Journal

Wainscott: Cherishing Memories of my Former Home in a Non-Hampton Hamlet in the Hamptons

My Wainscott house, 1970.

In 1965 I bought a small second home resembling a child’s picture of a house (two parallel vertical lines linked by horizontal line at the top). This kind of one-dimensional sketch, defined by the symmetrical features of the façade – two upper-story and two bottom-story windows with a central vertical rectangle representing the front door while the triangle formed by the gable end of the roof implied an attic. Such would have been an approximate portrait of the farmhouse, which together with its elongated lawn and far-back scrub woods constituted the two-and-a-half-acre property that I purchased in 1965 for $29,000. I was twenty-nine years old and the time, and my thirty-year old husband Ed Barlow, seven-year-old daughter Lisa, and I, like other New York families who were summer vacationers and weekend travelers, referred to our round trips to and from “the city” as going to “the country,” the term people then used for the predominately rural eastern end of Long Island’s South Fork (“The Hamptons,” now associated with poshness and the haunt of celebrities, had not yet become conversational currency).

I immediately fell in love with our modest second home in Wainscott – a farming community located within the Township of Easthampton. More than simply a getaway close to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and thousands of acres of potato fields beneath a sky softened by the luminous Atlantic atmosphere, it was for us and our seven-year-old daughter Lisa a social and recreational heaven.

Although we were outliers of the Georgica Association – a membership community restricted to the owners of the large late-nineteenth-century wood-shingled summer houses surrounding Georgica Pond – with the sponsorship of the head of the legal firm in New York where Ed was an associate lawyer, we were admitted as members. This meant that our little family could share in the privileges enjoyed by resident members of the Association. These included playing tennis on well-kept courts next to a historic windmill that had been relocated from some other area in East Hampton to become a Georgica Association landmark; a bathhouse in proximity to the beach for changing into bathing suits and taking a post-swim shower; a life guard on duty to supervise swimmers and riders of the waves rolling onto the beach; and sailing and canoeing on placid Georgica Pond, a 290-acre coastal lagoon with its sun-warmed brackish water – a combination fresh water from Georgia Cove, which is fed by six creeks along its perimeter and periodic infusions of salty Atlantic Ocean water when the East Hampton Trustees monitoring the level and environmental condition of the pond cut away a swath of beach sand to create a temporary channel allowing tidal water to flow into it.

It was on our Sayres Path property that I learned to be a gardener. Before asking you to join me on a virtual tour of what I call “Central Park East,” I will give you a brief history of the house. Like the adjacent village of Sagaponack, which is part of the Township of Southampton, the land surrounding Wainscott was for more than a hundred years before it became celebrity real estate, an expanse of potato fields – a crop introduced in the early twentieth century by Polish immigrants – on land that had originally been used as pasturage for East Hampton cattle and then as fields for Wainscott farmers, including the Hoppings, Hands, Hedges, Piersons, and Osborns, some of whom were incidentally engaged in the Sag Harbor whaling industry during its heyday.

One of the last local links in the lineages of these families is David Osborn. His big potato barn and original family home next door catch your eye as you drive down the village’s Main Street today. I have known David for a long time as a casual friend with whom to exchange cheerful greetings when we bump into one another on the sidewalk that runs the length of Main Street from the entrance to the Georgica Association past the Chapel where the Wainscott Sewing Society still meets to the recently restored and still-active one-room schoolhouse on Wainscott Hollow Road.

I have special memories of Dayton Hedges, who lived with his wife Mary on Beach Lane, which begins at Main Street and ends at the entrance to the beach. Although he was completely blind, with transportation provided by a friend who served as his driver, Dayton served as the caretaker of the house at 129 Sayres Path for over twenty years. Amazingly, he knew every nook and cranny of the place and always made good on his promise of “I’ll take a look at it” when any problem arose. Toward the end of his life, I would sometimes drop by Dayton’s house on Beach Lane when I was coming back home from grocery shopping in Bridgehampton or buying fresh-caught fish at the Seafood Shop located on the highway opposite the current post office. By this time Dayton’s job as absentee homeowners’ caretaker had been transferred to his son Buzz, who worked for me until his sudden death, after which his widow Georgia, gamely stepped into the breach and made the Hedges family’s traditional house-watching/caretaking visits to 129 Sayres until around 2000, when she decided that it was time to look after grandchildren rather than make a daily circuit to check on the general soundness of the house physically as well as the condition of its plumbing fixtures, electrical wiring, boiler-operated furnace, heating ducts, and propane-gas tank levels. Georgia thereupon introduced me to her good friend Angela Toscano, who oversaw the general condition of the house during the hiatuses between Ted’s and my increasingly infrequent visits. In addition, Angela acted as my real estate agent when it finally came time for me to sell it in 2019.

Going back to my earliest days as a Wainscott homeowner, one of the people who stands out in memory is Mrs. Emmett, the elderly woman who lived directly across Sayres Path from me in the small cottage that backs onto a large potato field owned by David Osborn. She and her deceased husband had been employed as domestic staff for a wealthy New York City family, and it is my guess that they were familiar with Wainscott from having worked during the summer in their employer’s country home in the Georgica Association or elsewhere in East Hampton. When it came time for them to retire, they bought the Sayres Path cottage and then later acquired the old Osborn farmhouse that became my house for their daughter Rachel. Mrs. Emmett’s sister Mrs. Lovett also took up residence on Sayres Path next-door to me. The character of the street at that time was still mostly a working class one, and its residents included Mr. Niggles, the motor-vehicle mechanic whose repair service in his back-yard garage included patching punctured bicycle tires and performing other fix-ups for the trusty Raleigh that took me to and from the beach each day.

Mrs. Emmett would sometimes babysit with Lisa when Ed and I went out to dinner with friends, and I would occasionally drop over to say hello to her. Once when Rachel and her husband Ralph, both of whom were schoolteachers, were visiting Mrs. Emmett, they told me about the years when they had been the owners, occupants, and renovators of my house, so I can now pass along here an important chapter of its history.

It begins with a woman named Emma, a refugee from Montauk during World War II when German submarines were making underwater patrols of the waters around the South Fork of Long Island. I am not sure which government agency gave her an unspecified length of tenure, but Emma chose to think of her residency as permanent even after the war was over and it became necessary for her to evacuate the premises. Eventually, as the house’s new owners, Rachel and Ralph bore the responsibility of overcoming Emma’s intransience and assisting her in leaving. Since she was virtually penniless, the couple helped her bring a pile of empty soft-drink bottles that had accumulated on the dirt floor of the basement back to the grocery store where she collected recycling returns of a nickel for each bottle and by this means was able to finance her moving expenses.

Rachel and Ralph subsequently remodeled the house and gave it the comfortable interior that it had during my tenure. This included the beautifully turned wooden banister and newel post of the stairs leading from the downstairs entry vestibule to two existing upstairs bedrooms and the conversion of the residual second-floor space into two bathrooms, which made it possible for them to tear down the outhouse in back of the house.) They did not do any gardening on the property to my knowledge, except for planting beside the opening in the split-rail fence that serves as the point of entry into the front yard a beautiful mountain laurel (kalmia latifolia) that they had dug up in the wild. I am not sure if this was the local woodland beside Route 114 between East Hampton and Sag Harbor, or one in the mountain laurel’s principal habitat in the southeastern United States.

To continue my history of the remodeling of the 1906 Wainscott farmhouse over the years before starting our garden walk next to the mountain laurel, come inside with me as I open the front door. It and the fanlight above it are as well as exterior white-painted wooden frames for the windows are some of the architectural improvements made to the house by me in the 1980s. The house itself was no doubt originally shingled, and over the years of my ownership it was partially re-shingled at least once.

Being sentimental, I can now feel the door key in my right hand as I turn it while pressing down on the door handle. Now step inside with me as I switch on the hall light and then turn left and enter the living room. Let’s rest for a moment on the sofa facing the fireplace. I remember lighting the logs carried up from the pile stacked in the basement and watching the flames dance as smoke was being drawn up the flue. I have Rachel and Ralph to thank for that and much more. While we are here, look up and you will see a horizontal seam, which has been sealed and plastered over, in the middle of the ceiling. I have deduced that it marks the place where once a wall stood that separated the living room into a front parlor and back of it a dining room. Come with me now into the current dining room, which was the original kitchen. This configuration of rooms was the existing layout of the house when I bought it from a couple whose surname was Lewis. The Lewises had added a new kitchen wing to the back of the house, and here I cooked many meals until Ted and I built the current kitchen in its footprint. In addition we extended its length in order to create a small study with bookshelves and an electrical outlet for computer and wi-fi connection.

At the same time on the other side of the house off the living room, we turned a large room that I had formerly added for use as a painting studio and ping pong parlor into a large library and office for Ted. We also improved the deck at the back of the house and gave it outdoor furniture as well as an outdoor grill for summer dining.

There used to be a fine old black oak that overhung one end of the deck, and when Lisa was a little girl this was where she had a tree house, which she named Utopia. The venerable black oak. which supported this aerial childhood retreat, had finally endured so much storm damage that some of its large limbs were dangerously overhanging the roof, which demanded the removal of this old arboreal friend. But look directly back toward the end of the lawn near the entrance to the woodland garden and admire the tall straight one-hundred-plus-year-old white oak, which along with the other white oaks in the front of the house, received good periodic pruning and fertilizing over the years, thanks to the Bill Miller’s Tree Service company.

The Cottage Garden with low boxwood hedging defining the planting beds in the square central parterre.

We will return to this part of the property soon, but first I want to step back into the kitchen and turn the latch of the screen door that leads to a landing with three steps going down to the level of a small shingled shed and geometrically designed garden beds hedged with low boxwood, which is framed by brick paths built by me personally. A carpenter-built white picket fence with planting beds between it and the brick paths defining the square center bed with an antique stone urn as its centerpiece. Now you are looking at the result of an epiphany that occurred for me in 1974 following a trip to England where days spent at Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, and Hidcote opened my eyes to gardening as an art form. How I wanted to be such an artist! I soon began buying catalogs of bulbs, shrubs, and flowers as well as the New York Botanical Garden’s encyclopedia by the famous T. H. Everett, the British horticulturist who often taught classes for amateur gardeners like me. The catalog of the nursery Roses of Yesterday and Today and became my source of heritage roses such as “Great Maiden’s Blush Rose”, a rose cultivar that appeared during the 14th century, and Maiden’s Blush (Translated into French, its name is Cuisses de Nymphe, meaning Maiden’s thighs) as well as New Dawn, a climbing rose, which I planted to arch over the garden’s arched entry trellis, Iceberg, a tall pure white Floribunda rose that proved ideal as a floral adornment to the white picket fence, and Rosa Rubra, a shrub rose with masses of deep-pink flowers that I planted in the wide bed to the right of the entry trellis.

At the edge of the bed next to the brick walk leading to the small shed I planted a strip of catnip (nepeta) bordering the brick walk that led to its latched entry door. It was here that I stored my gardening tools, wheelbarrow, and my Schwinn bicycle along with those that my children had ridden and then outgrown. In the fall I would plant bulbs of crocuses and grape hyacinths next to the steps going up to the kitchen door and daffodils beside the slate stepping stones leading from the garden trellis entry to the cottage garden.

By the time my “Central Park East” garden was materializing during the 1980s, I wanted to double the size of our back lawn to create an uninterrupted greensward. Mr. and Mrs. Tice, a retired couple, now lived in Mrs. Lovett’s former house. During the years that they owed the place Mr. Tice, who was an amateur carpenter, did a great deal of excellent repair work and some remodeling that included the construction of a wooden deck along the back side of the house, and Mrs. Tice planted a small vegetable garden next to our mutual property line at the same time that I was inserting a bed of day lilies (Hemoracallis) into the lawn behind the shed that was part of the cottage garden. Two years later, when the bulbs were producing large orange blooms each July and August, I asked Mrs. Tice if she would allow me to make a more attractively curvaceous border for my daylily bed with its sweet woodruff groundcover by encroaching upon her tomatoes and cucumbers. Fortunately, she gave me a gracious response, whereupon this part of the boundary line between our properties became a swinging loop.

It was logical now to consider how the Tice’s back yard, which was equal in size to mine, could be completely united with if the low wire fence that separated our two properties were removed to allow our respective back lawns to coalesce into a single generous-size greensward. Moreover, I was happy to pay my lawn-maintenance guy, teen-age Danny Niggles, to mow the grass covering the united lawns and to engage Bill Miller’s tree men to prune and fertilize all the trees on the now consolidated properties.

Bruce Kelly and me at the trellised entry to the cottage garden.

My next landscape-design inspiration came as I was studying the area where the back part of the lawn ended and a native woodland with self-seeded black locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) mixed with spindly oaks and a group of charred of pitch pines that were the result of a previous fire. At the time only my son David would go back there and explore the tangle of scrambling shrubs, weeds, and vines while getting his arms scratched by prickly catbriar. Fortunately, my friend Bruce Kelly, the landscape architect who was one of the four designers of the Central Park Conservancy’s management and restoration plan based on the historic picturesque design principles of Frederick Law Olmsted, came out to visit me in Wainscott one weekend and gave me good advice as we walked through the property. It was Bruce who, in his Southern drawl, counseled me unequivocally, “Betsy, you have to make the entire boundary of your lawn a series of sweeping curves and then define it by planting groundcovers like ageratum, Pachysandra, and vinca minor (periwinkle) along with some nice low-growing shrubs like cherry laurel, a couple of beach plum roses, and maybe a native cedar tree or two. Together we connected two garden hoses and pulled them in a back-and-forth line from the front to the back of the lawn where the scruffy woodland began. Forming the new boundaries of the lawn was something I could then do on my own, and in fact by this time I had already started to turn the wilderness at the back of the property into a woodland garden. I did this by making it a habit to exit the Long Island Expressway in the Suffolk County town of Middle Island and stop at Baier Lustgarten’s wholesale Nursery on my weekend drives from New York to Wainscott. There I would buy two or three young hemlock trees, which I would cram into the back of the car, and afterwards transport in my wheelbarrow to the still-unkempt wildwood where I planted them and prayed that they would not become infected by woolly adelgids, the insect that thrives on the sap of hemlock trees, eventually killing them. But I did not want to stop here in a quandary about how to go forward, so I purchased several Rhododendron Maximum shrubs shrubs from a local nursery and planted these at the same time I was putting the hemlocks in the ground. As native plants, the rhododendrons began to create a botanically appropriate as well as a beautiful understory.

As I looked at them and the remaining unkempt woodland that was getting botanically improved with its scraggly black locust trees and thought about clearing out a few and creating an opening where I could plant a little pool of grass that might be used for wilderness picnics. I called Ted to come out and see the place where this impulse might be realized, whereupon he went to the hardware store in Bridgehampton and bought a chain saw. Immediately upon his return, he and became a happy tree surgeon, cutting down a good number of the locust trees and scraggy dying oaks pointed out to him and piling the cut branches in a large pile off to the side. At the same time I covered the now-bare ground with a layer of soil and planted grass seeds.

Rustic arbor linking the Glen and the Woodland Garden.

At this point, I had another brainstorm: the oak branches would be cut into firewood and, remembering that American pioneers had often used locust trees, with their exceptionally hard wood, to make fence posts, I thought of David Robinson who had worked for the Central Park Conservancy for six years rebuilding the decrepit rustic arbors, gazeboes, bridges, and hand rails in Central Park. Now, in 1986, he had formed his own firm Natural Edge, and I reasoned that I could become his client rather than his boss. It did not take David long to convert the pile of locust branches into the rustic arbor that leads from the grassy opening to the remaining part of the woodland beyond.

Now, as it turned out, the Tice’s daughter came over one day and asked if it was alright if she and her fiancé got married in the Glen. “The Glen!” – yes, of course she could get married in the little opening in the woodland that she had just christened on our behalf, and such is the name by which we have called this part of the garden ever since.

The only problem left now was that there was no destination beyond the rustic arbor except the scraggly woodland on the other side of the rustic arbor. Now, not minding scratching my arms with catbrier thorns, I went to find my weekend explorer son David in the tangled understory of the still scruffy unkempt back end of the woodland with its remnant of pitch pines with fire-blackened trunks. It was next to these that I noticed a shallow depression in the ground. Here my rudimentary geological knowledge came to the fore when I remembered that the terrain of Long Island had been modeled by the southeastern passage of a great wall of ice during the final period of North American glaciation, which had sculpted its current topography. What I saw in the back of the garden as I walked around the perimeter of the group of fire-scarred pines was a ground-plane depression that might have been a legacy of the the glacier as it continued to move in a southward direction scouring the surface of the earth while depositing its acquired debris of boulders and sand along the way. Whether or not this was the case, I saw that its firm silt basin could serve as the bottom of a small pond. I asked Bruce Kelly to come out to Wainscott once more and advise me on what soon became his idea too. He then drew up the outlines of the proposed pond’s banks and some large slabs of native stone that would picturesquely rim it in places. He and I made a trip to a masonry supply yard in East Hampton and picked out three rugged flat ones that appeared right for stops along the shoreline and four smaller ones to arrange one on top of the other to create a small pump-powered waterfall at one end of the pond. To find someone with the ability to construct it all I had to do was to walk up Sayres Path a block beyond Roxbury Lane and ask our neighbor, Alan Montoya, who had the necessary earth-moving mechanical equipment, to do the job. With Bruce and me standing by and giving directions, about three weeks later we managed to have a basin that we could carpet at the bottom with a polyethylene pond liner. I was already at work making a path covered with dry pine needles and woodchips for waking around the pond and another leading to it directly from the rustic arbor.

In order for the visitor to move from one bank to the other it was necessary to build a bridge across its narrowest end. Fortunately, David Robinson
was available to construct one made of cedar planks with handrails like those in the rustic arbor he had recently built as the entry into the woodland. On the path leading to it I planted a few hellebores. It was also necessary to dig a well and install a nearby timer in order to furnish the necessary amount of fresh water at a reliable rate to keep the pond’s surface at the right level and provide a sprinkler system with enough water to make the woodland wildflowers thrive.

Once the pond was completed I began to plant its borders with moss harvested illegally from roadside woodlands I spotted on local drives in the area and catalog-purchased wildflowers such a trillium, blue hyacinths grown from bulbs, Canada Mayflower, and Clethra shrubs. At the same time I placed some stepping stones beneath the arbor, and in between their crevices I planted Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica). I also dropped hundreds of bulbs of Scilla Siberica in the ground nearby, which then the following spring covered this area of the woodland, with a blanket of blue.

_

It is true that one can mourn for a beloved place almost as much one mourns a deceased friend or family member. Yet sorrow has a particular sweetness, and memory palliates absence. The words I have written here may be those of an obituary, but perhaps the house won’t be torn nor the garden obliterated by the new owner. In any case, it is a pleasure for me to relive here the making of my cottage garden, double-lawn greensward, and miniature version of the Central Park Ramble. The last time that I saw this sequence of landscapes (or ever will see it again) was in the fall of 2019 when, after three days of cleaning out the attic and packing my college term papers, manuscripts of magazine and journal articles, and books I had published back in the 1970s (including East Hampton: A History and Guide), together with the various kinds of memorabilia including Lisa and David’s grade-school report cards and the letters my mother wrote me when I was a homesick young girl spending the month of July, 1948, at Camp Arrowhead outside of Kerrville, Texas. Now it was time to take one last bicycle ride to the beach and say goodbye to the place where terns nest beside Georgica Pond while seagulls and sand pipers patrol the beach. I also emptied the bag with shells and stones I had collected there and displayed on window sills in the house. Coming home and putting my bike back into the shed, I took a final stroll throughout the property before coming back to the house for some last-minute packing. Then it was time to walk out the front door to where the car was parked on the strip of grass between Sayres Path and the split-rail, front-yard fence. David had finished loading the trunk with storage boxes and was ready to drive Ted and me back to the city. It was a beautiful day, and the special autumn sunshine that gilds the landscape of Long Island’s South Fork at that this time of year bathed the front of the Wainscott house I had owned and loved for the fifty-four years. As I stood beside the car waiting, I looked up into the top branches of the tall oak tree that had always been a car-parking landmark beckoning me to pull over onto the grass strip between the road and the hydrangeas lining the rail fence.

Why not say goodbye now with a comic memory of a once-beloved cat named Buster that Lisa had picked out of a litter born in the barn of the Osborn farm when she was a little girl. Buster was always with us as a weekend traveler between New York City and Wainscott. Looking into the topmost branches of the oak tree, I now remembered the times we had to coax Buster to settle into his portable pet box so that we could begin our drive to the city. On one occasion he won the battle between feline and human wills as he leaped out of Lisa’s arms and climbed to the topmost limb. Much time was spent coaxing him to come down, which he refused to do. Now, as I said goodbye to the old tree I tempered my sadness by remembering the time that we had to call the fire department so that the extra-long ladder from the fire engine could be propped against the trunk of the tree. By this means the fireman who had responded to our call climbed to the branch on which Buster had tenaciously fastened his claws and carried him back down to our waiting arms. Finally we had the cat in the car and were ready to get on the road. Well, I thought, now I am going to be the cat in the car riding reluctantly westward on the Long Island Expressway.

I looked across the street at Mrs. Emmett’s former cottage and then in front of me at the big mountain laurel beside the evenly-spaced flagstones leading from the opening in the split-rail fence to the arched trellis with its gate opening into the cottage garden. I prayed that it would bloom next spring as profusely as always but realized sadly that I wouldn’t know if it had or not. There was nothing else to do now except to say goodbye to the tall oaks in front of the house and then to the house itself. I felt the door key on the key ring in my pocket and knew that I would never turn it in the lock again. I realized that I could keep the key as a souvenir if I wished and did not have to take it off the key ring and throw it away now that the house was no longer mine to enter. A worse realization than that of new owners having a locksmith cut a new key for them was my assumption that, since the house had now fallen into the category known as a “tear-down,” it would be removed entirely. As a corollary, they might consider the garden as a “dig up.” My nightmare vision was that there would be a mansion with a large car garage attached and in the back a swimming pool and changing room with a shower and a nearby bar for party drinks and refreshments. Well, I must stop thinking about happy kids in inner tubes splashing in the water and grownups sunbathing on outdoor lounges with cocktails on side trays. No, at this point where I have turned a page in the story of my life, I will close this entry in my journal.


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JOURNAL ARCHIVE

DIARY

Venice Revisited

Wainscott: Cherishing Memories of my Former Home in a Non-Hampton Hamlet in the Hamptons

Hill Country Journal

Budding Poets in the Park

Central Park Conservancy 40th Anniversary

Nine-Eleven Remembered

ESSAY

An Analysis of the Sonnet as a Form of Poetic Expression

OBSERVATIONS

Part Three: Central Park as An Outdoor Museum

Part Two: Central Park as An Outdoor Museum

Part One: Central Park as An Outdoor Museum

Designing the Central Park Luminaire: Nature as Ornament

“The Gates” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 2005

Jacob Wrey Mould: Central Park’s Third Designer

America’s Greatest Example of Land Art

Summit Rock, the Tallest Point in Central Park as a Palimpsest of Multi-generational History

Discovering Central Park’s Above-ground Bedrock Foundations

POETRY

The Life and Times of Garth Fergusson, Poet

NEWS

Writing the City

REVIEWS

Lee County: The Setting of Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead and Land of my Pioneer Ancestors

The Wind in the Willows