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THE EARLY DAYS
Brooklyn Daily Union - August 4, 1876
Reminiscences of Brooklyn - Sixty Years Since.
What an old Man Remembers of Life in this city and New York Early in the present Century.
Seeking for some connecting link with the earlier days of Brooklyn
and New York, a Union reporter was advised to engage in conversation
with one Valentine COX, who was said to live somewhere in Flatbush.
By careful inquiry and the critical study of rude diagrams kindly
provided him for the purpose, the reporter was enabled to find the man
who was to bridge over the span between the past and the present.
He lived in a cosy little cottage at the end of a street or lane,
directly in the rear of Dr. BARTLETT's. Here, in company with his
amiable companion, who has passed more than a half century by his side,
Mr. COX is peacefully passing his life. Though seventy-six years old,
his rugged form is little bent, and his habits of life are so pure
and regular that he bids fair to remain with his friends for many years yet.
His long life has been passed in humble industrial pursuits, and he
is a man of sufficient education, reading and good sense to be very
entertaining in conversation, especially upon the old times when
people travelled forty miles a day instead of forty miles an hour,
when the electric telegraph and its achievements, the sewing machine,
and a score of other great improvements were not disclosed to mortal eyes.
Those were called the "good" old days, but it is greatly to be suspected
that people were as bad in those days in proportion to their capacity
for being wicked as they are now, and that the absence of fast mail
trains, and hundreds more accessories to convenience and luxury were
not necessarily conducive to human happiness.
The reporter was greeted by Mrs. COX with a good, old-fashioned, quick,
searching look, as if to determine whether he was a tramp with intent
to confiscate the family heirlooms, or only wanted to make a quick,
business call. The result seemed satisfactory, for when a desire
was expressed to see Mr. COX she said he was at home. Indeed Mr. C.
came immediately to the door, and upon learning the object of the call
upon him modestly disclaimed any desire to appear in the papers.
This was evidently sincere, and is eminently worthy of note, as there
are many men who make themselves quite conspicuous in social and
public affairs who are not troubled with delicate scruples of that
character. On the contrary they will blandly inquire, "How did you
spell my name?" and then they will say, "That is right," or "Spell
it with two l's, or double s." or some other way, saying all this with
outward calmness, but with eager desire to learn without asking directly,
if it is the writer's intention to mention them at all.
Mr. COX invited the reporter to take a seat in a comfortable rocking-chair
and said he would cheerfully give him any information that lay in his power.
"Where shall we begin?" he continued.
"Well, how old are you?" was the first questions.
"Seventy-six" was the answer; "I was born in Westbury, in 1800.
Lucky people, those born in 1800. Loop off the first two figures of
the current year and they can give their age anytime. There's no
pencil and paper and subtraction needed. It's as plain as a pike staff.
"When did you first see Brooklyn?" was the next query after the foregoing
thoughts had settled themselves.
"It was in 'Seven', I think; yes, I must have been seven years old.
I was with father, and we crossed from the old Flymarket in New York
by what was then called the Brooklyn Ferry. We came over in a Scow.
For some reason the horseboat was not used that time, but it was generally."
"How was the horseboat worked?" was asked.
"Well, it wasn't much like the ferry-boats now, I can tell you," said the old gentleman.
"You've seen horses work a cider mill in the country, haven't you?"
interrupted Mrs. COX from the other room. She was putting away the tea
things and having some personal recollection of the time referred to,
naturally took an interest in the conversation.
The writer answered the question by saying that he had; but Mr. COX said,
"No, Sophia, it wasn't exactly like that; the horses went in a circle on
the boat working a set of wheels. Those boats were on the Williamsburgh Ferry
as late as 1825 or 1826."
"I suppose there wasn't much of a ferryhouse then?" suggested the writer.
"At Fulton Ferry! Oh, no; nor on the New York side either.
There were little cabooses. On this side of the river there was an old
public house, an old yellow building, a blacksmith shop, and a stable.
That was about all. The road started from the ferry up the hill very
much in direction as it now goes up Fulton street; but it was a country
road with briers and bushes on each side extending below Sands street."
"And how did the village of Brooklyn look at that time?"
"Why, there wasn't any village; nothing but a few buildings such as I have
mentioned near the ferry." replied the old man. "All beyond this were
orchards and farms. All of what is now called Brooklyn Heights was farming land,
and for many years later."
"Where did the road up the hill go to?" inquired the writer.
"Well, the main road was called the Jamaica and Hempstead Turnpike. There
were here and there farm-houses along. It seems to me there was a place
known as Military Gardens in the neighborhood of where the City Hall now stands,
but maybe I'm mistaken; that might have been later."
Some allusion being made to Flatbush, Mr. COX said that that village was then
larger than Brooklyn. It had been honored during the Revolutionary War of
thirty off years before by a visitation from the British troops, who burned it.
These troops landed from Gravesend Bay, perhaps at Bath. Their route of
march was subsequently known as "The King's Highway," but within a few years
some of it has been known as "the old shell road." There was an occasional
Tory in those days to lend a helping hand to the enemy, else our independence
might have come sooner than it did.
Mr. COX resided more than fifty years since in a house then situated at the
corner of Bleecker and Wooster streets, New York. "It was quite out of town then,"
he remarked, "near the Potter's Field. At a later time, when they removed
the pauper dead to Forty-second street, they had had no idea of ever
disturbing them again; but not long ago they took them away again to Hart's Island,
I believe. Washington Parade Ground was right near where we lived. Lord bless you,
we could buy an amount of lots there then for a small price. In Amity street
lots were a hundred dollars apiece."
Upon making inquiry as to other roads than the one referred to, the writer was
informed that according to Mr. COX's best recollection the main thoroughfares
were the turnpikes to Jamaica and Hempstead. There were others, of course,
at later dates, and not much later, either, there was one that was then called
Flushing avenue, but it was not the Flushing avenue of today, except in part.
Where the City Park now is was formerly a salt meadow.
Mr. COX was asked as to his recollections of the weather in the early years of
the century. He said he never remembered so many days of uninterrupted hot weather
as we had had this summer; "but in '18," he said, "we had an awful dry summer.
There were four or five months without a particle of rain. I was then learning
the milling business at White Plains. The pond that supplied us was usually
covered with sixty-eight acres of water, but it became so low that summer that
we mowed grass two to three feet high nearly all over it. Grass everywhere
was withered. There was no oats, corn, or potatoes to speak of that summer
in those parts."
The old man had vivid recollections of the cholera season in New York in 1832.
The city, he said, was fairly depopulated by those who left town and those who died.
He remembered one morning of looking up and down the Bowery at eight or nine o'clock
and seeing scarcely half a dozen persons, and not a single vehicle. In those days
that was the greatest thoroughfare they had, and ordinarily, full of business and
life. Many of the streets down in the more thickly settled parts of the city were
According to Mr. COX's recollection, the highest land of Fort Greeene to-day
is considerably lower than it was in 1812, and the same may be said of the site
of the present Navy Yard grounds. He came to Brooklyn to live in 1844, a
comparatively recent date. Henry and Hicks streets were then mere roads,
and bad ones at that. There was occasionally a good substantial old-fashioned
farm-house upon them, but there were more of shanties and buildings of an
inferior character. South Brooklyn, consisting of "Gowanus" and "Red Hook Point"
were "the wildest places in the country." Of the present Prospect park the
only land under cultivation was a part of the "Pigeon Ground."
The present reservoir is right upon the spot where a public road used to go,
and Hicks Post kept a hotel on top of the hill. At a later date he moved to a
spot now known as Battle Pass, just above the deer paddock. The bridle path
going down under the bridge below the Dairy Cottage in the Park includes a part
of the old road to Coney Island.
Some of the changes indicated are of such recent date as to be within the
memory of comparatively young men, for Brooklyn has grown rapidly within the
last twenty years, and iconoclastic hands will ere long sweep away the few
remaining landmarks that suggest anything of social life as it existed
half a century ago.
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