Gomez Foundation honors four

By Nicole Zanchelli
Posted 9/18/19

Tucked away in the woods of Marlboro, follow the sounds of the churning waters and chirping crickets. Down a gravel path canopied by trees, there lies a piece of history.

On Sunday, Sept. 15 the …

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Gomez Foundation honors four

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Tucked away in the woods of Marlboro, follow the sounds of the churning waters and chirping crickets. Down a gravel path canopied by trees, there lies a piece of history.

On Sunday, Sept. 15 the Gomez Foundation for Mill House hosted their first open house to celebrate their 300-year legacy and to usher in the next 300 years to come.

The Gomez Mill House is the oldest Jewish dwelling in North America. To escape religious persecution in Spain, Luis Moses Gomez, a Sephardic Jew, purchased 1,200 acres in April 1716 through a grant given by Queen Anne. He then built a fieldstone blockhouse to conduct trade. With the operating mills and lime kilns on the property, and shipping the materials to New York City markets, Gomez erected one of the area’s earliest industrial enterprises.

At the open house, Jonathan Jacobson, New York State Assembly Member of the 104th District, bestowed the 2019 Gomez Mill House Honoree awards to four guests: Luke Ives Pontifell, Steve Clarke, Founders of Meet Me in Marlborough and Mildred Starin.

Pontifell is the president and publisher of Thornwillow Press, LTD. Founding the Thornwillow Press in 1985 at the age of 16, he and his partner have dedicated to help transform the heart of Newburgh into a thriving hub of craft, culture and community.

Clarke, a sixth generation Marlborough farmer, was honored for his deep family roots in the mid-Hudson Valley. Judy Clarke, the wife of Steve, received an award on behalf of Meet Me in Marlborough, an organization united to promote local agriculture and tourism.

Starin was the Gomez Mill House owner from 1948 to 1984. As well as raising four children with her husband Jeffrey, Starin contributed antique furniture, gardens and trees with historical resemblance. For nearly five years, she researched the site’s history and in 1973 she secured its spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

“[Mildred and Jeffrey] were instrumental with preserving [the house’s] heritage and tradition,” said Director of Gomez Mill House Museum and Historic Site, Carroll F. Cook. “It is largely through her efforts that we are here today.”

To guide the open house’s attendees through the course of history, the Mill House hosted two Goran-Gomez Scholars—Jonathan Schorsch, professor at the Universität of Postdam, and Marc Michael Epstein, director of Jewish Studies at Vassar College. Their tireless research fleshes out the history of Sephardic Jews and emphasizes the contributions from Gomez to America.

But according to Starin, there is another story that goes untold about the mill house.

The Gomez House was built on a Native American footpath. The Native Americans did not want any exchange of money to take place here, for it was considered sacrilegious. Starin believes that this violation can be attributed to the tragedies that have happened to every family who has occupied the home.

“The history is so unique and I haven’t seen anyone do it justice. There is an interesting part about this place, the background and the history with the Native Americans,” Starin said. “As far as I’m concerned, this is not the Gomez House, this is the American house. Everything that happened in America has happened here.”

Starin also gave voice to the nation’s shameful underbelly: slavery.

“The criteria that was used for placing it on the national registry were the slave quarters,” Starin said. “When I came here there were three sections where the slaves used to sleep on wooden boards. There used to be slave quarters here, but they took them out. They don’t want people to know there were slaves, that Gomez had slaves but that’s history. Everybody had slaves.”

Besides Gomez and Starin, four other notable individuals have left their mark, shaping the history of the mill house.

A lieutenant of George Washington’s Army, Wolvert Ecker, lived in the mill house from 1772 to 1799. He built a second story to the blockhouse and turned it from a trading post into a home. When Ecker discovered that the building would be named the Gomez House instead of the Ecker House, he resigned from the board, took his donation and never came back.

In 1835, the notable Armstrong family expanded the kitchen wing and occupied the house until 1904. In 1913, the expert on paper making, design and printing, Dard Hunter, built the mill on the property and produced the world’s first one-man made books.

A civil rights activist, lawyer, journalist and colleague of W.E.B. Dubois named Martha Gruening bought the house in 1919 to establish a progressive, interracial school. The school did not take off, and in 1925 she was chased out of the country for being a well-known communist.

The mission of the Gomez Foundation for Mill House is to preserve this historic house as a noteworthy museum and to educate the public about the impact former Mill House owners had on the multicultural history in the Hudson Valley.

“Jewish history is far more complex and involved and rich than they get the impression of,” said Andrée Aelion Brooks, a trustee on the Gomez Foundation for Mill House.

Brooks believes that “building a community from the perspective of a Jewish life is really more than focusing on all the negative stuff,” and hopes that the Mill House will work to enlarge aspects of Jewish history that go overlooked.

“One of the problems is that very, very few people know about the Gomez Mill House,” Cook claimed. “It really should be a national treasure because it is representative of the history of New York State, the history of our nation and also internationally because of the involvement, the purchase of the property and the construction of the only personal paper mill that we know exists.”

The Gomez Mill House is open from April to November, with guided tours held on Wednesday through Sunday at 10:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. For more information about the Gomez Mill House, visit gomez.org.

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