A Living History
Lake Oscawana is a unique community. It is located within an hour of the City of New York but it has managed to maintain its distinct rural character. This ability to retain the country life has not come easily – it has required constant action by residents of the Town and their elected representatives to balance the need for growth with the goal of preservation and protection of the land and its resources. We are particularly indebted to former LOCA Board Member David Bisbee for providing much of the historical background which follows.
OUR EARLIEST INHABITANTS
The Wappinger tribe of the Mohican nation is thought to have been amongst the earliest settlers in our Town. Most specifically the Nochpeen, one of the nine tribes of the Wappingers, were probably the primary people in the area. The Nochpeen had their camps in Canopus Hollow and many lived in what is now known as the Indian Lake area of the town. The Nochpeen were primarily an agricultural tribe and were believed to have constructed a gristmill in what is now Continental Village.
During the 1600s the Dutch traders moved north along the Hudson River and much of the Town became part of the large land holdings of the Philipse family. Farming was the main occupation – although with much of the land in the Town and at Lake Oscawana the crop was largely rocks! Particularly around the Lake several groups of families made their homes and have now lived here for many generations – the Bargers, the Colgroves, the Hortons and then the White, Schmittman, Odell, Niese, Travis and related family clans. Although the Lake was called Long Lake for many years it was changed to Horton’s Pond, after John Horton. The original ancestor of our story was Joshua Horton who after the Revolutionary War owned many acres around Canopus Creek. After his death the land was divided among his heirs and the area became known at Horton’s Hollow. The Lake was then named Horton’s Pond after this family which owned all of the adjacent land.
Some years after, Horton’s Pond became known as Canopus Lake and finally in the l860s it returned to its Native American heritage, after Chief Askewanas. Since that time it has been called Lake Oscawana. At the same time the town, first named Quincy (for the middle name of President John Quincy Adams), established in 1839, was re-named Putnam Valley in l840 (to honor the American Revolutionary General Israel Putnam). Until the early 1800s the land of Putnam was still part of Dutchess County but in 1812 Putnam County was separated out – Putnam remains the smallest county in New York State. So by the middle of the l800s there was a county called Putnam, a town called Putnam Valley and a Lake called Oscawana.
“IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME”
Throughout the l800s the cool venture of a trip up from the City encouraged the growth of summer hotels and boarding houses. The trip from Peekskill during the late l800s was made by stage and mule carts. The mule carts were particularly important and those operated by Absolem Sherwood were known as “Alp’s Mulemobile” – a veritable Budweiser Clydesdales of their day! By the turn of the next century the summer colony was thriving and tourism was its main support. In addition to the resorts which attracted families anxious to leave the heat of hot summer days other families were finding Oscawana a welcome change from the bustle of City life and begin building more significant houses on the shore of the Lake. By the time of the l920s well-known hotels were flourishing and several camps were also established. In order to facilitate summer activities a trolley was instituted running from the Peekskill railroad station to Oregon Corners – the final leg of the trip to the Lake was made either by carriage or finally by automobile. The trolley ran as recently as l927 by which time bus service began to take passengers from Oregon Corners north to the Lake.
OSCAWANA LAKE HOUSE AND THE SUMMER HOTELS
The first major hotel was the Lake House, built in 1856 by Abijah Lee. Lee’s heirs continued to operate the hotel, a grand 100 room resort, and the name was later changed to The Oscawana Lake House. Numerous other summer hotels were built around the Lake. Hilltop Lodge, for example, was constructed in the early 1920s, burned down, and then was rebuilt a few years later. Families came up to the Lake for weeks at a time, the food was plentiful and the accommodations though modest by some standards permitted people from the City to enjoy a vacation in the country. F.K. James, who owned the local waterworks company was the real estate developer of his day around the Lake – he was responsible for both Wildwood Knolls on the east shore as well as Hilltop Estates on the west. There were two main hotels in the Abele Park area – the Abele House and the Putnam House. Off Dunderberg Road was the Rocky Rest Hotel – it was used until it burned in l917.
Soon the Taconic Parkway in the l930s found its way and the trip from New York was then based on the car. During the War summer excursions continued when they could to the Lake. Horses from Cimarron Ranch, and soldiers marching from Camp Smith and West Point, contributed to the character of the area. Numerous bars flourished during the War years – there were dances, miniature golf and parties galore. The two major stores in Abele Park were Thompsons and Barney’s – each had its own lore and set of rules but ice cream was the treat for all the children on hot summer afternoons.
THE DUNDERBERG CLUB
In the l880s an association was formed by a group of business leaders from Peekskill with the purpose of buying land and improving real estate at the Lake. The group bought Wheat Island and proceeded to make it a destination for fishing and socializing. Later the resort became a hotel. The owner, Harry Gorley, had a large wooden boat which was used for tours. But all did not end well – in 1939 Gorley was murdered. While there was an arrest in the case, no one was ever convicted for what was a sensational crime! After the death of Gorley the hotel was rebuilt and became known as Coleman’s Landing. This hotel, too, burned down.
Lake Oscawana has a long history of wonderful camps offering sleep-away facilities and a wide variety of sports activities. During the first part of the l900s Camp Oscawana was operated by the French YMCA for boys with an emphasis on swimming skills and competitions. Camp Ruddy on the north end of the Lake was used as an Olympics training facility. Tents and cabins were the housing of the day. Scouting facilities were also established, especially at the north end, where there is a large Boy Scouts of America facility.
In later years, in addition to camping, canoeing, rowing and kayaking were enjoyed by Lake residents. A favorite area of the Lake to visit was Lost River, previously known as the St. John’s River, a large wetlands area on the east side of the Lake.
IF THEY LOOK FAMILIAR, THEY ARE…
Many on the Lake still recall stories of Babe Ruth’s visits from l925 to 1939, staying at the home on Hemlock Point of his manager, Christy Walsh. There are many photographs of the Babe enjoying pick-up games near Dunderberg Road. Camp Ruddy, named after Roy Ruddy, an Olympics swimmer was used by Johnny Weismuller as he prepared for his Tarzan film roles.
One of the earliest named homes on the Lake was called Camp Idlewild – with its unique wooden fencing it was a classic scenic location. In fact, in the l970s it was purchased by Roy Scheider, start of the movie “Jaws; some years later it was used as a setting for the film, “Mona Lisa Smile” starring Julia Roberts. Most recently when the location scouts for the HBO series, “The Sopranos”, needed a site evocative of the Adirondacks, for episodes during its final season they had but to look an hour north of New York City – yes, Camp Idlewild continued to star.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the well-known portraitist and photographer, has captured the beauty of the Lake in many of his shoots. And numerous other well-known leaders in the arts, particularly, continue to enjoy the privacy and the beauty of Lake Oscawana.
By the middle l950s there was a final shift at the Lake away from the hotels, many of which had either been destroyed by fire or were in disrepair, to an area of well-maintained single family homes, often now used as year round residences. The tourists of the earlier years were replaced by families lingering on summer days and on winter holiday weekends and by the descendents of the original founding families, many of whose great-great children now live and work in the Town.