Fishkill’s Van Wyck Homestead showcases the region’s Dutch heritage.
If you’ve ever been on the exit ramp of I-84 in Fishkill where it intersects with Route 9, you might have noticed an old house, partially hidden by trees, with a gas station as its unlikely neighbor. Though today it’s easy to overlook the building on its one-acre plot, the Van Wyck Homestead was once a prominent landmark in the region, with its land holdings stretching to nearly one thousand acres.
Cornelius Van Wyck originally bought the property in 1732 from Madame Catheryna Brett for a familiar reason: to escape crowding on Long Island. Dutchess County, by contrast, was particularly attractive to Dutch settlers like Van Wyck: its wide open spaces were ideal for farming and land surveying (which was his profession).
With so much multiculturalism today, it’s easy to forget that the Dutch were some of the earliest Europeans in the New World — beginning with Henry Hudson’s discovery of a certain river almost 400 years ago. They called it New Netherland. Had the English not gotten involved, we might still be calling New York City New Amsterdam and Albany Beaverwyck. And we’d likely be speaking Dutch.
But all things Dutch haven’t vanished completely. You can still plug into the Netherlandish mind-set by visiting authentic houses like Van Wyck, which will be part of a Dutch celebration — along with eight other properties and a walking tour of Fishkill — on the weekend of September 20th. Follow the trail from Dutchess across the river to Orange County, and you’ll see that much that is Dutch is right under your nose.
“The fascinating thing is that the English took over in the 1660s, but Dutch culture in the Hudson Valley didn’t really flourish until around 1750,” says Bill Krattinger, a preservation specialist with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP). “It was a matter of great debate when they were transitioning into the English language from the Dutch. Some people didn’t like it and continued to speak Dutch. It wasn’t until 1800 that the Dutch started absorbing English culture.”
The Van Wyck house holds some 10,000 artifacts recovered through archeological digs
Like so many other early Dutch settlers, Cornelius and Hannah Van Wyck originally built an unassuming, cabin-size farmhouse where they raised a posse of kids. “Early Dutch houses were very simple, with a garret where you’d sleep. It wasn’t high-end living,” says Krattinger. But as they prospered, the Van Wycks built out, adding on east and west wings around 1755. Grandson Isaac eventually inherited the house. “He was in the state legislature and known for traveling in his yellow coach, which is now on display in Greenfield, Michigan, at the Henry Ford Museum,” says Fishkill Historical Society Board President Roy Jorgensen.
Photograph by Alexis Lynch
Fancy that: This mantel at the Van Wyck
Around 1810, Isaac added a fancy-schmancy Adam-style mantel in the west parlor, a new staircase in the center hall, doors with transoms, and a state-of-the-art cook oven. This last item likely replaced a traditional jambless fireplace, an open, walk-in hearth similar to the one found at Hasbrouck House (a.k.a Washington’s Headquarters) in Newburgh (yet another pit stop on this roundup). When the Fishkill Historical Society actually put the oven to use for a baking event in 1993, they discovered one of the benefits of the house’s original divided Dutch doors: glorious cross-ventilation. “The oven took three hours to heat up, and then it was like an inferno. When it was too hot to handle, the bread was done,” says Jorgensen. “You can see why people only used to bake once a week.”
Other features worth noting include an 1850 secretary made by a local Dutch cabinet and coffin maker; portraits of local Dutch families by itinerant painter Ammi Phillips; and, of special note, Revolutionary War-era artifacts retrieved from the grounds.
During the war, the strategically located house was requisitioned by the Continental Army as an officer’s headquarters. It was visited by many notables, including George Washington himself. Military trials were held here, as well as the mock trial of American patriot soldier Enoch Crosby, inspiration for James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Spy.
Located on land near the house, the Fishkill Supply Depot was a complex encampment that included an artillery park, huts, barracks, a storehouse, stables, and shops for such tradespeople as the wigmaker, blacksmith, baker, tent maker, and wheelwright. It’s all listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but all that remains today is the Van Wyck house.
“Soldiers came here to get munitions, to rest, to get out of harm’s way,” says Village of Fishkill Historian Karen Hitt. “It was a crossroads.” The Van Wyck house holds some 10,000 artifacts from the encampment recovered through archeological digs. Many, including a pretty hefty cannonball and a rusted bayonet, are on display at the homestead, along with a 1738 monogrammed bottle that belonged to Cornelius himself.
Doug Mackey, a historic preservation program analyst with NYSOPRHP, was a student at the Archeology Field School of SUNY New Paltz in 1980 when he worked on archeological digs at the site. “The fact that we were finding so much pottery, glass, nails, and features that were definitely linked to the Revolutionary War was exciting.” Some believe there could be soldiers and townspeople buried on land just south of the site. The land is now owned by a developer, a circumstance that may preclude further digs from taking place.
One thing is certain: Many locals are buried at the First Reformed Church in the village, another stop on the tour. The church was a meeting place for the New York Provincial Convention (where delegates were chosen for the Second Continental Congress) and a prison for Tories. The aforementioned Madame Brett, whose 1709 Dutch-style house in Beacon is also on the tour, rests under the pulpit. A number of Van Wycks — including Hannah and Cornelius — are in the churchyard, too.
Following the Revolutionary War, Van Wycks continued to live at the family homestead. The last one was Sidney Van Wyck, grandson of Isaac. In 1882, he hung himself in the barn (of which only a foundation remains). “The newspapers implied that he was mourning his mother, who passed some 30 years before,” says Jorgensen. “He was unmarried and perhaps isolated, though he had a brother down the road. I’ve been working here and heard things — doors opening and closing — when no one else is around. The old-timers [from the historical society] used to talk about it, too. So something’s definitely happening here.”