Before there was a Forest Hills
by Michael Perlman
Nov 20, 2013 | 12918 views | 3 3 comments | 134 134 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Today, Forest Hills residents shop and dine on Austin Street, patronize the Midway Theatre, stroll through Forest Hills Gardens, and graduate from Forest Hills High School. These are some of the “landmarks” that give Forest Hills its character.

But there is a history before modern-day Forest Hills that you can no longer see.

Encounter a town called Whitepot, which predates modern-day Forest Hills. It was an area predominantly occupied by wood-frame farmhouses and fields of crops, with “landmarks” on a humble scale. In the early 20th century, some homes were up to 200 years of age. Today, there are none.

In 1924, a survey of that time period was conducted by local resident Lucy Allen Smart. The oldest living member of one of the first families of Whitepot was Frederick D. Backus, who told Smart about Whitepot’s residents.

“The neighbors were few when I was a boy, and some that lived a mile away we called neighbors,” he recalled. “The farmers raised hay, grain, and vegetables to supply the New York markets. Fruit and nuts were in abundance, and every farmer would take his apples to a cider mill, which was located on the Hempstead Swamp Road, now Yellowstone Avenue. The children attended the Whitepot School, but we all had to go to Newtown to church.”

Backus also explained that since few homes had ice houses, in the summer food was kept cool by hanging it in wells and tin pails. In the winter, oxen were driven through snow drifts along narrow roads.

In 1652, Newtown was settled and Whitepot was one of its sections. An early 20th century debate was whether Forest Hills was originally known as Whitepot or Whiteput.

If it was spelled “Whitepot,” it could refer to the original purchase of the land from Native Americans in exchange for three clay white pots. But that was refuted by J.H. Innes, who told the publication “Ancient Landmarks of Queens Borough” that the authentic spelling was “Whiteput.”

If correct, the land would be named in conjunction with the Dutch term “put” for a stream that became a hollow pit.

Whitepot consisted of six farms, which were named after Ascan Backus, Casper-Joost Springsteen, Horatio N. Squire, Abram V.S. Lott, Sarah V. Bolmer, and James Van Siclen.

In 1829, Backus acquired parcels of Whitepot’s farmland to meet Manhattan’s produce needs and Army purchases during the Civil War. Ascan Avenue bears homage to his name.

In 1900, the New York Times reported Whitepot’s population as 30, consisting of German residents who plant potatoes and celery.

In 1906, Cord Meyer Development Company purchased 600 acres in the Hopedale section, an area bounded by Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike, and renamed it “Forest Hills” after its high elevation.

In March 1931, George Meyer, son of the late Cord Meyer told the New York Times, “Roman Avenue between Queens Boulevard and Austin was the first street to be cut through, and on it, the company started its first building operations, ten two-family brick homes.”

Today, only four Neo-Renaissance row houses remain from 1906, and are reminiscent of the first signs of development in what was now known as Forest Hills.

As for Whitepot, the Whitson Homestead, built in 1800, stood on Queens Boulevard, steps away from Backus Place. Also along Queens Boulevard was the McCoun-Backus House, which was recognized as one of the best homes of Whitepot at 160 years old.

The Judge Jonathan T. Furman House, dating to 1750, stood on Dry Harbor Road, which ended in a cluster of farms facing a large pond.

The only known existing remnant of Whitepot is the landmarked Remsen Cemetery between Trotting Course Lane and Alderton Street. The Remsen family was among the area’s first settlers. Tombstones date from 1790 through 1819, and include Revolutionary War Veteran Colonel Jeromus Remsen.

We should continue to seek signs of our Colonial past, while we work to preserve our 20th century landmarks.

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Frederick Backus Guh
December 18, 2017
I wanted to add that Jessie Eleanor Backus, daughter of Isaac Wyckoff Backus and Pearl Kenty Backus, had three daughters: Mary, Jean and Jessie. Mary and Jean died at ages 16 and 17. Surviving daughter, Jessie (Jessie Eleanor Backus) married Mott Paul Guhse July 4, 1942. In 1948 they adopted twins born in 1948 and named them Frederick Backus Guhse and Merrijean Guhse. Merrijean was named for the two sisters who died in their teenage years. Currently, Frederick Backus Guhse lives in Keene, NH, while his sister lives in Florida and is married to Joseph Stalls.
Marjorie Melikian
November 20, 2013
Nice article!! A Jonathan Furman of Newtown (of which Forest Hills was then part of) was one of the signers of a letter to the Revolutionary War era Rivington's Gazette newspaper. This is reported in James Riker's 1852 "Annals of Newtown" book. The signers were of the new Whig party and supported the cause of American Independence. This is probably the same Jonathan Furman you mention. The early family attended The First Presbyterian Church of Newtown, from the 1600s. The congregation, 361 years old, still exists in the Elmhurst portion of Newtown.
November 20, 2013
Thanks for sharing this interesting history of Forest Hills. It's fun to learn about our neighborhood's past, and to imagine a time when parts of NYC were actually farmland. Amazing that Whitepot had only 30 people in 1900! It's a shame nearly all the early structures and landmarks are gone. It's a lesson for us in the importance of preserving our more resent historic sites.