At the intersection of history and pie

intersection-history-and-pie
A rear view of the Onderdonk House. ()
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At the annual Strawberry Festival at the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House, $3 buys you a tour of the old Dutch home and a strawberry shortcake made of a slice of poundcake, a scoop of vanilla-chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, sliced strawberries, and Western Beef-brand strawberry syrup.

It will also get you access to a backyard big enough to contain a baseball diamond, a car show, a magic show, a performance by a three-piece band from the Manhattan School of Music, and the John R. Ries Memorial Garden, where picnic tables are set up under the trees. This is where the pie-eating contest—by far the most hyped event at the festival—took place, late in the afternoon.

For a little extra money there are sausages and hot dogs for sale, from a charcoal grill behind a row of tables covered in red gingham plastic tablecloths.

It's a carnival approach to colonial Dutch history.

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The Vander Ende-Onderdonk House, run by the Ridgewood Historical Society, is a small square home, made of stone, with a backyard and a front yard and gardens. It sits on the border between Brooklyn and Queens, between Ridgewood and Bushwick, in an area that is otherwise solely industrial.

The house, today, is an anomaly. It was built as a farmhouse in 1709 on 100 acres of property when the area was entirely agricultural, and now it is surrounded by warehouses, visible from a distance only because the only trees (other than some scruffy little street trees) anywhere nearby are in its front yard. To get to the strawberry festival I walked several long and desolate blocks north on Flushing Avenue from the Jefferson L stop. Fewer than a dozen cars passed in the time it took me to get there, most of them decorated for the Puerto Rican Day parade, which was also taking place that Sunday. I saw no one else walking. The only retail commerce between the subway and the house was a couple of tables with umbrellas set up outside what looked like a tire shop. 

There was nothing but cement and asphalt until the trees became visible, and then in the middle of all, across from Jin Ming Huang Trading Inc., was this squat old house with a front lawn and a white picket fence. There were people milling about in the front yard, which seemed improbable, as if they had been dropped in from the air, because the surrounding streets were so empty. There were dozens of families, bunches of elderly people, and a suprising number of teenagers, some of whom looked like they were there on their own. There were two young hip-looking people in silver sneakers and tight jeans and large plastic aviator sunglasses. A fair number of attendees were wearing Puerto Rican flag colors, or carrying flags, or otherwise suggesting they had been at the parade, or in any case somewhere that was not a colonial Dutch house serving strawberry shortcake.

An ice-cream truck melody played on loop, though there was no truck in sight.

There's an acre and a half left of the Ende-Onderdonk farm, much less than it once was, but roomy by New York City standards. Charles Sanchez, a pleasant-looking man with a paunch wearing a t-shirt, was selling the $3 tickets to the left side of the front walk. He told me he was the weekend host, and when I said I was writing a piece on the house, he said he would find someone, a board member, for me to talk to. He shouted at a man, maybe in his 60s, who was striding across the lawn, but the man was annoyed. "Not right now," he said, looking offended. "Not today."

On my way to the strawberry shortcake I met Steve Monte, who does not appear to have an official role at the organization, other than being husband of Linda Monte, the president of the Ridgewood Historical Society. He promised he would secure Linda for a special tour before the pie-eating contest, so I wouldn't have to wait around, and told me to go have some shortcake. He later said that the important part of the shortcake was the syrup, in particular because the pound cake was sometimes a little dry, though this year it was not. (He was right—it wasn't.) 

It seemed to me an unexploited marketing tool, for a certain kind of local tourist, that the line between Brooklyn and Queens literally runs through the property. In the garden I ran into Tom Dowd, a former environmental columnist for WORLD Magazine and current crusader for the preservation of Ridgewood Reservoir. It was Dowd who pointed out Arbitration Rock. It's in the middle of that backyard between the gardens and the car show, surrounded by a white picket fence that looked flimsy compared the boulder. Arbitration Rock, said Dowd, had been around since 1800 or so, but was found again about eight years ago by construction workers and moved to its current location, believed to be the actual border between Brooklyn and Queens.

And here's what I learned from Linda, who was wearing a pink tank top, jeans and a straw hat, before she had to attend to the pie. 

The house was built in 1709. The first owner was Paulius Vander-Ende, who built the stone house and kept the property for about 100 years before the Onderdonks took over. The Onderdonks built the white frame addition on the south side of the house for the kitchen, which had previously been located in the basement. The Onderdonks lasted about a hundred years, up until the 1920s, when they sold off the land. Ridgewood was all farms up until about 1890, and was one of the last farming areas in the city, "and that's also why we have so many cemeteries," she said. "You know that thing about the cemetaries? The Rural Cemetary Act?" (I didn't, but later learned that it was an edict passed in 1847 in New York that allowed, essentially, cemeteries to be for-profit, as opposed to on private land or church grounds.)

At this moment, a boy of maybe 5 or 6 approached. He was wearing a t-shirt and shorts and looked apologetic.

"Did you need me?" Linda asked.

"Yes," he said, softly.

"Tell me what you need."

"When is—when is it again?"

"The pie-eating? It's at 3. Are you asking about the pie-eating or the tour?"

"No, when." 

"When?"

"Uh-huh. When is—coming back?" 

"Back? The tour? Uh, no. I don't know. What are you looking for?"

A group of women squeezed around us three on the brick path in the garden out back of the house.

"Are you guys leaving?" Linda asked. One of them said yes.

"OK—you were so great," said Linda.

"I'm going to come over and pick up Mom later," said one of the women. 

"OK good," Linda said, kissing her on the cheek. "OK darling, thanks."

Another woman said, "Yeah, great to see you—have a nice day!"

And another said, "Yeah we'll see you..."

"A little bit later, OK?" Linda said. "After the pie eating."

She turned back to me. "So anyway, that's why...that's that history. So the last owners were about 1920 and they sold it off. Then the Onderdonk house became a factory, just like everything else. The first thing they did was a scrap-glass business, and then they made greenhouses. And then in the 60s it was a Swiss-O-Matic, which was [a place that made] small machinery parts that were part of the..." She trailed off and waved to someone in the distance, "Goodbye!"

Before she began again we were interrupted.

"Excuse me, Linda?" said a woman in a tentative voice. "They said they needed pies..for the pie-eating contest?"

"Yes," Linda said.

"OK, they told me to remind you." 

"Yes I know. The pies are in the...You know where Lorraine is? She knows where the pies are." Back to me. "Um, so um." 

I asked her if it would be better if I left her alone.

"I only have five more minutes," she said. "I can talk to you and then I have to do the pie-eating contest. So anyhow. So the house was used for those purposes." 

I asked who paid for the place to remain in operation. The city, she said, and sometimes the state. Council Member Diana Reyna, who represents both Ridgewood and Bushwick, has been "very, very good to us." And Elizabeth Crowley, who also represents Ridgewood, has given some money, as well as Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, who "gave us the money 20 years ago for the garden." Former state senator Serf Maltese delivered some money, though he then was defeated by Joe Addabbo in 2008. "Hopefully we're going to see money from him, but times are very tough," Linda says. "Our big major thing is the roof."

At this point she headed into the house. I followed. "It's completely a volunteer organization, so we have about 11 board members, and then I would say about—those board members plus some volunteers." We got to the dining room, where some of the organization of the event appeared to be taking place. "Did they find the pies?" 

"They came in here like crazy people—they couldn't find the pies," said a woman sitting at the long table.

Linda said to me, "So it's about another 15 to 20 people who do things. And some people do, like, gardening—we have fabulous people who do the curation we also have, we also have guest..."

"We gotta have the pie-eating contest," the woman said.

"It's ten-to!" Linda replied.

"I know but it's going to rain on us. That's what we're all worried about." 

"Well, why? Is it going to rain right now?" 

Linda went to the pie-eating contest. 

There isn't much to the house itself, but the Ridgewood Historical Society makes the most of it, mounting exhibits there that take serious time and dedication. Past shows include the high-concept: "Vernederlandsen: An Assimilated Anatomy," in which an artist named Denis Martinez explores the question, "What is appropriate cultural integration?" and the labor-intensive "Just After the Battle: An Exhibit of the American Civil War": "Titled after a Civil War song of 1864, Just after the Battle is a multifaceted exhibit ─ presenting over 250 authentic period relics and artifacts."

Visitors have access to the first floor, which consists of a wood-floored hallway running straight from the front door to the back door, with two rooms on either side. The first on the left is where the exhibit "Early Electric Lighting in the Gilded Age" was diplayed. The first on the right—it contained a long wooden table and a fireplace framed in blue and white tiles, one of which bore the date 1709—had been used just that day as a staging area for events. An old rifle was hung over the mantle.

 

The second room on the right was a reproduction of what looked like an old living room, all fine china and oriental carpets and nice-looking antique furniture. The second room on the left was a gift shop. There is a second floor, but it's roped off. And there are lovely gardens behind and in front. But the wooden annex built by the Onderdonks contains little else than a modern bathroom. And that's it for the Vander Ende-Onderdonk house. Eleven board members, an army of volunteers, two fairly big events during the year (the harvest festival draws about 2,000, Steve Monte told me, as opposed to 200 at this year's notably well-attended strawberry festival) rotating exhibits, elaborate gardens, and a large lawn. The most remarkable thing about the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House is that it exists at all.