The village now known as Sleepy Hollow, New York, is an interesting place. It was settled in the 1600s, but it was Washington Irving who put it on the map in 1820 when he made it the setting for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” his tale of a pumpkin-throwing headless horseman and a skittish schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane.
When I grew up there, it was called North Tarrytown. In 1996, residents voted to change its name to Sleepy Hollow in an effort to drum up tourism and offset the loss of tax revenue brought on by the closure of the General Motors plant in town.
The rebranding effort seems to have worked – it has become a popular day trip destination for New Yorkers, with an estimated 100,000 visitors between September and November each year. When you Google “Sleepy Hollow,” there are a number of websites and YouTube videos assuring you that the town is an actual place and encouraging you to visit.
For $24.99, you can take a two-hour walking tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on a Friday night and hear about the famous people buried there, including Washington Irving (of course), two of Alexander Hamilton’s kids (interesting!), Andrew Carnegie, and in the funnest of the fun facts, IMO, hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley, one of Time magazine’s Top 10 Tax Dodgers, who fittingly used some of the little people’s money to erect a mausoleum complete with Roman columns and stained glass windows. Talk about a home in the country.
When I hear the cemetery is now a tourist attraction, it makes me feel nostalgic. “Aww! That’s where I smoked cigarettes for the first time!”
All this newfound tourism does not exactly jibe with my memories of the place I still consider home, even though I haven’t lived there in more than 30 years.
There have been times when I’ve told people I’m from New York and they have assumed I’m talking about New York City, with its mass of people, noise, and excitement. The truth is that I’m from a small town measuring only five square miles. The tight-knit community that I was a part of when I was young was anything but bustling and impersonal; it was a place where I felt safe, included, and cared for, and it provided a foundation that has stayed with me all these years.
As a kid in the 1970s, I felt free to explore my neighborhood and have adventures without adult supervision. One of my earliest memories is being allowed to walk more than a half mile with the “big kids” to the penny candy store just off of Route 9, a very busy road.
We rode bikes all over our neighborhood and played down by the train tracks. We would put coins on the tracks and let trains run over them, keeping the flattened versions as treasures after the trains had passed by. Mercifully, no one I was with ever got stuck on the tracks or stepped on the wrong rail.
There were endless games of kickball, stickball, and tackle and touch football. We played Ding Dong Ditch (ring the doorbell and run like hell) and Hide and Seek, where people could be tucked into spots anywhere along the street.
Much of this unsupervised time with peers was not unique to a particular town. It was part of the era to let kids out in the morning on summer and weekend days and call them back in only for lunch and dinner. Still, there was something magical about spending so much unstructured play time outside with friends. It is part of what I remember most fondly about my childhood.
Living in a small town also meant being able to participate in a variety of activities. Before high school, there were town sports leagues like the North Tarrytown Girls Softball League (Honeybees rule!), and during high school, the sports teams and clubs were open to everyone for the most part. We were encouraged to try activities we thought we might like. I started playing field hockey in the fall. In the spring, I played softball for two seasons, then switched to soccer as a junior. I ran winter track during senior year.
The idea of picking up a sport in high school or changing sports during junior year would be very unusual now, especially at one of the bigger schools. We didn’t have to choose one sport when we were 10 or 11 and excel at it in order to participate through the end of high school, and we didn’t have to play that one sport year round.
Being able to try different activities was important for me. I discovered some interests that I wouldn’t have known about and learned that taking chances sometimes had a big payoff.
Perhaps the most important part about growing up in Sleepy Hollow was the sense of continuity and connection. When I look at my kindergarten picture, I realize that I ended up graduating from high school with the majority of those kids. Many of the teachers stayed in the district for years as well.
The schools were small even though North Tarrytown (aka Sleepy Hollow) and Tarrytown were a combined school district, and many students from Pocantico and local parochial schools also came to the high school. Enrollment at Sleepy Hollow High School was somewhere around 800 students when I was there, and my class had about 160 students.
There has been a great deal of research about the academic and social benefits of small schools, and much of it has concluded that kids feel safer and happier when they feel seen and known, both by their peers and by the faculty. I know this was true for me.
Even though the schools and the town are small, the population is very diverse. The town website refers to the “vibrant mix of cultures that characterize Sleepy Hollow,” and this was one of the best things about growing up in this community.
There are also many shared memories with people when you go through school K-12 together. There were seasonal rituals in town, like skating at the Tarrytown Lakes when it was cold enough to freeze over, trips to Ice Cream Villa after sports games, Memorial Day parades through the center of town, and Saturday afternoon football games at the high school.
There were many local businesses that were around for years whose proprietors were well-known and well-liked throughout the community, like Fleetwood Pizza, Shanghai Inn, Mory’s Army & Navy store (where I got some of my first lesbian outfits without realizing it), and Uncle Jerry’s Deli.
One other aspect of Sleepy Hollow that I have always loved is the location on the Hudson River. I find myself drawn to water. Even now, when I go home to visit, I am struck by the beauty of the views and the sunsets.
There is a saying attributed to everyone from Jonas Salk to an anonymous “wise woman” about how the best things parents can provide are “roots and wings.” My mom and dad certainly did; my hometown did too, and this is part of why I have such a deep appreciation and affection for the little village where I grew up.