Category Archives: Sheepshead Bay

Summering in Sheepshead Bay


Jones’ Cottages, circa 1910. The four houses to the left in the main image (nos. 2631-2639 East 19th Street) and the bungalow (no. 1908 Jerome Avenue) survive as private houses. Another house (not shown) stood next to the bungalow, near the southwest corner of Jerome and Ocean Avenues.

Not sure where to beat the summer heat? A century ago you could have taken rooms at Jones’ Cottages, a compound of seven boarding houses in Sheepshead Bay clustered around the southeast corner of Jerome Avenue and East 19th Street. The houses — furnished by proprietress Mrs. J. C. Jones-Moneuse in mahogany and Circassian walnut furniture — enclosed a communal “rustic garden” of “peaceful delights for those seeking a cool, quiet evening.” Covered walks connected each cottage to a dining hall, where guests devoured home-cooked Southern fare — fried chicken, sweet potatoes, corn bread, and sour milk biscuits — before sinking into hammocks to the strains of nightly music. Every room had hot and cold running water, with valet, manicurist, and Lady’s maid services available at all hours. All this for $2.00 a day and up. Five of the Jones’ Cottages stand today as private houses.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (



Filed under Sheepshead Bay

After the Races


Real photo postcard: “POLICE MEET” / SHEEPSHEAD BAY / RACE TRACK / By Bowman {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

The New York State Legislature banned betting in 1910, forcing Brooklyn’s three major horse racing tracks — at Gravesend, Brighton Beach, and Sheepshead Bay — to close. Once the quadrupeds were gone, the turf turned to legal sporting events, such automobile racing and stunt flying. In this real photo postcard, a high-hatted spectator at one of the Police Honor Roll Relief Fund Games (possibly this meet from 1916) smiles at us against the backdrop of the grandstand at Sheepshead Bay. Is that Hamilton B. Urglar to the left, in the black and white stripes?

Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (



Filed under racetracks, Sheepshead Bay

The Fiery End of Gerritsen’s Mill

If I share this story you might think me guilty by association, especially since I’m Gravesend’s self-elected cheerleader, but the crime happened eighty years ago today, so I should be safe.

“Gerretsen’s [sic] Mill at Gravesend,” image from Charles Andrew Ditmas, Historic Homesteads of Kings County (1909).

When I began to research Gravesend history seriously about twenty-five years ago, I showed my late granduncle some book or other of old Brooklyn photographs. He was well over seventy then and enjoyed recalling the Brooklyn he moved to as a teenager from Manhattan, around 1932, with his parents, five brothers, and only sister (my grandmother). Thumbing through the pictures, he stopped at one of Gerritsen’s Mill, as rickety a building as ever there was. It stood on the west bank of the Strome Kill (Dutch for “storm creek”), also called Gerritsen’s Creek, the tidal inlet that formed a natural boundary between the historic towns of Flatlands and Gravesend. The creek survives in truncated form south of Avenue U in Marine Park, but the mill is gone.

Uncle Frank wore his bifocals oddly, with the tops tilted way forward. He lifted his head back to see me through the bottoms of his lenses and said, matter-of-fact, “You know, I burned that thing.” My jaw dropped.

When we think of the Netherlands we conjure up tulips and windmills. But the Dutch who settled western Long Island did not use windmills to grind grain. Instead they built dams across the tidal creeks that fringed the marshy coastline. As the tide flowed in the water level rose behind the dam. When the tide ebbed, the receding water forced the flood gates shut. The trapped reservoir, or mill pond, could then be channeled as needed over a paddle wheel to turn the gears and grindstones inside an adjacent mill.

Hugh Gerritsen owned land at the Strome Kill before 1645. But while it is believed that the Gerritsen clan first operated their tide mill that long ago, the first definite, historical reference we have to its existence is in the 1765 will of Johannes Gerritsen, who bequeathed it to his son, Samuel. Legend has it that during the Revolution, Samuel, rather than grind grain for the Hessians, submerged his millstones in the creek. Forced at bayonet point to retrieve them, he unwillingly served the enemy for the duration of the war.

The historians Charles Andrew Ditmas (1909) and Maud Esther Dilliard (1945) have detailed the genealogy of the Gerritsen property and its long-running mill, which fed Gravesend and the surrounding towns into the 1890s. It passed in 1899 to William C. Whitney, former United States Secretary of the Navy during Grover Cleveland’s first presidency (1885-1889). Whitney’s son, Harry Payne Whitney, trained racehorses on the grounds. The Coney Island Jockey Club’s track at Sheepshead Bay was quite near.

By the early twentieth century the abandoned mill had become a picturesque backdrop for the sightseers who posed for photos in front of it, and, sadly, a destination for souvenir hunters who took away pieces of history in the form of nails and bits of timber. When the City finally acquired the Gerritsen-Whitney property to create Marine Park in 1925, the mill was a wreck. Preservationists called it the oldest surviving tide mill in the country. “It is a sacrilege for our generation to allow this relic of Revolutionary days to crumble into ruin,” cried Gertrude Ryder Bennett to the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle on Wednesday, June 24, 1931.

The City listened. A fence went up around it to keep what remained of the mill intact. Plans were drawn — see “Gerritsen Mill, Old Landmark, To Be Rebuilt” in the Brooklyn Eagle, August 26, 1934 — and the exterior carefully restored. But then, on September 4, 1935 — tragedy. An early-morning fire destroyed the ancient building. The cause of the blaze was never determined. Some have speculated that it was set by a disgruntled employee of “master builder” Robert Moses.

The charred remains of Gerritsen's Mill. Photograph from the Brooklyn Eagle, September 4, 1935, p. 13.

The charred remains of Gerritsen’s Mill. Photograph from the Brooklyn Eagle, Wednesday, September 4, 1935, p. 13.

Do I believe my uncle really had a hand in it?  Who can say? He had no reason to invent such a tale. Back then, he was nineteen years old and had a bit of a wild streak in him. (When the family still lived in Manhattan, he was off one day on a bicycle ride. He got struck by a car and landed in the hospital. This happened just when they were poised to move to a new apartment on the opposite side of Thompson Street. No one knew where he was, so the move happened without him. Somehow, he got out of the hospital and made it home, only to find that home had left him behind.) He could very well have been in Marine Park, goofing off with friends in the tall, dry grass. A single spark from a match — flicked deliberately or not — would have been enough.

An abandoned grindstone, very likely from Gerritsen’s Mill, survives somewhere in the marshy reaches of Marine Park. And the mill’s foundation, along with the pilings that formed its dam, remain visible at low tide. These traces, and two relics — a hand-forged iron nail and a wooden peg — preserved by someone who picked them from the ruins and fixed them in a shadowbox, are all that is left of Brooklyn’s first industrial plant.

[Be sure to read Thomas Campanella’s haunting essay on this vanished landscape, “The Lost Creek.”]

Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (


Filed under Charles Andrew Ditmas, Gerritsen family, Marine Park, Maud Esther Dilliard, racetracks, Sheepshead Bay

Thanksgiving Basket for Old Saar

“On the way to the Cedars at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y.” Card postmarked Brooklyn, November 12, 1909. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

During the early years of the 20th century, the poet-historian Gertrude Ryder Bennett (1901-1982), who lived her entire life in the landmarked Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead (built around 1766, it stands proudly at 1669 East 22nd Street), went with her parents one Thanksgiving to deliver a charitable wagon-load of food and winter supplies to “Old Saar,” a woman thought to be a surviving Canarsie Indian. Old Saar was supposedly over 100 years old and lived in a dirt-floored shack in the section of Gravesend Neck called “Hog Point Cedars,” or sometimes just “the Cedars,” located in the marshy reaches east of Sheepshead Bay near Plumb Beach/Gerritsen Beach. Here is Gertrude’s poignant remembrance of that long-ago day. (FYI: “the cove” = Sheepshead Bay.)

Thanksgiving Basket

My parents took me with them when they drove

To Hog Point Cedars. Long ago that name

Sank to oblivion. Beside the cove

Our Blackie jogged. We knocked and Old Saar came

To ask us in her weather-beaten shack,

Her long, white hair in braids, her placid face

Like my dried apple doll. Her eyes were black

And keen. One single window pane. The place

Had only earth for floor. Her feet were bare

Although, across the dunes, the wind blew cold.

I had been told she always had lived there,

That no one knew her age, she was so old.

She wore a wrapper, with a brilliant stripe,

Of summer weight, and smoked a corn-cob pipe.


She spoke to me through wrinkled lips. Her hand

Caressed my hair. My parents brought the food

Out of the carriage and I watched her stand

Bright eyed. “My son’s out back. He’s choppin’ wood,”

She said, “and he’ll be eighty come next year.

He’s just been clammin’.” Then she proudly chose

The best to share with us while I could hear

Ax upon driftwood. When the inlet froze,

They would have staple food that bleak November.

“Canarsie Indians,” folk said. They were

The last. Though long ago, I still remember

A certain air of mystery in her,

Her walk, slow but erect, kindness to me,

And childish wonder at her dignity.

[From the chapter “Basket for Old Saar” in Turning Back the Clock in Gravesend: Background of the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead (Francestown, N.H.: Marshall Jones Company, 1982), 25-26.]

Another section of town, on the shore of Gravesend Bay, was also called “The Cedars.” This illustration appeared in F.A. Busing’s Brooklyn Landmarks Calendar for 1902. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Ditta (


Filed under holidays, Sheepshead Bay

A soggy day in Gravesend town

P.L. Sperr, “Street Crossing Avenue Y at E. 11 St. Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, after Sunday Downpour.” (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

No, these Sheepshead Bay ladies aren’t cooling their heels in the surf. They are wading across the flooded intersection of Avenue Y and East 11th Street after a violent thunderstorm soaked the region on Sunday, July 9, 1933. The view is looking northwest (the frame house behind the tree is 2472 East 11th Street), with the ladies standing in the middle of Avenue Y, just two blocks west from where Squan Creek, a wiggly tributary of Coney Island Creek, once flowed freely through the grass. The early years of the twentieth century brought such drastic development to marshy southern Brooklyn that its newly asphalt-covered landscape could not cope with such sudden downpours. Let’s hope that in the 78 years since this photo was taken the sewers in our low-lying neighborhoods will be better equipped to drain off the rains of Hurricane Irene come Sunday.

Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Ditta (

1 Comment

Filed under Sheepshead Bay, weather