Sag Harbor’s Customs House Helped New Nation Out of Debt

Posted on 24 April 2009

By Jim Marquardt

When it met in New York City in the summer of 1789, the First Congress of the infant United States found itself facing bankruptcy, with a debt of $77-million. Under the original Articles of Confederation, the Federal Government had no power to tax and had borrowed from France and Holland to finance the War of Independence. Congress and President George Washington responded quickly, passing the Tariff Act of July 4, 1789 which authorized collection of duties on goods coming into the country. The newly established U.S. Customs Service named Sag Harbor a Federal port of entry and appointed Henry Packer Dering U.S. Customs Master. Henry was the son of Thomas Dering, a patriot who moved his family to Connecticut during the war to escape the British. While there, young Henry studied at Yale College and his framed diploma dated 1784 hangs today on the wall of the Customs House.

Busier even than the port of New York City, Sag Harbor became a major source of the young country’s finances. For the next three decades, Dering met vessels entering the harbor and levied duties on their cargos – 10 cents a gallon for Jamaican rum, two-and-a-half cents a pound for coffee, five cents a pound for wax or spermaceti candles, four cents a pound for cheese, two cents for soap, ten cents for snuff, and seven cents a pair for shoes, slippers or “goloshoes” made of leather. By 1835, customs revenues alone had reduced the national debt to zero.

Henry purchased what became the Customs House when he married Anna Fosdick in December 1793. The house then was at the corner of Union and Church Streets. He added to the home in 1806, probably because he and Anna raised nine children and he had also become Sag Harbor’s first postmaster. In a letter to a relative, Anna wrote “Our leader George Washington has appointed my own dear husband Henry to serve as Customs Master here in Sag Harbor. The tea I buy will still be taxed (I chuckle to think my husband will be the one issuing that!) but I will sip that tasty brew more happily knowing that the money it brings in will help support our own new nation rather than go in some king’s pocket across the ocean.” Martha Washington reportedly sent Anna a cutting from a boxwood bush at Mt. Vernon for planting in her yard. As a community leader, Henry invited David Frothingham to the village in May 1791 to establish Long Island’s first newspaper, The Herald.

The fully-furnished Customs House presents a fascinating look at the lifestyle of a comfortable Long Island family between 1790 and 1820. Just off the side entrance is the customs room furnished with Dering’s work table and ledgers, and stand-up and roll-top desks made by Sag Harbor craftsmen. Henry raised a corner of the ceiling to accommodate a tall case-clock made in mahogany by William Claggett of Newport. Shutters on the inside of the windows slid shut for privacy as Dering did his official work.

Important guests, including James Fennimore Cooper, were welcomed into the elegant parlor with its Federal settee and Chippendale tea table and side chairs. A large chest, like others in the house, made up for lack of closets. In one corner is a violin and case crafted by Sag Harbor’s Zebulon Elliott. Opposite stands another tall case-clock, this one built by Nathanial Dominy of East Hampton.

The dining room is equally gracious, its mahogany table set with porcelain dishes carried as ballast in ships returning from China. Dinner guests sat in Duncan Phyfe chairs and ate with two-tined forks and engraved silver flatware. On a sideboard inside large glass chimneys are Sheffield lamps that could be lit with candles or whale oil. A “crumb cloth” protects the carpet and strips of wall paper border the ceiling.

In the big kitchen fireplace a trammel suspended cast iron pots, pans and kettles over the flames. Early American versions of labor-saving devices helped servants prepare meals — a toasting rack and waffle maker, a tin reflector oven, a cabbage chopper, a wooden rolling pin with ivory handles, and a butter churn. In the pantry is a jar of brandied peaches put up in 1839. The kitchen has space for a spinning wheel, a baby-minder, a dish-drying rack, a pie-safe to keep out flies and children, and a tin bathtub shaped like a huge soup bowl.

In Henry’s bedroom upstairs is a chest from his parent’s home in Shelter Island and a fancy commode cabinet used when it was too dark or cold to get to the outhouse. A brass and copper bed warmer fought the chill, and on the floor next to the four-poster rests a pair of shoes, in those times neither right nor left but shaped by the feet of the wearer. The smaller children’s rooms overflow with straw-filled, wrought iron sleigh-beds, toy furniture, doll cradles and slates for school work.

When Henry Packer died in 1822 at age 58, he was succeeded as Customs Master by his son Henry Thomas. Almost all of the Derings are buried in Oakland Cemetery. By the 1940s, the once grand house had become an abandoned derelict and was about to be demolished. The Olde Sagg Harbour Committee appealed for help to Charles Edison, former New Jersey governor and son of the famous inventor, who summered in the Hannibal French House on Main Street. Edison loved Sag Harbor and donated part of his property as a new site for the Customs House. It took three days to make the careful move, with the lighting company detaching overhead wires along the way. The Society for Preservation of Long Island Antiquities studied the building’s original interior design and located a large number of family pieces, aided by Anna Dering’s own household inventories. In 1971 after a three-year restoration, Sag’s Customs House was designated a National Landmark.

This summer when you’re wondering what to do with those weekend guests, give them a peek at local history. The Customs House is open weekends beginning Memorial Day, daily in July and August, and weekends from Labor Day to Columbus Day.

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