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Montaukett Indian house stabilization unveils more of its history

Robert Pharaoh, left, and Jim Devine at the

Robert Pharaoh, left, and Jim Devine at the Fowler House at 95 Springs Fireplace Rd. in East Hampton on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017. Credit: James Carbone

Work to stabilize a historic Montaukett Indian house in East Hampton Town has started after years of decay, allowing a town consultant to unearth more information about the origins of the 19th century cottage.

The Fowler House has been secured with new framing to prevent it from falling down more than two years after town officials voted to preserve the house, historic consultant Robert Hefner said.

Hefner, who has overseen the work by Ben Krupinski Builder, said removing rotten sheetrock exposed the home’s original elements, which could solve the central mystery about the house: where it was initially built.

“It all makes sense now as to what it was,” Hefner said Wednesday.

The house belonged to George Fowler, a Montaukett gardener who was forced to relocate after developer Arthur Benson purchased the Montaukett Indian Nation land at Indian Field in Montauk in 1879.

Preservationists have said the house may be the only known survivor of the move to Freetown, an African-American community in East Hampton Town. But they were not sure whether it was built new at the current Springs Fireplace Road site or moved there.

Hefner said he now believes the house was built new in Freetown around 1885, and the house next to it, originally belonging to Fowler’s sister, was relocated from Indian Field.

Montaukett Chief Robert Pharaoh said a group is also working to eventually convert the Fowler House into the first museum about Montauketts run by members of the tribe. The group has not yet determined what would be on display.

“We’ve been promised a lot of things by a lot of people along the way,” Pharoah said last week. “Let’s hope it keeps going in this direction.”

Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said the restoration has been “a long time in the making.”

“It has a recent history of starts and failures and now maybe we’ll do something here we’re proud of,” Cantwell said.

The town acquired the 1.7-acre property for affordable housing purposes from Suffolk County in 2002 after the owner had failed to pay property taxes.

It deteriorated until this year when officials and volunteers cleaned up the overgrown and animal-infested property, and Krupinski offered to stabilize the structure at no cost to the town.

Krupinski said the project “means a lot to me” because he grew up in a house next to the Fowler home.

Materials needed to proceed with the home’s restoration will likely be purchased by town officials using up to $50,000 in bonds recently approved by the town board, Cantwell said.

Members of the Friends of the Fowler House committee initially said they were “shocked” by the work done to the house, which appeared “gutted” on Sunday. But they attributed the reaction Wednesday to a lack of communication between town officials and committee members.

Audrey Gaines, president of the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor, said the project is important because it highlights the history of the Montaukett Indian Nation that could otherwise be lost.

“We’re the last of the last,” said Gaines, a resident of the Freetown area. “We have to keep the history alive.”

Fowler House history

1879: Developer Arthur Benson buys Indian Field in Montauk, causing Montauketts’ relocation to Freetown.

Circa 1885: George Fowler begins living in the house at 95 Springs Fireplace Rd. Historians say they are working to determine whether the home was relocated from Indian Field or originally built in Freetown.

1910: State Supreme Court judge rules Montaukett Indian Nation extinct, taking away state recognition.

1980s: Fowler’s descendants stop using house as primary residence.

2002: Suffolk County acquires house and gives it to East Hampton Town officials for affordable housing purposes after owners fail to pay taxes.

2015: East Hampton Town Board votes to preserve the house.

2017: Property is cleaned up and structure stabilization work begins.

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