Keeping Time

The restoration of Montauk’s historic Second House will return the simple, old shingled landmark to the way it looked when resident livestock minders kept watch over sheep, cattle, and slumbering travelers
Second House in Montauk as it appeared in about 1887, when the last livestock keepers lived there and took in passing visitors for the night as an extra source of income. Below, Minding the sheep and keeping cattle and horses from breaking into their pastures was the job of the Second House keepers for 140 years. East Hampton Historical Society

Montauk’s sandy soil was never all that good for farming. The highlands that give the topography there its undulating form were the result of heaps of stone and sediment (till) kicked over by the last glacier some 11,000 years ago. 

But the Montauk grasslands were good for grazing, and the East Hampton English colonists looked greedily at the valuable pasture early on. In 1660, they bought all of Montauk from the Montaukett sachem’s widow and son for the equivalent of 100 British pounds, to be paid in either corn or wampum: 50 bushels of corn a year for 10 years, or “good wampum at 6 a penny” (about 140,000 pieces). In token of the deed, the Indians dug up a piece of what had been their land alone and delivered it to the hands of the inhabitants of East Hampton.

The Indians retained liberty to live there, which many of them did until they were swindled from their homes at the behest of Arthur W. Benson around 1879. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here.

From the beginning, livestock was critically important to the English settlers. The very first town records make mention of problems that might arise from cattle either straying over the Southampton line or breaking into the fields and damaging corn, meadows, and orchards.

Montauk, called Meantaquit in the early town records, was the most likely place to banish the troublesome beasts, and after the 1660 purchase it became a commonage for which shares could be bought and sold, but not to anyone from outside of the town boundaries.

The Town Trustees made the rules for Montauk, even though the land was now owned by a group of proprietors that included many of the more prosperous families of the day. The trustees set the date for driving cattle, horses, and sheep on and off Montauk. They chose the pound keepers and the cattle keepers. 

These were no small responsibilities. In 1727, there were more than 3,400 cattle on Montauk for the grazing season — at a time when the town’s entire human population numbered only in the hundreds. There were thousands of sheep and an untold number of pigs, all watched over by townsmen who took shifts sheltering on Montauk in simple huts.

In the 1740s, the trustees concluded that better accommodations were necessary and commissioned three proper houses; they also sought permanent keepers to live in each one. The houses’ names, First, Second, and Third, reflect geography, not the order in which they were constructed: Drovers coming across the sandy Napeague wastes would get to First House first, Second House second, and Third House third, though references to them as such were not written down until the 1850s.

First House stood roughly opposite where the Hither Hills State Park Campground is today and was manned first in 1739; the orignal structure was replaced in 1798 but burned to the ground in 1909.

Second House, near Fort Pond, was raised in 1746, with Nathaniel Talmage as the first resident keeper. It was replaced in 1797 and rebuilt in its current cottage shingle style in 1912.

To confuse things, Third House, where the chief cattle keeper lived, was built about the same time as First House. It is believed that money for the three houses’ construction came from the proprietors’ sale of Montauk Point to the federal government for the new lighthouse.

The Second House keeper’s main job was to mind the eastern fence, which extended from Fort Pond Bay to Fort Pond, then from Fort Pond to the ocean, watching that the sheep did not stray east into the cattle and horse pastures and that the cattle and horses did not cross the line into sheep territory.

Keeping tabs on the males of each species was a big deal. Farmers were invested in improving their livestock through careful breeding — bringing a prized bull over by barge from Gardiner’s Island, for instance, according to Robert Hefner, an architectural historian — and unsupervised couplings were to be avoided at all cost. Gelding less-desirable livestock to protect bloodlines was serious business. As early as 1650, the town meeting set penalties for residents who did not maintain their fences and who were responsible for marauding animals. In 1656, the town meeting agreed, “It is ordered by the 7 men yt noe man shall cut any bull or ram or bore without he or they Doe cutout both the stones & if any Does transgres this order it shalbe lawful for any man to kill any such creature soe found & if any such creature be now in the woods it shall be lawful for any man to kill them. . . .”

About two years ago, the East Hampton Town Board voted in favor of a plan to return Second House to the way it appeared in 1886, the year that its last keeper lived there with his family. In a report commissioned by the board, Mr. Hefner wrote that there had been few changes to the structure since 1797 before it passed into private hands.

In giving orders for its construction in 1797, trustees decreed that Second House be 27 feet by 27 feet in size. Brick came from Southold, timber, lath, plaster, nails, and glass by way of Sag Harbor. East Hampton blacksmiths made more nails, hinges, latches, and the iron manteltree pieces, Mr. Hefner discovered in the town records. A second floor was under the eaves; roof rafters were set on the plate atop the front and rear walls just three feet above the floor.

The front door faced the ocean, and when a visitor stepped inside, they might be invited into a wainscoted parlor at the west of the house with its own fireplace and dainty Federal moldings. The original kitchen, at the rear, had a large hearth for cooking with a baking oven built into the brick. The only staircase, leading to the second floor, was to the right of the hearth.

A lean-to kitchen about 12 feet wide was added at the back of the house in 1837. This protected some of the original 1770s shingles, which can be seen to this day.

The keeper’s life was hardly lonely. Part of the agreement was that he would be permitted to run the place as a kind of inn, should he and his wife be so able. Guest registers list visitors arriving by stage or by yacht, anchoring in Fort Pond Bay. Three visitors trekked to Second House from East Hampton on foot for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1870, and very much enjoyed a restful night roughing it under the low eaves:

“[W]e reached Mr. Osborne’s, near the beach, after dark. Soon we were comfortably seated in his cozy parlor, chatting with the family like old friends. . . . Our hostess asks if we will sleep on feathers or straw. Sleepy voices echo, ‘Straw! straw! straw!’ Three snowy beds. We drew lots for the choice, and were soon fast asleep.”

Second House passed out of the proprietors’ ownership when Benson in turn purchased all of Montauk. He ordered additions built to accommodate family and friends (as well as the architects and builders then constructing the Montauk Association houses). A porch went on, bedrooms were added, and a laundry wing tacked on to the lean-to kitchen, Mr. Hefner wrote.

More keepers arrived after Osborne eventually retired to East Hampton. A school operated there from 1896 to 1899. Ulysses T. Payne was the last keeper of Second House, until 1909, when David and Claire Kennedy began to make it their summer home; they extended the roof line and the porch and added dormers, according to Mr. Hefner. It remained in the Kennedy family until the town bought it in 1968 for $75,000, the money split with the New York State Historical Trust.

It operated as a museum for years, then was left unoccupied for a time. Raccoons invaded the attic and cellar. The timber frame was in need of repair. New electrical and plumbing systems were needed, too. The Town of East Hampton in 2016 decided it was worth it and gave the go-ahead for a restoration. Two rounds of initial bids from contractors came in for way more than the town had authorized to spend and a third round of bids was sought.

In mid-November of this year, Mr. Hefner and Kathryn Nadeau of the Montauk Historical Society led a group of prospective bidders through the now-gutted interior, looking with care at 221-year-old brick, paneling, and wide-plank floors. In addition to the work of repairing the foundation and sills, and the removal of what Mr. Hefner called non-historic conditions (changes the Kennedys made after about 1909, such as added dormers and a more refined porch). 

The first phase of the restoration could be completed by the summer, if some of the most difficult jobs on the punch list get done promptly. Fund-raising for the completion phase is ongoing. Mr. Hefner said that the Montauk Historical Society plans to use Second House for offices, with a conference room on the second floor. The house will meet Americans with Disability Act standards, he said.

Commissioning appropriate replica windows will be the most expensive part of the work to come, Mr. Hefner said. Luckily, there are good photographs to be used for reference, and, as Mr. Hefner said, “information still in the walls.”

The two-story east wing, above and below, is one of the few 19th-century exterior features that survived a series of additions.
Lath for the 1797 Second house interior, above, came from Peleg Latham of Sag Harbor. Below the view to the Atlantic from the second floor. Other windows face Fort Pond.
The ironwork, such as a sturdy strap hinge, was done in East Hampton by David Barns and William Hedges.
Guests staying the night at Second House slept on down or straw-filled mattresses under the second floor eaves.
Original 1797 shingles can be seen inside a later kitchen wing with the only stairway visible through an open door.
Two contractors spoke with Robert Hefner recently about restoration challenges ahead.David E. Rattray Photos