Upper Nyack Acquires Land For New Village Park, Hester Haring Cason Preserve
by Mike Hays
Bleating sheep startled walkers on North Broadway in Upper Nyack some 15 years ago as they passed the sloping meadow at 626 N. Broadway that leads up to a hilltop brick Georgian mansion. The “Sheep Farm” is still how long-time villagers refer to the property. In a remarkable coup, the Village of Upper Nyack has acquired the 11+ acre property, the last remaining large open space in the village. On April 19, 2018, the village board led by Mayor Karen Tarapata made one of the boldest decisions in village history by voting yes on the limited-time offer to purchase the property that runs from N. Broadway all the way to Midland Avenue.
The acquisition caused buzzing amongst villagers: What are the plans? Shouldn’t villagers have voted instead of just the board? Can it be an arboretum? What about taxes? Can we walk on the property? Who pays for the upkeep? Is the house livable? What about parking? To the mayor’s credit, numerous planning meetings, guided tours through the property, and field trips to other parks are starting to answer villagers’ questions about Upper Nyack’s future and the village’s only park.
“The Hester Haring Cason Preserve is an opportunity for residents of Upper Nyack to create a special place where we can come together as neighbors,” said Mayor Tarapata. “Now that we own the property, villagers have the luxury of time to take a community-created approach to planning.”
Early history of the “Sheep Farm” property
For nearly 200 years, the part of Upper Nyack north of Castle Heights Avenue and the boatyards was rural farmland. Wheat and corn were the cash crops, along with fruit trees and grapes. The first settler in Upper Nyack was Cornelius Kuyper (or Cooper). He inherited most of what is now Upper Nyack from his father Claus Jensen who obtained the patent for the Nyacks in 1671. Over time, Kuyper’s land was subdivided by heirs. The Smith family held possession for four generations of the land in Upper Nyack north of Old Mountain Road until William Perry purchased the “Sheep Farm” tract in 1828. At the time, the farm included all the land from the river to 9W. After Perry, the land north of Midland was split off and sold, and after 1883, the farm was further reduced with sale of the land from Broadway.
In one of the first detailed maps of the area, Edward Owen is listed as the owner. Similar to the property today, the map shows a winding road up the hill to a dwelling. Two other buildings appear on the map, a barn and an abandoned house, perhaps the ones still on the property. After Owen’s death in 1876, Joseph Hilton owned the property until his death in 1920. He built a Victorian mansion called Interlaken because of its wide views of the Tappan Zee.
W.P. Haring purchases the “Sheep Farm,” names it Riverhook Farm
In 1934, William Post Haring, a successful stockbroker who got out of the market before the Crash, purchased the property along with 30 adjoining acres owned by the Chapman family. Haring grew up in the historic Onderdonk house in Piermont, one of the few Dutch Colonial homes remaining in Rockland County. He married Dorothy Folsom and they had one child, a daughter, Hester Clark.
After the Haring family bought the farm, they demolished the decaying Interlaken mansion and built a long Georgian brick mansion that still stands on the crest of the hill. They named the farm the Riverhook Farm. At the time the house was built, the Lindbergh child kidnapping and murder case was riveting the country. To provide better security for his child, Haring had bars placed over Hester’s second-floor windows. They were not removed until she was 16.
The Casons at Riverhook Farm
Hester worked as a draft person for Lamont Doherty in Palisades. She met Jim Cason who was the operations manager for the Duke Marine Facility in Beaufort, North Carolina, onboard Duke University’s research ship Eastward in 1965. They married in 1971 and moved to Riverhook Farm. Largely farming hay, the couple also raised vegetables, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. They never seemed to sell any of the animals. A part-time caretaker managed the tractor work for many years.
Riverhook Farm faced uncertain times. Farming was no longer commercially viable in Rockland County in the late 20th century (this was before the market for specialty and organic vegetable crops appeared in the 21st century). Gradually, additional land once purchased by Haring was sold off to pay taxes. The part-time worker was let go, and the couple worked hard to maintain what was the last riverfront farm in the area. After Hester died, Jim stayed on the farm. Now in his 90s, Jim decided to let go of the farm. His willingness to see the land preserved led him to offer the property to the village.
The Hester Haring Cason Preserve is born
It is fitting that the new property is now named after Hester, as she lived her entire life on the property. The preserve is still closed to the public until old farm equipment and Jim’s personal possessions can be removed. Mayor Tarapata has been conducting guided walks for villagers through the remarkable space, showing off the structures, trees, and meadows on the property.
A curving road in disrepair stretches from N. Broadway to N. Midland. The meadow facing Broadway has been mowed over the years. Black walnut trees grow where the road curves around the brick mansion. The mansion has yet to be evaluated but seems to have public use potential. Behind the house is another open meadow and a stone carriage house and stable in excellent shape. A small house (circa 1840s?) near the houses on Locust Drive has been abandoned for years and is probably not salvageable. A small brick house near Midland is still inhabited.
What’s next for the old “Sheep Farm”?
Clean-up work has begun around the farm but it will take some time to prepare the property for public use. In the meantime, meetings are underway to define how the preserve will be used. Will it be a walk-in, village-only park with walking and bike paths? Will the buildings be used for village events? Will the meadows be used for community gardens? Where will people park? All ideas are on the table as the village moves forward. The next public input session, on October 11, will draw upon the skills and talents within the village to form brainstorming groups to bring ideas for potential uses forward to the village.
It will take many years for the preserve to be fully utilized. Two things are certain: (A) This is the biggest undertaking in village history; and (B), future generations will benefit from an inspiring space. Villagers will long remember the bold strokes of the current village administration.
Riverhook Sheep Farm, Sheila Hollihan-Elliot, The Hook, September/October 2008
Photo credits: 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. Hays 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.