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Historic Houses

Cockloft Hall
Where Governeur Kemble entertained the famous “Salmagundi Set”

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

Not far from Petersborough there stood until about 1850 a venerable mansion, beloved by the reading world as Cockloft Hall. There Christopher Cockloft, Aunt Charity, and the whole of the interesting Cockloft family friends in the early days of the last century.

The walls are all that remain of the old dwelling, and they are embedded in a comparatively modern building, bearing little resemblance to the historic “country box,” called Mount Pleasant, willed by a member of the Gouverneur family to Gouverneur Kemble, the intimate of Washington Irving and host of the famous “Salmagundi Set.”

Old Cockloft Hall, so charmingly described in the “Salmagundi Papers,” was erected previous to the year 1750, by Nicholas Gouverneur, a gentleman prominent in New York and New Jersey, and George Washington is said to have stopped there when in the vicinity during the Revolution. It was a two-storied structure of immense width, surrounded by terraced lawns sloping to the river. Nicholas Gouverneur had accumulated wealth in a mercantile business, and was a man of exceptional taste, from the tales of the ornature of his home. (Nicholas Gouverneur was a grandson of the Abraham Gouverneur who married the daughter of Governor Jacob Leisler, of New York.) Some of his account-books are in possession of the Whiting family, who now occupy the Hall. He was very fond of the feathered tribe. Over the front door, facing the river, there was a large glass aviary containing several scores of the then rare canary birds. The great entrance hall itself was papered with the rich and beautiful tropical bird paper still to be seen in a few old houses here and abroad.

In the Chinese drawing-room, or in the summerhouse, whose three windows looked inland, that the proprietor, as Irving says, “may have all the views of his own land and be beholden to no man for a prospect,” many of those laughable papers on “North River Society,” were planned and written. When they appeared they delighted and terrorized the society of the young metropolis. The contributors to the “good natured villany,” were James Kirke Paulding, under the name of Langstaff, and Washington and William Irving, who figured in its pages as Anthony Evergreen and William Wizard respectively. These wits were helped in their work by the criticisms of the other members of the ancient club of Gotham, which included the owner of Cockloft Hall, dubbed the Patroon, Henry Brevoort, Jr., and oftentimes other of Irving’s friends.

We can imagine how glad this group of young literati were to leave their offices in dingy New York buildings on Saturday afternoons in the summer-time and seek Kemble’s peaceful retreat on the Passaic. The interesting Paulding, who in his later career became Secretary of the Navy, must have been thinking of his many happy journeys there when he wrote the introduction to his little squib called “The Lay of the Scottish Fiddle,” for the following lines bring a picture of them very vividly before us:

Now crossed they noble Hudson’s tide,
In steamboat, young Columbia’s pride,
And meet it is the poet say
They paid no ferriage by the way.
Through Jersey City straight they wend,
And Bergen hill-tops slow ascend,
Whence he who is possessed of eyes
A gallant prospect often spies.
Far off the noiseless ocean rolled,
A pure expanse of burnished gold,
And nearer spread a various view
Of objects beautiflul and new;
Fair Hackensack, Passaic smooth,
Whose gentle murmurs sweetly soothe;
And Newark Bay, and Arthur’s Sound;
And many an island spread around
Like fat green turtles fast asleep
O’er the still surface of the deep.
And Gotham might you see, whose spires
Shone in the sun like meteor fires.
The vessels lay all side by side,
And spread a leafless forest wide;
And now and then the Yo heave 0!
Borne on the breeze, all sad and slow,
Seemed like the requiem of trade,
Low in its grave forever laid.”

Oh, those pleasant journeys of the long ago! We can hear the gay voices of the merry party on the coachtop. How they must have enjoyed the flora and fauna of the wide sweep of country beyond Bergen Hill. The Swartwout brothers, a few years later, spent a vast fortune improving these marshlands in hopes of making it a great home market garden for New York! John and Samuel Swartwout purchased over four thousand acres of marshland back of Bergen Hill in 1815. In three years they spent about three hundred thousand dollars in fighting the tides and improving the land for an enormous vegetable garden. The venture was anything but a success, and proved the financial ruin of the two brothers, who were prominent in early New York.

Did the fair Matilda Hoffman, to whom Irving loved so devotedly at this time, and whose untimely death doomed him to walk life’s pathway alone, ever sit beside him? Matilda Hoffman was the daughter of a distinguished lawyer of New York, under whose guidance Washington Irving read law, and in whose family he was very intimate. “Fair Matilda,” for whom Irving formed such a serious attachment, was noted for her ethereal beauty, her sweet nature, and cultured mind. Her death, which occurred in his young manhood, wrecked his whole life, but did not dry up the sweet springs of his nature, and, as one writer has said, failed to harm his generous and beautiful soul.

There is no one alive who can truly answer us now. The road to Newark at that time was called by many waggish travelers the “road to Venice,” there were so many bridges to cross and mires and pools to sink into. When the mud-bespattered road finally landed them at the Hall, they indulged in “ madcap pranks” and “juvenile orgies” for the rest of the afternoon. Irving’s nephew and biographer, Mr. Pierre M. Irving, tells us that at the age of sixty-six Washington Irving exclaimed to Gouverneur Kemble, in alluding to their scenes of past jollity, “That we should have ever lived to be two such respectable old gentlemen!“

However interesting Irving and his friends may be to us, we can only associate them with Cockloft Hall through the fact that they peopled it with so many odd and entertaining characters. Who wants to think that his Pindar Cockloft, spending his life in writing epigrams and elegies, and then hiding them in his chests and chair bottoms, did not exist, and that old Aunt Charity, who died in “antiquated virginity” from an attack of the fidgets over a pension Francaise which she could not investigate and get to the bottom of, never rustled through Cockloft parlors and distributed her “yerb” teas from “famous wormwood down to gentle balm”?

In many of the “Salmagundi Papers” there are descriptions of the aged abode of the Cockloft family, and from what is known of the old dwelling, “which groaned whenever the wind blew,” they could not have been entirely the work of a brilliant imagination. We are told that Cousin Christopher had a great propensity to save everything that bore the stamp of family antiquity, and from the vast quantity of old furniture in the house when Irving and his friends visited it, some one m the departed Gouverneur family was very much like him in that respect.

Old Caesar, the faithful servant, who ruled his crochety master, most likely had a prototype, and it is known that the Gouverneur stable held a great chariot, almost the duplicate of the one owned by the Cocklofts, “made in the last French war, and drawn by old horses indubitably foaled in Noah’s ark !“ As the “Salmagundi Papers” made the place famous, it is no more than fair to Launcelot Langstaff to close this chapter with a few of his own descriptions of the once famous spot. He says,-

The mansion appears to have been consecrated to the jolly god, and teems with monuments sacred to conviviality. Every chest of drawers, clothes-press, and cabinet is decorated with enormous china punch-bowls, which Mrs. Cockloft has paraded with much ostentation, particularly in her favorite red damask bedchamber, in which a projector might, with great satisfaction, practise his experiments on fleets, divingbells, and submarine boats.

My allotted chamber in the Hall is the same that was occupied in days of yore by my honored uncle John. The room exhibits many memorials which recall to my remembrance the solid excellence and amiable eccentricities of that gallant old lad. Over the mantel-piece hangs the portrait of a young lady dressed in a flaring, long-waisted, blue silk gown ; beflowered and befurbelowed and becuffed in a most abundant manner; she holds in one hand a book, which she very complaisantly neglects, to turn and smile on the spectator; in the other a flower, which I hope, for the honor of Dame Nature, was the sole production of the painter’s imagination; and a little behind her is something tied to a blue riband ; but whether a little dog, a monkey, or a pigeon must be left to the judgment of fixture commentators.-This little damsel, tradition says, was my uncle John’s third flame; and he would have infallibly run away with her could he have persuaded her into the measure; but at that time ladies were not so easily run away with as Columbine; and my uncle, failing in the point, took a lucky thought, and with great gallantry ran off with her picture, which he conveyed in triumph to Cockloft Hail and hung it in his bedchamber as a monument of his enterprising spirit.

Writing of his cousin Christopher’s famous cherry tree, which stood until a few years ago, he says,-

Another object of his peculiar affection is an old English cherry tree, which leans against a corner of the Hall; and whether the house supports it, or it supports the house, would be, I believe, a question of some difficulty to decide. It is held sacred by friend Christopher because he planted and reared it himself, and had once well-nigh broken his neck by a fall from one of its branches. This is one of his favorite stories, and there is reason to believe that if the tree was out of the way, the old gentleman would forget the whole of the affair -- which would be a great pity...

He often contemplates it in a half-melancholy, half-moralizing humor. “Together,” he says, “have we flourished, and together shall we wither away; a few years, and both our heads will be laid low, and perhaps my mouldering bones may one day or other mingle with the dust of the tree I have planted.

Poor old gentleman! little did his chronicler dream that it would outlive his own unwhitened hair, and shade for many years a new Cockloft Hall, a child of the beautiful retreat of the Salmagundi set.

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