Archive for the ‘Animal Tales’ Category


Margaret Wise Brown and her Kerry blue terrier Crispin’s Crispian in the 1940s.

In this final chapter of Crispin’s Crispian, I’ll tell the fascinating story of what happened to the old New York City farmhouse on York Avenue in Lenox Hill where his famous pet mom, Margaret Wise Brown, wrote her final children’s book, Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself.

In Part II of this Old New York dog tale, we left off in the 1940s, when Margaret Glass and her husband Owen Healy occupied their two-story brick building at 1335 York Avenue and ran a neighborhood dining room on the property. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, children’s picture book author Margaret Wise Brown rented the small, 18th-century cottage hidden on the back lot behind the Healy’s brick apartment house for use as her studio.

Born in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood in 1910 (Margaret and her family lived in an existing two-family house at 118 Milton Street), Margaret spent much of her career in New York City. She first lived in her own flat at 21 West 10th Street, and then, during her long affair with Blanche Oelrichs (stage name, Michael Strange, a wealthy socialite and ex-wife of John Barrymore and Harrison Tweed), she shared an apartment with her partner at 10 Gracie Court near the East River.


Margaret always loved animals. During her childhood, she and her sister, Roberta, had about 30 rabbits, one dog of their own, and about 6 “borrowed dogs.” 

Sometime during the 1940s, Margaret and Michael lived in adjacent apartments at 186 East End Avenue. It was during this time that Michael gave Crispin’s Crispian to Margaret. Every day, Margaret would take the Kerry blue terrier to her studio, where he reportedly had full run of the place.

The two-story cottage, called Cobble Court because of the cobblestone court that separated it from the brick apartment building, was reportedly unheated, so Margaret covered the walls of the living space with animal fur (don’t ask me how she did this). She spent her days writing in the cottage, and sometimes at night she would host dinner parties there.


The crooked little house in this 1967 newspaper illustration from Mister Dog looks familiar…

It was here that Margaret wrote Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself,  a charming picture story about a conservative dog who lives in a two-story doghouse and wants to find a little child to be his friend. The book was inspired by Crispin’s Crispian, the setting was no doubt based on the Cobble Court cottage, and there’s a good chance that the child is based on Albert Clarke, a little boy who lived in a tenement that Margaret passed by every day to get to her back-lot cottage.

Margaret’s Final Days

In 1952, 42-year-old Margaret met 26-year-old James Stillman “Pebble” Rockefeller, a bearded sailor who descended from Andrew Carnegie. Although the two were engaged, they never got the chance to marry. That year, she was diagnosed with an ovarian cyst while in France. Although she lived through the surgery, she died two weeks later on November 13 of an embolism.


Margaret Wise Brown and Crispin’s Crispian at the Cobble Court cottage in the late 1940s.

Although she had supposedly asked to leave Crispin’s Crispian in the care of an old friend, I came across a news article that stated her sister, Roberta Rauch of Jamaica, Vermont, was bequeathed $20,000 to take care of the famous terrier. Albert Clarke, the little boy from the tenement, was reportedly willed the royalties from most of Margaret’s books published up to the time of her death.

Cobble Court’s Not-so-Final Days

From about 1950 to 1966, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York tried to persuade Margaret Glass Healy and her brothers to sell the property, including the two houses and the land. They finally reached a deal, and the property was sold for about $75,000.

At this time, the little farmhouse was being rented by Swedish-born Mr. and Mrs. Sven Bernhard. They had made extensive renovations to the home since moving there in 1960, and did not want to move when the archdiocese ordered them out to make room for a large nursing home (the Mary Manning Walsh Home for Aged at 1339 York Avenue).

So they made a deal: the couple would leave, but only if they could take the house with them. With the help of architect William C. Shopsin, they purchased a vacant 3600-square foot lot for $30,000 on Charles Street and made arrangements for the house be moved to Greenwich Village.


On March 5th, 1967, the farmhouse (including the cobblestones from the courtyard) was loaded onto a flatbed and brought to the vacant double lot off at Charles and Greenwich Street (most city lots are 25 feet wide, but since the house is 26 feet wide, the couple had to purchase two lots to accommodate it). As the truck pulled away, Mrs. Bernhard exclaimed, “It’s saved! It’s saved!”


The 18th-century cottage, hidden for 100 years behind 1335 York Avenue and 435 East 71st Street, was revealed during demolition work in February 1966.


On March 5, 1967, the house was loaded on a flatbed truck and transported to Greenwich Village. This view is of the back of the house, which apparently had not been painted white. It cost the Bernhard’s $6,500 to move the 26-foot-wide house. 


Here’s the four-room, 900-square-foot house being pulled down 14th Street on what appears to be a rainy day.

The Bernhards continued living in the home on Charles Street for twenty years. They sold the house for about $725,000 in 1986 and moved to Mystic, Connecticut.

In 1988, the house was purchased by its current owners, Eliot Brodsky and Suri Bieler. The couple worked hard to restore it, adding a 540-square-foot addition when their son was born that earned them an award from the Greenwich Village Historical Society for its canted angles that match the original house.

“It’s as if a farmhouse, in the manner of a spaceship, fell from the sky and landed smack in the middle of a dense urban setting.”–Off the Grid, 2011


Today, the six-room, wood-frame house, with its well-manicured yard and driveway, looks very much out of place at 121 Charles Street. Photo by P. Gavan


Now, should you ever find yourself walking past this house on Charles Street, you have a great story to tell. Photo by P. Gavan








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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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









Smit's Vly

Two hundred years before P.T. Barnum opened his American Museum at Broadway and Ann Street, there was a large saltwater meadow bounded by the East River and Broadway north of Wall Street called Smit’s Vly (or Fly), for “blacksmith’s valley” T. Smit had a forge in this meadow near the foot of Maagde Paegje (Maiden’s Path), where a ferry to Long Island — actually a canoe — was operated by Cornelius Dircksen. This illustration shows Smit’s Vly and the forge at the foot of Maagde Paegje. That may even be Dircksen’s canoe at the dock or on shore. Museum of the City of New York Collections

When most of us hear the name P.T. Barnum, we automatically think of the circus and “The Greatest Show on Earth.” But many years before P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus made its debut in 1870 — and 40 years before he partnered with James A. Bailey – P.T. Barnum rose to fame with a very large collection of artificial and natural curiosities from around the world that he displayed at his American Museum in New York City.

In Part I of the American Museum story, I wrote about the history of the museum, which once stood at the southeast corner of Ann Street and Broadway. In this post, I’ll explore some of the fascinating history behind the land at this famous Manhattan intersection.

The Cows on Maiden Lane

Once upon a time in New Amsterdam, in other words, around the 1630s, all of the land bounded by Broadway (Heere Wagh), the East River, Maiden Lane, and present-day Ann Street was farmland owned by Anthony Jansen van Salee, the Turk, who arrived in New Amsterdam about 1633. This part of lower Manhattan along the East River north of Wall Street was called Smit’s Vly (aka Smit’s Fly or Smith’s Valley).

Maiden Lane and Pearl Street

Cornelius Van Tienhoven’s homestead was near the intersection of present-day Front Street and Maiden Lane, pictured here in 1816 when it was the site of the Fly Market, the predecessor to the Fulton Street Market. Before it was laid out and cobbled in 1698, Maiden Lane was a footpath along a pebbled freshwater brook that ran from Nassau Street to the East River. Van Tienhoven often led his cows up Maiden Lane to the common pasturage on Broadway.

Anthony Jansen Van Salee, a troublemaker who was married to Grietse Reyniers (dubbed Manhattan’s first “lady of the night”), and whose descendants include Cornelius Vanderbilt, reportedly acquired the land in 1638 and named the farm “Wallenstein” in memory of Albert van Wallenstein, a Bohemian military leader and politician. Van Salee transferred the deed to this land the following year.

According to historical records, the next owner of record was Cornelius Van Tienhoven, a womanizer and embezzler — or so they say. Born in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 1601, Van Tienhoven came to New Amsterdam as a Dutch West Indies Company accountant in 1633. He was promoted to schout-fiscaal (secretary) with the arrival of Director Willem Kieft in 1638, and later named receiver general under Peter Stuyvesant in 1651.

Ann Street, New York

If you’ve ever walked down the narrow part of Ann Street between William and Gold streets — as I did to take this photo — you would have walked over the old Van Tienhoven farm lane. This was also the site of Ann Kilmaster’s school (31 Ann Street), which is the school Washington Irving attended in 1786. Although the city widened most of Ann Street in 1830, for some reason this section was not included in the plans.

There was at this time a narrow lane that ran north through Van Tienhoven’s farm from about today’s Fulton and Gold streets to present-day Ann Street (where there stood a great tree), and then westward to Broadway. Van Tienhoven’s Lane, as it was called, was not carefully laid out, but was merely an access lane through underbrush and woodland to the triangular pasture where City Hall now stands.

(As an aside, for a very short time around 1690, part of today’s Pine Street between Pearl Street and Broadway was called Tienhoven Street. Tienhoven Street was absorbed by King Street in 1691, which was renamed Pine Street in 1694.)

Following Van Tienhoven’s death (murder?) in November 1656 – his hat and cane were found in the North River (Hudson), but his body was never recovered — the farm was sold to glassmaker Johannes (Jan) Smedes, who owned a glassworks on Glass Makers Street (today’s South William Street.)

Fast-forward 20 years to the Bolting Act of 1676, which forbade tanners, butchers, and shoemakers to operate within the walled city limits (south of Wall Street). At that time, Coenraet Ten Eyck, a tanner and shoemaker, owned a parcel of swampy land west of Broad Street (Heere Graft) and north of Beaver Street (a former sheep pasture). He and several other tanners and shoemakers operated the tanning pits at the intersection of Broad Street and Exchange Place (Prince Graft).

Map of Shoemakers' Pasture

Shoemakers’ Pasture is #7 on this 1852 map of New York City farms. The Vandercliff Farm was east of the Shoemakers’ Pasture (#8), and Beeckman’s Pasture (#10) and the Commons (#11) were to the north. The small triangular lot south of Park Row was owned by Andrew Hopper, who had a store on this site in the late 1700s.

When the Bolting Act was passed under British control, Ten Eyck and his fellow shoemakers were forced to find another location for their tannery. Enter Jan Smedes.

At this very same time, in 1676, Governor Edmund Andros had directed all owners of vacant lots or ruinous lands to build upon or improve them under penalty of having them sold at auction. Smedes sold his farm to Coenraet Ten Eyck and three other shoemakers — John Harpendinck (aka Harpending or Herbendinck), Carsten Luersen and Jacob Abrahamson.

For 20 years, the shoemakers’ tannery, or “tan pitts,” operated on the marshy land near the southeast corner of Maiden Lane and William Street (right about where the Louise Nevelson Plaza is today). All the land including and surrounding the tannery — about 16 acres — became known as the Shoemakers’ Pasture (aka Shoemakers’ Meadow).

In 1695, Shoemaker’s Pasture was divided into lots, a majority of which were acquired by John Harpendinck. In 1720, Ann Street (Van Tienhoven’s lane), John Street (named in honor of Harpendinck), and Fulton Street were laid out through Shoemakers’ Pasture. Following Harpendinck’s death in 1724, all of his deeded land was bequeathed to the Consistory of the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. The Consistory built the North Dutch Church in 1769 on the northwest side of Horse and Cart Lane (now William Street) at Fulton Street.

Old North Dutch Church

The North Dutch Church was built in 1769 on at the northwest side of Horse and Cart Lane at Fulton Street. During the Revolution, the church was used as a prison and a hospital. It was demolished in 1875 and replaced by shops. Today it is the site of apartments and a Chipolte Mexican Grill.

From about 1700 to 1770, the northwest corner of Shoemakers’ Pasture, bounded by Broadway, Nassau, Fulton and Ann streets, was occupied by the city’s first pleasure garden known as “Spring Garden.” The garden was lined with shade trees, and featured walkways and small grassy squares bordered by hedges. There was a large public house called Spring Garden House at the Ann Street corner, which was occupied by winemaker Thomas Scurlock (1739), and later by John Elkin (1760) and Henry Bicker (1770).

In March 1770, the Sons of Liberty persuaded Bicker to sell the house to them for use as their headquarters. They named it Hampden Hall, in memory of John Hampden, who had given his life in the struggle against arbitrary taxation 100 years earlier. Their first meeting here took place on March 19, 1770.

Following the Revolution, Ann Street had about 20 houses, most of them on the south side of the street. Mr. Ketchum lived at 22 Ann Street, where the Society of Peruke Makers and Hair Dressers met; St. John’s Masonic Lodge No. 1 occupied 2 Ann Street; Washington Irving lived at No. 40; Mrs. Ann Kilmaster’s school was at No. 13; Christ Church in Ann Street was at No. 49; and Johnathan Pearsee kept a tavern at No. 16.

Liberty Pole, New York

On May 21, 1766, the Sons of Liberty erected a Liberty Pole on the site of today’s City Hall Park in celebration of the repeal of the 1765 Stamp Act. Over the next four years, British solders chopped or burned the pole down many times, but each time the townsfolk would replace it. The final straw came on January 19, 1770, when the pole’s destruction set off a series of riots on John and William streets known as the Battle of Golden Hill. This battle, just six weeks before the Boston Massacre, was reportedly the first time blood was shed during the Revolution.

In 1803, the old Hampden Hall at the corner of Ann Street and Broadway was the town residence of Andrew Hopper. He also had a dry goods store on this block in a building at 222 Broadway that he shared with John Scoles, an engraver and bookseller. A few years later the site was occupied by Jotham Smith, who also operated a large dry goods store on this corner.

In 1825, Nos. 220 and 222 Broadway — now occupied by the stores of John Vreeland and others — was sold at auction by the estate of Andrew Hopper. The land was purchased by Francis W. Olmstead, who constructed a large, 5-story marble building on the site. John Scudder opened the American Museum in this building in 1830. P.T. Barnum entered the picture in December 1841.

And so we’ve come full circle. In Part III, I’ll tell you about the animals at Barnum’s museum and the horrendous fire that took their lives.

Broadway and Ann Street

Broadway, looking north from Ann Street, was very serene in 1819 when this illustration was drawn. St. Paul’s Church is to the left, and 220-222 Broadway, a dry goods store, would have been just to the right. Museum of the City of New York Collections