Revisiting history at John Jay Homestead in Westchester

Bedford House at John Jay Homestead

John Jay had many public roles. He served as president of the Second Continental Congress; principal negotiator of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War; United States secretary for foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation; and first chief justice of the United States. He was also the first chief justice of New York State, co-author of the state constitution and governor from 1795 to 1801.

Located in Katonah, John Jay Homestead State Historic Site is where Jay chose to retire after a long career in public service, and where for almost 30 years he quietly enjoyed his life as a gentleman farmer, keenly interested in agriculture, horticulture, his family and his religion.

An immense range of educational and community opportunities await visitors to this local historical site, which is owned and run by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation — Taconic Region, with strong support from the Friends of John Jay Homestead nonprofit organization.

The Homestead has a full calendar of programs through the end of the year. In addition to regular tours of Bedford House, Jay’s former residence, the Homestead’s “Thematic Tours” take place Wednesdays through Saturdays at 2 p.m., exploring Jay’s Huguenot heritage and how it shaped his vision for the new United States in August; taking an in-depth look at the United States Constitution in September; and Jay’s relationship with Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris and George Washington, respectively, in October, November and December, according to Heather Iannucci, director.

The Homestead’s “Connecting to Collections” programs and tours take place Sundays at 2 p.m. through mid-October. “They are a closer look at the treasures contained within Bedford House, all with a thematic collection,” Iannucci said. “In the month of August we explore portraits of women, items made in the United States, collections pieces that would have been used by children, and items that have been imported from places such as England and France.”

During September, “we examine artistic copies; furniture, textiles and artwork that have to do with being well-dressed; documents in Jay’s collections; and items owned by John Jay’s family members such as his father and grandfather,” she continued. “And in October we look at collections that house something interesting outside as well as works on paper.”

Iannucci added that each of these special tours are designed to provide visitors with a window into the lives of the occupants of Bedford House, especially Jay. They also put Jay into a broader context by exploring his relationship with the other Founders and important events in America’s history.

“One of the nicest things that these special tours offer is a different look at the house, the collections and the people who lived there,” she said. “No tours are quite alike, so visitors are always delighted with a new experience. I’m really excited about our ‘Collections’ tours and hope that our community gets excited about them as well. I think that many people forget about the treasures in their own backyard. We have portraits by some of the most important American artists, furniture by well-known cabinetmakers, and one-of-a-kind remnants of our nation’s history, all contained within Bedford House.

Friends of John Jay Homestead Executive Director Emily Grand spoke about the organization and its role. “We raise funds to supplement that provided by the state, which owns the property, and we also provide programmatic and volunteer support,” she said, likening the Friends organization to the Central Park Conservancy, for example.

“Our two seasonal programs — and our season is May through October and is defined when our outbuildings are open — include our ‘Play Days @ Jay’ events on Fridays and our Farm Market on Saturdays,” Grand said.

“Play Days @ Jay” run on Fridays through Oct. 25 from noon to 2 p.m., and the Homestead’s Farm Market runs through Oct. 26 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“We have a wonderful market manager, Michael Kaphan, who is in his first year in the role,” Grand said. “He has done a wonderful job bringing back favorite vendors and also discovering new vendors, putting together a nice, diverse group of farmers and artisan bakers. What makes them all appropriate for our market is that they either grow or source their products locally. This gives our patrons the opportunity to interface with those who grew the food or baked it.”

Grand noted that it’s been fun to see the “obvious relationships that develop both between our patrons and the vendors and also between the vendors themselves. This is the place they’re reconnecting — patrons come to see the same faces and see new people.”

The Farm Market runs concurrently with the Homestead’s Red Barn Discovery Center, which Grand described as a “really wonderful place for kids to explore and play. It encourages kids to play imaginatively with a focus on agriculture and allows parents to get their shopping done while the children are having fun, which is great.”

“Play Days @ Jay” is a program brought back to the Homestead two years ago by the Friends organization. “We’ve been thrilled at the turnout. Our concept initially was that there are so many young children who get out of preschool around noon and their parents and caregivers are always looking for another activity to do,” Grand said. “The Homestead is a great place for a play date, for people to pack a picnic and come and explore some of our fun outbuildings. We have a potting shed, playhouse and schoolhouse, all of which are interactive spaces for kids to explore.”

In addition, one of the New York State educators is there every Friday at 1 p.m., running an educational activity, whether it’s butter making, juicing apples or playing colonial games that children used to play when Jay was living there in the early 1800s, Grand said. Another activity during ‘Play Days’ is assisted by members of the Homestead’s chicken co-op, whose volunteers help children collect eggs from the coop and feed the chickens salad greens.

Coming up in September is the Friends’ 22nd annual Barn Dance, taking place Sept. 14. “That is a longstanding fan favorite,” Grand said. “We expect more than 1,000 guests and will have our famous racing pigs coming back, four fabulous bands, a pizza truck and barbecue. It’s a wonderful fundraiser for the Friends, and also a way in which we ask our generous partners and sponsors to provide this experience to our entire community.”

The Homestead partners with the Boys and Girls Club of Northern Westchester and sponsors underwrite tickets for club families to attend the Barn Dance. “Last year we were able to invite 45 families to the Barn Dance, and 300 Boys and Girls [Club] children attend after-school programs at the Homestead,” Grand said, adding that on Nov. 9, the organization will hold its major fundraiser, which benefits an ongoing Bedford House protection and restoration project.

“Bedford House has not undergone a major restoration since New York State took over in the 1960s,” she said. “It’s in desperate need of restoration, conservation, protection and reinterpretation so we can better tell the stories of Jay and his family and their important role in this country’s founding.”

For more information, call 232-5651 or visit johnjayhomestead.org or friendsofjohnjayhomestead.org.

John Jay Homestead is located at 400 Jay St., Katonah.

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