By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
I wrote this article about Sleepy Hollow resident Tony Morabito in 2009. Tony passed away in September 2014. I will always remember him fondly as a Sleepy Hollow/North Tarrytown orginal.
It was the late 1950s. A lone horseman rode the trails of the Rockefeller estate near Eagle Mountain, a part of the Rockefeller Preserve. A lone archer emerged from the woods dressed in a plaid shirt and dungarees. The rider brought his horse to a halt.
“What are you doing?”
“Do you have permission?”
“What’s your name?”
“If I were you I would leave.”
The rider rode on. The hunter went back to hunting.
This brief encounter spoke well of both men. It was no more than a “hello” in the woods. The hunter was Tony Morabito; the rider was the Governor of New York State, Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller never knew who the hunter was, but Morabito learned from the papers a day or two later that he had met the new governor. Nelson Rockefeller emerged as the winner of “the battle of the silver spoons,” besting Averell Harriman in the 1958 New York State gubernatorial election. Morabito returned from Korea a few years earlier, where he too had served in battle — three major battles.
Anthony John Morabito grew up in North Tarrytown (okay, Tony?). In fact, he is one of few people still living who can say he was actually born and raised there, for he was delivered by a midwife, Mrs. Zingaro, at 107 Cortlandt Street at 4:30 AM, on April 29, 1930. Tony’s parents were from Italy, hailing from the region of Calabria. Both parents arrived in America as teenagers. In 1906, when they were married at the Magdalene Church up the very long hill at Pocantico Hills, they walked both ways; father was twenty-two and mother seventeen. Of six girls and five boys, Tony was the youngest. All but one of the other ten children were born at 107 Cortlandt Street. The family spoke Italian at home and English when in public. They attended Mass at Immaculate Conception or Saint Teresa’s Church. Only Tony and his brother John are still living.
Tony’s brother Sam was twenty years older and taught Tony the fundamentals of hunting and fishing. Tony learned the rest by trial-and-error. Sam was a primary breadwinner of the large family, working at a number of jobs, from making cars at GM to making bathtub gin at home. His gin came in many grades, from just-made to fine old vintages–at least that’s what the labels said.
Tony’s father was a mason and laborer who worked at Gate of Heaven Cemetery and the Tarrytown Water Department. For many years, he and one other man would do all the cutting around the Tarrytown Lakes with a sickle and a scythe. The Morabito family moved to 82 Pocantico Street in the mid 1930s.
One day in 1937, Tony and his sister Grace went to Kingsland Point to swim. When they returned they received the terrible news that their ten year-old brother, Rocco, had tragically drowned in Pocantico Creek while trying to launch a boat that he and three other boys had built. The funeral was held in the living room of the Morabito home, and the family’s grief made an enduring impression on Tony as a child of seven.
In those days there was an ice cream store at the bottom of Pocantico Street, the next house up was owned by a florist who had a greenhouse in the back, then there was a house with an apple tree, and next to that the Schneider house, where an older boy named Kenny Schneider lived. All the males in the Schneider family hunted but Kenny was the most skillful. He was given the mythic epaulet of “The Sleepy Hollow Bowman.” At one time Kenny borrowed Tony’s trap launcher to practice his archery–Tony points out that it is hard enough to hit a flying target with a rifle.
Tony did most of his studying in the field–hunting, trapping, and fishing. Indeed, he was a fairly uninterested academic student at the same time, first at the old North Tarrytown Elementary School and then at North Tarrytown High School. But his main educational pursuits were conducted in the hills and river valleys around North Tarrytown (Sleepy Hollow). He would walk with his rifle from his home on Pocantico Street, straight down Continental Street to where the back GM gate is today. There was a big sandbank there where he and his friends would play. Then turning right, or north, he could make his way into the wide marsh that stood there and hunt for rabbit or pheasant along Pocantico Creek and check his traps for muskrat, raccoon, mink, skunk, and fox. For fox, a number two jump-trap previously boiled in pinecones was used to remove the scent. Then he could follow the railroad bed up to Rockwood Hall, which offered more small game and deer in season.
Tony would often hunt with his friend Pete Soriano from Cedar Street. Tony and Pete would also duck hunt on Pocantico Lake or in the cemetery section of Pocantico Brook, where a pond once interrupted the stream. Pete learned from his father, Mike, an expert hunter, who always hunted with a dog.
We don’t often think of Sleepy Hollow as offering these creatures as a bounty of nature to be harvested and consumed. Maybe because some species have dwindled and are no longer prevalent, or maybe cause we don’t see those animals as game but rather ornaments of suburban life–a natural intrusion on our neat suburban lawns. But maybe it’s because we don’t really see them at all, or at least not with the focus and intimacy that a true woodsman does. When Tony Morabito went forth with his rod, his rifle, or his bow he may have had more in common with our Native American predecessors than ourselves; he took on the role of a twentieth century hunter-gather, a fine, venerable, primal, and rare occupation for a modern human being.
The skins were cleaned and stretched and then sold in New York City; the darker of the muskrat skins fetched a higher price. Tony went to New York by car, but in the early 1600s the native trappers would pack a canoe full of pelts and paddle to Manhattan. When one of these Weckquaesgeck braves was robbed and killed on his way to market in 1626, it later ignited decades of strife between the local Dutch and native tribes. In the 1790s a Tarrytown teenager, James K. Paulding, taught himself to hunt and fish to supplement the bare family larder. That was before introducing a young friend named Washington Irving to the pleasures of the hunt.
Once when trapping muskrat on the Pocantico near Broadway, Tony managed to trap Police Chief Murphy’s dog. “Unhappy dog,” says I, “Unhappy Chief!” says Tony. Trapping has its good days and its bad days. On another occasion he was trying to set a trap along a low submerged muskrat trail, but kept hitting a hard obstruction. He dug in the muddy bottom with his hands and pulled up a very large snapping turtle. Fortunately it was dormant and unaware it was being manhandled — that was a good day.
Many more people actively fished in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown during the mid twentieth century. When the Tarrytown Lakes opened for bass season or the trout season began on the Saw Mill River, the anglers stood shoulder to shoulder. Tony learned to fish below the dam at the Philipsburg mill when actress-celebrity, Elsie Janis, still owned the property and the river swept through the dilapidated site with no proper dam to stop it. On the lower Pocantico one can still fish for crabs, pickerel, smelt, bass, sunfish, yellow perch, and snapper blues. In the 1940s and 1950s one could catch three or four bushels of crabs with one trap in a few hours.
Tony’s brother Nick started to sell bait and tackle under the front porch of the family house. It developed into a thriving little business, and Mrs. Morabito would help out if Nick was not around. They also handled boat rentals at the large reservoirs in the area for the Tarrytown Rod and Gun Club. The business operated from this location until after World War II, when brother Nick opened a business at 170 Cortlandt Street and the fishing business moved there too. The family bait-and-tackle shop remained there until the early 1980s.
Over the years Tony harvested great quantities of bait with his brothers for business and their own use in fishing. They netted “shiners” and picked worms. The only kind of bait they had to purchase was bloodworms and sand worms which came from a wholesaler in Maine. The brothers received permission from Sleepy Hollow Country Club to pick night crawlers from the fairways. They would turn on the sprinklers to bring the worms up to the surface. One night Tony started out at sunset and picked 5000 worms. “I knew I was done when I looked up and saw a robin picking with me.”
Among his recollections Tony recalls that during WWII the village participated in rationing, and a large container stood on Beekman Avenue, in front of the school building, for metal collection. Women were the main working force at GM in the war years. Tony enjoyed going to the Strand Theater where one could see a double feature for twenty-five cents and still have money left for candy. He and his friends would take the pedestrian ferry to Nyack to “chase girls” — apparently there were no girls in North Tarrytown? From time to time Tony would rent a boat at Lombardy’s Ice House, near the pedestrian ferry landing, and row to the lighthouse. At other times he and his friends would entertain themselves by shooting rats at the Tarrytown dump, or the dump at the Sisters of Mercy campus in Wilson Park. When they arrived at drinking age, the boys would try to have a drink at every bar in North Tarrytown–an impossible feat in those days, because there were so many of them.
By 1951, Tony was twenty-one and driving a truck for Cooney Brothers. That year he was drafted into the Korean War. After six weeks of basic training at Fort Dix, Tony was sent to the Central Front with the 160th Infantry Division. He returned in 1953 with three bronze service stars, so greatly relieved to be home alive that he took a cab from his discharge site at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey to Tarrytown Train Station. There he took care to phone his mother prior to going home. He says that after his time in the service, civilian life seemed high-speed.
Within a year of his return he was married, and he and his wife were to have a son and a daughter. They needed household furniture, and that was purchased at Cartoon’s furniture store on Orchard Street. True to Tony’s history as a hunter and a fisherman, he married the granddaughter of a noted Hudson River commercial fisherman from Ossining.
During his career, Tony worked only one week at the GM plant, an unlikely record for a workingman in North Tarrytown. He mainly supported his family as a mechanic at small garages, at the Pontiac dealership in Tarrytown, at the Ford dealership on St. Paul’s Hill in North Tarrytown, and at the Oldsmobile dealership in Ossining were he became the service manager. Tony’s idea of time-off was to take a book of matches and go camping for a week under the stars at Rockwood Hall or Squaw Rock (Spook Rock?). On such occasions he would hunt and fish with his buddy Pete Soriano.
In 1985, Tony’s son developed an interest in the bait and tackle business and opened the current store on Beekman Avenue. But other career opportunities soon presented themselves, and Tony took over the store. He has been at it ever since. Even with the many changes that have taken hold in his hometown, he likes working in the midst of it.
In closing, Tony believes that the GM site might have made a successful sports stadium. He believes that the most negative impact on the Hudson River fish population has been the nuclear plant at Indian Point and the second greatest bane has been off-shore netters and trawlers with forty-ton daily limits. He points out that the sports angler is restricted to only eight fish. Tony tips his hat to a fellow fisherman, Bob Gabrielson, the last of the Hudson River shad fishermen who died in May. Referring to Gabrielson, he said, “It’s not for money. It’s a way of life.” Sitting at the store with Tony and listening to his matter-of-fact verbal exchanges with modern hunters and anglers who happen to drop by, one catches a glimpse of his deep and unique experience as a sportsman and the rare knowledge he has acquired of his true calling.
©2009-2016 Henry John Steiner