By Paul Foer/JNS.org
MARLBORO, N.Y.—The oldest Jewish site in North America is not Newport’s famed Touro Synagogue, or any other synagogue. Rather, it is a stone structure tucked away on the west side of the Hudson River, about 60 miles north of Manhattan.
Due to its multiple uses and inhabitants over the centuries, the Gomez Mill House—built in 1714 in Marlboro, NY—is one of the best-kept secrets in American Jewish history, and also holds a unique place in greater American history. With its 300th anniversary approaching, its story may very well become familiar to a much broader audience.
“Most Jewish visitors [to the Gomez Mill House] are surprised that the story is not about the Jewish religion or about being Jewish, but about the story of Jewish pioneering success in American and Jewish contribution to the founding of America,” says Ruth Abrahams—executive director of the Gomez Foundation for Mill House, a group of historic-minded citizens and descendants of the families that have owned the property—in an exclusive interview with JNS.org that serves as the first public announcement of the house’s tercentenary celebrations.
Luis Moses Gomez came to the Hudson Valley wilderness from Manhattan with two of his sons to expand his trading and commodities business. He built a trading post and a mill next to each other on a fast-flowing creek. Today, visitors can marvel at the original blockhouse trading post’s two-foot-thick stone walls and huge fireplaces at each end. While that original structure has been built up many times with oak floors, massive roof beams, a second story, and an attic, it’s not so much the building itself as what went on there throughout the generations that captivates visitor and historian alike.
Gomez, born circa 1654, is believed to have been the grandson of Gomez de Salazar, Comptroller of the Treasury for Spain’s King Philip IV. His father, Isaac, also a royal adviser, was forced by the Inquisition to leave Spain and moved to France, where religious liberty was guaranteed through The Edict of Nantes. Gomez married in France and moved to London with his father and other members of the extended family. After his first wife died, he moved to Jamaica, where many Sephardic Jews had settled, and married his second wife. Five of his six sons eventually married women of the West Indies and lived in America.
Records show that Gomez—trader, merchant, and possibly ship owner—became quite wealthy, and by 1703 he paid taxes in New York City. Papers of “denizenship” granted from England’s Queen Anne in 1705 provided special privileges for him as a non-Christian resident of the colony, including that of owning land without an oath of allegiance to the Crown sworn in the name of the Church of England. In 1714, he purchased 2,400 acres of land and built a fieldstone blockhouse into the side of a hill along a stream that became known as “Jews Creek.” Gomez chose to be near Algonquian Delaware Indians, as well as local residents and travelers heading north, so that he could trade with those groups. But it was timber and lime that drove the industry that he and his son Daniel conducted for more than 30 years.
Before the Revolutionary War, the Gomez Mill House was purchased by Wolfert Acker, a Dutch American who added a second story, as well as an attic with bricks made from local clay. Acker served as a lieutenant in the New Marlborough Company of Minute Men, chairman of the Committee of Safety and Observation, and Newburgh Town Supervisor while General George Washington was in the Newburgh area and his army was camped nearby at the Fishkill Depot. After the war, Acker established a landing on the Hudson, with a ferry to cross the river to the town of Wappinger and a packet line to carry freight.
In the 19th century, William Henry Armstrong made the Gomez Mill House his family’s home for four decades, adding a kitchen wing, porch, and stone walls. The property’s best-known owner in the 20th century was Dard Hunter, a craftsman and paper historian who built a paper mill on Jews Creek that resembled an English country cottage with a thatched roof. He made paper by hand, cut and cast type, and hand-printed his own books.
Abrahams, the Gomez Foundation for Mill House executive director, tells JNS.org that Jewish visitors to the historic site are “impressed with the presentation of connecting stories” of the house’s five owners over the course of three centuries.
The house has “as many motivated visitors as our complex history inspires,” she says. Annually, roughly half of those visitors come from synagogues, JCCs, other Jewish community groups, and Jewish individuals and families.
“About 1,500 school children visit us per year, including 900-1,200 from the Newburgh School System 3rd grade, who come to fulfill the New York State requirement for a local history experience,” Abrahams says. “This latter program will be in its 17th year in 2014. The other 1,000 or so visitors come for the American history, Hudson Valley visits, or are paper enthusiasts interested in the Dard Hunter Mill and library exhibit. Our Sunday programs bring in about 500 additional visitors.”
For its 300th anniversary celebration, the house is planning special events and a fundraising campaign.
“Programs will include guest lectures by such Jewish scholars as [New York University professor] Hasia Diner and [award-winning journalist and author] Andree Aelion Brooks,” she says. “Other special events include a ‘Celebration of Paper Day’ that will bring Dard Hunter III to the site to make paper using the 100 year-old beater in his grandfather’s Paper Mill, a Paper Sculpture Garden Exhibit, and printing on an early 20th-century press.”
From July 20-22, the first official Gomez family reunion will be held in New York City and at the Gomez Mill House, with more than 200 Gomez descendants expected to attend from 14 U.S. states and around the world. Abrahams says she is planning a local and national public relations campaign for the tercentenary, with special outreach to the countries that trace the Luis Moses Gomez family history—Spain, France, England, and Jamaica.
Abrahams says that as head of the house’s foundation, she grapples with the challenge of “finding financial security for the site and its needs through the generosity of private donations and grants, and renewed leadership on the Board of Trustees, when there is a need to replace those who pass on or who must leave for other reasons.”
“All else follows when these are in place: site maintenance, restoration, renovation, improved and expanded exhibits and public information and access, more staff, and improved visitor facilities,” she says.
The foundation in 1997 restored the Dard Hunter Mill, in addition to the site’s dam and bridge. In 2010, these sites underwent a second major restoration. In 2011, Hurricane Irene swept through the area, washing away part of the road in front of the house and the site’s entire public spaces. The current parking lot has been repaved, and other improvements are underway.
After nearly 300 years—all starting with a Jew whose family, despite being advisers to the King of Spain, was expelled by the Inquisition—the house remains American history made manifest.
“Better than any single house and site in the history-laden Hudson River Valley, the Mill House symbolizes and sums up our regional and national history,” says Harry Stoneback, professor of English at the State University of New York at New Paltz, on the house’s website. “It is a most dramatic and absolutely irreplaceable incarnation of American history.”
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