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Preserving Family History: Our Q&A with Kinsey Dyckman, Board Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director of the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, put me in touch with Kinsey Dyckman, who serves on Dyckman’s Board of Directors, so he could tell us a bit about what it’s like working on the preservation of his own family’s history.  It took us a while to get our schedules lined up, but we finally managed a phone appointment.

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The NewsWhistle Q&A with Kinsey Dyckman

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Date: July 7, 2015
Age: 51
Hometown: Princeton, NJ
Current town: New York City

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How are you related to the Dyckmans that lived in the Dyckman Farmhouse?  I know that Jan Dyckman was the one who started it all, coming to Manhattan in 1662.

I’m an 11th generation descendant, and as far as I know, it’s a direct line.  I researched my ancestry a long time ago, when I was applying for membership in a Dutch historical society called Saint Nicholas.

There’s a history of the Dyckman clan starting with Jan, and it’s quite an interesting read.  What fascinates me a lot is where they settled and what they were facing and what was going on in the world.  Manhattan was wilderness.  Why New York instead of somewhere else?  The people who lived in the Dyckman Farmhouse were part of a farming-based operation, but there were also Dyckmans involved in commerce.  Someone owned a tavern.  Another built a free bridge, to be distinguished and competitive with a toll bridge along what we know as the Post Road.

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1866 Lithograph of the Dyckman Farmhouse

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I know you are a volunteer board member, but what is your day job?  And how did you get involved with the Dyckman Farmhouse?

I work for Credit Suisse, I’m a banker; I’ve been here about 12 years.

Serendipitously, eight or nine years ago, I was at a Credit Suisse sponsored lunch in a local restaurant, a lunch having to do with Madison Square Park, which is right where our office building is.  Madison Square Park has undergone a fantastic and beautiful renaissance through a public/private partnership.  I was sitting next to someone from New York City Parks, who asked me if I was related to the Dyckman family, and whether I was involved with the Farmhouse.

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So you were recruited?

Yes, I suppose in a way. I ended up working with the Farmhouse Director at the time to try and put together a non-profit to support it.  There had previously been a non-profit which sort of died on the vine, and we had to go through a process of getting formally established as a 501(c)3 and go through the New York State accreditation process, through the Board of Regents because we operate as a museum, and in the process of doing that we found out that the dormant non-profit still existed, and we had to deal with that confusion.  It took some time to unwind that, and we were finally reborn about two or three years ago.

It was a big moment for us when Meredith came on the scene.  We’ve struggled for a long time with relevance.  We are, literally, a museum on a hill.  It’s an old house, in a changed community, and I worry about how it is relevant to that immediate community: how does it become a cool place to go if you’re a kid, or interesting to go to if you’re an adult?  Why would you go there if you’re a first generation immigrant family in Inwood?  It’s a simple question…maybe you’d go once, but you’ve been on school trips before, and you know that they can leave you bored and uninterested.  That’s not right.  We want lots of school kids visiting and we want them to leave feeling that it’s really cool, and that they learned a lot during their visit.  Our mission statement has the words “adventuresome,” and “engaging,” and “catalyst,” and “community” in it, so that captures succinctly what we are all about.  We went through a lot of questions about who we are, what’s our mission, what are we trying to do here.

If our mission is just to preserve, that’s not good enough.  Frankly, that’s not going to interest most people.  We think a lot about who our stakeholders are here.  The board could use some more diversity, including members of the community, and we are making some great progress on that.  Juan Camillo of the Dyckman Beer Company has just agreed to join, and he is a great example of a local business success story.  We want some folks who are true stakeholders in the community and it helps, of course, if they are interested in historic preservation.  There was a wine tasting last weekend, and the pictures were of a literal melting pot.  Young people, babies, people from the community, having a good time.

I can only imagine what happened there in the past…inside and outside of the house.  It was a farmhouse, a working farmhouse, so we are trying to be conscious to not over present what it really is.  It is a magnificent and old Dutch house, the only one of its kind in Manhattan.  While it is a museum, we are trying not to present it as a pedantic, didactic, maybe intimidating place, the way some museums can be, in my opinion.  It is there to be used and enjoyed and we are quite conscious that is owned and run by the New York City Parks Department.  Meredith is the perfect person to do that.  The wine tasting was in the house, not in the garden, and that says a lot.

Simply, it’s our mission to do cool stuff, in a happening place, and be a place people want to support.  That’s what’s going to secure the survival of the house for future generations.  Popularity and relevance, not just board members making occasional financial donations.

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Dyckman farmyard, circa 1819

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I understand that the Dyckmans were a prominent family and that the Boscobel House in Garrison, NY, was also owned by Dyckmans…that appears to have been a much wealthier branch of the family.  Have you been there, and are you involved with them?

Boscabel?  Definitely not a working farmhouse!  I haven’t been there in years, but it’s an old Federal style country house and it is quite beautiful.   I actually don’t know much about it, although I understand that some of the artifacts from the Farmhouse are stored up there.

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I think you need to take a field trip there.  Maybe go see some Shakespeare this summer.  Boscabel is a place where they have a lot of performing arts, as well as teaching people about history.  What do you see in the future for historic houses?

I think our culture has changed, the population around us, people’s tastes, what it takes…we’re in a multi-media world full of short attention spans and multi-taskers, so we have to do something a little bit different.  Simple programming doesn’t work any more.  What we do need to be more interactive and engaging on many levels.

We recently received a grant through the Historic House Trust from the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee and the 1772 Foundation.  HHT, I should add, has been tremendously supportive of what we are trying to do.  Meredith and another board member went to Milwaukee in April, along with a few other HHT sites that were grant recipients, and other similar entities nationally, to get people together to brainstorm on how to make historic houses creative, different, and relevant.  They got exposed to lots of modern thinking in the program called shatterCABINET.  The idea of shatterCABINET is that they’ll develop and launch new initiatives at historic houses and engage the community more; it’s time to shake things up with some new ideas.

So, I like the fact that we are literally out of our neighborhood and on the road a little bit to see how others are doing things.  We all can learn from each other as we all are facing largely similar challenges.

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Are there many other Dyckmans involved in historic preservation?  I know that it was Dyckman family members who were involved in saving the Dyckman Farmhouse a hundred years ago.

My father was involved back in the 1960s with the Dyckman Farmhouse, with a predecessor organization, which I vaguely remember.  And my sisters are sometimes involved a little bit.   But one of the projects we have for our two summer interns are to help figure out who is out there in Dyckman land…We know there are many descendants who are interested in what the house is doing but we have to find them.  We see them of course as supporters and members of the organization.

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Isaac Michael Dyckman aka James Frederick Smith (1813-1899); Lower right: Image believed to be that of Dr. Jacob Dyckman (1788-1822)

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For you, it is family history.  But why, in your opinion, is it important for us in the USA to preserve our colonial history?

I don’t know how that house made it through the 1960s, quite frankly.  A lot of other preserved and landmarked structures did not make it as we know.  We were in a wrecking ball-crazed environment as the City grew and stretched.   And here’s this quarter acre swath of land in upper Manhattan that survived somehow.  I don’t think anyone heroically stood in front of a bulldozer to save it, but it did survive, and we should honor it a little bit, and preserve it for the next 10 generations of folks to see this cool structure.  It used to have sweeping views of both rivers.  Imagine being on that porch and seeing pasture and farm animals…in a place now that’s all cement.  It is really not that personal for me and I don’t do it because it’s my family. I do give my time, energy and resources because I just think it is cool and I’m excited that it survived and we now have a responsibility to carry it forward.  I also like challenges and am excited about what we can do there to fulfill our mission.

Have you spent time in the Netherlands yourself?

I go there for business every once in a while.  And that’s about it.  I believe Jan actually traveled to New York from Westphalia, which is now part of Germany, but I can’t explain that.

What’s something most people don’t know about the Dyckman Farmhouse?

Sometimes we are joking about how to make things more intriguing.  Morris-Jumel has a ghost.  Sometimes we muse that we should decide that the house is haunted!  And maybe it is.  I’ve heard that there are Hessian soldiers buried on the property.  This was a revolutionary wartime site, as many may know, so it is quite appropriate that there is a replica of a Hessian troop hut on the grounds.

It could be haunted by the ghosts of mercenaries, who died far away from home.    So what are the challenges ahead for you and the rest of your board with the Farmhouse?

My real challenge is involving the community in the leadership of the house, meaning including them as stakeholders, in what it does and how it does it.  We haven’t done that yet.  We still have a board of people that could be far more diverse.  We have a lot of ambitions, and this will cost money.  So, our real challenge going forward will be putting our ambitions to work along with Meredith and her team, and we will need to support that effort with money that we can raise from many different sources.  We are a non-profit, of course, and most of our support comes from private donations.

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What is the best advice you’ve been given?

One day at a time.

If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would that be?

I would travel more.

Is there a book you’d like to recommend?

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

How about a movie?

Gone Girl.

Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?

Yes, visit Dyckman and go to DyckmanFarmhouse.org to give and support what we are doing!

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CREDITS

Portrait of K. Dyckman courtesy of Kinsey Dyckman; All other images, including lead-in of the “June 1870 Dyckman Property Auction Map,” courtesy of the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum Alliance.

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com