Early Jewish Life, on the Hudson
This blog post is written by Museum intern Kathryn Norris.
Jewish-American origin stories often start with the waves of immigration to the U.S. in the 18th, and especially in the 19th, centuries. But Jewish life in America existed long before this. In fact, the earliest known Jewish story (in what would eventually become the United States) is from 1585. That year, a Joachim Gaunse landed on Roanoke Island as part of the expedition to found a permanent settlement in Virginia.
Jewish figures are prominent in American history long before the U.S. was its own country. (Check out our blog post on Jewish life in New Amsterdam!) And a visit to the Gomez Mill House in Marlboro, New York can provide a fascinating look into these complex stories. The historical museum tells the story of Luis Gomez, a Jewish trader and merchant who settled in the Hudson Valley. In 1716, Gomez purchased 1,200 acres of land in what is now Marlboro, New York. Just seven years later, Gomez had accrued 3,000 acres. He built a fieldstone blockhouse for trading on what was known at the time as Jew’s Creek. But the historical interest doesn’t end with Gomez himself. The building has an incredibly rich history, extending over 300 years. It’s almost as though fascinating people were drawn to the house! Today, it’s called the Gomez Mill House. It is the oldest standing Jewish dwelling in North America and tells the many stories of the figures who lived and worked there.
Gomez was born in Iberia in 1660, where his father, Isaac Gomez, was an advisor to King Philip IV of Spain. Because Gomez was Jewish, the Spanish Inquisition hatched a plan to take the Gomez family and confiscate their estate. But before the Inquisition could arrest Isaac, the king sent a letter of warning that allowed the family to escape. After the family left Iberia, they moved to France, and later England. As an adult, Luis moved to Jamaica and became a prosperous merchant trading sugar, cocoa and spices. He then obtained a letter of denization from England, which allowed him and his family to own property and live in America.
Once settled in the Hudson Highlands, Gomez built his single-story fieldstone blockhouse. He and his sons oversaw fur, limestone and milled timber trading. He was active in the burgeoning Jewish community and helped finance the construction of the Mill Street Synagogue in Manhattan, the earliest synagogue built in America. He later served as the president of Mill Street’s congregation, Shearith Israel. Sadly, the site of that early Mill Street Synagogue no longer exists, but the congregation of Shearith Israel does still meet on the Upper West Side.
Long past Gomez’s 1740 death, American history continued to unfold at the Gomez Mill House. Wolvert Ecker became the owner in 1772. Ecker was a local patriot during the American Revolution and the Mill House served as a center for the Whig Party. After the Revolution, Ecker built several more mills along what was Jew’s Creek (now Ecker’s Creek), a ferry across the Hudson, and other commercial activities in the region.
Colonel William Armstrong, a native of Scotland who moved to the Hudson Valley after coming to America with the British Army, was the next owner of the Mill House. That family’s claim to fame? Armstrong’s youngest son, David Maitland Armstrong, is credited for creating New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1872.
In 1912, Dard Hunter, a printer and papermaker, bought the Gomez Mill House. The next year, he built a paper mill down the road. His time at the Gomez Mill House was among the most productive and successful of his career. Hunter used that new mill to produce some of his most significant works. He became the first person to make a book designed and created by one person. (Before that, books were made by different people working separately in a sequence — papermakers, typographers, printers, etc.) Hunter is also credited with developing book arts and resurrecting handmade papermaking in the United States.
After Hunter, Martha Gruening, an American journalist, lawyer and Civil Rights activist bought the house in 1918. She established a school on site — the “Mill House” school was advertised as a “Libertarian International School” and “Country School for Colored Children and Others.” The school was listed as established in a 1921 almanac but there is no evidence the school actually opened.
The last owners of the house were Millie and Jeffrey Starin in 1948. The couple raised four children in the house, and Millie contributed antique furniture, gardens and trees to the property. After researching the site’s history, Millie was successful in listing the property on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. In the hopes of opening the site up to the public, Millie made the connection to Gomez’s relative, Harmon Goldstone. Goldstone turned out to be the perfect connection for Millie – he had helped to form the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and later served as its chairman. So Goldstone and other relatives formed the Gomez Foundation for Mill House in 1979 and bought the property. Millie stayed on the property as a caretaker and docent for over a decade.
Today, the Gomez Mill House holds public tours of the property and educational programs on the contributions of all the former Mill House owners. Although the museum is currently closed due to Covid-19, you can take a virtual tour right now on Youtube! And keep an eye out for when the property will reopen. Once it is, plan a visit for a fascinating tour through American history, all beginning with the work and life of an early Jewish settler, Luis Gomez.
Kathryn Norris is a third-year International Affairs major with minors in writing, journalism and graphic design at Northeastern University.