People to Watch
(page 4 of 11)
By: Mary Forsell
Almost anyone driving along Route 9 south of I-84 in Fishkill wouldn’t notice anything unusual — a blighted mall, a Mexican restaurant, a Hess station. Mara Farrell sees things differently. “This is hallowed ground,” says the Fishkill resident. “This is a place where dramas played out.”
She is referring to the Fishkill Supply Depot and Encampment, a one-of-a-kind military city that once occupied this land. It was constructed in 1776 by George Washington’s troops and was in continuous service for seven years. A major logistical center for munitions and war supplies and an extensive camp/hospital for the Continental Army, the site was crucial to preventing the advance of the British and helping the colonies win the Revolutionary War.
Despite this legacy — and the fact that the 70-acre site bordering both sides of Route 9 was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 — much of it has been developed. When Farrell moved to Fishkill from Westchester in 2001, and learned of the depot’s history through her work as a board member of the Fishkill Historical Society, she immediately took up the cause to save the site’s remaining 20 acres. “From the very start, I was astounded by the importance of the site. It is New York’s Valley Forge,” says Farrell. “I just had to be an advocate.”
The owner of a small public relations agency, Farrell went on to cofound Friends of Fishkill Supply Depot in 2006 with Nate Binzen and Marty Byster. The group has initiated petitions and spoken out to save the site from commercial development.
“Historic sites have the power of place,” says Farrell, who majored in history and music at Sarah Lawrence and earned a masters in international education from Columbia (she was also a teenage tour guide at Lyndhurst historic site in Tarrytown). “Ground is irreplaceable. If you don’t make the community aware of what we have, commercial plans move forward and hallowed ground becomes aisle nine of the next big-box store. That’s not how we want to honor our first veterans.”
Despite her progress in raising public awareness (which includes winning the support of Town Supervisor Joan Pagones), Farrell often felt like a voice in the wilderness. That is until last summer, when a Friday phone call invited her to testify on behalf of the site before a Senate subcommittee on the following Monday — and tell the story in less than five minutes. “It was dramatic and a bit surreal,” says Farrell. “For so long you fight and a lot of doors are closed to you. And then suddenly things shift, and you get this opportunity.”
For Farrell, that big break came thanks to U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. She had pushed the state to complete an archeological excavation of a suspected grave site related to the supply depot. When Schumer learned that hundreds of graves had been confirmed on a nine-acre parcel that was up for development — and that the site could well be the largest Revolutionary War burial complex ever identified and one of the country’s first military cemeteries — he introduced legislation to make the site eligible for federal preservation funds. Following Farrell’s senate testimony, which was the preliminary step, the bill will go to the full committee on Energy and Natural Resources and then to the full Senate for a vote. (The legislation has already passed the House.) “Mara’s knowledge and passion will continue to be an essential asset,” says Schumer.
For Farrell, the presence of the graves is just one part of the story. Past archeological activities at the site — when I-84 was built in the 1960s and the Dutchess Mall in the 1970s — turned up foundations of structures ranging from officers’ quarters to a blacksmith’s shop. “But the bulldozer was basically right behind them,” she says. Still, the possibilities are tantalizing for what might still be out there — especially considering that the actual supply depot stretched some three miles south of Fishkill, far more land than the 70 designated acres.
Farrell dreams of building an interpretive center on the site and incorporating public art and trails: “Perhaps some of the features could be excavated and stabilized. We foresee a partnership with a university to have on-site archeologists and a learning center.” Most dramatic of all, she envisions the day when chemical and DNA testing can be used to determine the identities of the soldiers buried at the site. “Ever since an Associated Press article on the graves ran in papers nationwide last July, people from all over the country have been reaching out to Friends of Fishkill Supply Depot. That shows that this site really does have the promise to be a national place of memory.”
» Next: Meet Megan Fells and Charles Fells Jr.