I have worked across from the old Borden Estate for over 10 years. Only recently have I started to gain a real appreciation of the role of the Borden Family not only in the history of Wallkill, NY, but also the education of its children.
The Borden Family used their fortune to make the lives of those less fortunate a little better. Nowhere is this made more evident than with Penelope Borden. Her many accomplishments are often overshadowed by her sister Marion as well as her father John G. Borden.
Penelope or Nellie, as her family liked to call her, was not born in the Hamlet of Wallkill, but in Brewster on April 3, 1868. She was the eldest child of John G. Borden and his wife Ellen. Their first daughter would be followed by Gail, named for his grandfather, born in 1872, Beatrice in 1875, who died while still a young child, Lewis in 1879, and finally Marion in 1883.
When Nellie was thirteen years of age the family moved from Brewster where, according to the Southeast Museum, Gail Borden “had built a factory in Brewster for the production of his Eagle Brand Consolidated Milk on the East Branch of the Croton River.” This occurred in 1864, and according to one source “this site met the requirements for the establishment of a condensery: waterpower, dairy land and access to the railroad for shipping the milk.” There was such a demand in New York City for fresh milk, that in 1879 the factory was expanded.
After searching for some time for an ideal location for these products to be produced, Borden finally settled on an area known as “the Basin” in the Town of Shawangunk in 1881. The Basin occupied the region where the present-day Hamlet of Wallkill is located. He purchased what was then known as the Andrew’s Farm, along with about 200 acres of “prime farmland”. Eventually the farm encompassed over 1,500 acres and became known as Home Farm, a model diary for the nation. John G. chose this location because it was near the railroad, water routes, as well as its beauty.
Even before Marion was born, Nellie became involved in the affairs in the area her father renamed Wallkill. Along with her mother Ellen and others, Nellie formed a group known as the King’s Daughters. According to the a history of the Wallkill Library, the goal of this organization was to start a traveling library for Wallkill. It was later in life that Nellie’s sister Marion would also become involved in this cause. Eventually the first library for Wallkill was created on April 17, 1900.
When Nellie moved from her father’s mansion to her own home is not known. It probably took place shortly after she married Louis A. Hamilton on January 15, 1896. Where Marion’s mansion is located today was the location of this home. Eventually Nellie and her husband moved to Pelham Heights in New York City. However, as late as 1900 the couple was living in Wallkill on the Home Farm with their two children Jack and Dorothy. According to Recollections of an Old Timer by Frank B. Mentz, Hamilton was an officer in the 7th Regiment, New York State National Guard.
The Borden Family also had homes in Florida. According to the Clay County Florida archives, John G. had a farm in Green Cove Springs named, interestingly enough, Wallkill. Nellie and Louis also spent the winters in Florida. They stayed in what is today Clay County in an area known as Green Cove Springs on the St. John’s River not far from Jacksonville. Nellie brought her crusading spirit from Wallkill to her winter residence.
According to an article in The Florida Times-Union written by Mary Jo McTammany, Nellie was quite a presence in Green Cove Springs. She was instrumental in starting the Village Improvement Association (V.I.A.) in 1888, the oldest women’s club in Florida, donating land for their first headquarters. It’s said the association was created because at the time residents threw their garbage into the street, and frequently burned it, creating a suffocating smoke. If this was not bad enough, livestock was allowed, by law, to wander the streets.
As she had in Wallkill, Nellie helped create a public library, as well as volunteer groups that were made up largely of local children. Using the influence of her father, whose house the association used as a meeting place, Nellie was instrumental in convincing Green Cove Springs to use sawdust on the streets and to create boardwalks. Eventually, she was also instrumental in bringing the livestock nuisance to an end. Some sources believe that her father’s influence played a major role in this endeavor.
The organization also created a kindergarten which was almost entirely funded from 1900 to 1904 by the V.I.A. In 1889 there was cause for celebration when the V.I.A. was incorporated. In 1895 the V.I.A., which consisted of many smaller groups, became a member of the Florida Federation of Woman’s Clubs. It also acquired membership in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) in 1898. The Florida chapter’s first president was Nellie Borden. The mission of this organization, which is still in existence today, is: “community improvement by enhancing the lives of others through volunteer service.” Early projects included working towards passage of a Child Labor law, Compulsory Education, Fire Protection for Schools, establishing traveling libraries, and providing assistance to Seminole Indians.
Nellie Borden’s work was tragically cut short during the summer of 1905. Nellie and Louis were at the St. Andrews Hotel in New York City when she died suddenly at the age of 38, leaving two children.Her causes were not forgotten, even in death, however, as her husband reported that she wished to leave a bequest to the Wallkill Library which she was instrumental in creating. During a private ceremony, Nellie was interred in Woodlawn Cemetery near her grandfather Gail Borden.
Photos: Above, John G. Borden House (courtesy Clay County Archives); and below, Nellie-Borden (courtesy the General Federation of Women’s Clubs).