The Town of Somers is located in the eastern segment of an 83,000 acre tract that was originally granted in 1697 from King William III of England to Stephanus Van Cortland of New York City. The part of Van Cortland Manor that ultimately became Somers and Yorktown was known as the Middle District, or Hanover. Settlement in the Somers area began after Van Cortlandt’s death in 1700 and the final partition of his estate in 1734.
Previously, the land had been occupied by Kitchawanks, part of the Mohegan tribe, who used the area primarily for hunting and fishing and established a few scattered villages within the town boundaries. The Native Americans called the land Amapaugh, meaning “fresh water fish”. Early European settlers included tenants and freeholders from neighboring areas, among them English and Dutch, French Huguenots and Quakers. Though no fighting occurred in this
area, the American Revolution had emotional and economic impact on the district, and resulted in continual migration. The town of Stephentown was established in 1788, when the first town meeting was held at the inn of Benjamin Green. In 1808 the name Stephentown was changed to Somers, as a tribute to a young naval officer from New Jersey who lost his life in the war with Tripoli.
Around 1805 Hachaliah Bailey, a Somers farmer and cattle merchant, acquired an Indian elephant, which he began exhibiting locally, then further afield. Hachaliah’s success in showing “Old
Bet”, as she was known, attracted numerous partners and competitors from local families, who joined in the business of importing and exhibiting exotic animals. The resulting thriving menagerie business paralleled the development of the small performing circus troupes, which were first seen in Philadelphia in 1793. By 1828 these two forms of popular entertainment merged to form the basis of the modern American Circus. The majority of early 19th century circus and menagerie proprietors came from Somers and neighboring towns in northern Westchester and Putnam counties. This resulted in Somers’ claim as “Cradle of the American Circus”.
Hachaliah’s elephant was killed while on tour in Maine, and he soon imported two elephants, Little Bet and Columbus. He built the Elephant Hotel, which opened in
1825, and soon after the granite shaft and statue of an elephant was erected in front, in honor of his elephants. The building functioned as an inn, a tearoom, a private residence, and a meeting place. The Farmers and Drovers Bank, the second bank chartered in Westchester, opened here in 1839. A wooden structure extending out to the side contained a general store, ballroom and post office at various times, and increased the Hotel’s capacity to accommodate guests traveling on local stagecoach lines. The Elephant Hotel was purchased by the Town of Somers in 1927 and presently houses the Town Offices and the Somers Historical Society and museum. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2005. (Image at left taken by Gray Williams, courtesy of Westchester County Historical Society).
In the early 19th century, the town was primarily agricultural, though the rural economy also supported a varied population of weavers, merchants, cabinetmakers, preachers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and servants. A
good system of roads was maintained, some operated as commercial toll roads and turnpikes. A newspaper, The Somers Museum, was published in the hamlet from 1809-1811.
A railroad line reached Brewster in the 1840’s, bypassing the town center and effecting a decline in town growth over the next hundred
years. Industries continued to thrive, with grist, paper, saw and clothing mills operating the in the area. The Empire Sewing Machine factory operated in South Somers, utilizing waterpower from the Muscoot River, from 1866 until 1885. The Croton and Muscoot Rivers were flooded between 1890 and 1910 to create the New York City Reservoir system, wiping out farms, mills and businesses in the area. The small community which had thrived on Primrose Street, where Mt. Zion Church still stands, was affected by loss of businesses and farms nearby. The presence of the railroad in nearby Purdys, Croton Falls and Lincolndale allowed the agricultural emphasis to move towards dairy production and fruit growing, since products could be shipped to city markets.
In 1923 a portion of D. W. Griffith’s film America was filmed in Somers hamlet and the nearby hills. In the late 1920’s, small lake developments began to spring up, eventually becoming the year round communities of Lincolndale, Shenorock and Lake Purdys. The rolling hillside country and open land of Somers attracted weekenders from New York City, brought into closer proximity by the automobile. After World War II, farmlands were sold and developed to satisfy the increased demand for housing by returning servicemen. Development proposals to bring the United Nations here, as well as an international airport, and the Urban Development Corporation, were rejected by the local population. The construction of Interstate 684 in the mid 1970’s facilitated additional residential and commercial development. Heritage Hills, initially a senior residential community, was begun in 1972, IBM
and PepsiCo built complexes, bringing an international corporate element into the community. In 2006, the Angle Fly Preserve, a 654-acre property, was acquired through a partnership of the Town of Somers, New York City, Westchester County and New York State, creating a nature sanctuary that protects resources and provides recreational trails for the public.
Numerous historic buildings remain as outstanding examples of the 19th century environment. The hamlet area was listed as a Historic District on the State and National Register of Historic Places in 2004. The Elephant Hotel (1825), Mt. Zion Church and Burial Ground (1794), and the Wright Reis Homestead (c. 1842) are owned by the town, interpreted by the Somers Historical Society and are open for public visitation during holidays and special events.
All photos are from the collections of the Somers Historical Society; unless otherwise noted.