There’s this small room on the second floor of a stately house overlooking the Hudson River. Some say this room is in a museum disguised as a house. Indeed, this house is filled with first-rate antiques. As such, it feels more like a beautiful shell than a home. Nothing wrong with that. As historical objects, the house and its contents appear to fulfill an organization’s mission well, and are proof of what creative minds can do.
The house is Boscobel, circa 1804. It was the home of States and Elizabeth Dyckman, descendants of the New Netherlands Dyckmans. As it fell into disrepair, by the 1950s it seemed destined for demolition. It was moved, piece by piece from its riverfront location in Montrose, NY to Cold Spring, just over 14 miles north. A hospital was built on the original 250 acres.
When it was finally put back together in the early 60s, still overlooking the Hudson, Boscobel opened, showing some of the finest period furnishings of the early 1800s. So fine, it is said, that its collection is second only to that of the Metropolitan Museum’s.
So what about the small room on the second floor?
It does not get as much light from the outside as the other rooms. The color scheme is blue and white. Draperies hang on the windows. There’s a four-poster bed, a painted fireplace, a cradle topped by lace, candle holders, two chairs and two small framed prints. Velvet ropes protect the room’s contents from the occasional wayward visitor.
This room is not as stately as other rooms in the house. It is not over the top, but elegant by today’s standards nonetheless. Curator Jennifer Carlquist tells us this was Sill’s room. “We know, because a Dyckman descendant shared this with us in an oral history interview,” she said. Sill, as she was known, was Sarah Wilkinson.
Born into slavery, Sarah most likely worked for the Dyckman family her entire life, first as an enslaved woman and later as a freed woman, according to an 1810 census. Sarah, her husband George, and their two daughters also worked on site. What might explain her staying with the Dyckmans even after she was freed? What complexities surrounded her circumstances? Those of her husband and children? We may never know the answers to these questions, but we do know that this was her room. Or so a Dyckman descendant remembers, which is more than any document can tell us.
But what about its current contents? The four-poster bed, the upholstered high back chair? How does the current installation reflect her life and circumstances in such a stately home? How could the room help tell her story?
Little else is known about the dozens of people who kept the house running and the farm producing. What we know about Sarah is mostly by default. Not by what she tells us in letters or documents or by what she has left behind, but rather, by what others tell us about her. More from her absence than by her presence.
In 1801 a letter from States Dyckman from London (he was a Loyalist) mentions Sarah / Sill as he writes to his wife, Elizabeth: “You may tell Sill I have not had a good breakfast since I left home.” Did Elizabeth share these lines with Sarah? And if so, how would Sarah have felt about it? Proud? Annoyed? Or relieved, perhaps, that he was away? A good cook, indispensable, but not important enough to have her portrait hanging like a young Elizabeth Dyckman’s on the main floor. No such portrait of Sarah is known to exist, at least, not yet. Jennifer, the curator, tells us that recent scholarship shows servants, in general, may have been in the position of acquiring fine furnishings through gift or savings. So, in part, what’s currently there could indeed help tell Sarah’s story.
But what if we were to clear the room of its contents and ask visitors to consider Sarah? What was Sarah’s life like here? What were her dreams? For herself and her family? Who did she miss? Who were her parents? Were her children with her in this room? Or was it the Dyckman children? Or both? What objects might help us tell her story? What if an empty room could tell her story better than a full one? Not by what’s there, but by what’s missing?
We don’t know how Sarah’s story ends. People have searched for her final resting place with no luck. If you find yourself in the Hudson Valley, perhaps near Montrose, NY, near the hospital that displaced the house, the very same hospital which has recently been decommissioned, stop by any of the nearby burial grounds.
See if you spot a gravestone for Sarah “Sill” Wilkinson, George or their three children—two girls, one boy. Please tell her that the house may have moved but that her room still stands, and ask her: What would you tell us, if you could?