First appeared in Fall 2001, as “A Remarkable Woman’s Vision,” by Janet Haseley, in The Rensselaerville Press, a quarterly newsletter of the Rensselaerville Historical Society.
Quiet, shy, and refined. Intelligent, determined, envisioning the future. On a first-name basis with national and world leaders. Though childless herself, she loved young people and encouraged them to develop their talents and abilities. A behind-the-scenes leader in civic, educational and cultural projects in Rensselaerville and Albany and beyond.
She memorialized her husband through the imaginative creation of what became a world-renowned nature preserve and biological research station. But she remained so much in the background that few realize that she was its creator and the guiding hand that supported its direction and provided its sound financial base.
She was Jessie Eliza Van Antwerp Huyck.
This year  marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve, which Jessie established in Rensselaerville, N.Y., on September 5, 1931, 14 months after her husband’s death. She wanted to honor him by carrying out his wish that the natural beauty of the Rensselaerville area be kept as unspoiled as possible for the benefit of future generations.
“It will be a bird and wildlife sanctuary,” said Jessie according to a September 13, 1931, Knickerbocker Press (Albany, N.Y.) article. “It will serve to increase the general knowledge and love of nature, especially that of trees and wildlife. Reforestation and forest culture will be demonstrated. I intend shortly to establish a fund to finance the Preserve in perpetuity, I hope.”
The person the Preserve honors, Edmund (Ted) Niles Huyck, was born in Rensselaerville in 1866, and was an avid fisherman and lover of nature. The Rensselaerville Falls and Lincoln Pond were special favorites of his and he often said that he wanted them maintained in their natural state for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations of the people of Rensselaerville. Jessie gave to the Preserve the original 450 acres—which included Lake Myosotis, Lincoln Pond, the Rensselaerville Falls, the watershed of Ten Mile Creek, and the forested land surrounding them—as well as the Mill House and the Rensselaerville Grist Mill. Today the Preserve owns more than 2,000 acres.
From the beginning the people of Rensselaerville were involved in the upkeep of the Preserve and benefitted from its being open for public use. Annual “trail blazes” were organized to create and maintain trails. The blazes were coordinated by Winthrop Stevens, Jessie’s nephew and one of the original board members of the Preserve. In the first three years more than 7,500 trees were planted, bird nest boxes installed, and 10 silver pheasants and 70 ducks hatched and released.
In addition to preservation and conservation, Jessie saw to it that the Preserve devoted a major part of its work to education. From the first years, the Preserve awarded prizes to schoolchildren for nature study work and sponsored public showings of conservation films. The July 6, 1934 annual meeting of the Preserve reported that Win Stevens had published an article on bird on the Preserve in the National Audubon Society’s Bird Lore.
In 1932, Jessie established an endowment to support the Preserve and added to it in subsequent years. Throughout her life, she continued to finance the major needs of the Preserve, including, in 1933 and 1934, the cost of repairing the Lake Myosotis Dam, a job that required 1,475 yards of crushed stone.
In 1937, Cornell biologist Dr. William Hamilton spent two months on the Preserve, presented a talk on plants and animals, and recommended that scientific research be conducted there. On September 24, 1938, the Preserve’s biological field station was formally established and Jessie said she would pay to support at least three resident biologists who would live on the Preserve during the summer. Today the Preserve supports six to eight scientists each summer. They each lead a Huyck Hike (an activity that has been going on since 1956) and give public reports on their research. Recently an artists-in-residence program was added: Artists live at the Preserve for several weeks each summer creating nature art and sharing their talents with youngsters and others.
The Preserve’s educational programs to benefit local children include swimming instruction, begun in 1948; children’s nature study programs; day camps; and outreach programs throughout the year, both on the Preserve and in area schools.
Jessie’s insistence on education is remarkable because she never attended college herself. She was a graduate of the Albany Academy for Girls, but her father did not believe in higher education for women so Jessie and her six sisters were denied the opportunity to go to college. Jessie had a keen mind, however, and was very well-read and interested in a wide variety of subjects especially world affairs. She encouraged young women to go to college if they possibly could.
She was a director of the New York State League of Women Voters and the Foreign Policy Association in Albany and a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and of Governor Averill Harriman. She was a member of the Cosmopolitan Club of New York City; served on the board of directors of the New York State College for Teachers; and, in the mid-1950s when she was in her late 80s, she was the honorary chairman of the Albany Academy for Girls’ building fund campaign.
She had a deep sense of world responsibility and was active in the World Affairs Council, which brought foreign-policy speakers to Albany. In 1957, when she was 88 years old, Jessie was a charter member of the SANE Nuclear Policy Committee, an activist group that opposed the production and testing of nuclear weapons.
For many years she gave summer secretarial employment to young women from China and Japan who were college students in the United States.
“Such broad interests have their own rewards—in the constant mental stimulation which tightens the passing years,” wrote newspaper columnist Ellen Scott in December 1958, less than a year before Jessie’s death at age 90. “Chronological age is unimportant when, as in Mrs. Huyck’s case, the world is your horizon.”
After her husband’s death, Jessie commissioned Francis Brown to write a biography of his life—Edmund Niles Huyck, the Story of a Liberal—that detailed his many civic and business accomplishments in the area of social welfare. Rose C. Feld, who reviewed books for the New York Times and the New York Herald and was also a contributor to the New Yorker, wrote a review of the book: “Long before this country had a program of social security for workers, Huyck sponsored the idea of old-age pensions, housing, health insurance, care of dependent children. A friend of Al Smith, he could always be depended upon to lend his support to reform legislation.”
After reading the book, the then-commissioner of education for the State of New Jersey, John Bossart, wrote to Jessie that he was so impressed with the enlightened thinking and application of progressive business practices of E.N. Huyck that he was giving a copy of the book to Wendell Wilkie, who was then campaigning for president of the United States. Bosshart said he wanted Wilkie to “learn how Mr. Huyck demonstrated a strong leadership in dealing with his men and at the same time was so sympathetic to their needs. Such a basic philosophy is necessary to any permanent solution of our great social problem.”
While planning what the book would cover, Jessie wrote to Francis Brown, “While Mr. Huyck was one of the highest type of American public-spirited citizen and businessman, that by no means tells the whole story. He was admittedly a man of charming personality, with whimsical humor, something of a poet, and at the same time practical to the point of being successful in all he undertook. This all went into the making of an unusual person. I am not alone in thinking so, and adds to the difficulty of interpreting him in words. Yet I am of the opinion it can be done.”
In her will, Jessie left large bequests to the Preserve and to the Edmund Niles Huyck Foundation, which she established as a separate entity to support charitable, scientific, and educational purposes, and to benefit the local people.
An editorial that appeared in the Albany Times Union after her death in 1959, said: “If Mrs. Huyck had any one outstanding quality it was that of self-effacement in her association with all of the organizations to which she gave of her time and energy. Her composite monument will not be found in ornate structures of granite and bronze, but rather in the hearts and minds of her countless friends and the many cultural institutions in which she was so vitally interested. . . . Through precept and example, she has left a legacy . . . which cannot be measured by the usual standards of material success.”
In a letter written in 1982, Katharine Huyck Elmore, Jessie’s niece wrote, “I am the only one left on the board [of the E.N. Huyck Preserve] who signed the original charter. At the time I feel that few, if any, of us appreciated Jessie Huyck’s vision of the future and how important protected land and research would be in the future. I feel even today she may not be appreciated or understood as much as she should be for what she has done for the community and the world beyond it.”
Edmund (Ted) Niles Huyck was born in Rensselaerville on May 17, 1866, and died on July 15, 1930. He was the eldest son of Francis Conkling Huyck, Sr., and Emily Harriet Niles. His father, Francis Conkling Huyck was a co-founder of the Huyck-Waterbury Mill (1870), which was a leading manufacturer of wool felts for the papermaking industry. When railroads didn’t come to Rensselaerville, it was too expensive to transport goods to and from there and in 1878, the Huycks relocated the mill to Kenwood on the Hudson River at the southern edge of Albany. The mill was later moved across the Hudson River to Rensselaer when the Kenwood Mills burned down. But the Huycks kept their home in Rensselaerville and had a continuing sense of obligation for the village and its people. The original Huyck-Waterbury Mill’s foundation is visible at the foot of the Rensselaerville Falls near the first footbridge.
Jessie Eliza Van Antwerp Huyck was born on November 5, 1868, in Albany, N.Y., and died on July 15, 1959, at age 90, in Rensselaerville. She was the seventh of eight children of William Meadon Van Antwerp and Susannah Irwin who were prominent in Albany’s business and social circles. Jessie and Ted Huyck were married on December 9, 1891, and famous architect Marcus Reynolds built for them what is known today as Huyck House on the grounds of the Rensselaerville Institute. The Institute property was originally the summer estates of the E.N. Huycks and Katharine Huyck and P. Lee Elmore. In 1963, the Elmores and Everett Clinchy (who was living in the Huyck House at the time) established the Institute on Man and Science (later renamed the Rensselaerville Institute) as a think tank and conference center. Today the Institute is a meeting place for all sorts of groups to engage in strategic planning and forward thinking. Other public programs include concerts, art exhibits, and a variety of education programs, some of which are done in collaboration with the Huyck Preserve.
Ted Huyck encouraged two of Jessie’s six sisters to live in Rensselaerville and their descendants have been active citizens of the village: McChesney, Stevens, Ten Eyck, Wilson, and Waldron families. The Ten Eycks and Waldrons are descendants of Grace Edith Van Antwerp who married a Waterman. The McChesneys, Wilsons, and Stevenses are descendants of Anna Van Antwerp who married a Stevens.
Additional notes from the Preserve minutes about activities benefitting the public:
May 1932: Cost of sanitary facilities and water supply for campgrounds at Lake Myosotis $450.
December 1937: Special meeting to establish the Rensselaerville Water Company.
July 1944: Preserve buys “pumper” for fire fighting in village.
August 1948: Trail blazes resumed after suspension during World War II; first electricity to campgrounds at lake; first swimming and lifeguard training.
September 1949: Baseball field at village playground renovated; field flooded for ice skating during previous winter; new boathouse and beach area established .
August 1951: First discussion of deeding playground to town. [The transfer didn’t take place until the 1990s]