By Annette Hinkle
Merrall Hildreth’s Sagaponack barn is legendary — and so is Hildreth himself. A carver of wood, a creator of local architecture (in miniature no less) and a collector of historic farming and mercantile implements (his family owned the Sagg General store for years), the 87 year old can trace his lineage on the East End all the way back to 1635.
Don’t expect Merrall Hildreth to talk much about himself or his woodcarving ability though. He’ll tell you it’s just what he does to pass the time, particularly in winter, explains Bridgehampton Historical Society’s archivist Julie Greene and program coordinator Sally Spanburgh.
“It’s so ingrained in him that it’s nothing except who he is,” says Greene. “He’s a Hildreth they’ve been here in Sagaponack for generations,”
“He’ll say ‘See how many streets they’ve named after me around here?’” adds Spanburgh. “But he says it jokingly.”
But Greene and Spanburgh know treasures when they see them, and this week, the historical society opens a new exhibit entitled “Merrall Hildreth’s Woodworks.” It’s a show that was born in Hildreth’s red barn, which sits behind the General Store on Sagg Main and which, rumor has it, is astounding.
Spanburgh and Greene had long heard about the great ‘museum’ Hildreth had in his barn and people in the area kept asking the pair if they had seen it yet. The answer was no, in fact, they hadn’t. But that was soon to change.
“I knew him from church,” says Spanburgh. “I said ‘I heard you had quite a collection upstairs in your barn. Can I see it?’ He said ‘Come over.’”
As avid historians, Spanburgh and Greene expected to see some incredible objects — but they were hardly prepared for what met their eyes when they got a glimpse of the second floor of Merrall Hildreth’s barn.
“Our jaws dropped,” recalls Spanburgh. “It was a cacophony – every square inch of that building on the second floor was filled either with his own creations or old Sagg Main General Store items like the post office boxes or farm equipment. It’s got rafters and it was packed. Rakes, hoes, oxen yokes, chicken cages, coffee grinders.”
“He had some of the old glass cases that were used in the store,” adds Greene. “He does wonderful whimsical things with wood — he unwrapped a candy bar, ate the candy and rewrapped it around a block of wood and had that in the case.”
While it sounds like a kid’s dream come true, Spanburgh notes it’s not the kind of place you would want children to run free — given the many delicate and intricate treasures they would love to get their hands on.
“There’s so much up there, you’d have to have your child leashed and muzzled,” notes Spanburgh. “It’s a playground.”
“It feels like the Louvre,” she adds. “You’d need years to explore it.”
So Spanburgh and Greene decided to see if they could bring Merrall Hildreth to the public with an exhibit at the historical society. They sent a formal letter asking if he’d be interested in sharing his woodwork with the community. Hildreth readily agreed and it was as simple as that.
“He said, ‘Let me know when you want me to bring it over,’” recalls Spanburgh.
This past weekend, the pieces arrived at the historical society’s archives building, where they will be on view through the end of June. Among the pieces are quaint birdhouses that resemble structures you might find while driving the back roads of Sagaponack on a Sunday afternoon. Hildreth also carves figures — everything from howling dogs and doll house furniture, to three foot tall bears with pants and suspenders, intricate jewelry boxes and even contemporary dancing figures that resemble a 3-D version of something Matisse would’ve loved.
But without a doubt, it’s Hildreth’s recreations of local architecture that will garner the most ohhhs and ahhhs when the show opens this Friday. His structures are recreated in minute detail and are more than just familiar landmarks around Sagaponack and Bridgehampton. They are in fact, memories of sorts — buildings that Merrall Hildreth has personally spent time in or those with special meaning in his life.
There’s the Sandford saltbox on Bridge Lane, the first First Presbyterian Church (which is no longer standing) and the one room schoolhouse in Sagaponack. Classic red and white, just like the real thing — a section of the shingled roof can be removed to reveal the inside of the schoolhouse in miniature as it looked when Hildreth was a student there — right down to the inkwells on the desks. There’s even an image of George Washington hanging on the front wall of the classroom like it did in Hildreth’s day (upon closer examination, it’s evident that this portrait is actually a postage stamp featuring Washington’s visage).
Hildreth’s use of a postage stamp as a portrait is appropriate given the fact that Merrall Hildreth was the Sagaponack postmaster from 1969 to 1986 — his family owned the general store on Sagg Main since the turn of the 20th century when his great uncle and father ran the place.
Though the store is no longer in the family, Hildreth has built an intricate replica of it — not as it appears today, but as it looked more than 100 years ago. Inside the green and white model are handmade wooden counters and postal boxes — complete with tiny letters that fit in the mail slots and a stack of weekly newspapers. Tiny cans and cereal boxes line the shelves of the little store, while crates of vegetables and sacks of flour and potatoes sit on the floor. The pot belly stove near the front door is where local farmers historically congregated to shoot the breeze while picking up their mail.
“It was groceries, hardware, boots, dry goods — a mercantile store,” explains Greene. “It’s different today — now they just call it a deli and the post office is next door.”
In fact, it was during Hildreth’s tenure as postmaster that the U.S. Postal Service stipulated the post office had to be separate from the store.
While the buildings themselves are special — it is when the tiny furnishings and objects are in place that Merrall Hildreth’s woodworks really feel authentic. And that, notes Spanburgh, is as it should be.
“I always feel a structure is only alive when it’s inhabited,” she says. “All the pieces he’s used to make the General Store bring it to life. It’s not just about the architecture but the function in its life. That’s part of the appeal.”
“Merrall Hildreth Woodworks” openS with a reception on Friday, May 6 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Bridgehampton Historical Society Archives (2539-A Montauk Highway). The show runs through the end of June. Hildreth and his wife of 60+ years, Mary (Lewis) Hildreth, will be honored at the historical society’s annual cocktail party this year.