Water Mill: Life in the Country

 

Water Mill and Mill Creek, Water Mill (June 28, 2015)
Water Mill and Mill Creek, Water Mill (June 28, 2015)

Two miles east of the village of Southampton in the township of the same name is the hamlet of Water Mill.  The community’s historic landmarks include both a water mill and a windmill dating to the Colonial era.  Mecox Bay and ocean shorelines, the Seven Ponds, and rolling acres of rich farm land are some of the other pleasant features.  Some say the community has all the quiet charm of a very small village and that “it is truly life in the country.”[1]  The following is a look at Water Mill with a focus on its historic structures and former railroad station.

Early History of Water Mill

The story of Water Mill begins with the foundation of Southampton, the first English settlement in New York State.  In early 1640 a group of pioneers from Lynn, Massachusetts sought new homes on Long Island because Lynn was too crowded.  They secured a deed for “eight miles square of land” from the Earl of Stirling, the grant-holder of Long Island.  The investors first chose a site on the western end of the island but encountered Dutch settlers who claimed jurisdiction.  They agreed to depart on May 19, 1640 and about three weeks later they entered North Sea Harbor in modern-day Suffolk County and landed upon Conscience Point.  The area was inhabited by the Shinnecock Indian tribe who had at least three villages on the harbor’s shores.  With assistance from the Indians, the group journeyed southward to the ocean and set up a community first at “Old Town.”  Eight years later a village was established at the present Main Street location.  Since the Earl of Stirling stipulated in his deed that the pioneers needed to make their own land acquisitions with Indians that might be found in possession of the land, an agreement was reached for a part payment of sixteen coats for the land.  Later, another deed in December 1640 acquired more land from the tribe.  The growth of the town was relatively slow until it was “rediscovered” in the 1890s by well-to-do residents of the New York metropolitan area.[2]

Mill Creek, Water Mill (June 28, 2015)
Mill Creek, Water Mill (June 28, 2015)

The story of Water Mill hamlet begins in 1644 when Edward Howell, a former mill owner from Lynn, struck a deal to build a water-powered mill on the southeastern shore of a large pond along a creek, later called Mill Pond and Benedict’s Creek, respectively.  Water mills were considered more reliable than windmills because they didn’t depend on winds.  In the agreement, Southampton gave Howell forty acres of land north of Mecox Bay to build a gristmill, plus labor to lay the millstone and build a dam.  It was moved and partially reconstructed in 1726.  Operation depends on a chain of ponds that commence about a mile north of the village.  After they supply charge to the mill, the water discharges into Mecox Bay.  Over time, the mill was used for other purposes than grinding grain.  By the early 1800s its water power was used to make paper and cloth.  However, by the early 1900s, its use was limited to grinding corn, and shortly thereafter all water-powered operations ceased.[3]

Water Mill (June 28, 2015)
Water Mill (June 28, 2015)

Located a few miles east of Southampton, the mill attracted farm families and a settlement began.  Initially, the community was called Mill Neck.  It is unclear when the name Water Mill was adopted.  However, early town census referred to residents living “east of the water mill” and west of it.  By the 1800s it was known as Water Mills since there was both a water mill and a windmill.  Wickapoque was another small settlement between Water Mill and the ocean, near the west end of Mecox Bay.[4]

When a winter storm destroyed the existing windmill on the Water Mill Commons, it was replaced in 1813 by an 1800 windmill that James Corwith moved from North Haven, near Sag Harbor, to Water Mill.  The Corwith Windmill is a smock mill because of its tapered smock-like design.  It ceased commercial operation in 1887.  Of the eleven surviving on the island, it’s the smallest, second oldest, and the most primitive mechanically.[5]

Corwith Windmill, Water Mill (September 5, 2015)
Corwith Windmill, Water Mill (September 5, 2015)

The windmill is on Water Mill Commons.  Opposite the post office, the commons is a triangular village green south of Montauk Highway between Mill and Hayground Creeks that features the Corwith Windmill, the Veteran’s Memorial, and the Water Mill Cemetery.  In the Colonial period, the land that was jointly owned by community members and used primarily for livestock grazing.  In 1729 an acre at the east end of the commons was designated as a local burying place and over the years other parcels were sold off.  A flagpole in the park was one of the masts of a three-mastered schooner wrecked off the Mecox Life Saving Station on April 7, 1894.  The commons was taken over by the Water Mill Village Improvement Society, a group of summer and local residents, who preserved the old windmill in the early twentieth century.  [6]

Water Mill Commons (September 5, 2015)
Water Mill Commons (September 5, 2015)

Arrival of the Railroad

To construct its Sag Harbor Branch, the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) laid tracks through Water Mill in 1870.  By this time, there were about thirty houses in the community, with a school, store, post office, hotel, and carriage shop.

Watermill Station
Historical Fact
Date
Station and depot building constructed August – September 1875
Station and depot building opened as Water Mills Station September 1875 (timetable)
Renamed Watermills Station 1885 (timetable)
Renamed Water Mills Station By 1895 (timetable)
Renamed Water Mill Station By 1898 (timetable)
Renamed Watermill Station By 1902 (timetable)
Depot building replaced November 1902 – August 1903
Station relocated and depot building opened August 1903
Station agency closed November 1934 (author’s analysis)
Last passenger service By September 17, 1950 (author’s analysis)
Station closed September 9, 1957 (author’s analysis)

Initially, Water Mill was not given a station stop but residents began collecting money to construct a depot as early as 1870.  The station was finally granted and began service on timetables in September 1875 as Water Mills Station.  Funded by Rose Hill Road summer residents, a depot building and platform was erected in August and September of 1875 on land purchased from H.S. and H.M. Rose on the east side of Narrow Lane (Deerfield Road).  The following summer there was both morning and afternoon service to western terminals, and afternoon and evening eastbound service to Sag Harbor.  The station name was changed to Watermills in timetables of 1885 but later changed back to Water Mills by 1895.  By 1898 it lost the plural “s.”  However, by 1902 the station was designated as Watermill Station which it remained throughout duration of service.[7]

Former LIRR Water Mill second depot building, view north (September 5, 2015)
Former LIRR Water Mill second depot building, view north (September 5, 2015)

After the arrival of the LIRR, summer homes were built along Mill Creek, Mill Pond, and Mecox Bay as summer getaways by prominent New York City residents.  In fact, new residents changed the “sleepy farming and fishing community into a playground” in the Gilded Age.  They also gave local farmers, craftsmen, and tradesmen a steady stream of customers.  Some new residents played a significant role in preserving the water mill and the history of the village.[8]

Former LIRR Water Mill second depot building, rear view east (September 5, 2015)
Former LIRR Water Mill second depot building, rear view east (September 5, 2015)

By May of 1901, the increasing popularity of the community as a summer resort convinced the LIRR to build a new and better station.  Railroad officials settled on a new site south of the track on what is now Station Road and negotiated a deal with landowner John McGee.  Funding came mostly from the Halsey Lane and Cobb Road summer residents.  Construction of the new brick building and station platform began in late November 1902 and was completed in August the following year.  The structure was hip-roofed with a classic-columned pergola trellis on the front side.  It also had hip-roofed canopies track-side extending on each end of the building.  A staircase led down to the platform and a cast-iron pipe fence protected passengers from falling down the shallow grass slope.[9]

Former LIRR Water Mill second depot building and platform location, rear view east (June 28, 2015)
Former LIRR Water Mill second depot building and platform location, rear view east (June 28, 2015)
Staircase to the location of the former LIRR Water Mill Station (second location) platform (September 5, 2015)
Staircase to the location of the former LIRR Water Mill Station (second location) platform (September 5, 2015)

Modern Water Will

By the end of the twentieth century, Water Mill remained part farming community, part fashionable getaway, with a population of 2,140.  Today, it’s a place where multimillion-dollar estates meet farm fields planted with sod and corn.  In the past, the wealthy crossed paths with nuns of the Order of St. Dominic who lived in the Siena Spirituality Center, a former local retreat house better known as Villa Maria.  The building is an 1888 three-story Queen Anne-style mansion overlooking Mecox Bay with neoclassical columns and porticoes that was purchased by the order for $250,000 during the Great Depression.  The sisters transformed it into a girls school, then a retirement home for nuns, and finally in 1990, the Siena retreat center.  It became a private residence again in recent years.  At one time, the Order of St. Dominic also owned the Corwith Windmill which came with the purchase of Villa Maria.  It was later donated to the Water Mill Village Improvement Society to preserve as a landmark.[10]

Water Mill Commons and Corwith Windmill (September 5, 2015)
Water Mill Commons and Corwith Windmill (September 5, 2015)

The water mill has also remained a local fixture.  In the early 1900s a group named the Ladies Auxiliary of Water Mill leased the structure for nearly thirty years and made repairs to it.  They eventually bought it from long-time owners, the Benedict family, in 1942.  For decades thereafter it was both rented out as a shop and housed a series of seasonal tearooms.  In 1968 the auxiliary decided to turn the mill into a museum and by 1976 two nearby structures, the nineteenth century Benedict Potting Shed and Uncle Fred’s Shop, were moved to the museum site.  The mill’s exterior waterwheel and grinding machinery were also reconstructed.[11]

Another local fixture in the hamlet is the Community House.  Built between 1897 and 1898 as the Union Chapel, it originally served as a place of worship.  No established church occupied the building and services ceased in the late 1920s.  It’s been used since as a meeting hall and owned by the Water Mill Community Club.  Another local fixture was unfortunately closed.  Penny Candy was a sweets shop owned by June and Harvey Morris that sold homemade chocolates by the pound, cigars, coloring books, dolls, trinkets, and newspapers.  With its white-washed facade and doll house in the front window, Penny Candy symbolized Water Mill’s countrified nature.[12]

Community House, Water Mill (June 28, 2015)
Community House, Water Mill (June 28, 2015)

Railroad Station

Passenger service at the railroad station reached a peak in the period before the Second World War.  In 1932 there were three to four trains daily in each direction and two roundtrips to New York on weekends.  Some consists featured luxurious parlor cars and ran directly to New York’s Pennsylvania Station.  The summer station agent during this time was James V. Osborne.  In the winter months the building was in the hands of caretaker Williams D. Barnes.  Freight was also a big endeavor.  As late as 1940, Watermill Station was a principle location in Suffolk for the shipment of cauliflower.[13]

LIRR Water Mill Station, platform and second depot building, view southeast (Circa 1966: Hires photo, Dave Keller Archive)
LIRR Water Mill Station, platform and second depot building, view southeast (Circa 1966: Hires photo, Dave Keller Archive)

However, the station agency closed in November 1934.  No doubt automobile travel and trucking reduced the need for a full-time agent especially since Southampton Station was two miles to the west.  The last station agent, George Journeay, was moved to Quogue Station.  The last year of passenger service was in 1949.  At this time, there were two station stops daily Monday through Saturday each way in the morning.  An afternoon train made a westbound flag stop and an eastbound train made a morning flag stop on Sundays.  Thereafter, the station was listed in timetables with no stops.  Effective September 9, 1957, Watermill Station was no longer listed in timetables.[14]

Former LIRR Water Mill second depot building, view northeast (September 5, 2015)
Former LIRR Water Mill second depot building, view northeast (September 5, 2015)

Nevertheless, the brick railroad station has also endured.  However, it no longer serves as a depot but rather as an office.  The abandoned building began to deteriorate in the 1960s and the canopies were removed.  Luckily, it avoided demolition and was converted to an office and retail space in 1968.  It first housed a dress shop and later it became a restaurant.  In 2013, several years after it was closed once again, developers restored the exterior to its original appearance, giving it a new life as an office complex.[15]

 
Next page: Bellport, Brookhaven, and Yaphank: Rail Service to Central Brookhaven Town
 

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[1] A Key to Southampton Long Island: including Water Mill, North Sea, Shinnecock Hills [arranged and edited by W. K. Dunwell] (Southampton, NY: Published by the Southampton Press under the auspices of The Southampton Association, 1939), 11.

[2] A Key to Southampton Long Island, 1-2; Staff of Long Island, Our Story, Home Town Long Island: the History of Every Community on Long Island in Stories and Photographs (Melville, NY: Newsday, 1999), 144.

[3] A Key to Southampton Long Island, 11; Richard M. Bayles, Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Suffolk County with a Historical Outline of Long Island (Port Washington, NY: Ira J. Friedman Inc., 1962), 333; Staff of Long Island, Our Story, Home Town Long Island, 144; Water Mill Museum, A Walking Guide, brochure for Water Mill’s Historic Sites (Water Mill, NY: Water Mill Museum, 2015).

[4] Staff of Long Island, Our Story, Home Town Long Island, 144; Bayles, Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Suffolk County, 333; Water Mill Museum, A Walking Guide; A Key to Southampton Long Island, 11.

[5] Staff of Long Island, Our Story, Home Town Long Island, 144; Bayles, Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Suffolk County, 333; Water Mill Museum, A Walking Guide; A Key to Southampton Long Island, 11.

[6] Staff of Long Island, Our Story, Home Town Long Island, 144; Bayles, Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Suffolk County, 333; Water Mill Museum, A Walking Guide; A Key to Southampton Long Island, 11.

[7] Bayles, Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Suffolk County, 333; Water Mill Museum, A Walking Guide; Vincent F. Seyfried, The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 3, Age of Expansion (Garden City, NY: Seyfried, 1984), 195-196; Vincent F. Seyfried, The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History, vol. 6, The Golden Age 1881-1900 (Garden City, NY: Seyfried, 1984), 273; “Water Mills Depot,” The Corrector (Sag Harbor), July 10, 1870, http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/titles/places/new_york/suffolk; “Long Island News,” The Corrector (Sag Harbor), July 15, 1876, http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/titles/places/new_york/suffolk; Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection, Box 13, Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries, Main Line & Montauk Division, Effective June 23, 1898, by Long Island Rail Road (New York Long Island Rail Road, 1898); Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection, Box 13, Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries, Main Line & Montauk Division, Effective June 25, 1902, by Long Island Rail Road (New York Long Island Rail Road, 1902); “LIRR Stations,” Trains Are Fun, accessed on February 27, 2016, http://www.trainsarefun.com/lirr/stations/lirrstations.htm.

[8] Staff of Long Island, Our Story, Home Town Long Island, 144.

[9] “Watermill,” The Corrector (Sag Harbor), May 11, 1901, http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/titles/places/new_york/suffolk; Ron Ziel and Richard Wettereau, Victorian Railroad Stations of Long Island (Bridgehampton, NY: Sunrise Special Ltd., 1988), 120; “Island News Notes,” Suffolk County News (Sayville), November 28, 1902, http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/titles/places/new_york/suffolk; “Long Island News,” The Corrector (Sag Harbor), August 28, 1903, http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/titles/places/new_york/suffolk.

[10] Scott Brinton, “Living In / Water Mill’s No Run-of-the-Mill Town,” Newsday (Combined editions), January 12, 1997, http://www.proquest.com; Staff of Long Island, Our Story, Home Town Long Island, 144.

[11] Water Mill Museum, A Walking Guide.

[12] Brinton, “Living In / Water Mill’s No Run-of-the-Mill Town”; Water Mill Museum, A Walking Guide.

[13] Water Mill Museum, A Walking Guide; “Riverhead,” County Review (Riverhead), December 12, 1940, http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/titles/places/new_york/suffolk; “Wainscott and Sagaponack,” East Hampton Star, December 11, 1925, http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/titles/places/new_york/suffolk; Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection, Box 13, Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries, Montauk Division, Effective November 27, 1932, by Long Island Rail Road (New York Long Island Rail Road, 1932).

[14] “Quogue,” County Review (Riverhead), November 22, 1934, http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/titles/places/new_york/suffolk; “Long Island Rail Road: Alphabetical Station Listing and History,” Trains Are Fun, accessed February 22, 2016, http://www.trainsarefun.com/lirrphotos/LIRR%20Station%20History.htm; Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection, Box 16, Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries, Long Island Rail Road Employee Timetables, Effective June 12, 1949, by Long Island Rail Road (New York: Long Island Rail Road, 1949), Montauk Branch; Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection, Box 17, Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries, Long Island Rail Road Employee Timetables, Effective June 24, 1956, by Long Island Rail Road (New York: Long Island Rail Road, 1956), Montauk Branch; Robert M. Emery Long Island Rail Road Collection, Box 14, Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries, Long Island Rail Road Employee Timetables, Effective September 9, 1957, by Long Island Rail Road (New York: Long Island Rail Road, 1957), Montauk Branch.

[15] Water Mill Museum, A Walking Guide; “Long Island Rail Road: Alphabetical Station Listing and History”; “LIRR Stations”.

Next page: Bellport, Brookhaven, and Yaphank: Rail Service to Central Brookhaven Town