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Jan 18, 2011 6:37 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Hendrickson Recalls Days On Gardiners Island

Jan 18, 2011 6:37 PM

Gardiners Island is a bastion of privacy. The members of the island’s namesake family have been the only ones, save for the birds and deer, to visit the shores of the largest privately owned island in the United States regularly for most of the last four centuries.

Up until the late 1900s, Robert Lion Gardiner guided regular tours of the island for outsiders, spreading the lore of its mysterious woods and the history-laden tales of the family’s times there. But since his death in 2004, nary an ornithologist or hiking enthusiast has visited the island. The Goelet family, who inherited the island when Mr. Gardiner died, are intensely private and have ended public visitation.

It was not always that way. For many years, the owners not only allowed visitors, but allowed others to live on the island and lease farmland for pasture and row crops.

For five years in the early 20th century, as World War I was raging in Europe, a large portion of the island was leased by Edwin Pierson Rogers, a farmer from Sagaponack. Mr. Rogers raised beef cattle, turkeys, milk cows and grew a variety of row crops on the rolling fields of the southwestern half of the island. He brought his goods ashore at Sag Harbor and Napeague. He even built a house on the island. And when the influenza epidemic struck the United States in 1918, he took in his two grandsons, Richard and Edwin Hendrickson.

“My mother sent us over there when the flu hit, she thought we’d be safe from it over there,” Richard Hendrickson, who was just 6 years old when he went to live on the island—he’s 98 now—said on Monday afternoon at his home in Bridgehampton. “They got the flu over there too, of course, but there were less people and I guess it seemed a safe place. Anyway, we spent some time there.”

Mr. Hendrickson, a venerable local historian, collector and celebrated weather observer, has just one photo of himself and his brother—who died in 2008—and a grain cutting tool as physical reminders of his days living on the island—he doesn’t even own a map of the island. But he has a vibrant and detailed memory, a product of his historical affinity, and eagerly recalls numerous stories of his days on the island that give a glimpse into life in the day. “You have never in your life seen mosquitoes like there were on Gardiners Island back then,” he said, looking overhead as if a great swarm of the bugs were buzzing in the rafters of his study. “They were so thick. We had to have the mosquito netting, tucked right into the bed, and you could still hear them buzzing.”

Since he was just a boy, the days on the island were taken up with minor chores and exploring the island’s wilderness.

“My job was to gather firewood, to keep the woodbox full,” he recalled. “I’d go over on the boat to get the groceries from Napeague with my grandpa. Grandma did a lot of canning.”

Mr. Hendrickson’s family had little or no contact with the land-wealthy owners of the island, other than delivering goods to the manor house at the center of the island.

One of the only interactions with the Gardiners Mr. Hendrickson had during the two seasons he spent on the island, was when he went with his grandmother to deliver a pig to the kitchen door of the manor house. The cook, a Dutch girl named Katrinka, handed him a brightly colored ball the likes of which he had never seen. It was an orange.

“I thought it was the strangest thing I’d ever come across,” he said with a laugh.

The Rogers family was burdened by some of the same pitfalls that befell the Gardiners on the island. Over the centuries, three manor houses burned to the ground, due to internal accidents, hostile parties from the mainland, and the embers of brush fires ignited by coal-fired trains passing on Napeague. The house Mr. Rogers originally built for himself and his family fell victim to a creature comfort.

“To warm the bed at night we would take bricks out of the fire and wrap them in a towel and place them in the bed to warm up the sheets,” Mr. Hendrickson recalled. “One night the sheets caught on fire and the house burned down.

“There was no fire department,” he added with a chuckle.

After the fire, the family got permission from the Gardiners to move into a cottage at the eastern end of the island that had been built for a resident shepherd.

His grandfather did tussle with the lord of the manor once, over a wayward torpedo. As Mr. Hendrickson recalls the story, a boat that ferried torpedoes manufactured in Sag Harbor lost one of its cargo in the bay and it washed up on the shore near the Rogers homestead. The government commonly offered a reward of $25 or $50 for the return of such items, a great deal of money at the time. Mr. Rogers sought the reward, but Mr. Gardiner—Mr. Hendrickson does not recall who the patriarch of the family at the time was, other than that he was “Mr. Gardiner”—said that since the island was his in whole, the reward money should be his.

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... great story.
By William Rodney (561), southampton on Jan 21, 11 9:51 AM

Love the recollection “We had lots of things stolen by Bonackers in those days". Guess those clandestine raiders from the Springs just couldn't resist a good chicken or duck!
By SisBoomBonacker (106), Hamptons on Jan 21, 11 2:47 PM
Thank you Michael for a real nice article.
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Jan 21, 11 2:55 PM
i agree...."It should never be built on."
By tito (56), e hampton on Jan 22, 11 8:24 PM
Great local story! Thanks for the article :)
By elliot (254), sag harbor on Jan 25, 11 11:27 AM
Very cool - thanks for this article.
By CoweeDewey (110), East Quogue on Jan 28, 11 11:17 AM