On the photo above is Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy American patron of the arts who relocated to Finney Farm in 1916.
Finney Farm is unique in its combination of structures, events and some of the remarkable and even notorious people who have lived or visited there over the years.
Originally part of the Van Cortlandt Manor, it was sold in 1736 to William Skinner and his wife, the former Elizabeth Van Cortlandt. It changed hands many times over the years until 1864 when Samuel Sinclair and his wife, Charlotte Elisabeth Perry, the niece of Horace Greeley, bought the land.
The land began to take on a new dimension, undoubtedly under the influence of Greeley, as an experimental cattle station. The farmhouse was built in 1809. They erected a barn with cement walls that became one of the first to be done in this fashion in the country, other than the one owned by Greeley in Chappaqua. Many aspects of not only the barn but the irrigation system were considered so unique and advanced that representatives from the US Department of Agriculture often visited to study the operation. The farm was used to bring cattle to be inoculated and cared for during the two months of their quarantine after being imported from abroad. They were then returned to their owners or sold.
In 1871 Horace Greeley ran for president but his campaign failed and as Sinclair was his advisor his finances began to take a turn for the worse. Samuel mortgaged the farm to Greeley.
In 1875 fire destroyed the roof and other wood parts of the barn and also Sinclair’s new house. The walls of the barn are still standing and have been used for various theatrical productions over the years.
Among-the famous visitors to the Sinclair farm were Henry Ward Beecher, Albert Richardson and Mr. and Mrs. Daniel McFarland. Beecher was an American Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, and speaker, known for his support of the abolition of slavery, his emphasis on God’s love, and his 1875 adultery trial. Richardson was a well-known American journalist, Union spy, author and editor of the New York Tribune, which was owned by Horace Greeley. Richardson gained fame when he tunneled his way out of Liberty Prison during the Civil War.
Apparently McFarland became enraged after Abby divorced him for Richardson. He went to Richardson’s office at the Tribune and shot him (drawing on previous page.) Two days later, just before Richardson died in bed, Abby and Richardson were married by Henry Ward Beecher. The murder trial was held soon afterward.
When the farm began to fail in 1901, Greeley sold it to Mary Finney and her two daughters, Katherine and Charity. They lived in the big white farmhouse and were often joined by personalities from the theatre and various arts. The farm was ideal for those seeking peace and tranquility and the chance to create undisturbed by outside distractions. A number of the original Sinclair farm buildings were later converted into residences. Finney Farm is referred to in many books with either descriptions or stories about the people who have lived or visited there.
Among many guests of the Finneys was Avery Hopwood who was called the most successful American playwright of the Jazz Age having had four plays running simultaneously on Broadway in 1920.
In 1915, Mary Finney rented the farm house to Mabel Dodge, an heiress, philanthropist and well- known patroness of the arts, who entertained many notables in the literary world. Finney Farm made it easier for Mabel to entertain her wide circle of friends and guests.
Another guest, John Reed, accepted Mabel’s offer of the third floor of the house as a writing studio. He was an American journalist, poet, and socialist activist, best remembered for his first-hand account of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days that Shook The World He died in Russia in 1920 and was buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. His life was depicted in the movie Reds.
Almost on a whim, she decided to make Sterne her third husband, but first she had to get free of Edwin Dodge who gallantly allowed her to charge him with desertion.
Mabel and Sterne were married in Peekskill by a justice of the peace in August of 1917. When he suggested a honeymoon, she pointed out that the lease on her city apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue was about to expire and the building was about to be demolished and new space had to be found. “You go on a little honeymoon out West, and I will stay here,” she told him.
Sterne wrote frequent letters on the trip, but one written from Santa Fe, New Mexico would change the course of her life.
After traveling to Santa Fe and finding it not to her liking, she was driven to Taos, some 70 miles north and liked it a lot. With a population of about 2,000, Taos lacked electricity or street lighting and had little to offer. Mabel decided she would create her own atmosphere and circle of friends. She also discovered the charm of the multi-storied ancient Taos pueblo and its Indian population just outside of town.
Finding a long, low, 200-year-old adobe building on 12 acres of meadowland for sale for $1,500, she made it the nucleus of a larger and taller three-story rambling house with a glassed-in top floor. She also built five guest houses on the property.
Because winters in 7,OOO-foot-high Taos were harsh, Mabel often returned to New York and Croton’s Finney Farm. Sterne preferred the East. Consequently, their marriage would last only four years.
Mabel was attracted by Indian culture and one Indian in particular, Antonio Lujan – a tall, handsome, taciturn Indian of the Tiwa tribe. She Anglicized his name to Tony Luhan.
Complicating the relationship though, he was already married. His wife, Candelaria, a beautiful Indian woman, would have to be persuaded to accept a divorce arranged under tribal law.
In 1920, Mabel began a campaign against venereal disease among the Indians of the Taos pueblo. A Turkish physician visiting Mabel took blood samples in the pueblo . for Wasserman tests.
The results showed that about 12 percent of its inhabitants suffered from syphilis, including Tony Luhan, and he had passed the disease to Mabel.
She usually kept nothing from her friends. This time, however, she only told Carl Van Vetchen about her medical problem and swore him to secrecy. But Mabel herself was an inveterate talker, and the word soon got out.
The only treatment was with an arsenical compound, Salvarsan, the “magic bullet” discovered by bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich. It was effective only if the disease was diagnosed early, the cure involved weekly injections over a period of eighteen months.
Mabel and Tony arranged to go to a discreet specialist in Albuquerque. Blood samples were sent off to a laboratory for years after, followed by an anxious wait for the results. To everyone’s astonishment and amusement, she married Tony in 1923 and became Mabel Dodge Luhan.
“Lo, the poor Indian,” was Edwin Dodge’s wry comment. Mabel had been hesitant about the marriage, fearing her mother would cut off financial support.
Mabel wrote several books. Among them were Movers and Shakers and Intimate Memories:
Autobiography of Mabel Luhan Dodge/ the memoi res of one woman’s rebellion against “the whole ghastly social structure” under which the United States had been buried since the Victorian era. Mabel fled the Gilded Age prison of the upper classes to lead a life of notoriety among Europe’s and America’s leading artists, writers, and social visionaries. Usually mild writer D. H. Lawrence once said that Mabel has the distinction of being the only person known to have caused him to declare himself capable of murder.
Among other writers who lived on Finney Farm at one time or another was Eric Knight who wrote “Lassie”. Eric was killed in a military plane crash during World War II, flying home from Yalta. He was a passenger in one of a group of planes returning from the famous talks between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. According to some reports his plane was shot down because it was believed Roosevelt was a passenger, but the President was aboard another aircraft.
In 1934, Augustin, Elizabeth and Irma Duncan, were often guests of Mary Finney at the farm. Augustin and Elizabeth were siblings of Isadora, while Irma was adopted along with five other girls, known as the Isadorables.
Their nickname was given to them by the French poet Fernand Divoire. They were all later given the Duncan last name when Isadora adopted them. Elizabeth and Irma conceived the idea of a summer theatre to be held in the barn ruins. Augustin, who had become blind in his later years, heartily agreed to the idea. Blazing buckets of oil were placed in and around the barn to provide lighting for the performances. The novel theatre was very successful for the two summers that it ran.
Isadora was away on tour most of the time, dancing to support her many dependents, including the six “Isadorables”, so dance was taught in Croton by her sister, Elizabeth, who seemed to be the very opposite in nature to Isadora’s free-spirited and light personality; Elizabeth was very organized and strict.
Augustin Duncan, brother of Isadora, made his stage debut in 1893 in San Francisco and toured for seven years before appearing in New York in 1900; then continuing in roles in New York and London.
In the late 1920s his eyesight began to fail and by the early 1930s, Duncan was blind. He continued to perform, playing John of Gaunt and the Ghost in Maurice Evans’s productions of Richard II (1937) and Hamlet (1938). He made his last appearance as the father in Lute Song in 1946.
Another guest of Mabel Dodge was American scenic, lighting, and costume designer Robert Edmond Jones.
Rene Fulop-Miller, born Philip Mulier, was an Austrian cultural historian and writer. He was born in Hungary to an Alsatian (French) immigrant father and a Serbian mother and came to this country in 1936 from Norway. He died in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Vera Neumann, another guest, was an American artist, textile designer and entrepreneur, best known for her boldly colored linen patterns and scarves signed “Vera” and most featuring a ladybug in the pattern.
Among Mabel’s many guests was Walter Lippmann, American writer, reporter and political commentator, famous for being among the first to introduce the concept of Cold War.
Cedric Henning Belfrage, another guest, was an English film critic, journalist, writer, and political activist. He is best remembered as a co-founder of the radical US- weekly newspaper the National Guardian.
Andrew Michael Dasburg was an American modernist painter and one of America’s leading early exponents of cubism.
In 1943, Ferdinand and Helen Mann bought the property from the remaining Finney sister Katherine for $36,000 – the taxes owed, and they in turn sold off plots to people planning to build and live on the land. Back in the time of the Sinclairs, when Horace Greeley was a frequent guest, he laid out the road, water and sewer systems, which probably appealed to the potential buyers.
Today Finney Farm is still a quiet, very rural enclave with a great variety of architectural ideas from the very modern to the very old fashion with renditions of both in between.
A number of the original Sinclair farm buildings were converted into residences, namely the corn crib, chicken coop, carriage house, stables, the ice house, and the red barn. Finney Farm is referred to in many books with descriptions or something about people who have lived there – to name a few: “Shadow and Lighr by Robert Rosenheim, “Maber by Maurice Sterne, and “The American Architecture of Westchester County; N. Y’ by Emily Hahn.
Contributor: Croton Historical Society. The Croton-on-Hudson Historical Society was formed in 1972 and is chartered by the New York State Board of Regents. The primary mission of the organization is the collection and preservation of Croton-on-Hudson historical materials and making them available to the public.