Land & Trail

Butler Sanctuary and Merestead County Park Join Trail System
By Roger Savitt

BRLA seems to defy a kind of physical law of suburban development: The more Bedford gets pressured by new construction, the more the trails network seems to grow. A few years ago, new routes were opened west of the Sawmill Parkway, reclaiming areas that used to be riding territory decades ago. Later, other trails were constructed at John Jay Homestead.

Now it's happening again. Trail building has come to a part of Bedford south of Route 172, thanks in part to two large properties - Butler Memorial Sanctuary and Merestead County Park.

Butler is well known for its many footpaths. The land was donated in 1954 by Anna R. Butler in memory of her husband, Arthur, to The Nature Conservancy. Butler is a refuge for plants and wildlife, and while walkers are welcome, horseback riders have not been permitted.

The prohibition of horses on the footpaths hasn't changed. What has changed is that BRLA has been allowed to create a new path across one corner of the preserve that will link horse trails in the area. This route will not connect to existing paths in Butler. A bridge giving access to the new trail is also being added. When it's completed by the end of July, the trail will be perhaps onethird of a mile long.

Matt Levy, stewardship operations coordinator for some 60 properties owned by The Nature Conservancy, said, "BRLA approached us about putting a trail in the preserve. When we saw we could do so without any adverse impact, we were more than happy to help." The Butler land is sandwiched between Interstate 684, Byram Lake and Chestnut Ridge Road. Over the years, through donations and land purchases, Butler grew from its original 225 acres to 363 acres. This is a rugged, heavily wooded area that may have once been used to graze sheep and cows. Perhaps they ate away some underbrush, but that was years ago and now there's a thick covering of deciduous forest and swamps. Some high points afford views of the Taconic Mountains and Long Island Sound.

Adjoining Butler Sanctuary is Merestead County Park at 455 Byram Lake Road. If this park's name is unfamiliar, there's a good reason. While Butler is 50 years old, Merestead has been open to the public only a few months. The property was willed to the county by Margaret Sloane Patterson, who died in 2000. She was the daughter of W.& J. Sloane founder William Sloane, a furniture magnate who created Merestead on a couple of hundred acres in 1906. The name Merestead is derived from a Scottish Gaelic word meaning "farmlands." During the 20th century, Merestead's holdings were trimmed to a still-ample 130 acres. Merestead - a National Historic Registered Property - represents the largest donation ever made to Westchester County. This estate includes a carriage house, tennis court, flower gardens, pool and 28-room Georgian-style mansion. Just as importantly, it also boasts wide-open trails cutting across hilltop fields and through sporadic woodlands. At one point, a bridge crosses a small stream between Merestead and land to the west. Not every trail is open to horses, but the ones that are don't lack for scenery.

While Butler is popular with hikers and the bird-watching set, Merestead's acreage gets few visitors. Caretaker Tom Comito hopes to raise its popularity. "As with any county park, you want to see the public come to the property and enjoy it." Comito and others have ambitious plans for the property. The carriage house is slated to become a visitors' center and the mansion may become a museum. There also needs to be more parking. Right now, there's room for only a few cars and it exists only at the carriage house. However, Comito predicts that the parking lot will never be huge - while Merestead can use more visitors, it won't do well with expansive crowds.

In its grand plan for land south of Route 172, BRLA foresees a trails network that crosses not only Butler and Merestead, but ambles through several other properties as well. They include land belonging to Patricia Keesee, Stanley and Melinda Jaffe, Stephen and Barbro Kirschenbaum, Lisa and Tim Ghriskey, Judy and Peter Talbot, and Pam and David Small. Eventually the trail will come together near Linden Road as a giant loop. At that point, walkers and riders would cross Route 172 to a path that will join the rest of the trails network, which seems to get more interesting all the time.

... from BRLA Newsletter: Fall 2004