Friday, 09 October 2009 00:00
For seven years, Herricks was the summer base of the New York National Guard’s Troop C, Long Island’s crack cavalry unit and a source of local pride.
Their training center and home away from their Brooklyn headquarters was Willis Lake Stock Farm, well-known for breeding fine horses and for boarding horses from some of New York City’s wealthiest families during the winter months. Since the early 1880s, it had been run by Eugene V. Willis, though his father Valentine Willis was the principal owner until his death in 1898, having taken over the business from his father, Samuel Willis, the founder.
Lying along the west side of Willis Avenue, the Willis Lake Stock Farm stretched for over 100 acres on the south and west sides of the lake. The lake itself, about the size of Herricks Pond today, was located on Willis Avenue at the south side of today’s Center Street. The stock farm was enveloped on both sides of the avenue by land owned by members of the Willis clan, including dense apple groves, pasture and some woodland. The Willis properties offered the region’s finest horse care facilities and hundreds of acres in which a military unit could train, drill and ride in a variety of scenarios and circumstances.
Founded near the end of 1895, Troop C was a special company of the National Guard. Its men were volunteers selected by a screening committee. About half the troop of 104 officers and men went to “East Williston” on a four-day outing at the end of August 1897, their own private preparation camp to supplement official state training. The men slept in three large tents, awoke at 5 a.m., drilled and trained and rode each day to Creedmore, just over the Flushing town line, where they had pistol practice on the state shooting range there. “They ride like cowboys and drill with the accuracy and military grace of veterans,” declared an 1897 newspaper report of the first Willis Lake camp. The troopers brought with them their famous “trick” horse, Thunder, the star of the unit’s well-attended exhibitions at their local armory in Brooklyn.
The first camp was quite successful, and Troop C made the Willis Lake Stock Farm its summer quarters. There wasn’t room for all of the unit’s horses at its home base at the North Portland Avenue Armory in Brooklyn, so a few dozen were kept year-round at East Williston. Typically, about a hundred “citizen-troopers” attended the summer training camps, plus reporters from the city and others tagging along to watch the elaborate drills and stunts. Each year, tents were scattered around Gene Willis’ orchards and farmers and villagers turned out to watch the show. Many of the troopers got into the routine of traveling to Willis Lake on weekends, often staying for part of the week, to ride around the area and to enjoy what the Brooklyn Eagle poetically called a “promised land of the festive quadruped…a village just barely big enough to have a name…where all are prosperous and peace and plenty abound.”
In the summer of 1898, Troop C was mustered into federal service and fought in the war against Spain, successfully advancing and pushing back Spanish troops at Aibonito, Puerto Rico. The group returned to the U.S. that fall as Long Island heroes and was a popular institution for decades. For years, the company’s every activity at Willis Lake was dutifully recorded in the region’s newspapers. In 1903, one of the troopers didn’t clear a rail that kept cattle out of Willis Avenue and broke his nose. “The plucky cavalryman” galloped up the avenue to the new Nassau Hospital, and became a one day celebrity. In 1903, the troop was doubled in size and became Squadron C.
Eugene Willis was one of Nassau County’s best known residents. He was president of the Agricultural Society, which put him in charge of the county fair, the biggest annual event of the era. In 1903 he was elected supervisor in a disputed election, ultimately decided by the courts, against his Searingtown neighbor, Edwin C. Willets (son of Isaac U.). In March 1904, Gene Willis suddenly died and the future of Willis Lake Stock Farm was in doubt. Plans for trolley cars and the strategic position of East Williston near the railroad, the county seat, the Garden City Hotel and other key destinations made the Willis properties very valuable. The farm went on the market and that fall, the Squadron used its own funds to purchase a farm in Huntington as its new campground.
On April 15, 1905, the Willis Lake Stock Farm and five other adjacent Willis farms, orchards and woods totaling 273 acres were sold, mostly to real estate investors and developers, in the largest land auction anyone in Nassau County could remember.