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Graham Family once shared generations of life in house that burned in November

Graham Family & 72 East Main Street History

By Sharon E. Siegel

NOTE: This post, admittedly long and detailed, contains historical research about a house and large family that called Port Jervis home. It was compiled with online research, and help from MVHS Executive Director Nancy Conod. It is being posted in response to readers asking what happened to the Graham Family after moving to Port Jervis and living for generations in this home.




The history of 72 East Main Street, Port Jervis, which burned on November 28, 2021 and was demolished and removed this month, has documents dating to 19th century construction. Port Jervis’ assessor office records show it with a construction date of 1870. These records match Minisink Valley Historical Society and New York State Division for Historic Preservation’s construction time period, listed as 1860-1870.

Martin Detrick Graham and wife Sarah Ridgway Graham and their large family lived in the house for decades, from 1861-1918. While others owned and lived in the house at other times, and are included in this history, I am primarily focusing on the Graham Family’s longtime ownership in this home’s history.


Martin Detrick Graham & Sarah Ridgway Graham

Newspaper archives show Martin and Sarah Graham as moving to Port Jervis from Pennsylvania in 1859. Married in Pennsylvania on January 3, 1844, Sarah gave birth to eight daughters. Only five lived to adulthood. All five daughters lived for some time at the large 72 East Main Street, Port Jervis home. They were (in order of birth and with spouses listed) Mary Ellen (Howard Marvin), Blanche (John M. Lester), Florence (Peter Witschief), Grace G. (Irving Elston), and Annie F. (William H. Dafoe).

While living in Pennsylvania, Martin and Sarah Graham, both teachers, also owned and operated a grocery store on the Delaware and Hudson (D&H) Canal, near Hawley, PA. This PA general store was located on the old Milford and Owego turnpike (near Darlingsville, now currently Glen Eyre). They operated this store from 1845 until their move to Port Jervis in 1850.

Once in Port Jervis, Martin and Sarah constructed and ran (from 1852-1866) the Graham Hotel on Front Street (also known as Exchange Hotel, Hotel Sussex, or Commercial House). The husband/wife team physically brought part of their business lives in PA with them. They built the frame of their new Port Jervis hotel from “the demolished Lackawaxen Township storehouse” which was transported to Port Jervis on a canal boat on the Delaware & Hudson Canal.

Martin, while operating the hotel, also remained involved in the livery and grocery businesses on what was known as the “Graham Block” on Pike Street. He built a number of businesses and tenement blocks in various locations in this region and acquired a large amount of real estate, not just in New York State, but New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, also. Martin became a prominent businessman, while also serving in many local groups and civic events. This included as Port Jervis’ assessor and as a member of the Board of Sewer Commissioners. Sarah actively ran the hotel, and as landlady was known for making sure all guests felt comfortable and at home while there.


Martin Detrick Graham (1822-1898):

Born October 19, 1822 to John and Myra Detrick Graham at Painter’s Brook (also known as “The Narrows of Lackawaxen”) near Rowland, Pike County, PA.

Martin completed his school years in PA and, for a time, was a successful teacher in his hometown. He married Sarah Ridgway on January 3, 1844, in Milford, PA. As an adult, Martin was known as an indulgent father and husband and endowed with strong intellect, retentive memory, positive convictions, and, “once shaped, always ready to follow his opinions.”

Martin died on October 16, 1898 at Middletown State Hospital where he had been undergoing treatment for an illness of long duration. He is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery, as is his wife Sarah and several other family members.

Sarah Ridgway Graham (1823-1909):

Born February 25, 1823 in Milford, PA to Charles B. and Elizabeth Barnes Ridgway. Newspaper accounts state that her parents “later removed” from Milford to Lackawaxen Township, Pike County during her early girlhood.

Sarah is described in documents as an ‘earnest’ student who was ‘vigorous, mentally and physically’ and who became a very successful teacher in public schools in Pike County, beginning at age 16 (1839). She followed that vocation until her marriage on January 3, 1844 to Martin D. Graham. The couple moved to Port Jervis in 1850, where Sarah’s brother John Ridgway resided at that time.

Once in Port Jervis, Sarah was active in the operation of the Exchange Hotel on Front Street with her husband, always making sure their guests felt at home. She was described as “a cheerful landlady who had a kind word for everyone, and was most energetic in her efforts to make the hotel homelike and cozy” for all. Strong in her Christian faith, she was an avid reader whose favorite book was The Bible (much of which she had memorized). She was happy in doing good deeds, and “never happier than when relieving the distressed.” It was Sarah’s nature to “lift up the downtrodden and oppressed and help make lives more hopeful through kind words, kind acts, and her own sacrifices.”

Sarah died at three o’clock Saturday afternoon, February 13, 1909, following “many long and weary weeks of sickness.” She was laid to rest near her husband and other family members in Laurel Grove Cemetery, Port Jervis.


Martin & Sarah’s five daughters (in order of birth)

1. Mary Ellen Graham Marvin (1845-1899): (Howard Marvin)

Born January 8, 1845, Lackawaxen (Pike County, PA).

Married Howard Marvin (12/7/1829-1/18/1905) on April 17, 1871. Died of cerebral apoplexy (sudden bleeding in the brain/stroke) at the home of her mother on July 27, 1899. She was 54.

(Howard Marvin had been previously married to Louisa Hill Marvin, with whom he had a daughter Mary who died Jan 14, 1901).

Both Mary Ellen and Howard are buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery, Port Jervis, NY.

Mary Ellen was survived at the time of her death by her four sisters Florence (Peter Witschief), Port Jervis, Blanche (John Lester), Hanalton, Ontario, Grace (Irving Elston), Port Jervis, and Anne (William Dafoe), Chicago, IL, a niece Gertrude Witschief Bennet (William S. Bennet), NY City and nephew Graham Witschief, Newburgh.


2. Florence Graham Witschief (1847-1931): (Peter Witschief)

Born February 28, 1847, Lackawaxen (Pike County, PA), married Peter Witschief (2/1847-9/24/1932—parents Henry and Anna Witschief) on August 10, 1870. Died at 83 on February 23, 1931 at the home of her daughter (Gertrude W. Bennet) in Evanston, Ill. Florence and Peter were visiting when Florence took seriously ill two weeks before her death.

Both Florence and Peter were non-hearing and non-speaking (listed as “deaf and dumb” in records) due to contracting Whooping Cough as children, Florence at age 11 in 1858. Despite challenges brought by this illness, both achieved success in life in business, family, and community involvement.

Florence died on February 23, 1931. Peter, who had moved to St. Cloud, Fl after Florence’s death, was struck and killed by an automobile the next year, September 19, 1932, at age 85. His body was returned to Port Jervis, and a funeral held in the chapel of Terwilliger & Woolsey at 41 Front Street (currently The Gun Lady shop). Florence and Peter are both buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery.

At the time of Florence’s death in 1931, the couple had been survived by their two children (Gertrude and Graham), seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Gertrude (age 59 at that time) lived at 2046 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL. Graham (age 57 at that time) lived at 379 Grand Street, Newburgh, NY.

Florence and Peter Witschief’s children (two) Gertrude and Graham:

1. Gertrude Witschief Bennet (1872-1959): Born October 24, 1872 in Port Jervis, NY) (married June 30, 1896 in Port Jervis to William Stiles Bennet (November 9, 1870-December 1, 1962). Gertrude died March 16, 1959. Gertrude Witschief Bennet graduated from Vassar College, lived in Evanston, Il, and with William had four children. She died March 16, 1959 in Mount Vernon, NY and is buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery, Port Jervis, NY with William.

Gertrude’s husband, William Stiles Bennet, parents Alice Leonora (Stiles) Bennet and James Bennet), graduated from Port Jervis Academy in 1889 and from Albany Law School in 1892. He was a Republican member of the New York State Assembly from the 21st District (January 1, 1901-December 31, 1902), U.S. House of Representatives from New York 17th District (March 4, 1905-March 3, 1911), and 23rd District (November 2, 1915-March 3, 1917). He was opposed to restriction on immigration, and was actively involved in furthering civil rights. William died at age 92 in Falkirk Hospital, Central Valley, NY, was cremated, and his ashes interred in Laurel Grove Cemetery with Gertrude.

Children of Gertrude Witschief Bennet and William Stiles Bennet (4):

(1.)Augustus Witschief Bennet (October 7, 1897-June 5, 1983), Born in NYC 10/7/1897,

Went to school in NYC, Washington, DC, graduated from Amherst College in 1918 and Columbia University Law School NYC in 1921. Augustus served in WWI in the United States Naval Reserve Flying Corps. He was Chief Quartermaster from June 8, 1919 to January 19, 1919. He married Maxine Layne (1906-11/15/1911) on October 19, 1929. He practiced law in Newburgh, was a U.S. referee in bankruptcy from 1923-1944, and was elected (Republican) to 79th Congress where he served as U.S. Representative for the 29th District from January 3, 1945 to January 3, 1947. After leaving Congress, he practiced law while residing in Laguna Hills, CA. He died June 5, 1983 (age 85) in Concord, MA. Both Augustus and Maxine were cremated and their ashes are interred at Cedar Hills Mausoleum, Newburgh, NY.

Children of Augustus and Maxine: Linda Bennet (6/12/1932-11/8/2012), William Stiles Bennet (1934-2009), Susanna G. Bennet (Feb. 1937-?) married Christopher John Humphreys 3/18/1957, lived in Halifax, NC, had two children, son Matthew Humphreys died 2004, second child (name private) likely still living.

(2.)Sarah A. Bennet (October 1, 1899-Manhattan, NY). No known children.

(3.) Florence M. Bennet (Pierce) (9/7/1901 NY – 2/11/1983 at age 81, Santa Barbara, CA) No known children.

(4.) Edna Grace Bennet (1904 NY – 6/5/1983 Laguna Hills, CA) No known children.


2. Graham Witschief (February 20, 1875-January 11, 1945) (married 4/16/1904 to Mary Farnum Witschief (1876- Sept.1953).

Graham Witschief became a judge in Newburgh and Supreme Court Justice. His parents were both deaf and non-speaking, and he was very active as an advocate and in helping with legal matters involving the deaf.

Mary Farnum Witschief was the daughter of Peter E. Farnum and Mary Conkling, early residents of Port Jervis and members of the family of John Conkling founder of Laurel Grove Cemetery.

Both Graham and Mary are buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery.

Children of Graham and Mary Farnum Witschief (two):

(1.) Florence Graham Witschief (12/20/1906-10/30/2003): Born in Newburgh, NY, Married 12/29/1928 Charles Amos Wood (5/27/1901-6/6/1973) of Syracuse, NY in Newburgh. Florence and Charles’ marriage was witnessed by Mollie Witschief Wood, Wallace L. Roberts, and Rev. Seth C. Craig.

Florence died in Syracuse, NY 2003. Charles died in Syracuse 1973. Both are buried in Skaneateles, NY.

At the time of Florence’s death (2003), she was survived by their children Nancy (Carl) Wellman (Skaneateles), Charles (Gay) Wood (Baton Rouge), and Graham (Joelle) Wood (Manlius), and grandchildren Mark Nicolson, Lindzey DiVietro, Jeffrey Wood, Elizabeth Wood Fourrier, Susan Wood Furr, Susan Wood Holliday, Terry Woo Holleran, numerous great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

(2.) Graham Witschief (1915-1983, age 67-68) Married Margaret Mislan Witschief of Trenton, NJ (May 18, 1917-April 13, 2005), Graham is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery and Mausoleum (inside mausoleum), had captain rank in America’s military, included service in WWII in France. No children listed.


3. Blanche Graham Lester ( 1854-1901) (John M. Lester)

Born 3/25/1854 in Lackawaxen, PA, died 1/20/1901 at age 46. Blanche and John lived in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada where both are also buried. John was born 1/30/1849 and died 10/5/1906. No children listed.


4. Grace G. Graham Elston (1855-1937) (Irving Elston)

Born 12/16/1855 (Port Jervis, NY), died 2/4/1937 after a short illness at the home of Miss Phoebe Drake with whom she lived at 18 E. Main Street. Grace was an active member of the First Presbyterian Church, had been the superintendent of the Home Department, president of the Women’s Missionary Society, and member of the Church Workers Society.

She married Irving Elston (3/27/1855-9/6/1910, parents Lemuel Ellsworth Elston and Ellen Knight Elston). No children listed.

Grace was survived by one sister, Annie DaFoe of Brooklyn, a nephew Justice Graham Witschief (sister Florence’s son) of Newburgh, and a niece Gertrude Witschief Bennet (sister Florence’s daughter) of NY.

A funeral was held for Grace at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 7 in the Terwilliger-Woolsey Company chapel at 41 Front Street, with Rev. Dr. John A. Shaw. Both Grace and Irving are buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery.


5. Annie F. Graham DaFoe (1858-1950) (Sanford McKeeby) and (William DaFoe)

Born March 1858 (Port Jervis, NY), (married in 1893 William H. DaFoe who was born in Canada), died September, 1950.

Annie's first husband was Sanford McKeeby, b. 8/16/1856 Milford, PA, m. 9/16/1879, d.3/8/1928, Chicago, IL). Sanford had been previously married to Acca Crowell, m. 1872.

Annie Graham was his second wife. When Annie and Sanford divorced, he married a third time and moved to Chicago.

Annie's second husband was William H. Dafoe, b. 2/3/1857 Canada, m. 1893, d.6/23/1938 Brooklyn State Hospital, NYC,)

In the 1930, on Census, lived at 161 Springfield Avenue, Rutherford, NJ. Both Annie and William are buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery.


OWNERSHIP – HISTORY OF 72 EAST MAIN STREET HOME

Some verbal stories have the 72 East Main Street house as having been a hospital or sanitorium. However, there have been no official records found showing such to date. There are records to the contrary, however. Records show a sanitorium/hospital on Prospect Street, behind the 72 East Main Street home. That Prospect Street building is labeled as #10, Deer Park Sanitorium, on a Library of Congress 1929 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Port Jervis, Orange County, New York.

Orange County Historian Building Structure Inventory Form for NY Historic Preservation (dated October 29, 1977) shows the ‘Martin D. Graham House’ as a wood frame clapboard structure belonging to George Kingston, who was living in the house at that 1977 date. It is described on that form as featuring “elaborate architectural details in which simple Victorian Gothic has been enriched by elements such as false oculus windows (large and small), elliptical arched porch, large double Gothic doors with lancet windows, elaborate cornices and ‘mouldings’, and a curved spring roof, interior with central spiral staircase. Past alterations listed on this September 1977 form state (with much then-current renovation underway), December 1974 (new shingles), 1973 (one tower removed and replaced with sunroof), 1960 (aluminum siding), 1950’s (rear porch added), with a three-car carriage house built after the residential house was constructed.

Both the 72 East Main Street and 10 Prospect Street structures have been most recently used as multi-family apartment houses, and as of November, 2021 ownership has been by Red Knight Real Estate and Partners IV LLC of Newark, NJ. The 72 East Main Street house burned beyond repair in a structure fire Sunday evening, November 28, 2021. It was demolished and remains of the structure removed from the corner lot of East Main and Prospect Streets, last of the debris removed on December 10, 2021.

In 1893, Martin and Sarah Graham sold their 72 East Main Street home, which they had owned at that time for nearly 20-years, to their second oldest daughter Florence Graham Witschief. Martin and Sarah continued in the house until their deaths, Martin in 1898 and Sarah in 1909. Members of the Witschief Family sold the 72 East Main Street house to Robert Bowly nine years after Sarah died, in 1918. This was nearly 50-years since Sarah and Martin Graham first purchased this home.

At the time of the 1918 sale, Florence and Peter Witschief owned the home, but were living in a house they also owned at 2 Hudson Street. Other members of their family were still living at 72 East Main Street until it was sold.

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Sharon, thanks for all the interesting information on the Graham family and history of 72 E. Main Street. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

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