North America's Oldest Jewish Homestead Gains a New Gift
MARLBORO: The important, if somewhat little known, piece of American history resides at the end of an unpaved road at the Ulster and Orange border. Yesterday, the Luis Gomez Mill House was fitted with a water wheel.
Its easy to pass the little brown signs on Route 9W that lead to the historic Luis Gomez Mill House. But once you make the turn onto the narrow unpaved road, you find one of the regions great treasures and wonder why you haven't been there before. Its like stepping back in time. Nestled on 10 acres of hilly land, the museum is documented to be the oldest Jewish homestead in North America. The oldest part of the structure was built in 1714 as a trading post by Gomez, a Sephardic Jew and descendant of the royal family of Spain. The property also includes a paper mill, two out buildings, a root cellar and an ice house.
Gomezs trading post was built when he was given permission in the spring of 1705 to buy property in America through an act of denization from Englands Queen Anne. The original certificate was purchased at an auction house two years ago and hangs on the museums living room wall. Other artifacts in the room include an antique menorah that traveled to the White House in 1998.
There are no known sketches or paintings to show what Gomez looked like, but early records indicate he was a successful, well-liked businessman.
When Gomez arrived in New York City from Spain 1705, he set up a trading business that shipped wheat to Madeira, Barbados, Curacao, London and Dublin. His business ventures grew when he saw opportunities in upstate New York to develop a fur trade with the white settlers and Indians.
In 1714, Gomez bought 6,000 acres in Marlboro in Ulster County. He and his two sons built a fortress block house where he conducted a thriving trade for 30 years.
An early census listed him as Mr. Gomez. Subsequent ones identified him as Gomez the Jew. The waterway that runs through the property is still known as Jew Creek.
In 1728 Gomez was chosen president of the Shearith Israel Congregation in New York. He raised money and contributed to the construction of the citys first synagogue.
The Gomez family contributed greatly to Jewish life in America, said the museums past director, Bill Maurer. They also gave generously to other concerns. They were one of seven Jewish families who contributed to the purchase of the steeple for the Trinity Church on Wall Street, one of the oldest Episcopal churches in New York.
But the Gomez familys greatest gift was the homestead that has been preserved and can be enjoyed by many generations to come, he added.
The Gomez family sold the property in about 1748.
About two hundred years later, Mildred Millie Devito Starin and her husband, Jeffrey, bought the property with a GI loan. The property was in disrepair. The couple made the structure livable for their four children and are credited with preserving the property for posterity.
Mrs. Starins research got it listed on the National Register in 1973. She also contacted Luis Gomezs descendants, and in 1979 formed the Gomez Foundation. The Foundation purchased the property in 1984 for about $300,000.
Everyone has a dream, Mrs. Starin said. Mine came true because I was able to share this lovely treasure. The house and its families is the quintessential example of the evolution of the American spirit.
When Maurer became the director six years ago, his biggest challenge was getting people to visit the relatively unknown museum. To get the visitors program started, he provided bus transportation for nearby school children. Last year, about 5,000 people visited the museum.
Currently, the most popular spot on the property is the cottage known as the Dard Hunter Mill. Hunter was the American printer and publisher who researched and wrote extensively on the history and techniques of paper making. When he bought the Gomez property in 1882, two discarded millstones and an eight-foot dam were the only reminders that a mill had existed. He built a paper mill fashioned after a Devonshire cottage. When the Foundation obtained the property, the cottage was crumbling and the water from the dam literally surrounded the cottage, making it like an island.
The Foundation made a long term project to restore the property, Maurer said.
Last year the dam was restored at a cost of $143,000, half of which came from a New York State matching grant. A 2,600-pound water wheel was installed yesterday at a cost of $150,000, all of which was raised through donations, largely from the 16-member board of directors and foundation gifts.
A recent gift of $95,000 from the States Environmental Quality Act will be used to restore an ice house and a root cellar.
Our mission is to preserve a unique historic house and to utilize the buildings, said Maurer. The Gomez Mill House is definitely a treasure were proud of.
Reprinted with permission from The Times Herald Record Friday March 10, 2000