By Marian Betancourt
The 19th century American writer, Washington Irving, called it “the lordly Hudson” in several of his books and indeed, this river that runs both ways through a 150 mile valley of rolling hills has always been a compelling place, not only as the setting of the country’s first river trade route, but the inspiration for our first art movement, the Hudson River School. This is where the Dutch settlers learned from the Native Americans, and farming and trading were established. Hudson and Poughkeepsie were whaling ports in the mid-1800s and the river is still a fishing Mecca.
As the nation grew, the rich and famous began building country estates overlooking the river. In 1867, 15 years before Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born, his father James bought a large farm house (circa 1800) in Hyde Park and called it Springwood. His wife Sara and later FDR transformed it in into something grander and the view of the Hudson from the rear balcony of the house was one of President Roosevelt’s favorite spots for much needed R and R.
The Roosevelts of Hyde Park
Today you can see the house is as it was in 1945 when Roosevelt died and it became a museum with his collections of stamps, naval prints, ship models, and anti British cartoons. FDR’s mother insisted he take these cartoons down so as not offend visiting British royalty, but he left them up and the royals had a good laugh. After his legs were paralyzed from polio, the president liked to stay in shape by pulling himself up to the second floor on a rope until an elevator was eventually installed. The house, part of Historic Hyde Park, is operated by the National Park Service, and the tour guides clearly love their work. Their knowledge of the history and lore make the visit entertaining and enlightening.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Eleanor Roosevelt’s death and the cozy and livable Val Kill with its low ceilings, handmade furnishings and walls filled with photos of family and friends may be the most interesting house on the compound. It was built for her as a getaway from the big house (and her mother-in-law) and it became her permanent home after her husband’s death. Much of the furniture was made by the Val Kill industries, which Mrs. Roosevelt and her friends established during the depression years to teach local people skills they could use to earn a living. A schoolboy made her a nameplate with the misspelled, “Elinor,” which Mrs. Roosevelt kept on her desk for the rest of her life. As a delegate to the United Nations, Mrs. Roosevelt entertained heads of state such as Winston Churchill and Jawaharial Nehru and it was here that John F. Kennedy came for tea in August 1960 to ask for her endorsement when he ran for President.
When Eleanor Roosevelt died, her son John offered Val Kill to the government, but it was not yet interested in women of accomplishment, so the house was sold to private people and all the furnishings dispersed. (Fortunately, the government had the presence to send a photographer to record the interiors and exterior before it was sold.) Fourteen years later it was designated a national landmark but it took seven more years to get all of her possessions back. Val Kill opened on Eleanor Roosevelt’s 100th birthday in 1984.
While the Roosevelt Presidential Library is being renovated, there’s a wonderful photo exhibit in temporary quarters that includes family albums with snapshots fastened with black paper corners, many never before seen. Bill Murray, who portrays FDR in the new film Hyde Park on Hudson, researched the collection with co-star Laura Linney, who plays the president’s distant cousin and possible mistress, Margaret Suckley.
The Vanderbilt Mansion
The Roosevelt homes are modest compared to the 50-room Vanderbilt Mansion, also part of Historic Hyde Park. Built in 1898 by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s grandson, Frederick and his wife Louise, it looks much like a royal palace with its vaulted ceilings, marble columns, hanging tapestries, and velvet and brocade upholstery. It was the only house in Hyde Park at the time that had its own hydroelectric plant to provide electricity. Local people would line the road at dusk to watch the lights come on. Frederick loved the 21 acres of grounds and gardens including a promontory overlooking the river that is the region’s most popular spot for marriage proposals.
Louise enjoyed entertaining in what served as their spring and fall estate. They wore casual clothes changing outfits only four times a day rather than eight times during the more formal Manhattan and Newport social seasons. The nearby museum gift shop reflects this fashion obsession, offering wide brimmed summer hats for women, and books such as “50 Dresses that Changed the World.”
The Vanderbilts had no children and when widower Frederick died in 1938, he left the estate to a niece, who did not want it and put it on the market for $320,000. When she got no offers, she lowered the price to $250,000, but still no takers. FDR suggested she give it to the government.
In addition to the buildings and 16 miles of hiking trails, special events may entice you, such as the re-enactment of the annual election night torchlight parade. It was FDRs custom to invite the town folk over to celebrate even though he said, “I know you didn’t vote for me.” A Roosevelt grandson David (son of Elliot) was scheduled to participate in this year’s parade.
A Romantic Getaway
There are many historic hotels and resorts in the Hudson Valley such as The Thayer at Westpoint, a national landmark, and the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck. One of the most romantic is Buttermilk Falls Inn and Spa across the river from Hyde Park in Milton on 75 acres of farmland and orchards overlooking the river. (Buttermilk Falls was a common name used by early settlers all over the country because such falls served as refrigerators to keep dairy products cold.) The restored and expanded 1764 Anning Smith house has 10 elegant guest rooms uniquely furnished with modern facilities. The Captain’s Room, honors Smith, who led the militia after British gunboats fired on the town. There are seven individual houses on the property from small restored carriage houses to a modern four-bedroom house with a deck overlooking the river.
A stroll in the wooded areas reveals some old and stately trees and you come upon an antique garden bench, a lovely marble statue of two lovers, or small headstones and statues of children from an historic graveyard. In the middle of all this is an ultra modern solar powered spa and pool.
Millstone Farm’s rambunctious and colorful chickens supply organic eggs for breakfast served on a sun porch and patio at the main house. In addition to a full buffet, there are special egg dishes of the day such as scrambled with spinach, served with a few slices of heritage tomato and purple basil. Afternoon tea is available with home baked goodies, and in winter, hot apple cider.
Henry’s at the Farm, named for the four-year old son of owner Robert Pollock, is a restaurant in a barn-like building, with the kitchen is on the ground floor. Upstairs, is a bar, banquets freestanding tables and chairs, and an outside deck with four tables. Waiters in country chic jeans and white shirts, keep fit bringing dishes upstairs all evening. Chef Chad Greer, who has worked with culinary luminaries such as Jean Georges Vongerichten, gets his produce from Millstone and other local farms. A lovely crab cake appetizer elegantly composed with red and yellow confit tomatoes and a puree of four kinds of basil, was a knockout. Greer’s signature entre is porcini crusted filet mignon. The wine list includes some Hudson valley selections, such as an excellent citrusy Millbrook chardonnay.
A Walk over the River
You can spend many weekends and weeks discovering the Hudson Valley’s treasures on both sides of the river. But one thing you must do is take a walk across the river. The world’s longest elevated pedestrian park, Walkway on the Hudson, was opened in 2009 on an old railroad bridge 212 feet above the river from Poughkeepsie on the east bank to Lloyd on the west. While New York City’s High Line has become a famous tourist destination, it has nothing on this one with its breathtaking view of the Hudson Valley. Walk or bike over the 1.25 mile span any time of day and see just why America’s first river is indeed a lordly river.
Marian Betancourt has written about travel and food for Associated Press, American Heritage, Travel & Leisure, Irish America, and many others. She is the author of several books, and has co-authored two regional cookbooks based on her travels. She is a contributing editor for Promenade magazine and lives inNew York City. Visit www.marianbetancourt.com