Movers and Shakers: Women Who Changed Palisades

Women have always played an important part in Palisades history, but two of them especially stand out. Molly Sneden was indisputably the most powerful woman in the community for part of the 18th century. Born Maria Dobbs in Westchester in 1709, she married Robert Sneden in 1731. By 1745 she, Robert and eight children were living in a house by the Hudson in Paliades and running the ferry to Dobbs Ferry. After Robert died in 1753, Molly took over the running of the ferry, helped by her oldest sons.

In 1756, although by now she had twelve children, she acquired a license to operate her house as a tavern, becoming the only businesswoman in Palisades at the time. Because she supported the British, she left Palisades for a time during the Revolutionary War. Her descendants ran the ferry until 1903 and populated Palisades until the middle of the 20th century. They also gave their name to the area of Palisades closest to the river.

The next woman to reshape Palisades was Mary Lawrence Tonetti, born Mary Lawrence, in 1868. Mary developed an interest in sculpture early in life; she was an unconventional young woman for the times and went on to study sculpture in Paris and to contribute a monumental statue of Christopher Columbus to the Chicago Exposition of 1893. In 1900 she married François Tonetti, a Franco-Italian sculptor, and started a family. When her mother died in 1912, Mary inherited sixteen houses in the Landing and began to rent them for very reasonable prices to artistic friends. Mary gave up sculpture when she married, but turned her artistry to creating attractive houses that were rented by famous architects, actors and actresses, musicians and writers. The artists’ colony she created has had a lasting effect on the community.

There were, of course, many women who have more recently been important in Palisades history and its institutions. A list of a number of them follows:

• Mildred Rippey, Palisades Librarian from 1948 to 1968, chronicled her life in Palisades through writings and witty poems and was recognized as a matriarch in the community.

• Alice Haagensen created the Palisades Historical Committee in 1950 and went on to publish the definitive book about Palisades history in 1986, researching all the while.

• Laura Ebmeyer became the first woman postmaster in 1955; she retired in 1989. She and her husband were responsible for the building of the new post office in 1962.

• Nellie Knudson led the efforts to build a public pool in Palisades; the pool opened in 1964.

• Beatrice Agnew became the director of the Palisades Library in 1968 and was still librarian when she died in 2007, after having led several library renovations.

• Helene Stansbury founded P.L.O.T., an organization to preserve the graves in the Palisades Cemetery in 1974, and also fought to preserve the right of access to the cemetery.

• Carol Elevitch was a Democratic Committeewoman for many years and in 1977, with Jane Bernick and others, started 10964, our community newsletter.

• Gerri Miras was elected to the South Orangetown School Board in 1982 and served on the Board for 14 years.

• Laurie Ferguson served as a very popular pastor at the Palisades Presbyterian Church between 1982 and 1997.

• Eileen Larkin founded the Palisades Civic Association in 1984, was its first president and was a member of the Orangetown Town Board from 1992 through 1995.

• Carol Baxter became President of the Palisades Community Center in 2008. Since then she has led the effort to restore and maintain the old schoolhouse and has spearheaded one community issue after another.