Column: Westchester is soaked in American history

In doing my research last week on Westchester County political offices, I had a wonderful moment of accidental learning as I stumbled upon articles about the county itself. We have a very interesting and storied home.Mayor-Marvin

From the historical perspective, Westchester was home to many luminaries. Before his rout at the Battle of White Plains in 1776, General George Washington stayed at the Elijah Miller House, which still stands on Virginia Road in North White Plains. When the yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia, our second president, John Adams, was forced to leave and came to live with his daughter on Route 22 in Mount Vernon.

Founding Father John Jay was raised in Rye, matriculated at King’s College at age 14 and went on to be governor, co-author of the Federalist Papers and first chief justice of the Supreme Court before retiring to a homestead in Bedford.

After winning the popular vote but losing the presidential election of 1876 to Rutherford B. Hayes, Democratic New York Gov. Samuel J. Tilden retired to a Yonkers estate, Greystone, a 30-room stone villa including the gardens of what is now Untermeyer Park.

The third vice president, Aaron Burr, often tried cases at St. Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon and, when colonel of the Continental Army, took command of the forces in White Plains.

Horace Greeley, founder of The New York Tribune and the Republican Party as well as a presidential candidate against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, was a Chappaqua resident and has been immortalized as a namesake of a local high school.

John Peter Zenger wrote an article about an Eastchester town election that heavily criticized the New York governor and resulted in a trial for seditious libel. The result, in favor of Zenger, led to the enshrining of freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights.

In the more recent past, a Mount Vernon native, Lt. Ira Palm, led a raid on Adolph Hitler’s Munich apartment in 1945. Though Hitler was not there, Lt. Palm returned home with a gold-plated pistol bearing the letters AH.

Among the county’s many firsts include an elevator company, Otis in Yonkers; the first self-made female millionaire, hair care maven Madame C. J. Walker of Irvington; America’s oldest golf club, St. Andrew’s founded in 1899 and the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, made in Yonkers.

In 1912, an inquisitive college student from Yonkers, Edwin Armstrong, invented FM radio and, the year prior, a Dominican nun named Mother Mary Alphonsa founded the first home for terminal cancer patients. Born Rose Hawthorne, she was the daughter of American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and, when she opened a second home in Unionville, the town was renamed Hawthorne in her honor.

Tuckahoe marble was used to build The New York Public Library, the Federal Reserve Bank on Wall Street, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. Painter Norman Rockwell lived in New Rochelle from 1913 to 1939 and painted many of his famous Saturday Evening Post covers while in residence.

Westchester’s highest point, at 982 feet, is in Mountain Lake Park in North Salem and our oldest building dates back to 1667 and is still in use as a library for the Rye Historical Society. Westchester is home to over 50 parks and 18,000 acres of green space, the largest being Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, which is five times the size of Central Park.

On a less historical, and rather fun bent, the Glen Island Harbor Club was built as a summer resort and, during the Big Band Era, the venue helped launch the careers of Les Brown, the Dorsey Brothers and Glenn Miller. Its casino adjunct was closed in 1978.

Howard Stern started his radio career as a disc jockey in Briarcliff Manor, and Beatles wives Yoko Ono and Linda McCarthy both lived in Scarsdale and attended Sarah Lawrence College. One of Scarsdale’s more infamous residents was FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who sold state secrets and began his treason while living in Scarsdale in the late 1970’s. Aussie actor Mel Gibson was actually a Peekskill resident until the age of 12.

A tunnel in the shuttered Memorial Field on Sanford Boulevard in Mount Vernon was used to film the iconic “Mean Joe Greene” Coke commercials so popular in the early 1980s.

Even though we are home of the cocktail—because legend has it that American soldiers in Elmsford often stole tail feathers from Tory-owned chickens before heading to O’Brien’s for a few beverages and the tavern’s barmaid began to decorate the potables with the plumage thus birthing the cocktail—Crain’s New York Business says we are New York’s slimmest, fittest county for our low rates of obesity, inactivity and diabetes.

We truly live in a fascinating county.