Sunday, July 18, 2010

About The Willows (The Oakes Smith Patchogue Residence)

I’ve read accounts that place the sale of The Willows in the year 1870. At this time EOS is said to have moved in with her son Alvin in Blue Point, Long Island. However, I came across a fascinating article printed in the September 10, 1873 issue of The Brooklyn Eagle that chronicles a reporter’s interview of Madame Oakes Smith still in her home, The Willows, while the building is practically crumbling around her. This discovery confused me a bit. When it comes to the Oakes Smith home in Patchogue, there are several missing puzzle pieces.

If you visit Lake View Cemetery in Patchogue, the right front side of the beautifully restored iron gate is supposedly the location of The Willows. On the left side, in front of the Rice family plot is a stone marking the location of Hart’s Tavern, a famed stop on Washington’s tour of Long Island in 1790. A question has recently been raised regarding those buildings. Were there two buildings there, or were The Willows and Hart’s Tavern the same building?

This question was widely debated at the meeting of the Greater Patchogue Historical Society this past June. Since it is believed that a church stood on the corner of Waverly and Main Street, some argue that Hart’s Tavern would not have been right next door. Others claim that end of Main Street was littered with a string of taverns in the 18th and 19th century. Interesting.

Since I’m dying to find a picture of The Willows, (hint, hint, Internet Universe) I have been looking into the possibility that the Hart’s Tavern building became The Willows in the 19th century.

The Oakes Smith Family Purchases Property in Patchogue

I started by researching the Oakes-Smith connection with the property. In her autobiography, Oakes Smith writes that after seeking a job with the New York Tribune, Editor Horace Greeley turns Seba Smith away, citing that he is too old and the newspaper is seeking to employ young men. (1)This happens sometime in the early 1850’s when Elizabeth’s lecture career is beginning to take off. So Seba, with all his vast experience as the first editor of a daily on the East coast, is rejected and his health declines. It seems that the Oakesmith sons come to the rescue here.

In 1859 Appleton purchases Putnam’s Monthly for his father and renames it The Great Republic Monthly, publishing under the name Oakesmith and Company. The paper fails and Appleton goes into the shipping trade (2), perhaps making a bundle of money quickly. In that same year Elizabeth and Seba purchase a large home and property in Patchogue. Seba names it The Willows after trees surrounding the home. (3) Family legend has it that Appleton did in fact buy the Patchogue home for his parents. (4)

Details about The Willows

I’ve quoted details about The Willows in my first few posts on Elizabeth Oakes Smith from a feature article about Seba Smith titled “First American Humorist” in the July 21, 1900 issue of the Brooklyn Eagle. Below is an excerpt from the article.

“In the spring of 1860 the decaying structure was thoroughly remodeled…these noted literarians closed their Brooklyn house to settle down to the restful life which the country alone afforded them…Mr. Smith’s ingenious publication, “My Thirty Years Out of the Senate,” [was] written at his Patchogue home, mostly while sitting under his favorite willow tree. [This book] placed him in the front rank of American humorist artists, and had an enormous sale…In the rich summertime (July 29, 1868), Seba Smith passed to the life immortal at the family homestead, The Willows, in the 76th year of his age. Major Jack Downing’s departure was no more deeply deplored throughout the country than in his adopted Patchogue, where he had endeared himself to all, even to the little children on the streets, for whom he always had a kind word in passing, and among whom he distributed a goodly portion of the beautiful flowers he delighted in cultivating…”

I’ve read accounts that say The Willows was formerly referred to as the Squire Woodhull property. The Oakes Smith family bought the dilapidated house, and their remodeled version was a “gracious three-story mansion overlooking West Lake, it became the scene of fine entertainment.” (5)

In 1873 a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle describes the library in the mansion:

“It was a strange and uncanny experience to be conversing with her in the library of the mansion which was built about one hundred years ago. It is a low ceilinged, spacious apartment, lined with shelves crowded with one of the rarest and most valuable collection of books on Long Island. Miniature statues of soldiers, poets and statesmen keep guard over the records of their deeds and thoughts, being placed on brackets attached to pillars of solid oak, which the builders of old used in preference to the flimsy uprights of modern times. In the northeast corner of the room is a writing table or desk, and on the wall at its side hangs a half length life-size portrait of the frail but fair Nell Gwynn, in whose behalf her royal lover, Charles II, said when dying, 'Be kind to poor Nelly.' It was painted by the celebrated Sir Peter Lilly. Many other paintings, all by the old masters, adorn the walls of Madam Oakes Smith’s mansion , and either a modern book or painting would appear to be altogether out of place there, for no alterations or repairs have been made during the last thirteen years. On entering the house, the visitor notices that the atmosphere is heavy with a damp and musty smell. The costly bindings of the books are tarnished with mildew and damp, the paper on the walls and ceilings hangs down in shreds, and pot bellied spiders have festooned every corner with their webs. Stoves are rusty, picture frames blackened with damp, carpets moth-eaten and faded and nothing appears to have escaped the ravages of decay excepting the stout oaken beams of which the mansion is built, and the mistress of the mansion.” (6)

Oakes Smith describes what sounds like this same library again in the opening paragraph of her autobiographical manuscript, which suggests that she began writing the book prior to 1881, while living at The Willows.

“I sat alone in my Library, a large, low room, with books on the four sides, and pedestals with the busts of Milton & Shakespeare gleaming whitely through the din solitary lamp upon the table. The fish in the Aquarium moved in a sort of dreamy silence- Montezuma from his perch called ever and anon “Mama, Mama,” as if wondering to see me there alone, and my tame owl flitted about stirring the air but making no sound. It is a ghostly room. The wind and rain beat against the low windows, and roiled around the old chimney.” (8)

The 1873 Brooklyn Eagle article places Elizabeth Oakes Smith in decaying Patchogue home. She sounds like Charles Dickens’s heartbroken Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, sitting in a tomb-like room with her books and writing desk. This is fascinating stuff:

“She sat in her library, breathing the musty air, and surrounded by moldering books, cobwebs, tarnished gilding and moth-eaten carpets and curtains, a perfect representation of the fashions and manners in vogue when the present century was in its infancy. A dress of heavy blue silk, brocaded with white, open at the front, displayed a richly embroidered petticoat, beneath which there occasionally appeared a pair of broad and heavy silver buckles adorning shoes of a size and shape the most fashionable belle of modern times would envy. Her luxuriant hair, formerly a rich dark brown in color, is now silvered with the frost of many Winters, and being arrayed in the style fashionable when the grandmothers of the present generation danced minuets…Madame Oakes Smith appears to be vain of the appearance of her hands…thirteen years among the oystering and scandal-mongering villagers of Patchogue has failed to leave any perceptible trace either in her manners or modes of thought.” (6)

Ties between Hart’s Tavern and The Willows

Was the Squire Woodhull property formerly known as Hart’s Tavern? The reporter who visits Elizabeth Oakes Smith in 1873 states that The Willows is just over 100 years old. This means the structure was built around 1773. Hart’s Tavern was supposedly located “just to the west of the Lace Mill.”(7) Washington records eating oysters at Hart’s in a diary entry dated April 22, 1790. A 1925 Huntington newspaper article links the following people to this historic lunch at Hart’s Tavern:

“[Washington] ate oysters prepared by Mrs. Dilerack’s father and grandfather of Mr. Joseph Gould.” (7)

The Squire Woodhull property and mansion and Hart’s Tavern were either next door to each other or the same building. Either way, the Squire Woodhull house was standing when General Washington passed through Patchogue. Both buildings reportedly burnt down.

There is a really cool article that I found in the New York Times archives dated March 1, 1895 that discusses the demise of The Oakes-Smith Home and the superstitions surrounding it. It’s pretty funny to read an old New York Times article that sounds so much like a modern-day New York Post article.

“This was years ago, after the “haunted house,” once occupied by Mme. Elizabeth Oakes Smith, as a residence, was burned down. The house was within 500 feet of the cemetery. In its cellars was a slave pen, with a punishment post in one corner. The house stood for years after Elizabeth Oakes Smith left it. Several families tried to live in it, but each moved out after a few days’ stay, claiming that they heard moaning and screams from the slave pen. The house was burned one night during a heavy thunder storm. So thorough was the belief that it was haunted that only two or three people made any effort to extinguish the flames. It was soon after the fire that the ghost dressed as a priest was said to have been seen. This ghost was long talked of as appearing only on rainy nights.”

Last weekend I helped fill in some sink holes in the grass at Lake View Cemetery, apparently left behind by the weight of The Willows foundation. I kept thinking of the legend of slaves in the basement, moaning. The mystery of this mansion lives on in local legend. These days, Lake View Cemetery is considered a “hot bed” of paranormal activity for those into that scene. I can’t confirm that rumor, but it sure was hot as hell gardening there last Saturday.

Coming up: a post about poems written by EOS while she was living in Patchogue.


1.Kirkland, Leigh. “A Human Life: Being the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Smith” An Introduction and Critical Analysis. 1994. State University of Georgia.
2. Elizabeth Oakes Smith Webpage maintained by Timothy Sherman.
3. Brooklyn Eagle, August 26, 1872.
4. Ms. Beth Oakes, descendant of Elizabeth Oakes Smith through her son Appleton.
5. Patchogue Medford Library Long Island History Room article.
6. Brooklyn Eagle September 7, 1873.
7. Long Islander (Huntington) April 17, 1925.
8. A Human Life: Being the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Oakes Smith Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, New York Public Library.


Tim Scherman said...

As usual, you've dug up some fascinating stuff, though as you say, some of it sounds more like the New York Post. The evidence I have puts the sale of The Willows at 1870, which would not necessarily mean the interview didn't take place in that library. Seba dies 1868, Sidney dies 1869--Appleton is still out of the country. In the area, her reputation hugely suffered from Appleton's being jailed in 1861 for financing a slaver, so I'm not surprised at the story about the slave "cell." But she was no doubt a Miss Haversham type at that point, economically. She was starting to depend on others and would soon move down to be with Appleton in Beaufort in NC, 1874.

Tim Scherman said...

Oh and sure--she began thinking about an autobiography as early as 1851 (letter to Jon Neal owned by Maine Hist Society) and was published portions of it in the 1860s--may have been in Beadle's Monthly but check that. In other words--exactly--this is the place she describes in those first pages. This was her home and writing space at that time. Pretty luxurious for a moment, anyway.

Loren Christie said...

Hello Tim! Thank you for commenting here. You may be one of the few people on Earth who could hold an endless conversation with me about EOS. I appreciate all your feedback and I am always interested in any scholarly work you are conducting on the subject.

Dear Internet Traveler,

Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.


Loren Christie

Be Our Guest!

Be Our Guest!
Come tour the John Scudder Havens Historic Homestead at 15 Main Street, Center Moriches, NY. Click on the picture for more infomation.

Search This Blog