By Sarah Ellen Rindsberg
The roots of the tree that is Armonk run deep. Traces of ancestors pervade every aspect of the community and are gratefully embraced. Today’s inhabitants reside in some of the very structures occupied by their predecessors and the town’s children are schooled in the way it was, long before their arrival.
The first glimpse into the history of the area is visible in the names of Armonk and the Town of North Castle. Both monikers are derived from words used to denote places by the Native Americans known as the Siwanoys. Armonk, which means “the fishing place between the hills,” was founded in 1842, and is based on Armonck, the name conferred by the Siwanoys on the Byram River. The Siwanoys constructed a fort on top of the hill where IBM presides today. As settlers in lower Westchester gazed to the north they saw a castle-like structure and dubbed the area North Castle.
The Town of North Castle was founded by Quakers in 1736. Their original meeting house, built in 1791, still stands. “It’s a magnificent building,” Ed Woodyard relates. Woodyard, an Armonk resident who is particularly enthusiastic about recounting historical facts and anecdotes, is a vice president of the Town of North Castle Historical Society. He goes on to describe the dowels still present in the structure and the sliding door of yesteryear, used to separate men and women during prayer.
The Historical Society is an active organization in town. It is open for tours on Wednesday and Sunday and invites students from the Valhalla and Byram Hills school districts periodically. By learning about candle making, butter, herbs, blacksmithing and playing colonial games, they acquire “a hands-on idea of what life was like 250 years ago.”
In addition, the Historical Society is working in conjunction with the North Castle Public Library on a project to digitize historic newspapers. These will become a valuable resource for historians of today and tomorrow.
Town Historian Doris Finch Watson highlights an important structure across from the library. “It was a school, used for many years, by many who still live in Armonk,” she relates. This building, the former Whippoorwill School, is now an apartment building.
Woodyard is also president of a group whose mission is to “restore and resurrect” the Elijah Miller house. This building’s claim to fame is that it served as Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of White Plains.
An interesting story lies behind the site of IBM’s worldwide headquarters in Armonk. In 1947, the land was being considered by the U.N. as a location for its new home. Woodyard surmises that the lack of a train line nearby may have served as a deterrent. IBM’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, started building the offices in 1951.
Today, IBM is considered “a benevolent friend, [having] helped fund the restoration of Smith’s Tavern which dates back to 1691.” The meeting room inside the tavern–the Historical Society’s home–is “where our town fathers met in the colonial and post colonial era.”
Woodyard, a resident since 1987, fondly recalls a former town tradition–that of community luncheon. During every presidential election, townspeople would come into town to vote, and then proceed to the Methodist church to have a memorable meal which included homemade chowder, bread, pies and cakes. This began in 1860 during Lincoln’s victory and was discontinued after George Bush’s election.
Suddenly the name of Anne Hutchinson pops up in a recent conversation with Woodyard. This ardent female was “banished by the Puritans in Boston because of her radical views,” Woodward recounts. And guess where she sought refuge: in a cave, known as Anne Hutchinson’s cave, on Pond Lane in Windmill Farm.
Sarah Ellen Rindsberg enjoys gaining a wealth of historical knowledge about the hamlet of Armonk.