Photo of the painting of the "Big House" as the Davisons of Peacock Point referred to it. Photo courtesy of Daniel Davison
The Earle-Wightman House, home to the Oyster Bay Historical Society has opened its new exhibit: An 'Upstairs, Downstairs' Look at Oyster Bay Estate Life. The exhibit is part of the series begun in 2000. Each series has been dedicated to eduating the public about the history of Oyster Bay. The first was the History of the Oyster Bay Historical Society followed by The Italian-American Experience in Oyster Bay in 2001; Recreation in Oyster Bay in 2002; the Art of Oyster Bay in 2003; the Architecture of Oyster Bay in 2004 and the current study, An 'Upstairs, Downstairs' Look at Oyster Bay Estate Life.
The OBHS's "Upstairs, Downstairs" series included two fundraisers: a visit to Cherrywood to see a favorite Gold Coast pastime, tennis; and an extravagant dinner at The Cliffs, the Beekman estate being restored by the Avila family, the current owners.
The current series culminated Sunday, Oct. 30 with a champagne and hors d'oeuvres reception at the society's headquarters, the Earle-Wightman House. There on exhibit were dozens of examples of the style and grace that made Long Island's North Shore what it was - the playground of the very rich. It gives a "behind the scenes" look at the multitude of staff who made these establishments function with seemingly no effort. Interviews with descendants of the original estate employees give you private insights into an, "upstairs/downstairs" lifestyle that rivaled the English aristocracy at its pinnacle. An exhibit catalog is available.
OBHS director Tom Kuehhas took about a year to do the interviews of both the "upstairs" and "downstairs" residents who are in the exhibit catalog and are part of the exhibit.
Mr. Kuehhas said the 22 interviews took between one to two hours, depending on the person and how much they had to say. The catalog has an introduction by Mr. Kuehhas and his co-chair Maureen Monck, Ph.D. She authored the first article in the catalog on "Oyster Bay During the Gilded Age." Committee member Bradford Warner wrote the second article on "High Society Tennis." Mr. Kuehhas wrote the personal reminiscences based on his interviews of the workers and the owners of the Gold Coast Estates.
Workers on TR's Sagamore Hill estate. Photo From the OBHS Collection
He said he was surprised in doing his research by the relationships between the workers and the owners. "It was that they were caring. It became for them not just a business relationship per se. Some of the people worked for the families for over 50 years and even then they didn't leave, but in several instances were given a place to live out their lives. It wasn't - 'you've lived out your usefulness - leave'," said Mr. Kuehhas.
In the catalog Harry Davison is quoted as saying, "If you go to the family cemetery plot, you'll find some of them buried there. You're talking about life-long employees. They left this world in our employ! And they're buried right next to their employers, so it really was a 'family' operation."
In the catalog, some of the comments are said anonymously. Mr. Kuehhas said, "It was because they had such powerful things to say. They were afraid of repercussions. They felt that they couldn't freely open up unless their identity was protected, so it will be."
One anonymous quote said, "A friend of my father, the Earl of C, telephoned and [asked if he could] come over..."Of course," my father said, thinking he would stay a few days. At that time, wives, mothers and children were coming over for lengthy stays and we had young English girls stay with us for...a school year, (she went to school with me). Well, this English lord came over, and to my mother's dismay, when she greeted him at the door, he had not a weekend suitcase, but he had suitcases that looked as if he might spend the duration of the war with us! He settled very nicely into the downstairs guestroom and our butler at the time was English and he was absolutely thrilled to have a genuine lord in the house to serve. And to my mother's chagrin, the butler abdicated all his normal duties with our household in order to serve m'lord. I'm not sure how long the whole thing lasted, but ... longer than my mother would have liked. Finally Lord C... departed and the butler stayed."
The interviews are on tape for future research. "We've tried to build, over the last five projects on oral history of Oyster Bay. We have tapes and I have done transcripts of them so that people won't have to listen to the tapes. We are talking about putting the tapes on CDs. You have to keep up with the technology," he said.
Mr. Kuehhas said there are copies of the past journals available as well as the current catalog. At the same time he edited the catalog he did the OBHS Commemorative Journal for the arrival of the Theodore Roosevelt statue by A. Phimister Proctor that was unveiled Oct. 29. Copies of the journal were on sale for $5.
"What I like about the journals is that they are a tangible way to record the exhibits and all the work done around them," he said.
The OBHS publications include: The Postman Cometh to Jericho; The Dairy of Mary Cooper; Walls Have Tongues, A Walking Tour of Oyster Bay; The Oyster Songster (printed in 2004 and written by Stephen Walker); and the journals: The Italian-American Experience; Recreation in Oyster Bay; The Art of Oyster Bay; The Architecture of Oyster Bay and the commemorative journal Theodore Roosevelt - Rough Rider, and "An 'Upstairs, Downstairs' Look at Oyster Bay Estate Life" exhibit catalog. Each costs about $5.
Currently Mr. Kuehhas is interested in collecting oral histories from local veterans of World War II. "We are working on getting as many of them on tape as possible for the archives. We are not necessarily thinking of doing an exhibit. The push is that we are losing 1,000 WWII veterans a day," he said.
All proceeds from the series are designated exclusively for the construction of an urgently needed expansion of the society's exhibition, collection's storage, and archival space to protect and preserve our historic and priceless collection of Oyster Bay artifacts. Please call the society at 922-5032 for details.