• History

     

    In the eastern segment of New York lies the town of Somers. It is part of an 83,000 acre tract originally granted in 1697 from King William III of England to Stephanus Van Cortland of New York City. Van Cortland Manor was the part that ultimately became Somers and Yorktown and was known in those times as the Middle District, or Hanover. Settlers began to settle in the Somers area a little after Van Cortlandt’s death in 1700 and the final partition of his estate in 1734. Before King William III granted the land to Stephanus Van Cortland, the land was occupied by the Kitchawanks, which was part of the Mohegan tribe. They used the area primarily for hunting and fishing and established a few small scattered villages within the town boundaries. The Kitchawanks called the land Amapaugh, which had the meaning “fresh water fish”. There were early European settlers that included tenants and freeholders from the neighboring areas, alot of them were either English, Dutch, French Huguenots and Quakers. There was not much fighting that occurred in this area, during the American Revolution there was an emotional and economic impact on the district, which resulted in continual migration. The town of Stephentown was established in 1788, during the first town meeting that was held at the inn of Benjamin Green. In the year 1808 the name Stephentown was changed to Somers, which was a tribute to a young naval officer from New Jersey who lost his life in the war with Tripoli.

     

    Around the year 1805 Hachaliah Bailey, a Somers farmer and cattle merchant, bought an Indian elephant. He began exhibiting the elephant locally, then around the region. Hachaliah’s success in showing “Old Bet”, as the elephant was known, began to attract many partners and also competitors from families who were local. These families began to join in the business of exotic animals being imported and shown off. This resulted in a thriving menagerie business and the development of the small performing circus, which was first seen in Philadelphia in 1793. About 35 years later these two forms of popular entertainment combine to form the basis of the modern American Circus. The 19th century circuses and menageries proprietors came from Somers and towns around the northern Westchester and Putnam counties. This resulted in Somers’ claim as “Cradle of the American Circus”.

     

    Hachaliah’s elephant was killed while on tour in Maine, and Hachaliah soon imported two elephants, Little Bet and Columbus. He built the Elephant Hotel, which opened in 1825, and soon after there was a granite shaft and statue of an elephant that were erected in front, this was in honor of his elephants. The Elephant hotel functioned as an inn, a tearoom, a private residence, and a meeting place. Then there are the Farmers and Drovers Bank, the second bank chartered in Westchester, opened here in 1839. This building had a wooden structure extending out to the side, which contained a general store, ballroom and post office at various times. This increased the Hotel’s capacity to accommodate guests traveling on local stagecoach lines. The Elephant Hotel was purchased by the Town of Somers in 1927 and presently houses the Town Offices and the Somers Historical Society and museum. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2005.a