Friday, 29 June 2012


29/6/12, Sleepy Hollow, New York

We took the train from Grand Central up to Tarrytown and Philipse Manor, running along the East River looking across to a surprisingly green and hilly northern tip of Manhattan, and then beside the mighty Hudson, which really is huge with formidable cliffs on the far side.  We were intending to visit a reconstructed 18th century farm and mill and then go on to Washington Irving's house, Sunnyside, south of Tarrytown, but abandoned that after spending so long and having such fun at the farm, Philipsburg Manor.  We walked there from the station at Philipse Manor through a very upscale Stepford Wives-type housing estate (our only mistake to go up to the main road at one point, only to retreat when it had no sidewalk: they don't really do walking here. When I asked the woman at the visitor centre for directions to Tarrytown station she advised me not to walk in the heat: it took all of 15 or 20 minutes).

There's a restored house; kitchen garden; rebuilt working watermill; 18th century farm brought down from somewhere upstate and reassembled; and farm buildings where they show you how to spin wool and work wood using 18th century techniques and technology.  The interpreters are all in period costume.  It ought to be toe-curling but actually it was fascinating, largely because the first interpreter we encountered was a highly-knowledgeable graduate in performing arts who's now an expert in historic cooking techniques and with whom we fell to chatting over the kitchen garden wall.  There were very few visitors so we were her only customers when she came to give us the tour of the house.  We know lots about the Philipse family, who were among Manhattan's richest, and about this estate, which in the mid-1700s covered 52,000 acres, mostly growing wheat for export to the Caribbean to feed slaves on the sugar plantations there, and a reasonable amount about their slaves.

I learnt a lot about how slavery worked, when it was abolished in New York State (formally in the 1820s, though informally people were still effectively enslaved in the mines and elsewhere until after the Civil War) and about the barter economy of this part of the state in the 18th century, not to mention the fact that virtually all the European settlers' food crops and medicinal herbs came with them from Europe, there being next to no cultural interchange with the native Americans, while the slaves' African foods probably came over as seeds in the detritus of slave ships (the "nitty gritty", though she didn't use the term) and were rescued by slaves cleaning them out.

We saw the cornmill working, picked wool (to get out all the bits of organic matter still left even after a fleece has been washed three or four times) and finally got to understand how a spinning wheel worked.

All in all a most satisfying and informative visit.

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