Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Old House, Good Story

This is the "old Ham mansion," as it was grandly called, built in 1745 and destroyed by fire in 1937. If the noun "mansion" seems ambitious, bear in mind that in central Dutchess County in 1745, there wasn't much competition. Before the tacked-on additions and partial porch fill-in, when freshly painted and, likely as not, manicured by slaves, it would probably have been rather impressive, at least to its neighbors in remote Dutchess. The old Ham mansion wasn't actually built by a Ham at all, but rather by Frederick Streit, a prosperous Quaker farmer and signer of the famous Articles of Association. This sassy document, drafted in 1774 by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, chastised King George for a colonial system "evidently calculated for enslaving these colonies." Streit's two daughters married the two sons of Conradt Frederick Ham. Ham descendants remained in possession of the large farm on which it stood until 1967.

The first Ham stuck his toe in American waters in 1660, when 18-year-old Conrad Ham followed a certain Captain Schmidt from home in the Rhineland-Palatinate, across the stormy Atlantic on a 80-foot galleon, and into the employ of the man below, the Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant. Young Ham worked as a hired gun (sorry, bodyguard) for this truculent public official. (Just the job for an 18-year-old). It was a short gig, however, since the British arrived in barely four years and, with the blessings of a non-confrontational citizenry, sent the former Dutch governor packing. Ham packed too, returned to Germany, got married and had three sons.

These were bad years to live in the Palatinate, at least if you were a Protestant. Pop quiz: What was the "Nine Years War?" (I didn't know either). Also called the "War of Palatine Succession," it was an excuse, between the years 1688 and 1697, for the Catholic king of France, Louis XIV, to destroy property and massacre Protestants in the name of the true faith. Ham's three sons eventually joined an exodus of thirteen thousand religious refugees seeking sanctuary in England. There, in 1710, an exploitative British governor of New York named Robert Hunter (seen below), with the blessing and/or connivance of Queen Anne, selected 2500 of these unfortunates and, before anyone realized what was happening, press ganged them onto ships, sent them across the Atlantic, and quarantined them on Governor's Island. After a couple of anxious months in New York Harbor, the 3 Hams were assigned to a party of several hundred able bodied men and shipped up the Hudson to work for the Valley's reigning seigneur, Robert Livingston.

Governor Hunter's goal was to settle the wilderness; Livingston's was to make money. During a visit to South Carolina, Livingston had observed - and been impressed by - the highly profitable pitch, tar and turpentine industry, whose products were critical to the wooden sailing ships of the era. Governor Hunter had desperate refugees with nowhere to go; Livingston had 160,000 empty acres with nobody on them; the world's shipping needed pitch; you do the math.

The plan was to replace the existing forest with pine trees, a backbreaking prospect given the size of existing virgin hardwoods and the fact that 100 mature pines were required to make one barrel of tar. Accounts of this boondoggle claim the Hudson Valley climate was also too severe. I don't know who came up with that non-fact. My house in Millbrook is all of 15 miles from what was once the Manor of Livingston, and I'm surrounded by pines and spruces bigger than the Rockefeller Center Xmas tree.

I suspect the project's failure had more to do with the crushing nature of the work, the time required to grow a mature tree, and the impatience of Robert Livingston. For ten years he abused his workforce with unreasonable expectations, low pay and high prices in company-owned stores. The inevitable mutiny was suppressed by armed redcoats, after which the project was aborted and the workforce summarily cut loose in the middle of what was still a wilderness. Some struggled further into the woods and became subsistence farmers; others scattered into Connecticut and New Jersey; a few made it back to Manhattan; Conradt Frederick Ham, grandson of Conrad the Bodyguard, by now married with 2 sons of his own, wound up in Dutchess County.

Now the pages of the calendar fly by. The "old Ham mansion" became a baton, passed from one Ham generation to the next. In the mid-1860s 56-year-old bachelor Milton Conrad Ham married a young Pawling beauty named Phoebe Ferris, carried her home to the family manse, and lived there with her for 8 years. Then something happened.

What happened, I think, was the arrival of George Hunter Brown, president of the American Condensing Company (condensed milk), director of the expanding Dutchess and Columbia County RR (interesting; condensing and expanding in the same CV), sometime Supervisor of the Town of Washington and, most importantly, builder of a showy new estate called Millbrook Farms. The Brown estate, completed in 1867, included gatehouses, greenhouses, staff houses, ornamental drives, park-like grounds, and an architect designed main house that was big stuff for the Town of Washington. Milton Ham, a prominent man with deep roots in the community, could not have remained unimpressed. In 1870, he hired his brother-in-law to design a house befitting his position, background and financial ability. He called it Lynfeld which, freely translated, means "linden in the field," a reference to a large tree between the house and barns. In 1871 Ham, Mrs. Ham, Mrs. Ham's amateur architect brother and her unmarried sister all moved into one of the most modern and luxurious farmhouses in the Hudson Valley.

By the 1920s, the national economy and the Ham family fortunes were both at high tide. In 1925 John Milton Ham commissioned a series of "salon prints" of Lynfeld. The nearby village of Millbrook, which started in 1869 as a whistlestop on the Dutchess and Columbia County RR, was by now a center of fashion. The Hams predated the local "hilltoppers" by almost two centuries, and while they were, in many cases, equally educated and just as rich, they were not a part of the social elite. They are captured below in 1925, in a "tableau vivant" on the front porch of Lynfeld. John Ham and his wife - he bewhiskered and wearing a coat he probably bought in 1905, she looking like she rode in on a Conestoga wagon - stiffly contemplate the distant edge of the lawn. Their married children are more relaxed, both in body language and style of clothing. Two small children, dressed for church and clearly told to behave themselves, sit unsmiling and cross-legged on the grass. The great house looms behind them, a potent symbol of who they are.

The difference between Lynfeld and the barns and farm fields on rich neighbors' estates was that Lynfeld made money. John Ham had been, at different points in life, Clerk of the Dutchess County Court, postmaster of the Village of Millbrook, and supervisor of the Town of Washington. But his heart was in progressive farming. Ham raised purebred Holsteins, horned sheep, Berkshire hogs, kept hundreds of acres in crops, and had an unusual Percheron stud (think Superbowl beer commercials). This peaceable kingdom, at least the parts of it on hooves, occupied different levels of a multi-purpose barn, which Ham himself had designed 1890, and of which he was extremely proud.

John Ham had two sons: Frederick, seen below on the left, got a job with the U.S Dept of Agriculture, moved to Washington D.C. and raised a family there; Milton never married, never left Millbrook and when his father died in 1935, took over the family farm.

In 1950, while transferring hay from a wagon to the loft, a rope broke and Milton Ham fell to his death. To keep the farm running, a 19-year-old nephew named Conrad Ham quit Cornell and returned to Millbrook to run the family's dairy business.

For the next 17 years, Conrad Ham devoted himself to dairy farming on land that had been in his family for over two hundred years. He married and raised four children in his great-grandfather's house, until the day came when what seems to us a romantic story ended. Truth was, Ham never liked being a dairy farmer. In 1967, shortly after Tim Leary pulled out of Millbrook, Ham sold the herd and got a job doing what he really loved - operating heavy machinery on construction sites.

Lynfeld's interiors, seen below in 1925, hadn't changed much since 1871. The main stair and the double-height entry hall are unexpectedly grand. The rest of the place looks comfy, old fashioned and unexceptional, although it could probably be a showplace in the hands of a clever designer. I don't quite get the baby cradle under the eaves, but perhaps children were less coddled back then.

In 1969, Conrad and Jean Ham sold Lynfeld on 190 acres to a lawyer named Leslie Fourton. They kept 65 acres for themselves and built a modern cottage overlooking an artificial lake, custom excavated by Conrad Ham. Alas, their expectations that Lynfeld, in perfect antique condition at the time of sale, would survive as a gentleman's country place, were severely frustrated. It bounced from one owner to another, on ever smaller pieces of land, before being foreclosed in 1977, bought by a speculator and turned into a 3-building, 6-unit rental complex.

The conversion to income property has not been gentle. In fact, it's been painfully heavy-handed. From the '80s vinyl siding that cloaks the place like a cheap bathrobe, to the clumsy substitution of square top windows in the original arched openings, to the preposterous screw-on shutters, the amputation of the central tower, and the installation of a truly nutty looking front door, this is a case for the aesthetic police.

Five years ago, the roof on John Ham's multi-use barn was leaking, but the building was more or less intact. It's got the Bennett College blues today.

The vale that once was Lynfeld has been subdivided, but the lots are big and the gestalt remains one of open countryside.

A cottage built in 1937 on the site of the old "mansion" is occupied today by tenants. When compared with old photos, it turns out to be a modest homage to the original. In 1987, in spite of the vinyl siding, Lynfeld was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, in spite of a lot of things, Lynfeld would be a terrific candidate for some future restorer. There are only 3 apartments in the main house, and the interiors are surprisingly intact.

My use of vintage photos is courtesy of Connie and Jean Ham.


  1. The treatment of this poor house's exterior is nothing less than grotesque. What a shame! I suppose they got their money out of it; I suspect that, for such people, that's all anything is ever about.

  2. When I worked on the Drumlin hall project, one of the sub-contractors was a gentleman named Ed Ham of Millbrook tile. I can't help but wonder if he is a descendant. His brother Larry is a talented jazz musician who performs in NYC.

  3. What's become of the exterior of the old house is sad, particularly the loss of the tower But I can understand the urge to use vinyl siding when I hear what some house painter friends of mine charge to paint the exterior of a house this size. And my friends specialize in Victorian houses! They do a lovely but pricey job.

    The old photos of the farm, contented cows and all, are fascinating.

  4. If I ruled the universe, people would not be allowed to buy houses like that unless they respected their historic architecture.

    At least the house itself didn't undergo demolition by neglect, that's something.

  5. What a family saga, John! But then I've noticed we Teutonic types tend to a bleakly practical world view. Even with finances available, my own menfolk would have not only boxed the windows and slapped on the vinyl but also lowered the ceilings (to save on heating, to hell with aesthetics).
    And they would definitely have assigned the kids to the unheated attics since it is a well known fact that active German-American kids don't need fires -- and why waste heating on kids.

    Sober, hardworking men of business, the Hams, like the men in my paternal family who loved heavy machinery and hated doodads -- like the tower.

  6. Old Peter Stuyvesant and his pegleg will enliven any old New York story, but there's no credible evidence that a Ham ancestor preceded the group that came to the Hudson Valley in 1710. John didn't make it up; the account comes from a published source. It was common for descendants of many of the Palatine immigrants to embroider elaborate origin tales, though the true history is grittier and more fascinating.
    This seems an excellent restoration candidate though the interior isn't as pristine as the old photos. Thankfully it's been left with 23 acres, enough to create a pleasant country estate.
    Is it for sale?

  7. Thank you for sharing this story! Casper Ham (1762-?) I believe is a sibling of Conradt Ham and is my 4th great grandfather. There is an early Conradt Ham buried in 1747 in the original Pittsbury Church cemetery in the hamlet of Washintgon Hollow, Pleasant Valley NY. It will be interesting to find the connections!

  8. My family and I lived in one half of the house from 1977-1978 when my mom, Diane Marie Gagliano passed away. She loved that house and died there when I was 10. At the time, Lynn and Ron Davies owned the place. They ran a plant nursery and store on the property. I have fond memories of my sisters and I playing in and exploring the various barns. It is a shame to see it in such disarray