Tag Archives: Sheepshead Bay

Summering in Sheepshead Bay

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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.

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Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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The Buggy-Headed Bat Baby of Dead Horse Bay

Here’s one just in time for Halloween. Turning the musty pages of The Knickerbocker, or, New York Monthly Magazine for September 1849, we come upon this most curious tale. (When reading what follows, keep in mind that political correctness was a concept far in the future.)

IMG_20151021_144954A negro woman, FRANCES COUENHOVEN by name, residing at a place called ‘Dead Horse Bay,’ near Gravesend, Long-Island, was married about eighteen months ago. The day after the ceremony she started with her husband in an ordinary ‘top-buggy’ wagon to visit some friends who lived a few miles off; and it so happened that the horse took fright, and in spite of the address of the driver, managed to run under a sign that was elevated upon two posts, at the junction of the bay and Gravesend roads, by which the top of the buggy was torn off instantly, and the sable pair narrowly escaped with their lives. In due course of time FRANCES became a mother. The child was born entirely bald; but the attention of the physician, Dr. STILLWELL, was directed to an unusual development on the back of the infant’s head. Upon examination, it proved to be a mass of thin membranous substance, in texture like a bat’s-wing, intersected with slender, elastic radii, resembling whale-bone, and turning upon osseous pivots at the ears. Judge of the surprise of the physician, when upon farther [sic] examination it proved to be moveable; and gently drawing it forward over the infant’s head, it unfolded itself into a miniature representation of a gig-top! The child is now living, and may be seen at any time by the curious at Dead Horse Bay, Long Island, about nine miles from this city.

Sadly, for those of us of ghoulish bent, none of this was true. There was – and is – an inlet east of Sheepshead Bay called Dead Horse Bay. It is named, prosaically, for the glue factory detritus that littered its shores in the nineteenth century. (It remains a place of eerie pilgrimage, where urban explorers mine the castoff bits of Brooklyn life that time and tide have rendered somehow beautiful. ABC News “discovered” Dead Horse Bay in a recent piece.) And the surnames Stillwell and Couenhoven (more usually spelled “Kouwenhoven”) were common in Gravesend, the town that once comprised the southernmost reaches of Brooklyn.

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An 1884 nautical chart of Sheepshead Bay, at the eastern end of Gravesend. Note “Dead Horse Inlet,” circled, at right (click image to enlarge).

But the Knickerbocker liked to poke fun at other periodicals, especially the stodgy, pseudo-scientific ones. Thus, satire was the impetus behind this tale of a baby born with a buggy-top covering his head. The Scalpel: A Journal of Health, Adapted to Popular and Professional Reading, and the Exposure of Quackery, had run in August a “serious” piece on “Remarkable Instances of the Effect of the Imagination of the Mother on her Unborn Child,” fleshed out with eyebrow-raising of examples of pregnancies delivered of infants with cat-shaped eyes or half a horse’s head.

In a follow up, the Knickerbocker – or, rather, its sister publication with the tongue-in-cheek title, Bunkum Flag-Staff and Independent Echo – sent a reporter and a sketch artist to see firsthand the baby at Dead Horse Bay. They found the “little critter . . . playin’ out in front of the house, with its top up, ’cause ’t was drizzly. We let it up and down twice . . . and it works [first] rate”

And if you believe that, there’s a big old bridge here in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you!


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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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 (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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