Tiny House Reveals Montaukett Life

Restoration project at George Fowler’s 19th-century saltbox digs up a mystery
Now that the restoration of the historic Fowler house is complete, Jim Devine, above, and other members of Friends of the Fowler House are thinking about how to landscape the property in a way that honors Fowler’s gardening prowess. Carissa Katz

A year ago, the tiny Fowler house on Springs-Fireplace Road appeared ready to fall into ruin, despite having been declared a local landmark by East Hampton Town. Now restored, the 19th-century house stands ready to assume its rightful place in the telling of the story of the Montauketts and their way of life after they were pushed off their ancestral lands.

The simple saltbox, owned by the town, is thought to be the last surviving Montaukett dwelling from the 19th century. The question that remains is whether the house was built for George Lewis Fowler and his wife, Sarah Melissa Horton, at its existing site in East Hampton’s Freetown neighborhood or moved there from Indian Field in Montauk.

While that question may linger, when members of Friends of the Fowler House, Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, and a few others crowded into the house for a tour earlier this month, they had the future in their sights as they acknowledged the hard work that brought the project to fruition and considered what comes next for the historic property. 

Fowler, a Montaukett who died in 1930, was deeded the Freetown property by the developer Arthur Benson in about 1885 in exchange for his residential rights at Indian Field. Fowler worked in East Hampton Village as a gondolier and gardener for the painter Thomas Moran and was also the gardener for Dr. Edward Osborne next door and for Gustav and Hannah Buek’s Home, Sweet Home on James Lane. 

“He kept some of the best gardens in the whole village,” said Robert Hefner, a historic preservation consultant hired by the town to draw up plans for the restoration. Fowler’s own property reflected that, and the committee hopes “to recreate the flower gardens with primitive and ornamental grasses, tiger lilies, lilac and honeysuckle, a grape arbor, and the exotic dahlias the family had on site,” Jim Devine, a member of the Fowler house committee, wrote in an email. Mr. Devine grew up in the house next door. 

The restoration was made possible by the late Ben and Bonnie Krupinski, whose promise of labor to complete the work was fulfilled by Ray Harden and Stratton Schellinger when they took over Ben Krupinski Builder after the Krupinskis died in a plane crash in June. 

If Mr. Krupinski hadn’t sent his crew there to brace up the back roof frame, which was entirely rotten, and put a tarp over it, the Fowler house would not have made it through the winter, Mr. Hefner said. 

Without the Krupinskis “we might still be spinning our wheels,” said Mr. Devine, adding that their deaths “shocked us and for a while took the wind out of our sails.”

The town provided the materials and had Mr. Hefner oversee the cleanup and restoration, allowing him to examine the structure along the way.

“It had been changed quite a lot since George Fowler lived there,” Mr. Hefner said, and it had been unoccupied for at least 20 years. Fowler’s grandson, Leonard Horton, was the last to live there, in the 1980s. “The house is incredible because it’s so simple.” It has three rooms downstairs, two up, and a small porch. 

When the floor had been ripped up and the building was nothing but a shell, Allison McGovern of V.H.B. Engineering, an archaeologist hired by the town, had a chance to explore between the floor joists. Her chief interest, she said, was in what “kinds of material culture we could find” that might help describe what everyday life was like for the house’s occupants. Dr. McGovern did her dissertation on the homes of Indian Field and has a deep interest in the subject. She is also working on an ongoing oral history project, “Mapping Memories of Freetown,” which dovetails nicely with the work she did at the Fowler house. The scope of her investigation there was limited, but her discoveries were exciting. 

Among them were lots of marbles. “That was the most remarkable thing that I have ever encountered,” she said. “There were more than a dozen,” far more than she had found at any of the sites she had explored previously. In a cubbyhole beneath the narrow staircase there were racing forms, again “evidence of leisure activity.” She also found the foot of a porcelain doll, pieces of a broken tea set, glass and ceramic beads, broken pieces of bottle glass and tableware glass, a slate pencil, and lots of buttons. 

“Sew-through buttons, fabric-covered buttons, shell buttons, vulcanized rubber buttons.” Which point not only to household use, she believes, but to other “sewing activities taking place at the site.” 

“The artifacts give you a better sense of family life,” she said, and, using census data from the time, “we can start to connect the names of people [who lived there] to the artifacts.” 

Freetown was settled by former slaves, and eventually was home to many laborers who worked at the estates of the wealthy in East Hampton Village. Mr. Hefner has said that the Fowler house “puts Main Street and Freetown together.”

“Our goal in telling the story of the house, and the people who lived in it, will be to revivify the history of the Montaukett people as an essential factor in East Hampton’s history through this family’s story,” Mr. Devine said.

“It belonged to tribal people,” said Robert Pharaoh of Sag Harbor, who has been working for years to regain the tribal status that was stripped from the Montauketts in 1910 and is also workingto get nonprofit status for Friends of the Fowler House. “Enough of our history has been lost, dug up, and just displaced. . . . This is one structure that is probably the last of its kind.”

Mr. Pharaoh is convinced that the house was indeed moved from Montauk. 

Mr. Hefner, on the other hand, has found documentation and other indications that point to the house’s being built for Fowler in East Hampton. “There’s no evidence that the frame had ever been taken apart and put back together again.” 

“It’s a typical 1885 frame,” he said, and is identical in construction methods and materials to the Thomas Moran studio. “You don’t find that earlier.”

Benson had purchased nearly all of Montauk in 1879 and offered deeds to Freetown plots to induce Montauketts to leave their lands at Indian Field. Some houses, like those of Fowler’s sister, Maria Fowler (who married King David Lewis Pharaoh), were taken apart at Indian Field and moved from Montauk. The rest were burned. 

“As soon as Benson bought the land, he went to work on a campaign to remove the Montauketts,” Dr. McGovern said. 

Suing Benson’s heirs in an attempt to regain ancestral lands in 1909, the Montauketts claimed the deeds were obtained by “fraud and undue influence.” They lost the case and their long battle to regain tribal status has so far been unsuccessful.

“I’m critical of the documentary history,” Dr. McGovern said last week. “There’s always been this family history of the Fowler house being one of the houses that was moved,” she said. Ruling that out “silences that other Native American history about that site. . . . Why wouldn’t we trust those memories and family histories of the people directly connected to this site, as opposed to a document that was written by a developer who dispossesses the Fowlers from their land?”

She contends that there are lots of pieces of the structure that are “significantly older than 1885.” 

“Anomalous structures and indicators point to some of the materials having been part of at least one other structure in Montauk,” Mr. Devine said. “It’s possible — and to me likely — that some of the materials from a previous house in Indian Field were used in the construction of the new house.” For instance, a beam with the initials of David Lewis Pharaoh carved in it. King David Lewis Pharaoh lived from 1838 to 1878, dying before the house existed in Freetown.

“So it seems we have a continuing mystery,” Mr. Devine wrote.

But mysteries are a big part of history, and the efforts to unravel them very often lead to new discoveries.

“The archaeology tells us a lot about the ongoing lifeways at the site,” Dr. McGovern said. Now members of Friends of the Fowler House will consider how to interpret and present that information. 

The group had been in discussion with Mr. Krupinski about returning a small chapel now at East Hampton Point to the Fowler property, and members are hopeful that might still happen. The chapel “is known for having been the site of Stephen Talkhouse’s funeral,” Mr. Devine wrote. They are also pondering the idea of a small building that could provide exhibit space and information about the history of the Montauketts.

Despite outward appearances a year ago, when the Fowler house seemed on the brink of ruin, there was much worth saving inside, as this shot of the tiny upstairs shows. Carissa Katz