“Another of his sources of fearful pleasure was to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him.”

– The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

Several years ago, my husband and I took a trip to the Catskills. It was autumn and the leaves were glorious. But in addition to soaking up the beautiful fall colors, we hit several historic sites, as all good park people would. We visited the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites and made a trip to West Point. And then we decided to take a side trip, given our general proximity to the setting of one of my favorite tales – the village of Sleepy Hollow.

I grew up listening to the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. As a child, I watched the 1949 animated cartoon, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, over and over again. And I enjoyed Sleepy Hollow, the Tim Burton remake, as an adult. Suffice it to say that I’m a fan. So, when a quick perusal of Google Maps illuminated our proximity to the village of Sleepy Hollow, it all seemed too perfect an opportunity to pass up.

We stopped first at author Washington Irving’s whimsical estate, Sunnyside, in nearby Tarrytown, New York. It was charming and provided an excellent excuse to pick up a children’s edition of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for my kiddos. And then we journeyed on to Sleepy Hollow.

Sleepy Hollow is no longer the quiet little village described by Irving in his memorable tale. It now has a population of roughly 10,000 people with all the trappings of our modern world; coffee shops, fitness centers, orthodontics offices, etc. Frankly, I was a little underwhelmed.

The Old Dutch Church – courtesy of Hudsonvalley.org

However, we stumbled into Sleepy Hollow at the perfect time of year. The air was crisp and redolent with the smell of chimney smoke filling the air. The maples were bursting with bright red and yellow leaves. Really, it was perfect. So, we dove a little deeper into the village and soon found ourselves wandering into the Old Dutch Church Burying Ground, where we truly took a step back in time.

It’s a charming place, full of old trees and crumbling stone. Seated in the middle is the Old Dutch Church, a simple stone building built in the 1600s that is now a National Historic Landmark. And as we wandered up to the building to take a closer look at the plaque on the exterior wall, the door suddenly swung open and a grizzled old man stepped out. He had a long white beard and was solidly built. And he was wearing a National Park Service ball cap.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – courtesy of VisitwestchesterNY.com

He greeted us warmly and when we asked about his hat, he told us he was a volunteer. In no time at all, he launched into the history of the burying ground, and the adjacent Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

He pointed out the graves of several townsfolk who apparently served as inspiration for Irving’s famous characters, Katrina Van Tassel and Brom Bones. And he located a grave under which a Hessian soldier was evidently buried – perhaps the Headless Horseman himself? We wandered to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and looked at the grave of Washington Irving, in addition to tombstones with the names Carnegie, Astor, and Rockefeller engraved. It was an unexpected tour at an unexpected stop, and we loved every minute of it.

Our volunteer tour guide gave us exactly what we were looking for. He wove together history and legend into a satisfying but informative hour. Was it all true? Who knows. But we learned more about the “real” Sleepy Hollow than we had known before and still satisfied our urge to bask in the lore of Irving’s classic short story.

We left Sleepy Hollow feeling satisfied with our visit. I don’t remember our guide’s name anymore, but I’m so thankful for the experience he provided. The National Park System encompasses many incredible spaces, like the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground, but they’re just buildings and graves without someone to tell the stories.

Tonight, on the eve of Halloween, I plan to share the story of Ichabod and the Headless Horseman with my little ones. And we’ll take them to the Hudson River Valley someday too; to soak up the history and to learn a little of the local legends. I just hope we have another amazing storyteller to bring it all to life.