A Catskill Catalog: August 13, 2008
The Catskills were once an experiment in American feudalism. The experiment failed, thankfully, but it is useful to remember that many of our homes, fields, woods and farms were once the property of fabulously wealthy men who rented out parts of their great estates to tenants, who owed them yearly payment in both goods and service.
The two-million-acre Hardenbergh Patent, granted to Johannis Hardenbergh by Queen Anne in 1708, stretched from the Rondout Creek to the West Branch of the Delaware, from Albany County in the north to a line somewhere around present-day Monticello in the south. Bought up by the Livingston family in the middle 1700s, the patent was divided into a number of Great Lots, each owned by a family member or business associate.
Often, the proprietor of that multi-thousand-acre Great Lot would build a house to serve both as the proprietor’s residence when in the mountains, and as the central point of authority for the rented lands that surrounded it. The Armstrong house in present-day Fleischmanns, now the property of the Moshe Y’oel Yeshiva, was such a great house for the 8,000-acre Armstrong Tract.
I understand the original big house on Lake Delaware, between Bovina and Delhi, has been torn down. I believe Livingston descendants still own a portion of the estate that was once the center of the Great Lot in that part of the mountains. Edward Livingston’s big house once stood just east of Arkville, on land across Route 28 from DeBari’s carpet store. It’s said that Livingston lost that property to a French count in a New Orleans card game. Later, the house became the Locust Grove Hotel.
A trip up Route 30 to the Lansing Manor in Schoharie County can take us back in time to see what a great house was like in the days of the patent owners. Owned and operated by the New York State Power Authority, Lansing Manor is on the same parcel as the Blenheim-Gilboa Power Project Visitors’ Center. It makes a great destination for an afternoon day-trip, particularly with children as summer wanes and they prepare to return to school. The promise of a swim at the Mine Kill State Park pool next door might add a little inducement.
Lansing Manor was the manor house of the 40,000-acre Blenheim Patent, granted in 1769 to John Weatherhead, an English civil servant, by King George III. Weatherhead never made it to his American lands, which passed into the hands of John Lansing at the time of the Revolution.
John Lansing was a prominent Albany lawyer, a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and to the State Ratification Convention the following year. He went on to become the Chief Judge of the New York State Supreme Court.
Lansing built his Manor house in 1819 for his daughter, Frances, and son-in-law Jacob Livingston Sutherland. (Man, those Livingstons were everywhere!) Interestingly, Judge Lansing himself disappeared one December night in New York City, where he had gone on business. Leaving his hotel at nine in the evening, he never returned. His disappearance caused a sensation. It’s believed he was murdered, perhaps by political adversaries.
Lansing Manor is a grand and beautiful home. One enters an entrance hall lined with family portraits and framed documents, including the original deed for the 40,000-acre Blenheim Patent. A ladies’ parlor, gentlemen’s library, and drawing room are furnished both with original Sutherland pieces and period furniture. It’s the 1840s all over again!
Upstairs, the master bedroom contains a big canopy bed and large chests of drawers, one original to the house. A nursery, girls’ bedroom, and a boys’ room give us an idea of how prosperous children lived back in the day. In one upstairs room, a table is set for a meal. Children, in those days, were to be seen and not heard, which meant that they often ate upstairs with a governess, rather than downstairs with their parents.
The coolest part of the house, both literally and figuratively, is the cellar, dominated by a large brick and stucco walled kitchen. All the cooking was done in the open fireplace. The original iron crane-work still holds big iron kettles and pots, which would simmer or boil over the log fire. A brick oven to the side of the hearth was used for baking.
A long plank farm table holds a variety of implements used for food preparation. Other tools, including a tin sausage stuffer, are in the adjoining pantry. Down a basement corridor is a cozy family dining room with a wine cellar next door.
The Sutherland family stopped collecting rents before most of their fellow patentees did, but, sadly, they continued to hold slaves even after emancipation came to New York in the late 1820s. Jacob Sutherland died in 1845 and the property was soon sold to the Spring family, who used it as a dairy farm. The Visitors’ Center is in the large dairy barn they built.
In 1911, Floyd Mattice bought the farm from Edmund Spring. His son sold it to the Power Authority in 1971 and six years later the house was reborn as the Manor house it was built to be. We’re lucky to have it.