The Selah Lester House at the corner of North Main and Cedar streets in East Hampton will open next week as a town farm museum, focusing on life at the dawn of the 20th century. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz.
By Stephen J. Kotz
In 1900, on the cusp of the 20th century, East Hampton was still a sleepy, farming and fishing community, with a growing summer colony, whose residents lived a life apart from the town’s year-round inhabitants. Modern conveniences, like electricity and indoor plumbing, were a luxury reserved for the well off. Other inventions, so common today, like the automobile, were still a novelty, rarely, if ever seen on local streets.
Within two decades, the United States had emerged from World War I, the women’s suffrage movement had been a success, and radios and telephones were in most houses. The modern world as we know it was in full swing.
A major goal of the East Hampton Town Historical Farm Museum, which opens on Saturday, October 11, in the Selah Lester House at the corner of North Main and Cedar streets in East Hampton, is to present a snap shot of what life was like in East Hampton during that period of transition.
“That’s why we picked 1900. It was a time of great change,” said Prudence Carabine, the chairwoman of the museum committee, who offered a preview tour to members of the press on Thursday, September 25.
“I also looked at all the other museums that are within a visitor’s driving distance, and none of them were focusing on this period,” she added. “I wanted to pick a timeframe that has never been explored.”
The three-acre property is owned by East Hampton Town, which also invested about $200,000 into renovating the 18th century farmhouse, which was moved to the site by sled from Amagansett in the late 1800s when Selah Lester bought the property.
Today, the two-bedroom cottage is freshly painted, with finished floors, including wide pine planks on the second floor. A collection of furnishings, kitchen utensils and other common farmhouse tools continues to grow, as Ms. Carabine and other volunteers plan ways to display it in a way that will allow school children the opportunity to handle objects, while protecting them from damage and possible theft.
“We want kids—and adults—to turn off their phones, turn off their gadgets,” said Ms. Carabine, “to see that things were different.”
A wood-burning stove—modern in that it was convertible to natural gas—that was salvaged from the Tillinghast house on Woods Lane sits in the kitchen. Nearby sits a wash tub with a handheld agitator that looks like a metal drain plunger, is in another corner. An old icebox sits in a side room, reminding the visitor that a cold beer was not always easy to come by.
Items ranging from old eyeglasses, tintype photos and hand tools rest on a table in a side room. In a dining room/parlor, dishes and silverware (from Sag Harbor’s Alvin Silver Company) are on the table, and a melodeon, a small pump organ, is on display.
Another side room is furnished with benches and a wide screen television. Rotating exhibits will be displayed on the walls, and a loop of videos, showing old East Hampton residents talking about the good old days, will be shown on the television.
On the second floor, two bedrooms are well furnished with beds typical of the era, bed clothing, and quilts and furnishings.
The museum committee is still in seeking donations of period clothing, toys and other artifacts that can be displayed at the site.
Ms. Carabine said the museum plans to have 50 to 70 docents trained, so it can be open at least one day a week with two on hand at all times. That way, volunteers would only have to work a day a year she said.
The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. At its grand opening, Gaynel Stone, the noted archaeologist, will oversee the start of a dig, which hopes to uncover the foundation of an old Dominy mill, which had been used as a wind-powered saw mill. Alex Balsam of Balsam Farms will lead volunteers in planting garlic, which Ms. Carabine hopes will deter deer from foraging in the period garden she hopes to plant behind the house. East Hampton native and teacher David Cataletto will sing songs from the era, and there will be cider and donuts.
In the coming weeks, she plans to hold a pumpkin-pie eating contest on the grounds as well as sponsor talks on a variety of topics, including one by Diane McNally, the clerk of the East Hampton Town Trustees, who, Ms. Carabine points out, would not have been eligible to vote in 1900.
“What we have is a gem, it really is,” she said of the Lester house. “We are hoping to share it.”