Opinion

What's in Your Backyard:

The Pearsalls were one of America's first European families. Henry Pearsall, son of a Virginia tobacco trader, came to Herricks to make his fortune in the 1640s. Through a fortuitous marriage and a series of purchases, he acquired large chunks of what is now Searingtown, Albertson and Hamilton Park, plus one of the county's largest herds of cattle. His descendants played prominent roles in local public affairs for 250 years. For generations, starting in the 17th century, Pearsalls were laid to rest in the family burial grounds somewhere near the south edge of Watermelon Hill, on which Herricks High School now stands. By the early 20th century, about the time the Pearsalls sold their remaining Herricks area properties to mansion developers, the last of the headstones that hadn't sank were moved just up the road to the yard of Searingtown M.E. Church. Just the stones. By the 1920s, the family cemetery was now on the grounds of one of the several large country houses that dotted I.U. Willets Road. The owner of the estate respectfully planted evergreen trees over the grave area so that, as one Pearsall family genealogist put it in 1928, (the dead may not be disturbed. There are still swaths of evergreens near and along the hill area, and it is not clear exactly where the burial area was, or is.

The Town Burial Ground at Herricks:

In 1874, the property owners of the Town of North Hempstead decided to establish a town burial grounds for those that didn't have access to a family or church cemetery, mostly the poor and low-wage laborers. They bought four-acre plot from Samuel Doxy in what was called Herricks, in School District 9, at the west end of a brand new road connecting today's Shelter Rock and Searingtown Roads, just north of today's L.I.E. By the turn of the 20th century, the surrounding farms had become palatial country estates mostly used by wealthy New York City residents on weekends and summers (they chose to refer to the neighborhood as (Wheatley Hills).

Mr. Francis Key Pendleton, a true New York Blue Blood, was a prominent attorney, son of a famous U.S. Senator and grandson of the author of The Star Spangled Banner. His vast new Wheatley Hills estate was interrupted by what he saw as a creepy pauper's cemetery. Local people and the servants told scary stories about the cemetery and a Pendleton did not have such things near his house. In 1903, he offered to purchase the grounds and move the bodies elsewhere, but the townspeople resisted. They may have relished telling off one of the (Plush Furniture Contingent, as one newspaper put it. Eventually, his offer of about $60,000 of today's dollars won the day. Within weeks, the state legislature passed a special law allowing the town to abandon its burial ground.

Unfortunately, there was no clear record of how many people were buried there, and the graves were generally unmarked. Several years later, the town budget included $8 to pay someone to maintain town lots at the Roslyn Cemetery on Northern Boulevard, presumably the ones that Mr. Pendleton removed from Herricks (the ones that they could find). Today, the site of the old burial ground at Herricks is partly underneath a water recharge basin or sump off the entrance of a condominium complex. It marks what is now the border between the Herricks and Manhasset school districts.

The Battle Over Willets Farm:

In 1912, the 216-acre farm of the late Isaac Underhill Willets, just up the road from Herricks High School, was purchased by a corporation intending to create an enormous cemetery. You can imagine what Mr. Pendleton and his neighbors thought of that. County and town officials saw the cemetery as a tax boon and supported the project. One of the local estate owners was William 'Blue-Eyed Billy' Sheehan, a former Lieutenant Governor whose political connections were legendary. After threats and legal actions failed to stop the cemetery, Sheehan used his pull to secure a new state law forever banning any new cemeteries within Nassau County. The Willets property included what is now The Links development and the Buckley Country Day Camp.

The Ape of Albertson:

In June 1931, Nassau County police officers armed with shotguns combed the woods of Albertson, searching for what newspapers called an ape-like animal that was frightening residents. The animal was described as four-feet tall with a chest covered in brown hair. After three sightings were reported to authorities over a ten-day period, police took action after the animal startled and terrorized a group of boys playing baseball, with numerous witnesses. The animal climbed over an improvised backstop where the boys were playing on I.U. Willets Road, just on the east side of Willis Avenue. The boys' screaming got the attention of a passing motorist who stopped and chased the animal away by hurling bricks. The animal never harmed anyone, but no explanation is known.


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