Philipsburg Manor’s feline ‘security guards’

Published:

Tuesday, 10/11/2016 4:56pm

By Rob Yasinsac

Visitors to Philipsburg Manor often delight at the turning of the water wheel at the gristmill, the crackling of the fire at a cooking demonstration, and the opportunity to touch reproduction objects in the manor house. But two four-legged prowlers almost always manage to capture the attention of visitors - our cats Fred and Ginger. These felines – though friendly - are not here to be anyone’s pets. They have an important job to do.

Gristmills of course grind grain, and the new world Dutch barns (including the one on the Philipsburg Manor property) were built for the storage of wheat and other farm crops. And small critters like mice looking for an easy meal and a living space protected from natural predators would inevitably find their way into mills and barns, a problem Philisburg Manor encounters today. So, to protect the wheat and farm crops, cats are brought in to keep rodents out.

“Oh, so they’re your security guards!” observed a young girl recently as a tour guide told a group of elementary school students about the cats’ role in mouse population control.

Cats were not only part of the story at gristmills, but often they were front and center. Historian Theodore R. Hazen prefaced his essay Interpretation for Old Mills by stating:

On a Field Trip to an Old Mill: You can learn how grain is ground into flour, how the water powers the water wheel, gears, and millstones. The miller was a very hard worker. He needed to be strong, and smart in math. He had to work well with people. Grist Mills needed cats to catch the mice.

Hazen elaborated further, citing customary practices and official regulations regarding mill cats. In fact, cats are the only four-legged residents legally allowed in a mill - no dogs permitted here!

No pets should be allowed in the mill, with the exception of the mill’s cat which should be kept for rodent control… The mill’s cats could have constant access to the mill and the outside. Many mills had a cut in the corner of the door so the cat could move freely… Most states' regulations for old grist mills fall under the regulations of their department of agriculture and not public health. Many states would not find it a problem to have a mill cat in the mill while you are grinding grain, it is a dog that they have problems with.

Historical illustrations of cats at Historic Hudson Valley properties are scarce but this watercolor, right, by Edith Stein Downing (docent for Sleepy Hollow Restorations 1960-1978, and grandmother of current Operations Manager Rob Yasinsac) shows a cat in the kitchen at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson.

Another Historic Hudson Valley-related depiction of an historical feline comes in the form of an 1868 sculpture produced by John Rogers, titled Courtship In Sleepy Hollow: Ichabod Crane and Katrina Van Tassel.  Katrina is shown sitting at the edge of a bench while Ichabod leans in from the other side, holding her right hand. Her other hand? Petting a cat.

Fred and Ginger, brother and sister, have been living at Philipsburg Manor since the summer of 2010, having arrived here when they were just a few months old. They were very shy at first and were not seen by staff for many months. The only evidence of their presence was empty food bowls in the barn each morning. Slowly, the cats made their presence more visibly known, and eventually warmed up to the site staff. While they are now quite friendly, they are not looking for attention from visitors - they are on the job.

Fred and Ginger first lived in the barn while Moses, the long-tenured mill cat, kept the gristmill pest-free. After Moses passed away in 2013, Ginger moved over to spend her nights in the mill.

Fred and Ginger are not feral by any means. They are fed by Historic Hudson Valley staff, and receive health care courtesy of Dr. Brian Green and the staff of Sleepy Hollow Animal Hospital, located just a few doors away from us on North Broadway. Indeed Dr. Green and his staff have provided complimentary care to Historic Hudson Valley for 25 years, ministering to Moses, Vixen and Mischief, Pumpkin, Suzie, Samantha, and other cats who "worked'' at Philipsburg Manor.

During the day both present-day cats are often found patrolling the grounds, and quite often Ginger will jump up and sit on a millstone in the middle of a mill tour while Fred is known to stroll through the barn during threshing demonstrations.

So if you happen to spot Fred and Ginger on your next visit to Philipsburg Manor, don’t let their mild demeanor fool you. These ferocious rodent hunters are indispensable to the manor’s operations. Without them the gristmill’s giant millstones would have precious little grain to grind!

Note: Philipsburg Manor is closed for the season. The site opens for public tours on May 3. 
 

 

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