But Revolutionary War site faces challenges
During the late 18th century, the Van Wyck homestead hosted some of the most important figures in the American Revolution — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Jay, Israel Putnam and possibly Benedict Arnold, Aaron Burr, John Adams and Samuel Adams — but today the museum attracts only a trickle of visitors and faces serious financial and staffing challenges.
Alexis Lynch, the treasurer of the Fishkill Historical Society, which operates the museum on Route 9 just south of I-84, said only about 300 people visit annually, and that school trips fell off during the pandemic shutdown. Last year the museum fell $10,000 short of meeting its $36,000 annual budget for utilities, heating and insurance and had to draw from its small endowment.
Its revenue came from a $10,000 Dutchess County grant, visitor donations, raffles, a craft fair, tours, special events and school program fees.
Maintaining a building nearly 300 years old is costly, Lynch said. Over the past five years the society has spent $60,000 on a new roof, $35,000 to replace two porches, $16,000 to fix a rotting building sill and $6,000 for exterior painting.
The museum has no paid staff; it is run by about 30 volunteers, many of whom are in their 70s and 80s, she said. Lynch worries that younger people are not motivated to get involved with tasks such as pursuing grants, doing research, creating school programs, leading tours or tending to the garden.
Lynch wonders if students aren’t being taught to appreciate local history. “People from this area are surprised at the site’s interesting history,” then say they never heard about it in school, she said.
Cornelius Van Wyck established the homestead on a 990-acre tract in 1732; four decades later, Gen. George Washington would commandeer the home and 70 acres to create a headquarters and supply depot for the Continental Army. A letter from Washington informing Van Wyck that the army was taking over his property is part of the museum’s collection.
The supply depot would have bustled with activity, housing 2,000 troops in barracks during winter and many more in summer. It also employed hundreds of craftspeople needed to supply and equip the army until the war ended in 1783.
The Van Wyck home also served as the courtroom for the mock trial of double agent Enoch Crosby, who pretended to support the British but was a soldier in the Continental Army. Crosby was the basis for the character Harvey Birch in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Spy.
The Fishkill Historical Society was formed in 1962, mainly to preserve the homestead, which had been abandoned in 1958. The society purchased the property in 1972 for $1. The house faced demolition when a cloverleaf was planned as part of the construction of I-84 at Route 9, but a petition with 10,000 signatures delivered to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller by Town of Fishkill Historian Willa Skinner helped change the intersection’s design, saving the historic homestead.
The Van Wyck Homestead, at 504 Route 9 in Fishkill, is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday from June through October, or by appointment. There is no admission fee. The grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk; printed guides are available in the mailbox on the front porch. To donate or volunteer, visit fishkillhistoricalsociety.org, email [email protected] or call 845-896-9560.
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