50 Fabulous Facts About Our History

Perhaps it’s the fault of busy commutes and crammed schedules, but few Westchesterites stop to acknowledge the extraordinary beauty and rich history of this ancient river valley we call home. The centuries-old landmarks, the ever-changing geography, the myriad inventions conceived in our county all make Westchester as fascinatingly unique and interesting as the very people who live here.



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Photo courtesy of Croton Historical Society

1. MELTING POT
It’s estimated that, at one point, more than 10,000 Italian, Irish, and Eastern European laborers were working on the construction of the Croton Dam.

 

2. WORKING RIGHTS

In 1915, Westchester’s female teachers were forbidden from loitering in ice cream stores, coloring their hair, and wearing dresses shorter than two inches above the ankle. Times they have a-changed.

3. WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The Native American name for White Plains was Quarropas, meaning “white marshes.” Historians believe the title may reference the heavy mist that settled over the swampland of the Bronx River or the groves of white balsam that possibly populated the region centuries ago.

 

 

4. The Original Plastic
Next time you turn on the radio, pick up a billiard ball, snap a photo, or use just about anything, know that Yonkers chemist Leo Baekeland probably had something to do with its creation. Baekeland invented one of the world’s first and most useful plastic in 1907 and, in 1910, formed what would become The Bakelite Corporation, the company responsible for those glossy, hard, often brightly colored plastics that defined the ’50s and ’60s (think of transistor radios and alarm clocks of the era). He spent most of his life in our county and, upon his death, was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in 1944.

 

 

 

5. THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW
Back in the 19th century, the trustees of one Tarrytown cemetery debated what to call their local graveyard. One trustee named Washington Irving offered the name “Sleepy Hollow,” arguing that the local cemetery was “enough of itself to secure the patronage of all desirous of sleeping quietly in their graves.” The cemetery, the church, and, later, the town, all took the name.

 

 

6) DID YOU KNOW?
$134.20 was the average annual salary of a Westchester schoolteacher in 1852, or the equivalent of $3,432.18 today.

1902 croton dam photo courtesy of croton historical society

 

7. THE LEGENDARY LEATHERMAN
In the 19th century, the famously nomadic “Leatherman” wandered from cave to cave in Westchester wearing only a makeshift outfit of leather pieces. Walking 10 miles each day for more than three decades, he stopped at his favorite houses to ask for food by raising just a finger to his mouth. His anonymity and penchant for never uttering a word made the vagabond a local legend, and the New York Herald Tribune even ran a front-page article titled “Who is the Leatherman?” When the Leatherman died of lip cancer in 1889, local authorities learned his real name was Jules Bourglay and that he had emigrated from Lyons, France, after sending his father-in-law’s merchant business into bankruptcy. In shame, Bourglay fled to the New World and swore to never again burden mankind. The Leatherman’s 360-mile circuit includes now well-known neighborhoods such as Honey Hollow and Bull Hill and even inspired Grammy-winning rock band Pearl Jam to pen a song titled “Leatherman.”