Elmhurst is the modern climax of that historic locality formerly constituting the Town of Newtown and now comprising the Second Ward of Queens Borough. Unquestionably one of its peculiar features is the visible reminders of the past which strike the eye on every hand. Old houses remain to preserve the memory of their Colonial tenants, and these primitive homes of pioneer farmers are especially conspicuous on the old Newtown road between new Calvary Cemetery and Maurice Avenue. A cloud of old time associations invests the ancestral home of the Betts family, founded by Captain Richard Betts, who for sixty years was a leading man in town and died in 1713 in his hundredth year. He, with several other Englishmen, came from Plymouth in 1651, and the founding of the colony was immediately followed by bitter hostility between Betts and Stuyvesant, the Dutch Governor. Upon the Governor’s refusal to issue a patent to the settlers, Betts and fifty-five associates, purchased the land from the Indians at one shilling an acre, or for a total price of sixty-eight pounds sixteen schillings and four pence. A further payment of seventy-six pounds nine shillings paid to the sachems, Pomwaukon and Roweroewstoo, extinguished the Indian title to Newtown lands by deed dated July 9, 1666.
Captain Richard Betts preserved his erect figure to the end of his life, as is evident from the straight-backed chair which he occupied. Shortly before his death he dug his own grave on a spot near the room which he occupied and from which he was carried for interment. The old house contained twelve rooms, in one of which was a broad windowsill on which were written many important documents of Newtown’s history. No tombstone was placed over his grave as his sons had become Quakers, who discarded such marks of respects for the departed. In their stead were rude slabs bearing the initials of Daniel, Mary and Daniel Betts. The widow of Daniel died in 1877 at the age of 109. A wrought iron latch opens the back door of the house, and the polished flags around the well where the redcoats were wont to wash their rations have retained their old look up to the present time. Curious closets, cupboards and nooks of all kinds were scattered over the house, many doors being guarded by antique locks with their works incased in wooden dugouts. The floors were supported by square-hewn beams, fastened by nails, which from, being twisted when hot were given a screw shape at three-fourths their length from the point. This building is now the property of Calvary Cemetery and is occupied by an employee. As no care is taken of it, the house is in a tumble-down condition and will doubtless be demolished in the course of a short time.
Next in antiquity and perennial interest to the Betts abode comes the old Corner House, as it is called, in Newtown Village. This spot began to be a landmark in 1700, and owes its important to Jonathan Fish, who was town clerk for fifteen years. At that time, Newtown had a population of 1,000, of which 190 were males over 16, 227 males under 16, 207 females over 16, 215 girls, and 161 slaves. Jonathan Fish died in 1723, leaving a son, Samuel, who died in 1767. Samuel Fish’s son, Richard, was captured by the British during the Revolution, on a merchant ship, of which he was captain, and died a prisoner of war. Jonathan, a brother of the captain, died in 1779, leaving a son, Nicholas, who served with distinction under Washington throughout the Revolution, holding the rank of Major and participating in the battles of Long Island, Saratoga, Monmouth and Yorktown. Shortly before his death, in 1833, he resigned the post of Adjutant General of the State of New York. Nicholas Fish’s son, the distinguished Hamilton Fish, who was born in 1808, was elected to Congress in 1842, Governor of New York in 1848, and to the United States Senate in 1851, and concluded his public career by holding the post of Secretary of State under the two administrations of Grant. The Fish family were among the original patentees, and left their name to Fish’s Point, where in 1715 one of the family lived and owned a mill. The mill’s first owner served as a supervisor for twenty-three years and left the property to his son, John, who accumulated a quantity of gold. In 1776, marauders from Westchester tortured Fish with hot irons to discover the hiding place of his hoard, but without success. Even Fish himself finally forgot where the gold was hidden and the pot was only discovered by strangers years afterward.
The mill itself gains an added interest by the still preserved rude wheel, keyed upon a shaft cut from the primitive forest. The Indian name, Sackhickneyah, still adheres to the creek which turns the mill, and the neighborhood was the scene of several early Indian massacres. From the earliest times the Fish family were continuously prominent, and the fact accentuates the interest taken in the old house, which was finally turned into an inn by Samuel Fish, who had three wives and fifteen children. The large barroom on the right of the hall door, and the reception room on the left, in 1755 resounded with the preparations for the French and Indian War, and Samuel Fish received and cared for Seres Ethben, with wife and eight children, who was one of the unfortunate Arcadian exiles driven from Nova Scotia by the British and whose tragic fate is recalled by Longfellow in his “Evangeline.” Throughout the French War and the Revolution which followed it, Fish’s inn was the favorite resort of army officers and soldiers. From 1776 to 1783, the large hall which formed the top floor of the building was the scene of frequent balls in which officers participated, and the innkeeper assisted in the escape of prisoners by encouraging the orgies in which unwelcome guests never failed to indulge. For seven years, the inn was the focus of British rule, and the town chronicle a long series of marches, bugle calls, balls and revelry. During the seven years of Hessian possession, Abraham Rapelye, of portly frame, presided as host, and continued in control until his death in 1798. His house was large enough for a regiment of soldiers and, except in front, remains much in its original state. The ball room extended over the length of the upper floor and half the width of the house. On the attic floor is a fine specimen of solid framing, seasoned to the hardness of lignum vitae, and fastened with wooden dowels. The rear door is in the old style of two sections, swinging on four great hinges, which bind the double planks firmly together. Many patriot refugees found asylum and good cheer under Rapelye’s roof. Subsequently the building ceased to be used as an inn, and at length, shortly after the Civil War, the property was purchased by a Mr. Brown, whose widow now occupies premises as a residence. What was once the ball room on the upper floor has been cut up into a number of apartments. Reverting to the primitive Fish and his mill, it may be noted that the edifice erected by him in 1715, for the grinding of colonial grain, was remodeled many years ago into a house, and afterward became a saloon. At present it is unoccupied.
Trains Meadows is another historic locality. On its southwest corner is the old farmhouse of the Morrell family, which, although much altered, is in a good state of preservation. The old well still gives as good water as when it supplied the Hessians of 1776, who were camped all over the farm. Among the numerous fruit trees there still remains the one from whose limb old Morrell was suspended by Hessian soldiers to extort from him the hiding place of the money. Seven headstones of the rudest kind mark the graves of the departed members of the family and many old bullets and flints have been plowed up at various points. A near neighbor of the Morrell house is the old Sackett residence, since modernized into a mansion. It was a spacious structure and the rooms were exceedingly well finished. A circular mound in the woods opposite is, according to tradition, the remains of a hermit’s cell, whose story was the subject of a romance.
Down the road westward, and across the railroad track, is the wreck of the Leverich house, which was a favorite rendezvous for English officers during the Revolution. The great fireplace of the kitchen recalls pictures of the soldiers smoking around blazing logs and watching the bread drawn from the old oven, whose mouth is in the chimney. Near this ruin is the old stone house of John Leverich, not far from the burial plot of the family. The date of erection, 1737, is cut into a stone by the door side. Everything here is in the best preservation. A Scotch colonel and his regiment were quartered in the house and in huts, some traces of which have remained to the present day. Beside these revolutionary relics, many Indian arrowheads and tomahawks have been dug up from time to time about the farm.
One mile further north was the old Hazard farm, with the fine old house and handsome lawn, and trees planted by James Hazard, Judge of Common Pleas for fifteen years, who died in 1765 and was buried in the family vault on the farm. This vault in which were the remains of many Hazards, at length fell into such decay that the coffins were carried off by boys for boats and children played with the scattered bones. To prevent the desecration the vault was finally filled up, and nothing remained visible except the monumental slab, on which the names of those reposing beneath are inscribed. The Hazards are now a wealthy family in Rhode Island, Philadelphia and Gotham.
Van Duyn Hill, which preserves the name of the Van Duyn family, was the only Newtown property confiscated after the Revolution for the tory sympathies of its owner. In later times it became the property of A.S. Mills, and the large and spacious house was very attractive to British officers during the struggle for independence. The basement was of heavy stone and served as a guard house. Near the Van Duyn house was the little cottage of Samuel Waldron, the blacksmith, who was forced to shoe the soldiers’ horses without pay, and robbed of all his cows, except one which he had hidden in his bedroom.
At the northern extremity of the road which bounds the west side of the meadows, was the residence of Jacobus Riker, whose home was plundered by the British soldiers. The house is well kept and presents a neat appearance. A mile south of it a slave named Fronce, owned by Rapelye, shot and killed a Scotch soldier engaged in plunder. In later times the house changed its position somewhat and became part of a larger structure. The center of all the camps in Newtown, was the now decayed mansion of the Moore family, which was the headquarters of General Sir Henry Clinton.
When the late George Rapelye died some five years ago at the age of 83, he left no recognized successor to his position of the oldest inhabitant. He began life with the century and the fact that his father, grandfather and great grandfather, each of whom had borne the name of George, had met their death by drowning, induced him to turn his attention to horses, farming and town and church affairs. He was full of revolutionary reminiscences gathered from participants in the war of 1776, many of whom were still living in his earlier days. Mr. Rapelye was of sturdy physique and retained to the close of his life that erectness and activity belonging to men many years his junior. When elected to the office of road commissioner he succeeded old Mayor Robert Moore, who was so severely wounded in the engagement with the British near Jamaica when General Woodhull was killed. Not long before his death Mr. Rapelye drove to the Episcopal Church to examine the slate roof them being put on. In 1848 he had supervised the shingling of the then new church, and in 1816 had shingled the roof of the earlier Episcopal Church of 1732, which is now used as a Sunday school. During the veterans’ tenure of office as road commissioner, he straightened out the old Dutch lane, and one of his best acts was the opening of that road which runs from Calvary Cemetery to the ancient house of John Morrell on the Dutch Kills Road.
It seems strange that where all is progress any place should be left for neglect and decay. The old town burying ground presents a sight which ought to be invisible. The fence is broken down and weeds and wires cover the entire inclosure and conceal the stones which mark the graves. At one time $290 was raised and expended in clearing up the interior and surrounding the grounds with a picket fence. All signs of this passing attention, however, have wholly disappeared, and not a few of the stones are broken. Content Titus, who died January 17, 1730, was one of the most zealous and prominent members of the Presbyterian Church during his time. While the cemetery did not belong to the Presbyterians, a large majority of those interred here were of the Presbyterian faith, as that denomination counted most of the inhabitants among its members. The remains of three former pastors of the Presbyterian Church repose in this weed choken spot. Those are Samuel Horton, who died in 1786, the Rev. Samuel Pumroy, who died in 1744, and the Rev. Peter Fish, who died in 1810. Nine other members of the Fish family also have their mortal resting place here, and the inscriptions show the names of Mary Fish, 1757; Nathaniel Fish, 1769; Jane Fish, 1789; Anne Eliza Fish, 1815; Jane Maria Fish, 1819; Jonathan Fish, 1779; Elizabeth, wife of Jonathan Fishm 1778. Jonathan and Elizabeth Fish were the grandfather and grandmother of the late Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State under Grant, and great-grandfather and great-grandmother of ex-Speaker Hamilton Fish of Putnam County. Some time since the Rev. Peter Fish of Suffolk County, a descendant of the Rev. Peter Fish above mentioned, endeavored to interest the wealthy members of the family in the restoration of the cemetery grounds and graves, but his efforts proved wholly abortive. At last, despite his slender means, he has determined to personally assume the expense of having the grave of Peter Fish put in proper shape. Heretofore the Presbyterian Church has done nothing toward the restoration and continued care of the tombs of its three pastors, one of whom, Peter Fish, was mainly instrumental in procuring the erection of the second Presbyterian Church edifice, to replace the earlier structure burned by the British during the war. This was in 1787, and the site of the then new building had been presented to the Presbyterian Church in 1715 by Jonathan Fish, and earlier scion of the same family. Altogether there are some three hundred headstones within the cemetery bounds, all of which show marks of a common neglect.
Originally all interments were in the town cemetery, but at length each denomination had its own churchyard. Nearly 150 interments have been made in St. James Churchyard, which began to be used in the early part of the century. Unlike the Rapelyes, the Brinckerhoff family, which originally owned property in every part of Newtown, has wholly disappeared and left no local representative behind it. This merely means that the family has removed to other towns, counties and states. The Brinckerhoff cemetery occupies a commanding position on the bluff overlooking Flushing Bay, at Corona. Their old home, which in bygone times supplied this old cemetery with tenants, is situated close on the shore of Flushing Bay in a picturesque, well sheltered corner; it is a comfortable, spacious house, built in the true Dutch style. The family burial place is too thickly covered with trees, brush and shrubbery and too infested with mosquitoes to be profaned by curious intruders. This Brinckerhoff Cemetery presents the curious feature for which Newtown is peculiar. Not only were interments made in the churchyards, but each family had its own private burial place, with a necessarily small number of graves. Many of these family repositories of the dead still remain as witnesses of the custom which formerly prevailed. The Burroughs cemetery faces on the commons of Newtown and was distinguished by three towering fruit trees which dated back to the Revolutionary days. They were the center of the camps for the sake of the well under their shade. The last interment here was in 1871, and one inscription, that of William Howe Burroughs, who died in 1805, aged 26 years, marks the prevalent custom in the Revolutionary period of christening male infants after the English general, Sir William Howe.
One of Newtown’s famous families was that of the Rikers, whose members were long distinguished in every walk of life. It began with Abraham Riker in 1640, and this ancestor of many somebodies founded a family in which longevity was well nigh universal. The Rikers became so numerous that some of them, to avoid confusion, adopted other names and were known as Lent and Krankheyt. The spacious old house surrounded by many trees along the sea beach, with its classic library and numerous patriotic prints was in earlier days a sort of Liberty Hall, where distinguished guests were hospitably entertained. Dr. Berrien Riker accompanied Washington for eight years as army surgeon, while Captain Abraham Riker stood beside Montgomery when he fell at Quebec, December 31, 1775, and was borne off by Aaron Burr. During the War of 1812, Captain Andrew Riker commanded the privateers, Saratoga and Yorktown, and brought his captured prizes to the island, which has since borne his name. A short distance from the house is the Riker burying ground, where repose the remains of many members of this prolific, long lived and active family. In front of the cemetery is the Jacob Rapelye residence, earlier known as the Lent property, and originally forming part of the Riker estate. This quaint cottage contained many curious relics and was the favorite stopping place of British dragoons seeking bread and whisky for themselves and watering their horses at the trough by the roadside. It was then a tavern and the broad old fireplace may still be utilized for cooking a good dinner. Its relics include an old family prayer book, in Dutch, date of owner 1745, with two brass rings attached to the clamps for carrying purposes, and a ponderously bound Dutch Bible printed in Rotterdam, 1730. Separated from the house by the orchard is the just mentioned cemetery, and the inscriptions comprise names of Captain Abraham Riker, who died at Valley Forge in 1778, Captain Andrew Riker, who died at Port Au Prince in 1817, and Maria McKisson, who died in 1829, a confidential friend of Mrs. Governor George Clinton.
At a point more inland on what was known as the Tudor patent resided another branch of the Riker family, in a house which was built un 1733 and has stood to the present time. It is situated on the old Bowery road, and was the headquarters of Colonel Abijah Willard, chief of the British commissary department. In the Riker burying ground at Bowery Bay are interred the remains of William Sampson and Dr. William James McNevins, Irish patriots of 1798. Sampson died in 1836 and McNevins in 1841. In the Lawrence family cemetery at Bowery Bay some thirty headstones mark the graves of departed Lawrences, beside which there are seventeen of the Sackett and four of the Hartman family.
Greater antiquity, superior numbers and a notable bequest have always given the Presbyterians a chronic conspicuous in Newtown annals. The present structure on the Hoffman Boulevard nearly opposite the old church of 1787, testifies to the liberality of the late John Goldsmith Payntar, who died in 1891. This zealous Presbyterian was born September 22, 1822, in the old Payntar house, which stood on the site of the residence of the last William Howard of North Terrace. Mr. Payntar was named after his father, John Payntar, and the Rev. Dr. Goldsmith, the former pastor of the Newtown Church. When 18 years old he entered the clothing house of Aaron J. Close of New York, and later became a partner in the same firm, retiring from active business in 1862, after amassing a fortune. Throughout his life, Mr. Payntar retained a strong affection for the old Newtown Church, and this sentiment found practical expression in a bequest of $65,000, which was to be expended in the erection of a new building, the corner stone of which was laid in 1893. According to Mr. Payntar’s directions the new structure was modeled after the Presbyterian Church at Cherry Valley, Otsego County, N.Y. and upon its completion the entire church property was inclosed with a handsome stone and iron fence. A fund was left for the proper care of the church yard, in which the remains of the benefactor and other members of his family are interred. A fine monument has been erected to his memory and the terms of his will were faithfully carried out by his widow, who had been a life long friend and whom he had married about a year before his death. A proposal looking to the removal of the remains of the burying ground to the present church yard has been under consideration for several years, but has not been carried out since the completion of the new church, the old building has been utilized for a Sunday school and other subsidiary purposes.
Colonial memories also hover about St. James Episcopal Church, first erected in 1732, and now in a modernized form, utilized as a chapel and Sunday school. In 1843, an organ costing $600 was placed in the old building, while in 1848 a new church edifice, occupying an advantageous position, was built on ground given in 1761. The building was of wood, with open roof, and had two west towers. In 1879 it was enlarged and altered so as to change its character. These improvements included nave aisles and the deepening of the chancel, the building of an organ chamber in the east end, and a new vestry room. The organ was enlarged at the same time, and two windows were placed in the church, one at the east end as a memorial to the Rev. Samuel Shelton, and one in the west end to Mrs. Samuel Lord, given by her children. Funds for the above mentioned enlargement were obtained by the sale of a part of the land given by Lockett.
After standing ninety-eight years the earliest Dutch Reformed Church erected in 1733, was torn down in 1831, and the present edifice built and dedicated on July 29, 1832. It was enlarged under the Rev. Mr. Strong, and in 1870 an organ was put in at a cost of $2,000. Again in 1874 it was thoroughly repaired, new pews and new windows of stained glass replacing the old ones, at a total cost of $6,000. In 1888 the organ was repaired and enlarged, and removed from the gallery to the rear of the church, just back of the pulpit, all at a cost of $2,800.
Elmhurst’s M.E. Church was erected in 1839 on its present site on Broadway, while the German Reformed Church, which, like that of the Methodist, is a frame building, dates back only 10 years. More than half a century ago the colored people of the town formed a church and erected a building, but the society is now too scattered and small to engage a regular pastor, and the edifice is consequently not much used.
Educationally, Elmhurst will be well provided for when the new high school, upon which three weeks’ work is required to fit it for occupation, has been completed. Official red tape has prevented any work being done for more than a year and pending this continued incompleteness, Principal F.H. Meade, with twenty assistants, is teaching some 600 pupils in the old building adjacent to the new structure on Chicago avenue, overlooking the common. Secular interest centers in the so called White Pot School, situated one mile east of Elmhurst Village, in a farming section, of which the principal properties are those of Fred and John Backus, the Squire estate and David Springsteen. Mr. Springsteen enjoys the honor of being the lineal descendant of Jacobus Springsteen, who in 1739 gave the plot of ground on which the White Pot School was built, upon condition that it should always be used for school purposes. The present building is the third erected on the site, and the regular attendance of pupils always exceeds a hundred. It is the oldest school site in this part of the borough, which is still used for its original purpose. Another old school building since diverted to other purposes is the structure enlarged, remodeled and now occupied as an office by the Newtown Register. The founder of this local journal, the late Charles White, was before the war a prominent Massachusetts anti-slavery advocate, and beside other offices held the post of State Auditor. Removing to Newtown, he founded the Register in 1873, and died in 1888 at the age of 76. For many years he was a close friend of the late Vice President Wilson and Charles Sumner. A son of the deceased, Arthur White, is an enthusiastic antiquarian and has unearthed many relics of the olden time. His scrap book and its accumulation of valuable material rivals that of Adrian Vanderveer, the real estate broker of Flatbush. In this old center, of which Elmhurst is the aristocratic outgrowth, no one prominent in public life now resides, excepting Garrett J. Garrettson of the Supreme Court.
Two conspicuous nestors and living representatives of Colonial ancestry are the venerable James L. Moore, who lives on Grand Street, near Maspeth, and his cousin, John Jacob Moore, who lives on Court Street, both of whom have reached 80. The old Moore homestead, built more than two centuries ago, is now owned and occupied by Mrs. Oliver H. Perry, who zealously preserves the building in its primitive condition, and has purchased adjacent property to prevent the advent of saloons and other undesirable neighbors in her vicinity. Opposite Mrs. Perry’s survival of the seventeenth century is another old dwelling, in which Bishop Moore penned the well known poem, “Still as a Mouse; the Night Before Christmas.”