Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bringing Back the Ghosts

I was thrilled (and a little nervous) to be asked to further expand Clermont's Legends by Candlelight tours in 2009. We began this program in 2007 with two nights of ghostly tours through the mansion--well, it was supposed to be two nights, but that darned October rain cut us down to one. Every tour was jam-packed, and we have been offering more every year to meet the demand. Now we're up to five nights of ghosts, and the pressure is on to keep new ones coming in each year.

Most of the ghosts are the same each night, but depending on the resources and the volunteers, there are a few "stations" that get different ghosts on Fridays vs. Saturdays. Some favorites come back year after year (there is no substitute for Margaret Beekman Livingston raging and dead in the dining room), but this year it looks like I will need to research, write scripts, and find costumes for as many as eight new characters. That means I'd better get started now!

Digging back into the Livingston history for the strange, unusual, or sad lead me right away to Nancy Shippen Livingston. Her story is surprising enough on its own that I didn't have to think hard at all about how I would work history into "scary." Married young to the black sheep of Margaret Beekman Livingston's brood, the somewhat sheltered Philadelphia socialite found herself within a a few years hiding with her parents and embroiled in a battle of wits for custody of her only child.

Nancy's journals and letters were published in 1935 and can be found in several places online. For me this proved to be a treasure trove of information and--even better--Nancy's own words! There is nother better to me than including a character's actual thoughts and words in the Legends by Candlelight Spook Tours.

Nancy's journal is filled with the heart-breaking story of woman with no little or no legal protection from her terrible marriage. Her entries bear the repetitive refrain of her worries, intersperced with the social regimen that served to distract her.

"Monday--I am distressed past all discription at not hearing of my dear Child for so long a time. What can be the reason? is she sick or, what? unhappy creature that I am! a state of suspense is without exception the most disagreeable." --November 1783

I think it is about time her story got heard!

For the purposes of the tour, there is always more work though. Once a script that paid respect to her life was hammered out, I am still left with a quest for costume and volunteer to bring her to life.

Her gown in the only extant portrait of her is easy to recognize as a chemise de la Reine or gaulle, popularized by Marie Antoinette shortly before the French Revolution. The gauzy white cotton dress should not be too hard to make (since I am also the impromptu costumiere when we aren't able to give the costume department at our Peebles Island Resource Center enough warning).

Now it just comes down to locating the right volunteer. Does anyone out there want to be part of an historic Spook Tour?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Suprise Quadricentennial Visit at Clermont

Since 2007, Clermont has been celebrating the Hudson, Fulton, Champlain Quadricentennial. A major loan exhibit at Clermont in 2007 brought together artifacts from all across the country and resulted in the publication of a book on the subject by the Friends of Clermont. We also celebrated with fireworks, symposia, a grand ball, and visits from Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston at the museum. And that was all just 2007, the year of the Steamboat Bicentennial.

In 2009 we have been joined by the rest of New York State in celebrating the 400th anniversary of the explorations of Henry Hudson and Samuel Champlain as well as over 200 years of steam travel. The Quadricentennial is a big deal, and organizations all over New York State are finding ways to take part. (If you're not from New York, this summer and fall are great times to visit since there is no shortage of music festivals, parties, and flotillas every weekend) And once again, I've been making sure the steamboat and the "Quad" (as we affectionately refer to it) are front and center in events and tours whenever I can.

But yesterday, we were lucky enough to get a surprise visit from our friends on the Halfmoon. Halfway through the afternoon, we got a call from our friend Dawn at Dutchess County Tourism who got luckier than any of us and has been riding around on the boat for a few weeks. Thankfully, Dawn decided to spread the love and convince the captain to sail through our inner channel, bringing the boat within shouting distance of the shore.

It was a perfect summer day, and Susan, Roberta, and I waited with anticipation out on the grass for several long minutes before the boat appeared through the trees. Even we were surprised by how close it looked. Most of the boats we see on the river every day are way out in the center channel. It was so close that even I, who am painfully near-sighted, could even see all the painted decoration along the side and could fully appreciate the banners and flags and ropes and--I hope those aren't people in the crow's nest?

And then it was spotted by the visitors on the grounds, and people came running from the parking lot and picnic grounds to see it. And here I had felt so secluded out there just a couple minutes ago. I didn't realise there were so many people here...

Even I was pretty caught up in the excitement. It's not every day you get to see a full scale replica of a 1609 sailing vessel going by your yard. Personally, I am forever trying to imagine what the river wouldhave looked like filled with a forest of masts as recently as 175 years ago.

We shouted back and forth a few times, remarking on how easy it is to hear from that distance across the water (it put us in mind of what it must have been like to welcome the landing of a strange boat 400 years ago). There were quite a few little pleasure boats on the water around them, and they were hollering back and forth as well. I could hear the little sailboat by the shore ask them for the for the boat's name, and kyackers and a an inflatable motorboat were doing all they could get as close as was safely possible.

Sadly, the visit was all too short. Pretty soon the boat was passing us by. I chased it down the shore as far as I could, giving up on my highly impractical shoes in the process, and snapped a last few shots of the pretty moon painted on the boat's stern as it worked its way back towards the main channel in the middle of the river.

What a nice surprise to pass a Wednesday afternoon!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Gardening Retreat

When Alice Delafield Clarkson Livingston left her family estate of Clermont to New York State in 1962, she had not lived in the mansion for 20 years. Instead, in 1942 she had moved herself to a tiny cottage once used to house the gardener. By then she was a widow, her children grown and pursuing lives of their own (though they still remained close to home), and trying to keep up a mansion of 44 rooms with only a handful of servants. Compounded with shortages of coal brought on by the war, the move out of Clermont in and into what she christened "Clermont Cottage" must have been a bittersweet relief.

This small, cozy house offered many of the things she had loved at Clermont, a connection to 18th century history, original architectural features, and, importantly, easy access to her favorite gardens. Almost right outside her were the wide beds of the Cutting Garden and the remains of the slowly decaying greenhouse.
Alice had felt a deep connection to gardening since childhood. As an adult she once wrote:

"...when my father purchased Holcroft I had a chance to lay out a garden there & move earth about to conform to my idea of line, for the first time in my life & I felt completely happy."

She had worked on perfecting the gardens at Clermont since her arrival there in 1908, after her two-year honeymoon. The Spring Garden alone took her ten years to complete. "My thoughts in those days were all on garden & out of door panning," she said. Immediately adjacent to the mansion, the Spring Garden could be viewed from the library, where Alice often sat, eyes glued to the outside, contemplating her next changes to the garden.

Alice even introduced her daughters to gardening early. Remembering her own childhood pleasure in gardens, she gave Janet and Honoria a plot next to the cutting garden. For the girls, this simple bed of flowers seems to have pailed in comparison to the gift of the garden shed, which became their playhouse. For years after, it was the little gray building, filled with all of their "most precious posessions," which dominated their memories more than the garden.

When she moved to Clermont cottage, Alice's attention was refocused onto the same broad grassy paths of the Cutting Garden which her children had once treated as their playground. Its proximity to her back door made it into a constant companion, and she redoubled her efforts to keep it in brilliant bloom with fresh plantings and devoted attention. The collection of heirloom peonies and roses in particular became "old friends," with whom she visited seasonally and ocassionally referred to by name.

Alice left us with extensive records of planning this garden: receipts for purchasing new plants, somewhat cryptic plans for how they would be laid out, and a large body of photographs of the results. In fact, the frequency with which she photographed her dogs and gardens in all seasons gives us a picture of how important they became in her daily life as she aged. Their steady, quiet presence provided a backdrop for visits from Janet, who was by this time an investment banker on Wall Street and who returned weekly to see her mother and help with the upkeep of the mansion (Janet's comfort on a lawn mower became somewhat of a family spectical).

Honoria and her husband Rex were also not far. They had moved to Clermont's other cottage, at the top of the manor road and could not help but make regular visits to Alice when they were not wintering in Florida.

With the importance that they held for Alice, Clermont is dedicated to her upkeep of her gardens. At present, four of her gardens are maintained, and they are a draw for family picnics (children are especially drawn to Alice's goldfish pond), bird watchers, and even weddings. The greenhouse, while still in the state of ruin that Alice was familiar with, continues to protect a collection of roses and other "tastey" plants from the intrusions of deer with its brick foundation walls and some added fencing. This is one of the most colorful spots in the cutting garden today.
With the donation of her family estate to the public, Alice made her private garden retreat something that can be enjoyed by anyone with a spare hour or two and curious nature. It is one of the things that make us a local favorite and brings locals back regularly and draws our staff out of the attic and basement (where our offices are located), blinking in the sunlight to sneak a quick walk when we can.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

An Old-Fashioned Independence Day

Independence Day seemed to slide by in an easy-going blur this year. Usually big festivals at Clermont keep me in a constant state of busy-ness with just a few moments to watch one or two performers and say hello to my many volunteers.
Instead, our Old-Fashioned Independence Day 2009 felt like a perfect "Saturday in the Park" (to quote the old Chicago song): children laughing, people passing, and a man giving out free ice cream from Stewart's Shops of New York. Adams Fairacre Farm was also kind enough to donate a dozen watermelons to give away free. It couldn't hurt that this was the first sunny Saturday we'd seen in almost a month--or that Clear Channel of the Hudson Valley helped us to spread the word.
Now, "easy-going" is not to say that we weren't full of visitors. Even with gas prices high and more families staying close to home, our crowd was almost as large as last year's record numbers, and heaps of free and low-cost activities made it easy for families to stay and enjoy themselves all day. The children's contests, live music, 18th century toys, and the special house tours (which are free for children under 12) were big hits all around.
Even the "UnderWhere?: Women's Clothing in 18th Century" demonstration was a big hit. It seemed like every time I looked up from showing yet another layer of my 18th century costume (there were 6 in all), another family or two had drifted over. By the end, it was standing-room only.
There were no shortage of picnickers either; I am always thrilled to see families sprawled across blankets on the grass, gradually filling up Chancellor Livingston's historic Sheep Fold. By the Time the Providers played, the ground were jam-packed with toddling babies and giggling children. I can't imagine a better sound to have echoing across the park before the fireworks.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Burning of Clermont 1777

With Independence Day tomorrow, we are preparing our annual special tour. Petticoats, stockings, and funny-looking shoes are being brought down from the attic, and three people are running through their lines with their coworkers to ensure that Margaret Beekman Livingston, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, and Catherina Minkler will be well-represented on July Fourth. The tour is always based on a Revolutionary War theme, but it is a bit different every year, and this year we have chosen to focus on the year 1777, the year Clermont was burned by General Vaughn of the English army.

We'll actually be talking about the summer of 1777, about three months before the mansion was burned. It turns out that that summer was a tense one for New Yorkers. In July, news had reached Albany that Burgoyne's army had taken the fort at Ticonderoga, and the residents of the Hudson Valley now found themselves sandwiched beween General Burgoyne to the north, and General Howe's formidable forces to the south.

Widow Margaret Beekman Livingston, perched on the bluffs above the Hudson, found herself a visable target on the best route for an English conquest on Albany. Her oldest son (soon to become Chancellor Livingston) had only just finished writing New York State's Constitution, and was now on the Council of Safety for New York, and the next son Lt. Col. Henry Beekman Livingston, was facing court martial for misconduct in the army. A third son John R. left for Fort Edward in July, leaving "a quantiy of rum" for sale stored on her estate, and the youngest at 13 was still a dependant.

To complete the story of Clermont in 1777, we have also gotten together with our friends at the Livingston History Barn to tell us about the Germantown militia. With their help, we've developed the charactor of a young Germantown woman and transported her to Clermont for the day, allowing us to compare the different ways in which many people gave their support to the Revolutionary War. Catherina Minkler was a real young woman, just a few years from marrying a member of the Germantown militia. By explaining her own difficulties in weathering the war and those of her future husband, she will enable our visitors to see the more of the different contributions and circumstances of those who lived through the American Revolution.

We are always glad when the season affords us a chance to vary our tour and tell some of our favorite stories that don't quite fit into the regular tour. Our Margaret Beekman Livingston impersonator has been reading up on diaries and letters for weeks now, and she is bursting with stories to share. We hope that some of you will have the chance to come down and take the Indpendence Day tour on Saturday July 4, 2009 from 12pm-4pm.