The Hermitage Logo Header


» History » The People » The Rosencrantz Family

Introduction: The Rosencrantz Family

First Generation (1807–32)

Dr. Elijah Rosegrant (Rosencrantz), who bought The Hermitage in 1807, was one of relatively few physicians in Bergen County in the early 19th century. However, one did not become wealthy practicing medicine during that period. To earn money, he also worked a farm and a sawmill on the property and, later, capitalized on the emerging trend toward industrialization by building a cotton warp mill on Ho-Ho-Kus Brook. Although Elijah intended to rent the mill out, over time the Rosencrantzes ran it themselves. The mill became the family's main source of income and the foundation for its upper-middle-class status through most of the 19th century.

Elijah and Cornelia had a relatively small family for the time. One son, Andrew, died as a child; three sons-John, George, and Elijah-lived into adulthood. John followed in his father's footsteps, first becoming a physician and later working in the textile industry. George also became a merchant's agent and later a bookkeeper for his brother John until he became ill and died in 1864 at age 52.

Second Generation (1832–88)

The youngest son , Elijah (II), remained at The Hermitage and took over the cotton mill after his father died in 1832. It was also Elijah II who decided to enlarge and reconstruct The Hermitage. A more imposing house would display not only his success as a new industrial entrepreneur, but also his growing status in his community. He hired the professional architect William Ranlett for the project. They agreed on the Gothic Revival style, which would mark Elijah as an adventurous member of the avant-garde, as well as a man of taste and substance. The Hermitage as remodeled in 1847-48 has remained largely unchanged to the present.

Elijah and his first wife, Cornelia (Killie) Livingston Dayton, granddaughter of the cotton merchant Captain Samuel Dayton, had four children: William Dayton (Will); John (II); Mary Elizabeth (Bess), the first girl born to the Rosencrantz family at The Hermitage; and George. Elijah ran the mill through the Civil War. Like most of their Bergen County neighbors, the Rosencrantzes were "Peace Democrats" (Copperheads) who opposed President Abraham Lincoln and the war. Although the men were spared the dangers of the battlefield, they were deeply affected by the conflict, as cotton from the South became scarce and expensive.

Killie gave birth to George in 1865; however, she had contracted tuberculosis and died when he was only two years old. Elijah brought Charlotte Caroline (Lillie) Dennis from Richmond, Virginia, to Ho-Ho-Kus to take care of his household. In 1870, he and Lillie were married.

Third Generation (1888–1943)

When Elijah II died in 1888, his oldest son, Will, inherited The Hermitage, along with responsibility for heading the family. Will had worked with his father at the cotton mill and at a paper mill the family owned in New York State. In 1878, he had married Mary Caroline Warner, the daughter of a wealthy textile mill owner, and they had two children: William Dayton and Mary Elizabeth. When Will succeeded his father as the manager of the cotton mill, he enlarged it and converted it from water to steam power. He also added a summer kitchen wing to The Hermitage, with a billiard room on the second floor.

Mary fell ill shortly after giving birth to Mary Elizabeth, and Will's stepmother, Lillie, arranged for her 16-year-old niece Bessie Tyler to come from Richmond to The Hermitage to help in the household. Two years after Mary died, Will and Bessie married. Through most of the 1890s, the household at The Hermitage consisted of Will and Bessie, Dayton and Mary Elizabeth, and Will's sister, Bess. His brother George also lived in the house when he was not traveling as an insurance assessor until he married Katie Levick and moved to Boston. Will's other brother, John, and his wife, Lavinia, built their own Queen Anne-style Victorian home near The Hermitage in 1892.

By the end of the 19th century, the cotton mill was no longer supporting the family in affluence. Will sold it in 1891, though he continued to run it for its new owners until 1895. It was then sold to the Brookdale Bleachery, which remained in business until the 1960s. In the second half of the 1890s, Will's employment-and income-became very uncertain. He tried a variety of businesses and entrepreneurial schemes, but supported by a large inheritance from his first wife, he devoted more and more time to pursuing hobbies. He was a pioneering golf enthusiast in Bergen County, as well as an avid amateur photographer, and he became interested in tracing his family's heritage. Bess remained at The Hermitage as an unmarried woman, independent in mind and movement but dependent on the family for her financial needs. When she was not traveling, she helped Bessie take care of the household and the children. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the family began to lose much of its cohesiveness as Will increasingly traveled to obtain employment and Dayton left The Hermitage to pursue his education. When Will died in 1915, he had no resources to leave to his wife, his sister, or his two children.

Following Will's death, both George and Dayton urged Bess and Mary Elizabeth to sell The Hermitage. They rejected the appeals, which strained family relations. The two women, now 62 and 32, faced dire economic necessity and turned to the task of working to earn money for the first time in their lives. In May 1917, they opened The Hermitage to provide tea service to the public, a venture that proved successful. In addition to serving tea and sandwiches, Bess regaled customers with stories about romance and the Revolutionary War, secret rooms and tunnels, Patriot soldiers and hidden Hessians, secret meetings of the Freemasons, and the history of many of the home's antiques. The onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s brought hard times. The tea room closed; Bess sold parcels of land she still owned to generate cash, and she and Mary Elizabeth received some financial help from George. Bess died in 1943 at age 88.

Fourth Generation (1943–70)

Like her aunt Bess, Mary Elizabeth Rosencrantz did not marry. She was almost 60 years old when she found herself living alone at The Hermitage. She invited her aunt Vinnie's former servant Katie Zahner, who was now destitute, to live with her.

For the next twenty-five years, Mary Elizabeth held on to The Hermitage amid dwindling resources. A few small inheritances came her way, and she sold property. But she lived very frugally and eventually in just two rooms of The Hermitage. She and Katie heated and cooked with a coal stove in the back parlor and continually fought off trespassers and vandals. Although she received many offers for the house and property, Mary Elizabeth refused. In 1961, she wrote a will in which she stated: " I give & bequeath to the State of New Jersey the Historic Hermitage & all its furnishings & land upon which it stands . . . to be used as a museum & park." She and Katie died five days apart in January 1970.

The Historic Hermitage as a State Park and Museum (1970– )

The Rosencrantzes' financial difficulties for more than fifty years left the original Gothic Revival architecture of the house unaltered. Letters and other records, clothing, and artifacts from almost two centuries were not thrown away. But the lack of maintenance also meant greatly overgrown grounds, a badly leaking roof, internal water damage, peeling wallpaper, crumbling plaster, and destruction by birds and animals in parts of the house.

Shortly after Mary Elizabeth's death in 1970 , efforts began to preserve and restore the house. The State of New Jersey eventually accepted her bequest and dedicated The Hermitage as a State Park. The Friends of the Hermitage, Inc., was formed in 1972 to carry out the restoration, preservation, and interpretation of the museum, its five acres of grounds, and its extensive collections-a stewardship responsibility that the Friends continue to this day.

Continue to Elijah Rosegrant Buys The Hermitage

Donate Now!

Join Us Now