by Mike Hays
Born 90 days after John Kennedy and 4½ months after the United States entered the first world war, Miriam Wexler turns 100 on August 24, 2017. This centenarian has been a renowned gardener, an avid reader, a poet, school librarian and mother of three. Miriam has lived through monumental changes during her lifetime.
Escaping Holland before German invasion
Miriam Haagens was born in Nijmegen, the oldest city in the Netherlands near the border with Germany. The daughter of Jewish parents, her father was the CEO of a manufacturing company. She bicycled everywhere as a young law student in Leiden. The mood in Holland was darkening, she saw cyclists with Nazi flags and people “Seig Heiling” one another. Fortunately her family was able to escape the country just before the German invasion and occupation of Holland. Nijmegen was the first town to be occupied by the Nazis and her former home was soon confiscated.
Aboard the Dutch liner Veendem, which was later torpedoed, they arrived in America on December 2, 1939. To the young woman’s great disappointment, the Statue of Liberty was shrouded from sight by heavy snow.
Arrival in Nyack at the Clarkstown Country Club
After staying in New York City for two weeks, the Haagens moved to South Nyack. They knew Heddy Katz from Holland. She was a violinist and music director in NYC and lived on South Mountain Road. Her son was sweet on Miriam’s sister. Heddy often stayed over at the Clarkstown Country Club on her way home in inclement weather. The Haagens moved into a small cottage called The Music Box located behind what is now the Nyack Middle School.
The Clarkstown Country Club was the creation of Pierre Bernard, known as the “Oom the Omnipotent,” an early American proponent of yogi in and “new age” lifestyle at his early 20th century commune. He owned land from the mountain all the way to the river in South Nyack and had quite a lot of property in Upper Nyack, too. As a practical woman of 22, Miriam thought the whole thing was pretty weird. Also, the noise from the country club’s peacocks and elephants kept her awake at night.
314 N. Broadway, Upper Nyack
Charles Fellows built the original brick structure in 1855. He purchased the property from Garret Sarvent, the first village president of Upper Nyack and grandson of Phillip Sarvent who owned a 70-acre farm than ran from the river to the top of the mountain. The house had only three other owners before the Wexlers moved in 1959. It retains much of the original woodwork.
The ground was once lower in front of the house and a door gave access to the basement. The basement had a kitchen and soapstone sink. A small store was once located at the side of Broadway near the north property line. The house was expanded with a two-story wood addition in 1906 built by local resident Win Perry’s uncle. At one time a circular rock driveway went around the house.
In 1958, a local developer, Harold Ryan, had a plan to tear the house down to build a professional building by combining this lot with another abutting lot he owned on School Street where the elementary school had burned down. Fortunately, the village turned down his proposal.
Family home at Voorhis Point
The family soon moved down to Voorhis Point. Her father started a book business associated with Scribners and developed a paper for distribution called the Haagschen Post. Her mother worked as a journalist. Miriam completed her degree at Columbia University in sociology. She met a local lawyer, Jacob Wexler, and they were married in the Voorhis Point house in 1942. Miriam and her husband eventually bought and fixed up a run-down house on thirty acres in Pearl River and began to raise a family of three.
Returning to Live in Nyack
Dissatisfied with high school opportunities for her oldest son, she enrolled him in Nyack, paying tuition until they could find a house they liked in the village. When they decided to buy the house at 314 North Broadway, the Wexlers joined a very short list of homeowners for that property since it was built in 1855. When they moved to Upper Nyack in 1959, they became only the fourth owner of this house.
Flowerbeds and Community Service
The house had several dying elms in front and a circular rock driveway that ran around the entire house. Miriam quickly went to work, planting trees and converting most of the driveway into gardens. One flower bed becomes another and another. She was always digging driveway rocks out of the garden.
While she was fixing up the house and putting in the gardens, Miriam returned to school, earning an MLS library degree from Rutgers. She worked as a librarian and media specialist in several Rockland schools. In 1972, she coauthored, Developing a Successful Elementary School.
Her gardens became renowned locally. Many people have plants in their current gardens that started at Miriam’s. She was President of the Nyack Garden Club and her home was a frequent stop on the Nyack Garden Tour. Miriam also worked as a docent at the Hopper House where she helped start its garden.
Reflecting on 100 years
What were the biggest change during the past 100 years? Miriam says the Internet is the most important technological invention of her lifetime because it allowed her to communicate more easily with friends and family. For a time, Miriam’s laptop was her main source of news.
From a girl on her bike in the Netherlands to an educator/librarian and a renowned village gardener, Miriam Wexler has lived a full life we can all admire and honor.
Photo Credit: Mike Hays
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.