” “Annie Laurie,” or any other song:

God speed to you, Captain Dickens, On your voyage across the sea!
Bear to Gilroy, Mayor of New York, The warmest of greetings from me.
From Ireland here to the Irish there, Good luck and comfort and care;
May they ne’er forget their country, In their homes across the sea.

The home land! The heart land! Through their homes are there, their hearts we share. Hurrah for the ould countrie! New York, ahoy! Here’s to Mayor Gilroy, to Roche and the Irish cat!

Writing is too cold and measured, And for words we are too far apart;
So warm hearts here send in greeting to you, A warm little Irish heart–
A symbol of comfort and luck,  A real little Irish cat.
With Irish for pluck and a cat for luck, Can I send better than that?

The luck land! The pluck land! The Irish for pluck, the cat for luck. Hurrah for the Irish cat! New York, ahoy! Here’s to Mayor Gilroy, to Roche, and the Irish cat!

Although she wasn’t any match for Thomas Nast’s Tammany Tiger, Mayor Gilroy was quite pleased with the cat — and Bridget was quite pleased to be out of the box — but he knew there was no way she could stay at City Hall. After all, City Hall already had Tom, its brazen feline mascot, and Tom would never have accepted another cat in his territory. So Mayor Gilroy sent Bridget to his home on West 121st Street, where I’m sure she received plenty of attention from the mayor’s ten children.

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Perhaps Bridget Cork was lucky enough to spend her summers with the Gilory family at their home on Ocean Avenue (near present-day Ocean Crest Boulevard and Bay 32nd Street). The large white house with green trim fronted away from the shore, and from the back yard one could see the ocean, and in the distance, Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Thomas Gilroy died in this home on December 1, 1911. He was buried alongside his wife, Mary, at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.