This overview of the history of the Town of New Castle is excerpted from A Bicentennial History of the Town of New Castle: 1791-1991 with the permission of the New Castle Historical Society. This web site contains the text from the above publication’s first chapter, “Overview: New Castle Through the Centuries,” written by Kenneth Jackson. Further information and photographs of the various periods of town history are found in the complete publication, available for purchase from the New Castle Historical Society, and also found on display and in the archives of the Society’s headquarters. You may also visit the New Castle Historical Society’s web site at http://www.newcastlehistoricalsociety.org/
For information on town historical preservation and program efforts, contact the Town Historian.
Town History Overview
Town history and American history
Nine periods of town history
Selected dates in New Castle’s history
Population of the Town of New Castle: 1800-1990
New Castle Historical Society
Town History and American History
Farms to Factories, Railroad and Highways
An American Town
“The United States,” according to the late Richard Hofstadter, “was born in the country and has moved to the city.” In fact, the distinguished historian was only half correct. As Americans found prosperity, usually in cities, they kept moving. They sought detached houses, good schools, spacious yards, safe streets, and homogeneous neighborhoods. More often than not, they found what they were looking for on the urban edges, in the place we now call suburbs. This residential shift was so pronounced that by 1990 more than 40 per cent of the national population, or more than 115 million people, lived in the suburbs, a higher proportion than resided either in rural areas or in central cities. Quite simply, the United State had become the world’s largest, more important and, along with Australia, first suburban nation. Farms to Factories, Railroads and Highways
Thirty-five miles north of Times Square, along the line of the Saw Mill River in Westchester County, the Town of New Castle illustrates in dramatic fashion the larger demographic patterns of the nation as a whole. Just as the United States was overwhelming rural until well after the Civil War, when rapid industrialization propelled the country to international prominence, so also was Chappaqua, an isolated country village until the middle of the 19th century, later transformed by small factories. And, as the American republic became the world leader in transportation technology, New Castle was an early beneficiary of railroads and highways.
An American Town
More importantly, this little town in Westchester is reflective of what might called the “American ideal.” Oriented towards family, church and school, it is justifiably proud of its beauty, its spaciousness, and its tranquility. Similarly, as the United States has become more ethnically and religiously diverse, New Castle has become more heterogeneous. [Visit the demographics page for data from the 1990 census.]
But Chappaqua could hardly be described as a typical American community. Since the early years of the 20th century, it has been one of the most affluent and attractive of tens of thousands of the nation’s suburbs. Its school system is consistently ranked among the top secondary institutions in the country, and its per capita income has long been far above the national average. Until recently, its quiet roadways were almost devoid of apartments of any kind, and its average home prices were among the highest in the continent.
The Town of New Castle, therefore, represents in extreme form many of the larger patterns of the nation as a whole, and its history will help illuminate important aspects of the American past and American present.
Town History Periods
At the risk of over-generalization, the history of the Town of New Castle can be divided into nine periods:
Pre-history and Indian life
Colonial purchase and settlement, 1696-1776
Revolutionary War and Constitutional ratification, 1776-1791
Rural isolation, 1791-1846
Transformation of the farm economy, 1846-1872
Nascent industrialization and declining agriculture, 1872-1902
Country estates and exurban escape, 1902-1945
Suburban boom, 1945-1978
New directions, 1978-present
Pre-history and Indian Life
About 350 years ago, the heavily forested hills and valleys in what is now the town of New Castle were occupied by one of the nine Wappinger tribes, probably the Tankitekes. Part of the larger Algonquin language group, and more particularly the Mohicans, the local Wappingers were led by the local chief or Sachem, Wampus, near the present Armonk Road. Other encampments were in the Chappaqua Hills and below those hills at the foot of Roaring Brook Road.
The Indians were pushed aside and decimated by the European colonist in the 17th and 18th centuries, but their legacy remains in the name of Wampus Pond or in that of the Chappaqua hamlet itself, which derives from Shapequa, an Algonquin words which has been variously translated as “running water” or “boundary” or “place of separation” or “laurel swamp.”
Colonial Purchase and Settlement
In 1624, The Dutch West Indian Company established a permanent trading post on the southern tip of Manhattan, and within a few years Peter Minuit had “purchased” the entire island from the Indians. Initially known as New Amsterdam, it as renamed New York City after the English conquered it in 1664. The area which is now Westchester County was settled by families moving north from Manhattan in the 17th century.
The “white” or “European” history of New Castle begins in 1696, when an affluent and well-born Englishman, Colonel Caleb Heathcote, purchased virtually the entire area from the Indians for 100 pounds. At the time, land ownership as a mark of status, a way of advertising success and influence. For this purpose, it was sufficient to own land and not at all necessary to live on it. Not surprisingly, Colonel Heathcote preferred bustling New York City, where he served as mayor between 1711 and 1714, to the dark and empty forests of Westchester.
The first European settlers to begin farming in New Castle area were Quakers, a deeply religious people who espoused non-violence and pacifism in all their human relations. Small groups came in the early 1720s, and by 1752 they were sufficiently numerous to begin the Meeting House which still stands on
Revolutionary War and Community Beginnings – 1776-1791
Two hundred years ago, when survival itself was a constant struggle in a primitive environment, national events had a rather small impact on the isolated homesteads and tiny communities of the forested interior. The Revolutionary War and the contest over ratification of the Constitution were no exceptions. New Castle, however, was a battleground in both struggles.
Despite the neutrality of the Quakers and the so-called “neutral status” of the area, Chappaqua was directly in the line of fire between the British to the south and the American forces to the north, beyond the Croton River. From their base in New York City, the redcoats often contested with patriot raiding parties for control of the area. Equally important, at various times during the Revolution, the main field armies of both sides marched through the town. Indeed, practically every important character in the conflict, from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to French General Rochambeau and Major Andre, spent time in the community.
In 1788 North Castle and other communities were incorporated as towns in New York State. Historians of the period tell us that this governmental reorganization was related to the opposition of then Governor George Clinton to the proposed Constitution of the United States. Apparently, he felt he could best defeat ratification by creating more rural towns. The governor was wrong, and the decision of the New York State in favor of the Constitution was a major factor in its successful adoption.
In 1791, the Town of North Castle was split into two communities; one retained the original name and the other became New Castle.
Rural Isolation – 1791-1846
After the establishment of the Constitution, the United States entered a sustained period of expansion and prosperity. After the creation of the two towns, New Castle entered a half century of relative torpor. Farmers practically broke their backs clearing the lands with primitive saws and axes. And even after the enormous trees had been felled and their roots removed, the rocky soil was unforgiving and infertile. Finally, even if a cash crop could have been raised, it was difficult and expensive to transport agricultural goods overland to market.
Not surprisingly, the population was virtually stagnant, actually declining from 1800 to 1830. But it has increased steadily since that time.
The Transformation of the Farm Economy – 1846-1872
When the New York and Harlem Railroad reached the Chappaqua hamlet in 1846, it had an immediate and lasting effect on the community. It shifted the focus of local activity two miles eastward from the area of the Quaker Meeting House to the land near the railroad station.
Second, it transformed the rural economy of the town. Previously, agricultural goods had to move by expensive overland stage either to Ossining or to Darien, and thence by water to the New York City. The railroad, however, reduced travel time to the Hudson River metropolis by 95 per cent and the cost of shipment by almost as much..
The result was that farmers could send apples (mostly russets), as well as mild cider and vinegar to the big city. With the largest metropolis in the western world easily accessible by rail, New Castle’s rural families prospered, and more land was cleared.
The most famous newcomer to Chappaqua during these years was Horace Greeley, the fiery, crusading editor of the New York Tribune, the most influential newspaper in the entire country. Greeley’s regular residence was in the city, but he sought a place for weekends and the summer months where he could engage in gentleman farming. He found his dream home in Chappaqua in 1854, and for the next 18 years, he head for the northbound train whenever he had a few extra hours. His residence in the community gave rise to the term “Chappaquacks” in the 1872 Presidential campaign, when Greeley was defeated by Ulysses S. Grant
Nascent Industrialization and Country Retreats – 1872-1902
After the Civil War, the agricultural economy of New Castle went into a prolonged and permanent decline. The extension of the railroads into new areas of the South and West opened up vast new farmlands which were more fertile and productive than anything in the Northeast. Moreover, the number of farmers increased rapidly as hundred of thousands of Civil War veterans took up the plow. Prices for farm commodities fell, and the value of farmland both in New Castle and in the nation as a whole declined.
Some of the slack in the local economy was taken up by the development of a number of small industrial enterprises in New Castle. A pickle factory, a glass works, a shoe company, and various other small industrial enterprises provided work for underemployed farmers.
The most important of these local enterprises was the Spencer Optical Factory, which ranked as the largest manufacturer of eyeglasses on earth in the last part of the 19th century. Between 1872 and 1890, it was located on the Kisco River in the tiny community of Kirbyville in what was then the northeastern corner of New Castle. No longer part of the town, the area is in the general vicinity of what is now the Northern Westchester Hospital The company moved its two hundred employees to New Jersey in 1890.
Country Estates and Exurban Escape – 1902-1945
Some factories managed to survive until the Great Depression and some local residents received building permits for pig pens, barns, chicken houses and stables as late as the 1930s — but New Castle became a fundamentally different kind of community by the middle of the 20th century.
The first few decades were particularly notable for the building of elaborate country estates by people like Moses Taylor, who inherited great wealth and added substantially to it, and Henry Berol, president of the Eagle Pencil Company. Taylor’s 600-acre grounds included most of what is now Lawrence Farms East and the Mount Kisco Country Club. Berol’s 500-acre estate, used primarily as a game preserve, was broken up after 1966 into Whippoorwill park (169 acres) and the Stornawaye residential area.
Other estates, many of them smaller and less ostentatious were established by families attracted by the natural beauty of the area and the regular train service to the beautiful new station opened in 1902 (perhaps because A.H. Smith, then president of the New York Central Railroad, lived in town).
Although New Castle remained residential, a major employment shift in the area came in 1939 when Lila and DeWitt Wallace moved their fledgling Reader’s Digest operation (which had been founded in Greenwich Village in 1919 and housed for a few years in Pleasantville) to the Roaring Brook Road area after plans to develop a model community on the site, replete with shopping facilities and a railroad station, had to be abandoned because of the Great Depression.
The most important development in New Castle in the first half of the 20th century was the opening of the Saw Mill River Parkway in 1934. This beautiful, controlled-access thoroughfare, which was designed for pleasurable, recreational driving rather than for commuting, gave Chappaqua a quick and easy link with New York City and paved the way for the vast suburban expansion after World War II.
Even before Pearl Harbor, however, Chappaqua had become locally famous for the unusual quality of its schools, which made the area particularly attractive to families. As a result, many new real estate developments took root, among them Lawrence Farms, Treeholme, Pinecliff, Brevoort Road, Stanwood, Kisco Park, Chappaqua Ridge and Seven Bridges. The services, roads and infrastructure of the community were set in those decades and the big period of growth was between 1910 and 1920.
Suburban Boom – 1945-1979
After two decades of relative quiet, owing to the Great Depression and World War II, the pent-up American demand for new homes finally found an outlet in the unprecedented building boom of the 1950s. New Castle reflected these larger trends and it became nationally renowned as “the Scarsdale of the North”, with as fine a public school system as existed anywhere. The area continued to strengthen its affluent image. Building permits often included garages (once a luxury), tennis courts, swimming pools, and expansive decks.
As T.H. Breen has noted in his “Imagining the Post East Hampton Histories”, American communities have always contained men and women intent on maximizing their own welfare and exploiting the environment and their neighbors to achieve that end. New Castle was no exception, but the spirit of volunteerism — reflected in the founding of the Town Club, the League of Women Voters, the Drama Group, and the Senior Activity Group, and other organizations — indicated that many hundreds of local residents were willing to give their time and energy for the benefit of their fellow citizens.
Nothing better illustrates this point than the town government itself. For two centuries it has been heavily reliant upon volunteers to staff its many boards and commissions. Fireman and ambulance worker have never received financial compensation for their often heroic efforts, and even the position of supervisor, the town’s most important elected official, remains a part-time post.
New Directions – 1978-Present
By 1980, New Castle was a mature community. An important political change came in 1979, when Mount Kisco, part of which had been within the boundaries of the two for almost two centuries, officially separated from New Castle and became a wholly independent community. The immediate result was that New Castle lost about 5,000 citizens, or 25 percent of its total population.
At about the same time, the most important legal controversy in the town’s history established a significant precedent for the state of the nation. The much-publicized Berenson case for multi-family housing resulted in a 1979 judicial order for the community to encourage multi-unit housing developments with more affordable prices and higher density lot coverages.
Moreover, as in much of the rest of the United States, the town of New Castle began to experience the beginning of various demographic, environmental, and energy crises. As waste disposal became one of the most obvious serious ecological concerns, thoughtful citizens began to worry about the community dangerous dependence on automobiles and imported oil. For the first time, a no-growth philosophy took hold, with many residents actively opposing any new corporate or retailing development, even that of the much respected IBM Corporation which had proposed a new research facility in the western end of town on Pinesbridge Road.
The increasing opposition to corporate and business growth, however, has been coupled with a greater acceptance of population growth and ethnic diversity.
In the early years of the 20th century, the influx of some groups had been carefully restricted, sometimes not too subtly. A real estate pamphlet of 1930, for example, assured prospective buyers that restrictive covenant had been adopted “in order to protect the social environment of the community by rendering impossible the purchase of property by objectionable people.”
In recent years, population and attitudes have begun to change, and some of the credit should be given to New Castle’s churches and religious organizations. Over the years they have worked together to help the community and to help each other. Many of the denominations now well established in town began by holding services in space borrowed from existing churches. When the old St. Mark’s Episcopal Church was demolished in 1915, the timbers were donated to the African Methodist Zion Congregation which used them to build its first church. The building that is today’s Baptist Church once housed, at different times, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and the original Temple Beth El. The Baptists, on taking over the building from the Jews, decided to retain the Ark of the Torah in the Church as a reminder of their historic religious heritage.
In recent years, many of New Castle’s religious organizations have helped to settle Eastern European and Asian refugee families. These newcomers received financial aid, help in finding jobs. Their children were assisted in getting started in the schools, where their quick success augurs well for the parts they will play in today’s complex American community.
Population of the Town of New Castle
1800 1555 1900 2401 1810 1291 1910 3573 1820 1368 1920 5176 1830 1336 1930 6792 1840 1529 1940 7903 1850 1800 1950 8802 1860 1817 1960 14338 1870 2152 1970 19837 1880 2297 1980 15425* 1890 2210 1990 16489
*Village of Mt. Kisco separated from New Castle in 1977