“Almost everyone took boarders,” according to Mary Esther Mulford Miller’s reminiscence of the late 19th century, “An East Hampton Childhood.”
“We were among the first,” she added, recalling those days for historian Abigail Fithian Halsey.
By all accounts, the boarders’ East Hampton hosts were a particularly colorful lot. There was, for example, Bill Gardner, a one-armed Civil War veteran and ex-keeper of the Montauk Light, who, with his wife, kept people coming back for the oyster suppers and parlor dances.
Theirs was the only such hostelry to stay open year-round. Most, like the redoubtable “Aunt Phebe,” opened their homes in the summer months only. Described as “a tiny bent old lady in a ruffled white cap who took snuff,” Aunt Phebe was a descendant of three of the town’s oldest families and had married into a third, thus entitling her to sign her voluminous correspondence Phebe Parsons Stratton Conkling Huntting.
There have been many descriptions written by those early summer visitors, rhapsodizing over East Hampton’s bucolic beauty. Offering a picture of what life was like for those on the other side of the transaction, Mary Miller recalled that the seasonal influx required host families to downsize their own presence substantially.
“I remember being so limited as to space that when our summer pears were gathered, the only place that could be found for them was under Mother’s bed,” she observed.
As she remembered it, a boarder’s day began with a hearty breakfast. (Steak, lamb chops and eggs were on the menu.) Then it was off to the beach on foot or by the Mulford stage to sit under rustic brush arbors until the noon dinner hour when boarders devoured the second hearty meal of the day. Afternoons were often spent on excursions to nearby points of interest and then it was back for supper, a meal only slightly lighter than breakfast and dinner.
One of the family’s outstanding boarders was remembered by Miller as “a tall, fine-looking man with dark hair and a very sad face.” Years later she found this item recording his stay in an old Sag Harbor Corrector: “Gen. George B. McClellan, former Commander of the Army of the Potomac, arrived here today, stopping with Captain Jeremiah Mulford.”
In the early days of the boarding house era, only the hardiest travelers braved the arduous overland route. Fearful that extension of the railroad would open the floodgates and bring an influx of outsiders to threaten an isolation they prized, East Hampton residents fiercely resisted the railroad’s eastward march.
Alas, progress could not be stopped and with it came the dreaded influx. Indeed, in the late 1870s Annie Huntting’s boarding house on Main Street, dubbed Rowdy Hall, filled up with an element that might have been born just to test the patience of God-fearing locals: poker-playing, beer-drinking bohemian artists from New York City.
In her manuscript, “Artists in Arcadia,” Katharine Cameron states that “had its location been expressly chosen to cause consternation, Rowdy Hall could not have been better situated.” Next door to the Presbyterian Church, it could not be overlooked by village elders and their families on Sunday morning .
“They regarded the houseful of young artists with a disapproving eye,” as the East Hampton Star later reported.
For their part, according to one of their ranks, Percy Moran, who is quoted in “Hamptons Bohemia,” the youthful boarders “would open all the windows, put their feet on the window-sills and wave their beer mugs,” all the while offering full-throated choruses from their repertoire of ribald French songs.
Sources from the Archives: "An East Hampton Childhood," told by Mary Esther Mulford Miller to Abigail Fithian Halsey; "Artists in Arcadia," MS by Katharine Cameron; "Hamptons Bohemia," by Helen A. Harrison and Constance Ayers Denne.