Ramapo Valley – The Early Days
By Henry Bischoff, Professor Emeritus*
History: Ramapo College stands on ground that had been traversed by Native Americans for centuries. In 1700, Blandina Bayard, a widow, and the first Euro-American settler, established a trading post near the Ramapo River. Soon after, persons of Dutch and French Huguenot heritage established pioneer farms.
During the American Revolution, Valley Road was the major connecting route for Rebel forces and for communications between New England and the south, since the British controlled New York City and its environs for most of the war. Washington and the Continental Army encamped on what are now the College’s athletic fields on a number of occasions. General Rochambeau and the allied French troops marched down Valley Road in 1781 on their way to the Battle of Yorktown.
By the middle of the 19th century, wealthy New Yorkers began to establish homes and estates in the scenic Ramapo Valley. Theodore Havemeyer, a wealthy sugar refiner and a leader in the formation of a national sugar trust, bought the Hagerman home on the north side of Ramapo Valley Road in 1878 and then developed a 1,000 acre model farm and estate. He and his wife Emily, a daughter of the Austrian Consul General of New York, had nine children. One of them, Lillie, married the overseer of the estate, John Mayer.
Despite some anxiety about the marriage, the parents opted to build the couple a villa on the other side of Ramapo Valley Road. This red brick Queen Anne style mansion was begun in 1887 and completed in 1890 at the cost of $100,000. It was argued by the Bergen Democrat that this building was an indication that the sugar trust was producing large profits for the monopolists. Soon afterwards a two-story brick frame lodge near the mansion was constructed. The Mayers, meanwhile, were having and raising four children. Then, in 1900, Lillie died of a gunshot wound in the mansion. The family said it was an accident.
By 1917 the other children of the now deceased Theordore Havemeyer (he died in 1897 with an estate worth 4 million dollars- 50 million in current value) decided to sell the Mansion and 730 acres of the estate to Stephen Birch. A former tutor of the Havemeyer children, he was sent by the family to Columbia University and was financed by them in an exploratory trip to Alaska in 1899. There he developed a major copper find and with the help of Havemeyer, Guggenheim, and J.P. Morgan formed the Kennecott Mining Company. Birch became its first president. He and his wife Mary had two children, Stephen and Mary. For the marriage of Mary to a Mr. Patrick in the 1920’s, the Birch family added the York Room to the Mansion.
When Stephen Birch, Sr. died in 1940, the Patrick family inherited extensive family holdings in Orange County, California and the younger Stephen inherited the Mahwah property. He raised Holsteins and other animals and lived a reclusive life. In 1970 he died from a fall in the Mansion and the estate became property of the Patrick family.
Just at this time the founders of Ramapo College were looking for a site. After considerable negotiating, it was agreed that the Mansion and other buildings (for $215,000) and 300 acres (for $2,918,000) would become the property of the people of New Jersey and the newly planned public college.
*author of From Pioneer Settlement to Suburb: a History of Mahwah, New Jersey, 1700 – 1976 (LD4701.R312B62) and Ramapo College of NJ: the First Quarter Century, 1971 – 1996: a History (F144.M19B57 – both in the Potter Library) .