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.

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.

 

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.