I had grown up on the south shore of Long Island and raised my children there. By the time the last nestling flew the coop, my husband and I decided we needed a change of scenery. But I still had family on Long Island and also a family tree rooted in generations of Long Islanders. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that in 2010, our great territorial leap would be from the southern belly of our fish-shaped island to its northern scales.
Matt and I had been house-hunting for months and we hadn’t been hopeful about the old house on Huntington Harbor. At the beginning of our search we had dismissed it because it was close to the road and next to a Marina. But the fresh outlook of Spring and a drastic reduction in price had made it appealing enough to take a closer look.
With the two-lane suburban thoroughfare behind us, we walked across the covered porch, through the double entry doors, and into another world. Stained wooden bannisters, arched entryways, original pine flooring and thick painted mouldings drew us in and around the modest-but-stately Victorian.
Learning a little of its history made the house even more attractive. The house was built in the 1800’s by George Brown, who owned and operated a pottery that manufactured practical household vessels until its demise in the early 1900’s.
The potter’s unmarried granddaughter, Carrie Brown, who had been living alone in the house for many years, passed away at the age of 95. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that new occupants took on the task of updating the house, including the edition of electricity, indoor plumbing and central heating. The next homeowner brought with him from England a penchant for gardening and applied it beautifully to the half-acre that sloped from the house to the beach.
The house was on four levels. The original kitchen had been in the walk-out basement, with a cooking fireplace and a dumb-waiter. Fortunately, twentieth century renovators had installed a modern kitchen on the first floor. A regal staircase led to a second floor, reconfigured to accommodate bathrooms and closets. I paused for more than a moment in the master bedroom to admire the view.
The narrow attic steps led to a level that the Brown family had probably never enjoyed as a living space. I crossed the carpeted room, beneath the tent of the angled ceiling, captivated by an old brick column on the far wall. From the top floor of a hilltop house, with a hand on the chimney that had drawn heat up from the basement for a more than a century, I looked through the rippled glass of the arched window. I breathed in the manicured lawn, the deliberately random garden, the massive walnut tree, and the grayed and wobbly wooden gate that opened onto the beach.
We were home. And it changed our lives.
Because the southern limit of our hundred feet of shore front was flanked by the large dock of the marina next door, harbor debris tended to accumulate in the corner of water created by the dock and our retaining wall. Boater trash was the most frustrating and we sometimes looked disdainfully at the big boats cruising out to Huntington Bay. A variety of dead sea creatures also found their way to our shore. We dubbed it the “horseshoe crab burying ground.”
But there were advantages to our salt-water cul-de-sac. The abundance of crabs, mussels and fish encouraged lengthy visits by our feathered friends. Swans, herons, ducks and cormorants added another level of wonder to our new home.
A surprising plus was the old pottery shards strewn along the beach. The shards were more intriguing than seashells and more appealing than plastic bottles. Matt and I would exchange discoveries. Who could find a piece with cobalt blue? Who could find a piece with a bit of lettering? Who could find the biggest shard? Or a jug handle? Our spaniel, Charlie, would follow us around, sniffing, probably hoping we were going to uncover something more appetizing than a broken piece of stoneware.
The longer we lived in Carrie Brown’s house, the more I wanted to learn. Who had owned the pottery before? How had they lived? Who had supervised the manufacture of, or turned, or used, the fragment of the vessel I held in my hands. How long ago had it been crafted?
On a trip to the Huntington Historical Society, with a cutlery box full of shards, Robert (Toby) Kissam explained that redware and stoneware vessels (jugs and mugs, plates, bowls, crocks, and butter churns), were formed and fashioned from local clay. Before the 20th century amenities of jars and cans, these items, as unique and beautiful as they were utilitarian, were the staple of every kitchen.
My new home and hobby spurred a drive to know more about the pots as well as the people. Studying the utilitarian wares gave me insights into my shards. The single jug that came with the house grew into a collection of Brown Brothers pottery, and that pottery collection grew to include stoneware crafted by earlier Huntington potters.
A hundred years before we introduced Charlie to the wonders of rolling in sandy goose droppings, the Huntington Pottery had been grinding to a halt, abandoning the last of its misfired, cracked and broken products to the harbor. Without giving it much thought, we had begun to treasure their trash.
My interest spurred a genealogical search. I soon discovered that Carrie Brown had familial roots that touched, since the first recorded deed in 1805, almost every owner of the Huntington pottery. In addition, the daunting maze of marriages between pottery families across New York and New England would often lead me back to Carrie Emeline Brown.
I’ve been told more than once by visitors that Carrie’s spirit lives on inside these walls. I’m not the kind of person who communes with the dead, but if Carrie really is here, I believe she’s a good soul and we’re content to share the premises.
After years of fun and compelling research, I’m excited to pass the shards of information I’ve accumulated, some known and some unique, onto the historic mosaic of the lives of the people connected to the Huntington’s Pottery.
Many people helped me along this journey, so before I continue, I’d like to thank them in advance:
Jerry Beaumont, Robert Gilmore Caire Jr., Juelette Fadness, William Gaughan, Gordon Goldsmith, Dale Ketcham Graves, Charles Henry Johnson Jr., Frank Edward Johnson Jr., Frederick Rogers Ketcham Jr., Robert Kissam, T. K. Knutson, George Lukacs, Deborah Matthias Sharp, Don Setter, Ada Schneider, Carol Twomey, Camilla Vanderlinden, Easthampton Library, Friends of the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery, Huntington Historical Society, Old Sturbridge Village, Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA), Somerset Historical Society, Stonington Historical Society, Walter Ulrich