I am a fan of classic movies from the golden age of Hollywood; AMC and Turner Classic movies are staples in our home. One of my sleeper favorites is from 1943 and stars the late great comedian Jack Benny and Anne Sheridan entitled “George Washington Slept Here.” It is a clever comedy about a New York couple that buys an old, dilapidated house in the country that George Washington purportedly slept in. The couple encounters complications and cost overruns, nearly going bankrupt trying to refurbish the house. The movie has plenty of humorous plot twists, including the revelation that it was actually the traitorous Benedict Arnold who actually stayed at the house. In the end, the couple’s dog discovers a boot and a letter from George Washington which provides the cash needed for them to complete the renovations. It is a delightful movie with some creative writing and well worth seeking out on TV or a streaming service.
That movie and Presidents’ Day prompted me to think a bit about the connection our town has with several of our former Presidents. While documentation is scant on some visits to Clarkstown, it has had its moments with Presidents including George Washington, Martin Van Buren, both Roosevelts and numerous others who passed through.
Rockland County has often been referred to as the highway of the American Revolution where both the American and British armies passed through or stayed for periods of time on the way to major engagements. Washington himself passed through Clarkstown both during and after the revolution. While it does not appear that he slept in a particular home in our town, he did journey through West Nyack and his army camped here on the way to the final battle in Yorktown, Virginia.
Eight Presidents have called New York home. The first, President Martin Van Buren visited and purportedly stopped at the Clarksville Inn in West Nyack while traveling through New York. Van Buren who was president from 1837 through 1841 has the distinction of being the first sitting President that we have records documenting his visit while in office.
Perhaps the most interesting presidential visits came during the 1976 presidential campaign, when sitting President Gerald Ford and challenger soon to be president Jimmy Carter came to campaign in New City within weeks of each other. The 1976 election was fairly close and New York was in play as each campaign was looking for electoral votes. So while Washington may not have slept here, plenty of commanders-in-chief have passed through Clarkstown to campaign and in the region for other major events, which have left their mark on our country.
There is a wonderful history of Rockland County that was written by Reverend David Cole D.D., and originally published in 1884. I have the book in my office and it is available at the Historical Society of Rockland County as a reprint from 1994. The book is highly enjoyable and has intricate and little known facts about the County and every town. It recounts numerous stories about our first president George Washington during the Revolutionary War throughout the County and Clarkstown. Among some of the stories are the bravery of Revolutionary War era residents-turned-soldiers and brushes they had here with the British. Oftentimes raiding parties of British regulars came to our shores, typically on ships and would depart by boat into Clarkstown foraging for supplies that were to be confiscated from the residents to help supply the army. Major John Smith of Clarkstown and the Continental Army was in town with approximately 100 soldiers. On one occasion British ships anchored off the coast of Upper Nyack and immediately sent out two boats. Major Smith was in waiting for the unsuspecting British as the approached the shore. According to Cole, “they opened so vigorous a fire on them that the crew of the one boat surrendered at once as prisoners of war, but the other, having on board something or somebody of importance, chose to endure the shower of lead, and so rapidly pulled back to the ships. The captives were taken to General Washington’s headquarters in Tappan.” On several other occasions skirmishes occurred including in West Nyack where a British soldier was killed near the four corners and several captured who were transferred down to Tappan where General Washington was staying. So while Washington may not have slept here, he certainly traveled through our town and was in contact with Major Smith, David Pye our first Supervisor and some of the other patriots who called Clarkstown home.
So this President’s weekend we recall Washington and our other Commanders in Chief who have paid a visit to our town in war and peace. While they may not have slept here—they certainly left their mark not only on our country, but our town.