OLD BAY RIDGE
by Grace A. Glen
©1962 by The Library Associates of Brooklyn College, Inc.
These memoirs provide a loving perspective on a particular place and time. Bay Ridge, when Miss Glen’s family moved to the ridge of Kings County, was one of many small neighborhoods, known colloquially as villages, at a crossroad in the town of New Utrecht. Posterity, Henry R. Stiles, Brooklyn historian, has noted, “delights in details”, and we are presented with a wealth of them through Miss Glen’s recollections, which come to a close with the year 1898 when the cities of New York and Brooklyn were consolidated.
walk of two miles along picturesque Shore Road”, says a Brooklyn
Daily Eagle account of 1893, “leads from Fort Hamilton to
the village of Bay Ridge which is separated by a short stretch of farm
lands from the extremity of South Brooklyn.” Founded by the Dutch
in the seventeenth century, New Utrecht in 1894 became part of the City
of Brooklyn. Four years later it emerged as the Borough of Brooklyn.
Neighborhoods on New Utrecht’ S site today include, besides Bay
Ridge and Fort Hamilton, in whole or in part, Bath Beach, Bensonhurst,
Borough Park and Dyker Heights.
The Library Associates of Brooklyn College, taking pride in Brooklyn’s past and aware of the continuity of past, present and future, has decided to present Miss Glen’s account of long ago as she wrote it. Its publication will, it is hoped, enable citizens, students and scholars of both present and future to gain a greater appreciation of Brooklyn’s heritage.
O. Cummings Associate Professor,
Bay Ridge ran from farm lands at about 60th Street which separated it from South Brooklyn, to 86th Street, beyond which lay Fort Hamilton, and from the Shore Road to Fort Hamilton Avenue. There were several Estates—Bliss, Langley, Winslow, Perry, Townsend, Thomas, and the extensive farms of the Van Brunts, Bergens and Bennetts—but these had already been cut into to make room for Avenues and a few streets. Third Avenue, although it was the main street at that time, was only a country road with great trees arching overhead and fields of daisies and buttercups in the Spring and golden rod and asters in the Fall on either side of the road. A group of stores was located at 69th Street, but until Fort Hamilton was reached there were none at all and very few houses. Where 71st Street is now stood the school house, a small one-room building with primitive out door sanitary houses and a well in the yard complete with bucket and dipper. The year before we came to Bay Ridge it had been replaced by a pleasant four room school house, designed by Otto Heinighe. There was much grumbling at the time as it was felt that such a large building was not at all necessary. Another improvement was made at that time by the replacement of the old steam engine cars which ran along Third Avenue from 65th Street to Fort Hamilton by trolleys.
The Shore Road was a pretty country road with tall hedges of honey suckle, wild roses and other wild growths on one side which sloped down a steep bank to a narrow belt of pebbly sand. Many people had private Batheing Boxes along the little beaches and in hot summers took full ad vantage of the cool clear water. Our landlady had two of these Batheing Boxes and once in a while Mother borrowed the key and took us children down for a swim. The other side of the road was lined with comfortable houses with their flower gardens and, high on the hill at 79th Street, stood the two Van Brunt houses. The hill was called Owl's Head at that time and there was a flagpole there where the flag was flown on patriotic occasions.
Narrows Avenue was only a wagon road through farms, not even named. Colonial Road, then called First Avenue, wasn't much better though it was more like a road, but there was not a single house upon it. Second Avenue, now Ridge Boulevard, was beautiful with its lovely homes and green fields. The trees too, were magnificent, especially a clump of beeches on the Thomas estate, called the Twelve Apostles. When 75th Street was cut through, the trees still stood where the Jacobus family built a house, but when it was sold, an apartment house was built on the site and the trees were destroyed. Where 71st Street is now, from Ridge Boulevard to Third Avenue, was a double line of trees. Mr. Perry had planted them and there were 80 different varieties among them, many of which were new in this locality. Of course, the walk between the trees was called "Lovers Lane", but whether it was ever used by ardent young couples I couldn't under take to say. On both sides of the Lane were vacant lots. The one between 71st Street and Ovington Avenue, which at that time was called Cedar Lane, was always flooded after a heavy rain. When a sharp frost followed, it made a grand skating pond and all Bay Ridge turned out to enjoy it.
The most important building on. Second Avenue was the old Atheneum which stood near Ovington Avenue, fields on both sides, and the Winslow place across the street. It had a large central auditorium where church fairs, strawberry festivals, entertainments and occasionally a dance were held. On either side there was a long narrow room, one of which served as the post office. There was no mail delivery. Everyone called for his mail. The post office served another purpose. There was no resident doctor in Bay Ridge at that time. Dr. de Mund looked after New Utrecht, Fort Hamilton and Bay Ridge and with the aid of his horse and buggy made his rounds every morning. If there were a red bandanna handkerchief hanging outside the door, he stopped and went in to see who needed him. If there were no handkerchief, he went merrily on his way. Later on, some Bay Ridge women realized a library would be a very useful thing and asked permission to use the room on the other side as a Community library. They collected books from many people. The Doubledays who lived here at that time were very generous and furnished the room with book shelves and a few chairs and tables and that is how the Reading Club started the first Bay Ridge library. There was no trained librarian - the members took turns from 2 to 6 doing the work.
The little group of stores on Third Avenue and 69th Street, now Bay Ridge Avenue, consisted of a grocery (Sell and Moore), a. barber shop (May), plumber (Cook), and a little candy and ice cream store (Meyne). The reason I remember their names is that one of us discovered they made a sentence - "Sell and Moore May Cook Meyne". We children thought that extremely witty and chanted it loudly as we passed the stores. On the opposite side was the Owl's Head Tavern, which is still there, and a drug store. There was only one butcher on 69th Street. Fruit and vegetable peddlers came with their wagons about three times a week. The grocer made his deliveries about as often but the milkman came every morning. Mother was very grateful to our grocer, William Laemmel. The morning after the blizzard of 1888 he loaded a sledge with all the necessities he could think of. His brother Otto, who was the milkman, put the big cans of milk into the sledge and they set out to serve the customers who they thought would need it most. We had a baby so they came to us. It was a neighborly thing to do. Of course, with such a monopoly, people were rather at the mercy of their tradesmen. You took what they had and paid what they asked, but, on the whole, I think it was pretty fair dealing. Our iceman delivered ice in summer and coal in winter. It was considered outrageous when coal went up to $5.00 a ton.
Fourth Avenue had few houses on it and was just one vacant lot after another, but it was lined with magnificent old willow trees which were destroyed when the subway came. Fifth Avenue and beyond was unknown territory as we seldom went as far as that. The side streets were usually short, most of them about a block long. The only streets I remember cut through were 69th Street which ran from the Shore Road to Stewart Avenue, Ovington Avenue which ran from Second Avenue to Stewart Avenue and 79th from the Shore Road to Fort Hamilton Avenue. The Bennett and Bergen farms stretched from the Shore Road to Second Avenue. As children we often walked through them to the shore. There was a kind of gentleman s agreement between the farmers and the children. Anything on the ground you could have, but no picking apples or pears from the trees - that was stealing. Tomatoes were all right however. Did you ever pick a big red, just ripe, tomato off its vine, dust it off with your handkerchief, or the hem of your petticoat and then eat it in delicious mouthfuls? If you haven't, you don't know what a tomato really tastes like.
There were only three churches in Bay Ridge at that time; the little red Catholic Church on Fourth Avenue at 74th Street - Our Lady of Angels, the small white Methodist Church at the corner of Ovington and Fourth, and the equally small brown Episcopal Church on Third Avenue and Church Lane, now 67th Street. Of course, there was the Church of the Generals in Fort Hamilton but that didn't count. Old Mrs. Moore, of whom I shall tell later, told me that Grant, Lee, Meade, Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson had been Commanders at the Fort That made my history lessons on the Civil War much more interesting. Much later the Lutherans bought the Episcopal Church, moved it to its present site on Fourth Avenue, and the Episcopalians built their present church on Ridge Boulevard. At present nothing remains of the Catholic Church as it was replaced by the priests' house. The Methodist moved the little church to the other side of the lawn where it serves as a parish house and Sunday School. The original parsonage is still in use. The Episcopal Church forms part of the Lutheran Church building. The old Christ Church rectory is still standing on 67th Street and in good shape. It looks from the outside as if it had been remodeled into a two-family house.
By this time people were beginning to find out what a pleasant place Bay Ridge was and the population was increasing. The school's four rooms were filling up and people were considering becoming a part of Brooklyn. There was still our Volunteer Fire Department and every man turned out at the sound of the steam whistle. Our school board conferred with the principal on our course of study. There were five members - James Dean, James Weir, George Self, William Bennett and another whose name I can't recall. They came faithfully to graduations and Christmas celebrations. We were well taught and expected to do our work so we usually did it. At noontime we were turned loose to go home for lunch and to play. There was a fine lawn sloping to Second Avenue, with two line of big oaks at one side where we played lievio, still Pond no more moving, red rover come over and an especially thrilling game called Ghosts, invented by the big girls, in which we roamed in lines in and out of the houses made of leaves uttering weird cries, it was always played lit the Fall and we loved it. Also there were hop scotch, jumping rope and jacks in their turn. The boys had their playground on the other side of the building and left us severely alone. Of course, we were completely unsupervised. No teacher would have dreamed of organizing our games She would have considered children perfect nit wits who couldn't amuse themselves. When the noon hour was up, the teacher came out on the porch and rang a big dinner bell and we all lined up. It was a good school and had a good reputation. The officers at the Fort always sent their children to old No. 2, as it was known at that time.
Looking back, the Bay Ridge of my childhood was a very simple place. There was no sewer system - every house had its cesspool, and primitive sanitation - not many houses had indoor bathrooms, most still had outdoor sanitary houses. Pernickety people hid these by surrounding them with trellises covered with vines or roses, Of course, houses were lit by oil lamps and there was no central heating. Most people had a stove in every room and a massive range in the kitchen. None of the streets were paved, dirt roads were the rule, and in the Spring, with its frequent showers, the mud was something. There were no street lights. Our little street had a lamp at the end of the street but the tenants paid for it and the landlord's man looked after it. Transportation was not too easy. It took time to get down to Fulton Street to shop as one had to change cars at 65th Street, so shopping expeditions were rare. Going to business, men took the trolley to. 39th Street and went across to New York on the ferry. If one were a member of the Crescent Athletic Club, he could take the launch from the Crescent Dock on the Shore Road, which carried its members back and forth. Fort Hamilton High School is situated where the club once stood with its playing grounds and in front its private dock with a boat house at the end.
Most of the social life centered around the churches. People entertained at home, giving dinners and evening parties. Sometimes they played cards, whist, euchre, five hundred, sometimes they played charades or guessing games, sometimes they danced. In the afternoons groups of ladies met on their verandas or in their gardens to embroider and gossip and sample their hostess' special cake and cookies and sip cups of tea in a genteel fashion. Croquet was the favorite outdoor game. Only a few girls played tenths. The Crescent Club rather grudgingly granted the use of its tennis courts on some week day mornings but few private homes had tennis courts. Later on, when the Bay Ridge Club was formed and built a club house on 72nd Street, they had spacious tennis courts which in winter were flooded to provide a skating rink, but two big apartment houses cover that site now.
Two of my mother's visitors, whom I liked very much indeed, were old Mrs. Moore and her daughter, Miss Sarah. Old Mrs. Moore had been born and brought up in Bay Ridge, and her tales of a Bay Ridge before my time fascinated me. They lived in a big old fashioned house on Ovington Avenue - the Bay Ridge Sanatorium stands in its place, and the big cherry tree in the garden, which caused Miss Sarah such concern when boys stole the cherries, is gone. Two of Mrs. Moore's tales I remember quite well. Her father, Abram Van Pelt, had a large farm near the Fort about where Dycker Heights is now. "During the Civil War", said old Mrs. Moore, "the Fort was full of southern prisoners. The Commissary Department was bad, food was scarce and the prisoners were half starved. There was a good deal of fever and I can remember my mother and other women going every day with baskets of food and big jugs of flaxseed tea for the sick men. The overworked doctors and orderlies were awfully glad to see them. Some of the prisoners used to sneak out at night and steal a potato or a turnip or an ear or two of corn, they were so hungry. Some of the farmers got fed up with these depredations and formed a committee to complain to the Commander at the Fort. They came to my father to join them but he would not. If the poor devils are as starving as that; they're welcome to the little they take out of my fields, said he. My father was a generous man", she finished.
Another tale I loved was her shopping adventure. "I was about 17 years old", said she, "and my best friend and I were possessed to go by ourselves down town shopping Why our mothers ever let us go I don't to this day know, but they finally consented. There was a stage coach which left Fort Hamilton about 9 o'clock and got to Fulton Street about 11. My father drove us to the stage and warned us not to miss it when we started back at 3 o'clock. He'd be waiting for us. We had a lovely time. The stage coach stopped about where Fulton and Flatbush Avenues meet, and we walked down to lower Fulton Street where most of the big stores were. We looked at everything although we didn't buy very much, had a real good lunch for 50 cents, which we considered rather dear, and finally started back for the stage. When we reached the stop there was no stage coach and when we asked a man he told us it had gone 5 minutes ago. We didn't know what to do. We knew nobody. There was no such thing as a cab, so we finally decided to walk it. That wasn't as crazy as it sounds. People were used to walking in those days and we were strong healthy girls. So we started along Third Avenue which was quite a respectable street in those days with good houses and small shops. We'd been walking for about an hour when a beer dray drawn by two big gray Percheron horses lumbered past us. There were two middle aged men in the front seat and one of them leaned out and said - "Want a lift girls? We're going to Bay View Park. You can ride on the tail board if you want to." We were delighted at the chance to rest our feet and hopped up. (Koch's Bay View Park was a beer garden which specialized in picnic parties. It was on Third Avenue about 63rd Street, opposite the Theodore Bergen place). Before we reached the place, however, my father came along in his buggy looking anxiously out for us. We thanked the men for the lift and got into the buggy with sighs of relief. My father did not say much but my mother said good and plenty and do you know what shocked her most? That we, two well brought up respectable girls had accepted a ride on a beer wagon. It was a terrible disgrace. It was many a long day before we dared mention going shopping," she ended cheerfully.
In 1898 Bay Ridge became a part of the Borough of Brooklyn. The community was changing. So many people had moved in that streets were being cut through, buildings were going up, paving and lighting of streets had begun. A sewer system was in process of being installed, gas was being used instead of lamps, and the four room school house had expanded to eight. The El had reached 65th Street where it reached Third Avenue by a ramp and connected with the trolley. The people had changed too. It w no longer possible to know all one’s neighbors, nor did one always want to. Stores had sprung up all along Third Avenue and even on Fifth. The vegetable wagons were disappearing, Bay Ridge was getting citified and now with electricity, autos, movies, radlios, television, apartment houses, schools and churches, we have a very different place. Maybe it’s a better one, but old inhabitants still think of the Bay Ridge of their youth with fond regret.
HEARTH AND HOME
And who, one might ask, was responsible for this dwelling? Father, of course was complete master of the house. He paid the bills, gave his wife money for house hold needs and looked after necessary repairs. His word was law and his wife deferred to him in everything except perhaps in running the house. As women in those days knew little about politics and cared less, their chief interests were the children and the house. They were very efficient indeed. Domestic help was cheap then and easy to procure. A woman went over to Castle Garden (The Battery) when a ship came in and got hold of a German or Irish girl who was only too glad of quick employment The mistress paid her the sum of fifteen or eighteen dollars a month. For this the girl did all the housework, helped with the children and did some of the cooking. Two of the more arduous jobs were looking after the stoves and lamps. The big kitchen range had to be black leaded and polished, the coal scuttle had to be kept filled, the wood box with its papers and chunks of wood replenished. The wood was in small round bundles tied with thick twine and was bought at the grocers. Every morning the stove had to have the grate cleaned and the ashes emptied. This had to be done for every stove in the house in winter and there were at least four of them. Every Saturday morning all the lamps in the house were taken down to the kitchen, the gallon can of kerosene was brought in, the wicks were taken out, and the lamp bases carefully filled. Then the wicks were screw ed on again, trimmed so that the flame would burn evenly. By that time the lamp chimneys had been washed in warm soapy water, rinsed in clear warm water, and dried with a soft cloth. When they were thoroughly dry, they were put back and the lamps were ready for another week. The big lamp which was suspended over the dining room table received special attention. If the girl were well treated and she and her mistress liked each other, she stayed on for years. In our house that always happened.
One thing she didn't have to do, however, and that was the washing. Every Monday morning (all respectable housewives washed on Monday) the wash woman arrived. She filled the big wash boiler with water, put it on the stove, took the long bar of yellow soap (Kirkman's Borax Soap), cut a slab off it, shaved it into thin pieces, melted it and put it into the water. Then the white clothes were put in and left to boil. Every now and then she would push them up and down with a long wooden stick. When the white clothes were rinsed and hanging on the lines in the sun, the colored ones were treated in the same way. If there were time she did a little of the ironing. For all this she received a dollar and a half to two dollars a day. You can easily see why even small salaried families could afford domestic help. A few women made their own soap but most people bought the yellow kitchen soap. One of our neighbors made her own toilet soap and my mother saved all the grease and fat and when she had a tin pail full, sent it to her. The neighbor, Aunt Mary we all called her, al ways made it in the back yard and it had a horrible smell but the result was very satisfactory. It resembled a white Castile soap, very smooth, and as Aunt Mary always added a little Cologne to it, it had a heavenly odor. Mother al ways received a bar of it and it was much in request in our house especially when we were getting ready for a party. Most people, however, bought their toilet soaps. There was a brand called "Little Fairy" which was very popular.
The only other outside help in many houses was the seamstress. Every Spring and Fall she came for a week to make our wardrobes for the year. Our hats and coats were bought. Mother made our under clothes. How we despised our red flannel petticoats! The seamstress made our dresses. She had the spare bedroom (which incidentally was also the room where she sewed), ate with the family, and she and Mother sewed busily all week. They used a Singer sewing machine which a treadle which was worked by their feet. She received, I think, five dollars for her work. Many women, however, who had a knack for dress making, made all their own clothes, even coats. The outfit I remember best was the one we got when my Grandfather died. My grandmother was determined that due respect should be paid to his memory. She was swathed in crape herself with a heavy veil and insisted that her family should be clad in keeping. We three girls were dressed in black from head to foot and felt very important in our nice black coats and beautiful black beaver hats. My father completely disapproved of the whole business, (a black band around his coat sleeve was all Mother could ever get him to wear), and said it was ridiculous, but Mother reminded him that after all Grand mother was paying for it so he kept quiet.
The one hectic period in the year was the Spring house cleaning. Naturally cleaning went on all the time. Every morning the maid would take the broom, spread wet tea leaves or damp newspapers over the carpet and sweep it vigorously. That meant that all the dust was swept out and did not settle anywhere afterward. But the Spring house cleaning was something special. Most of the carpets were wall to wall size and nailed down. The handy man took out the nails, dragged the carpet out to the yard and draped it over the clothes line. Then he took a long bamboo stick and beat it for all he was worth until he got every bit of dust out of it. Finally he got a broom and brushed it down. Believe me, that carpet was clean In the meantime, the maid had swept and scrubbed the floor and when it dried had covered it with newspapers. Then the carpet was brought back, spread over the newspapers and nailed down for another year. The curtains and drapes were washed and cleaned, the furniture was waxed and polished until it shone, and by the time every room in the house was done (even the attic did not escape), the whole house was immaculate. The meals were a trifle sketchy at this time and it was rather surprising how many husbands had heavy business commitments which made dinner in town necessary and got them home too late to be roped in for any household chores.
I can't finish these reminiscences of the 1890's without mentioning the food. There are no treats these days with food that can be frozen and used all year. But then turkey came just twice a year, Thanksgiving and Christmas; fresh salmon and green peas on Fourth of July; homemade ice cream on special occasions. The one who did most of the work turning the handle when the metal gallon jar of ice cream was enclosed in its surrounding pack of ice and rock salt got to lick the dasher. When strawberry time came my Mother would say to our maid - "Now, Lizzie, watch out for the fruit peddlers and when the strawberries are seven cents a box we'll make the strawberry jam". So Lizzie would rush out when the peddler came along. Mother would buy a crate of berries and for a couple of days the delicious smell of strawberry jam would fill the kitchen. One of my friends remembers the farmer who came with a big can on his little cart filled with wonderful succotash made with fresh picked corn and lima beans, home made farm butter and milk mostly cream. Every housewife came out with a dish or pail to buy some. It cost ten cents a portion and was perfectly delicious. There were other things too but I can't go on indefinitely so I shall close this glimpse of a time when life was much simpler, people ran their own lives, and no one had even dreamed of an income tax.
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