The first family of Malden: Eccentric and worldly

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Photos by Will Dendis

Bigelow SQ

Poultney Bigelow

In 1815, when Asa Bigelow, founder of the Bigelow Bluestone Company, built a 2 ½ story English-style frame house on the banks of the Hudson in Malden – then called Bristol, an important deep-water port – it’s highly unlikely he ever imagined that two centuries later, historic-home enthusiasts and academics would journey there specifically to examine his ledgers, library and chamber pots.

But that’s exactly what happens, about a half-dozen times a year, cost-free but by appointment only, at the Bigelow Homestead at 1134 Main St., Malden-on-the-Hudson, says long-term caretaker Jen Williams Dragon.

“Asa’s ledger is basically a ‘who’s who’ in Saugerties in the 1820s, and it’s something scholars and genealogists can freely handle, it’s not locked away,” she said. “Prospective burglars would be very disappointed by what’s here – there’s not much of value that could be resold without attracting a great deal of attention – because there are no computers, no televisions; the real valuables here are the autographed first editions in the library, and we keep those under lock and key,” said Dragon. She added that nevertheless, the house is carefully monitored at all times. Also, the children and grandchildren of its current owner, the widow of blueblood Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff, a hereditary prince who’s descended on his mother’s side from Asa Bigelow, often come up from Manhattan and Princeton, New Jersey to use the house as a weekend retreat.

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Together with her husband, social media marketing expert Ric Dragon, Jen worked on the structure’s second major renovation in the early 1990s, a comprehensive four-year effort. Ric, then a building contractor specializing in the restoration of historic homes, calls his work on the Bigelow Homestead his “swan song” to manual labor. The prestigious project was so demanding physically, Ric decided to jump on the Internet bandwagon shortly thereafter; he’s recently written a book, “Social Marketology,” published by McGraw-Hill, about his theories on social-media marketing.

Books line most of the walls

Jen Dragon remains professionally attached to the Bigelow Homestead, and the affluent and extensive family who owns it. In addition to taking care of a couple of other grand Hudson River Valley estates, Dragon, a painter, also has a vintage map-restoration business. Her studio is located in the Bigelow Homestead’s converted former outhouse.

“I’ve inventoried everything here – the last full-time resident, the journalist and adventurer Poultney Bigelow, lived here until he died in 1954 at age 98 – was an eccentric who didn’t update the house with electricity and running water until a very late date, which is why there are so many gas lamps and chamber pots original to the house still here,” she said.

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Asa’s grandson, Poultney Bigelow, founded the first American magazine devoted to amateur sports, Outing, in 1885. At the time of his death, he was Yale’s oldest alumnus, a graduate of the class of 1879. Poultney was also the author of eleven books, including a two-volume autobiography detailing his lifelong friendship with school chum Prince Wilhelm, later Kaiser Wilhelm II, in addition to his associations with many leading intellectuals of the day, including satirist Mark Twain, pianist Percy Grainger, economist Henry George, and artist Frederic Remington. Poultney, whose father John was co-owner of the New York Evening Post, belonged to the exclusive Yale secret society of Skull and Bones, an arcane predecessor to the Internet-based crowd-funder Kickstarter that’s often the subject of fanciful Illuminati/New World Order conspiracy theories.

Poultney was such a charismatic figure in his day that news of his bicycle accident in the Alps – “he was found unconscious by peasants who carried him to a hut” – actually made page ten of the October 11, 1902 edition of The New York Times.

“Poultney was third-generation money; he really didn’t want to work,” said Jen. “He got a law degree from Columbia, and earned the money for all his trips overseas, because his father refused to pay for Poultney’s adventures, of which he had a great many.”

The caretaker added that during the heyday of the Catskills mountain house resorts, prior to the widespread adoption of the automobile, a visit to Poultney’s house in Malden was on the social register circuit for the most interesting set of old-money New Yorkers. It was a comfortable, but somewhat rustic, quirky Hudson River tourist experience.

“You see, there’s nothing really new about that mix in Saugerties,” said Jen.

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