Irene Rawlings is a writer, author and radio show host.
Some folks say Washington Irving invented Halloween and Sleepy Hollow is where it all began. Yes, it started in this peaceful Hudson River Valley more than 200 years ago on one of those moonless nights when dark, scudding clouds all but hide the stars from view.
Here’s the story: Ichabod Crane, a geeky and, well, slightly creepy local schoolmaster, rides unsteadily through the dark and spooky woods on his way home from a party at the lovely Katrina Van Tassel’s house. He’s had a lot of rum punch and listened to tales about goblins, hauntings and, most particularly, about the ghost of a Hessian trooper whose head had been shot clean off by a cannonball. Suddenly, in the woodland shadows, Ichabod spies a huge shape astride a massive black horse with glowing eyes. Terrified, he urges his own nag faster and faster—the headless horseman in hot pursuit. And, just as he is nearing the safety of the churchyard, Ichabod turns to see the horseman rising in his stirrups, preparing to heave his bloody head at the hapless country schoolmaster.
This is, of course, a quick and dirty synopsis of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1783-1859). He wrote this and many other stories, including Rip Van Winkle, at Sunnyside, his picturesque cottage home along the shore of the Hudson River in Tarrytown. In fact, Irving was the first American to earn his living solely from his writing.
More than 150 years have passed since Irving’s death, but the “legend of this haunted hallow” gains in popularity every year.
Even if you don’t visit during Legend Weekend (celebrated annually on the weekend closest to Halloween), you can still enjoy visiting the historic Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, the Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson and, of course, Washington Irving’s Sunnyside which contains a large number of original furnishings, including the desk at which Irving wrote and the bed in which he slept. You can sit on the porch and enjoy a panoramic view of the Hudson River, especially stunning in the fall when you can enjoy harvest moons and the wild bounty of trees turning color—stunning shades of red, copper and gold.
The grounds of Sunnyside reflect Washington Irving’s romantic view nature. He arranged woodland paths and glens, vistas and views, and water features to look natural. You can still take woodland walks with scary (but not too scary) tales along the way. There are scenic picnic areas tucked in among the plantings and walkways laid out by Irving himself. Ask about the candlelight tours that are a late autumn (and Christmastime) feature.
Philipsburg Manor is a working 18th century farm, featuring a huge barn, a formal herb and kitchen garden and a graceful stone manor house filled with period antiques. There’s also a working water-powered gristmill where you can watch the milling process and buy bags of just-ground wheat flour. Interpreters in 18th-century costume conduct tours of the manor.
Evenings, during Legends Weekend, the manor ground, eerily lighted with candles and bonfires, are inhabited by a chilling selection of ghouls, witches and other characters from Hudson Valley folklore. The headless horseman himself, riding a frisky black stallion, dashed through the upper pasture at various times and disappears into the woods. In the barn, adorned with pumpkins and bales of hay, adults and children gather for a dramatic retelling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, complete with sound effects and things that go bump in the night.
The Van Cortlandt Manor is transformed into the fictional Van Tassel mansion for the occasion and hosts the Harvest Ball. This is a recreation of the fictional party during which Icabod Crane danced with the fair Katrina Van Tassel and after which he was pursued by the infamous headless horseman. Crane, Brom Bones and the entire Van Tassel family make appearances during the evening to dance, chat with visitors and re-enact scenes from the book. Many of the ball-goers contribute to the 18th-century mood by arriving in costume, although you’ll see everything from velvet dresses to blue jeans.
Party foods—crisp crullers, shortcake, ginger cakes, pumpkin tarts and oly koek—come right from the description of the ball in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The oly koek (a kind of doughnut) is made in an open hearth from an original Van Cortlandt family recipe. In fact, the manor is famous for its extensive collection of period cooking equipment and its year-round open-hearth cooking demonstrations.
Although, strictly speaking, it is not part of the spooky legends of Sleepy Hollow, you might want to visit nearby Kykuit (pronounced KY-cut), the country home of the Rockefeller family for four generations, which was opened to the public for escorted (only by reservation) in 1994. This imposing Beaux Arts mansion sits high on a hill and commands panoramic views of the Hudson River from stone-terraced formal gardens. The gardens are also the backdrop for the late Nelson Rockefeller’s collection of contemporary sculpture by such well knowns as Picasso, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. The house is furnished with museum-quality antiques; the barn is filled with vintage autos.
The nearby Union Church of Pocantico Hills, with stained-glass windows by Matisse and Chagall, is also worth a look.
A visit to Sleepy Hollow wouldn’t be complete without stopping at the Old Dutch Church. It is a plain, stolid church with a burying ground containing the graves of the Dutch farmers who populated this valley in the 18th century. It is a great place to see charmingly naïve early-American gravestone art. The burying ground of Old Dutch church is bounded by Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (it is easy to confuse the two). Washington Irving himself is buried at the south end of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, overlooking Old Dutch Church. You can take tours of the Old Dutch Burying Ground on Sundays at 2PM (weather permitting). Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—you’ll be amazed by the elaborate yes-you-can-take-it-with-you Victorian mausoleums and funerary art—offers maps of famous interments (Washington Irving, Andrew Carnegie, Brooke Astor, Harry and Leona Helmsley), tours by lantern light and even photography workshops (learning about low-light and night photography).
And as legend has it, the headless horseman is buried in this the Old Dutch Church Burying Ground from which he gallops forth on gloomy, moonless nights in search of his head. Even today, he is often seen rushing—as if on the wings of the wind—to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.
Maybe it’s true, maybe not. But that’s what some of the old timers say in this part of the Hudson Valley where Halloween began.
Irene Rawlings is the host of an award-winning radio show, “Focus,” syndicated on the Clear Channel stations. She writes about about food, art, travel, and the environment for Art & Antiques, Sunset, Town & Country, Forbes and The New York Times. Her most recent book is Sisters on the Fly: Caravans, Campfires, and Tales from the Road.