The two parcels making up the 115-acre Crane-Beshar Rhinoceros Creek Reservation reveal much of the history of Somers. They are part of the farm assembled by Gerard Crane, who built the nearby Greek Revival Stone House (which remains in private hands and is not open to the public), and testify to the thriving 19th century menagerie business, the evolving farm practices, and the shifting rural character of Somers as the nearby Heritage Hills townhouse development bought many surrounding farms in the 1960's and 70's.
The Menagerie Business
In 1849 when Crane built the house, he was 58 and nearing the end of a successful career as owner, investor and manager of menageries – traveling collections of exotic animals that combined the appeal of the unfamiliar with a veneer of respectable education. Crane's career began in 1815, when he and his brother Thaddeus Jr. formed a menagerie with the Tituses of North Salem and – according to tax rolls – were already thriving.
In the early 19th Century, Somers was a major population center on the main route for farmers taking their cattle to Sing Sing for shipment to New York City. Many farmers in Somers tried their hand at the menagerie business; as drovers they knew how to care for large animals.
In 1826, Crane and a partner leased Hachaliah Bailey’s second elephant, Little Bet. Just as happened to Bailey’s first elephant, Old Bet, Little Bet was shot to death while on tour. Crane claimed a loss of $22,000 – roughly $116,000 today.
How Rhinoceros Creek Got Its Name
An 1886 history of Somers by Charles Culver describes the Stone House, including "...a long, hipped-roofed building, that is now a barn, but was built for, and used as, an animal house during the winter seasons." Sometime in the 1960's, Somers Town Historian Otto Koegel unearthed an early newspaper article describing an amusing episode that inspired the name of the Reservation. It describes an enclosure made for Crane's rhinoceros in what must have been the current-day pond near the entrance of the Reservation. Not surprisingly, the several-ton animal escaped and wandered down the road, requiring a team of eight horses to bring him home.
In 1836-37, Crane owned 365 acres in Somers, including land beneath the Elephant Hotel, Bailey Park, St. Luke’s and the shopping center. In 1864, Crane sold land west of Rt. 202 – some of which is today Rhinoceros Creek Reservation – to mining concerns, retaining just 15 acres surrounding the house. Six years later the Manhattan Iron Company sold it back to Crane, presumably not finding enough ore to make it economically worthwhile. Loans and mortgages which Crane secured in 1870-71 may have been related to the mining efforts. When he died in 1872, the outstanding debts made it impossible for his heirs to retain the property. So in 1880, the Stone House was sold at auction to a member of another prominent Somers family, William N. Todd, the first in a series of new owners.
Rhinoceros Creek Reservation sits atop a huge reservoir of fresh water. This bounty has long been recognized in a trail of water rights and easements that reach back to the earliest records of the 19th Century. Although they abandoned plans for a commercial development and several houses on the property which they owned until the 1990's, Heritage Hills Water and Sewer Corporation retains rights for drinking water which is obtained from a number of wells drilled on both parcels. Heritage Hills also holds an easement for the long, winding entrance to the townhouse complex at the southern end of the reservation.
Restored to Glory
Robert and Christine Beshar fell in love with the Stone House as they drove by it regularly on the way to their vacation home. Determined to make it their own, in 1981 the Beshars purchased the Stone House from Dr. and Mrs. Chilson. For the better part of a year, local carpenters, masons and other craftsmen worked to restore the house. The Beshars found inspiration in nearby historical homes, such as Boscobel and the John Hay House. They also obtained (at a foreclosure auction) the surrounding 115 acres which had once belonged to Gerard Crane.
Christine Beshar loved nature and became one of the Somers Land Trust's most fervent supporters, keenly supportive of many SLT projects. She hiked the Angle Fly Preserve trails, helped fill bags and bags with invasive (and thorny) mile-a-minute weed, and, most memorably of all, generously offered her iconic Stone House and barn as the site for fund-raisers in 2013 and 2016 to kick-start the rebuilding of the historic Silas Reynolds House at the entrance to Angle Fly Preserve.
The Stone House was sold to a private owner in 2017. Shortly after that, Christine Beshar donated the two surrounding parcels to the Somers Land Trust to be maintained as open space and used to encourage others to enjoy the outdoors as she did. In 2019, Westchester Land Trust (WLT) accepted a conservation easement on the property. This means that WLT holds the development rights on the property which is owned by the Somers Land Trust, providing Rhinoceros Creek Reservation with an additional layer of protection.
Photos top to bottom: Gerard Crane Stone House, Undated article by Otto E. Koegel, Historical Notes and Narratives Relating to the Town of Somers Westchester County New York, published February 1969, High ridge on the western edge of Rhinoceros Creek Reservation © Lauretta Jones, Christine Beshar with members of the Somers Land Trust, Somers Town Board, and other contributors in the living room of the Stone House in 2013, © Mike Lubchenko, GoldStarPhotos.com