Updated: Aug 26, 2022
On Thursday, April 29th at 11am author and historian Anne Halsey will be giving a lecture live on Zoom detailing the interesting history of Southampton's Main Street through the stories left behind by those who lived there. Including some of Anne's own relatives. To RSVP for her talk please click here!
The blog entry below comes directly from Anne as an early look at some of the info she will talk about in her virtual talk in April.
Also if you're interested, you can buy your very own copy of "In Old Southampton" from our online store if you click here!
by Anne Halsey
“Times have changed, but the savor of the old time lingers. Many will be heading toward the ancestral home in the East Riding this summer,” wrote my great-grandfather more than 75 years ago, referring to Southampton as it was called “in the early days.” And he was right. Times change, and yet many still head east every summer to gather here. For more than ten years, I have been researching and writing the story of my many generations of Southampton family as it intertwines with my own life and story. My great grandfather, the Reverend Jesse Halsey rises for me out of our family’s annals—in soul and almost in body—with descriptions of this sacred place that both grounded and inspired him, and that in their strange way speak as much to our times as they spoke of his own specific day.
“We lived on the Main Street, which with several curves wound thru the struggling business section and then straight away to the Beach ocean. When the wind was south the surf was always in our ears. We lived in the North End, everything south of the Church and Job’s Lane was the South End—one village; two communities, more or less, each with its own two room ‘deestrict’ school. To the south of the house was an orchard—Baldwins, pippins, russets with a few peach trees that seldom matured their fruit, and pear trees that always bore prodigiously—little sickle pears for pickling, Bartletts for eating, and Clapps’ Favorite for canning. A well-kept garden in the back supplied berries in variety and summer vegetables. Strawberries, which were raised in quantity, and asparagus a half-acre were on the farm half a mile distant. The back break of cutting asparagus in the sandy soil, April and May days, after school, is still with me after fifty years. These two crops furnished the only ready money until the fall crop of potatoes.” So writes my great-grandfather about growing up in Southampton in the 1880s.
I grew up coming out to Long Island for a couple of weeks every summer to see my grandparents. These trips always included visits to my Aunt Abbie and Uncle Jim’s house at 49 North Main, the house in which Jesse was born and raised, and which was filled with family stories and a deep sense of the history of the place. I remember keenly my grandfather showing the old home movies taken at 49 and at the family Camps on Peconic in the late 20s, 30s, and 40s. I listened intently to him and my great aunts reminiscence, telling the stories of their Southampton childhoods, of 4th of July picnics at Shinnecock, of the ancestors buried in the North End Graveyard whose spirits still live in Bowden Square.
Cap’n Henry Halsey, who built the ancestral home at 49 North Main, was the oldest of five. His father, Charles Fithian Halsey, owned a farm and was the miller in the windmill, and died in a freak accident when Henry was nine. When the children were old enough, Henry’s mother, Phebe Rogers Halsey, moved him, his two brothers, and his two sisters, from Water Mill to New York, where she kept a boarding house and put the children in school. In 1830, Cap’n Henry with his young wife, Eliza, and first child, Charles, left his masonry business in New York and came back and bought a farm in Southampton from the estate of a deceased uncle, as the mill had earlier been sold to pay for his sisters’ schooling. Rebuilding the old farmhouse and introducing some of the refinements that he had built into city developments, he settled down to work the farm and carry on his mason’s trade. By 1870, he had succeeded Cap’n Bill White as the town’s Wrecking Master.
Until about 30 years or so ago, Main Street Southampton was shaded in a canopy of great elm trees, which had been planted in the early 1800s. But in front of Cap’n Henry’s home at 49 N Main, were two giant “Trees of Heaven,” trees native to China. These were planted by Cap’n Henry, in 1874, following the wreck of the French steamer Lavalley off the coast of Southampton. So tells Jesse Halsey: “When the Levalley wrecked, Cap’n Harry ordered his men to board and cast offboard the cargo, or part of it, in order to save the crew. Overboard went the cargo. Great bundles of fruit and shade trees were first jettisoned. These drifted up on shore and were being appropriated by the townsfolk when Cap’n Henry, knowing it was his business, as Wrecking Master to save as much as possible for the ships’ owners, went ashore and forbade his neighbors to take the trees away . . . he sent for a local squire, who was always the auctioneer, and on the beach the trees were sold. Many orchards in Southampton were planted or replenished from this stock and on either side of his front gate, Cap’n Harry planted a couple of Chinese ailanthus trees, a novelty in those days. Because, he said, he was tired of nothing but elms.”
I’m deeply compelled by the lives of the past generations of people who lived in these houses, on these streets. Their tender longings, their tragic heartbreaks, the continuing on in times of tremendous grief; their dedication in ways large and small to the domestic moments and to preserving the broader legacies of the past; as well as their soaring commitment to the difficult work of creating a better present, and a future bigger than oneself. I’m drawn to those lives no longer with us, but whose remarkable undertakings are marked here in this place around us, if only we remember. For instance, who now knows that the first lending library in the village was housed in a bookcase in the kitchen of Cap’n Henry Halsey’s house, next to the Dutch oven fireplace around which townsfolk gathered on Saturday nights to exchange volumes?
Who now knows what is a Dame School, much less that a succession of them once educated the youngest children of Southampton on Bowden Square for many years? Jesse Halsey’s sister, author Abigail Fithian Halsey tells us in her book, In Old Southampton that “In the winter these farmboys, who were men in strength and size if not in years, flocked into the district school for three months. This made the public school a rough place for young children. A gentlewoman, often a widow who had a family to support, would run a school for the littlest girls and boys. This was called a Dame School. Aunt Polly Sayre kept one in early days, and later Miss Amanda Halsey. Mrs. Jane Proud lived in a low one-story house on Windmill Lane opposite the North End burying ground. Her school was long remembered. ‘She was a widow lady,’ said one of her pupils, ‘and always wore a black dress and steel spectacles and was always knitting a blue stocking. She had a stick that weighed seventy-five pounds. At least, that is the way it felt to me.’ Mrs. Proud’s low one-story house has long since made way for the grade school, and of all the little girls and boys who sat on the low benches, studied Peter Partley’s Geography, read the Child’s Guide, wrote in the copybooks, and played at recess on the hill not one remains. Their names are chiseled on the stones in the old North End graveyard just across the street.”
“By the Cherry Tree Fire,” poem by Abigail F. Halsey
Though their stern faith may have sustained my forebears, it could not prevent the occurrences of maternal and infant death, crop failure, the ravage of sea storms, that, although more frequent and expected in that era before modern medicine, agricultural science, and GPS—couldn’t have felt any less devastating than they feel to us now, and were certainly accompanied by profound grief and helplessness. This deep feeling of loss is indicated in the words of Jesse Halsey’s father Charles, in a letter to a friend sailing aboard a whaling ship in 1861, wherein he writes of his pain over the death of his 15 year-old-brother, Jesse, buried in the North End Graveyard, and for whom my great-grandfather would be named: “It was but a short time after that my dear Brother Jesse was taken sick with Bilious Intermittent Fever, and died after a short illness of 8 days. He had taken a hard cold some too [sic] weeks before, but thought he was much better even the day before he was taken down to his bed. He was handled very severly [sic] and had his reason only at intervals . . . You Dear Sir can better imagine than I can describe our feelings as we stood around his dying bed and saw his eyes close in death, Methinks I see him now as he reaches out his hand and calls Mother Father. You to [sic] have lost Brothers and a dear Father and know by experience the feelings of those who mourn the loss of dear departed friends. I feel assured of your ready sympathy and it affords us much consolation to think he was with us and that all was done for him that could be both in Medical attendance and nursing to save life. God has in his Providence seen fit to sumon [sic] him, perhaps from the end to come, and we hope although his body lies moulding in the dust his spirit is now singing the praises above. He was indeed a lovely youth, beloved by all who knew him and I need not tell you how much we miss him, at the family alter, at the table, on the farm there is an empty seat, a vacant place. God has said he does not afflict willingly but that it is for our good that we may profit thereby . . .”
A similar sense of tragedy and grief comes through in the picture of another North Ender, dear Aunt Libbie Fowler. In May 1836, Captain Henry’s youngest sister Libbie married Capt. William F. Fowler, a whaling captain, in the Herrick House, and they settled on North Sea Road, just north of the cemetery. About her, Jesse Halsey writes: “Birth and death and all the occasions in between Great Aunt Libby was always there and most welcome. Her husband had joined the ’49 gold rush, mortgaged his farm and gone ‘round the Horn to California, coming home, like many neighbors, broken in health and fortune. When mother died, it was Aunt Libby who came to my little bedroom under the eaves, early in the morning to tell me. She had a wealth of knowledge and a fund of stories. Sunday afternoons I would slip over to sit with her and sometimes she would let me take a tiny pinch of snuff out of her whalebone snuff-box. Three of her boys went on whaling voyages and had been lost at sea . . .Willie and Eddie Fowler were never heard from, my great aunt, telling me in a moment of confidence one day that, though they had been gone for fifty years, her gate never clicked but that she went to the window or the door to look and see if they might yet be coming home.”
I’m drawn to not just the description of physical spaces in these stories, but to the physical and emotional labor described. The daily toil of tending the animals, tending the gardens, tending the kitchen fire, and to the mothering, the time and attention paid to one another, the time in prayer, in preparation, in anticipation. As I negotiate the relationships, decisions, hardships, and actions of my own life in work, in governance, with my family, my children, my community, I think often of these voices, these ancestors, asking me with what do we each individually reckon, what must we endure, and where do we find grace?
Jesse Halsey writes about the aftermath of his uncle Will Halsey’s death, who drowned while clamming in the North Bay, “No professional morticians in those days—not there at least—and old Aunt Libbie who had ushered us all into the world and our parents before us—she was the practical nurse and midwife of the village; the adviser of its gentry and poor folk alike; the friend of all in need—Aunt Libbie takes over, washing and preparing the body for burial. There was no embalming in those days and Squire Foster acted as undertaker, making the coffin in his father’s shop. The boy at her direction goes across the street to Father’s barn to show the men where to find the rough pine plank 48’’ x 6’ on which his mother had been ‘laid out’ some two years before; stored up there in the hay mow (the east end where a great round shiny ships-spar tied the hand-hewn oak rafters together. What a job for a boy—or boys, for ‘Little Lewis Hildreth’ went along, too. (He died the next year, but that’s another story; we wander too far; let’s get back to the kitchen table.) There are shadows in the room you see; not of westerning sun’s making or the flicker of the fireplace logs—Father at one end of the table, Aunt Gussie at the other, going their best for the others’ sake to be cheerful . . . ‘the time so short, the craft so long to learn,’ says Aunt Gussie; echo in father’s tones: ‘The days of our years are three score years and ten and if by reason of strength they be fourscore yet . . .’”
What returns here, what here yields new understanding? What is of timeless solace? The buildings, the flora, the fauna, the stories, the sea? There’s a continual longing, a leaving and a returning, a loving and a losing, throughout these stories . . . There’s a deep pain, and a deep sense of purpose, and there’s an inherent questioning that points us to an understanding of time that is not narrowly linear: What are we in our time called to do? Who are we called to be? The past so often seems so foreign and yet in these voices, in the practiced words of their authors, the queries and questions are timeless parables—instructive, cautionary, comforting. What distracts us? What drives us? What connects us to our past and to one another?
These old and intimate stories of love found and lost, the repetition of longing and desire over time, mixed with birthing and dying and making, creating, and marking. Time and technology change, equipment and economies change, civil rights change, mores change, our relationship to God changes, but love and longing persists. The heart wants what it wants.
Jesse Halsey, describing this neighborhood, said: “Regardless of the direction of the highway those houses were set by their builders always facing the south—and the sun and the sea. Farmhouses like that, grey and weathered but trim and tight against the weather, some on village streets and some at the hub of surrounding acres! Tiny windowpanes peek out, diamond and square and oblong, most from the days when glass came from over the water and was priced in shillings and pence and is bubble-scared and blue streaked and is enchantingly distorting as one peers out. Squat and square brick chimneys anchor the houses to the ground. Within, these chimneys are fed by fireplaces, one in each and every room. Floorboards creak when you enter, boards half as wide as a puncheon head. Low ceilings, paneled woodwork, musical H and L hinges on gently squeaking doors! . . . By the trim white Churches, surmounted by pointing spires, one comes upon ancestral burying-grounds where rhymed epitaphs quarrel with life’s adventure or attempt to perpetuate the excellency of some village worthy—or mayhap his idiosyncrasies.”
And so, generations on, Iike my great-grandfather, we, too, love “the salt-tang’d air, / The restless, rolling water drew him / From a thousand miles, / Like tides upon his heart / Toward home and rest and peace.”