Thursday, April 30, 2009

Oldest House in West Hempstead

Ever wonder where the oldest house in West Hempstead is located? According to the Nassau County property records, an unassuming little white house at 419 Woodfield Rd (shown below) owns that distinction, having been built in 1838. That's older than all but 9 of the 28 buildings that have achieved landmark status with the Town of Hempstead, and over 30 years before the first house in Garden City was even built.

So what is the story behind West Hempstead's oldest landmark? Who owned it? How was it able to survive so long? How far did the property extend when it was first built? Here's what I've been able to dig up so far.

My starting point was the 1873 Beers Map of Long Island, where (as can be seen below) the house is labeled as one of three that was part of a larger farm owned by the Rhodes family. On the map is listed W. L. Rhodes, J. Rhodes and I. Rhodes. The solid line running diagonally down the image is Woodfield Rd., and the rail line labeled Hempstead belonged to the defunct New York and Hempstead Railroad (not to be confused with the existing rail line).

From census records, it can be determined that all three were brothers - W. L. Rhodes was William Lawrence Rhodes, I. Rhodes was Isaac Rhodes and J. Rhodes was Jacob Rhodes - whose father, William Rhodes is found in the 1868/69 Curtin's Directory as owning a country store in Hempstead Village. The elder Rhodes was also a 7th generation direct descendant of Richard Gildersleeve, one of the original settlers and patentees of Hempstead. This raises the possibility that his farm was inherited from Gildersleeve's original patent. By the 1800s the farm comprised over 50 acres and extended eastward, well into what is now Hempstead Gardens, before the streets of that section were platted and before the LIRR track was laid.

Then in 1891, a man named Frank M. Kelly started buying up hundreds of acres of property in the area, and the $200 per acre he offered was too good to turn down for many local farmers. Mr. Kelly's motives were initially puzzling to observers, but it was soon revealed that he was merely acting as a surrogate of LIRR president Austin Corbin (Kelly turned out to be the brother of Corbin's private council), who planned on using the newly acquired property to lay a new rail line between Valley Stream and Mineola.

Among the farmers who sold their property were William L. Rhodes and Jane (wife of Isaac) Rhodes. Jacob Rhodes' house, however, was not sold to Corbin. Instead, Jacob's wife, Amietta, sold the house with 2 acres to a man named James S. Wright, who had sold his own farm located further south, to Corbin. Corbin ended up with 500-600 acres of property, instantly making him by far the largest land owner in West Hempstead.

Of all the homes the already enormously wealthy Corbin acquired with his purchase, he took a particular liking to one of the homesteads on the Rhodes farm which had dated back to 1798. (I'm unsure whether it was the one that belonged to William L. or Isaac Rhodes, but it's age indicates that it was the original home owned by their father). He had it remodeled and redecorated to be used as a retreat for his youngest daughter, Anna Corbin. Corbin's ultimate plan for his newly acquired property (beyond laying the new rail line) will be the topic of a later post. But meanwhile, the fact that our subject house was not sold to Corbin and therefore wasn't included in his redevelopment plan may have been what saved it from being lost to history.

The County property record card (which I believe dates to the 1940s) lists J. S. Wright as an early owner of the house, so an unbroken chain of all the owners of this house can be established. I didn't find out much about James S. Wright other than the fact that he owned a few properties in the area. The two other owners listed on the card are Lawrence Stainsen and W. G. O'Donnell, but I don't know too much about them either. I'd love to find out more about any of these people if anyone has information.

No comments: