Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Thomas Donlon and Schodack Trout Pond

In the 1880s, a group of businessmen from Brooklyn who shared an enthusiasm for fishing formed an organization they called the Unit Fishing Club wherein they would arrange expeditions to take part in their favorite pastime. Their preferred destination was Mombasha Lake in Orange County, upstate NY - an ideal location with a reputation of being an angler's heaven. There was only one problem - it was a major schlep. At the time, there were no crossings over the lower Hudson River, which meant the trip required taking a ferry and the better part of a whole day just to get there.

Some members began looking eastward for a good freshwater fishing spot on Long Island. They found an opportunity in an area called Lakeview, which, although did not yet have train service until 1892, was a not too distant walk from the Hempstead or Pearsall's Corner train stations. Aside from the large lakes of the Brooklyn Water Works, a smaller lake bordered Woodfield Rd., just south of Eagle Ave. Sometime between 1887 and the early 1890s, a club member named Thomas Donlon purchased the fishing hole and 30 acres surrounding this lake from Hendrick B. Ryder, a deacon of the Rockville Centre Baptist Church and superintendent of its Sunday school, and one time Hempstead Town highway commissioner. The 1914 Belcher-Hyde map below displays the lake and land owned by Donlon. (The road labeled Brooklyn Ave. is Woodfield Rd.)

Donlon was a contractor who built many structures in Brooklyn. One of his works remains as among the oldest standing firehouses in Brooklyn (and probably the oldest still in operation), having been built in 1883, located on 11th Ave in Park Slope as the headquarters of Ladder Co. 122. (Photo below taken from the http://www.nyc-architecture.com website).

The pond that Donlon purchased was part of a stream called Schodack Brook that once extended much further north and ran its course through Lakeview into Smith's Pond, at one time a tributary of the Brooklyn water system. Though the small size of Donlon's pond did not seem like it was much to get excited about, a story reported in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1910 illustrates the prodigious quality of marine life that was sustained by the pond at that time. On July 4th that year, Donlon threw an Independence Day party for many friends, where he held a contest for who could catch the biggest fish. One of the guests was almost pulled into the water by the force of the creature pulling on the other side of the line. When a couple spectators helped the man reel in his prize, they were amazed to find it was a twenty pound turtle that gave the man such trouble.

Referring back to the map above, there was a man named Thomas Rhodes who lived across the street from Donlon (Rhodes' home is labeled and can be seen at bottom center). When Donlon bought land in Lakeview, he hired Rhodes to work on his farm earning a modest $50/month for the 8 months a year during planting and harvesting season, and $35/month for the remaining 4 months. Notwithstanding his meager salary, Donlon had always promised Rhodes that he would be "well taken care of", without ever specifying the meaning of that pledge. In 1917, Rhodes found out what his old boss meant when Donlon passed away and willed to Rhodes 1/2 an acre of his property for every year he worked (totalling 15 acres), a tribute to his old farmhand's loyalty. The remaining 15 acres was left to his wife, which Rhodes later purchased from her from the proceeds made from working the farm.

The aerial photo below (from the Fairchild Aerial Survey) gives an amazing perspective of the old Donlon farm. Taken in 1949 soon after the Southern State Parkway was widened and rerouted at exit 18, the photo looks westward toward New York City. I have included some labels to help the visualization. The original route of the Parkway wound around Hempstead Lake along Eagle Ave through Hempstead Lake State Park (a fact which helps understand the origin of the word "parkway"). At the left center of the photo, one can make out the cutoff of the old Parkway. In 1947, a new interchange at exit 18 was created and the Southern State was routed through Hempstead Lake, upon landfill, effectively cutting the lake into two parts. The road running horizontally at the top is Woodfield Rd, and the road running vertically at the right is Eagle Ave. The open farm fields on both sides of the Parkway at the top left corner is what was left of the Donlon Farm after the Parkway bisected it.

This high resolution image below comes from the same photo and is a close-up of Schodack pond as it looked in 1949.

Not long after this photo was taken, the farm was sold and carved up for a housing development. Like E J Jennings, Donlon also had a local street named after him, which can be found to the west of Woodfield Rd., just south of Eagle Ave.


farmax said...

one of the last farms in west hempstead was near cornwell ave, according to my best info. Prechtel was the name. They relocated to the Port Jefferson area. does anyone have any info on the farmer who sold land for the high school. Guskie (spelling?) was the name I believe. The two brothers were still alive and farming when I was in high school. I remember playing ball in the field adjacent to their field and seeing their old rusting equipmnet out in the field

Jacob said...


Thanks for the post. I don't know much about the Pretchel farm, though I have a photo from the Fairchild Aerial Survey from 1949 that clearly still shows that farm proudly standing its ground from being surrounded by sprawling new housing developments.

Regarding the Gustke farm, brothers John and Fred inherited the farm from their father August who owned the property for years. The farm was originally 75 acres, until they sold most of their property to the school district when the high school went up in 1952. They retained about 5 acres and lived there into the 1960s. Although they made a fortune when they sold their land, they still lived in a =n old ramshackle farmhouse with no electricity on Nassau Blvd. School kids tell legends of being terrified of tresspassing their property out of fear of being shot.

farmax said...

i would like to see that fairchild aerial survey. where could I access it. As part of my foray into west hempstead last week, my brother and I traced the small creek from lakeview train station to schodack pond

Jacob said...


email me at yossiaz@ aol.com and I'll be happy to send you a copy of it.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in W.H. during the 1960's and 70's and recall the farm on Nassau Blvd it was across the street from Echo park. I knew many a kid that swore they were on the receiving end of a load of rock salt from the irate farmers shotgun. I was under the impression that in addition to the land were the H.S is they also owned all the land to Halls Pond.
The farm was sold in the early 70's and houses built soon after. I remember them going up.

NY_Trailblazer said...

I have lived across the street from Hall's Pond Park for more than 40 years ... does anyone know how or when Hall's Pond got it's name ? ... would love to hear more of these great stories about the local history of West Hempstead ... also please send me some old photos if you have any ... NY_Trailblazer@hotmail.com

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Frnaklin Square just west of Dogwood Ave. We moved there in 1941 just before WW2 broke out. There were still several farms on Dogwood ave. & Nassau Blvd. There was Sipple's (spelling) apple orchard on Nassau Blvd. We used to sneak in & take the fallen apples. The hosue was destroyed by fire around 1949 or 1950. the two farms on Dogwood Ave. that I remember were the Kolemer ( spelling) brothers. They both had truck farms growing onions & other small produce. One farm was closer to Hempstad Tpke & the other was closer to Cornwell ave. That brother had something like 5 daughters. The other brother had sons. After the war the brothers sold their farms & houses were built. I also remembr a family that lived near where Dogwood Ave. & Nassau Blvd. meet there was the Seamer (spelling) family. They had several grown sons & a daughter around my age who we used to call the goat girl because they had several goats that they use to graze in a grassy lot right across from the Methodist church on the corner of Dogwood Ave. & Fenworth Blvd. the house is still there. I also remember the Gustkie brothers. We were afraid to even walk by there.

ali g said...

We used to ice skate on the one pond that had a little island in the middle when we lived a few blocks away from it. We just walked along the farm path. the local cops would test the ice and put a safe notice up when it was ok to skate. Great blog--brings back lots of memories.

Anonymous said...

I grew up on Baldwin Drive, between Dogwood Ave. and Nassau Blvd. I remember going on to Gustkie's property via ( I believe it was ) Richard Street. We used to nervously be ready to flee if we caught sight of him. I remember hearing he would shoot at trespassers. I also remember my family going to the "duck pond" to feed and watch the ducks and maybe get an ice cream across the street. Nicememories