History of the Marsh Sanctuary
The Marsh Sanctuary has a long and story-filled past, beginning with the Brookside house on South Bedford Road

Early History of Brookside

      Our history begins in the 1830's with the arrival of the Finch family in the Bedford area. Different people give different dates for the original construction of the Brookside cottage, but somewhere between 1825 and 1858, the cottage was built and occupied by Alex Finch, a shoemaker, and his family. They lived here for several years, well after Mr. Finch died and his wife, Charity, occupied the house alone well into her later years.

Martia Leonard's Garden

      When Martha Leonard, studying theater in France, was asked to return to the United States by her family, she came back to the Bedford area. Looking for a home in proximity to her family, she found the Brookside cottage, at the time little more than a dilapidated shack "leaning crazily over the little brook".   In her journals, Martha refers to it as the "Charity Place" where she had spent her summers as a small child, eating donuts on the widow Charity's stoop. Martha's family agreed to give her the money to purchase the house and a bit of the surrounding property. This was sometime in 1896, when South Bedford Road was little more than a rough carriage road.

       Martha was a playwright, actress, and a lover of all things artistic, including gardening. Her special fondness for all things green led her to spend a great deal of time working on her new property's gardens. She had little money, perhaps only a small stipend from her family, but she made that go a long way in the garden and all over the property. She immediately had the Brookside cottage jacked up and resilled, repairing a great deal of the house's infrastructure. She then went to work on the gardens and stonework around the cottage. Martha put a great deal of time, planning and planting the gardens, constructing arbors and such. She employed an Italian stone mason to build the stone walls, channel the stream, and create several other key features. Martha took to writing for the local newspapers, mostly on gardening, but also on topics as diverse as world politics and women's rights. Newspaper articles saved from that time, detail her early ideas for the property.

       In 190_, a tornado came right through Martha's backyard, destroying many of the beautiful American chestnut trees that were there. She found this to be such a shame as she cleaned up her property that she had the chestnut logs cut, milled and then fluted, creating a set of columns. This was perhaps the beginning of the idea for an open air, Greek-style amphitheater. The hillside already had a bit of the shape, was cleared by the tornado, and she now had fluted columns available. Martha planned and constructed the new amphitheater, the first of its kind in Westchester County.

       Martha Leonard wrote plays under the name pen name "Martia" Leonard, and produced and directed them in the Brookside theater and in New York City theaters. With so many high society friends, Martia's productions at Brookside drew crowds from Connecticut, New York City and Westchester County, charging $3 for adult admission.  The amphitheater was the first location in New York to showcase barefoot girls dancing - a very liberal and bold statement of women's rights.  This was a topic for which Martia was known to have written in the local and major newspapers.  Other dramatic works included Madame Butterfly, Lysistrata, Dream of the Wings, The Treason of Benedict Arnold, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, to name just a few.  

       Plays were held in the amphitheater into the 1920's, after which they seem to have dwindled, perhaps due to the hard times of the Great Depression or Ms. Leonard's age.  Martia lived at Brookside until she was far too old to maintain the home, but she continued to develop her garden.  Martia wrote her own memoir / guide to gardening entitled "O All Ye Green Things" when she was in her 80's. She eventually moved out and the new owners did what they could to bring the house back into livable condition after years of neglect.   Ownership of Brookside changed a few times from the 1940's into the 1950's.

 

A Sanctuary to Remember a Little Girl's Love of Nature

       In the 1950's, Norman Marsh and his family lived on the corner of Sarles Street and Byram Lake Road. He and his wife, Cornelia King Marsh, had three children, Langdon, Norman and Cornelia. Their daughter Cornelia, a devout lover of wild things, was born with a defect in her heart which they decided to attempt to fix when she grew a bit older and healthier.  Sadly the surgery did not go as well as planned, though the doctors did much to repair the defects, some damage to her heart had already been sustained.  Cornelia Van Rensselaer Marsh did not survive the surgery. 

         As a memorial to young Cornelia, her parents bought the wet piece of land between Sarles Street and Byram Lake Road.  Near to their house, it had been referred to as "Norman's Marsh."   The Marsh family created a wildlife sanctuary to commemorate Cornelia's love of nature, the Cornelia Van Rensselaer Marsh Memorial Sanctuary.  The Sanctuary was operated and managed by several officers and directors, beginning with Norman and Cornelia King Marsh.  To assist with management of accounts, taxes and such, ownership was transferred to the New Jersey-based non-profit group Wildlife Preserves of Tenafly, NJ.   As time passed the Sanctuary received donations of money and land, growing to encompass the Brookside property on South Bedford Road. The Brookside cottage and its garage/barn eventually became the base of Sanctuary operations. 

 

Fighting to Stay Afloat 

       

        For years, the Marsh Sanctuary board of directors fought to stave off the encroaching development which seemed to spring up at every side.  In the early years, it was proposed that Interstate 87 would be run right along near Sarles Street.  This would have spelled an end to any future theater or musical performances at the amphitheater.  Of course, neighbors helped fight this plan and eventually the plan changed to construct I-87 west of the Hudson and run I-684 a bit further to the east.

      

        The next major legal battle was over donations and operating expenses for the expanding Sanctuary.  All donations were being funnelled into a pool of operating funds held by Wildlife Preserve of Tenafly, NJ.  However, the Sanctuary officers were having trouble running the Marsh Sanctuary without reimbursement from Wildlife Preserves.  Legal battles ensued over whose responsibility it should be to pay for operating expenses and when they could no longer afford repairs the Marsh Sanctuary officers began to look into forming their own non-profit organization to manage the property.  The Marsh Sanctuary Incorporated was formed so the officers could manage the properties, make decisions locally, and accept donations into their own account. 

      

        New issues arose regarding the properties which were still held by Wildlife Preserves and how to broker the possible purchase of the land to the east of Brookside.  The sale of this land to the Sanctuary had been suggested by the owners at that time, even at a price at or below fair market value.  A contribution from William Green, at the time the owner of the very large estate to the south of Brookside, was intended for this purpose and would have paid for half of the purchase value.  However, the contribution had gone to Wildlife Preserves and the president of that organization, Robert Perkins, felt that no such restriction had been placed on how the contribution was to be used.  The funding could not be raised and the Marsh Sanctuary lost that opportunity to purchase this property.  

       

       One of the main reasons William Green gave the contribution to Wildlife Preserves was to purchase green space in the area of his property which he sought to subdivide and develop.  At that time, the entire area east of the Leonard Park offices was part of the town of Bedford.  The town of Bedford had different zoning laws (4 acre residential lots) from Mount Kisco (1/4 acre lots), which would compromise his plan for a 350-unit condominium complex, called the Meadow Club.  William Green pleaded his case to the State of New York, stating that Mount Kisco would be providing the fire and police protection, schools, and other necessary services to the development, it was only fair that Mount Kisco receive the tax revenue.  He convinced the Board of the Sanctuary that this was the right thing to do, bringing a great deal of affordable housing to the community, so they wrote letters to politicians and officials supporting Mr. Green's view.  He was able to convince the State of New York to annex the land west of Sarles Street and north of his property to Mount Kisco.  Eventually, the condominium complex did not make it through the planning process, but later plans would succeed in creating a new housing complex on the subdivision.

 

Past Sanctuary Naturalists / Directors

 

Tipi Joyce

Alex Shoumatoff 

Peggy Turco and Brian Golden

Carl Kriegscotte

Mark Wetzel

Roy Powers