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Washington Irving’s Legacy: A New Exhibit at The Historical Society

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February 5, 2020

by Charlene Weigel – 

The Historical Society Serving Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown has a new exhibit as part of the 200th anniversary celebration of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” “We started planning years ago for this bicentennial,” said Sara Mascia, Executive Director of The Historical Society. “This special exhibit includes objects from our collection dating back to Irving’s time here, many of which have never been displayed.” The exhibit celebrates Irving’s legacy on a local, regional and national basis, and explores the local people and events that influenced his writing.

Irving first came to what is now Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown in 1798 to escape a yellow fever epidemic in New York City. As a teenager, he wandered the Old Dutch Church Burying Ground, met survivors of the Revolutionary War, and heard local legends passed down through generations. The people he met and stories he heard worked their way into “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published as part of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent in 1819-1820. The Historical Society exhibit includes artifacts related to his 1798 visit, and his return as an adult when he bought a colonial farmhouse that he renamed “Sunnyside.”

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“My favorite image is the 1858 photograph that we have of Irving sitting on the porch at Sunnyside,” said Maura Gilroy, historian. “It was taken by a Dobbs Ferry photographer the year before Irving died. He looks like he is enjoying a peaceful afternoon reading.” The exhibit includes many photographs and other images of Irving’s time in the area, artifacts related to his experiences at the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground, objects related to the capture of “the unfortunate Major André,” period clothing, books and more.

The exhibit also explores the impact that Irving and “The Legend” had on Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown and America. For example, it was Irving, not Charles Dickens, who popularized Christmas as an American holiday. “Closer to home, you can’t go far in either village without seeing something named for or related to Irving,” said Mascia. “I love the collection of objects on display from local schools that show his influence on every child who grew up here.”

The Historical Society is partnering with Historic Hudson Valley and Professor Andrew Burstein (Charles P. Manship Professor of History, Louisiana State University and author of The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving) on a literary conference exploring Irving’s legacy on American literature. On Friday evening, April 3, (Irving’s 237th birthday) there will be a free community-wide presentation by Andrew Burstein and the actor Curtis Armstrong at the Sleepy Hollow High School Auditorium. The conference will take place on April 4 with noted Irving scholars discussing his works and legacy.  On Sunday, April 5, the Historical Society will offer special walking tours focusing on Irving’s local inspirations. Conference details and registration information are available at The exhibit at The Historical Society, One Grove Street, Tarrytown will be open through May. Hours and directions are available at

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