Bulow at Sunday School

This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending a service at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills. It was my childhood church, located near Sleepy Hollow, New York. It was here I was christened, attended Sunday school and participated in easter egg hunts. The church is celebrating its centennial this year. As part of that celebration vignettes are being read about past members from the last 100 years. I went to church to hear about my grandparents involvement in this non-denominational church, financed in part by the Rockefellers and over the years adorned with magical windows by Henri Matisse and Mark Chagall. Today, the building is part of the Historic Hudson Valley properties but the congregation still worships together every Sunday.

Before there was a Union Church,  a group of residents formed The Pocantico Hills Society for Christian Work in 1900. Among their members were the Rockefellers and the Miltons who called the little hamlet home. Early meetings of this group met at the Lyceum building, which had housed the Pocantico Hills Library Association shortly after its construction in 1891.

Bulow Nelson, my grandfather, was born in 1904 on the Pocantico Hills estate ‘Meriwether,’ home to Ellen and David Milton. The Miltons – who employed Bulow’s parents Oscar and Alma Nelson – were next door neighbors to the Rockefellers and were instrumental in the early affairs of the Society and Union Church.

One Sunday in 1910, 6-year-old Bulow was summoned by his mother Alma to get dressed. Mrs. Milton, standing in their kitchen said, “Alma I want Bulow to come with me to the Lyceum for Sunday school classes we are starting.” Dressed in his knickers suit, Mrs. Milton took him by the hand to the Lyceum building where the Pocantico Hills Society for Christian Work had organized. Bulow remembers being terrified as Mrs. Milton asked him to shake hands with John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Mr. David Milton, Mr. Archer, Mr. Perry and Rev. Deams. Bulow recalled that all around the room were groups of local children studying bible pictures on easels. After Sunday school was over, the elder Mr. Rockefeller gave the children six cents on the porch of the Lyceum building. Bulow was told, “to spend the penny and save the nickel’ by the richest man in the world.

Bulow Nelson after attending Sunday School at the Lyceum building in 1910 where The Pocantico Hills Society for Christian Work had organized.

Bulow Nelson after attending Sunday School at the Lyceum building in 1910 where The Pocantico Hills Society for Christian Work had organized.

Bulow graduated from the Pocantico Hills Free School in 1918, a four-room schoolhouse located in the field behind the present day Union Church, when Ray Walker first became principal. In the meantime, the Society that met at the Lyceum had formally organized into The Union Church of Pocantico Hills in 1915. Among his school buddies where some longtime church members including Milton Johnson and his younger brother Oscar Nelson, who helped build the new sanctuary in the 1920s. After many a church service, Bulow and Ray would recall childhood tales on the outside steps of the new sanctuary, which was dedicated in 1922.

Bulow learned to drive trucks on the Meriwether estate, which by 1919 had been purchased by Barron Collier. Even though the Miltons had departed Pocantico Hills, Barron Collier, an advertising executive and owner of Coney Island’s Luna Park and Manhattan’s Hippodrome, filled in as a church benefactor. Collier not only helped donate and raise funds for the new sanctuary, but donated a Wurlitzer pipe organ, in memory of his mother and father, from the Hippodrome as the church’s first organ.

By 1924, Bulow had moved to Manhattan as Mrs. Milton’s chauffeur and it would be more than 20 years before he set foot in Union Church again.

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