Behind Estate Gates: Childhood Discoveries of a ‘Great War’ Veteran’s Service 

Bobby kicked up the soft dirt as he walked along the bridle path at the Zeeview estate. As he walked, he noticed a big fire ahead, like a bonfire, burning brightly one late summer afternoon next to the stables. He was just 12 years old in 1951 when he came upon the large metal leaf wagon filled with burning bundles lit by two estate workers.

Zeeview's Garage circa 1951 when the property was sold. The big burn took place to the far left of the photo, just beyond the horse paddocks

Zeeview’s Garage circa 1951 when the property was sold. The big burn took place to the far left of the photo, just beyond the horse paddocks

Bobby, my father who lived on the estate with my grandparents, watched for days as Emery and Steve brought truckload after truckload of personal items, like clothes and papers, belonging to the late Dr. Philip Gillett Cole to the leaf wagon.

Estate worker Steve Codis driving the tractor. He helped Emery with the big burn.

Estate worker Steve Codis driving the tractor. He helped Emery with the big burn.

Normally, Steve, a Slavic man who always smoked a pipe, would hitch the large six-by-six foot wagon with two metal wheels to the tractor and drive it around the great lawns of the 20-acre estate built in 1929 by Dr. Cole overlooking the Hudson River in Tarrytown. Co-worker Emery, a slight Irishman, would rake leaves and fill wooden baskets with the colorful fall foliage to be dumped into the wagon for burning.

Emery the estate worker who helped with the big burn prepares the garden

Emery the estate worker who helped with the big burn prepares the garden

But not this summer day, the leaves had not yet fallen, and Dr. Cole’s widow Katherine had sold Zeeview, along with most of its furnishings. She was moving north to Last Chance Ranch in Lake Placid, New York with her second husband Dwight Mills. Mrs. Mills had called my grandfather, her chauffeur, to help dispose of Dr. Cole’s belongings that had been in the house for the past decade since he died in 1941 at the age of 57.

Dr. Cole had three children with Katherine Pyle, — Kay, Jane and Philip, Jr. —  and was not only a medial doctor, but a businessman, an art collector, and a World War I veteran. Among the burning bundles were his military uniforms. He had enlisted in the US Army and according to his New York Times obituary, “He practiced medicine in Helena from 1910 until he enlisted in the US Army when this country entered WWI in 1917, going overseas as a 1st Lt in the Medical Corp of the 1st Div and being wounded. He was commissioned a Capt while in France and, on returning to this country mustering out of service on April 15, 1919.”

Bobby would check up on this marvel of burning usually on his daily walk around the estate when he would head to the playhouse near the swimming pool and children’s cabin on the lake. He’d sneak into the playhouse and steal an ice cold Coca-Cola bottle out of the industrial refrigerator when his father wasn’t looking to quench his thirst on hot summer days.

Bobby Nelson with his aunt's Cocker Spaniel - Vicky - named for Victory Day in 1945.

Bobby Nelson with his aunt’s Cocker Spaniel – Vicky – named for Victory Day in 1945.

When the last of the bundles were burned, Bobby noticed a dull black item that he thought was a medal in the cooling ashes in the collection tray below. He thought, “Maybe there are more?” and began to poke through the sooty ashes, tossing them onto the green lawn.

Saved from the ashes~ Dr. Philip Gillett Cole's collar pins from the US Army, World War I Victory medal & First Division AEF medal

Saved from the ashes~ Dr. Philip Gillett Cole’s collar pins from the US Army, World War I Victory medal & First Division AEF medal

He found a handful of soot-covered medals so black you couldn’t read them. One was from 1912 and had strange lettering that looked Russian or Arabic. One was a German Iron Cross from 1917. But there among them were two America medals, the winged Victory medal given to all veterans of “The Great War For Civilization” and also the First Division A.E.F 1917-1919 medal, for which Dr. Cole was a member. Also, a smaller French medal dated Avril 14, 1918 was found along with U.S.R. collar pins. He cleaned them up, coated them in clear nail polish and stashed them away in a metal box in his desk draw. A place typical for young boys to keep their hidden treasurers. There they rested for the next 64 years.

Reverse of the medals - The Great War of Civilization & First Division 1917-1919

Reverse of the medals – The Great War of Civilization & First Division 1917-1919

Images of the Great War

Several years after the burning bundles, my grandfather, now the Superintendent of the estate renamed Belvedere and owned by the Bronfman family, was looking in the attic in the garage.  He came across a box of 8 mm silent films. They were several reels that Dr. Cole had shot himself on the battlefields of France! He gave those films to Col. Tilden Swan, who owned Camp Pok-O-Moonshine in the Adirondaks, a boys camp that my father attended in the early 1950s. One day Col. Swan rounded up the boys in the mess hall and showed these silent films to the campers. My father recalls images of “horses pulling small artillery, like in the movie War Horse, and entire landscapes getting blown up. You’d see a hillside one moment, an explosion, and then half the hill was missing.”  These black and white home war movies were taken sometime between 1917 and 1919. When the reels wound down, all the boys could say was “Wow!”

By the early 1960s, I was a little girl living on Belvedere, with my parents and my grandparents. One day while playing in front of the garage on the slate patio outside the chauffeur’s quarters, I recall playing with a wooden box, which contained a viewfinder and stereo glass slides. They seemed cool enough, just like my Viewmaster at home, but like an antique.

The Garage and Stables at Zeeview circa 1958 ~ Zeeview was built in 1929. The chauffeur's quarters are to the right of the garage

The Garage and Stables at Belvedere circa early 1960s ~ Zeeview was built in 1929. The chauffeur’s quarters are to the right of the garage behind the trees

I slid the first slide, which had two images on it, into the box and held it up to the sun. The image appeared in 3D. I was holding in fact, slides made with a World War I Richard Verascope stereo camera. And the first images I saw were ghostly white against a ragged sooty black landscape. Was this an outside hospital? I saw doctors wearing helmets. I saw bandaged soldiers. One after another I put those slides in looking at them with wonder and growing horror.

What was this? What am I looking at? I had no idea what a war was. And then I saw something familiar. A leg, just a leg and an arm, just an arm. Then another and another. Then I found myself looking at a pile of arms and legs forming a tall pyramid against the darkened sky. Then I saw whole bodies, in a row, lifeless. Then a man, with a pipe, in a uniform. These eerily, ghastly images, in their grey, black and silver hues burned into my memory. Images from 40 years earlier, as seen by a man I never met, but whose former home I now called my home. Somehow, these films and slides had escaped the big burn more than a decade earlier.

A Reunion of Families

Recently, I tracked down a granddaughter of Dr. Cole’s and paid her a visit to learn more about her family and the home they built called Zeeview. On the day before I went to see her, my father tells me — for the first time — the story of finding Dr. Cole’s medals in the ashes. During my visit with the granddaughter, we laughed about the memories of the cherished family home, a place she had never visited but I knew intimately. I told her the story about my father and her grandfather’s medals. I then pulled them out of the manilla envelop and placed on the table in front of her. She then picked them up in her hand. Through the ashes we were sharing a moment between our families of a World War One Veteran. Neither of us could believe what my Dad had done. Days later she told me she was still in awe that my father had saved the medals from the ashes for all these years. I recently asked my Dad why he held on to them for so long. Bobby told me, “I’m not sure I ever intended to do anything with them, but I did not want to throw them away.”

Thank you all veterans for your service this Veteran’s Day. 

Behind Estate Gates: Oyster Bay, Long Island ~ Circa 1925

Behind Estate Gates

Today is the 111th anniversary of the birth of my grandfather – Bülow Waldemar Nelson. He grew up on the Meriwether estate in Pocantico Hills, New York. Meriwether was next door to Kykuit which was owned by the richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller. My grandfather chronicled his life as a chauffeur to the wealthy from the 1920s Jazz age through the Great Depression of the 1930s. He lived on various iconic Westchester County properties like Weskora, Beechwood and the Sleepy Hollow Country Club. Eventually he was promoted from chauffeur to superintendent of an enchanted – some would say haunted by the tales of Washington Irving – estate called Zeeview-on-Hudson. I personally picked up his story when I was a little girl growing up on the habitat of the headless horseman now called Belvedere.

Zeeview (later Belvedere) Estate Gate - front entrance to the habitat of the headless horseman and the haunt of Rip Van Winkle

Zeeview (later Belvedere) Estate Gate – front entrance to the habitat of the headless horseman and the haunt of Rip Van Winkle

During ‘Papa’s’ 81 years he collected family photos, postcards, letters, ephemera, news clippings, and books about his life and times. He hand wrote pages and pages of personal recollections along with countless stories told to generations. Come with me as I follow my family through a century filled with happiness and heartaches serving the rich while living behind estate gates.

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My great-grandparents had sailed to America from different villages in Sweden in the 1880s. Their names had changed along the way from Oskar Alfred Nilsson to Oscar Nelson and Alma Karoline Pettersson to Alma Peterson. After meeting in Englewood, New Jersey, the came to New York City to find jobs in the late 1890s. They married on Dec. 2, 1902 in New York City. And a little over a year later, in the early morning hours of January 4, 1904, Alma gave birth to their first child, Bulow.

Oscar Nelson was employed as a coachman by David Meriwether Milton, a direct descendent from Meriwether Lewis on his mother’s side. He was a successful attorney in New York City and had a ‘country estate’ named ‘Meriwether’ in Pocantico Hills, New York. The Miltons lived across the street from John D. Rockefeller and his family. By 1904, his estate, Kykuit, was still under transition from a small private home to one of the most famous homes in the world.

The Nelson family lived in the 6-room coachman’s cottage near the stables. The simple house had running water and was supplied by the estate with all the coal, wood, oil, and milk they needed. Oscar Nelson tended to three horses and their carriages, sleighs, wagons, and plows. The barn also had running water. Besides the care of the horses, one or two for pulling carriages and one for tilling the fields, he would drive Mr. Milton and his family around the small hamlet to visit his neighbors, take him to the train station each morning for work in the city, or into the city to pick up provisions, dry goods and sundries for the estate. Alma, while tending to her new baby, would also cook for the estate staff and tend to the flocks of geese, chickens and ducks, and help with milking cows, tending the vegetable garden, and mending clothes. It was into this bucolic estate, still run like a self-sufficient 19th century home of a robber baron a few miles from the Hudson River that my grandfather took his first breath.

Bulow in a wicker pram as a baby

Bulow in a wicker pram as a baby

Several photos found among my grandfather’s belongings are his first known photograph of him taken as a two-year-old sitting in the ubiquitous white lace dress with lace collar worn by all babies of the era (see featured photo). The date 1906 is scrawled on the back in my grandfather’s hand. The studio imprint on the front – Rud. Bachmann, 6E. 14th St., New York, may be the first place my grandfather ever visited in New York City, a place he would come to know intimately in his career as a chauffeur. But for his early childhood he would be the son of a coachman.

Young Bulow outside the coachman's cottage on Meriwether in Pocantico Hills, New York

Young Bulow outside the coachman’s cottage on Meriwether in Pocantico Hills, New York circa 1906