They say that history, like youth, is wasted on the young. Actually, "they" don't say any such thing. I say it. And I know what I'm talking about. This summer my wife, Beth Ann, and I spent a couple days visiting some historic sites in New York's Hudson River Valley. The region offers an embarrassment of historical riches, but because our back seat was occupied by Sam (almost three) and Katie (five) we realized that we would have to lower our expectations somewhat. The kids were interested in Rugrats, not Roosevelts, and would not be content to spend time whiling away the hours in historic homes and museums.
At Historic Traveler we have to face the facts. Many former children have unpleasant memories of being dragged to historic sites by their parents. Beth Ann still claims to bear emotional scars from being forced to visit Gettysburg over the July Fourth weekend in 1976. (Her chief criticisms: the combination of heat and incessant gunfire, the lack of a fireworks display--for the country's bicentennial, no less!--and nothing on TV but the Billy Wilder remake of The Front Page. I believe she also has a story about having to wear ill-fitting sneakers while playing tennis, which led to blisters.) Would our children carry psychological scars from this trip? More important, would their parents?
To really make things a challenge, we decided to stay on the road for about 14 hours the day before exploring the Hudson River Valley. (Actually we didn't decide any such thing. It just happened.) We arrived late in Hudson, a town on the east side of the Hudson River about 30 miles or so south of Albany, after a grueling trip. We had left Maine at 9:15 that morning, stopped to visit a museum in New Hampshire, visited some of Beth Ann's relatives, then drove straight through Vermont and down through New York to Hudson. The mere fact that we arrived and we were still all talking to each other says much about our strength of character (and the traveling abilities of the kids). Had I been a hat-wearing man, I would have doffed it to all of us for surviving such a long road trip in reasonably good spirits.
We stumbled about a bit through the dark streets of Hudson in search of the St. Charles Hotel, a place we picked out of a regional brochure because it claimed to be historic. Perhaps it was, but our initial impressions were that (a) the restaurant had closed for the night and (b) our room was hot. So we turned the air conditioning on full blast while Dad rushed out to find a fast food place that was still open. All though our nerves had been scraped somewhat raw by the long drive, we managed to settle down and get some sleep.
The next morning dawned somewhat earlier than I would have preferred, but I took Sam and Katie out for a quick stroll through downtown Hudson. The town did not live up to my expectations. I had pictured a shady main street festooned with antique shops, a Bedford Falls-like town straight out of It's A Wonderful Life. Instead, I found a town running a little short on "quaint" and a little overstocked on "shabby."
If Hudson was disappointing, Olana wasn't. The oriental fantasy palace of painter Frederick Edwin Church, Olana perches high on a bluff south of Hudson, with magnificent views of the river and the Catskills on the other side. (For more about Olana and Church, see the November 1998 issue of Historic Traveler.) Although we arrived on a Tuesday, when the house was closed to the public, I had arranged in advance to meet with director James Ryan, who offered to show us around. (Don't try this yourself: I am a media professional.) While Beth Ann and I were appropriately impressed by the house, Sam and Katie were somewhat underwhelmed, although they did brighten momentarily when Ryan showed them the collection of birds eggs gathered by the Church children, and Sam showed some interest in a butterfly collection. What they liked the most, however, were the modern electric fans on the floors in the corners of some rooms. They sat in front of them and let the breeze blow into their faces. It was perhaps the most important lesson of the trip: Don't expect the children to be interested in the things they should be interested in. It's a phenomenon I often witnessed when I lived across the street from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. I'd see families leave the zoo after seeing exotic animals like elephants and giraffes, only to have their kids go nuts when they spotted a squirrel.
The previous day's long drive began to catch up with us as we left Olana, but fortunately the crying and fussing ended once both kids fell asleep and Beth Ann and I realized how silly we sounded. (Actually, that line is just for comic effect, as Beth Ann and I rarely cry and fuss in the car.) For a few precious minutes the car was graced with that special feeling of serenity that only parents with sleeping children can truly understand.
Our plan was to drive to Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a collection of World War I-era aircraft and automobiles based outside the town of Rhinebeck and something we felt would be certain to grab the kids' attention. With the kids asleep we decided first to detour into the town of Rhinebeck itself, which seems to be where all of Hudson's quaintness ended up. We alternated staying in the car with the kids and exploring the stores along the main street until we finally, reluctantly, roused the kids for lunch. Afterwards they were still grumpy so we made a trip around the corner to Schemmy's, Ltd., an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor. (At least it seemed old-fashioned, although the menu admitted that it had been open only since 1980.) It had old wooden booths, a black and white tile floor and collectibles in glass cabinets along one wall.
Not even ice cream was enough to satisfy Sam. With his head on the table he whined that he didn't want ice cream--he wanted to see the airplanes. Fair enough.
On weekends Old Rhinebeck offers airshows, which sound like good-but-corny fun with Keystone Cops and damsels in distress and good guys and bad guys duking it out in multi-winged aircraft. It wasn't until we read the sign on the way past the road to Old Rhinebeck that we realized that since today was a weekday, there were no airshows. But airplanes are still airplanes and we were willing to stop by for a look.
Old Rhinebeck is a working airfield, with a cluster of old-fashioned hangars clustered at one end of the grass airstrip. Inside one were fabric-covered aircraft seemingly straight out of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. There was a copy of a Curtiss D and an actual Blériot XI, aircraft that dated from early in this century. It was in a Blériot XI, a tiny monoplane with a 25-horsepower engine, that Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel in 1909, an event that stunned the world. Another hangar had a copy of a Sopwith Camel, perhaps the most famous aircraft of World War I. In a classic parental ploy to find a way to make an immediate historical connection with Katie, Beth Ann and I excitedly told her this was the kind of airplane that Snoopy flew. She was unimpressed. Sam, in the meantime, was refusing to allow himself to be photographed, running away in a snit every time I pointed the camera his way.
The kids, however, were somewhat interested in the Fokker DR-1 Triplane, not because of its three wings, nor because this was the kind of airplane that the Red Baron--the real Red Baron, a.k.a. Manfred von Richtofen--flew, but because it had a face painted on the cowling, giving the aircraft the appearance of a scowling, mustachioed man (the propeller provided the mustache). What impressed me about Rhinebeck was the smell--the scent of aviation fuel, when airplanes flew on kerosene and castor oil.
We wandered around past the hangars for a short time, with only one other family present. But since the airplanes weren't doing anything, the kids didn't find them terribly exciting. Even the cars, a collection of classic jalopies dolled up for their roles in the airshow, attracted only passing interest. "You know what kind of car I want to see?" Katie asked. "The kind of car that will take me home."
It was time for a pool.
The St. Charles was pool-less, so we decided a change was in order. The previous fall Beth Ann and I had a memorable meal at the Belvedere, a columned mansion on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. We knew they also had rooms--and a pool. We decided to check it out.
We were in luck. The Belvedere was almost empty, with only one other couple in the main house, so we got two adjoining rooms at a reduced rate.
The first order of business was swimming. As I changed Sam into his bathing suit I whispered words that would have cast a chill of terror into any eavesdropping guest. "No poo poo in the pool," I said. Fortunately, we managed to complete our refreshing swim without any accidents. Then, when I brought Sam back to the room, he insisted on having a bath in the antique, claw-footed tub. Maybe he did have some respect for history.
The Belvedere was quite a treat, and even the kids were impressed by the elegance of our lodgings. The original building on this site was built in 1760 but burned down in 1899; the current one was finished in 1900 and completely renovated in 1993. It has five rooms in the main building, all with private baths and furnished with antiques. Katie was particularly taken with an antique divan in one of our rooms and announced that she would sleep there. The rooms have names like the Astor or the Livingston; we got the Vanderbilt and the Lafayette Rooms. In the back there's a carriage house that has been converted into rooms. The 10-acre grounds were also beautiful, with an outdoor pool and fish pond (populated also, the children found out to their delight, by frogs).
The dining room, which takes up most of the house's first floor, is beautifully decorated, but it wasn't open on this night. That was probably for the best. Fine dining, like history and youth, is wasted on the young.
Instead we got back into the car and headed into Hyde Park to try a brew pub there. On the way we made a short side trip to the Mills Mansion, one of the great mansions that dot the Hudson River Valley. Completed in 1896 and containing 65 rooms and 14 bathrooms, it used to be one of the homes of Ogden Mills and his wife, Ruth Livingston Mills. Mills' father had made the family fortune with investments in various activities related to western mining; Ruth was a Livingston, a prominent Hudson Valley family since the 1600s and, as such, was loaded.
Beth Ann and I had taken a tour of it in the fall and were both somewhat awed by the place, most especially by the amount of money it must have taken to build, staff and run it. But we had seen the mansion at night and didn't have a chance to see the grounds. So although the kids were grumbling about it, we stopped and got out to gaze over the huge lawns sweeping down towards the Hudson.
A group of frisbee players at the far end were enjoying themselves in the hazy late afternoon.
This, of course, wasn't the Mills' only house. They also had estates in New York, Paris, Newport and California. On our tour in the fall, our guide told us how the Mills and their ilk (Ruth's family, the Livingstons, have another mansion nearby called Clermont) considered themselves to be the American aristocracy, descended from the men who founded the new country. The combination of pedigree and great wealth seems to have turned Ruth's head somewhat, for she embarked on a campaign to reduce the social register from its accepted 400 families to a more select 20--a move that ticked off the 380 families that didn't make her cut. I don't think I would have liked her--but I would welcome a chance to live like her, at least for a week or two.
We found the brew pub directly across the road from the entrance to the Franklin Roosevelt's Hyde Park home. Its logo sported a classic Roosevelt silhouette, but instead of the familiar cigarette holder, FDR had a sprig of barley clamped between his teeth. The beers were wonderful and the food was good too, though perhaps not as good as the beer. During the meal, like anytime you dine in public with young children, we walked a tightrope of fear and desire, fear that the children would misbehave, desire for a quiet, relaxing meal. Alas, our fears proved justified. Denied dessert for failure to eat his meal, Sam turned into one of those children, the kind you see with other parents but pray will never be seen with you. We paid the bill and hurried out.
It had been a long day. That night Katie feel asleep on the divan, just as she wanted to do, but I moved her to the big antique bed where she would sleep next to her mother for the rest of the night. In our room, Sam proved a restless sleeper and woke me up numerous times. I was glad that vacation was coming to a close. They're all well and good but their end always arrives as something of a relief.
The next morning we had a relaxed brunch outside at the Belvedere, on the large side porch beneath a white tent covering. The omelets were delicious and Sam and Katie were well behaved, so well behaved, in fact, that a woman at an adjoining table told me what wonderful children I had. "God bless you!" I cried, weeping tears of gratitude. Or maybe not. In any event I thanked her and inwardly praised her for her perceptiveness.
In truth, they are good kids and we enjoy traveling with them. It helps enliven a journey when you're constantly on the lookout for objects to keep their young minds occupied. Cows! Horses! A Volkswagen Beetle! A bus! A long drive without the kids gets somewhat lonely, despite the benefits of not having to listen to the same Disney tapes over and over, or not having to play referee for the occasional backseat flare-up. Sam and Katie have proven to be good, fun traveling companions, despite their lackluster enthusiasm for historic sites.
But we were all getting a little road weary on this, our last day of vacation. Nonetheless, we decided to try some final drive-by history, so we cruised through the luxurious grounds of the Vanderbilt Mansion, another glimpse at a moneyed lifestyle forever denied us mere mortals. Then we drove past the railroad station that Franklin Roosevelt used when he returned to visit Hyde Park as president. Finally we were on our way home--but I just had to get at least a glimpse of Roosevelt's home. The kids were anxious to get on the road, but when Sam saw a bus in the parking lot he was willing to get out to get a closer look.
We couldn't spend much time at Hyde Park, but we did venture into the rose garden and saw the graves of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and we got a quick look at the outside of the house, familiar to me from photographs. I wanted to look down the long driveway leading up to the house, because I had read that after being stricken with polio, Roosevelt had vowed he would one day walk its entire length. In his book FDR's Splendid Deception, author Hugh Gallagher describes his efforts. "He would 'walk' a few paces and then lean into his crutches and rest. It was very hard work. He had to concentrate all his attention upon the effort. Often he fell. If there was no one about to pick him up he would lie helpless until someone came along. . . . Roosevelt worked like this for many hours each day, virtually every day for seven years. He never made it to the end of the driveway." Standing at the end of that long driveway, stretching its way under the trees to the road 200 yards away, I could better understand what Roosevelt had been trying to do.
Perhaps someday we would come back here, when Sam and Katie were older and could appreciate it more. Then we could tour the house and spend some time in the museum. But now it was time to get back in the car and go home. Vacation was over.