By Lisa Dougan Kelly
Some individuals immediately convey a message that one should keep a polite distance and not ask too many – if any – questions. James Waldron Gillespie was such a man.
That’s why he was a mystery and continues to be.
Born in 1865, at age 21, he bought a 19-room brick home on 250 acres on Route 22 between Middle Granville and North Granville, not far from what is now aptly named Gillespie Road.
There are conflicting accounts that it was his childhood home or that he built it, but neither is true. Washington County records document his purchase of the property from Isaac J. Norton in November 1886. Norton had been the first owner, in 1845.
Although he traveled extensively and owned three other homes, Gillespie called “Merevale” – meaning the villa by the pond – and Middle Granville his home until his death there in 1954.
Gillespie was often seen walking on the road wearing brown high-top sneakers and a variety of odd hats, including a white panama for special occasions, with an assortment of “scruffy” clothes that John “Hector” Norton remembers.
“He was certainly no ‘Beau Brummel’,” said Norton, a Granville clothier at the time.
Having seen Gillespie at least weekly when he came into the newspaper stand for his paper, Norton concluded:
“He was pretty much a snob, a playboy and a partier…and those were his good points.”
Morris Rote-Rosen, longtime village clerk and town historian, was one of the few locals with whom Gillespie would converse. He said when in town Gillespie would politely nod in acknowledgement of someone he recognized.
“Otherwise he was pretty much in a world of his own…and appeared to those who did not know him as a man of poverty,” Rote-Rosen said in a Sentinel article following Gillespie’s death.
That appearance was deceptive.
On his passport applications ranging from 1885 to 1938, Gillespie alternately listed his occupation as “none,” “gentleman of leisure” and “capitalist.”
Gillespie traveled extensively and loved all things Spanish. Around the turn of the century, he purchased a home in Mariel, Cuba, not far from Havana, and there he spent his winters.
In 1906, he built a 10,000-square-foot Mediterranean villa in Montecito, Calif., an exclusive area in Santa Barbara. He named it “El Fureidis,” which means “pleasure gardens” or “little paradise.” He also had a house in Manhattan.
When at Merevale, he held to a fairly strict routine. On nice days, he made a morning constitutional into Middle Granville, said Ed Fish, who grew up there. He would walk down (old) Route 22 to Beecher’s store and get his “Wall Street Journal,” Fish said, then proceed to the Post Office, later to become Kelly’s Bar, then return north on what was then Gould Street (now Route 22A).
“If we were out in the yard, he would speak to us,” Fish said. “He was always pleasant.”
Gillespie walked through the quarries to the pond behind his home. Privately, he swam naked.
In 1938 Gillespie built a tower that he called “The Tower of the Golden Dome.” A 12-foot square fieldstone edifice with a walled entryway, it had three floors. The first was enclosed, the second had a fireplace and the third was open and roofed by a dome covered in gold gilt. When first constructed, the gold dome could be seen for miles around.
It was here that Gillespie spent his afternoons, usually in solitude, after his morning walk and swim.
Because of vandalism and the passage of time, the tower is in complete disrepair. It is on private property now, and not open to the curious.
On a visit to Boston, about 1910, Gillespie met a young member of the Spanish Merchant Marine named Gregory Carrera. In a letter to the editor in the “Sentinel” many years later, one of Carrera’s children said, “(Our father’s) enlistment on the ship ran out in Boston, and he had three choices: reenlist; go back to Spain; or stay in the United States. He chose the third option, subsequently met Mr. Gillespie and became his chauffer, valet and confidante.”
The Carreras cared for Gillespie and his property until Gillespie’s death.
Although he was listed as early as the 1892 census as a farmer, Gillespie expanded his operation after Carrera arrived, placing about a dozen Holstein cattle on what he called his “hobby farm.”
Gillespie’s father was William Mitchell Gillespie. Documents in the possession of Carrera’s son, Luis, who still lives in Middle Granville, state that William was born in 1816 to James and Ann Waldron Gillespie, and after graduating from Columbia College in 1834, William traveled through Europe for about 10 years. He authored a book, reportedly well-received, entitled “Rome as Seen by a New Yorker.”
Upon his return home in 1845, William Gillespie became the first lecturer in Civil Engineering at Union College in Schenectady but spent most of his time there as an adjunct professor of mathematics.
The history of the Union College math department states, “(William) Gillespie not only stressed the importance of mathematics in engineering, he began a tradition of emphasizing the humanities for engineers as well … a tradition that has been an enormous benefit to the university to this day.”
Even the poet Edgar Allen Poe knew Gillespie’s father, William. The Internet’s Wikisource quotes Poe from his work “The Literati of New York – No. I” as describing William as being “a warm, vivacious poet who was fidgety, spoke continuously and didn’t know what to do with his feet, hands or his hat.
“In the street (he) walks irregularly, mutters to himself, and, in general, appears in a state of profound abstraction,” Poe said. He also noted that, in 1846, William was unmarried.
Gillespie’s mother was Harriet Emelia (Emily) Bates Gillespie, and upon the death of Gillespie on April 27, 1954, Rote-Rosen reported in the Sentinel that her family lineage went back to Peter Stuyvesant.
Rote-Rosen also reported that Gillespie had been orphaned at a young age as his mother had died “at sea.” Gillespie’s father William died when Gillespie was two years old. At this point there is no corroboration of the date of his mother’s birth or death.
As a young man, Gillespie attended the North Granville Military School, which, according to the History of Washington County, was begun by professor Wallace Wilcox in 1876. It was described as a “Classical and Commercial school for Boys” … in “a pleasant rural village, free from the temptations of larger towns.”
The question is how he came to find it. If his mother was still alive at that time, there is no record of her living or dying in the Granville area. If she was already deceased when he was the appropriate age to attend the academy – which did not even open until he was 12 – then where did he live before that?
Gillespie’s mother’s sister married a Henry Dater, who lived in New York City. They had a son, also Henry, born the same year as Gillespie, but he lived with his family in the city also.
On his passport applications dated from when he was 20 in 1885 until the early 1920s, Gillespie listed his place of birth as New York City. All but the first list his residence as Middle Granville, N.Y.
Granville town historian Edith Sparling said she found several Gillespies buried in Granville, but they died either before Gillespie was born or are not traceable to him at this time. The same is true of the Bates and Dater families on his mother’s side.
The big question is how did Gillespie come into so much money that, at age 21, he was able to buy the Middle Granville mansion?
TO BE CONTINUED