The Family Business: Bronxville, NY

For 19 years, I have called the little town of Bronxville my home.  However, I knew nothing about the history of this town so while in Womrath Bookshop, I found myself immersed in Images of America: Around BronxvilleAs I looked through the photos, I found myself falling for a story of how one family took a rural village and made it into a true suburban town.  Throughout the town, landmarks are named after this family, its one the town will not ever fully forget, even if their story has become just a whisper.  So, let’s take that whisper and make it a shout: let’s tell the story of the Lawrence family.

If you’ve ever visited Bronxville, you’ve definitely heard the name Lawrence before.  Lawrence Hospital, Sarah Lawrence, Lawrence Park West—they all hold that same name.  Why?  Well, because before the Lawrences, this town really was not a town.  The town began in the early 1800s as Underhill’s Crossing, named after its founder Lancaster Underhill.  In 1844, the railroad came through the town but it still was not much of a town, with very few shops in what is today the village.  Everything changes in the 1880s when William Van Duzer Lawrence and his family move to the town, which had been renamed Bronxville, from Canada.  The Lawrences had become the equivalent of today’s big pharma in Canada.

They found a love for Bronxville and decided they wanted to build the town up.  They created the first planned community in the area that is Lawrence Park West, where they would eventually choose to live permanently after selling their Fifth Avenue apartment.  William wanted Bronxville to be more than a rural town, so he began to build up the business district, building the infrastructure for the village locals know today.  It was also the Lawrences who built and owned the famous Hotel Gramatan, but that’s a story for a different day.  In 1909, the Lawrences commissioned the building of Lawrence Hospital, which was known as the finest hospital in Westchester at the time.

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The original building of Lawrence Hospital. Credits: https://patch.com/new-york/bronxville/bronxville-then-and-now-lawrence-hospital

When Sarah, William’s wife died, he created Sarah Lawrence College in her memory, as she had been a long advocate for women’s education.

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An original building of Sarah Lawrence College donated by the Lawrences  Credits: https://www.sarahlawrence.edu/about/history/

William’s granddaughter, Anna, continued the family’s relationship with the town, when she donated the land for the historic clubhouse for the Bronxville Women’s Club, an organization that has been a staple of the town since the 1920s.   She served as the club’s first President and helped the club to organize many programs to enrich the community.

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The loggia of the Bronxville Women’s Club, still the original building from Anna’s time

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The founder’s room, in which Anna’s photo can be seen.

One family built this town into something great.  The Lawrences took Bronxville from being just another little rural village and made it a town worth noting.  Without them, who knows what Bronxville would be today?  They saw potential in what was essentially nothing and they brought that vision to life.  That’s a story that deserves to be uncovered.

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A Trip to the Circus: The Elephant Hotel

As a kid, I could sing you the entire jingle for the Big Apple Circus.  I was obsessed with seeing the magic of the circus, like many kids.  Little did I know, I lived just forty minutes away from the root of all that magic.  In Somers, New York, lay a story that deserved to be uncovered: how the circus began and the role the Elephant Hotel played in it all.

Our story begins with Hachaliah Bailey—yes, that is the Bailey of the soon to be famous Bailey and Barnum Circus.  Bailey ordered an exotic elephant, whether to be a farm animal or a showpiece is unknown.  He named her Old Bet, in honor of his daughter and soon discovered that people wanted to see an elephant—it was something beyond their wildest dreams.  And so, the traveling menagerie business was born right in Somers, New York.

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An advertisement to attract people to see the exotic animals.  The animals look different than in reality, as the artists had never seen these animals before, according to Historian Grace Zimmerman.

The business continued to flourish here.  Individuals in the area became involved, creating businesses that spun off of the traveling menagerie, as people continued to visit to see the exotic animals.  You may be wondering though—how does this building fit into any of this?  Well, because Bailey was a smart man.  He understood that the traveling menagerie was a business beyond just animals.  The Elephant Hotel was, shocker of the year, a hotel.

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During the winter, the traveling menageries made their headquarters in the south but in the summer, Somers was home.  People travelled all over to visit the cradle of the circus and see the exotic animals—they needed somewhere to stay and the Elephant Hotel filled that role.  But this hotel was no ordinary hotel.

In 1835, the men of the traveling menageries formed a company together called the Zoological Institute.  This organization wanted to provide people with education on exotic animals—it only lasted three years, but it set the foundation for what zoos would eventually become.

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A booklet from the Zoological Institute on education about exotic animals

At some point in its history, the building also housed a bank that was largely used by the men of the traveling menageries.

Today, the Elephant Hotel is the Somers Town Hall and stands as a National Historic Landmark.  In this building, magic was made.  Every child who ever fell in love with the circus owes to it to the man who left this hotel as his legacy.  As I left the Elephant Hotel, I looked as I watched cars whizzing by the hotel and I wondered—do they know how important this building was?  Do they know it’s story?  Because it is one that desires to be uncovered by all.

 

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A representation of what the early circus was like

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Another booklet from the Zoological Institute dedicated to education about animals

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The statue of Old Bet that stands outside the hotel.

The Things I Learned in a Small Town: Bedford, NY

Our story on Bedford is coming to its final chapter (for now) on Uncovering Stories.  This chapter lacks the drama or celebrity of the last two, but it makes up for it in character.  For this section is about the life of the average Bedford citizen in the 1700s and 1800s.  The stories must often left behind are the ones that we can actually learn the most from—the tales of the normal folk.

Thanks to Bedford Historical Society, it is easy to get a glimpse into life in Bedford.  The building I found most interesting was the small, one room schoolhouse that stands in the middle of the Village Green.

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The one-room original schoolhouse

This single room served as the village school from 1829 to 1912.  Now, you’re probably wondering—how could this little building serve all the village’s children if Bedford was as big and important as I’ve been telling you?  Well, Bedford became a farming town.  The school was open 12 months a year, but most students only spent four to five months in school, helping their families the rest of the time.  For example, in 1842, 62 children were taught but only 9 were full-time students.  It was not until 1912 that the school had reached beyond its capacity, with a class of thirty-one students overcrowding the building.  The building became the Bedford Museum, an integral part of the town culture.  Today, the building is preserved exactly as it would have been if it was still a school building.

The second building that has many stories to tell of life in Bedford is the Bedford Presbyterian Church.

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The Church, as it currently stands on the Village Green

The Church pictured is not the original.  It’s not even the second version of the Church.  And if you thought the third would be the charm, you’d be wrong.  This is the fourth construction of the Church, built in 1872, and finally lasting for a while.  The second version of the Church was burned down during the burning of Bedford in the Revolution.  Despite it going through many different constructions, this Church still remains the oldest Presbyterian Church in the state and remains a large part of Bedford’s culture, today having 400 members.

To me, it is these buildings that matter most when uncovering history.  When you look at the schoolhouse, you can almost imagine that you belong that different time period.  You can almost feel the past coming to life as you look at how different the world once was.

Today, Bedford maintains its small town charm that it had back when a classroom held less than thirty students.  If you ever visit, I recommend seeing the Bedford Historical Society, located in the old General Store.

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They can tell you tales for hours about the village.  While there, make sure to stop by and see Bernadette of the Red Fox Art Gallery, which is located in the same building as the Historical Society.  Her collection is absolutely beautiful and she also can tell you all about the area.  With guides like these, it is no wonder that I found Bedford to be the most magical place to uncover.

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A view of the Church from the inside

Laying the Foundation: Bedford, NY

Our story of Bedford has not yet ended.  While many would think that a burning of an entire town would end that story, it did the opposite for Bedford.  Bedford rebuilt itself upon its ashes and made itself a major city for early New York.  In fact, much of New York’s early history took place in Bedford, with some very famous characters visiting.

In 1787, not even ten years after the burning, Bedford built up a courthouse.  It is one of the oldest courthouses in New York State and the oldest in Westchester County.   Now, remember, in 1787, travel was not an easy task.  To get from one place to another, you probably had to go by horse, as the railroad had yet to become a major part of life.  So, for a county like Westchester that is approximately 500 miles, it could not be centered only in one place as people would not be able to get there.  So, Westchester had two centers where they held meetings monthly: Bedford and White Plains.  In 1870, the railroad made it so that the county did not need a northern house but until then, Bedford made it possible for Westchester County to efficiently operate.  This court house also had some pretty exciting visitors.  Wait for it… Aaron Burr visited the courthouse to present a very prestigious case.

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A painting of Aaron Burr, still hung in the courthouse

John Jay is a well-known public figure that made Westchester his home, but his son, William Jay, is just as influential for the county.  He was the first judge of Westchester County and he heard his cases right at the Bedford Courthouse.

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The courthouse is preserved to look exactly as it did when William Jay was judge

What makes William Jay so unique though was why he was not allowed to hear cases any longer in 1843.  Slavery was the issue dividing the country and while the North is often remembered for being anti-slavery, pro-slavery sentiment still lived in this part of the country.  William Jay was widely known for being an abolitionist, even being against the movement back to Africa as he felt this was not a real, long-term solution.  The governor of New York decided that the proslavery sentiment was too loud and refused to reappoint Jay as judge of Westchester County.   In 1858, Jay passed away and it is the famous Fredrick Douglas who spoke and eulogized Jay.  Today, William Jay’s name is not one you hear much in history class, but when you visit Bedford, he is remembered and his legacy is not lost.  He helped to make New York a progressive place that fought against what was wrong during its early years.

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William Jay

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The Bedford Courtroom, as it is preserved today

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Watching it Burn: Bedford, NY

Sometimes, the best stories are the ones we don’t go looking for.  They are the ones buried in the ground that somehow, we get lucky enough to stumble upon.  That was the case for me with the Village of Bedford—I didn’t expect it, but this Village has so many stories to tell, far more than can fit in one post.  So, welcome to a series on Bedford.  In honor of Fourth of July weekend, we are uncovering the story of a forgotten revolutionary town, one that burned to the ground and rebuilt itself during America’s first years.

In 1779, the American Revolution was raging, with the colonies having become a warzone.  A few years earlier, Southern Westchester had played a huge role in the war, when the Battle of White Plains occurred in 1776.   The Americans had been pushed back, but still, no one really controlled Westchester County.  You may think nothing happened in this county, because it’s not in any history book, but that’s a missing story—Westchester was a no man’s land.  Criminals ran wild, local citizens turned their backs on each other, and the British and the Americans constantly fought in the area.  Westchester, as a county, suffered greatly in the war, but no place more than Bedford.

The town had been founded in 1680 but nothing from the founding remains because on July 11, 1779, Bedford went up in flames.  Why?  Why was this town in northern Westchester the spot that got erased from the grid?  Well, because on July 2nd, a powerful American was in Bedford, and the British wanted to capture him in a surprise attack, that didn’t end up being much of a surprise as the Americans were ready.  Following this, Washington tried to send more troops to Bedford, but they got diverted to Connecticut, leaving Bedford open for attack. The town had two look-outs, but one made a fatal error, thinking British troops approaching were American troops.  A woman, though, Esther Holmes, waved her red petticoats from atop a hill, warning the town.  And, the town took notice—from the houses, the people got to the windows, shooting at the soldiers as they arrived.  Their fight was not enough and in revenge, the British burned every house down, except for one, where a man who was loyal to the King lived.  And so, Bedford became a town of dust and ash, as the Revolution continued to rage on for four more years.

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A sign leading to the hill where the Americans stood watch                                  Credit: http://bashfuladventurer.com/7111779-feeling-bedford-burn/

However, Bedford’s story was far from over.  It would not remain ash for long, soon rebuilding itself in the new country of the United States of America and play a critical role in the beginning of New York’s history as a state.  That is a story for another day, another uncovering.

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Throughout the local cemetery, you will find numerous graves, now unreadable, that have flags labeled “1776” next to them.

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The cemetery also shows that many prominent Bedford families, such as the Bates, remained in Bedford even after the burning.

 

More than Meets the Eye: Anna Gould

Lyndhurst Mansion has had many famous residents from former New York City mayor William Paulding to railroad tycoon Jay Gould.  However, I think the most interesting resident and owner was Anna Gould, Jay Gould’s daughter.  A quick google search of Anna immediately links you to her glamorous life in Paris.  Anna was referred to as a dollar princess—she was rather plain but she had a fortune attached to her following the death of her father, Jay Gould.  However, Anna was far from plain and her story is one that deserves to be uncovered and heard.

Anna grew up primarily without any typical female figure in her life.  Her older sister, Helen, married very late and their mother had passed.  Historian Sara Mascia explains that a sister-in-law had to sponsor Anna into society before her wedding at age 19.  She moved to Paris for her marriage, becoming a countess.  She eventually divorced that husband as she felt he spent too much of her money and later married a Duke, who happened to be her first husband’s cousin—it was a bit weird, even for the times.  In Paris, Anna became the perfect Parisian woman, according to Ingrid, my guide at the Defying Label exhibit currently at Lyndhurst.  She was fashionable, thin, and constantly had portraits done.  She was constantly striving to show that she, an American heiress, did belong in society as a French Duchess.

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A photo of Anna next to her famous dress- she was known for her style in France

Leading up to World War II and following the death of her husband, Anna left France and returned to New York, renting an entire floor at the Plaza and buying back Lyndhurst from her older sister’s widower.  She preserved the home impeccably, changing barely anywhere but her own bedrooms, which she wanted to be more Parisian.

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A painting Anna brought back from France for the art gallery

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Anna’s childhood bedroom.

She kept the home open to the public, so that the community could enjoy its resources.  She donated the home to become a historic site.  She, while known as the selfish sister, is the reason why the stories of Lyndhurst continue to live on today.

Unfortunately, Anna’s story is the most hidden of any about Lyndhurst.  On a tour, she is infrequently mentioned and her contributions to the home are often forgotten.  Currently, the Defying Label exhibit gives Anna’s story light as it shows the outfits she wore after returning to America.  These outfits give you an insight into Anna—yes, she was far more selfish than her sister, Helen and yes, she cared greatly about what the world thought of her.  But, the cufflinks she gives her husband with her children’s faces on them and the outfits she gave to Helen show that there was far more to Anna Gould than the selfish, plain woman that meets the eye.  Without Anna Gould, all of the stories of Lyndhurst would be forever hidden—she laid the groundwork so they could be uncovered so now, it’s time for her story to be uncovered.

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Dresses Anna was commonly seen wearing following her return to New York

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Anna embraced the flapper style dress

 

Two Stories, One Home: Lyndhurst Mansion

Enter someone’s home and you instantly know them better.  A home shows who someone really is and my tour at Lyndhurst Mansion did exactly this for me in regards to William Paulding and George Merritt.  The home showed who they were, who they wanted to be, and who they became.  Join me as we peer into their lives and learn the stories that are thankfully kept alive every single day at Lyndhurst Mansion.

The original owner, William Paulding, former New York City Mayor commissioned the building of Lyndhurst because he wanted an escape from the city, according to my guide, Heinz.   He didn’t want the home to be showy, he just wanted a retreat.  However, it is the 19th century—whatever was fashionable in Europe was what every American needed, even the humble ones—so the home was built with gothic architecture.  The home was not necessarily very ornate—the ceilings and furniture were rather plain.

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A plain ceiling, as it was during Paulding’s time at Lyndhurst

The room I found most interesting from Paulding’s time was the parlor, which was mainly the woman’s room.  Men, at the time, had the opportunity to converse in many settings but women did not have that luxury.  The parlor was their space, where they were free to speak as friends do.

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The parlor, featuring a wheel chair, one of two ever made in this  specific style

The home changed greatly when it passed into new hands.  George Merritt, the second owner, was the opposite of William Paulding in many ways.  While Paulding just wanted a retreat, Heinz explained that Merritt wanted his home to show his wealth.  He expanded the home, adding a wing.

 

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The wing Merritt added to Lyndhurst

He also had stained glass placed in the windows.  Interestingly, the stained glass Merritt commissioned is one of the greatest mysteries of Lyndhurst—no one is sure who actually designed it.  It is thought to be a Tiffany’s piece, but there is no confirmation.

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One of the many stained glass additions Merritt made to the home

The finest addition to the home though is the art viewing gallery on the second floor.  The gallery hung state of the art pieces, ones that you would expect to see the Met and not in a home.  Merritt was trying to show the world that he deserved respect for his wealth.  He wanted people to be in awe of him and the art gallery made people see him in that light.

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Paintings that Merritt had commissioned for the ceilings

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The art gallery

It is strange to think that two men that wanted such different things could both find it in the same home.  William Paulding did have his country retreat with sprawling views of the river.  George Merritt also had his ostentatious show of wealth through Lyndhurst.  And now, as the home sits with guests coming through every day, both stories lie in the walls, just waiting for someone to take an interest and hear.

 

A Musical Legacy Preserved: The Glen Island Casino

Last post, I wrote about finding the history of Starin’s Glen Island.  The stories Glen Island keeps hidden though go far beyond the theme park.  On the foundation of the resort’s old Grand Café rose the Glen Island Casino and dining hall.  In 1930, with prohibition having survived a decade, the Glen Island Casino was a well-known speakeasy.  However, the music that played throughout the Casino was what drew people in.  Star musicians, such as “Ozzie” Nelson, Les Brown, and Glenn Miller, all got their starts at the Glen Island Casino.  My own grandmother describes going out to the Glen Island Casino as a great affair—people dressed to the nines to come here.   And the place had its fair share of drama, such as with the story of the Dorsey Brothers.  Like many of the big bands of the 1930s, they got their start performing a gig at Glen Island.  However, their orchestra also ended here, after the two brothers got into a huge fight about the tempo for a song during a performance.

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An image of the Glen Island Casino at its peak.  (Credit: https://goo.gl/images/U6hSTv)

 

The Casino closed in 1978 but reopened a few years later as a Restaurant.

Unlike Starin’s park, the Casino has been better preserved.  The restaurant that once took its place has come and gone, now being replaced by a catering hall.   Apparently, the second floor has preserved the space where the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s once performed.

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The Casino, now known as the Glen Island Harbour Club

Unfortunately, you can only enter what is now called the Glen Island Harbour Club if they are there for an event.  From afar, the place now has a very 80s-feel to it.  It was hard to believe that this was the site of a music boom in the 1940s.

Luckily, the music that once echoed throughout the building has been preserved!  The Glenn Miller Orchestra, one of the most famous groups that performed here, recorded an album in 1939 entitled “Live at Glen Island Casino,” which you can listen to here.

Glen Island had two stories waiting to be heard.  This small island now simply used for family picnics is where the theme park was born.  It was where music careers were started.  It was where Westchester County became an attraction.  The signs of this still stand in the castles and stone structures, in the stage at the restaurant, in the statues that seem slightly out of place.  It just needs to be uncovered.  So here is my uncovering of Glen Island—go visit and uncover it for yourself.

 

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The Glen Island Harbour Club, located upon the old Grand Café

 

Starin’s Glen Island: A Theme Park Forgotten In Time

Since I was three years old, I’ve spent my summers at Travers Island, across the water from Glen Island.  I could see the Island from the pool and our boat was docked directly across but I’d only ever visited once, when I was three years old.  I never felt any reason to go back, until while at my internship, I started to research the history of New Rochelle.  Turns out, Glen Island has a pretty wild story to tell.  So let’s take a trip back in time and uncover this story.

Everything begins with former U.S. Congressman John H. Starin, who served in the House of Representatives from 1877-1881.  However, Starin’s two other jobs are what make him so crucial to our story.  He owned a transportation company that included almost every tugboat seen in New York Harbor and many passenger steamboats.  This would come in handy, as in 1878, he purchased a group of small islands off the coast of New Rochelle, New York.  You guessed it—he purchased what would become Glen Island.  Starin created these islands into the first theme park and resort known as Starin’s Glen Island.  This is where our story takes flight.  In 1881, when the park opened, Starin used his steamboats to bring passengers back and forth from New York City to Glen Island.  Below is a map of the resort, showing the many activities guests could participate in.

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A map of the resort at Glen Island

The resort had two particularly notable attractions—a Museum of Natural History and a German castle.  This museum was amazing, as it housed mummies from 332 B.C., relics of the Stone Age, and several meteors.  The second attraction was a re-created German castle, which housed the “Little Germany” land.  Keep in mind, it was the nineteenth century—a German land meant having a beer garden.

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The castle that once housed the beer garden

The park thrived for twenty years, until things turned sour.  In 1904, one of the island’s steamboats burned, resulting in the deaths of 1,000 people.  The total end to Starin’s Glen Island soon followed with the death of Starin himself.   Without him at the helm, direction was lost and the resort became unprofitable, shutting down.  It seemed the story had come to a close– many of the original parts of the resort burned down but a new chapter began in 1924, when Westchester County purchased the islands.  The county joined all the islands together into one landmass, taking away the waterside walkways guests of the resort had enjoyed.  The county also built a bridge between the island and New Rochelle, linking Glen Island to the rest of the world.

Today, it’s hard to believe that Glen Island ever was the resort Starin created.  The only remains of the park are Little Germany, where two castles and many stone structures still stand. Today, one castle was boarded up and the other, where the beer garden once sat, is used for Westchester County storage. I could walk into a small hut structure, the inside of which has become a place for couples to sign their initials.  Only two plaques on the entire island mention Starin so here’s to his story, a story that deserves to be told.

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Part of one of the two Little Germany castles that has now been boarded up.

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The hut that is now a couple’s spot.

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The inside today of the famous Little Germany castle

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A statue, likely from the old carousel at Starin’s Glen Island