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Averill Dayton Geus, Preservationist and Historian

Thu, 08/24/2023 - 10:38

June 29, 1934 - Aug. 1, 2023

Averill Dayton Geus, who died at home on Old Orchard Lane in East Hampton on Aug. 1, was one of the last of what East Hampton used to call its “great ladies.” In a life distinguished by personal courage and indomitable energy, she wielded considerable political and social influence through the channels of soft power available to women of her generation — as the town’s official historian; as a president of the Ladies Village Improvement Society and of the Suffolk County Historical Society; as curator at Home, Sweet Home Museum; as a teacher, and as an outspoken champion of the preservation of our built heritage.

She was 89 when she died, having suffered a stroke not long after celebrating her birthday with friends and family in June. She had been ill with kidney disease for several years. Ms. Geus was an 11th-generation member of the Dayton family, early settlers of East Hampton; her forebear Ralph Dayton, who settled here in 1650, was originally from Maidstone, England.

Averill Dayton Geus was born on June 29, 1934, at Southampton Hospital to Charles Frank Dayton and Jean Edwards Dayton and was raised in the house on Toilsome Lane built in 1829 by her ancestor Josiah Dayton. She attended public schools here and was a drum majorette in the marching band at East Hampton High School, as well as serving as editor of the school newspaper. She attended Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, majoring in English literature and graduating in 1956.

She worked for The East Hampton Star during breaks from college and, after graduation, traveled to San Francisco to work for the Sierra Club. She wrote for radio, television, and newspapers, and managed a radio station in Alturas, Calif., where she met her husband, Edwin Geus. The pair were married in May 1961 at the Fort Bidwell Church in Modoc County. A year later, they moved to Eugene, Ore., where she received her master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. The couple had two children, George Sherrill Geus and Jeanne Frances Geus. A company transfer of Mr. Geus’s job in 1967 took the family to Portland, Ore., where she taught English and ran a weekly newspaper.

In 1968, the family returned to East Hampton and Ms. Geus embarked on a lifelong career as a historian and writer of local history. She had a passion for maintaining the pastoral beauty of the East End and a vision for how it might be saved. She worked as the director of historic sites for East Hampton Village and was the curator of the Home, Sweet Home Museum on James Lane. Later, she served as the official East Hampton Town historian.

Ms. Geus was remembered this week for, in particular, her remarkable memory, which served as a foundation for her work as not just a historian but a compelling storyteller. In 1982, she initiated the publication of a seminal book, “East Hampton Heritage: An Architectural Record” — which still stands as a crucial reference source for anyone interested in the town’s historical buildings — and was its project director and editor. In 1991, she wrote the second volume of a two-volume history of the Maidstone Club (with Jeannette Edwards Rattray having written the first). Her next book, “From Sea to Sea: 350 Years of East Hampton History,” was published in 1999, with proceeds directed to the East Hampton Library. She also penned the “Centennial History of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church” and a cookbook that gathered interesting seafood recipes from around Bonac called “Alewives to Whelks” in 1971.

Ms. Geus was a 54-year member of the L.V.I.S, and in the 1970s was instrumental in founding its landmarks committee, which became the driving force behind the creation of East Hampton Village’s Historic Districts. In 2000, she was voted in as president of the L.V.I.S. following an election so dramatic it was covered in The New York Times.

Through the decades, her name was frequently in print and her voice frequently heard on the pressing issues of the day. She was not afraid to stand on principle. In 1984, she resigned (temporarily) from her position at Home, Sweet Home in protest of what she publicly called out as “discrepancies between the salaries paid to men employed by the village and those paid to women.” In 1974, she formed an emergency committee to oppose the development of the townhouses on Gingerbread and Toilsome Lanes. In 1989, she advocated for the successful village purchase and preservation of the 11-acre Gardiner property on James Lane. She was an active member of the Democratic Party, organizing fund-raisers for candidates.

Ms. Geus had an intelligent sparkle in her eyes and a keen gaze. With a magpie curiosity, she was a great collector of interesting artifacts and kept all sorts of antiques in her home, including a pair of andirons recently donated to the new Dominy Shops Museum on North Main Street; albums of vintage valentines and holiday cards; a nitrate film showing East Hampton’s Fourth of July parade in 1915 (donated to LTV in 2021), and a large assemblage of antique buttons. She was an insatiable reader and loved travel, genealogy, cooking, gardening, and caring for her beloved pets.

Her husband died in 2019. She is survived by her children, Jeanne Geus Hutson of East Hampton and George Geus of Lancaster, Pa., her grandchildren, Julia Averill Hutson and James Matthew Dayton Hutson, and her brothers Charles Sherrill Dayton and Jonathan Robert Dayton.

She was cremated; her ashes will be buried in South End Cemetery in East Hampton Village. A funeral service will be held at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Saturday at 11 a.m.

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