The little boy in the front pew threw one hand up as the other hand frantically waved a Headless Horseman picture book while hollering out his question, “Do you know THIS GUY?” The docent in the Old Dutch Church replied, “I’ll get to him in a minute,” and calmly continued to describe the church-going habits of Lord and Lady Philipse.
Since trailers for the new Sleepy Hollow television series were interrupting my football game every 3 1/2 minutes, I decided to head over to the actual town and check out a couple of the area landmarks, including Washington Irving’s home and the Old Dutch Church and Cemetery. It’s an appropriate time of the year to visit because this part of Westchester County has embraced Halloween and schedules many popular events, like the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze.
Widely considered America’s first popular author, Washington Irving lived in Irvington, New York, in Sunnyside, his cottage on the banks of the Hudson. Our costumed guide explained that after his death fans would visit his grave and chip away pieces of his headstone as souvenirs. His fame was the result of the publication of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, the story collection that included Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Irving was a man with many interests and his other works include travel books, a multi-volume biography of his namesake George Washington and the satirical History of New York. When you refer to New York as Gotham City or reference “the almighty dollar”, you’re quoting Irving. Sunnyside is one of many properties maintained by Historic Hudson Valley. Admission to the house and grounds, including the 50-minute tour, is $12 for adults.
Next, I ventured north about 4 miles on Route 9 to the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to visit the Old Dutch Church. On weekend afternoons (June – October) volunteers are available to provide information about the church, which dates to 1685. The simple altar once held thrones for Lord and Lady Philipse, but they were removed when the family chose to side with the Brits during the Revolutionary War, losing their land which encompassed 52,000 acres in Westchester County, today one of the richest counties in the nation. Sit in one of the pews and you may be resting where George Washington worshipped.
In the burying ground are headstones bearing the names of characters in Irving’s stories, including the Van Tassels. Also on the site is the reputed grave of the Headless Hessian who Irving rechristened as the Horseman. Addressing the young boy, our volunteer explained that, on Halloween Eve, mist descends upon the cemetery, settling like a blanket on the ground. At midnight the mist above one grave begins to swirl until it’s sucked into the earth, followed by the ascension of the ghost of the Headless Hessian. The wide-eyed boy appeared satisfied with the tale, ready to regale his second-grade class come Monday morning.
Just beyond the Church’s burying grounds is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Irving’s grave is located. It’s secured against headstone thiefs by a locked gate. There are many options for guided tours, including evening lantern ones. These tours must be arranged in advance. Alternatively, stroll the grounds with one of the maps that are available with Irving’s grave and other famous monuments marked, including Thomas J. Watson (IBM’s founder) and landscape artist Jasper Cropsey. And don’t miss the replica of the famous Sleepy Hollow bridge, sight of the showdown between the hapless Ichabod Crane and the Horseman. If you stand quite still you can almost hear the sound of thundering hooves beating against the wooden planks.
Walking the cemetery’s rolling hills in the fall air made me hungry. There are many restaurants in the area; I particularly like the Bridge View Tavern. They’re currently featuring hearty specials including wurst platters and a nice selection of German beers on tap. And you can’t beat the view of the Hudson from the dining room windows. Just watch your ale intake, or you may need a Rip Van Winkle-like nap.