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LI's house museums look back centuries

The master bedroom inside the 1743 James Havens

The master bedroom inside the 1743 James Havens Homestead Museum on Shelter Island has furnishings from the 19th and 20th centuries. (July 31, 2012) Credit: Randee Daddona

At Long Island's plethora of house museums, visitors will see items similar to those pictured in books about Colonial-era life, along with a few head-scratchers that elicit a smile when you hear what they do.

A flat, wooden structure with a wide bottom and a somewhat narrower top functioned as a "baby minder," meant to keep toddlers safe and out from underfoot as parents worked. A small metal contraption that looks like an open-weave beehive has an opening lined with prongs. The only thing missing is a piece of cheese as bait.

From Huntington's David Conklin Farmhouse Museum, which this year celebrated its 100th anniversary as a house museum, to Second House in Montauk, a one-time cattle station, to Rock Hall, a classic Georgian Colonial that's not far from Kennedy Airport, the buildings offer glimpses of a bygone way of life and a large slice of Island history.

The wish to preserve that early history is what gave rise to the area's more than 20 house museums, says Robert MacKay, director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, based in Cold Spring Harbor.

It's challenging and labor-intensive to maintain 18th-century artifacts in the 21st century, notes MacKay. The best house museums not only help preserve local history but also play an important educational role in their communities.

"They provide a sense of place in the community and are treasure troves of local history," he said. "They perform an important educational role with the [local schools'] fourth-grade curriculum, too, with tours and hands-on activities."

To remain relevant and maintain interest, the house museums offer changing exhibitions and flexible meeting spaces, MacKay added. In several instances, on-site barns give community groups a place to meet and provide extra income from event rentals.

Havens House Museum on Shelter Island

The Havens House Museum on Shelter Island was called "Heartsease" by its owners. It was built in 1743 and served as a family home as well as a tavern and store, post office and even a school from the 1760s to 1790, when the first schoolhouse was built.

The house sits on an acre and a half of the original 1,000-acre plot that once was part of the islandwide provisioning farm for Caribbean sugar plantations, its white oak trees used for barrels that held rum and molasses, according to curator Beverlea Walz. During the American Revolution, the house survived the British hostilities with little damage. Its owner, Capt. James Havens was a privateer under George Washington's command who raided enemy ships. The family moved to Connecticut after the patriots lost the Battle of Long Island in 1776.

The classic central-hearth home had four rooms up and four rooms down when it was built, Walz said. The covered porch was added later. Inside, the rooms are interpreted to represent various eras, and rotating exhibits highlight different items from the Shelter Island Historical Society's collections. Two ledgers from 1777 are on display in the room outfitted to represent the Colonial era, listing what items were for sale then, including thread, teapots, flax, corn, molasses and loaf sugar.

The museum's special exhibit this summer is about Long Island's farming past and includes photos and displays of items such as local bayman and basket maker Ike Down's creations, a box that fertilized eggs were mailed in, and photos showing workers packing lima beans at the Shelter Island farmers cooperative.

A barn on the property, built in 1985 in the style of the original barn, hosts many community events, including a farmers market on Saturday mornings from June 16 to Sept. 22.

Havens House, 16 S. Ferry Rd., is open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. daily from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. It is open weekdays by appointment and for large groups. Tours are free; group tour donations are accepted; 631-749-0025.

David Conklin Farmhouse in Huntington

A family tree that sprawls across one wall greets visitors to the David Conklin Farmhouse in Huntington, part of its "All Things Conklin" exhibit. It traces many Conklin family members from the 1600s through more recent times. The 1750 house started life as a one-room farmhouse with a sleeping loft. A lean-to was added to give more space for cooking and chores, notes Cathi Horowitz, outreach coordinator for the Huntington Historical Society, which operates the house museum.

The farm once sat on 105 acres, covering land that now serves as the Huntington Rural Cemetery. Its orchard was across the street, where a busy one-stop market is now located. The society celebrated the Conklin Farmhouse's centennial as a museum with a gala this spring at Coindre Hall. The house was given to the society in 1911 by Ella Conklin Hurd, a descendant of one of the first families to settle in Huntington, and opened as a museum in 1912.

It began to look like the house on the property now when a larger home was moved there and attached to the existing house in the early 1800s, explains Horowitz. Its rooms are interpreted to show the different eras, from the front room and lean-to presented in Colonial style to the Federal-period living room and Victorian-era parlor.

In addition to all of the family history, the house boasts a chair that George Washington is said to have sat on when he visited a local tavern in Huntington during his 1790 tour of Long Island, Horowitz noted. The chair also accommodated another famous bottom. In July 1903, when the town celebrated its 250th anniversary, the chair was brought out for President Teddy Roosevelt to sit in, Horowitz said, and it was then donated to the nascent Huntington Historical Society that was formed that fall.

Visitors can see the original rope bed that David and Sybel Conklin used -- a prototype of the Murphy bed since it folded up during the day to make more room -- along with other period items. The bed is shorter than modern beds, Horowitz noted.

"Beds weren't small because people were shorter but because they slept sitting up with bolsters," she said.

The house, at 2 High St., is open for tours from 1 to 4 p.m. on Fridays and Sundays, and for group tours by arrangement. Cost: $4; 631-427-7045, ext. 401.

Raynham Hall in Oyster Bay

Raynham Hall also celebrates its connection with George Washington and the Revolutionary War period. It started life as a four-room family home after Samuel Townsend, a merchant, bought the property in 1738; then it became an eight-room saltbox when he added a lean-to in 1740.

The house has strong ties to the Culper Spy Ring, which helped gather information about British troop movements on Long Island for George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Townsend's middle son, Robert Townsend, was a merchant who used his activities to get free movement around the city. He was later determined to be the spy "Culper Jr.," but not until a trunk of letters was discovered in the 1930s that enabled a historian to compare handwriting samples and make the connection. Culper kept his wartime activities a secret during his lifetime.

British soldiers occupied the house in 1778-79, setting the stage for another of its claims to fame: It was the site of the first valentine sent in this country, by occupying British officer Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe to Sally Townsend, one of the Townsend daughters. She never married, and the valentine was found with her belongings after she died. The original has been lost, according to Harriet Gerard Clark, executive director, but a facsimile copy of the missive is framed and hangs on an upstairs wall.

The house remained in the family and was enlarged into a Gothic Revival-style home in the mid-1800s. Its rooms are interpreted in Victorian as well as Colonial styles, and contain many original furnishings. The dining room boasts a unique ridged ceiling, and there are many pieces of china original to the family.

The home's Dutch front door dates from the mid-18th century, Clark said, and it has a brass door knocker shaped like an eagle and engraved with the name Townsend.

The house, at 20 W. Main St., is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, except July 1 through Labor Day, when it is open from noon to 5 p.m. Cost: $5 adults, $3 students and seniors; free for members and children 6 and younger; 516-922-6808.

Rock Hall in Lawrence

Rock Hall is a gracious Georgian Colonial that was built in 1767 and sits on three acres, a tiny, sheltered remnant of the original 600-acre farm holding. Airplanes en route to Kennedy Airport fly overhead, and chickens belonging to the director, Linda Barriera, scratch in the gardens in the rear. The back of the house overlooks the Lawrence Middle School ballfields and Rock Hall's children's garden, where kids can get hands-on experience, according to Matthew Blum, museum assistant. The program is in its 10th year.

The Hewlett family gave the house to the Town of Hempstead in 1948, and it opened as a museum in 1953. It was built by Josiah Martin, an Antigua sugar plantation owner, when he was 67, and it remained in the Martin family until 1818. It was purchased by the Hewletts in 1824, and Blum noted the family rented rooms to seaside visitors for 15 years.

The home is full of period pieces and reproductions, as well as several items original to the house, including a harp and early guitar. A photographic reproduction of "Girl With Dog," John Singleton Copley's 1771 painting of Josiah's granddaughter, Mary Elizabeth Martin, is framed within the paneling over the mantel in the parlor. The original painting is in the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy outside Boston.

An upstairs room holds medical equipment similar to the kind that Samuel Martin, a doctor and Josiah Martin's son, would have used in the late 1700s, and another upstairs room exhibits period toys and dolls. One room also is furnished to show how it would have looked when the Hewletts rented it out in the summer.

Excavations done in the basement as the house was shored up unearthed many pottery shards and broken glass bottles, and an exhibit room shows how the work was done, along with many of the items that were found. The basement also has been rebuilt to show how a warming kitchen would have operated, how vegetables were kept in a cold storage area and what a wine cellar would have looked like.

Rock Hall, 199 Broadway, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday; it's closed Monday and Tuesday. Tours are free; 516-239-1157.

Second House in Montauk

Long gone are the days when nothing but windswept fields dotted with cattle were the vistas outside Second House in Montauk. Now, a busy highway runs in front of the house, and other homes aren't far away.

The former cattle station, built in 1797 on the spot of an earlier house, is the oldest building still standing in Montauk. In addition to housing the caretakers of the cattle and sheep that grazed on Montauk from May until November, it served as a boardinghouse for early Montauk visitors. The various keepers were members of the first East Hampton families who bought the land from Indians, according to Jim Grimes, a trustee of the Montauk Historical Society, which runs the museum. Those keepers would stay at the house and make sure the cows stayed out of the sheep pasture, he said, and move the animals from field to field and take care of sheep shearing.

Rooms in the house represent different periods and show how it was modernized through the years, reflecting its use as a summer home. The front living room is decorated in 1960s fashion, as are some of the bedrooms upstairs. An upstairs room shows some of the items residents have donated to the society, including different styles of dresses popular through the years, along with an old sewing machine and the bands for a hoop skirt, Grimes said. The society hopes to reinterpret the rooms to earlier periods as it has time and money, he added.

A steep, curved wooden staircase with a rope railing that leads from the small, square front hall gives visitors a feeling for the age of the house, and is said to have been built by a Sag Harbor ship's carpenter. A bedroom off the kitchen has been restored to when it functioned as a schoolroom for about a dozen students in the 1890s. Throughout the home, photos show the house and fields in earlier times.

The historical society hosts a craft fair from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 11-12. An archaeological event showing primitive technology, artifacts, fire making, etc. is set for Oct. 13.

Second House, Montauk Highway at Second House Road, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday to Tuesday from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. It's closed Wednesday. During the off season it is open weekends only. Cost: $2; 631-668-5340.

Custom House in Sag Harbor

The Custom House was the home of Henry Packer Dering, who was named custom master when the village of Sag Harbor became a port of entry in 1789. The house, which sits next to the Whaling Museum, shows the lifestyle of the family from 1790 to about 1820. It was transported to the corner of Main and Garden streets in 1948, when it was threatened with demolition.

The fees Dering levied on goods coming into the country via ship helped bail out the young republic and pay off its war debt. Dering levied duties ranging from 10 cents for a gallon of Jamaica rum to 2 ½ cents for a pound of coffee, 4 cents for a pound of cheese, 2 cents for soap and 7 cents for a pair of shoes or slippers.

The house is run by the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, which has interpreted its rooms to show different periods. Dering bought the house in 1793 and added to it in 1806 to accommodate his growing family of nine children, and also because he was named postmaster, according to docent Pat Fitzpatrick.

A room off the side entrance holds the custom books where Dering recorded the fees, along with roll-top and stand-up desks. His 1784 Yale diploma is on the wall. The heavy wooden shutters that he could slide closed for privacy while doing customs work still line the inside of the windows.

Visitors also can see the recess in the ceiling that was found during a 1970 restoration. Space had been made to accommodate an eight-day clock made by William Claggett of Newport, R.I., that was taller than the ceiling and only had to be wound once a week instead of daily.

Dering also was instrumental in getting a school for young ladies started, Fitzpatrick said, and invited David Frothingham to start Long Island's first newspaper, the Long Island Herald, in 1797.

The house, at Main and Garden streets, is open from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily in July and August, weekends through June. Groups by appointment. Cost: $5; seniors and children ages 7-14, $3; 631-692-4664.

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