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New York's Roadside Attractions

Historic Richmond Town

Historic Richmond Town
Credit: Meghan Deans

I’ve lived in New York for just over five years. And in all that time—like a lot of New Yorkers I’ve met—I’d never been to Staten Island. I don’t know anyone who lives on New York City’s much-maligned borough to the south, so I never had a reason to go. The lack of subway lines to the island was certainly a limiting factor as well, and even though I found a bus that goes there from Brooklyn, come on. A bus? But thanks to this series, I made a reason for myself to go the weekend before Thanksgiving.

There’s a little Dutch colonial village at the center of Staten Island called Historic Richmond Town. It was established in the 1690s following a wave of Dutch settlements in neighboring villages, of which Staten Island was home to many. Though the British had taken control of the former New Amsterdam in 1664, many of the Dutch remained. In 1728 Richmond became the seat of Staten Island’s government, largely due to its central location. After Staten Island’s incorporation into New York City in 1898, most of the government offices moved from Richmond to St. George, just across the harbor from Manhattan. 

Historic Richmond Town has regular tours throughout the season, each focusing on a single theme. This past Saturday’s theme was “Eating America,” which aligned closely enough in my consideration to Thanksgiving, which is solely about eating no matter what any historian tries to tell you to the contrary. I asked my friend Meghan if she’d like to accompany me, and we planned to meet at the ferry terminal in lower Manhattan at noon. I figure, if you’re gonna go to Staten Island, you best take the ferry. I showed up about 45 minutes early, largely due to the fear of missing the boat.

While waiting, I saw a woman drop about five bags to the ground in front of the terminal and scream, “Noooo!” at the top of her lungs, followed by a stream of obscenities to no one in particular. After half a minute of this she picked her things up and carried on. Then I noticed a large, disturbed-looking man about twice my size mount one of the benches and put all his weight on one of the saplings lining the promenade leading to the terminal, before it snapped. He then spat on the broken tree. After a few minutes of milling about threateningly, he wandered off into lower Manhattan, presumably to kill someone. Then a nice young man named Seth sat down beside me and asked about the Occupy Wall Street movement. I told him I didn’t know if they were still in Zucotti, but he could probably check Twitter. He was visiting from Pennsylvania, and he asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was reporting on historic sites, then after letting me talk for a while he explained that he was on a Christian mission and would I read a pamphlet if he gave me one? It wasn’t even noon yet, people. I declined the pamphlet, and luckily Meghan called me then. I wished Seth luck in the city.

We crossed the harbor on a sunny, chilly day. The view of lower Manhattan is really outstanding after all. A Coast Guard boat with a machine gunner on the prow shadowed the ferry across. Meghan and I joked that it must be to keep the sharks at bay, but in reality I assume it’s a post-9/11 practice. Once on the island we asked about three MTA agents for assistance in finding the S74 bus that would take us to Richmond, and only two of them totally lied to us. Meghan knitted for most of the ride as we joked about the angry ghosts of sharks that had no doubt followed us from the harbor, as well as some of the funnier street names: Fingerboard Lane, New Dorp Lane, etc.

It seems to me that in during the Great Depression, the nation began to take a renewed interest in its history. Perhaps people decided to start looking backward, wondering where it all could have gone so wrong? In the short time I’ve been researching New York’s historical sites, it seems like most preservation as we know it got its biggest boost in the 1930s. I’m sure the WPA and the CCC had a lot to do with this. Historic Richmond Town is no different, and the Staten Island Historical Society started work on restoring and protecting the site in earnest around then.

Today, Historic Richmond Town sits on 100 acres with 27 buildings dating from the late 17th century up through the 20th. Around half of the buildings are in their original locations, and the other half have been moved from other locations on the island as those areas modernized. We arrived to a mostly empty historic village, with the sounds of traffic veering around the enclave on all sides. I was somewhat dismayed because, based on the town’s website, I expected to see historical re-enactors milling about as if the past couple centuries never happened—as it turns out, they all have the season off. Inside the old clerk’s office we found a few employees at a welcome desk. The clerk’s office was active until 1920, and it became a museum in 1934. A pretty neat museum at that. It has a smattering of several eras, from the original Algonquin inhabitants up through the civil rights movement of the 20th century.

We were welcomed by a middle-aged woman in a non-historically accurate Lynyrd Skynyrd hoodie who immediately informed us that there was no actual eating on the “Eating America” tour when we told her the purpose of our trip. She introduced herself as Susan, and with one other man, a photographer, she led us into the museum. She began the tour in a room with a restored fishing boat and a number of accoutrements ranging from oyster baskets to eel spears. It’s funny to think of now, but New York was formerly one of the biggest fishing communities the world has ever known. Since the industrial revolution, of course, it probably wouldn’t be safe to eat anything you caught in the harbor, even if you could find anything, but Susan told us that fishing is gradually picking back up thanks to positive results from environmental regulations in the ’60s and ’70s.

At that time a troop of about five Tiger Cub Scouts and their parents burst in to liven up the tour. I don’t know if you readers know this, but little boys don’t give a shit about historical tours and it is literally impossible for them to remain still or quiet. After some stern warnings from Susan, they fell in enough of a line for the tour to happen.

The group moved through the museum to a brewer display. Staten Island seemed to have had a reputation in the 19th century for being a repository of “Teutonic lager,” as the sign said. German beermakers were very successful there. Susan informed the crowd that she “don’t know nothin’ about beer. I have a problem with it, but not everyone does.” That kinda hung in the air for a bit, and I decided not to speculate on its meaning.

The tour then moved outdoors. We traversed a road to reach the Christopher House, built around 1720. This fieldstone farmhouse was the home of Joseph Christopher, a later member of the Richmond County Committee of Safety and eventual aid to the American Revolution. Unlike Christopher, most of Staten Island’s residents were Loyalists. It’s possible that a Revolutionary meeting or two was held at that very house. Susan showed us the kitchen primarily, and demonstrated how the womenfolk of the 18th century used the trammel and S-hooks to cook a number of items simultaneously.

We then crossed over to the Basket Maker’s House, built around 1790. The duck pond is found behind the house, and in addition to some brown ducks and Canada geese, there’s one all-white Muscovite duck named Boris who is utterly indifferent to humans. The Tiger Cubs loved it. At least one basketmaker is still active on the site, and while we couldn’t see him or her in action, we saw several baskets in mid-completion. Susan demonstrated briefly how the process worked. Baskets were used for pretty much everything, especially conveying foodstuffs, so it worked well enough for the tour.

Credit: Meghan Deans

From there we entered the Guyon-Lake-Tysen House, built around 1740 with an additional kitchen in he 1820s. The house had been relocated from New Dorp because of course it had. It was a large house that had been built by a particularly successful farmer named Joseph Guyon. Then it was owned by the comparatively wealthy Lake family. I didn’t catch how Tysen fit in. Due to its additions, the architecture combines both Georgian and Federal styles. Susan showed how an assortment of ovens would have been used to roast fowl and fish, and bake bread and pies. No one but me snickered while she explained how to use a Dutch oven. Not even the Tiger Cubs.

Credit: Meghan Deans

Truthfully, I’d come to really appreciate Susan by this point in the tour. As she explained to the scouts, she had sons of her own, and she used this to relate to them just as she exerted a maternal discipline over their wandering hands and perambulations. Simply put, she brooked no guff. She even blithely ignored some of the children’s more insipid comments and questions, scoring major points with Meghan and me. “We love her,” we kept asserting to ourselves.

Then one of the scouts noticed a commotion outside the Dutch door leading into the kitchen. Apparently Boris had followed us around to the front of the house and wanted in. She humored him by having us all stand to the side of the room so Boris could walk unimpeded through the middle of the kitchen and out the back door, which led back to the pond. I gotta say, Boris is pretty cool for a duck.

The tour’s final destination was the old general store, built around 1840 by Stephen D. Stephens. The general store was built directly opposite of the county courthouse, which had been built in 1837, and according to Susan it did a fine business. Joseph Black bought the store in 1880, and worked it with his three daughters until 1918. The building was partially demolished in 1944, but reconstructed in 1964 based on physical evidence and old photographs. It is gorgeous inside. It’s nothing short of an old-timey wonderland. The ancient candy machines, the brown paper and twine, the old cash register. I definitely could have spent more time than the tour allowed, investigating every nook. The store related to the theme of “Eating America” because it’s where any and all spices or exotic fruits and vegetables were sold in the region. Susan passed around a mortar with nutmeg accumulated at the bottom. The scouts were implored to try their hand at the pestle.

Credit: Meghan Deans

Susan wrapped things up, took a few general questions, and set us on our way. I stayed back to ask her a few questions about herself. She started working at Historic Richmond Town on Sept. 12, 2001. Of course they’d have preferred to take the rest of the week off, she explained, but school trips for Staten Island students had been planned weeks in advance. Around that time her youngest of two boys had started kindergarten, so she went back to work. She has a history degree, so the site appealed to her, and she’s been working there ever since. I thanked her for the tour.

Meghan and I then spent another half hour wandering around the town. Unfortunately we couldn’t get into the tinsmith’s or the print shop, even though they looked just as delightful as the general store. I now suppose I’ll have to revisit until I can claim entry into all 27 buildings on-site. We went back to the museum and climbed to the top floor, where Susan had told the Tiger Cubs to journey because of the toy exhibit there. Toys from throughout the 20th century were featured, including the same Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys I’d grown up playing with in the late ’80s/early ’90s. It’s official: The toys of my childhood are now in a museum.

As dusk descended, as it does so early these days, Meghan and I rode the S74 back to St. George for the ferry back to Manhattan. She knitted as I complained about the dying of the light.

biopic

TMN Editor Erik Bryan, though originally from Florida, left New Orleans in 2005 for higher ground. He occasionally enjoys a game of croquet, a glass of gin, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan