New Look at an Old Church

The home of the Headless Horseman commemorates its 325th anniversary this month.



Photo by J. Couch

The Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow is a registered—and some say haunted—national historic landmark.

 

If you love your digital cocoon, but autumn makes you heartsick for the certainties of the past, then you must, must visit the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, dating back to 1685. There you can stand before a 17th-century black oak communion table and have an Old Dutch Tour on a loaner Apple iPad preach to you about Frederick Philipse (1626-1702); once New York’s richest man, his earthly remains lie in the crypt beneath your feet.     

The collision of virtual reality and reality will make your head spin. But then it’s been the special property of this place to do just that, even if said object is still attached—as, tragically, is not the case for the Headless Hessian Horseman said to be resting fitfully in the adjacent burying grounds. “He’s the newest thing in the oldest place,” says Lyle Anderson. Anderson’s the computer wiz who, with former Reader’s Digest editors Elinor Griffith and Janie Couch Allen, was brought in by Pastor Jeff Gargano to help commemorate the 325th anniversary of this registered—but still haunted—national historic landmark. Photos and an 1867 Currier & Ives lithograph illustrate the lighthearted, but copiously researched, electronic tour of the oldest church in the state. 

Although one recent guest came from Kabul, Afghanistan, most locals drive on by—this despite 11 movies and a Broadway show, despite George Washington’s visit and Theodore Roosevelt’s speech. The silent movie, The Headless Horseman (1922), was shot on location with Will Rogers playing Ichabod Crane. You remember Will Rogers? He was a household name, the comedian who wanted  “I never met a man I didn’t like” carved on his headstone. Yup, it was that long ago.

Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1858) was recognition of a spot that always was magic. Irving speculates that “an old Indian chief, the prophet, or wizard of his tribe held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson.” Legend has it the church itself was built after a black slave named Cuffy told Philipse about a dream in which God had told him that the Pocantico River would continue to flood and wash away the grist mill dam until this was done.  

Afterwards, the dam held, but the Philipse family did not. Their 52,000 acres from Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx to the Croton River were lost when Frederick Phillipse III picked the wrong side in the Revolutionary War. He actually signed “A Declaration of Dependence.” Oops! And yet many of the ancients interred in the burying ground were great patriots. Their headstones, the iPad app tells us, “are among the earliest examples of folk art in this country.”

When the road was moved, so was the front door to the church, and the windows small—perhaps because of the hostiles—are larger now. But much of the original building remains, including—most dramatically—patches of yellow bricks from Holland that are worked haphazardly into the fieldstone wall. The landmark is cared for by the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns on Broadway whose congregation worships there in the summer and on holidays. Janie Couch Allen is a congregant and was recently married there.

Pastor Gargano is heartened by the inscription on the bell cast in Holland in 1685:  “If God be for us, who can be against us.” For those troubled by recent cries of Allah Akbar, it might be worth recalling the speech Teddy Roosevelt gave at the church’s 200th anniversary. He enjoined the crowd, no matter their blood, to “strive for the right as it is given us to see the right.”     

Amen to that.

Benjamin Hale Cheever is the author of four novels (The Plagarist, The Partisan, Famous After Death, The Good Nanny), and two works of non-fiction (Selling Ben Cheever, Strides) as well as the editor of The Letters of John Cheever. He lives in Pleasantville.

Plan Your Visit
■ iPad Tours: Conducted from noon to 4 pm, every weekend through October 31.
Old Dutch Gala: Organist Kent Tritle will perform at the Old Dutch Church with a reception at Philipsburg Manor, October 3 starting at 5 pm. For more info: (914) 497-2159 or gala@odcfriends.org.

■ Legend Readings, Old Dutch Church: October 15-16, 29-30. Master storyteller Jonathan Kruk recounts “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” along with live organ music. Four performances nightly on the hour, beginning at 6 pm. Advance tickets at hudsonvalley.org. On Oct. 22-23 at 8 pm, storyteller Ward Riley’s “Legend.” Call (914) 631-4497 for tickets. For more info: Old Dutch Church, 430 N Broadway, Sleepy Hollow (914) 631-4497; odcfriends.org.

 

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