Once upon a time, between 90,000 and 20,000 years ago, an ice sheet dislodges an eight-foot-long rock from somewhere in North America and carries it south. It’s pretty slow going—even for the Pleistocene epoch. Thousands of years pass as the rock rides the glacial wave. The air warms. The rock sinks into the slush. As the glacier slips back into Canada, its stony stowaway is left behind, resting on a newly formed hillside.
The landscape is much different after the ice sheet vanishes. A freshly carved river flows at the foot of the boulder’s hill; beyond lies a newly sculpted island. In a few millennia, once waves of humans arrive, the island will go through many names. “Mannahatta” is the first with any real staying power.
For a long time, our hero the rock sits alone on a barren landscape. Then lichen and seeds take root and—presto!—trees are everywhere. Sugar maples, scarlet oaks, and American chestnuts cover the countryside. Toothy beavers begin waddling up from the river. Gray wolves hunt deer in the woods. Eventually, the Lenape settle in. All the while, the rock hangs around on the hill—just sitting there, being a rock.
Paler, blonder humans sail down the river, and this is when the rock gets busy, so to speak. Unbeknownst to the rock, the Lenape sell Mannahatta to the Dutch, who also begin settling down on western Long Island near the glacial boulder. Around this time, another shade of pale people, the English, also appear on the island and on the hill. They, too, clear trees and farm near the rock. Many of them skin beavers down by the river. Some of the Lenape who have stuck around don’t like their new neighbors, and war breaks out. Across the ocean, England and the Netherlands also begin battling each other—a few times. Tensions between the nations’ colonists grow in and around Mannahatta, then called New Amsterdam by the Dutch, and later dubbed New York by the English.
Back at the rock, a silversmith named Hendrick Barents Smidt receives 108 acres of land in 1654 from the Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant. Smidt clears the forest, builds a house, and tills the soil, perhaps even maneuvering his horse around the stone as he plows and sows, season after season. But in 1661, the matter of who owns the rock—and more importantly, the meadowlands surrounding it—sparks a bitter feud between the Dutch and English settlers. They battle it out in the courts for over 100 years. And according to one historian, “Men of one community would stone those of another." Ah, early New Yorkers.
After its brush with cartographical glory, the rock hits bottom by the 1900s.
The dispute ends in 1769, and as legend goes, someone scratches letters into the boulder: a “B” for Boswijk (a.k.a. Bushwick) on one end, and an “N” for Newtown on the other. Now with the prestigious title of “Arbitration Rock,” the boulder marks the border between Brooklyn and Queens. For the next century or so, surveyors determine property boundaries within the two boroughs by measuring their distances from the center of the stone—a fixed landmark in a quickly changing colony.
After its brush with cartographical glory, the rock hits bottom by the 1900s. Nobody visits. Nobody cares (including the rock). Shrubs grow over it, and the stone sinks into the earth. The city even paves an avenue over it. For almost 100 years, no one knows what happened to the rock that was once so solid a piece of New York history.
* * *
“What’s up with that rock?” I asked some friends last summer during an outdoor music festival. We were in an industrial neighborhood off the L Train, lounging on a sloping field—a two-acre splotch of green among red-brick warehouses and grimy auto-reclamation factories. A black iron gate surrounded the property and an old farmhouse. A gleaming white picket fence surrounded the rock.
Seriously, who puts a fence around a rock? We had been admiring some chickens in a small, homemade coop, but curiosity called. We picked up our beers from the grass and walked over to the small, circular fence. Tucked in between the pickets and the boulder was a historical plaque. Suddenly, I appreciated the clever name of the event we were attending: Arbitration Rock Fest.
In 2000, after a seven-year archeological hunt, a team of historians located this long forgotten boulder. The following year, the borough of Queens dug it up and moved it 297 feet to the southeast for safekeeping. (Brooklyn, having now officially lost the once coveted border marker, was a little pissed.) Arbitration Rock now sits in the backyard of the Vander Ende - Onderdonk House, a little white building with a big, gently-angled roof that is New York City’s oldest surviving Dutch colonial farmhouse—built in 1709 on the foundation of the home inhabited in the 1600s by our friend Mr. Smidt.
After the festival, I too, forgot about the rock. Then this spring, I got a text from boyfriend, Keith. Seven months after our day at the Onderdonk House, we had decided to give co-habitation a try and were hunting for an affordable Brooklyn apartment—maybe a one-bedroom that allowed cats, and if we got lucky, had some sweet outdoor space, like a big fire escape. Such amenities can be a tall order in New York City and our search dragged on. And on. But when I saw Keith’s text message last March, my spirits immediately lifted. He asked if I would consider living in the old house where we had attended that festival, the one with the rock. His friend, an architect for the city, had been working for the past year on a project to restore the farmhouse’s ancient roof, and she had heard that the current caretakers were moving out. That meant the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society was looking for someone new to mow the lawn, plant the vegetables, and occasionally unlock the gate for tour groups. In return, the caretakers get to live in the place and enjoy its huge yard on the cheap.
“Would we get to feed the chickens?” I asked him. Yes. I was sold.
I grew up exploring forests and trespassing across farms in another historic town called Washington’s Crossing, Pennsylvania. (You know that famous painting of a war-ready George Washington crossing an icy Delaware River? That’s where.) In my decade living in New York City, I’ve been seduced (and sometimes, spoiled) by the efficiency and tempo of urban life—I am, I confess, someone who gets agitated by those who stand on escalators instead of walking up them. (I mean, at least stand to the right, sheesh). But I have a healthy laidback side, too, and my five senses have never stopped craving the countryside. An almost 400-year-old farmhouse in the heart of New York City? Sounded perfect.
Now that Keith and I have moved into the attic of the Onderdonk and assumed our roles as its official caretakers, bits of both lifestyles are colliding in a bizarre jumble of the old and new. Green spaces, community gardens, composting, and “chickeneering” are considered new urban trends. But every day, the Onderdonk reminds us that sustainable, old-fashioned living maybe never truly left. It just got buried for a while.
Our senior editor will continue to share her adventures residing in a 17th-century farmhouse in the heart of New York City—and the lessons it teachers her about sustainable living—in this ongoing column. Follow her story here and on Twitter: @mahony128
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