By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
I remember the Hackley School grounds from the time of my early boyhood. I was a kid growing up on Crest Drive, and Hackley seemed like a big playground for myself and my friends. We were a “gang” of kids living on the Crest Drive cul-de-sac. This was part of the so-called Upper Crest, a name that may seem to confer a distinction that did not exist.
There were days when we “hunted” for rabbits and squirrels with our bows and slingshots, subjecting our prey indeed to the “slings and arrows” of “wanton boys.” But never with a fatal result or serious injury to our quarry. We did endanger ourselves, however, by shooting at treed squirrels from all sides at once.
I think my first acquaintance with Hackley School occurred when my mother, Lucie, became aware that riding lessons could be had for children at the Hackley stables and riding ring. I was about six then and very receptive to the idea of bestriding a horse in the manner of television cowboys. I was less enthusiastic, however, when I actually saw the horse. It seemed slightly larger than our family automobile. But the kindly woman, who held the horse’s reins while seated on her own mount, guided me around the circuit a few times, no worse for wear. I still have a clear memory of her assuring freckled face, and I recall, pretty well, the location of the stables and riding circle.
Slightly to the west of the stables was a shooting range for the Hackley boys. Two or three years later my friends and I would reverently collect spent 22 caliber shells from around the shooting platform. Then we would head further northwest into the “Hackley woods.” There was a pond back there which we referred to as “Hackley Pond,” a small murky spot that seemed to promise a plentitude of frogs and turtles. Indeed, I remember the sight of families of turtles clinging to logs in the center of the pond—easily seen, but out of our convenient reach.
Even later, in my years as a high school student, I remember being acquainted with many of the Hackley boys, especially the boarding students who seemed to be “footloose” on campus. It was exclusively a boys’ school in those days. One might say that the school seemed to operate as something of an “orphanage/reform school,” as some of the “boarders” had been banished to the campus by affluent parents who (for one reason our another) seemed to want little to do with them. On occasion, I would listen to the sad stories of boys who were pathetically grateful for any parental contact, and others who were grateful for none at all.
One former student mentioned to me that he had a single dismal meal per year with a parent at the Tail-of-the-Fox Restaurant, near the Saw Mill Parkway entrance in Elmsford. I think I have good reason to suspect that more than one “Holden Caulfield” attended the school, particularly among the boarding students of high school age. I once heard that J.D. Salinger years ago rented a small house on the grounds of Gracemere (a nearby old estate off Sheldon Avenue). I wonder if there is any connection between Salinger’s “hero” and the school? I do not know.
The school’s athletic field at the corner of Benedict Avenue and Crest Drive was a big attraction to my “gang” in our younger years. We made our way down to the field through the woods, taking the most conveniently direct route. Property lines meant nothing to us—unless of course a neighbor had previously screamed at us in the most strident manner.
We would go aimlessly down there and possibly watch a high school athlete throw a javelin or a discus out on the long football field. Various sporting items were stored in the old athletics shed—the one that was crowned with a large scoreboard and stood for many years at the northeast end of the field. We would content ourselves with firing our field arrows, vying with each other who could shoot the farthest. Sometimes, on a weekend, we would hike down to Hackley Field for a “home” football game.
Today I believe the school refers to this field as The Benedict Avenue Field but to us, in that day, there was only one “Hackley Field.” We would watch from the sidelines, mingling with the parents and siblings of the Hackley football players. There were big simmering kettles set on long tables near the sideline. They were positioned close to the parking area at the south end of the long, stone retaining wall. If we had some spare change we could buy a steamed hot dog or a steamed ear of corn-on-the-cob.
Watching the game for a while, we would have a drink at the old, utilitarian, water fountain near the low end of retaining wall. Then we would idly ascend the hill in back of the wall and, for some added fun, climb the trees that overlooked the action on the playing field. When we were done with that, we meandered home again to our cul-de-sac on Crest Drive.
In the summer there was sometimes a big picnic at King Field—another Hackley field which was located down toward the southeast end of Benedict Avenue. It was really more like a neighborhood picnic for folks at Glenville (a little hamlet between Benedict Avenue and Old White Plains Road), but they were gracious enough to extend an invitation to the residents of the Crest as well.
King Field (I think we used to call it Kings Field) was, at first, unfamiliar territory for me, but I would soon see some familiar faces and started feeling at home. During the picnics there was some serious grilling going on there. There were games of horseshoes in play and two softball games in progress at once. It was a sprawling summertime event. And—do I remember correctly—there were rides around the field being offered on a firetruck? King Field has recently received a “makeover.” It is no longer the plain, wide meadow of youthful memory, it has the look of a formalized “athletic facility,” where nothing transpires without a coach or a referee present… I don’t imagine it has been the scene of a big, rambling, neighborhood picnic in many years.
When we were slightly older the gang and I would play pick-up baseball games on the baseball diamond tucked into the southwest corner of Hackley Field. Naturally we would not take over the spot if the field was in use by the school, but that was rare. I do not remember any instance when my friends and I were approached by an adult or a school official and asked what we thought we were doing there. No one ever troubled us, no one ever said, “Why don’t you kids just go home?”
My late brother, Steve, was the youngest of the children in our family. He was a student at Hackley School back in the days when Hackley might serve as a sudden alternative to parents with children in the public school district. He started out in public school and continued through sixth grade. One day, Steve came home from Morse School and my mother—probably in the course of retrieving some lunch item from his backpack—discovered a note from a “young lady” in his class. We never learned what message was contained in the note, but the “ax fell sharply.” Mom was always a sweet and mild-manner woman, but she had her limits. The limits, I imagine, were drawn by the good sisters at her convent school back in France. At any rate, Steve was wisked, almost instantly, from school days at Morse School in Sleepy Hollow, to the “cloistered” halls on Hackley’s hill. I wonder if Mom had any idea that Hackley was about to turn co-ed? In my college years I would occasionally drive over to Hackley Field to watch brother Steve play lacrosse for Hackley.
These are a few of my random memories of the Hackley School grounds “back in the day.” For the most part my careless pastimes at Hackley Field ended when my parents relocated our family to Wilson Park in 1962. That Tarrytown neighborhood was a few blocks away, on the north side of what was then Marymount College.
After all these years, I can still smell the alluring aroma of hot dogs and steamed corn drifting across Hackley Field on an autumn day… whether I have a quarter in my pocket or not. And I remember the “twang” that the field arrows made as they flew off the bow strings, how they carried in the air, and how they landed silently in the sod way down the field.
[Copyright © 2018 Henry John Steiner]