Marlboro, NY—Come this spring, there’s a place to visit just a ways up Rte. 9 W, a straight drive up the Palisades Parkway and beyond. There is a brick and stone blockhouse at the side of an old Indian footpath along Jew’s Creek—a shimmering, skittering stream that powers the hand-made paper mill that sits over it. The path leads to the Devil’s Danskammer (The Devil’s Dance Chamber) on the banks of the Hudson River (the North River), where Henry Hudson’s sailors deserted in fright when they saw the Native Americans do ritual dances around blazing fires.
The house is a pre-revolutionary gem of Jewish-American history, nestled in a settled land whose pastures felt the republic born—it was built in 1714, and now celebrates its 300 birthday. That’s almost 50 years before the Baal Shem Tov was born in Europe! It is in the region made famous by Washington Irving, where gentlemen farmers now tend cornfields that once were battlefields. It is five miles north of the Rte. 84 overpass to the Beacon Bridge and beyond Newburgh.
The house, a National Landmark since 1973, is known in the local vernacular as Gomez the Jew’s House on Jew’s Creek, and it is the oldest existing house built by a Jew in all of North America—and it’s also the oldest house in Orange County, NY. Until it was purchased by the Gomez Foundation for Mill House in 1984, it was owned by an extraordinary woman named Mildred Starin and her husband, Jeff, who had lived in it since 1948 and raised their four children there.
Millie, a native of the area, discovered the house in the late 1930’s, when she was hired to exercise the horses for the property owners. She fell in love with it. Deeply disappointed by the owners’ lack of appreciation for their home, she vowed that one day the house would be hers. She managed to become engaged to the owners’ son, but the moment her mother found out about it—when she came home with a diamond and emerald ring—she was forced to give it right back. “You don’t marry a guy because you love his house,” her mom said. “You have to love the guy.”
A few years later Millie married Jeff Starin from Brooklyn, NY. In 1946, when they were asked to house-sit at the Gomez the Jew House, Jeff carried his very pregnant wife over the threshold, because, Millie said, she felt that one day it would be hers.
It happened sooner than even she could believe, during the treacherous Blizzard of 1947, one Millie never forgot. On that glacially dangerous day, the local minister arrived at her door and pleaded with her to go to the house because he feared for its occupants. When Millie arrived, she discovered the owner with a gun in his hand in the upstairs servants’ quarters and his wife, almost comatose from alcohol poisoning, in a beautiful four-poster bed in the master suite. In a panic, she called for help.
Jeff braved the elements with the baby in tow. Realizing the couple needed immediate attention at an alcoholic treatment center, the Starins bundled the baby, the owners and themselves into the car for the hazardous 10-mile trip south to Cornwall. Giving up their nest egg for the deposit on the treatment for their neighbors, the Starins were offered a priceless antique clock from the house as collateral. A day later, they were called and told that the house was up for sale. Begging, borrowing and selling everything they had for the down payment, they got a G.I. loan, bought the house, moved in and began to clean it up.
As they discovered more about the history of the region, the Starins learned about the rich multicultural ancestry and pioneering spirit of the home they were restoring. Realizing that the house must be documented in local archives, Millie approached the town historian, who gave her the ancient warranty on the house and its land.
Previous owners brought back objects they had removed from the premises, and in the stables, Millie found a bonanza of antiques dating back through all the previous owners. Some of the pieces came from the original fieldstone blockhouse built by Louis Moses Gomez, a Converso who escaped the Inquisition with the help of King Philip, during the mid-17th century. The old brass Chanukia has graced the walls since the house was built.
Louis Moses Gomez’s father or grandfather (history is still not clear on that) was imprisoned for more than a decade, but his children escaped to France, made their way to England, where Queen Anne issued Louis Moses Gomez a Denizen’s certificate, which allowed him to buy land and have the same rights as Christians. Gomez arrived in New York City in 1703, and went into the shipping business. By boat, Gomez wandered upriver, like many merchant/explorers of his time. There, in the shadows of Storm King Mountain, he traded with Native Americans and acted as a bridge between the colonials and the indigenous population.
By 1714, Louis Moses Gomez and his sons built a fieldstone blockhouse/trading post and grist mill on a major Indian footpath leading down to the North River. (The Delaware River is the South River.) They would spend weekdays in the mountains, trading furs, supplies and “tchotchkes” with the locals. Shabbos was spent in shul in New York City. They dealt with settlers and trappers heading north and the few remaining Lenape still trading along the river. The two-foot thick walls of the trading post, two original fireplaces and remnants of the old limestone floors still remain, as does the Mill House, which was restored in 2010.
As the Gomez family prospered, they bought up 6,500 acres of acres in the Newburgh area, and became real estate brokers in Manhattan. By 1728, Gomez senior was chosen as parnas (president) of the Shearith Israel congregation, the oldest Kehillah in New York City. Descendants of the Gomez family include prominent American Jews: Isaac Franks, one of George Washington’s aides; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, and Emma Lazarus, the poet whose words about “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” now reside on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. No strangers to persecution, the Gomez family may have built the underground passageway leading to an escape route along Jew’s Creek. It is rumored that they paid far beyond the market price for the lands they bought, leading to speculation about anti-Semitism in Colonial America.
Some historians wondered if the hidden passage was used as part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. (Unlike other American slave owners, the Gomez family followed the laws of Leviticus, and offered their slaves freedom after seven years.)
During the Revolutionary War, Daniel Gomez sold the house to one of George Washington’s lieutenants, Wolfert Acker, who often plotted the strategy of the Revolution in the old stone blockhouse. Acker’s slaves added the second floor to the house, building it with bricks manufactured on the banks of the nearby river. Acker lived in the house for half a century, but in the latter part of the 18th century, the house fell to neglect. Eventually it was purchased by the Armstrong family, well-known for its writers, statesmen and artists.
Descendants of Peter Stuyvesant, governor of Neuwe Amsterdam, they lived in the Devil’s Danskammer. Then in 1903, an artist and American craftsman, Dard Hunter, bought the house and restored the mill, where he created handmade papers that were prized for their quality. He added furnishings to the house designed by his friends in the arts and crafts movement and began to restore the house.
When the U.S. entered World War I, Hunter thought he would be drafted, so he sold the house to Ms. Martha Gruening, who wanted to open a Libertarian school at the site—though he told people he’d sold it to the Russian government. The house went through a succession of owners until Millie Starin and her husband Jeff rescued it in 1948.
“The Gomez House influenced the course of my life more than anything else. For almost 50 years, I was guardian of the stones, bricks and timbers that have been silent witness to a spirit of freedom and understanding in religious and racial matters. The house is a symbol of Jewish pioneering, of Jewish initiative, of unwavering vigor and endurance that has been silent too long.
“Indians, Jews, Dutchmen, Englishmen, slaves, owners of slaves, artists, writers, statesmen, patriots, farmers and industrialists have met, sat, lived, loved and even fought in this house. It illuminates our American heritage and stands as a memorial to Moses Louis Gomez and his descendants, who—in striving for the new—did not tear down the old, and recognized the past as the foundation for the future. Gomez is a hero.”
Millie retired in 1996, a full 50 years after Jeff carried her over the threshold to house-sit.
The Gomez Mill House is a public museum chartered in New York State. Direct descendants of the owners and others dedicated to the restoration and preservation of Mill House and its mission, serve on the Foundation Board.
Annual Membership benefits include free access or discounted entry to the Museum and its programs. The 2014 Mill House Season opens on Sunday, April 6, 2014 through November 9, 2014 / Wednesday – Sunday.
Guided Tours available at 10:30 am, 1:15 pm, 2:45 pm
Group Tours of 10 or more require advance reservations (call 845-236-3126) o
All entries into the Gomez Mill House Site Buildings require a general admission. This includes those attending special events with separate admission fees.
GENERAL ADMISSION: $8.00 for adults $6.00 for senior citizens
$3.00 for children 6-18 years old and students with ID
Channel 13 members with ID: $5.00/adults; $2.00/students & children 6-18
SPECIAL ADMISSION DATES: Mother’ Day and Fathers’ Day - Mothers and Fathers with children are free on their special days. Orange County Day (in June - TBD) - Free Admission to Orange County residents with ID. Free tours for veterans and active military personnel on Memorial Day July 4th weekends.
By Jeanette Friedman (from an article I wrote many years ago under the pen name Aliza Daniels)