Higher Ground

100 Years Ago, Katonah Folks Decided To Stick Together, Comme Hell And Really High Water. That Same Stubborn Streak Now Keeps Modern Trappings -- No Starbucks! -- At Bay.

April 23, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"OLD" KATONAH, NY — Katonah! Once the widening stream beside

Whose course, through leafy connects, was her pride.

And rambling carelessly over hill and dale

the fairest village in the Croton vale.

-- "The Diverted Village" by Katonah resident Ophelia Todd Avery (1841-1922)

"OLD" KATONAH, NY -- Progress zooms by the pockmarked field of yellow grass, spindly trees and garter snakes on its way Upstate along I-684. There's no exit, no access here, no train station anymore. No way to see the old stone foundations of the houses where the summer boarders stayed, the silk factory that made the ribbons, the hardware store that stocked the tools that built Katonah.

This is not a story about a town that died here, though Katonah is gone, been gone exactly 100 years, been drowned so long beneath the New Croton Reservoir that Progress doesn't know it was ever there. Graves are like that; they get so lonely after a couple of generations that no one need tend them. America is littered with the old and the forgotten, because this is the kind of country where people pick up and move on.

But this is not a story about a town that is living here, though Katonah is flourishing, with never-changing streets of boutiques and restaurants and beautiful old Victorian houses. Tradition sometimes digs so deep that one day you try to pull it out of the ground and the sapling is now an oak. America still has towns like this, because this is the kind of country where town fathers still fight to keep Starbucks out and speed limits down.

No, this is a story about two towns, which are really the same town. And it is a story about two stubborn American principles. To cut one's losses and start over. And to preserve and protect what you have.

This is a story about how Katonah built a path, a literal path, fashioned out of wood beams and greased with laundry soap. About how the town moved itself -- yes, just up and moved. And about how, in the end, Katonah honored both strains of American stubbornness.

But times are changed. The city engineer

With tyrant hand snapped off the town's career.

Drew line and limits with despotic sway.

Seized all the land and brushed the homes away.

Dorothy Mead is suddenly 11 years old again and ignoring her grandmother, who is telling yet another story. To Dorothy, it seems like all the other stories about Katonah before New York City condemned the town.

Grandma Emma, who was Emma Austin Fisher, had so many tales: There was the time the school burned down, and the children had their studies in the basement of the Katonah Silk Company. And there was the time Emma Austin Fisher became Emma Fisher Mead in January 1898, the last wedding before they took the Presbyterian Church down.

But Dorothy was ignoring her grandma, so most of what she remembers comes from a children's book called "Cassie's Village." Katonah was, as the book describes, an old river town, like dozens of other old American river towns. Twenty people from Stamford, Conn., founded it in 1680 after giving the Mohegan Chief Katonah colored beads and inexpensive tools in exchange for a portion of his domain near where the Cross River emptied into the Croton.

At first, it was called Cherry Street. In 1812, though, John Burr Whitlock established a mill and the town became known as Whit- lockville. It wasn't until after 1845, when the railroad arrived, that the town's name changed again and Katonah boomed and began to send produce and milk to the thirsty metropolis of New York City, 42 miles to the south. By 1890, Katonah had two mills, a ribbon manufacturer, livery stables, the American Lens Company and a robust population of 400.

"But it was even busier than that during the summers, because Katonah was the place to go for recreation if you were from New York," says Dan Coe, a retired school administrator and amateur historian. "You would come here, play croquet, rent a room in someone's house and relax for three or four weeks."

In "Cassie's Village," there is a pretty, blue-eyed girl named Emma Ferris, the boy-crazy best friend of Cassie Bates, the book's protagonist and the only daughter of the town's widowed blacksmith. Emma was the only girl in town bold and skillful enough to traverse the ridge of the schoolhouse roof. Dorothy Mead is sure that Emma Ferris was really her grandmother.

Except that Dorothy Mead isn't Dorothy Mead anymore. She's Dorothy Fossel, the wife of a former Republican state assemblyman from Katonah. She is 54, retired from her nursing job, and her kids have all gone through John Jay High. And now for the first time in her life, on a Saturday in April 1997, she is getting off a special Centennial train and walking around old Katonah, "Population 0" as the sign says. It is just a forest and a field along I-684, full on this day of photographs on sticks to let the visitors know where the buildings used to be.

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