Here to return to
A JAUNT ON LONG ISLAND
FROM New York, one hot day in May, I journeyed almost the full length of Long Island’s low levels; and so utterly lacking were hills and vales that I could not help fancying the entire isle had originally been mere mud flats, the delta of some great river. The soil was evidently mellow and easily cultivated, and I had glimpses from the car windows of many prosperous-looking market-garden farms; but not less characteristic were the monotonous stretches of waste lands growing to pines and scrubby oaks. These were often uninterrupted for miles, and when a break occurred, it was only to allow for a village oasis with a ragged skirting of fields, and then the dwarfish forest swept on again. The woods were dry, and truant fires were burning in them, sometimes so near I could see the low, irregular lines of the flames, sometimes distant and only made apparent by a cloud-drift of yellow smoke.
Starting Garden Parsnips
I went as far as Easthampton, a place I had selected for my destination solely because I had heard there were windmills in or near it not our ugly modern ones, with angular skeleton frames and a whirligig of shutters at the top, but those of the portly Dutch type, that spread to the wind long, white-sailed arms.
To harmonize with these windmills I had in mind an old-fashioned rural town, in whose quiet the past would seem more real than the present. I was disappointed.
The town has been invaded by the city people, and is suburban rather than rural, and the old survives only in nooks and corners; and yet the place is beautiful. It has a straight, broad, two-mile street, lined with well‑grown elms, and where the early town centre had been the street widens into a grassy common. The sea lies just beyond sight, hidden by a bulwark of dunes, but its muffled roar along the beach can be distinctly heard. The common at one end dips down to a muddy pond, and on the steep, short slope rising east of the pond is a cemetery of lowly gray stones. As soon as you pass across the burial-ground you find a windmill a great octagon, with unpainted, shingled sides, and four wide-reaching arms. The windmill fulfilled my ideal very satisfactorily, and its situation adjoining the ancient cemetery was charming. All it lacked was motion, and I learned with regret it was not likely to have that for several days.
A Long Island Stile
“These mills don’t grind much but hog feed,” said my informant, “and there ain’t but mighty little business doing at this season. The West raises our grain supplies now and we buy ‘em ready ground, but the windmills used to be pretty important institutions.
You see there ain’t any water-power worth mentioning in this flat country, and in the old advertisements when a place was for sale they’d mention how far it was from a windmill, just as they would at present from the post office and railroad.”
At the very end of the street to the north was another windmill, and on a side way was a third, minus arms, while a fourth, that looked outwardly the best of all, stood in the back yard of a gentleman’s place. This last mill, however, was only a delusion a fad of its city owner. It was naught but an imitation shell, fitted up to serve as a home for a hired man, and its great arms never bore sails, nor could the wind coax them into motion even when it blew a hurricane.
Of the evolution of the town into what it is at present I received a most entertaining view from a man I accosted who was scratching up leaves and rubbish by the path side in front of his premises with a rake. He was in no haste, and talking seemed to suit him rather better than the work in hand.
“It’s twenty-seven years ago that the first city family rented a house here,” said he. “Now the town is become one of the city people’s resorts, and it’s full of houses they have either put up or that they rent. Their houses are built in city style, and the old farm-houses have about all been done away with or so made over you wouldn’t know ‘em. Yes, farming’s dying out, and I expect soon you won’t see a load of manure go through the street in a whole season.
“The original inhabitants find themselves swallowed up in the deluge, and I must say we’re a little dismayed at the transformation. We’re old-fashioned enough not to quite like it. We used to do as we pleased. There was a time when, if we thought a person needed a coat of tar and feathers, we saw that he had it. ‘Twouldn’t be allowed now. The city people are getting so that they direct all our ways — almost tell us when to go to bed and when to get up in the morning.
“I rent my house from the middle of June to the middle of October for six hundred dollars. Some o’ the neighbors rent theirs for less, others for more, even up to twenty-five hundred. I have to move out when the city folks come, but that little house you see in back there is good enough for me; and I sell the renters chickens, eggs, and garden truck, and it ain’t much trouble to make a living. There’s more money in renting than there is in taking boarders. Boarding ain’t fashionable here. I’ll tell you why. One o’ these city women that has stopped here makes a call there in New York, and says she spent last summer down at Easthampton.
‘Did you, and what cottage did you have?’ says the other.
‘We didn’t have a cottage. We boarded.’
‘M-m-m, ah! Well, you needn’t call any more.’
“At least that’s what it amounts to. There’s a good deal of caste feeling, and renters don’t want to associate too freely with boarders. I expect pretty soon they won’t go in bathing here on the beach at the same place.
“We’ve had a great excitement in the town the last few months over a kind of epidemic of sickness. Our two doctors don’t agree what it is, and one of ‘em has doctored for typhoid and the other for malaria. Neither of ‘em has lost a patient, and the undertaker has been kicking all winter because the people didn’t die faster said he couldn’t make a living the way things were going. Well, the town is rent in twain, and each doctor has his party. There’s most feeling though against the typhoid man. You see the promulgation of his theory would tend to keep the city people away.
On Easthampton Common
“We couldn’t stand that. They’re the mainstay of the town, because, as I said, farming’s pretty much played out. It used to be different, and you have no idea what crops we’d raise. The soil’s nothing to brag of, but we’d put on enormous quantities of bunkers; that’s a kind of fish I suppose you know what they are. We could go down to the sea anywhere and drag in our seines full of them hunkers, and then we’d cover the land till it glistened all over with ‘em; and how they would stink! I can remember times when, on a hot Sunday, we’d have to close the meeting-house windows to keep out the stench.
“I wish that meeting-house was here now. It was a handsome old church, but it got too small, and instead of enlarging it, they must build a new one in up-to-date style. You can see the doorstone of the old church vet, embedded in the sidewalk down below here a ways. There’s a curious story of how the building happened to be put in that particular place. The townspeople had been having a great dispute as to where it should stand, and they couldn’t arrive at any agreement. So they had to get three disinterested men to come from towns around to decide. It was winter, and each man was lodged with a different family.
Well, the three men were to get together in the evening to talk over the matter; and after supper, about the time it got dark, one of ‘em sent word to the others where they were to meet by a colored girl that worked in the house he was staying at. The night was stormy snow and cold and a high wind and it was too much for the girl. They found her next day dead in a drift, and on the spot where she died the three men decided the church should stand, and not a person in town dissented.”
At this point in my companion’s discourse a young woman came along and accosted him with, “Oh, father, where do you think I’ve been?”
“I don’t know. Where have you?” said he.
“Over to Mr. Delancey’s house. He invited me in to see the paper he’s put on the hall, and I told him just what I thought. ‘I ain’t stuck on it at all,’ I said.”
“This gentleman is interested in old times,” remarked her father, indicating me.
“Are you?” said she. “It’s too bad old Lew Dudley ain’t alive. He knew more about old times than all the rest of the town put together.”
“I don’t suppose he would have talked with a stranger, he was so cranky,” commented the father.
“He was a queer old codger,” continued the young woman, “and he got worse than ever in his later years while he was living all by his lone; and what a man he was for lawsuits! He never could do business without suing to get his rights. Then he was a great hand for marrying. Gee! it was astonishing the number of wives he had, one after the other. Some died and some got divorced. One of ‘em died when I was a little girl, and I remember they kept the body a week or ten days. She looked so natural they weren’t sure but she was alive. The wife he had last didn’t stay with him only by spells. She was a city woman, and she got lonesome here and had to go off to New York every once in a while, to keep from perishing. They had a regular cat and dog time of it anyway, and once Old Lew came to our house with a paper he wanted us to sign. I read it and it made out his wife was crazy, and I said, ‘You bring a paper that says you’re both crazy, and I’ll sign that quick.’ Well, I must be going.”
When the daughter turned away, the man with the rake pointed to a fine old colonial dwelling not far away, high in front and low behind, with a great chimney. “That,” said he, “is the house which inspired ‘Home, Sweet Home.’ It is the birthplace of John Howard Payne.”
The “Home, Sweet Home” House
I looked at the structure more closely, later, and found its air of repose and rustic simplicity quite in accord with the sentiment of the famous verses; but a dwelling that interested me more was the “Dan Watkins House” on the town outskirts. It was ancient and gray, with shingled sides and many odd projections and angles. In the dooryard, amidst other wreckage, was an old surf boat with a broken prow.
I ventured into the yard, and a bevy of geese sounded the alarm. When I did not retreat they came honking up to me, and the gander made a personal examination, nosing me over, nibbling at my shoes, and showing decided marks of disapproval. Behind the house was a long garden enclosed by a shaky picket fence. As I approached, a tattered old man rose from his knees, where he had been carefully sowing with his fingers a row of parsnips. He wore spectacles and had a white, bushy beard.
“Them geese ain’t very polite,” said he. “They got queer ideas o’ their importance, and kind o’ boss this whole place. Sometimes I don’t know whether I keep the geese or they keep me. There’s one thing about ‘em, though they’re better’n any watch-dog I ever see. Can’t nobody come around here but they know it. Take it the middle o’ the night, it’s just the same. Everything’ll be all quiet, and at the least little noise they’ll speak right out as if they were awake all the time. You know that old story about the geese saving Rome from the enemy by giving warning. I ain’t a bit of doubt but what that was so.”
Where the man was at work he had a line stretched between two stakes to guide him in making his rows straight. He had been putting in a variety of seeds, and at the end of each little plot had set up a twig with the seed envelope on top to indicate what was planted there. He was doing a very neat job.
Through the middle of the garden ran a row of perennials — rhubarb, sage, white raspberries, and currants.
“I have a good min’ to root out those currants,” the old man remarked, “I’m so dretful pestered with the worms. I’ve put on hellebore till I’m tired, and the worms get the best of me every year. I don’t care much for currants anyway. My white raspberries I favor more, though I have to be everlastingly fightin’ all the time to keep ‘em from spreadin’ over every‑ thing. They furnish me all the berries I want myself, and I let the neighbors pick ‘em, too.”
“I suppose your house is one of the oldest in town,” said I.
“Oh, law, no! This is a new house. It was only built one hundred and forty years ago. Easthampton’s got houses two hundred years old and over.”
He had come out of the garden now and was getting a drink at his pump. This pump was close by the back door, a venerable and clumsy affair made of white ash logs which he affirmed had been bored and put in three-quarters of a century before. “I don’t want anything better’n that pump and that water,” he continued, as he hung the tin cup back on its nail.
“They’re talkin’ about havin’ waterworks with pipes run into every house, but I won’t let ‘em come in here.”
“Have you a farm?” I inquired.
“No, I ain’t a farmer. I’m an old watchmaker; but I do carpentering and other things, too; and there was a time when I pulled teeth and took daguerrotypes. You come into the house and I’ll show you where I work.”
He conducted me first to a black little room, its sides and ceiling lined with tools and pieces of wood and iron of all kinds, the gatherings of generations. Here he was accustomed to labor as a sort of Jack of all trades, but paid special attention to making hickory axe-helves, and could not mention machine-made helves without snorting at their worthlessness.
“My watch business Ι do at the other end of the house,” said he, and led the way through several low, wainscoted rooms. Finally we came to a door in a room corner, and this door was so narrow, a person inclined to stoutness would have found it impassable. It looked as if it might give access to some secret passage, but in reality it opened on a rough little entry from which we stepped into the tiniest box of a shop imaginable. The apartment was heated by a small fireplace, and was furnished with benches and shelves, a stool or two, and a miscellany of delicate tools, watches, and pieces of clocks.
“When I was a young man,” confided the old watchmaker, “I was offered big wages and a place in a large jewellery store; but I don’t want to be tied to any one. Here I can work or not as I darn please, and it suits me.”
Among other things he showed an oddly decorated gold-faced watch which he said had belonged to his uncle, the captain of a Sag Harbor whaling vessel.
An Old-fashioned Sitting Room
His mention of the old port reminded me that it was not far distant — only seven miles — and I determined to see it. Accordingly, on the following morning, Ι hired a buggy for conveyance and a boy to drive me over. The road was the sandiest, ruttiest, and dustiest I have ever travelled, and I would have fancied it never received any attention, had we not come across an old Irishman laboriously digging out turf from the wayside and heaving it into the wheel tracks. He adjusted the turf as he went along into a hummocky causeway that all teams scrupulously avoided.
Nearly our whole journey was through a desolation of burnt woods. The oaks were all stark dead, but the pines had withstood the fire better, probably because there was less around their bases for the Barnes to lick up. The fire had occurred the previous year, and my driver had gone to it. He never wanted to go to another. It used him up. The wind blew and the fire leaped the roadways and went as fast as a man could run. They had hard work saving the farm-houses in and near the woods.
Some of the districts on the route had such names as Hardscrabble and Snooksville and these names seemed quite in keeping with the nature of the road. It was a main highway, yet it was one of those privately-owned mementos of the past a toll-road, and we had to stop at a wayside cabin guarding a gate, and pay seven cents for driving over its purgatory. The gate was hung on a post opposite the door in the house where the toll was collected. I noticed it was open when we approached, and that there was no sign of closing it after we had driven on. My idea had been that toll-gates were ordinarily kept shut, and only opened to allow travellers to pass after they had paid toll.
“Νο,” said my driver, “it’s open all the time except it might be when a tough customer comes along that they think likely’ll kick up a row. It’s open all night, too, and if the toll-gate people have gone to bed you just drive through without paying.”
A Toll-gate on a Seven Cent Road
Presently we reached Sag Harbor, and my driver turned back, while I started out for a ramble about the town. The days of the whale fishery were Sag Harbor’s golden period. Since then it has never amounted to much. Still, it appeared to me fairly prosperous and its houses comfortable and well kept. I only observed one relic of the old days that seemed melancholy a stately mansion heavily shadowed by trees. It was of the Greek temple style, with a lofty, pillared front; but its glory had long since departed, and it was now dingy and out of repair, and had a mildewed, ghostly look as if a blight was on it.
A short distance beyond, on the same street, a tall, bony old man was working at a large buttonball tree he had cut down. It had fallen across the highway and the top reached the opposite curbing. As the man chopped off the branches he trimmed the brush from each in turn, and seemed quite oblivious to any need of haste in opening the street to traffic. Some teams turned around and sought another thoroughfare; others joggled up over the curbing and drove along on the sidewalk. After a while a man approached with a load of brick. He alighted and came to look at the débris. The axeman was pecking away at the brush.
“See here, Uncle Matthew,” said the newcomer, “why don’t you cut off these top branches so teams can go past?”
“Wal, I’m agoin’ tew.”
“But you no need to trim all the brush first.”
“Naow, look a’ here, I’m adewin’ of this job, ain’t I? If you’re in a hurry, drive along on the sidewalk same as other folks dew.”
“But I got a ton and a half o’ brick on.”
“That don’t make no dif’rence.”
“It’d smash my wagon all to Binders. I’ll take hold here and help, and you can make a road through inside o’ five minutes.”
The man began to pull some of the small limbs to one side.
“Naow, yew jes’ stop that air,” exclaimed Uncle Matthew. “Yew’re mixin’ every thin’ all up. Yew ac’ like yew was crazy.”
The two were still disputing when I left, but Uncle Matthew was having his way. I went down to the harbor. Α single long wharf reached out into its tranquil waters, and there was no sign of its ever being enlivened by much traffic. I wandered along the shore with its drift deposits of seaweed and shells. At one place two men were overhauling a net with the intention of going out to drag it toward evening. At another were several children playing in the sand and half burying themselves in it. They had been wading in the shallows and fishing with tackle improvised from willow rods, string, and bent pins. One boy had boasted he dared wade out farther than the others, and he had tripped and ducked in all over. His jacket was spread out to dry on the sand, and he was shivering in the wind.
I had been disappointed in not finding the Easthampton windmills at work, and when a Sag Harborite acquaintance informed me that a mill at Bridgehampton was usually busy the year round, I departed in search of it on the next train. Like most of the old shore towns, Bridgehampton is a resort of the city summer people to the loss of much of its rural character. However, two white churches of the old régime remain, and, on the village borders, are farm-houses not yet spoiled by modern quirks in architectural improvement or distortion. Some of these outlying houses were in themselves and all their surroundings hardly changed from what was usual fifty years ago.
They have retained the big chimneys, and the small‑paned windows, the yards are enclosed by lichened quarter-board or picket fences, and the hens are always lingering close about the house and scratching holes under the shrubbery.
An old dwelling of this sort has a small front yard with a path running straight down the middle from the front door to the gate, and it has a big side yard with a narrow gate for pedestrians that is more or less disregarded, and a wide gate for wagons. In the workaday larger yard is not a little of the paraphernalia of labor in the form of machines and vehicles, especially those whose best days are past, and there are piles of wood, and very likely a few score chestnut fence posts with holes cut in them for the insertion of rails. Conveniently near the kitchen door is pretty sure to be a well and a pump with a line of trough extending toward the barn-yard.
The old mill that I had come to seek I presently found; and though the arms were bare and the machinery silent, I was encouraged to discover the door open. I went in and sat down on some bags. It was a dusty, cobwebby structure knitted stoutly together with great beams and a multitude of braces and cross‑pieces. While I was looking about and accustoming my eyes to the gloom, a man entered the door.
“Ah, ha! now I’ve ketched ye,” he said; but his tones were not as alarming as his words, and I was welcome.
He was just about to start the mill. The day had been too quiet earlier, but the wind was now freshening. A wide platform encircled the structure, and, standing on that, the miller one by one unfurled the canvas sails rolled up on the slatted arms and fastened them in position. Then he let the arms free and they began to revolve and started the millstones to grinding the corn, while he went inside and stood fondling the meal in his hand as it came sifting down the spout from above.
The mill had four stories. In the second were the hoppers; the third was for storage, and the topmost, a greasy place up in the revolving cap, was nearly filled by the big wooden wheels, shafts, and brakes. How its upper portions did creak and shake! I could appreciate the necessity for the strong sinews of heavy and close-set timbers. Only one of the two pairs of millstones was employed to-day, for there was not much grist; but both were busy all through the winter, and even then they failed to keep up with orders, and the miller said he sometimes had three hundred bushels ahead of him. The arms measured sixty-eight feet from tip to tip, and were capable of developing energy to the amount of forty horse-power. It takes a fair breeze to set them in effective motion; and yet, in a gale, they will grind without sails.
I loitered for hours in and about the old mill, exploring the interior and watching from the fields the stately revolutions of its white arms; and I came away satisfied, and left Long Island with the feeling that its ancient windmills constitute one of the most picturesque features in architecture to be found in all America.
Along Shore at Sag Harbor