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.
She is standing next to the conductor on the special train, a man named Jim Towey, whose grandfather Patrick came here from Ireland in 1872 to farm on the homestead of Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States.
"Jim, I wish I'd listened more to my grandmother. My memories are so hazy, and she was so vivid," says Dorothy. "She always talked about this village."
"It's still the same town," says Jim. "They just moved it down the river a bit."
Meanwhile Katonah, shaken not yet dead,
Doomed to be drowned within the watershed
Resolved to rescue 'ere they went adrift
Her sinking energies, her frame and thrift
The challenge came in 1893. One Mr. Daly from the New York Public Works Commission took the train up and addressed residents. "Katonah To Be Removed From the Face of the Earth," a newspaper said the next day.
Of course, there was outrage, but what could Katonah do? New York City was growing fast and needed a new reservoir. That required damming the Croton River, and that would, naturally, flood the Cross River and most of Katonah. The townspeople, a conservative, cool-headed lot who favored the prohibition of alcohol, understood the metropolis' needs.
"New York must have water, and more water," said the Blue Light, the Katonah newspaper, "especially if she should follow the example of our town and quit drinking other beverages."
Initially, residents planned on splitting up. They scouted for other jobs in Westchester and Putnam counties. Some townspeople moved away. But most were stubborn. They liked their big Victorian houses, and their neighbors, and the bitter news of the town's condemnation seemed to make people closer. After a meeting in September 1893, Katonah's residents were certain of one thing.
They would stay together.
Their plan became clear during the auctions of all the neighborhood's properties. New York had condemned the land and thought it could make money by selling off the houses to people who could remove the brick and wood for reuse in new construction elsewhere. But residents refused to compete against each other in the bidding, and most houses were bought back cheaply by their former owners. Records show a two-story, three-bedroom house with three chicken coops selling for just $10.
Meanwhile, Judge W. H. Robertson and other town leaders had formed the Katonah Land Company, which bought land on a rise a half-mile south of town. Architects were hired to divide the new town site into lots and create two beautiful main roads, Bedford and Parkway, with grassy medians. The land company also slapped strict deed restrictions on the property that still apply today: no slaughterhouses, no gun manufacturing, no distilleries, no tanning businesses, and absolutely no keeping of "vicious" dogs.
Moving each of the 65 buildings required nearly six months and considerable teamwork. The buildings had to be jacked up and placed on wood "rails." A tow rope was wound around each house and attached to a capstan; it took four horses to turn the capstan and propel the houses along the greased rails. And since residents had nowhere else to live, they stayed in their homes as they moved. At night, that meant enduring the bitter cold from the wind whipping through the floor boards of the elevated buildings.
In April 1897, the southbound train that delivered the village's mail stopped at the site of new Katonah for the first time.
And when was formed a haven safe and fair
Clasping her household gods with tender care
She, hopeful, journeyed toward the friendly plain
Her tottering mansions following in her train ...
Kellogg and Lawrence Hardware Store sits across from Healey's Delicatessen & Nonesuch at 26-30 Parkway in new Katonah. Both buildings look like they have faced each other over that pleasant thoroughfare forever. But the hardware store is the very same place H. W. Kellogg opened in 1887, and the deli used to be Romaine Ritchie's Barber Shop. They are immigrants from old Katonah, a half-mile to the north.
It's the same way with Deirdre Courtney-Batson's house, and many of the other Victorians along Bedford Road. Her place was built in the 1870s and belonged to a harness maker named Jimmy before it was moved. A couple years back, Courtney-Batson restored its gables with old artifacts she discovered in her garage.
Courtney-Batson and her physicist-husband moved to Katonah fresh from graduate school, in search of a middle ground between urban and rural living. "There's a kind of forward-looking attitude in this town, an idea that you have to plan for a town to survive," she says.
Katonah has survived. Survived the 1937 Northern Westchester Bank robberies and the notorious hanging of those outlaws. Survived the trucks that used to roar through town and shake the foundations of the Victorians. Survived the relentless suburbanization of America's countryside, with a commercial district that prospers amid a sea of suburban malls.
If anything, the threat of malls and other forms of "progress" has steeled the town's resolve. Its main street of boutiques and cafes has not a single chain outlet. In the building that housed the Benedict Drug Store of old Katonah, the third generation of the Raneri family is running the Charles Department Store.
"People say the store is a dinosaur; people say the third generation always loses the business," says James Raneri, 43, who owns the place with his younger brother David. "But it works because this town is a dinosaur. There will always be a need for a general store."
Katonah sustains art galleries and a museum. It has a summer concert series. To mark the centennial of the move, it is having a Victorian ball and a parade and a series of events and tours July 5-6. The neighboring town of Lewisboro doubles in size and forces a $48 million bond issue to build more school space, but Katonah stays the same.
It has New York City, still the town's largest landowners, to thank for that. The city's three reservoirs provide a physical barrier to development. And for every big-time politician who thinks state and federal bureaucrats are needed to control suburban sprawl, there is the hamlet's own impenetrable planning board. Katonah, a hamlet of 5,000, a mix of commuters and true locals, has resisted incorporation as an official city because that might mean more sewers, and more sewers might lead to unfettered growth.
Sure, Katonah has changed. Some townspeople don't know it, but one road into Katonah is a gathering place for Hispanic immigrants who wait for gardeners or construction foremen to stop their cars and give them work. There are a pair of new townhouse complexes. And there are new residents with families, who came for the schools. But that's about it.
The new residents have proved to be reliable advocates for preserving Katonah's traditions. Starbucks tried to come into the commercial district late last year, just like it had invaded Mount Kisco and White Plains and 1,200 other locations in North America. But the townspeople were so adamantly opposed that the coffee chain gave up. When the Reporter Dispatch, a Gannett chain paper, put vending machines outside local stores that had sold the paper themselves, everyone in town boycotted the paper until the machines were removed.
It is as if Katonah, forced to uproot itself once, has made a pact: Outsiders will never dictate its destiny again.
On a Saturday, the Charles Department Store is full, and Raneri is looking over his selection of barbecue grills, which he displays near the women's clothes department. "I think what happened 100 years ago, with the town coming together and moving, makes all the difference in the kind of place this is today," he says. "Read the history, and you understand how we're able to come together now and protect what we have."
And now where lay the solitary moor
Where sand was plentiful and land was poor...
Behold Katonah! She in very truth
Has sought and found the storied "Fount of Youth!"
Pub Date: 4/23/97