THE FERDON FAMILY
John William Ferdon was born December 13, 1826. His parents, William and Elizabeth (nee Perry), lived just down the hill, in the Greek revival mansion at the corner of Rockland Road and Ferdon Avenue in Piermont. John graduated from Rutgers University in 1847 and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1851. He married Harriet Strong, the daughter of Professor Theodore Strong on September 18, 1850, in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
During that time, both William Ferdon and his son John W. Ferdon were involved in a feud within the congregation of the Piermont Reformed Church. Members of the Tappan Reformed Church who lived in Piermont had organized the church in 1839, shortly after the building of the Piermont Pier. The original church building was located high on the hill overlooking the Hudson, in the area around Piermont Place.
John and his father William were in favor of moving the church down the hill. They influenced the feud by providing the land for a new building along the South bank of the Sparkill on what is now Ferdon Avenue in Piermont. Twenty-three year old John W. Ferdon contributed his funds and his energies to the construction of the new church building along the Sparkill. He engaged the carpenters Hardenburg and Sickles of New York City to build the 40-foot by 60-foot church. It was completed in 1850.
Likely, John W. Ferdon employed the same carpenters to refurbish his stone house. He may have added the brick pillared portico in front of the house and raised the roof of the upper floor at that time. A cast iron cook stove was installed in the large open hearth of the basement kitchen. The chimney and the hearth opening were slightly modified, leaving a strange hiding place behind the brick wall of the fireplace. Could this have been a secret stop on the Underground Railroad?
In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law. According to Green's The History of Rockland County, John W. Towt was active in setting up the Underground Railroad in Rockland County.3 He was also a friend of John W. Ferdon's. Both men served as trustees of the Rockland County Female Institute in Nyack, in 1854.4
A photograph and a biographical sketch of John W. Ferdon appear in David Cole's History of Rockland County:
"Mr. Ferdon, as his name indicates, is of French descent?. Although he was admitted to the bar of the state of New York; the care of his large estate has absorbed his attention and he has never engaged in active practice.
" In 1854, he was elected a member of the Assembly, and in 1855 of the Senate of this state. In 1864, he was a delegate to the convention, which nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency, and in 1876, he was a member of the convention at which Rutherford B. Hayes was nominated for the same office.
"After twice declining the nomination for Member of Congress from the 14th Congressional District, Mr. Ferdon was elected to the 46th Congress? Mr. Ferdon is a man of large wealth, which he has used in the exercise of his liberal public spirit and his fine taste. Of this, the avenues he has laid out and beautified, and the many hundred trees he has planted and cultivated give evidence."5
Although the Rev. David Cole edited the massive volume of Cole's History of Rockland County in 1884; the General County History Chapters 1, 2, 4, 21, 23, 24; and the section on The Town of Orangetown were written by Ferdon. In Chapter 4, Ferdon wrote a romantic description of the Hudson River and the Indians of Rockland County:
"Its shallows near the shores were just the place for the men to do their fishing, and for the Indian maiden to paddle her bark canoe, perhaps in a coquettish race with some athletic, and swarthy admirer whose conquest depended upon being first at the goal."6
Catherine Ferdon was born September 26, 1818. She is listed in the records of the Tappan Reformed Church as Baptism number 4119, baptized November 7, 1818. Catherine was said to be "a great beauty with many accomplishments, whose graces won great favor among her friends." During the building of the Piermont Pier in 1838, Catherine met the 19-year-old son of one of the pier contractors.
At the time, a shady path from the back of her parents' mansion wound to the top of the palisades in what is now Tallman Mountain State Park. The top of the hill commands a splendid view of the Hudson River and the pier that was then under construction. During the summer months, she was often seen strolling to the top of the hill with her suitor. They fell in love and became engaged.
Sadly, her suitor failed to meet the financial expectations of her father, William Ferdon. William refused to give Catherine permission to marry the young man and she was forbidden to see him. Catherine was seldom seen after that, and the events surrounding her death have not been verified. Rumors circulated that she was locked up in the tower room at the top of the house, where she could gaze out at the path she used to wander freely with her suitor. Some say she pined away and died from grief. Others report that she starved herself to death. James Ricau, who owned William Ferdon's Greek revival mansion from 1957 until his death in 1993; referred to Catherine as the Ferdon sister who hung herself in the tower room.
If Catherine Ferdon actually committed suicide in the late 1830's, the Tappan Reformed Church could not have permitted her burial in the church cemetery. On the property between Ferdon Avenue, Piermont, and Rockland Road, Sparkill, William Ferdon constructed a final resting place for his beautiful daughter Catherine. Nestled into the hillside, the brownstone mausoleum was built with a marble floor and door.
William Ferdon died in 1872. Legend says that he made a request for his coffin to be carried into the mausoleum by black pallbearers; as he wanted no white man to enter the sacred chamber where his daughter's body lay in a coffin with a glass window to expose her beautifully preserved face. Legend also relates that the pallbearers bringing William Ferdon's coffin into the mausoleum accidentally bumped Catherine's coffin; and her face fell to dust.
John W. Ferdon received an inheritance when his father died in 1872. He generously donated $7,000 to the enlarging and remodeling of the Piermont Reformed Church. He employed the Van Brunt architectural firm in Englewood, New Jersey for the improvement of the church. At the same time, he used the same firm to remodel his modest stone house on Rockland Road. The same interior moldings and architectural details used in the church were also installed in Ferdon's house.
The church received an awesome bell tower and the house was crowned with a fifth floor tower. The tower room held a copper water tank and the house became one of the earliest houses in Rockland County with running water. The wedding cake design of the tiered Mansard roof was decorated with cast-iron cresting. The flat sections of the roof were constructed to collect rainwater. Rainwater drained into underground cisterns and was then pumped up to the copper tank in the tower room.
At this time, the old stone house with its brick pillared portico was hidden under a broad front staircase leading up to a columned front porch, with columns extending out over the carriageway. The exterior walls were clapboard, with ornate carvings around the window frames and under the broad Yankee eaves. Louvered shutters framed the windows. Four front windows reached from the floor of the porch, almost to the ten-foot high ceiling. In summer, the windows could slide up into the casement for easy access to the porch with its distant view of the Hudson River. On the Eastern side of the house, six floor-to-ceiling windows bowed out in an alcove of the dining room. A carved walnut sideboard disguised a dumbwaiter that brought food to the dining room from the kitchen below.
A windowed sunroom graced the Western side of the house, entered by red stained glass double doors. Two sets of etched glass double doors adorned the central parlor. Ornate plaster moldings and fluted columns adorned with wooden roses decorated the rooms. Large plaster rosettes were centered around the ceiling light fixtures. Electric lighting did not arrive in Piermont until 1900. The house was piped for gas lighting.
John W. Ferdon had reason to upgrade both the church and his own home. His 20-year-old daughter, Lucy Dix Ferdon married Hoffman Rogers, in November of 1872. I can't be sure if the remodeling was actually complete in time for Lucy's wedding. John and his wife Harriet had five children in all: three daughters and two sons. Their first grandson, John Ferdon Rogers, was baptized in the Piermont Reformed Church in 1874.
The house was depicted in the Rockland County Centennial Atlas of 1876, with a sloping glass conservatory off the Western sunroom. No one knows for sure if this actually existed and later rotted away. A balustrade side porch had replaced it by the time the Mouquin's bought the house in 1902.
John W. Ferdon died on August 5, 1884 at the age of 58. He was buried in the family mausoleum beside his older sister Catherine and his father William. A copy of John's will was recorded in the Surrogate's Office on August 13, 1884. Even though Mr. Ferdon left his estate to his wife, Harriet; the laws of the day required a room-by-room inventory of the goods of his estate, filed in the Surrogate's Office of the County of Rockland, September 17, 1884. It is interesting to note the number of chairs, bureaus, marble-top tables, and other furnishings in each room.
Green, Frank, The History of Rockland County, A.S. Barnes & Co., New York, 1886, page282
Green, Frank, The History of Rockland County, A.S. Barnes & Co., New York, 1886, page345-346.
Cole, David, History of Rockland County New York, L.B.Beers, New York, 1884, page 246.
Cole, David, History of Rockland County New York, L.B.Beers, New York, 1884, page 22
Cole, David, History of Rockland County New York, page 201