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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

BRICK COLLECTING: An Odd Hobby

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

[This article appeared on a website called "Brick Collector", whose creators had obtained it I know not how. Actually they had no doubt seen it in the publication "News and Views", newsletter of the Underhill Society. This is an earlier and slightly more flippant and personal version of "Once and Future Eden". And I do indeed, given the chance, collect bricks at Croton on a certain beach at low tide, and a very silly form of mudlarking it is, and they are very heavy to carry away. Collecting bits of beach glass is much more sensible. ]


TALES FROM CROTON POINT

Sarah Gibbs Underhill, Kerhonkson, NY

The first time I came to a Clearwater Revival (an annual music fest sponsored by Hudson River Sloop Clearwater) in 1985 my eye was caught by the “Underhill Ave.” exit sign where I was to turn off for Croton Point. This was my first inkling that the sense of homecoming I felt at Croton had roots that went back further than my connection with Clearwater. The better I get to know the Point, the more I appreciate its unique natural and human history. Croton Point has many stories to tell, and one of them – an ongoing one – is ours.

Located in the lower Hudson Valley on the river’s eastern short, Croton Point (earlier names for it were Senasqua, Teller’s Point, and Sarah’s Point) has been owned by Westchester County since 1924. Happily, it is no longer being used as a county landfill and all traces of that unfortunate land use are now cleaned up. The Croton Park we know today is an idyllic and beautiful spot surrounded on three sides by the river’s bays where Hudson Valley residents can enjoy the natural surroundings. Our family history of the Point begins 200 years ago.

In 1804 Croton Point was purchased by a Quaker gentleman named Robert Underhill (my great-great-great-great- grandfather, but who’s counting). Along with his brothers Joshua and Abraham, he operated a grist mill on the Croton River and he began to cultivate vineyards on the southern slopes of the point. His 250 fertile acres yielded crops of watermelons, apples and grapes for the New York City market. During the War of 1812, when shipments from southern states were under attack, old Mr. Underhill shrewdly planted huge fields of watermelons and had a fleet of cargo sloops (the Hudson River Sloop “Clearwater” is a replica of these) waiting off the point for the crop to ripen. The melons were in great demand in New York City at this time, and could get there without harassment from the British Navy.

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William A. Underhill Brickyard, Croton Point, NY

His sons Richard and William inherited the property, dividing it between them. William concentrated on developing a brick industry around which grew the Village of Croton Point. Bricks with his initials, “W. A. U.”, and others with the very un-Quakerly self-promoting cryptogram “IXL” (not a proper roman numeral, but rather a claim that he “excelled” at making bricks) may still be found on the beaches at low tide. These were used to build the brick barns which still stand, a three-story barn for fruit and a large carriage and horse barn as well as a brick schoolhouse for the children of the employees of the brickyard and the farm.

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Three vaulted brick wine cellars, still in excellent condition, were built into the hillside to store wines from the extensive vineyards. There is a growing interest in the community in having these brick buildings restored and researched as an historical archaeological site. A 21st century use for the wine cellars which I considered while camping in the park on a crowded weekend would be as fallout shelters in the event of a terrorist attack on the nearby Indian Point nuclear power plant. Rather than get stuck in gridlock traffic, I told my kids we should all meet in the wine cellars thoughtfully provided for us by our family. Fortunately, we did not have to do this.

Dr. Richard T. Underhill, b. 1802, the vintner and proprietor of the southern part of Croton Point, had discontinued his medical practice in New York City to take up residence out on the tip of the Point. He built an Italianate villa there in 1846 as his residence which he christened “Interwasser”. In 1850 four English yew trees were planted in front of this home and I can imagine his brother William, of the IXL word-play, having a lot of fun with the term “U’s yews”.

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Today few traces of the house remain, only a few Ashlar marble foundation stones peeking out of the ground, and an old stone hitching post. I pitch my tent on this site during the Clearwater festival and enjoy the site inhabited by my forebears. Cooled by river breezes and with wonderful views of the Hudson (more so in the winter when the leaves are off the trees), it is still a spectacular spot. The four yew trees are still standing, and have grown to heights of 60 to 100 feet. Since this species can live to be up to 1,000 years old, I have undertaken the task of tending to their health (see press release below). An unpublished but formally written historical account left by an Underhill descendant in the Westchester County Historical Society collection describes “Interwasser” thus: “Ashlar marble quarried at (nearby) Sing-Sing and cut by prison labor formed the basement while the upper portion was stuccoed brick. Over the front door was a tower room enjoying extensive views up and down the river. It was another large and commodious house given to hospitality and one of the show pieces in the county. Visitors from far and near were attracted to the Point houses, as traditions and letters bear ample testimony. Among the many assets of the place were shad fishing and crabbing, duck shooting and hunting, boating and skating, together with the wonderful gardens and orchards and all permeated with the most cordial atmosphere.”

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Another account (possibly by the same author, James Wood, b. 1870, as narrated to his grandson Jim Wood of Braewold, Mt. Kisco) describes “My Brothers and Sisters’: “Abby… married William A. Underhill of Croton Point. He was a son of Robert Underhill, son of Isaac and brother of Caleb, and therefore a first cousin of Mother. His brother… Richard T… was a New York City doctor and afterward owned the “End of the Point”, and never married… William A. inherited [under what terms I never knew] the Point homestead. He was successful in the brick business and with the vineyard of Catawba and Isabella grapes… Dr. Underhill had vineyards also, but never brickyards. Both vineyards and brickyards were profitable. Having an ample income they dispensed a most generous hospitality. The house was generally filled with guests who always admired and loved their hosts. Abby was queenly, and William A. very lovable. Their children were Elizabeth, Stephen, Mary and Phoebe. Elizabeth never married and became quite hard of hearing. She was a pleasant conversationalist. She it was who said, “The Psalmist said, ‘While I mused, the fire burned’, but while I mused, the fire went out!” It was the delight of my boyhood to spend considerable time at Croton Point.”

Bricks from the Underhill Brickyard were also used in 1855 to construct “Surwood” (later called “Evergreen”), a home of the John J. Wood family in the Mt. Kisco complex known as the “Woodpile”. This home was designed on the same lines as “Interwasser” and still stands and is occupied today.


WEBMASTER NOTE: Sarah Underhill has spearheaded a special campaign to save the 4 yew trees at the "Interwasser" site. Anyone interested in contributing to this effort can contact The U’s Yews Project, c/o Underhill, 1150 Berme Rd., Kerhonkson, NY 12446


[postscript: this effort paid off. I raised some funds and hired a local arborist to assess and prune the trees. This got the Park's attention and a fence was constructed around the trees with a plaque explaining their provenance, and they are now preserved and cared for. They prefer a cool damp climate so global climate change is affecting their health in a negative way, but other than that they are going strong and I enjoy visiting them whenever I'm in the neighborhood]


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