A Legend Lives On: ‘Sleepy Hollow’ Celebrates 200 Years

HOST INTRO: For two centuries, Americans have told a familiar story. A lanky schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane visits a village, falls for the most beautiful girl in the land, and gets chased out of town by a headless horseman.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” And the story’s hometown is planning months of celebrations. That’s right, Sleepy Hollow is a real place. It’s 25 miles north of New York City. Ali Swenson traveled there and discovered that the legend has given the town more than just identity. It’s been key to the village’s economic survival.

SWENSON 1: Getting to Sleepy Hollow is pretty easy. You ride the Hudson express line to the first stop north of Manhattan, and you’re in Tarrytown.

((SOUND: Train announcements.

And just down the road is Sleepy Hollow. Char (Shar) Weigel greets me as I get off the train.

((SOUND: Char Weigel greeting in the car.

SWENSON 2: Weigel is a board member at the local historical society. She knows everything about the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

WEIGEL 1

We’re going to approximate Ichabod’s wild ride.

SWENSON 3: Weigel is my guide for the day. We’re driving through town, but it feels like we’re traveling into the legend itself. The village is tiny, just two square miles. It’s dotted with curiosity shops and colonial estates. Monuments mark the spots where the fictional Ichabod visited. There are also flashier reminders.

WEIGEL 2

SWENSON: Oh, and the signs are different, the signs look like Halloween.

WEIGEL: Oh, they always do, yeah, in Sleepy Hollow, yeah, they did that.

SWENSON 4: The street signs are orange and black. And they display silhouettes of the headless horseman. That icon is also painted on fire trucks. Etched in front of the high school. And sculpted into an iron statue that towers over Weigel’s Subaru crosstrek.

WEIGEL 3

SWENSON: Man, it’s everywhere.

WEIGEL: It is everywhere, right?

SWENSON 5: Here in the village, the Legend of Sleepy Hollow isn’t just a folktale. It fuels the local economy. According to the Village Administrator, the hospital is the biggest employer, but tourism would probably come second. Everyone wants to be spooked by the headless horseman. Hollywood has helped.

There’s Disney’s musical…

DISNEY’S SLEEPY HOLLOW 1:

So don’t stop and figure out a plan. You can’t reason with a headless man.

SWENSON 6: Tim Burton’s horror classic…

TIM BURTON’S SLEEPY HOLLOW 1:

How often do I have to tell you there is no horseman, there never was a horseman, there never will be a horseman.

SWENSON 7: And Fox’s modern-day supernatural drama…

FOX’S SLEEPY HOLLOW 1:

Welcome to the 21st century, Mr. Crane.

SWENSON 8: All three have sparked interest in a 200-year-old story. And since the most recent show premiered in 2013, Sleepy Hollow has felt the surge. Historic Hudson Valley is a nonprofit that runs themed attractions — including a haunted schoolhouse. Since 2012, its revenues have nearly doubled. Lynn Moffat is on the planning committee for the bicentennial, and she’s also married to the town’s mayor. She says Halloween in Sleepy Hollow used to be humble.

MOFFAT 1

But now we’ve got lights and cameras and action. (Laughs)

SWENSON 9: But the village hasn’t always embraced its haunted roots. For years, it had a different name: North Tarrytown. It was industrial. Henry Steiner (STY-ner) is the village historian.

STEINER 1:

It was a manufacturing, General Motors town. We were making cars. We were making steamers down by the Hudson River.

SWENSON 10: That is, until 1996, when the General Motors plant shut down. It took some 4,000 jobs with it. In a town of just 10,000 people. The village needed a new identity. And that same year, they got it.

WNYC CLIP 1:

The North Tarrytown Village Board meets today to approve the name of Sleepy Hollow for that village.

SWENSON 11: That’s WNYC reporting on the village’s name change.

WNYC CLIP 2:

Yesterday residents voted by a 2 to 1 margin change the name.

SWENSON 12: According to town officials, tourism exploded. Before 1996, Sleepy Hollow got about 5,000 visitors at Halloween. Now it gets about 100,000.

Steiner says Sleepy Hollow owes this success to the author of the legend, Washington Irving. Irving came to Sleepy Hollow from New York City  when he was 15 because of a yellow fever outbreak.

STEINER 2:

He was the youngest member of the family and he was someone frail. So they said let’s get him out of here. Let’s send him up to Tarrytown.

SWENSON 13: Once he started exploring the village nicknamed Sleepy Hollow, Irving drew inspiration from who he talked to and what he saw. He spent a lot of time in the Old Dutch Church Burying Ground. It still exists today. Steiner and Weigel take me on a tour.

((SOUND: walking in cemetery. Keep up under off and on throughout graveyard scene.

Pockmarked tombstones are scattered on a grassy hillside. Some are leaning over, showing their age.

STEINER 3:

SWENSON: How does this cemetery get mowed?

STEINER AND WEIGEL: Carefully.

SWENSON 14: Local historians think Irving got some of the names in his legend from the names on the tombstones.

WEIGEL 4

WEIGEL: So, this says Katrina Van Tassel.

SWENSON: Oh my gosh!

SWENSON 15: Katrina Van Tassel is Ichabod’s love interest. But this real-life Katrina Van Tassel died in 1793, just five or so years before Irving arrived.

Steiner, the village historian, says Irving might have even heard about his headless horseman while in Sleepy Hollow. Records show a soldier was decapitated by a cannonball in a Revolutionary War battle a few miles away. And as local legend would have it, that headless soldier is buried in this cemetery. Without a headstone, fittingly.

STEINER 4:

Well, it’s all speculation, obviously, but one thing is clear, that there’s a ghost buried here.

SWENSON 16: Irving himself is buried just up the hill, under a tall oak tree. His family plot is fenced off, but his tombstone is modest. And nothing written on the small, gray marker identifies him as a writer.

JONES 1:

He’s our first American short story writer.

SWENSON 17: That’s Brian Jay Jones. He wrote a book about Irving.

JONES 2:

He’s our first American who made his living solely by writing. Irving really does a lot of things first.

SWENSON 18: He was also first to coin a lot of terms we still use today.

((SOUND: “Go NY Go” music. Lyrics: “We are the New York Knicks” then fade out.

The New York Knicks? That comes from one of his pen names, Diedrich Knickerbocker. And he was the first to give New York City the name Gotham — in a satirical magazine.

JONES 3:

Irving’s creating a national mythology. Irving was making his way in a new culture, in a new economy, and figuring out how to do things that nobody had done before.

SWENSON 19: Now, 200 years later, the residents of Sleepy Hollow are celebrating that legacy. Bicentennial events start this month. But they’re also working on writing the next chapter of their story.

Sleepy Hollow’s identity is complicated. It’s home to some of New York’s richest residents, like the Rockefellers. But 1 in 3 public high school students qualify for free and reduced lunch. The village’s population is more than half Latino. The mayor’s wife, Lynn Moffat, says she wants the bicentennial celebrations to appeal to a diverse demographic. They’ll include a bilingual reading campaign and opportunities for residents to perform legends from their own cultures.

Steiner, the historian, says as Sleepy Hollow adapts, change is inevitable.

STEINER 5:

SWENSON: But I suppose, um, you know, no matter what happens the next 200 years, you’ll still have the story. Right?

STEINER: That’s right. We’ll have the story to refer to, certainly. And maybe that can be sort of a roadmap for us for preservation.

SWENSON 20: Steiner hopes that as Sleepy Hollow develops, it won’t bulldoze over so much of its history that the legend is lost. But like any small town finding its way in the 21st century, it has to move forward. That GM plant that shut down in ‘96? Now, it’s a construction site. By Halloween, it will be home to luxury condos.

Ali Swenson, Columbia Radio News.

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