Revisiting Leary’s Millbrook

The gatehouse that visitors to the Hitchcock Estate, located at Route 44 and Franklin Avenue, Millbrook and leased by Timothy Leary, passed as they entered the realm of psychedelic possibilities.

Judith O'Hare Balfe

Revisiting Leary’s Millbrook

When author Tonia Shoumatoff attended a Millbrook Historical Society (MHS) presentation May 16, 2019, about psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, it made a big impression on her.

In fact, as she related at another MHS presentation Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, she told the audience that the presentation — made by New York State Historian Devon Lander about the life and times of Millbrook in the Timothy Leary era — inspired the second part of her latest book, “Historic Tales of the Hudson Valley: Life at the End of the Line,” which came out in July 2023.

Shoumatoff told the by now well-known story: Leary had started on the Psilocybin Project while at Harvard University, researching the use of psychedelic drugs and their potential for use in the treatment of mental health issues. Through meetings with different people, and some haphazard events, the Project devolved from there, into something not that scientific and not widely regarded as serious research.

But was Millbrook an odd choice for Leary? No, said Shoumatoff. This area has been a home, a birthplace, for many innovative projects, she said, naming some of the many religious orders that found homes here, such as the Millerites, the Shakers and the Quakers.

Perhaps the beautiful landscape lends itself to solitude, or that the closeness to nature fosters a closeness to prayer. Whatever the reason, Dutchess County, in particular its northeastern corner, has attracted, many peculiar utopian and religious groups.

She read an excerpt from her book:

“A Victorian utopian community claiming to see fairies settled in Wassaic, attracting Japanese samurai and remaking the townscape of Amenia. An early version of the “Borscht Belt” began on the shores of Lake Amenia, where a once-thriving resort community vanished along with the lake itself.

Amidst a crisis of dwindling membership, the NAACP was brought together at major conferences held at Amenia’s Troutbeck estate, then owned by Joel Spingarn, the organization’s first Jewish president. Young graduates from the Rhode Island School of design and other art schools launched the Wassaic Project, a festival and art residency using a converted agricultural grain elevator as their venue.”

Leary and fellow Harvard professor Richard Alpert started the Psilocybin Project in 1960, but by 1962, the project had gotten bad reviews from others at Harvard; Alpert was accused of having given psilocybin to an undergraduate, and both were fired from the university.

In 1963, the Hitchcock brothers invited Leary to rent the estate, consisting of 2,300 acres, for $1 per year, and he lived and entertained there for the next five years. The estate is at Route 44 and Franklin Avenue, and the impressive gate house is still there.

They entertained an assortment of hirsute celebrities such as Allen Ginsberg, R.D. Laing, and Charles Mingus.

Depending on who you’re talking to, the estate is remembered for its endless parties and all kinds of happenings; others say it was all research and science.

At any rate, after five years and a lot of FBI raids, Leary and his entourage left, and we can imagine that Millbrook gave a collective sigh of relief.

John Flanagan, a member of the MHS, was a young reporter at the time for The Poughkeepsie Journal. He related a story involving Leary and Rosemary Woodruff, whom Leary married at the estate in 1967:

Sent by the paper to cover the event, Flanagan was with fellow a fellow journalist when Woodruff began talking to them. Realizing that Flanagan was from The Poughkeepsie Journal, which continuously made negative comments about Leary through its editorials, she flew into a rage and insisted he be thrown out.

When Leary resisted, she said she wouldn’t get married as long as Flanagan was present. He went off to another part of the estate, the marriage was conducted, and Flanagan got his pictures and story through his friend. Because the Journal was a feed for the Associated Press, it ran in newspapers across the world. Begged Flanagan, “Just don’t use my name! I have to live in Millbrook.”

Many people still remember that time in the ’60s when Millbrook became known for its infamous inhabitant. But like all things in the past, memories soften a bit with age, and become substance for historical society presentations.

Shoumatoff was entertaining, at times funny, but still got the message across that however serene the scenery may be, there is always something interesting festering beneath the surface, and even Millbrook has some wild tales to tell.

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