Monday, November 25, 2013

Forest Hills Before Time: Discover The History of Whitepot

Forest Hills residents shop and dine on Austin Street, patronize the Midway Theatre, may stroll through the Forest Hills Gardens, and may have graduated from Forest Hills High School. These are some of the “landmarks” which grant character to “Forest Hills.” Now one may be at loss for words if they walked in the footsteps of their ancestors, just over a century ago.

Encounter a land called “Whitepot,” which was predominantly occupied by wood-frame farm houses and fields of crops, with “landmarks” on a humble scale. In the early 20th century, some homes were up to 200 years of age. Today there are none.

As of 1924, a survey was conducted by local resident Lucy Allen Smart. Colonial farmhouses were typically situated on large parcels of land, and exhibited any combination of a porch, pitched roof, and shutters. The Whitson Homestead, built in 1800, still stood on Queens Boulevard, steps away from Backus Place. It became the residence of John E. Backus. Also along Queens Boulevard was the McCoun-Backus House, which was recognized as one of the best homes of Whitepot at 160 years old. It was demolished a decade earlier. The Boulevard also offered the Horatio N. Squire House, which was demolished after 150 years in 1923.  

McCoun-Backus House
Judge Jonathan T. Furman House
The Judge Jonathan T. Furman House dating to 1750 stood on Dry Harbor Road, which ended in a cluster of farms facing a large pond. Situated on the property of Cord Meyer Development Company was the Jarvis Jackson Homestead, built a century earlier. Walking over to Remsen Lane, a noteworthy site for the birth of Clarence P. Tompkins was the Joseph J. Tompkins House. A 200 year-old survivor was known as “The house on the Abram Furman Estate,” and was on the east side of what was called Yellowstone Avenue (now Yellowstone Boulevard). 

 In 1652, Newtown was settled by Englishmen from New England, and Whitepot was one of its sections. An early 20th century debate was whether Forest Hills was originally known as Whitepot or Whiteput. If it was spelled “Whitepot,” it would bear relevance to the original purchase of the land from the Indians in exchange for three clay white pots. That was refuted by J.H. Innes, who told the publication “Ancient Landmarks of Queens Borough,” that the authentic spelling was “Whiteput.” If correct, the land would be named in conjunction with the Dutch term “put” for a stream that became a hollow pit.

Whitepot consisted of six farms, which were named after Ascan Backus, Casper-Joost Springsteen, Horatio N. Squire, Abram V.S. Lott, Sarah V. Bolmer, and James Van Siclen. In 1829, Ascan Backus acquired parcels of Whitepot’s farmland, which benefited Manhattan’s produce needs and army purchases during the Civil War. Ascan Avenue bears homage to his name.

The oldest living member of one of the first families was Frederick D. Backus, who told Lucy Allen Smart about Whitepot’s residents. He stated, “The neighbors were few when I was a boy, and some that lived a mile away we called neighbors. The farmers raised hay, grain, and vegetables to supply the New York markets. Fruit and nuts were in abundance, and every farmer would take his apples to a cider mill, which was located on the Hempstead Swamp Road; now Yellowstone Avenue. The children attended the Whitepot School, but we all had to go to Newtown to church.” He also explained that since few homes had ice houses come summer, food was kept cool by hanging them in wells and tin pails. In the winter, oxen were driven through snow drifts along narrow roads.

The area bounded by Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike was the Hopedale section of Whitepot. The Hopedale Railway Station stood near that intersection, and the architecturally distinct Hopedale Hall accommodated dining and dancing.

In 1900, the New York Times reported Whitepot’s population as 30, and consisting of German residents who plant potatoes and celery. In 1906, Cord Meyer Development Company purchased 600 acres in the Hopedale section, and renamed it “Forest Hills” after its high elevation of Long Island and proximity to Forest Park. In March 1931, George Meyer, son of the late Cord Meyer told the New York Times, “Roman Avenue between Queens Boulevard and Austin was the first street to be cut through, and on it, the company started its first building operations, ten two-family brick homes.” Today, only 4 Neo-Renaissance rowhouses remain from 1906, and are reminiscent of the first signs of development under the Forest Hills name.

The only known remnant of Whitepot is the landmarked Remsen Cemetery between Trotting Course Lane and Alderton Street. The Remsen family was among the area’s first settlers. Tombstones range from 1790 through 1819, and include Revolutionary War Veteran Colonel Jeromus Remsen. 

Remsen Farm House with caption courtesy of Historian Bill Safka
Let’s continue to seek signs of our Colonial past, while preserving our 20th century landmarks.

Please read Michael Perlman's column with the Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger for more stories which document and commemorate Forest Hills and Rego Park history and architecture:

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