Bring up the subject of historic Hudson Valley estates, and the cast of characters consists for the most part of familiar family names: Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Roosevelt, Morse, Irving. Lesser known but equally worthy of attention are the people that resided at the Gomez Mill House in Marlboro, a property of considerably more modest scale than the moneyed enclaves of the landed gentry, but nonetheless containing its significant part of the Hudson Valley’s past.
“We’re a small site with a huge history,” says Ruth Abrahams, the executive director of the property. “It’s a major representation, really, of American history, of what we now refer to as The American Experience.”
A panoply of America
Of the 14 or so families that called the mill house home over the course of its 301-year history, a half dozen in particular stand out.
The original structure was built by Luis Moses Gomez, a Sephardic Jew whose Spanish ancestors had fled to Europe to escape the Inquisition. Gomez and his two sons operated a trading post on the Marlboro site, and he was a leader in the development of the earliest Jewish communities in New York.
The second notable resident was Wolfert Acker, a patriot of the Revolutionary-War era, who added a second story to the Gomez foundation and whose home there served as a center for Whig activism. After the war, Acker operated several entrepreneurial ventures, including a ferry service on the Hudson, and he later became an early Orange County public official.
The early years of the nineteenth century brought members of the Armstrong family to the house, “gentlemen farmers” who planted orchards and were early conservationists.
In the twentieth century, the property became home to the Arts-and-Crafts-Movement-influenced papermaker, paper historian, printer, typographer and craftsman Dard Hunter. Hunter built a paper mill in the style of a Devonshire cottage there, complete with thatched roof, in order to produce his handmade paper.
After Hunter came the social activist and writer Martha Gruening, whose plan to open a libertarian school on the site never came to fruition. Gruening maintained a commitment to civil rights, and was an early supporter of the NAACP.
The last residents were the Starin family, who moved in just after World War II. They preserved the property, and in 1973 got it placed on the National Register of Historical Places. The property is now under the care of the Gomez Foundation for Mill House, a nonprofit organization.
Remnants of the lives lived at the house remain side by side on the site today. A centuries-old kitchen shares space with a mid-ninteenth-century one, and papermaking screens with a sewn-in wire watermark apparatus share a room with a hidden storage closet, possibly used during Prohibition. Books, toys, furnishing, handmade stained-glass windows made by Hunter, and even a charming seahorse doorknocker, seemingly out of place in a northeast structure but with a story attached, link the lives of the people who were here.
More than just chronicling the everyday life of these people, though, says Ruth Abrahams, the historic house represents a cross-section of different movements in this country that underlie our history. “Gomez was here in the Colonial period, when people were exploring and utilizing the natural resources to build the country,” she says. Gomez quarried limestone and milled timber on the land, materials floated down the Hudson to construct early New York City to the south.
“The Revolutionary period and the founding of the country is represented with Acker,” Abrahams adds. “And the Armstrongs signify the time of the Fulton steamboat, people coming up to the Hudson Valley for recreation and conservation. And the great orchards that were laid at that time.”
The influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement (which played a major role in the establishment of the arts-and-crafts colony of Byrdcliffe in Woodstock in the first years of the twentieth century) has continued to this day. Reacting to the industrialization of England by “dark and satanic mills,” the movement celebrated instead the making of handmade object with traditional craftsmanship which reflected the heart and soul of its maker. Dard Hunter was skilled in many facets of decorative art, but paper became his ultimate passion. He was consumed by the making of it by hand with traditional tools, letterpress printing and handmade books, and the scholarly exploration of the history of it. He wrote many books about papermaking and the history of paper, including the classic reference book “Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft.”
Hunter bought the Mill House property in Marlboro in 1912, a century ago. Though Hunter is not associated with Byrdliffe, he did have connections with the community of Roycrofters in East Aurora, not far from Buffalo. Hunter got his start as a professional craftsman through taking classes at the Roycroft school started by Elbert Hubbard (the campus still exists today as an arts center, with its original structures preserved).
According to biographer Cathleen Baker, Dard decided at the Roycroft campus to make that unusual first name official, writing home that he would never again be known as William Joseph. (Baker says that the name was an early family nickname, although it wasn’t used by everyone. It most likely derived, she says, from his two-year-old brother’s attempts to pronounce what he heard the new baby being called: “darling.”)
By the time he bought the mill house property, Dard Hunter was looking for property to set up his own papermaking and printing operation. What mattered to him, according to his biographer, was finding a place with “a plentiful source of pure, running water.” He planned to produce handmade paper using a wooden waterwheel for the power needed to beat rags into pulp in papermaking. “He built the dam which allowed the water to flow in,” says Ruth Abrahams, “but unfortunately it [the water power] was not powerful enough for him to stay very long.” After just five or so years in Marlboro, Hunter moved on, and the property was sold to Gruening.
The Gomez Mill House is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. -4 p.m., from now until November. All entry into the Gomez Mill House site buildings require taking the guided tour, available at 10:30 a.m., 1:15 p.m., and 2:45 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $3 for ages five through 18 and for students. For information, visit www.gomez.org, or call 236-3126.