By Sarah Ellen Rindsberg
When composing articles on current developments in town, this reporter finds herself turning again and again to Town Historian Gray Williams for the authoritative historical perspective. Williams is a veritable treasure trove of information about the town of New Castle. A significant portion of the story of the hamlet is reflected in his life.
Williams’s keen insight and sense of humor shine through in a recent contribution to the New Castle Historical Society’s newsletter, an article entitled “Mr. Greeley Fights Flooding.” He is also particularly skilled in showing history’s relevance to the present day as shown in this passage:
“As we recover from the effects of the recent storm, we can perhaps be thankful for one thing. This time we were spared from another destructive force that has often plagued our community in the past–disastrous flooding. Downtown Chappaqua in particular has suffered periodically from floods, especially in the fall, following heavy, storm-generated rains.”
This problem also tormented the town’s celebrated ancestor, Horace Greeley, who viewed the southern portion of his 78-acre property (site of the present day Bell school playing fields) as a “muddy, oozy fen.” Williams explained that this was due in part to Greeley’s desire for a summer home in close proximity to the train station. “Now, railroad trains are not good at climbing hills…,” Williams wrote. “So the route chosen for the line ran through the Saw Mill River valley, and a whole new village sprang up where Quaker Road crossed the tracks.”
Greeley employed his financial resources to hire George Waring, an engineer who had worked on Central Park, to supervise the installation of drainage ditches. The flooding continued and it was not until the 1970s that the Army Corp of Engineers begin lowering the bed of the Saw Mill River in a renewed effort. When recounting anecdotes about Greeley’s life in Chappaqua, Williams gazed wistfully. “I would have liked to have known him,” he said. “He was known among his political enemies as Chappaquack, with the emphasis on quack.”
In Tune with Greeley
Williams shares several key characteristics with Greeley: curiosity about the past, a predilection for burial grounds and prominence in Chappaqua. “He had an interest in history too,” Williams noted. Greeley is believed to have been the first president of Fair Ridge cemetery and Williams has done research there and at numerous graveyards throughout the county. This modest contemporary doyen of the town also noted that Greeley was “the leading citizen [of his day].”
Betsy Towl, Director of the Society described Williams’s valuable contributions to the town. “People move to this community because of the history of the homes,” she observed. “His interest in old homes and their inhabitants” renders him extremely capable of “assisting members of the community who purchase these homes and would like to begin restoring their old homes.” One of his chief assets is “his wealth of knowledge,”Towl concluded.
Al Hutin, a close friend and colleague of Williams’s at the Society and on the Landmarks Advisory Committee, highlighted additional attributes. “Not only is he the Town Historian but he’s also lived in Chappaqua (as I have) for most of his life and he has a darn good memory!” Hutin exclaimed. He also mentioned the importance of documenting the history of the hamlet for future generations and Williams’s role therein. Williams has written “Picturing our Past: National Register Sites in Westchester County” and co-authored New Castle: Chappaqua and Millwood (Images of America).
Williams’s school years tell a sizable portion of the story of our revered schools. In the fall of 1937 he entered kindergarten at the Kipp School, located on the land where the art center is today. For first and second grades, Williams often walked from Begg Drive to the station with his father and then “trundled up the hill” to the King Street School, the site of the present day Talbot’s. Although the bus was always available,Williams, like many contemporary students, preferred alternate methods of transportation.
Next stop, Horace Greeley School or HGS as it is emblazoned on the facade of the Bell School. Recent conditions harken back to the past at this location. Williams recalls extremely crowded conditions which resulted in the addition of a “ramshackle temporary building” known as the “chicken coop.” Changing classes was quite chaotic, necessitating the presence of student monitors from the Service Club on each landing.
Williams traces his interest in history back to a seminal project assigned by his seventh grade social studies teacher, Edith Sliker. The project had several “units radiating outward: myself, my town, my county and my state,” he said. Due to its location “right up the road” and his attendance at the Sunday School at the Quaker Meeting House, Williams studied the Quaker graveyard for the “my town” section and a passion was born.
“I found all these names that I knew,” he reminisced. “Quinbys–there was a Rachel Quinby in my class…Kipps, Haights,” families whose names live on as street names. History has consequences, it lasts. These were the people that gave their names to places.”
For those who take the stellar reputation of Horace Greeley High School for granted, Williams provided a surprising insight. When he attended high school in Chappaqua, very few pupils went on to attend elite institutions. The father of one of Williams’s dear friends, Monty Furth, spearheaded the effort to include a college preparatory program. “Upon Monty’s nonadmission to Yale, his father became a driving force to upgrade the curriculum,” Williams recalled.
When Williams and his wife Marion were looking for the ideal place to raise their girls, they gravitated back to Chappaqua. Williams’s parents were living in town at the time and told him about a house on Gray Rock Lane–no relation. The name of the road refers to the massive piece of Fordham gneiss on the corner of Route 120. They neglected to mention that it needed a tremendous amount of work. Undaunted, the couple purchased the historic home and embarked on its transformation.
Williams plays a pivotal role in preserving the local heritage and revels in working with interested students. One of his fondest endeavors is his work with local boy scouts on, you guessed it, local burial grounds. He is very proud of the census and mapping work done by Michael Martinez of the Quaker graveyard and the updated and corrected census completed by the Biggar brothers, Charles and Nicholas, of Fair Ridge cemetery.
Additionally, Williams served on the library board in the early seventies and was instrumental in finding the site for its present incarnation.He cites the auditorium as a one of his major contributions as a board member, remembering that this contemporary mainstay was considered a “frill” at the time. Williams was also an active member in the local men’s club, the former counterpart to the League of Women Voters.
When asked whether local lore includes a ghost story or two, Williams laughed and declared, “If we have any ghosts, they’re benign because they’re Quakers!”
Sarah Ellen Rindsberg, being slightly fearful of ghosts, did not conduct this interview in the presence of the dearly departed.