Many people know that Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was inspired by the village of Sleepy Hollow in Mount Pleasant, New York. The entire village is proud of its heritage and connection to the famous story. Local athletic teams are even known as the horsemen.
However, about 100 miles north, up the Hudson River, sits the quaint town of Kinderhook, New York. Many history buffs may recognize it as the home of the country’s eighth president, Martin Van Buren. As you bypass the scenic and tranquil countryside, it’s easy to miss a small schoolhouse with a strong tie to the folklore of Irving’s tale.
Nestled quietly along the side of the road on Route 9H in Columbia County sits the single-room public school built sometime during the 19th century. There, Jesse Merwin, a close friend of both Irving and the then-retired Van Buren, taught lessons. In the years following Irving’s departure from Kinderhook, the two men remained friends and corresponded regularly.
Little is known about Merwin’s life, but when Herman Melville wrote one of the earliest biographies of Irving, he reported that the character of Ichabod Crane, the frightened and cocky schoolteacher who met his fate at the hands of the Headless Horseman, was based on Merwin. What Merwin thought of such a representation is unknown, but when the original manuscript was published it did little to tarnish the relationship between Merwin and Irvin. Merwin was, after all, immortalized in literature forever. By the time the old schoolteacher died in 1852, he had no idea the legacy his likeness would leave.
The schoolhouse remained functional until the 1940s. During the 1950s to 1960s, local residents, including alumni, cleaned and repaired the building to create a small community center, which was dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt. The structure was used for a decade or so to hold community meetings and parties, and regularly used by a local 4-H club. In 1974, the local school district centralized and moved the schoolhouse from its original location (the corner of 9H and Fischer Road) to where it currently stands, approximately 200 yards down the road to the Luykas Van Alen house property. The schoolhouse was also restored to its 1930s appearance, and the site is now owned and operated by the Columbia County Historical Society, New York.
Merwin’s legacy may live on through the pages of Irving’s story, or even through the local school district, affectionately named the Ichabod Crane Central School District. The sleepy Kinderhook schoolhouse serves as a reminder to all that inspiration can strike from anywhere.