By Ed Wendell | [email protected]
My dad loved to read about history. His area of special interest was the Civil War closely followed by the American Revolution. But it wasn’t just the dates and the description of events that really interested him; it was the stories about the people that lived that history that excited him.
Whenever he’d finish reading something of interest, he’d tell me about it, he’d tell me about the people involved, what they were like and what drove them. To him, the people were the main attraction, and the history was the interesting stories about what happened to them.
I found myself thinking about him last night right in the middle of a presentation I was giving at Neir’s Tavern. I was talking about the funeral of Hiram Woodruff, 156 years ago, and I knew he would have loved this story.
Hiram Woodruff was a beloved figure in Woodhaven, a famous horse trainer who had ridden and worked with all of the famous horses of that era. He was considered to be the most honest person in the horse racing business and had a circle of friends who loved and admired him.
A wicked snowstorm hit Woodhaven on the day he was to be buried atop a hill in Cypress Hills cemetery. Despite the bad weather, horsemen from all over came to Woodhaven to pay their respects to their friend whose sudden death at age 50 had taken them all by surprise.
His casket was being transported via horse and carriage but by the time they got to the cemetery, the wheels were getting stuck in the snow. His friends all tried pushing the carriage, and the horse was encouraged to pull harder, but Hiram Woodruff’s casket was not getting any closer to his final destination.
One of the men rode his horse back to Hiram Woodruff’s stables and came back with a large sled. His friends lifted the casket off of the carriage, lay it on the sled and they were able to bring him to the top of the hill where he still rests today, overlooking the stables and hotel and saloon that he owned on Jamaica Avenue.
Shortly after reading this account in an old newspaper, I paid a visit to that hill in Cypress Hills cemetery, to stand on that road and look up that hill towards the monument erected in his memory by his friends. I pictured the hill covered in deep snow, the men pushing the carriage and getting no further.
I imagined them waiting in the cold as one of them went for the sled. The longer I stood there, the more this story came to life for me. This wasn’t just about facts and dates, these were real people who were coming to life again on that hill, a century and a half after that cold snowy day.
I thought about my dad because he loved stories like this and he would have loved hearing all about it. He would have loved, as I did, seeing the kind words his friends had engraved into Woodruff’s monument.
“He was conspicuous for his genius, his unswerving integrity and his kindness of heart.”
That hill and that story and those words said a lot about how much Hiram Woodruff’s friends cared for him and I would love to sit down and tell my dad all about it. He’s been gone for 18 years now, but in his place I have been blessed by a wonderful group of people who also love these kinds of stories.
The Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society meets twice a month, once in person at Neir’s Tavern and once online via Zoom. And together we look back on the history of this great community and the people that lived that history.
It’s an amazing feeling when you meet people who not only share the same interest, but whose passion matches yours for the stories you love to hear. To everyone who comes out to these meetings every month, I am grateful and so appreciative that we, the Woodhaven Historians, are taking this journey together.