Annie Oakley, Imelda Marcos a part of Moriches history
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There are 10 houses on the expanse of land that was once Mary Field's backyard.
In it, she and her siblings built a fort among woods so dense they could stay out there even when it rained.
“It was a great place to be a child,” said Field, 81, whose family moved to Center Moriches in 1931.
Field, who still lives in Center Moriches and wrote “The Illustrated History of the Moriches Bay Area,” with her late husband, Van, said even as a child she closely followed the development of the area.
“I would always pay attention to what was going on here,” she said. “Anytime there was a change, I would record it mentally.”
Field said the Moriches community was slow to develop from inception, and many elements of life in the 17th and 18th century still existed when she was a child in the early 20th, including farmers who used a barter system through the early 1900s.
“If one person had seafood and one person had produce, they would barter,” she said. “They didn’t exchange coins at all.”
The Moriches area was settled in 1655 by a tinsmith named Samuel Terrill. As a tradesman with a valuable skill, Terrill attracted others to the area, including the Smiths, the Havens and the Ketchams, whose ancestors would live on as prominent figures in town for years to come, and whose properties — The Havens House and the Terry-Ketcham Inn — are still preserved.
Bertram E. Seides, president of the Moriches Bay Historical Society and the Ketcham Inn Foundation, which own the buildings, said their preservation plays an important role in respecting the area’s history.
“From these buildings we learn what life was like then,” he said. “Oral history is a great thing, but you stand in this building and you have a more meaningful comprehension of the things that took place here.”
The Terry-Ketcham Inn has actually been owned by members of all the “first families,” and over the years has served as a boardinghouse, a restaurant, and a place for voting. Much later, it was also a halfway house, Seides said.
Despite its prominent visitors, the Moriches area was sparsely populated throughout most of the 19th century, and only experienced a burst in tourism in 1881 when the Long Island Rail Road came to Center Moriches.
“That brought out city folks and we had large hotels here,” Field said, including The Brooklyn Hotel, which had more than 300 rooms. “That was before the East End was really developed.”
Visitors included actors and actresses from New York, who would come for the beach and the country atmosphere. Field said the sharpshooter-turned-actress Annie Oakley was so fond of the Moriches, she moved there permanently after she retired.
Much later, other famous residents would move in. In the 1980s, Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, former president of the Philippines, purchased the Lindenmere Estate, which was later taken over by the Philippine government.
The influx of wealthy visitors at the end of the 19th century influenced the Moriches way of life. In the early 1890s, members of the Bishop-Roberts family, who once owned the Long Island Hotel on Main Street in Center Moriches, capitalized on the opportunity to ferry people to the beach and built the “Senekes,” a flat-bottom paddle boat that left from their dock at the head of Senix Creek and took tourists to Fire Island.
“The industry shifted that way,” Seides said. “Hotel owners would build cabanas on the beach for their guests and the really wealthy had their own cabanas there.”
Field said the hurricane destroyed nearly all of the hotels and boardinghouses, and because of a number of factors — people still reeling from the recession, hotel owners aging, locations farther east becoming more popular — the tourism industry in the Moriches “kind of faded out.”
“They couldn’t face rebuilding,” she said. “So most of them didn’t.”
Though the tourism industry faded, the farming industry continued to be profitable, especially duck farming, which flourished through the 1940s, Seides said.
Farmers brought the first Peking duck from China to Long Island in the early 1900s, he said, and the industry took root in East Moriches and Eastport, where hundreds of thousands of ducks were raised each year.
Field said the Moriches experienced an influx of permanent residents after World War II, when soldiers stationed at Camp Upton, the Westhampton Air National Guard base, and the East Moriches Coast Guard Station decided to stay and raise families there.
In the 1950s, many of the farms, as well as the large estates, were subdivided into residential property to meet the demand for houses and the community has continued to grow since then.
Jacqueline Wilcox, 81, a lifelong resident of Center Moriches, said over nearly a century, the most notable change to the area has been the number of houses built.
“We had 84 acres,” she said. “I used to say to my kids ‘go play and when you’re hungry come home,’ but not anymore. It’s all just houses now.”
But despite development, residents and visitors still describe the Moriches as a quiet community with a country feel.
“I love it, Center Moriches is my home,” said Wilcox. “My backyard is the best backyard in the whole world, I can look out my kitchen window and see nothing but bushes and woods.”
--With Amanda Douville