Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Well Served: 20th Century Servants at Clermont

Villa Camerata, one of the homes the
Livingstons rented in Italy.
In the early 1920s, the Livingston family spent some five years in Europe, enjoying travel and making sure the two daughters Honoria and Janet got a "Cultural Education."  While they were gone, the Livingstons on their staff to run Clermont's farming operations and care for the buildings.  It was not an uncommon situation.  Wealthy estate owners often had several properties that they traveled between, as well as occasional long vacations, meaning that trusted servants were in charge while they were away.  These estates housed small communities of trusted workers who each had their own lives and stories intimately connected with the property.
In 1926, when the Livingstons were ready to return to the United States, they were looking for a new farm manager.  That's how we meet John Rall. 

"My dear Rall," wrote John Henry Livingston on October 24th, 1926, "I was very glad indeed to hear from Miss Nelly that you are able to come to me."  And he immediately launched into the instructions: keep dry leaves away from the house (a fire hazard the Livingstons knew about all too well), fill the wood shed, and be sure to add "a great deal of kindling."  John Henry left specific instructions for filling the ice house without driving across the lawn so as to prevent damaging the grass.  He ordered an old horse--"Dan"--put down and then reiterated that no harm was to come to the lawn by driving across it while filling the ice house.  John Henry was feeling pretty serious about his grass.

Rall owned a farm in nearby Germantown and was an experienced farm manager.  He had worked for the Clarkson family in that capacity for some ten years before and was also apparently familiar with Clermont from past work.  So he would have been well-prepared to oversee the several hundred acres of Clermont estate that remained by the 20th century, including orchards, vegetable and flower gardens, livestock, hay fields, about five barns, and two or three cottages.  

By mid-November, he and his family had moved into Sylvan Cottage, near Clermont's west gate.  He was to earn $85 a month, plus coal, milk, and use of the cottage.  His wife raised chickens and ducks there for extra income.  She sold them for eggs and meat ($1 per bird in 1928) to neighbors, including other wealthy estate owners like the Clarksons and the Hawkins. 

Sylvan Cottage.  This photo was found in the Rall Collection
at Clermont and most likely shows his family.  note the enclosed yard
to the right, possibly where Mrs. Rall was raising fowl.
At Clermont, Rall joined a small staff.  This was not the old days with 6 or 7 house servants, plus outdoor workers.  The Livingston staff had shrunk over the past few decades, which was happening to a lot of households along the Hudson River and elsewhere.  Rall's closest neighbor on the estate was likely Clarence Jones, who by 1930 lived with his wife and two sons in Clermont Cottage (at right), just around the corner of a one-lane dirt road that lead down the mansion.  An African American man from South Carolina, Clarence was the butler, ultimately in charge of all responsibilities pertaining to the mansion.

John Rall immediately set about the winter duties of the estate.  Along with Floyd Smith, Brown, and Downing (?)--three other Clermont workers--he drained the water from the mansion's pipes in preparation for winter.  Even though the Livingstons were returning to America, they were headed straight to their Aiken, South Carolina house the Band Box, and Clermont's main house would remain unoccupied for the winter.  Clarence headed down south with the Livingstons with them as part of his duties. Floyd moved into Clermont Cottage while he was gone.  Rall hired day workers and cut ice off the little pond, bought some supplies for the horses, and everyone at Clermont presumably hunkered down for the winter.

But at the end of January, John Rall received word that his boss, Mr. Livingston had passed away suddenly from influenza.  Mrs. Livingston was in "shock," and Mr. Livingston's firm and experienced orders were replaced by a kind of flurry of confusion from his widow.  The letter is a particularly poignant one so I'm including a full transcript here:

Dear John,
     I enclose the cheque for you for [January] & the other bills.  The shock of Mr. Livingstons death is too dreadful for us--He was as nearly perfect as one could be.  There is only one thing that helps, & that is to know he was well & active & happy almost to the end, & was spared a long illness & suffering- I had flu, & he got it just as I was getting well, & at first we never dreamed it [would] go wrong, but suddenly, pnuemonioa developed & in a few hours he just stopped breathing, without pain & peacefully.  I dont know how we can go to Clermont without him, but he wanted us to, so we shall-- I hope so you can rent or sell you farm and stay with me--Mr Livingston wanted you- & it [would] be such a help to me if you could -
Yrs Sincerely
     A.D. Livingston

Mrs. Livingston began struggling to find the additional garden help that the estate would need when they returned, asking Rall's help since she was still in Aiken.  

I shall have another man for this summer and would take Raymond from April 1st if he wanted to come for the summer but I cannot have any one this year who wants high wages--$80 is all I could think.  Can Raymond [Rifenburg] drive a car?

A fireplace in the Sylvan
Cottage front room
Mrs. Livingston asked if Mrs. Rall would be able to take on some of the estate's other work: laundry, butter making, milk, raising the chickens and eggs.  She asked Rall to stay on, suggesting that he was already thinking of leaving.  Had this been a winter-only arrangement from the beginning or had the Rall family changed their mind when Mr. Livingston died?

Mrs. Livingston was trying to catch up on all of the little details her husband had always taken care of.  "Please get what help you need for the wood, so there is plenty--I did not know could not do it alone..."  "Can you start vegetable in the green house, & is it time to send you the seeds?  Do you know about planting things, I dont know anything!"  
It wasn't quite true that Mrs. Livingston didn't know anything; she was an avid flower gardener who wouldn't let anyone so much as prepare the beds before she returned from South Carolina.  She repeated this order several times, just to be sure.  It seems likely that her extensive experience with flower gardening made her particularly aware of the value of Rall's expertise with fruits and vegetables.

By the end of February, Rall had made his decision to leave.  "I am so sorry you think you cannot stay, but I understand how you cannot unless your farm is sold," wrote Mrs. Livingston.

"The Ford Car"
Nevertheless, Rall would help her find some staff to work the estate.  it was a flurry communications:  A chauffeur was still needed.  Raymond was almost taken on, but he wouldn't drive the car.  In March Raymond was instead being considered to care for the animals and barns, but he didn't know how to care for the vegetable gardens.  Mrs. Livingston engaged someone from South Carolina to come up and care for the building maintenance, but she still needed someone to drive the car for her.  Brown could move into Sylvan Cottage after Rall and his family moved out--but then that fell through for some reason.  Brown was out.

By March things were still not settled, and Mrs. Livingston was beginning to sound a little desperate.  Who was going to move into Sylvan Cottage?  She couldn't bear to have a stranger in the position.  What if Raymond moved in?  Even if she had to buy her vegetables, instead of growing them at Clermont, maybe that would be better.  She needed someone to care for the animals and the water pump and watch for fires...  The confusion had her "much upset."

Honoria's husband Rex, painting in the 1930s
A few days later, Rall had the situation straightened out for her.  A telegram arrived from Mrs. Livingston on March 26 or 27 that just said "Telegram received very glad to have Claude same terms as Brown."

And just like that, Rall was extricated from Clermont.  Claude moved into Sylvan Cottage.  Floyd had to move back out of Clermont Cottage so Clarence could move in.  There was still no one to drive the car or cut the lawn, but Rall seemed to be largely absolved of the responsibility of finding anyone.  By the end of March, he was back on his farm in Germantown.  Mrs. Livingston didn't even know the address.  She sent him a letter of gratitude, but had to simply send it to the Germantown post office and trust them to get it to him.


By 1931 Sylvan Cottage was empty again.  This time it was slated to become the home for Mrs. Livingston's newly-wed daughter Honoria and her husband.  Mrs. Livingston's other daughter Janet eventually took up mowing the lawn.  Apparently it was a bit of a family novelty; there are several photos of Janet on a lawn tractor.

The little archival box that houses the Rall Collection at Clermont provides an interesting window into life for non-Livingstons at Clermont.  Even though it's too bad that we don't have any of Rall's correspondence back to the Livingstons, we do get a picture of how boss and employee interacted, how tasks were divied up, and just how many men were caring for the property during the time.  Clermont and the other estates along the Hudson Valley were important on a daily basis, not just to the families who owned them, but the men and women who were there for work, building relationships with the people, animals, buildings, and grounds.

As someone who's been working at the site for ten years now, I can totally identify with those people.




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