Hiking into History: A North Rockland family reconnects to its roots in the Ramapo Mountains

BY CHERYL SLAVIN

IMG_0843Sometimes a walk in the woods is more than just a walk in the woods. For 23-year-old Alexandra Wren, a hike in the Ramapo Mountains became an expedition to the past, a discovery of her deep family roots in Rockland County. This past Tuesday, at the monthly Genealogical Society of Rockland County meeting, her father, Gordon Wren, shared that discovery.

Alexandra’s journey began with the stories she had heard, from her father and grandfather, about the former family farm once located near Sandyfield, a small farming community destroyed when Lake Welch was born. However, neither she nor her father nor anyone of their generations had ever actually seen the remains of the farm. Finally, at age 19 and already an experienced hiker, Alexandra decided to go looking for it.

Following the directions from the trail guide, Harriman Trails, A Guide and History (3d ed., New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, Inc. 2010), which contained a description of both the old farm and the cemetery nearby, she found with relative ease what she was looking for. Clearly visible from the trail was the large “noble” headstone of John R. Jones, as well as several other headstones and grave markers. Excitedly, she immediately called her father, interrupting him at his job as Director of Fire and Emergency Services for Rockland County. “I hope this is important,” he remembers telling her. “It is,” she answered, and she described over the phone where she was and what she was looking at. “Alexandra,” he said, “you have just discovered the graves of your great great great great great great-grandparents!”

As soon as he could Gordon hiked back into the woods with Alexandra to view the grave sites for himself. The Wrens had already been able to trace their ancestry as far back as 1730, to John Jones of Clarkstown. The John R. Jones buried in the cemetery was his great-grandson, and the great-great-grandfather of Gordon Wren. The cemetery also contained the gravesites of two Civil War veterans, Timothy Youmans (related by marriage to the Joneses) and John Strickland.

In the surrounding area Gordon also observed numerous indications of former habitation: building foundations and old rock walls, rock piles left by enterprising farmers, the remains of old cellars. He was finally, after hearing about it all his life, looking at what remained of the old family farm.

The Jones family had actually left the farming life in the early 20th century, long before the Parks Commission destroyed Sandyfield to make way for Lake Welch. Farming the thin mountain soil proved unprofitable, so the family turned to stone masonry. From his father, also named Gordon Wren, Gordon learned that the Joneses did not quarry the rock they worked with. Rather, they simply re-purposed the abundant rock walls of abandoned farms, choosing and shaping them to become the building blocks for new construction. Much of the fieldstone edifices in Stony Point and Haverstraw of that time, including Kirkbride Hall and Letchworth Village, were built with materials supplied by the Jones family masons.

The old cemetery can be reached by anybody willing to hike into the woods. Pictures supplied by Gordon and Alexandra show that over the years someone has taken care of the little graveyard, placing flags and markers at the veterans’ graves and flowers at the others. The Wrens discovered that some thirty years ago a Boy Scout, related to some of the cemetery’s occupants, had used his Eagle Scout project to restore some of the graves. Who takes care of it today still remains a mystery to Gordon and Alexandra.

The mission of the Genealogical Society of Rockland County is to discover, collect, preserve, record and catalog Rockland County genealogical and historical data, and to make that data available to the public. The Society maintains two reference collections, one at the New City Library and the other at the Rockland County archives in Pomona. The Society also meets monthly 9 times a year at the New City Library and is available to help anyone seeking to discover family and genealogical information.

In addition to the featured speaker at this past meeting, the Society welcomed a special guest, Robert P. Blauvelt of Denver, Colorado. A descendent of the Rockland Blauvelts, Robert had come to New York specifically to discover more about his family, and actually changed his travel plans in order to attend the Genealogical Society meeting. The Society welcomes the addition of any new members, and anyone interested can go to the website at HYPERLINK “http://www.rocklandgenealogical.org” www.rocklandgenealogical.org, or attend one of the meetings.