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 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.