PO Box 178, Bedford, NY
     

 

Spotlight on John Jay Homestead

 

by Roger Savitt

Perhaps the folks at John Jay Homestead should try out this slogan: "Bring your horse here and help us recreate history."

By fall, this landmark in Katonah will see the opening of new riding trails designed and built by BRLA. These trails, to link with others already in existence, will do more than strengthen a long-time bond between the historic site and the trails association. They will bring more horses to a place where horses are a comfortable fit. As site manager Alix Schnee puts it: "Horses are a direct connection to our past."

Familiar to most everyone in Bedford, the Jay house was built 200 years ago by John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Actually, he was a lot more than that. His was one of the great resumes of the day, including such titles as president of the Continental Congress and governor of New York State. He also helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War.

After Jay's death in 1829, his house was passed on to a series of descendents. The last to own the home, also known as Bedford House, was Eleanor Jay Iselin who died in 1953. The next owner was Westchester County, which transferred the title to New York State in 1958. With it went 30 of the original 900 acres. Another 34 acres were added later. Restoration got underway and the first visitors began arriving in the 1960s.

The job of fixing up the farm continues. One barn was restored only a couple of years ago and work has just begun on another. Meanwhile, the house keeps getting its share of true-to-history enhancements. For example, a new carpet, designed to match a style of the early 1800s, was installed on the main staircase earlier this year.

Although historians will find much to like here, history is not the only interest of the homestead's promoters. "Originally, we focused on the house," says Wendy Ross, president of the Friends of John Jay Homestead. "However, when I joined the Friends 15 years ago, I realized that many people from Bedford had never been here. We knew our focus had to change."

What followed was an effort to give the homestead community appeal. Today, there is outreach to many constituencies -- gardeners come to see the recreated early 20th century gardens, walkers and nature buffs visit the fields and wetlands, families flock to the country fairs and, of course, horseback riders come in droves. The Spring Pace has been at the Jay farm for 16 years.

For many visitors, the biggest attraction is the Jay land with its remarkable vistas and many reminders of a bygone era. "The land brings people here," says Alix, who came to Katonah in April 2001 after nine years at Philpse Manor Hall in downtown Yonkers. "We wanted to draw a close connection between the house, the farm and the land, so that when they come here, people get a bigger experience than just what they see at the house. We want the site to be more welcoming and accessible."

To this end, the Jay homestead plans to establish an orientation center in an old cow barn now in need of restoration. For its part, the new BRLA trail, which skirts the farm, will also help visitors by bringing them to new parts of the property.

And there are other plans. For example, the studio of Eleanor Iselin Wade -- daughter of Eleanor Jay Iselin and a well-respected sculptor of her time -- will be restored. So will the Jays' old barn for draft horses. Even the driveway is due for a change. The boulevard-like road to the house, which was built across an immense field from Route 22 in the 1970s, will be eliminated in favor of the existing farm lane on an adjacent field.

While BRLA often gets agreement to run a trail over someone's property with little more than a handshake, negotiation with New York State was considerably more intricate. "There were a whole litany of issues to settle," says Alix. "The state's Resource Management Group had to approve. So did my immediate supervisor. I walked various people through the site a half dozen times. Altogether, it took about a year."

Alix notes that the trail marks a turning point in the homestead's relationship with BRLA. "In the past, the association worked with our Friends group, but not directly with the state. This project reflects the state's effort to encourage and support stewardship between its historic sites and the local community. We're delighted to be giving greater access to walkers and riders."

To be sure, the 400-member Friends organization continues to play an important role at John Jay, providing the site with major funding. The group's strength, which shows solid community support for the Jay homestead, is also a big plus in the eyes of state officials, who view community support as an important reason for allocating resources to the site.

Guy Paschal, a resident of South Carolina and a direct descendent of John Jay, is also enthusiastic about the closer ties with BRLA. He has no trouble tracing the horse enthusiasts in his family back a few generations. He notes that his grandmother's father, Lt. Colonel William Jay II, was head of the New York Coaching Association, which drove horse carriages. "It was a great craze of the 19th century," he adds.

Col. Jay served in the Grand Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. Old Fred, the horse that carried him safely through such horrific battles as Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, is remembered on a stone marker at the entrance to a garden near the west end of the house.

Guy first visited the house when his grandmother, Eleanor Jay Iselin, still lived there. "We used to race ponies on the driveway," he recalls fondly. "My grandmother [John Jay's great-great granddaughter] was a terrific horsewoman. She always had horses on the property, and even when she stopped riding, she encouraged others to do so."

Guy's daughter, Nonie Reich of Purchase, shares her father's warm recollections of earlier visits. She also has a vision for the future: "The Jay home is evolving into an incredibly lively place for people to visit. My hope is that this place will continue to evolve and continue to add something to people's lives."


 

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