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.


The original building of Lawrence Hospital. Credits:

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.


An original building of Sarah Lawrence College donated by the Lawrences  Credits:

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.


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


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.

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.


A sign leading to the hill where the Americans stood watch                                  Credit:

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.